Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) with Ashton & Darby ~~ May & June 2020

April < — ||

 

May 1st
Prompt: Ragpicker

“Us pixies gotta make do with #ragpicking and ratting,” she spat.

“That’s why you took the gnome?” Ashton asked.

“He was trespassing!”

“If they promise to stop, will you agree to release him?” Darby asked.

“Mostly. He may have lost a finger, or two, along the way.”

May 2nd
Prompt: Rainwater

“The water spirits are fighting,” Darby said.

“Happens with the #rainwater floods, when they get washed into each other,” Ashton said.

“They could try to get on.”

“Your home is flooded and you have to bunk with your territorial neighbors, how well would you react?”

“Fair point.”

May 3rd
Prompt: Baked

“Evanora #baked for you again,” Ashton said.

“We might be partners, but that doesn’t give you the right to open my post,” Darby grumbled.

“When are you going on a date with the witch?”

“Or know everything about my personal life.”

“Fine, but you’re sharing the scones.”

May 4th
Prompt: Bathos

“I thought you’d like this writer,” Ashton said.

“Their portrayal of the supernatural is pure #bathos,” Darby said.

“I have no idea what that means, but it sounds terrible.”

“You’d think a vampire would do better.”

“Might be pandering to the humans.”

“Even worse.”

May 5th
Prompt: Argle-Bargle

“Don’t start that #argle-bargle again!” the woman said.

“What are they arguing about?” Ashton asked.

“A woman.”

“Why did you call us?” Darby asked.

“She put a spell on ’em!”

“Dump a tub of saltwater on them.”

“That’ll work?”

“Even if there’s not a spell it’ll get them to stop.”

May 6th
Prompt: Horses

“Something’s eating #horses in Bodmin Moor,” Ashton said.

“Might be a púca, a shapeshifter.”

“Why would one eat horses?”

“There have been cases of them doing it as retaliation against humans.”

“Why go after the horses?”

“They’re expensive.”

“Smart shifter, then.”

May 7th – June 14th : Hiatus

June 15th
Prompt: Carrel

“There was a carrel hidden in the back of the library, and that’s where we found the warlock’s tome,” Darby said to the detective.

The detective looked to Ashton, who just shrugged. “I don’t know half the words he uses. Just nod and write it down the best you can.”

June 16th
Prompt: Benthos

“They’re the most likely suspects,” Ashton said

“The morgens haven’t drowned anyone in a century. Now they cultivate their #benthos gardens for scuba tours, or to sell to aquariums. Why risk it?” Darby asked

“We’ll just have to poke around to figure that out, won’t we?”

June 17th
Prompt: Constellate

“How could they do something on this scale?”

“Though it’s rare, sometimes shadow people will #constellate to form a larger entity to attack a victim.”

“Wonderful,” Ashton muttered. “Priest, medium, or necromancer?”

Darby looked around at the wreckage. “All three?”

June 18th
Prompt: Ingurgitate

“Lamias tend to…#ingurgitate children,” Darby said, nearly choking on the word.

“Hence why they’re almost extinct.,” Ashton said.

“I thought they were only in Greece, though?” the shaking woman asked.

“Most, but not all.”

“Lucky us,” Ashton replied sourly.

June 19
Prompt: Periapt

“Evanora wanted me to give you this,” Darby said, handing over the necklace.

“What is it?”

“A protection #periapt, or charm.”

“I’m touched she’s concerned for me,” Ashton said, then; “Did you finally take her on a date?”

“That’s none of yours.”

“That’ll be a yes.”

June 20th
Prompt: None — seems they skipped a day

June 21st
Prompt: Submontane

“The Oreads keep to the #submontane, or lower slopes, of mountains,” Darby explained.

“So they’re more likely to run into people,” Ashton said.

“Yes. If they’ll speak with us, they might be helpful in finding our murderer.”

“Let’s hope they’re feeling chatty, then.”

 

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) with Ashton & Darby ~~ April 2020

March < — > May

 

April 1st
Prompt: Chicken

“I’m sorry, it’s a flock of what?” Darby asked the caller.

Ashton raised an eyebrow, questioning.

Darby scribbled on a notepad, then held it up: ‘Flock of decapitated #chickens roaming downtown.’

Ashton couldn’t help but laugh, while Darby rolled his eyes at him.

April 2nd
Prompt: Kicking

“How can we trap it if it won’t stop #kicking and headbutting?” Ashton asked with a scowl.

“Be happy its wings are clipped,” Darby said, eyeing the chrysomallos, who bleated at them.

“The ram’s wool might be gold, but there’s pure murder in its eyes, the bloody thing.”

April 3rd
Prompt: Rock

“Them gargoyles was hurlin’ #rocks at me!”

“Did you provoke the attack?” Ashton asked.

The man mumbled something.

“What?”

“He said he threw a bottle of whiskey at them,” Darby said.

“What a waste,” Ashton said, cuffing the man.

“And those weren’t rocks,” Darby added.

April 4th
Prompt: Orange

“Why does this happen to me?” Darby moaned.

“You irritate people,” Ashton said. “Though, I liked the purple skin more.”

Darby had stuffed his fluffy, tiger #orange hair beneath a cap.

“Oh, back so soon, dear?” the shop-woman asked when they walked in.

Darby glowered.

April 5th
Prompt: Classic

“It’s #classic skin-walker behavior, but we’ve never had a case here,” Darby said.

“Is it impossible?” Ashton asked.

“Improbable. They’re native to the Americas.”

“Then someone brought it here?”

“Maybe, and if they did, I doubt they have anything nice planned with it.”

April 6th
Prompt: Chrome

“Isn’t #chrome a little modern for you?” Ashton asked.

“It does ruin the aesthetic,” Darby admitted.

“The broom is in the shop,” the witch said. “Now, are you here to criticise my transport, or question me?”

“Why not both?”

“Aren’t you cheeky,” she said with a smirk.

April 7th
Prompt: Crane

“This is where I draw the line,” Ashton said, squinting up at the #crane. “Dragons aren’t in my contract.”

“Technically, it’s a wyvern,” Darby said.

“Technically, I don’t care. No fire-breathing lizards.”

“They don’t–”

“Still don’t care.”

“Rent is due.”

“Damn it!”

April 8th
Prompt: Club

“Get the troll away from its #club, and I’ll knock it out with whatever Evanore put in the water balloons,” Ashton said.

“That’s not a club–it’s a tree! Why can’t I throw them?” Darby protested.

“I called bagsy, and you can’t throw.”

Darby glared, then moved forward.

April 9th
Prompt: Telegraph

“You can’t #telegraph your moves like that,” Ashton said with a jab.

“I-” Darby said, ducking away, “hardly think I’ll be engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a werewolf!”

“You never know, and it won’t hurt.”

“It does if I can’t move tomorrow!”

“Pain is good for you.”

April 10th
Prompt: Isolation

“Most of the more powerful beings live in #isolation,” Darby said idly, reading a book.

“They don’t play well with others?” Ashton asked.

“More like territorial. They need to make sure their food supply isn’t being eaten by others.”

“And we’re the food?”

“Exactly.”

April 11th
Prompt: Rescue

“It’s not a #rescue if the kelpie drowns us along with the kid,” Ashton said.

“Just distract it long enough for me to get its bridle,” Darby whispered.

“If it dives before you can?”

“Hold your breath?”

“I owe you a beating when this is through.”

“That’s the spirit.”

April 12th
Prompt: Desperado

“He’s a bit of a #desperado.”

“You would be, too, if you’d been accused of murder,” Darby said.

“He’s a criminal.”

“Of selling body parts, not of killing the owners of said parts.”

Ashton sighed. “You want to help him, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I was afraid of that.”

April 13th
Prompt: Road

“Robert Frost must not have met a supernatural,” Ashton said.

“How so?” Darby asked.

“He says to take the #road less traveled by, and that’s the best way to get killed, eaten, or both.”

“He was being metaphorical.”

“Well, he’s *literally* going to get someone hurt.”

April 14th
Prompt: Shelter

“How are we supposed to remove goblins from a bomb #shelter?” Ashton asked.

“Do you have any gold to tempt them with?”

“Fresh out. What do goblins like to eat?”

“Man flesh!” came the reply from the shelter, followed by a chorus of cackles.

“McDonald’s it is, then.”

April 15th
Prompt: Tumbling

The screeching of the children and the sprites could be heard a block away.

“They just came #tumbling out!” the woman cried.

“We are talking about the sprites and not the children, correct?” Ashton asked.

Darby elbowed him at the woman’s glare. “Of course we can help.”

April 16th
Prompt: Desolation

Ashton whistled. “They really did a number on the office.”

“It’s just utter #desolation,” Darby moaned.

“Because it’s clean?”

“Yes! I’ll never be able to find anything.”

“Well, that’s a bit dramatic.”

“Who said the brownies could stay here, anyway?”

“You.”

“Damn.”

April 17th
Prompt: Arrested

“Have they all been #arrested?” Darby asked, bursting through the door.

“Seems so,” Ashton said.

“We can’t tell Kara unless we’re sure they got the entire coven.”

“Kara, is it?”

Darby blushed, and Ashton chuckled.

“I’ll put a call in.”

“Thank you.”

“You owe me.”

April 18th
Prompt: Blue

“The British grindylow is #blue-black, has a mouth and gills similar to the brook lamprey, and tangles its prey in weeds to hold it down while it decomposes,” Darby said

“Lovely. How many are there?” Ashton asked sourly.

“Ten.”

“We’re not getting paid enough for this.”

April 19th
Prompt: Street

“What’s the word on the #street about the rogue vampire?” Darby asked.

Ashton just shook his head.

“What?” Darby asked.

“Someone like you should not use that phrase.”

“You’re circumscribing me within a stereotype, why?”

“Because you use words like ‘circumscribe’.”

April 20th
Prompt: Dab

“You’re supposed to #dab, not wipe,” Darby said.

“Do I tell you how to apply your ointments?” Ashton griped.

“She told you not to touch her belladonna.”

“I didn’t think she meant the plant.”

“You are such a satyr.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Please, don’t.”

April 21st
Prompt: Ruby

“The phoenix stone is a lesser version of the philosopher’s stone. It is still #ruby red in color, but can only heal minor wounds,” Darby said.

“Still sounds useful to have,” Ashton said.

“It’s also been linked to human combustion, hence the name.”

“Perhaps not, then.”

April 22nd
Prompt: Radio

“Dred Perception has topped the #radio chart again,” Darby said.

Ashton grunted. “Easy enough to perfect talent when you live forever.”

“That’s why vampires have their own category in music award programmes.”

“Strange name, though.”

“They’re vampires.”

“Fair enough.”

April 23rd
Prompt: Oddity

“You two are an #oddity.”

“Oh?” Darby asked.

“Fate has a funny sense of humour, is all,” she said, her milky, white eyes sparkling. “Here’s your mince pies, dearies. And I’d avoid the tube today. Going to be some nasty gremlin business.”

“I think we will,” Ashton said.

April 24th
Prompt: Damage

“He should pay for this!” the man said.

“As part of your lease you were informed a poltergeist was here, and waved #damage claims,” Darby said.

“You have to help. It broke my PS4!”

“Sure it wasn’t your girlfriend?” Ashton asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“How surprising.”

April 25th
Prompt: Mittens

“Tell your mother thank you for the #mittens,” Darby said, handing him a wrapped box.

“What’s this?” Ashton asked.

“Petit fours from Hazel’s Enchanted Cakes.”

“I can’t give her these. I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Why?”

“Because I only got her a tin of biscuits.”

April 26th
Prompt: Heavyweight

“We can’t take the boggart on,” Darby said.

“They’re not #heavyweights,” Ashton said. “Horseshoe, bit of salt, and you’re right as rain.”

“The child gave it a name.”

“Well, shite.”

“Exactly. I’ll ring Evanore.”

“You’d like that.”

“This is business!”

“Sure it is.”

April 27th
Prompt: Killing

“… and everyone wonders when the #killing will end,” the news reader said.

“What do you think?” Ashton asked

“The Ripper imitated revenant attacks trying to stir up trouble,” Darby said.

“So, it’s a revenant, or a copycat of a copycat?”

“Just so.”

“How uninspired.”

April 28th
Prompt: Resurrection

“It’s a true #resurrection?” Darby asked.

“That’s the rumor,” Ashton confirmed.

“There’s only been a handful of those. I doubt this one is real.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Didn’t take you for a believer in divine intervention.”

“Like I said: stranger things.”

April 29th
Prompt: Guitar

“The devil plays a fiddle, not a #guitar,” Ashton said.

“Sugar, if I were the true devil your mortal body would have disintegrated,” she said, her southern accent as sweet as her predatory smile.

“You play well,” Darby said.

“Immortality is a drag without hobbies.”

April 30th
Prompt: Alcoholiday

“I need an #alcoholiday,” Ashton groaned.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“I had to wear a dinner jacket. And make a speech.”

“You did save those kids from that pack of hellhounds.”

“Post the award, then.”

“You’re being terribly dramatic.”

“They had no liquor.”

Darby sighed.

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) with Ashton & Darby ~~ March

February < — > April

 

March 1st
Prompt: Bridging

“With Samhain comes the bridging of the spirit realm and our own,”Darby said.

“You mean with Halloween comes three times our usual workload,” Ashton grumbled.

“The dearly departed deserve our help just as much as the living.”

“Calling them ‘dearly’ is going a bit far.”

March 2nd
Prompt: Atlantic

“Not afraid of a little sea monster, are you?” Ashton asked.

“We’re on a rickety boat in the Atlantic–”

“Ship.”

“–and I’m not meant to worry about a kraken that could swallow us whole?” Darby asked.

“I thought you liked this observation stuff?”

“On dry land? Yes.”

March 3rd
Prompt: Whitecaps

“Think we’ll see any seafolk while we’re out here?” Ashton asked.

“Not likely,” Darby said.

“Are there any we’d want to?”

“Nereids are nice, though they hide in the whitecaps while they watch seafarers. Think siren, but friendlier with less singing us to our deaths.”

March 4th
Prompt: Seagull

“You know, my grandad used to say it’s bad luck to kill a seagull. That they carry the souls of sailors lost at sea,” Ashton said.

“I thought I was the lore expert,” Darby joked.

“I’m allowed to know things, too.”

“If you say so, geek.”

“Use it while you can, nerd.”

March 5th
Prompt: Tribute

“When she refused their tribute they attacked her,” Darby said.

“So, they try to give this witch an offering because they fear her, but when she refuses they attack her? Someone that powerful, in her place of power–her home?” Ashton asked.

“Doesn’t track.”

“Agreed.”

March 6th
Prompt: Seventeen

Seventeen are missing,” Ashton said.

“I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly? Seventeen?” Darby asked.

“Daycare’s worth of kids, and two teachers.”

“What do you think?”

“Custodial abduction. One kid’s dad is a sorcerer in a nasty divorce. The others are collateral.”

March 7th
Prompt: Patch

“The spells here are the patches holding together a weaker group of spells,” she explained.

“How would this happen?” Ashton asked.

“Two spellworkers.”

“Apprentice and master?” Darby asked.

“More like idiot, and the person keeping the idiot from hurting themselves.”

March 8th
Prompt: Spark

“A single spark could destroy this whole block,” Darby said. “He should have had the sense to make a containment circle.”

“Never depend on people to have common sense, especially alchemists,” Ashton said. “They all go barmy eventually from sniffing too many chemicals.”

March 9th
Prompt: Spoken

“We’re to check on a reported troop of Gefs,” Darby said.

“There’ve been no Gefs in twenty-odd years, let alone a pack of them. Has anyone actually spoken to these mongooses?” Ashton asked. “Or is it mongeese?”

“Either.”

“I knew there was a reason we kept you around.”

March 10th
Prompt: Words

“Friday the 13th sucks,” Ashton griped.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Darby said.

“One more, ‘My witch of a neighbor sent a black cat after me!’ calls, and I’m done.”

“You two! You got another black ca–”

Ashton growled and stormed out. Darby followed with a sigh.

March 11th
Prompt: Unfathomable

“The depth and breadth of my machinations is unfathomable to you!”

“Tell me he’s not monologuing,” Ashton said.

“You know not wrath-”

“Seems so,” Darby said over him.

“-simpleminded cretins!”

“Redundant, but not your average insult. Colour me impressed,” Ashton said.

March 12th
Prompt: Insurmountable

“Your opponent is insurmountable,” the diviner said, reading her cards.

“Hold on, I’m not into this vrykolakas like that,” Ashton said.

“No, she means-” Darby started.

“I know what she meant; it was a joke.”

“Vampiric werewolves are a joke to you?”

“Today they are.”

March 13th
Prompt: Normal

“Do you ever wish things were normal? Mundane?” Darby asked.

“Like in those fantasy books where’s there no magic, and whatnot?”

“Yes.”

Ashton shrugged. “Maybe, but I doubt the world would be any less cocked-up. In all likelihood, people–not magic–are the problem.”

March 14th
Prompt: Foreign

“Do we have to go this fete?” Ashton asked.

“We’ve been invited to meet the leaders of the foreign enclaves,” Darby said.

“But it’s vampires.”

“They’re not so bad.”

“They think we’re cattle.”

“Not all of them.”

“Enough do that ‘not all of them’ isn’t good enough.”

March 15th
Prompt: Stroopwafel

“I didn’t know you liked stroopwafels,” Darby said.

“What’s not to like? They’re delicious,” Ashton said, taking a bite.

“May I have one?”

“Absolutely not. I don’t share my stroops.”

“I thought we were friends.”

“I won’t even share these with my mum.”

“Cruel.”

March 16th
Prompt: Mannequin

“The mannequin came to life and attacked everyone in the store?” Ashton asked.

“Yes,” Darby said.

“Witchcraft?”

“Maybe, but it could be any number of magic-users.”

“Too many suspects.”

“I can’t always give you the answer on a silver platter.”

“More’s the pity.”

March 17th
Prompt: Kindergarten

“You had the kindergarten class scared witless,” Ashton said.

“I did not!” Darby protested.

“Why did you tell them the boogeyman was real? Or that Black Annis sightings have started again?”

“Forewarned is forearmed.”

“They’re six.”

“Just so.”

“You’re hopeless.”

March 18th
Prompt: Robot

“Does it counts as a robot if magic is used to animate it?” Ashton asked, poking the contraption.

“No. This runs on magic, not technology,” Darby said.

“Even though it looks, walks, and talks like one?”

“Robots can look human, does that make them human?”

“Touche.”

March 19th
Prompt: Armada

“It’s an entire armada of ghost ships?” Ashton asked.

“That’s what’s on the report,” Darby said.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s on the water again.”

“Still whinging about your nausea?”

“You didn’t spend weeks sick.”

“No, but I had to listen to you, which is just as bad.”

March 20th
Prompt: Organised

“Ghouls aren’t this organised, unless being controlled,” Darby said.

“A necromancer?”

“Probably, but there are–”

“–multiple potential magic-users. I get tired of that.”

“Then why ask?”

“Because I think horses, not centaurs.”

“With us, centaurs are more common.”

March 21st
Prompt: Haiku

“Spells don’t have to rhyme;
haiku will channel power,”
Darby filled him in.

“That seems rather odd,
but poetry’s not my strength,”
Ashton said, then shrugged.

March 22nd
Prompt: Acrostic

“The note is an #acrostic,” Darby said.
“A-what?” Ashton asked.
“Never mind. The first letters form a word or phrase.”
“That’s why he looks so pleased with himself?”
“Right. He won’t feel clever once we tell him we know.”
“Undoubtedly.”
“Might even cause a tantrum.”

March 23rd
Prompt: Short

“I’m not sure either of us is short enough for this tunnel,” Ashton said.

Darby scoffed. “No one over three feet is, but we still have to go in.”

“I-I’m claustrophobic.”

Darby stared. “I didn’t think you were afraid of anything.”

“Everyone is scared of something.”

March 24th
Prompt: Stork

“A stork?” Ashton asked.

“Yes,” Darby confirmed.

“With a baby?”

“That’s what the report says.”

“But that’s not a real thing, is it?”

“No, but some deities, like tricksters, can alter reality.”

“What happened to the pregnancy, erm, stuff?”

“You don’t want to know.”

March 25th
Prompt: Cosy

“Well, this is cosy,” Ashton said.

“Disturbing, you mean,” Darby said.

“Fair enough. I thought the house was supposed to be made of candy?”

“No, but she used to lure the children with treats.”

“What does she use now?”

“Fortnite.”

“How deviously enterprising of her.”

March 26th
Prompt: Delicious

“How many times have I told you not to eat something if you didn’t see who it came from?”

“‘Least they were delicious,” Ashton barely managed from his swollen mouth.

“You won’t think so when you find out what you have to eat to counteract this,” Darby muttered.

March 27th
Prompt: Outblowing

“He said he was…outblowing?” Ashton asked, eyeing Darby over the report.

“It’s a translation from a Dutch phrase,” Darby said.

“Keep it simple for us stupids, eh?”

Darby sighed. “He was out for a jog when he was allegedly attacked by a redcap.”

“See? Much simpler.”

March 28th
Prompt: Toad

“I’m not going to kiss him,” Ashton said, looking down at the #toad.

“I’d hardly subject the gentleman to such cruelty,” Darby said.

“Ha-ha. So, what can we do, genius?”

“Find the witch, find his true love, hand him over to Obscurus, or find a nice patch of bog.”

March 29th
Prompt: Butt

“Gargoyles are roosting on the buttresses, and we need to relocate them,” Darby said.

“Did you say they’re roosting on #butts?” Ashton asked, his voice breaking up over the call.

“No. Butresses.”

“Why would gargoyles be on butts?”

“Nevermind. I’ll meet you there.”

March 30th
Prompt: Finisterre

“He was a sailor on the #Finisterre, and was killed when it was driven aground,” Darby said.

“Has anyone tried an exorcism?” Ashton asked.

“He’s French, so someone who speaks French or Latin needs to do it.”

“Let me guess: you do?”

“Both, actually.”

“Overachiever.”

March 31st
Prompt: Zarf

“The curse is passed through the inheritance of the #zarf set,” Darby said.

Ashton scoffed. “Zarf is not a word.”

“Of course it is.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of it.”

“I could fill a set of dictionaries with all the words you’ve never heard.”

“Someone’s feisty today.”

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) ~~ February

January < — > March

 

February 1st
Prompt: Script

“And this script will extract the data we want.”

“It’s like he’s speaking a foreign language,” Ashton muttered.

“Agreed,” Darby said, frowning at the computer.

“How does an ancient god know more about computers than you two?”

“Too much time on his immortal hands.”

February 2nd
Prompt: Sanity

“Potential side effect: Loss of Sanity,” Ashton said.

“Very low chance,” the witch reassured Darby.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it.”

“Well, I hear purple’s in this season.”

Darby glared and snatched the bottle, his magenta skin flushing to a lovely shade of mulberry.

February 3rd
Prompt: Fantasy

Ashton wiped the ectoplasm from his face. “I have this fantasy, that one day I won’t be called into work to deal with poltergeists.”

“Last time it was a hellhound fighting ring, not ghosts.”

Ashton gave Darby a look. “You’re being pedantic, and I need a vacation.”

February 4th
Prompt: Frantic

“The woman was quite frantic,” Darby said.

“They always are. She probably just saw an overfed house cat.”

“Or, it could really be the Cat Sìth.”

“If the King o’ Cats is hiding behind a pub dumpster in Kingsbury, I’ll eat my hat.”

“You don’t have one.”

“Exactly.”

February 5th
Prompt: Atlas

“They’re trying to sell the cloak of Atlas the Titan?”

“No, this was supposedly from Atlas, the first king of Atlantis,” Darby said.

“That tourist trap?”

“Tourist trap or not, the cloak could be an important piece of history.”

“Or a fake.”

“Possibly.”

“Likely.”

February 6th
Prompt: Ritual

“This some kind of demonic ritual?” Ashton asked.

“No, but I think they were trying to imitate one.”

“How so?”

“Unless they were summoning the demon of–” Darby squinted at a symbol, “–sweaters, it’s fake.”

“Demon of sweaters not a thing?”

“Not that I know of.”

February 7th
Prompt: Enchanted

Enchanted items are logged and sent to Obscurus.”

Ashton snorted. “If our sorcerer knows we’ve sent his doodad to MI13, he’ll disappear.”

“But–”

“Do you want to keep him from killing again, or follow protocol?”

“Both,” Darby ground out.

“Can’t have both. Choose.”

February 8th
Prompt: Mules

“You can’t turn kids into donkeys,” Ashton said.

“They’re mules, not donkeys,” the witch said.

“What’s the difference?”

“Mules are the product of male donkeys and females horses, and often sterile,” Darby said.

“Now the kids are, too,” she said with an evil grin.

February 9th
Prompt: Pride

“They say that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” Darby said.

The demon rolled the possessed man’s eyes. “As though demons have a cornerstone on pride. Have you seen the human race recently?”

“It’s not wrong, you know,” Ashton said.

February 10th
Prompt: Request

“Did you put in your request for leave yet?” Ashton asked.

“Yes,” Darby said.

“Any plans?”

“I’m visiting a friend, and we’re going to observe a pack of chupacabras in Texas.”

“Don’t you get enough of that stuff here?”

“It’s interesting.”

“You’re such a nerd.”

February 11th
Prompt: Ally

“Will the vamps cooperate?” Ashton asked.

“Doubtful, but we don’t want them to be too friendly, anyway,” Darby said.

“Why?”

“What happens if the other supernatural groups think we are #allies with the vampires?”

“Chaotic political bollocks?”

“Exactly.”

February 12th
Prompt: Judge

“My stuff can’t even do what you’re sayin’!” the woman protested.

“SOCO will be the judge of that,” Ashton said, as the shelves of the occult shop were slowly cleared.

“Most of this is for tourists,” Darby whispered.

“You want to bet someone’s life on that?”

February 13th
Prompt: Empire

“Vamps have their own empire?” Ashton asked.

“The enclaves need someone to keep them from falling into squabbles,” Darby said.

“Who rules them?”

“An empress. We don’t know much about her.”

“Is she real?”

“As long as they behave, does it matter?”

“I suppose not.”

February 14th
Prompt: Rookie

“I don’t see why we have to get the rookie,” Ashton grumbled.

“It’s only for a few months,” Darby reassured him. “Plus, we’re one of the few liaison teams, and training more will lighten the workload.”

“If he survives,” Ashton muttered. “I give him a week.”

February 15th
Prompt: Parody

“Is this supposed to be a parody?” Darby asked.

“Actually, I think they’re trying to be serious,” Ashton said.

The man in a ghastly werewolf costume dropped to his knees, then did a poor imitation of a howl.

Darby cringed. “I’m not sure Hamlet needs werewolves.”

February 16th
Prompt: Creed

“I thought human sacrifice went against their creed?” Ashton asked, looking up from the body.

“It’s Rede, not creed. ‘An ye harm none, do what ye will’,” Darby said.

“This looks harmful.”

“Then it wasn’t a wiccan.”

“And this?”

“Anyone can buy a pentagram.”

February 17th
Prompt: Greed

Greed does crazy things to a person,” Ashton said.

“Yes. Using ghouls to kill his grandfather for the inheritance was terrible,” Darby said.

“He got his, though. There was barely enough of him left to fill a gym bag after they turned on him.”

“Comeuppance, indeed.”

February 18th
Prompt: Infiltrated

“How did Mr. Bailey not notice a barghest had infiltrated his flock?” Ashton asked, going over the report.

“Bad eyesight?” When Ashton gave Darby a look, he shrugged. “His real dog and sheep didn’t seem to mind.”

“Did it kill him?”

“They’re omens, not killers.”

February 19th
Prompt: Purpose

“You did that on purpose!” Darby accused, brushing himself off.

“Of course I did. You should have seen your face when they dove at you,” Ashton said.

“Cockatrices are dangerous–that was not funny!”

“Maybe not for you.”

“Ridiculous. You and this illegal breeder.”

February 20th
Prompt: Soldier

“You were a soldier?” Darby asked.

“Yeah,” Ashton said, not elaborating.

“Did you see anything in the middle east?”

“Yeah, sand.”

“No, I mean–”

“I know what you meant.” There was a long silence. “There’s things out there best left alone, and not talked about.”

February 21st
Prompt: Solution

“This is not a solution, it’s a band-aid.” Darby grimaced at the smell of the sachet.

“Band-aid is better than dead,” Ashton said. “I’m not the one who pissed off the necromancer.”

“But we were all there, so why single me out?”

“Must be your stunning personality.”

February 22nd
Prompt: Peace

“If you could get one wish, what would it be?” Ashton asked.

“That’s not how the djinn work,” Darby said.

“We can’t wish for #peace on earth, and good will toward men?”

Darby grimaced. “Not unless you want them to kill everyone.”

“That’s a bit harsh.”

“But it works.”

February 23rd
Prompt: Royal

“This is a royal mess,” Darby grumbled.

“It’s not so bad,” Ashton said.

“Being quarantined for a potential magical malady outbreak is not trivial.”

“Think of it as a mini-vacation.”

“Yes, one that could end in death.”

“This is why no one invites you to parties.”

February 24th
Prompt: Belle

“Are you sure she said we’re looking for a bell?” Ashton asked, eyeing the scantily clad woman.

The succubus smirked, and her eyes flashed scarlet. “My name is Belle, pleasure to meet you.”

“There may, um, have been a slight miscommunication,” Darby said with a gulp.

February 25th
Prompt: Spirit

“You mean they’re spirits distilled from…spirits?” Ashton asked, looking a bit green about the gills.

“Fascinating, isn’t it? I wonder how they do it, and what it tastes like,” Darby said.

Ashton gagged. “Absolute nutter.”

“You just have no sense of adventure.”

February 26th
Prompt: Vermin

“Wraiths are a vermin class of incorporeal undead,” Darby said.

“What does vermin class mean?” Ashton asked.

“They can cause whatever disease they died of.”

“So they’re like graveyard rats?”

“Essentially.”

“Ugh, imagine getting ghost syphilis.”

“I’d rather not.”

February 27th
Prompt: Destination

“It’s a tourist destination now, not a place of power,” the old woman said.

“Could someone change that?” Ashton asked.

“Only with a lot o’ blood and power.”

“If they have that?” Darby asked.

“It’ll either wake the Henge, or kill everything in a hundred mile radius.”

February 28th
Prompt: Deathly

“Liches have a deathly complexion,” Darby said.

Ashton snorted. “That’s most people this time of year.”

“Won’t bleed–”

“As with most undead.”

“–and attract dead creatures through inadvertent leaking of their necromonic powers.”

“A zombie Pied Piper?”

“Seems so.”

February 29th
Prompt: Purge

“During the Hundred Years’ War, the English purged a vampire enclave, so the vampires took the side of the French,” Darby said.

“It helped that one of the French royals had a vampire lover,” Ashton said.

“Rumored, but not proven.”

“They’re French, that’s proof enough.”

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) ~~ January

–> February

 

January 1st
Prompt: Charlatan

When Ol’ Jenny came to town
They threw stones and tore her gown

Charlatan!” the townsfolk cried
When the crops withered and died

Preacher claimed a witch she be;
They hung her at the crossroad tree

Cursed ’em with her final breath
And now their lands know only death.

January 2nd
Prompt: Obfuscate

Obfuscate!” she yelled, throwing her hand up in a stop gesture.

A chuckle followed her from the dark as she staggered away.

“Oh, Little Witch, you won’t be rid of me that easily.” His thrown knife ended the sentence, and her cry of pain pulled a smile from him.

 

~~Ashton & Darby starts here~~

January 3rd
Prompt: Unicorn

“Is that–“

“No.”

“It really looks like–”

“I said no.”

Someone had tried to keep the zombie horse’s mouth shut by impaling it with a machete, making it look like…

“It’s not a unicorn .”

“No, it’s clearly a zombicorn.”

“I almost hate that enough to kill you.”

January 4th
Prompt: Latent

“Did you check the house for latent spells?”

“Do I look like an amateur to you?”

“I’m not sure you want me to answer that question.”

Ashton scowled, but responded; “Yes, I checked. Happy?”

“Not particularly. Three dead, and a missing warlock? I’ve had better days.”

January 5th
Prompt: Disinter

“What’s he done now?”

Disinterred corpses, and relieved them of their personal effects.”

“Jewelry?”

“And body parts. Best of both worlds, really. Jewelry to pawn, and parts to the black magic folks.”

“You’re sick, Darby.”

“No, just practical.”

“Same difference.”

January 6th
Prompt: Yip

“Should he be doing that?” Ashton asked, leery of the yipping man.

“Well, he is a werewolf,” Darby said hesitantly.

“What do we do, Mr. Expert?”

“Animal control?”

“Not likely.”

“Have you got a collar and leash?”

“Don’t try to rope me into your kinks, Darby.”

January 7th
Prompt: Obviate

“Staking a vampire does not obviate the removal of the head.”

“How informative,” Ashton said. He pulled out the hacksaw, then gave it to Darby. “Being a liaison doesn’t obviate your duty to make sure the vamp is dead,” Ashton explained with a grin at Darby’s grimace.

January 8th
Prompt: Usurpers

Usurpers!” the caged pixie shrieked as Ashton put him in the back of their car.

“Murderers!”

“Will he do this all the way to the station?”

“Human filth!”

“Probably. He’s on the fae drug he’s been dealing.”

“Which one?”

“Revel.”

“Oh, he’s in for a rough night.”

January 9th
Prompt: Kinetic

Darby displayed the sigil on the bottom of the swing. “They’re reaping or feeding on the kinetic energy created by the children.”

“That’s why they’re tired?”

“Yes, and it urges them to keep swinging.”

“For how long?”

“With no one to stop them? Until they pass out.”

January 10th
Prompt: Inquisitive

“Darby, get this thing off me,” the creature said. The satori sat on Ashton’s tensed shoulder.

“It’s just inquisitive , no need for hysterics. The Japanese liaison will be here soon.”

Then the satori growled at Darby.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Ashton said.

January 11th
Prompt: Lively

“Quite the lively bunch,” Ashton said.

“Yes, but mostly harmless,” Darby reassured him.

“Mostly?”

“There are good and bad nixie.” He gestured to the otters playing in the park pond. “These nixie chose to be around humans, but wild nixie warrant far more caution.”

January 12th
Prompt: Languor

Ashton’s body and mind were languorous, and the only thing that mattered was her.

Darby shouted for a medic, and did his best to drag Ashton along with him.

“I’d rather like to visit her again.”

“Not if I can help it,” Darby muttered. “Damnable sirens.”

January 13th
Prompt: Opaline

“The murder weapon is a fancy dagger?”

“It’s an athame; a ritualistic dagger used by certain practitioners of magic.”

“Right, so a fancy dagger.”

Darby sighed. The opaline quality of the gem in the hilt shimmered. “Anyway, I think they’re using it to trap souls.”

January 14th
Prompt: Fibrous

Ashton eyed the #fibrous material of the noose from which the homemade doll hung. It was too fine for normal rope.

“What is that?”

“The victim’s hair.”

“How’d they get enough for a noose?”

“The victim recently donated their hair. A good deed turned bad by voodoo.”

 

January 15
Prompt: Flourish

The man waved his arms with a flourish, grandly pronouncing words of utter gibberish.

“I believe this is one of yours,” Darby said, eyes avoiding the man’s stark form.

“Not a wizard or sorcerer, then?”

“Certainly not.”

“Tough break for him when he finds out.”

January 16th
Prompt: Yearning

“Their bites are like a drug–destroying the vampire won’t kill the yearning.”

The man was in cuffs in the back of a police vehicle.

“Guess he thought it didn’t hurt to try,” Ashton said.

“He could have died.”

“Maybe he’d rather be dead than live with that need.”

January 17th
Prompt: Riparian

“Kelpies are usually found in the riparian zone of a river or body of water.”

“You should have gotten me a pocket dictionary for Christmas instead of a tie. English please, Pointdexter.”

Darby pinched the bridge of his nose. “On the shore.”

“See? Was that so hard?”

January 18th
Prompt: Muddled

“He’s muddled on his account of the incident.”

“Fae mischief, or embarrassment?”

“Both. Would you want to admit to relations with a goblin you thought was a daoine sídhe, because she illegally used glamour?”

Ashton grimaced.

“Exactly. I’ll contact Fae relations.”

January 19th
Prompt: Articulate

“Having decomposed, the skeleton’s bones are articulated with necromantic magic, allowing it to move.”

“Great,” Ashton said, reloading his weapon. “How do I kill it, Professor?”

The sharp report of his shot rang through the air.

“Um…”

“If I die, I’m haunting you.”

January 20th
Prompt: Jasmine

“Can I tempt you with some jasmine for your garden? To attract love to your door?” With a coy smile she ran a finger down Darby’s chest.

Ashton snickered as Darby let out a strangled; “No,” then backed away. “We’re here to ask about wood nymphs.”

She sighed. “Pity.”

January 21st
Prompt: Obstinate

“The ichthyocentaurs combine the most frustrating traits of its parts: obstinance, pride, and vanity.”

“They sound like real winners.”

“Well, they certainly think so, and they’re starting trouble with the local seafolk.”

“Of course they are,” Ashton grumbled.

January 22nd
Prompt: Rigmarole

“What’s this rigmarole about vamp murders?” the Captain barked.

“You make it sound like they’re the murderers.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Not this time,” Ashton said, before Darby went into a diatribe.

“Then find who’s re-killing ’em before a fang freak cries to the press.”

January 23rd
Prompt: Cacophony

The cacophony from the cages was deafening.

“When our guy found a magical way to fuse animals, his first idea was this?” Ashton yelled, and pointed to the screeching, flapping creature.

“Maybe he likes Wizard of Oz?”

“Well, we’re definitely not in Kansas, Dorothy.”

January 24th
Prompt: Happen

“Why did you let that happen?” Darby gingerly touched his nose.

“Is it my job to step in front of the punch when you shoot off at the mouth?”

“I beg your-”

“You asked the witch if she was, ‘a lady of the night’.”

“Well–”

“You’re lucky all she did was punch you.”

January 25th
Prompt: Amaze

“Do you know what amazes me?” Darby asked.

“Will you leave off?”

“Every time I tell you not to touch something, you never listen.”

“It was a doorknob. Not some magic doodad.”

“A doorknob to a trap room.”

“You going to complain, or help me look for a way out?”

January 26th
Prompt: Range

“What’s the range on this heart-stopping spell?” Ashton asked.

“It depends on many factors.”

“So you don’t know?”

“I would know, if I had all the necessary information.”

“Should I update my will?”

“Only if you plan on subjecting the spellcaster to your presence.”

January 27th
Prompt: Adversary

“Vampires and weres wax and wane as adversaries throughout history,” Darby informed Ashton.

“Isn’t that some kind of urban legend made up by Hollywood?”

“Not exactly, but greatly exaggerated, to be sure.”

“No one is immune to war, I suppose.”

“People rarely are.”

January 28th
Prompt: Could

“How could you let that roam free?” Ashton asked, pointing to the wolpertinger in the cage.

“It wasn’t harming anyone.”

“Except the local livestock, and your neighbor’s cat,” Darby observed.

“Serves her right. Mrs. Davies has always been too nosy for her own good.”

January 29th
Prompt: Tremendous

Tremendous job on that werewolf kerfuffle, you two!” the captain said.

“Thank you, sir.”

Once the captain was gone, Darby whispered; “We didn’t do anything, just mediated.”

“Take praise where you can, Darby. Especially from the captain, and especially with you.”

January 30th
Prompt: Extra

“Do you not have any #extra salt on you?”

“I left my condiments in my other jacket,” Ashton scathingly replied.

“Leave it to you to not pack basic supplies on a witch investigation,” Darby scolded.

“I thought we were here to interview her, not cook her a meal.”

January 31st
Prompt: Rosy

“Her cheeks were #rosy! She’s a vamp!”

“She’s not a vampire; that was make-up for her funeral,” Darby said.

The patrol car took the man away, and Ashton shook his head. “Good thing stakes don’t kill a vamp, or we’d have more twice-dead corpses than we could handle.”

Twitter #vss365 (Very Short Stories) ~~ October

October 1st
Prompt: Night

Deep within’ the darkest night
You’re prayin’ for that mornin’ light
Pounding hearts and gasping breath
Looking back will be your death

‘Run,’ the hungry voices bade
Sharpened claws like burning blades
Blood so hot; the moon is black
You’ve made such a lovely snack

October 2nd
Prompt: Murder

The woman was accused of murder,
and they hung her from a tree.
She cursed them as she choked;
her body swaying in the breeze.

Little did the townsfolk know,
she committed not the crime.
Now neither her nor my husband,
will hurt this heart of mine.

October 3rd
Prompt: Blood

“The price is blood! You have me–don’t do this!” she cried, pulling on her chains.

“Oh, child,” the witch cooed. “Who said it was your blood?” The slice was quick and deep. Her lover could do nothing more than widen his eyes before he died. “Enjoy your immortality.”

October 4th
Prompt: Organs

“What’ll be yer pleasure?”

Her grin was a hair too wide, but he was too drunk on her beauty and tequila to notice.

“I won’t spoil the surprise,” she said, stroking a finger down his face. It trailed lower, over his abdomen and the tasty organs inside. “Or my dinner.”

October 5th
Prompt: Away

Crosses for the vampires
With demons it’s a prayer
Wolfsbane for a lycanthrope
Avoid all caves; they’re lairs
Listen not to sirens’ songs
Cold iron for the fae
Listen now, and these will
Keep these creatures well away

October 6th
Prompt: Demon & Delusions (Poem)

Hiding behind her smile
Was the demon lurking inside
My heart fell for her kindness
And my soul fell for her lies

Though I know I’m damned
And my delusions are shattered
I’ll love her even while I burn
‘Cause she’s the only one that’s mattered

October 7th
Prompt: Music

Thunder of paws
Panting breath
Howls shatter the night

The thrill of the hunt
The fear of the prey
Teeth bared for the struggle and fight

Down they fall
Pain and screams
On toward death they spiral

Eternal dance
Bloody and joyous
Moving to music most primal

October 8th
Prompt: Perfume

At first, he smelled her perfume everywhere: the store, the park–even her grave. It faded with time, until it never happened.

He woke with a start, her scent heavy on the air.

“Did you miss me?” she asked with a hoarse voice, and then kissed away his screams.

October 9th
Prompt: Bones

She rolled the bones, which were yellowed by age and firelight, and they clattered in the circle.

“What do they say?” the other woman asked.

“Depends on your view.”

“What?”

“Good for me. Bad for you.”

Her gods demanded blood, and she was happy to oblige.

October 10th
Prompt: Lovers

“Please,” he begged, as his cracked lips bled.

“What? Not having fun?” she asked, and then licked away the blood on his mouth.

He shuddered, and the chains holding him rattled, but he didn’t pull away.

“Remember, lover: you’re the one who summoned the succubus.”

October 11th
Prompt: Skin

He took her skin and kid it well
The Maiden of the Sea
Her mournful calls to kith and kin
Did not deter his glee

The selkie soon became his wife
And gave him many sons
But when she found her skin again
Back home she did run

October 12th
Prompt: Monster

“I’m not sure if we should leave you here, or take you with us.”

“Or kill her,” Jeffrey rumbled.

Mr. Hoffman’s eyes cut over to his bodyguard. “You don’t repay someone saving your life by killing them, Jeffrey. I’d like to think I’m not that much of a monster.”

October 13th
Prompt: Pearl

“Did you hear about Susan?”

“Everyone has. Her poor mama must be clutchin’ her pearls!”

“She’s always been a bit of a wild child, but a vampire?” The woman shuddered.

The other woman nodded, but resisted the urge to touch her inner thigh and the bite scars there.

October 14th
Prompt: Worse

When the Darkest King is called
Man’s empire will surely fall
Chaos yearns for pain and death
Calling for your final breath

Then will come the King of Light
To purge away the Darkest night
But Light’s reign may just be a curse
Be careful, or things may get worse

October 15th
Prompt: Alone

And what can I say
When at the end of the day
The cracks in my mind
Have grown so wide
I’ve fallen right through?

I’m left there alone
My broken thoughts sown
With the darkness inside
I’m barely alive
And I’m screaming for you

October 16th 
Prompt: Chunk

“It was a small chunk,” she protested.

“Small? A mouthful is ‘small’?”

“Well, next time don’t leave your snacks out for all and sundry.” The woman gestured to the pale man lying on the carpet, a tourniquet on his leg.

“Fine. I’ll label them next time.”

October 17th 
Prompt: Darkness

His face was hidden by a giant deer skull mask, with antlers like tall branches, and darkness for eyes.

“You can’t take my sister!” Thomas yelled.

“I can. She has eaten our food, and drank of our spring. She is ours.”

“No!” But he was too late–they’d vanished.

October 18th
Prompt: Ghost

“Are you a ghost, or am I crazy?” he whispered.

One side of her mouth quirked up in a smile, and humor danced in her eyes. “Maybe both. Maybe neither.” She shrugged, and held out her hand. “Does it matter?”

“No, it doesn’t.” He sobbed and reached for her.

October 19th
Prompt: Devour

There are tales of succubi
Whispered hushed and low
And for a single coin of gold
I’ll tell you what you want to know

Call to her in middle night
Then bow before her power
And if you ask her nice enough
Perhaps your soul she will devour

October 20th
Prompt: Dirt

“God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt,” he drawled, and patted the coffin lid in a comforting manner.

The screams and pleas were barely audible over the man’s humming as he lowered the coffin into the ground; each thud of dirt on the lid a proverbial coffin nail.

October 21st
Prompt: Oblivion

“Art drank himself into oblivion again,” Ethan said.

Ken chuckled. “Where’d they find him this time?”

“Professing his love to the horse statue in town square.”

“Yikes. How’d Laura take it?”

“Well, I hope her sister hides her knives before Art gets out of jail.”

October 22nd
Prompt: Soul

*Traitor!* the ghosts wailed.

“Traitor, but not a murderer,” I whispered. “I won’t kill them.”

*Someone must pay,* they growled as one.

Justice hadn’t been enough.

“I know.” At this, they washed over me like a tsunami, ripping my soul to shreds.

“I’m sorry…”

October 23rd
Prompt: Invincible

“You’re not invincible, you know,” she said, as the needle poked through the solid flesh near his ragged wound.

“I know,” he grumbled. “But why be immortal if you can’t push your limits?”

“Being gutted in a bar fight is not a ‘limit’.”

“Says you.”

October 24th
Prompt: Cellar

“Why would a ghost be in our cellar? Seems a stupid place to haunt.”

“Some kid got murdered down here, or something.”

Neither boy went down the stairs, but Jack was patient. He had plenty of time to ‘make’ new friends, and smiled wide as the boys closed the door.

October 25th
Prompt: Alive

“If we find her alive, Zan can work the diplomacy angle all he wants,” Kailen said, checking his gear one last time.

“If she isn’t?” Nic asked.

Kailen’s eyes remained on his sword as he sharpened its edges. “Then they won’t be, either, for much longer.”

October 26th
Prompt: Horror

Alec watched in horror as the men in black armor cut down everyone around them. He grabbed the arm of the Commander, and shouted; “Stop! You said no one would be hurt!”

The man looked down with a half smile. “They’re not hurt if they’re dead.”

October 27th
Prompt: Shriek

The shriek of the ghost was relentless, as it had been every night from 3 to 4 a.m. since they’d moved in.

“I can’t take much more,” Jake mumbled into his coffee.

“You’re the one who wanted cheap rent,” Gail accused, her voice like acid on his frayed nerves.

October 28th
Prompt: Grave

“You are in grave danger.”

Quint raised an eyebrow. “So? What else is new?”

The angel in white robes blinked in shock. “You are not taking this seriously.”

“I move questionable magic items, so danger is the status quo. Unless you have a real warning, buzz off.”

October 29th
Prompt: Eternal

Some will claim their love’s eternal;
More plentiful than the stars in the sk
y.

But take some advice from this immortal:
Eternal love is life’s cruelest lie.

October 30th
Prompt: Warm

The cicadas sang, and humidity hung heavy in the Florida night. She shivered, and pulled the blanket tighter around her.

“Will I ever be warm again?”

“Not even while you turn to ash beneath the sun,” he replied. He’d told her, but no one ever listened.

October 31st
Prompt: Raven

Raven , raven, black as night
Mocking laughter
Keen eyes bright

What omen ill brings you to me?
Your knowledge vast
From Prophecy

Have you, then, foreseen my death?
Are here to guide
My soul to rest?

“Begone,” I say! I beg of thee.
“I won’t go!”
I flee

I flee

Writing Prompt ~~ Legacy

It had been more than two weeks since the fire, but the stink of it was still in her hair, on her skin. She took long showers twice a day, but the smell lingered. When she closed her eyes at night, the images came back to her. Images of the flames, of the way the dark varnish on her grandmother’s cuckoo clock, brought over from Germany when she immigrated here, bubbled and popped.

Most of all, though, Amelie remembered the heat.

Each night, she’d woken in a sweat from both the memories and the fear of them. She’d screamed herself raw each time as she clawed her way out of her mind, the thick smoke choking her as her throat constricted, trying to protect itself. It was as though the flames had followed her into the realm of dreams, intent on licking along her body, their tongues burning and pulling all the moisture from her skin as it blistered.

When she woke, though, her skin was pristine if only a little tender. And with each wakening, she’d remember it wasn’t her who’d been swallowed by the flames. When the fog of nightmares lifted and the memories came flooding back, she’d weep. She’d sob until her body convulsed with them and her eyes went gritty and dry.

She’d promised herself fourteen days. A fortnight to grieve in her soul, recover in body, and strengthen her mind. Two weeks for a plan to churn in her subconscious, sitting at the back of her mind like a slowly simmering stew.

When the new moon rose, leaving more shadow than light stretched over the quiet landscape, she left the hideaway. It had been Quinn’s idea to build it, and though she’d been foolishly over-confident enough to scoff at him for such caution, she’d humored him. He’d gone to work on the very back end of their twenty-acre property, making what amounted to a doomsday bunker, though their concern was less apocalypse and far closer to home. What she wouldn’t give to hear him say, ‘I told you so.’

She clamped down on the sob that tried to break through her swollen throat, and swallowed against it. If she started crying now, she might not stop.

Though she didn’t expect anyone to still be at the house, she took her time moving through the familiar woods. She placed her hands on the rough bark of the trees, like touchstones, and with each caress she was more grounded and less insubstantial. Her hold on the world had been tenuous at best these last two weeks, with the loss of so much that was dear to her leaving her adrift. The trees brought some of what made her, her back, like an artist drawing an outline for a character. Amelie was solid again.

At just after midnight she made it back to the clearing just behind what was left of their house. The night was still, and so was she as she assessed the ruin. She hadn’t been in any condition to do so when she fled, and looking at it now, some of the comfort from the forest withered and left her hollow like a rotted tree trunk.

After a time, she made her way to the wreckage, careful to not disturb too much in case someone came snooping around. The single cabin hadn’t been what most folks would consider much, but it had been enough for her and Quinn.

When she came to the back of the house, she knelt and cleared away fire and autumn debris from a small section of otherwise normal looking ground. However, when she worked her fingers into the earth, a small seam appeared and a trapdoor lifted. Not wanting the remainder of the cabin to collapse on her, she pulled out a flashlight and shone it into the dark cellar. As far as she could see, everything was untouched, so she made her way down the steps into the darkness. Once inside, she lit the lamps around the room. They’d never wired electricity down here, just in case someone with more than half a brain had been involved with planning their demise.

When the soft glow illuminated the small work area, everything really was intact, and she let out a small, shaky sigh. Then, when her eyes strayed over to the bookshelf, her breath caught in her throat. Her feet carried her over to the ceiling-high shelves before she could think to do it, and shaking hands grabbed a picture frame.

Dark eyes with a wicked sense of humor and smile to match gazed back at her. His auburn hair was tousled from sweat and hard work while he helped build their cabin, and dirt streaked through his face and trimmed beard. It was her favorite picture of him, and an ache spread through her chest.

“I miss you,” she whispered, and ran a thumb across the picture’s cheek.

This time, instead of a sob, something hardened in her, and she had to put the frame down before she cracked it and the glass when her fists clenched. Her eyes scanned over the books along the shelves, though she knew exactly where the one she wanted was. On the top shelf, high enough that she had to stand on tiptoe to grab it, she pulled down the dusty, dark tome. A cuckoo clock was not the only thing her oma had brought from Germany.

Oma had never shied away from the darker side of their abilities, saying the dark was as much a part of anyone as the light. Amelie, on the other hand, had never been totally comfortable with such things, and after learning them never had cause to use them again. Oma respected her decision on this, saying some witches remained in the light, others steeped in darkness, while most walked in the grey. Amelie had been more than happy to remain on the light side, though she never thought less of her oma for walking a darker path than her. That was just Oma.

Amelie sent a silent prayer to her grandmother on the other side of the veil, asking for guidance. She took the book and the picture over to the small chair in the corner of the room and sat down to read.

Her thoughts were sharp as broken glass, and claws of rage raked through her as she poured over the spells.

It was sometime around dawn when she finally put the book down, her mind whirring with one possibility after another. As the cold, autumn wind shifted small amounts of rubble overhead, she looked at Quinn’s picture.

“They wanted an evil witch, and that’s just what they’ll get.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Magic Isn’t Real

He had hunted and hiked and led backpacking trips through these woods for twenty years, and he had never seen an animal track like that. At first glance, it resembled wolf tracks, which was impossible given that there hadn’t been wolves in these parts since before Richard was born. One reason his mind had jumped to wolf and not dog, was because they formed a single track instead of staggered. The other reason was the shape, but even that wasn’t exactly correct. The pads were the wrong size and shape for any canid, and the claw marks were too thick. Richard wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but he knew these woods, and there was nothing in it that should make tracks like that. Least of all a wolf.

What he did know, though, was right next to those strange tracks were shoe prints, size 11 ½ youth, with little stars and hearts amidst the swirling tread pattern.

“What’d you find, Rick?” the quiet, rumbling voice of the Sheriff asked from behind him.

Most people tended to whisper or speak in hushed tones in the woods on instinct, but that was just the Sheriff. You wouldn’t catch him raising his voice to break up a bar fight, if it came down to it. Not that it ever did. Sheriff Evans had what folks referred to as presence. The large man moved like a force of nature: you either got out of his way or were taken down in the process.

“Girl’s tracks are here. We’re lucky it rained for a couple days the other day, or I might not have spotted this,” Richard said, and waved a black gloved hand at the muddy forest floor, littered with leaves. He’d never been fond of being called Rick, but people were set in their ways, especially around these parts.

“And?” Sheriff Evans prompted, hearing the unfinished words lingering on Richard’s tongue with the keen perception honed by years of experience.

Richard huffed out a frustrated breath. “And some tracks that don’t fit any animal I’ve ever come across,” he said, and pivoted on the balls of his heavy-booted feet to face the Sheriff.

The man’s ice blue eyes narrowed on Richard, who stilled under the scrutiny. Richard had never broken the law, let alone given police any trouble or reason to distrust him. But it was still there, hovering beneath the surface.

Richard was an outlier in the community. Someone who made his living off the vast woods that most were content to avoid. Sure, people hunted and hiked and so on, but Richard lived and breathed these woods, and there was a wildness about him. It didn’t help that he looked the typical part of someone who spent most of his time in the woods: bearded, rough around the edges, clothes worn and patched, and with his wild black hair usually contained under a knit cap.

That otherness meant he’d never quite moved beyond acquaintance-level with most people. In fact, if they got more than a nod of greeting from Richard it tended to shock the good folk of Pinebrook. Most avoided his ever-present scowl and dark, hooded eyes. Those wanting to traipse about the woods only put up with his standoff-ish demeanor because he was the best around, and those that didn’t want to found someone less qualified.

“Explain,” the Sheriff said, but his wary gaze left Richard’s and began scanning the surrounding trees.

Richard, too, looked around. Though Richard was not a small man himself in weight, he didn’t quite hit the same numbers as the Sheriff who was built like a wall of muscle. When Richard looked back at their walking tracks leading to this point, Richard’s weren’t quite as deep as the Sheriff’s, as was expected. What made Richard’s body tense was the fact the unknown tracks were a depth between the Sheriff and himself. It didn’t bode well.

“I thought at first they were wolf tracks,” Richard started.

The Sheriff snorted at that, though he didn’t stop his surveillance.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Plus, the shape isn’t exactly correct. It’s strange, though. What kind of animal would have the girl walking with it, instead of just, well, eating her?” Richard pondered out loud.

The Sheriff’s head jerked over at Richard’s statement, who just shrugged at the man’s distasteful look.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Richard challenged, though as respectfully as he could manage. To be honest it wasn’t much, but it was the best Evans was going to get.

Sheriff Evans grunted, then considered the tracks again. “You’re sure they aren’t human?” he asked.

Richard shook his head. “Even if they were wearing something weird on their feet to try and confuse us, the impressions wouldn’t look right. When people are making fake tracks, they either press straight down or don’t walk naturally, and it shows in the tracks,” he said. Then he indicated the sides and depths of the footprints. “This has the natural gate of something that single tracks and walks on four paws, like a wolf.”

Sheriff Evans considered the tracks. “But it’s definitely not a wolf?” The lilt at the end of the sentence indicated the Sheriff was making it more of a question than a statement.

“No, not a wolf, but some kind of animal,” he said, his voice going soft. Whatever it was, he didn’t think it boded very well for the girl.

“Well, we can’t stand here and debate this anymore. You follow the tracks, and I’ll follow you,” Sheriff Evans said.

Richard nodded, and off they went.

They weren’t the only people out looking for Heather Turner, aged six, missing from her home on the edge of town. When her parents called her in from their backyard for lunch, they thought she was playing hide and seek with them. When they couldn’t find her, and instead discovered a place in the fence where the chain links had been pushed aside just enough for a small child to get through, they panicked.

When the initial search led them not far down the road and into the forest, they’d put out the call for volunteers and called in the SAR—Search and Rescue—dogs. They lived on the edge of enough wilderness that they had a couple of full-time trackers. The first real indication that things weren’t quite right was the dogs’ refusals to track. Not just a, ‘I can’t follow the scent/There is no scent,’ situation. This was a tail between their legs, one of them peed themselves, and they refused to budge, type of refusal. These dogs weren’t new, or scared of much of anything, but their behavior had put the SAR team on edge.

That’s when they went to get Richard.

He’d been gearing up to help with the search when the Sheriff himself had pulled up and explained the situation, and what had happened with the dogs. He’d been concerned about that, but not enough to put him off going into the woods to search for a little girl.

Now here they were, following the tracks of Richard didn’t know what, and they were headed to the lake. Not just any lake, but Arrowhead Lake. There were a few bodies of water in these parts, but the one that was the biggest and in the deepest part of the forest was the Arrowhead. Shaped like its namesake, it was where, to put it not-so-delicately, the crazies lived. Mostly they were an assortment of backwoodsman and survivalists, and they guarded their privacy and land jealously. If Richard was barely on the tolerated side of amicable for the townsfolk, the Arrowheaders were the scapegoats and go-to for every which thing that went wrong in these parts.

Richard looked back over his shoulder and locked eyes with the Sheriff. His lips had thinned out and his eyebrows were drawn down in a mighty frown. He knew where they were headed. He motioned for Richard to stop, and called his fellow lawmen over the walkie.

“We’re going to head to the main road and call in to Walt. I don’t want to start some kind of FUBARed fire fight with the Arrowheaders because someone gets pissy we’re on their land,” Sheriff Evans grumbled, and started to head west toward the only road to the lake.

By the time the two men managed to get there, there was a patrol car waiting, with a CB ready to go. No one up here had lines for phones, or likely the patience for them.

Sheriff Evans got Walt on the CB, and he agreed to come out. Probably twenty minutes later the old man came ‘round the bend in his beat up ’55 Chevy, expertly avoiding or going over potholes that were as familiar to him as his own land. Walt was the unofficial spokesperson of the Arrowheaders, which really meant he was the only one willing to talk before he pulled his gun.

By this point, the deputy and Sheriff were chomping at the bit to get moving again. There was a kid missing, and each minute that went by wasn’t doing her any good.

Walt got out of his truck and hobbled on over to the Sheriff, though Richard hung back. While the Arrowheaders weren’t as hostile toward him as they were to law enforcement, they weren’t exactly buddy-buddy, either. He was too wild for the townsfolk, and too tame for Arrowhead.

Walt was like a piece of chewed up old leather leftover from a saddle that was rode hard and put away wet. He’d survived WWII with his body mostly intact, but in mind not so much. Sometimes when people were talking to him, he gets a faraway look in his mud brown eyes. Richard had learned the hard way with a broken nose to never touch him when he’s like that. He had a shaggy white mane, and a beard to match that he could almost tuck into his belt.

“Whatchoo doin ‘round here, Evans?” Walt said with his usual ornery tone. His wild, bushy eyebrows were drawn down, and even in his late sixties the man was scrappy as ever.

“There’s a little girl missing, Walt. We’re just trying to find her and get her home,” Sheriff Evans said matter-of-factly, holding his hands out in front of him.

Walt’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“You think we had somethin’ to do with that?” asked another voice from over by the truck as Walt opened his mouth.

The Sheriff’s head snapped over to a boy standing not far from the front-passenger side of the truck. He was your typical, surly teenager: whip-thin, like he’d have a hard time putting any muscle on him, and dark brown hair cut long enough that it fell in his eyes, which were the same brown as Walt’s.

“And you are?” Sheriff Evans asked, suspicion evident in the set of his shoulders and tone of his voice.

“That’s my grandson, Matthew. Now answer the boy’s question,” Walt said, still glaring at the Sheriff.

“We aren’t sure,” Sheriff Evans admitted honestly. “We followed some tracks to the edge of Arrowhead property and stopped to get ahold of you.”

“Whatchoo mean you ain’t sure?” Walt spat. “Either yer here to try and arrest one of us, or yer just causin’ hate and discontent.”

Sheriff Evans glanced back at Richard, who sighed.

“They pulled me in to track when the dogs refused to do it,” Richard said, leveling a significant look Walt’s way.

Walt’s eyebrows shot up. “You mean Tommy’s and Jerry’s dogs?”

Tommy and Jerry were the SAR guys. They didn’t just handle the SAR dogs, they were some of the best trainers around for them.

Richard nodded. “Pissed themselves scared.”

Walt and Matthew exchanged a worried glance. The silent communication after hearing such news might have been expected and natural to the two lawmen, but Richard didn’t miss the something extra that passed between them.

“Whatchoo think it was?” Walt asked, bringing a heavy scowl down on Richard.

“Can’t say; never seen tracks like that. Looked wolf, but wrong, and weighed somewhere between me and the Sheriff,” Richard said, and shrugged.

Though the motion was nonchalant and the words casual, (as though Richard spoke of man-sized beasts roaming their forests every day), his gaze was subtly sharp, watching Matthew. The old man could hide his guilt from St. Peter himself, but the boy was young. He hadn’t learned to hide that well, yet.

And there it was, the small twitch of the kid’s shoulders at the description of the tracks.

“Well, long as you ain’t sayin’ it were one of us, I’ll do the rounds with ya. Boy, you stay here,” Walt said, his words emphatic and brooking no argument.

The boy glowered, and Richard might have guessed it was part of an act if the kid hadn’t been a teenager. Angst came as naturally to them as breathing.

“Deputy, you’re with us. Richard, stay here in case anyone else shows up. Tell them we went to speak to the residents, and to fan out around the Arrowhead border to see if there are any tracks leading out. They are not to go into Arrowheader land. Got me?” Sheriff Evans asked.

The only reason Richard didn’t tell the man he could save his commands for his lawmen and stick his orders where the sun don’t shine, was because a little girl was in danger. Instead, he nodded, and the three of them headed to Walt’s truck. The deputy jumped in the back, and Sheriff Evans got in the front seat with Walt. As the truck was turning around on the narrow road, the boy and Walt exchanged one last, telling, worried look, before heading back toward the lakeside properties.

Once the truck was out of sight, Richard turned to the kid.

“Tell me what you know,” Richard said, his voice low and cutting to the chase.

“I—”

“Shut the hell up, and save your lies. I know you know something, and you’re going to tell me so I can save the little girl. That way her parents won’t have to lower a tiny coffin into the ground,” Richard growled out.

The boy’s eyes went wide at Richard’s morbid words, and he paled.

“It-it’s not what you think!” he blurted out, his hands clenched.

“Then tell me what I should think,” Richard bit out, quickly losing patience. He didn’t have time for Arrowheader bullshit. He hadn’t thought they’d had anything to do with it, but after those looks, he knew they knew something. It was bad enough he was keeping this from the Sheriff, but he’d be damned if their secrecy was going to hurt a little girl.

“Not long ago, a woman moved into Derrick’s old cabin. She’s Russian, just off the boat, and with an accent so thick you can barely understand her on a good day, let alone when she’s riled,” Matthew said.

Richard made the ‘go-on’ gesture, urging the kid to get to the point.

“Well, not long after she moved in, we started noticing strange things. Things would go missing and turn up in weird places, and we’d find weird tracks around cabins after hearing noises at night. Stuff like that.”

“Okay, so you think this woman and this…whatever it is are connected?” Richard asked, just to get the boy to clarify. Because he’d bet his bippy she had something to do with it.

Matthew nodded. “It’s, well, like I said. Not what you think.” Then he looked around the deserted woods and bit his lip, indecision and guilt wringing the kid’s conscience like a wet rag.

“Take me to her,” Richard said.

The boy’s eyebrows shot high and went knotted, while his eyes grew wide as dinner plates. “She’d have my hide, sir! She’s meaner than a mess of hornets with a kicked over nest!”

It shocked him that the kid called him ‘sir’, which he most certainly wasn’t used to, but he didn’t have time for this.

“You’ll think she’s a day-old kitten compared to me if something happens to Heather Turner, boy.”

The kid’s shoulders slumped and he grimaced. “Alright, but I’m hanging you out to dry as sure as the sun rises.”

Richard nodded. “You help me save that little girl, I don’t care if you throw me to a whole pack of hacked off Russian biddies. Now, move,” Richard said, and gave the kid a nudge.

Richard knew, vaguely, the location of all the dwellings around Arrowhead, but he couldn’t remember exactly where Derrick’s place was. He’d died last year, too old to get through another harsh winter up in the woods with minimal supplies. While he wasn’t too keen on taking the kid with him, he needed him as a simultaneous guide and white flag. People would get riled if they saw just Richard, no matter how much more they tolerated him than they did the townsfolk. No, having the kid was like a hall pass in a place the teachers would shoot you if you were caught without one.

After a long walk and many worried glances at the sky from Richard as the sun made its inevitable trip toward the horizon, they finally made it to the cabin. It was in better repair than last he’d glimpsed of it, many years ago, but he didn’t have time to admire the scenery. Search and rescue never boded well in the dark, let alone when some unknown creature was involved, and time waited for no one. Not even missing little girls.

He stalked right up to the cabin and pounded on the door. Before a fourth knock could land, the door was yanked out from under his fist. A scowling, royally ticked-off woman stood there, her pale grey eyes flashing.

“Vat is the meaning of this?” she asked, her accent thick on her tongue like molasses. She had her hands on her generous hips, and the long, thick braid of her chocolate brown hair snaked down over her equally generous chest.

Not the time, he ground out, annoyed with himself.

She barely came up to Richard’s chin, and he met her glower with one of his own.

“We’re looking for a missing girl. Six. And I think you know something about it,” Richard said, his words clipped.

She reared back a bit at this, her eyebrows shooting up. “And vhy vould I know about this girl?”

“Because I found some incredibly strange tracks alongside hers, and I’ve been told that ever since you’ve moved here, people have been finding strange, unidentifiable tracks around their cabins.”

Panic flashed through her eyes like a shooting star: there and gone just as quick. But it had been there, and Richard latched onto that like a hound on a scent.

She’d gone quiet, and her eyes darted behind him to Matthew. When she saw the boy, shuffling his feet like all the guilt in the world had been placed on his shoulders, she sighed.

“You said leetle girl? Six?” she asked. At Richard’s nod, she shook her head and started muttering in Russian, clearly irritated. “It’s not vhat you think,” she said.

“So I’ve been told,” Richard ground out. “Now, take me to her.”

The woman—he realized he hadn’t even asked her name—grabbed her coat from by the door. Richard moved out of the way so she could close it. After doing so, she set off toward the woods on the opposite side from where they came in. Richard followed the sway of her braid down her back as she moved, and the boy brought up the rear. He wasn’t comfortable with two Arrowheaders flanking him, but it couldn’t be helped. There was no way the boy would leave him with one of their own, and he wouldn’t have listened to Richard if he’d tried to tell him to stay.

They weren’t long heading into the forest when the woman came to a halt, and Richard almost ran into her. He hadn’t realized he was following her so close. She inhaled deep, tilted her head to one side, as though listening for something, and changed her direction at a sharp westward angle, heading deeper in. After about the same amount of time she stopped, and this time Richard inhaled with her.

Forests always held smells of growing things, or of wet dirt like now, and sometimes rotting things, but this was a different smell. It was familiar, and not. Like the smell of a cut Christmas tree, even though there were no evergreens here, but it had a bitter edge, like tree sap on your tongue.

Then, she started speaking in Russian. “Vykhodi, Leshi! Vy znayete, chto ne mozhete derzhat’ devushku.”

He was about to tell her to stop, and speak English, when there was a rustling in the brush to their left. What walked through the brush was impossible for his eyes to reconcile with his brain. It looked like it was covered in green fur that wasn’t fur, but instead grass the color of olives. It was tall. Far taller than anyone Richard had met in his fifty years, and its head was decorated with a crown of autumn leaves. Its eyes were intense, and the black of fresh churned, deep forest earth. They bore into Richard as though it could see his very soul, and maybe it could.

“What—” he barely managed, the word strangled.

Before he could finish, though, the creature’s cradled arms moved forward, as though it was offering him something. When he looked down, it was the first time he noticed what the creature carried. It was Heather Turner, fast asleep, a peaceful, content smile on her face.

There was a noise like the groaning of trees and the rustling of leaves in the wind, and it was coming from the creature. Richard couldn’t move. Of all the things he expected, this wasn’t it.

“He says he’s very sorry. He vas lonely, and just looking for someone to play vith. In human years, they aren’t far apart in age,” the woman said, her voice soft and sad.

When Richard turned wide eyes to her, her face was haunted by some memory playing in her mind. It wasn’t too far off how Walt looked during those times it was a bad idea to touch him.

“Take her,” she said, her voice urgent.

Richard jerked at the words, and his arms automatically went forward to take the sleeping child from the—him. He rustled a bit, and where his grass-like fur touched Richard’s flesh, it was cool, but not so much so that the child would have taken chill in his arms.

Heather scrunched her face a bit as she moved between the two, but quickly settled down. Richard just held her there, still not sure what to say.

“He is the last of his kind—a Leshi. Something you might call a forest spirit, or fairy, that can shapeshift. They vere hunted to the very last. My family has alvays been vith them, protecting and being protected in turn. Ve came here for better life,” she said by way of explanation. “Now…” she trailed off.

Richard realized what she meant. There was almost no way to explain the situation away. Heather never would have made it up this far without some kind of help, and someone would have to take the blame. A thought slowly formed in Richard’s mind.

“Unless she wasn’t found here,” Richard said slowly, his first words to the two Arrowheaders since leaving the cabin.

After a moment, hope lit a joyful fire in her eyes so fierce, it almost made Richard take a step back.

“Of course, we’ll need your friends help,” he said. Richard looked over at the creature, who nodded once, and slow.

Da. Of course!”

It wasn’t too long after that Heather Turner was found, tucked away and asleep in a tricky little hole in her favorite tree in her backyard. Her parents hadn’t even known it was there. When they hugged and kissed and scolded her for not answering when they’d all called for her, she simply told them about the most wonderful dream she had. There was a large wolf in it who changed into a boy, whose skin was made of grass, and they played in the woods. Her parents merely shook their heads, and apologized profusely to all those involved in her search and rescue.

Everyone was just glad she was found safe. No one mentioned the behavior of the dogs. Or the strange tracks walking right next to those of a child who had the exact same shoe type and size as Heather, heading to Arrowhead Lake.

In fact, the only thing that changed was the frequency of Richard visiting Arrowhead. The townsfolk wrote it off as a simple case of a man wooing the first new face to grace the town in a couple of decades. It helped his case that Tatiana’s face was pretty as any to look at. Once you got past her temper, that is.

And if people sometimes spotted a large, green creature that sometimes looked like a man, and other times a wolf, walking in the woods that disappeared like magic in the blink of an eye? Well, it just wasn’t spoken of. They weren’t a town of gossip-mongers like those hippie-dippy types with their Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. No, they were a private folk, and they kept such things to themselves. And if lost hikers spoke of lights in the forest, like fairy lights in the stories of old, leading them out and to safety, well, they chalked it up to dehydration. Magic wasn’t real; everyone knew that.

 

 

********NOTE************
For anyone who speaks/reads Russian, I apologize ahead of time: I only had Google Translate at my disposal, and I did the best with conveying the accent that I could. This is what Tatiana said in the woods:

“Come out, Leshy! You know you cannot keep the girl.”

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 ~~ The Devil is in the Details

Music: release (A Tale of Outer Suburbia) by Hands Like Houses

I scowled at the small, plain wooden box sitting so innocently on the cheap, round kitchen table. Though plain might be a bit of a misnomer, maybe unadorned was better. It had only a bronze hook latch to keep the lid closed, and the wood appeared as though someone had fanned orange-red flames across unfinished wood and then froze them in place with varnish. I’d been told it was made from elder wood, but I hadn’t been concerned with the box. It’s what was in the box that drew my ire.

“That was not part of our agreement,” I said, the distaste in my words as heavy in the air as an impending storm. I then turned the same narrowed eyes to the ‘man’ across from me, and the corners of my mouth turned down in a sneer.

He wasn’t anything remarkable. In fact, he had a face and demeanor that the average passerby would gloss over and forget about almost the same instant they saw him. As though their eyes simply slid over him. Nothing stuck out as memorable, which had raised my suspicions all the more when I first caught sight of him almost nine years ago in the bookstore where I worked.

Everyone had something that caught a person’s eye to catalogue them: scars, birthmarks, mannerisms, body types, markings, smell, and so on. But this man was almost so bland he was invisible. It would have raised my hackles if I’d had them. I guess being half-Fae meant I was lucky I hadn’t been born with hackles. Human and Fae genetics could do some terribly interesting things at times.

He tilted his head, considering me, and his eyes that were some shade in-between brown and hazel searched my face for what I guessed was some small crack in my façade. I held my silence. One of the first things I’d learned when living with my ‘father’ was that it was far more difficult to find yourself in trouble if you held your tongue. It was a lesson I needed to be taught only once, and the scars that littered my back were a daily reminder for caution and quiet observation.

So, we both sat there in cumbersome silence waiting for the other to break. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the endless patience that celestial and immortal beings were capable of, and after my clock ticked to ten minutes of nothing I broke.

“Why exactly are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked and smoothed my features into a bored, indifferent mask. I did it not only to stave off my headache before it could become a migraine, but also because it never paid to show a veritable god that you were curious. Maybe satisfaction brought a curious cat back, but I’d never been tempted to test the limits of just how much ‘immortality’ I’d inherited from dear ol’ dad.

“Do you not want it back?” he asked, curious.

My scowl was back quicker than someone could snap their fingers. I was fortunate he wasn’t from my pantheon, or else the reaction would leave me as nothing more than a splotch of gore in my unfortunately decorated kitchen. The 70s were not kind in regards to such things, and no, calling it retro didn’t make it any less regrettable. But cheap was cheap, and this was what I could afford.

Of course, his position outside my kind’s usual avenue of worship was why I’d wound up in this delicate situation in the first place.

“I think my continued existence in the world of the living is enough of a reason to never want it back, actually,” I replied scathingly.

“But you’d have your magic back,” he offered calmly, and not responding to my irritation. He was still watching me for something, some reaction.

I scoffed, leaned back in my chair, and took a sip of my rapidly cooling tea. My mind was tumbling through precisely why that was the first reason he thought I’d want it back. I’d lived just fine for nearly a decade without it.

“Magic isn’t everything,” I said, finally deciding on a nonchalant response, and shrugged my shoulders to support the words.

“Maybe, but you would have been able to help your friend,” he said.

The words weren’t cruel, per say, but they had the same impact as a car wreck. It knocked all the wind from me and brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. My chest ached with the weight of grief, and the responsibility of a ruined life hung heavy on my conscience.

I closed my eyes against the sharp pain that stabbed through my heart when her face floated into view. There’d been so much blood, and though I’d learned long ago to not let such a thing bother me, it was the fact that it was her blood. Half-Fae were tougher than humans by a large stretch, but we could still be injured a hell of a lot easier than full-blooded Fae. It took immense torture, a twisted purpose and will, and/or a weapon enchanted with the express purpose to kill their kind to have an effect on them. I’d watched one Fae who was hit fully by a semi-truck on a highway walk away with nothing more than a bad temper at the ‘inconvenience’.

So when Seirian showed up on my doorstep out of the blue utterly mangled, her usually kind smile gone beneath a mask of gore, I’d rushed her to the closest approximation of a healer I knew. Unfortunately, not all magics are compatible, and the hardiness of the Fae meant she healed faster than Aubert could fix things. As a result, with her Fae magic fighting his shamanic power, the best he could accomplish was the minimize the scarring. Seirian was now the only Fae I knew confined to a wheelchair.

Of course, if I’d had my healing powers I could have healed her far more effectively, and likely almost back to perfect. On the flip side of that, using my powers would have drawn the Hunters I’d been avoiding for nearing two decades right to my location. They thought I’d been merely suppressing my powers, and not that I’d managed to finagle a deal with a Devil. Not necessarily the Devil, though I wasn’t sure I’d know the difference unless he told me. Devil was just a broad classification of upper-level demons, the same way Fae covered a lot of ground in terms of beings originating from the British Isles.

At any rate, since magic is tied so closely with the soul my power disappeared into the box along with it. That ‘plain’ box was the only thing standing between me and a faction of supremely cheesed off beings that wanted nothing more than to see me flayed alive. At best.

I opened my eyes to meet his gaze once more. As though someone had pulled the plug on my emotions everything drained away, leaving me with an emptiness I hadn’t experienced since we’d removed my soul.

“Wishes and what-ifs are as substantial as pixie farts, Karroth. Risking my neck now won’t heal Seirian and would only result in ushering in my demise. So, I ask again: why are you trying to give me my soul back?” I asked, my voice hoarse from unshed tears.

Something rippled beneath Karroth’s skin, and his eyes flashed with the catastrophic hellfire that pervaded his realm. It was a sobering reminder that, while I may not be a being of his pantheon, he was more than capable of killing me with the barest of thoughts with or without my powers to defend myself. It would be like a gnat picking a fight with a dragon.

“We need your assistance in getting through a ward to retrieve something that was stolen from us, Gwyneira Nic Trahaearn, lesser daughter of the Tylwyth Teg, and we would have your cooperation in exchange for sanctuary,” Karroth said formally and with Power behind the words, capital ‘P’ and all.

And when he said my name, despite the fact that all of my essence was set behind the highest wards the Devils possessed, it still rung my very being like clapper of large bell. It made every cell in my body hum, and for a moment it disrupted the bindings that held my glamour together.

There is power in knowing the Name of a thing, and though my human blood could disrupt some of said power, it did not cancel it out completely. As a sentient being, my Name didn’t lend someone control over me, but it made it impossible to not reveal my true self if they put their own Power behind Naming me. There are a few ways to see the true form of a Fae, and this was one.

Karroth’s eyes widened for a moment, as he’d never taken liberty with my Name or pushed my glamour aside. Therefore, he’d never seen what I truly looked like. Of course, it wasn’t every day that Devils and Fae crossed paths.

My glamour skills were a sight better than some of the snootier, higher-level Fae, because they reveled in flaunting their forms. I, however, was trying to not attract attention. The image I presented to the world with my magic was a woman with average looks, bordering plain, butterscotch blond hair that fell in waves to my mid-back, pale skin that was more suited to a redhead, and cornflower blue eyes.

What I truly looked like, though, wasn’t too terribly far off from the glamour, and I had the famed and fancied pale coloring of my people. Glamour works best when you don’t deviate too far from the original, though. The one thing that was always the most difficult to adjust was my hair, which was white as the driven snow, but the same length. Not being higher nobility meant I was already pushing the limits with how long my hair was now. Of course, I wasn’t exactly waltzing through the courts, so the danger level wasn’t too high. If they caught me, the length of my hair would be the least of my transgressions.

My eyes were normally a liquid cobalt blue that shimmered iridescent in the light, and my skin was so pale it was almost translucent at times. High cheekbones and delicate bone structure belied the innate strength that came with being Fae. Unfortunately, the glamour couldn’t help me with keeping said strength in check. I’d learned to be cautious after freaking out a co-worker when I’d overestimated lifting a large box of books and launched it across the room.

The real issue came with the glowing. My father’s people tended to glow with their power and emotions like wicked deadly lightbulbs. It wasn’t an all the time thing, but when strong emotions took us over or we were using our powers it tended to happen. I hadn’t had to worry about that since the removal of my soul, but I was glowing now. It likely had to do with Karroth using my Name, and how it may have tapped into some level of power in my very cells that went beyond what was in my soul.

I pushed my shoulders back and tilted my chin up to look down my nose at the Devil.

“You sure know how to flatter a lady by mentioning her lowly position with her people. Have you divested yourself of your kind’s famed silver tongue? Or am I simply lucky enough to be in the presence of the one Devil with less tact than a human?” I asked caustically.

I wasn’t the most devious of my kind; I couldn’t think a thousand moves ahead and I had no head for politics or sensing out ulterior motives. I was, however, enough in my right mind to try and buy time by playing on etiquette. He’d insulted me, and until such a thing was redressed I had time to think of a few questions and settle myself.

His eyes flashed with that inner fire again, my renowned peevish behavior finally scratching the surface of his calm façade. His apology was stilted, and only marginally genuine, but I inclined my head in acceptance. I didn’t have enough magical or political clout to do anything but accede anyway.

My glamour had finally settled back down and flowed back over my person like water filling an allotted space, smoothing over the surface. I let out a sigh at the familiar, almost imperceptible weight of it. To be exposed in such a way was disconcerting, to say the least, as though I suddenly found myself naked in front of him. That particular thought sent blood rushing to my face, and unfortunately the glamour didn’t conceal that.

Karroth raised an inquiring eyebrow, but I ignored him and cleared my throat.

“This sounds less like a favor and more like subtle demand. Why do you need me to get beyond this ward? You far outstrip me where power is concerned,” I noted, and watched his expression flash through varying emotions before settling into a rueful grin. Why such a sight had alarm bells clamoring in my brain and my instincts screaming like a banshee, I couldn’t say. The smile was pleasant enough, but there was something lurking beneath the surface that didn’t sit well with me on some level I couldn’t identify.

“I told them you wouldn’t just blindly want your soul back. They aren’t used to people who give up their souls for reasons other than greed and power,” Karroth said. Though his grin faded, amusement still danced in his eyes, like the flickering flame of a candle.

I snorted in disbelief and shook my head. “Cowardice isn’t a much better reason,” I pointed out.

“Is it truly cowardice to recognize when you are outmatched and take appropriate steps to ensure your survival?” he asked, continuing the vein of her observations. It was almost like he didn’t want to talk about why he was there, either. Or at least not directly.

“Some have pointed out I could have simply rolled over and faced my death like the nobility in my blood demanded.”

It was Karroth’s turn to snort. “As though any of them would sacrifice their own self-preservation to do the same.”

I tilted my head in assent. “You’re not wrong.” I paused, and took a moment to consider his words, ‘and we would have your cooperation.’ Pretty words with a very strong suggestion toward giving them what they wanted. Yes, he’d offered me sanctuary with the Devils, but, in a way, I was already halfway there by not being in possession of my soul. Was taking that step worth the risk of putting myself out in the open? Not to mention sanctuary and protection were two different animals. It was like the difference between a nice fence and a pack of guard dogs. Or a prison.

I grimaced in my thoughts only. There’s no telling what sanctuary meant to them. It could mean setting up wards on my house, person, place of work, and so on. Or it could mean they’d take me to one of their dimensions and I’d be trapped there. Forever. There wasn’t enough benefit to me to take the chance.

“Your offer is a most gracious one, Karroth, but regretfully I must decline at this time,” I said, using my ‘court polite,’ voice.

Karroth’s face remained calm, but his eyes gave the barest of twitches at my change in tone and answer. I wanted to point out he was the one to get all formal first, but I refrained. He was not pleased.

“We believed the offer of sanctuary to be a generous one,” he said, leaving the question hanging in the air. What about the offer was not satisfactory?

I wanted to sigh. “As I said, most gracious. However, I find myself wondering about a fair few things in regards to this agreement,” I said, tone only mildly curious, and leaving my own question on the air. May I ask questions?

The smallest spark lit his eyes, like an ember swirling from a campfire; the smallest flare and then gone. He nodded.

“First: what does sanctuary mean in my particular case in relation to the Devils?” I asked, trying to cover as much ground as possible while also being specific. If I had only asked, ‘What does sanctuary mean?’, he could rightly give me a quote out of the dictionary which might not cover what they considered sanctuary, and what it mean for me.

This time it was the corner of his mouth that tugged upward just a hair. “We would welcome you to our court,” he said, voice almost purring, as though the idea intrigued him in some way.

For me, though, it froze my insides and a stab of shock went straight through my heart. My eyes widened involuntarily, and my breath hitched. “While I would be most honored,” I said, my voice on the edge of stuttering, “such an accommodation would not be compatible with how I would like to live at this current time.”

For a moment he said nothing, and then his smile pulled a little higher. “That is unfortunate,” he said, mournfully, despite his unperturbed expression. “Our counter-offer is to place wards on your home.”

“That wouldn’t do me any good once I left,” I pointed out.

He shrugged. “It is a compromise. You have been offered full sanctuary on our terms, or partial on yours,” he said dispassionately.

I bit my lip, but knew he wasn’t going to budge on that. “What about an offer of protection for when I’m outside my home?”

He tilted his head in consideration. “What form of protection would you consider adequate?”

“Considering we’d be dealing with the higher Fae, like my father,” I said slowly, trying to think of what rank of demon wouldn’t be considered too high, or too low. “I’d wager nothing short of a Knight or sentinel, or two, would be sufficient.”

His eyebrows rose slowly. “You must think rather highly of yourself.”

I laughed, but it was a humorless sound, and brittle as thin ice. “I am no catch, Karroth. However, I have flouted not only a court full of easily pissed off Fae nobility, but also a Queen when I killed the first Hunter she sent after me. It is not for me that I ask for such power in protection. It’s for the poor, soulless demon, so that they’ll be of a sufficient power to protect us both, or at the very least themselves.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the phantom pains from my encounter racing along my nerves like ghosts of agony past. “Anything less would be asking for a slaughter,” I finished, my voice hoarse.

After a few moments of silence, I looked up at Karroth, and he was watching me thoughtfully. “As you say.”

It was neither an agreement or a denial. Guess I’d just have to wait and see, though I was still not considering taking it back. They still weren’t offering me anything to sway my decision.

“Even if both provisions were met—wards and a guard—I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, watching Karroth as I spoke. I didn’t trust the Devil for anything beyond our original deal: him keeping and using the power in my soul as he saw fit, and his discretion on keeping our arrangement and my current whereabouts to himself. The thought of what he might be using my soul for made something in my gut curl and twist, but there was nothing for it. There had been no other way.

“Don’t you want to know what it is you’re going to help us get before I…sweeten the pot, so to speak?” he asked.

He paused just before saying the last, and I narrowed my eyes at the hesitation. I wasn’t sure what his offer was, but it didn’t sound like something I’d actually like. It made the whole situation more suspicious than it already was.

“Fine,” I conceded, going with his suggestion. “What is it you and the Devils are trying to get back?”

“Cerridwen’s Cauldron, or rather, the Cauldron all leaders of the Underworld had a right to, until She took it for herself,” Karroth said, the latter half of his statement an aloud musing.

The world itself seemingly drew in a deep, shocked breath and froze at the former half of his words, and when it released everything shattered.

“What?!” I screeched, standing so suddenly that my chair toppled backward. “Are you insane?” I hissed, all polite pretense pulled away like ripping off a band aid.

“I suppose that depends on your point of view, but for the purpose of this discussion, no, I am not insane,” he replied, still calm.

Well, now his earlier reticence about telling me anything made sense. I wanted to shake him, maybe scratch his eyeballs out, just something violent to break the tranquility of his demeanor. Instead, because I valued having my lungs remain in my chest instead of being ripped out because I attacked the Devil, I settled for clenching my fists uselessly at my sides.

Of all the things I expected him to say, that particular one wasn’t even in the same universe as any of the others that had rattled around in my mind.

The Cauldron held the power of knowledge, inspiration, and rebirth, and Cerridwen was a Dark Goddess of many who called the British Isles home. And I meant Goddess with an upper-case ‘G’. There were little gods, goddesses, and demi-gods running around, but Cerridwen was a Power. As far as I knew she was the rightful owner of the Cauldron. I’d never even heard speculation it wasn’t hers, even among those outside her pantheon and worshippers. If I thought I was in a bad place with the courts of Fae, the wrath of a Goddess was nothing in comparison. It was pure, unadulterated suicide.

“You’re joking, right? Pulling one over on me?” I asked, breathless and foolishly hopeful. Karroth wasn’t a prankster, and he rarely ever joked in such a manner. He might tease me to make me uncomfortable, but this was well beyond that.

“I cannot say that I am. She has long kept the Cauldron to herself, thinking it could buoy her powers as her following in this world waned. The Cauldron was never meant to remain in the power of one Power of the Underworld for so long. It is one of the anchors in our realm, and it was high time it was returned to Cynosium, before the damage is irreparable,” he said, his voice going low and determined.

Cynosium was the middle realm of the Underworld, like the center of a starburst design with the various Underworlds as the points at the end of the beams radiating outward. Outside of that I didn’t know much about it, as I’d never had cause to. I made it my life’s mission, quite literally, to not visit or involve myself in the matters of the Beyond and Below.

“I don’t know how I can help with that…” I started weakly, and then my mind snapped to one of my father’s rants after I’d failed spectacularly at ingratiating myself to his Queen during one of her balls.

You are nothing more than an aberration on our vaunted family tree. How one such as you could be descended from our Dark Mother, I will never know. I thought it would be enough to cleanse your vile human taint, but apparently I miscalculated,’ he’d sneered.

It was that night, when the coldness of his gaze let me know I’d outlived any potential usefulness he’d planned for me, that I made my escape. I took nothing from my room, just found what I considered my most normal-looking clothing, dressed, and slipped out of the faery mound. I’d been a reverse changeling; instead of a Fae leaving a Faery child with humans, I was a half-Fae left at the entrance of the mound after my father’s unfortunate tumble with a human. Which was a story I’d been beaten within an inch of my life for asking about. I still didn’t know the circumstances.

As for the rest of what he said…Cerridwen was also known as the Dark Mother among the Fae, and I sucked in a breath at the realization.

“You need something from me, but not me,” I said, my knees going weak. I kept a tight grip on the table to hold myself up.

Karroth nodded, and for the first time I saw something stir in his expression that lent credence to the stories of Devils. Their utterly devious and cruel nature. A slow smile crept over his face, and it was not nice in any way, shape, or form. It was very much what I imagined a goblin looked like when it came across an unsuspecting fairy and had it for a snack. Predatory.

“Those of Cerridwen’s line aren’t plentiful, and almost never leave the mounds. Even when they do, it’s only every few hundred years, if that, and never alone. They would never allow themselves to be captured, and we needed someone alive to get what we needed.” He paused here, and his gaze sharpened on me. “And then along came a half-Fae, Hunters on her heels, and desperate for a normal life. Someone with the blood of Cerridwen in her veins. Though it is weakened by your human side and seeming to get more so each day you are without your soul, it is still there. A spark of that power is what we need to get past her wards.”

As he’d continued talking, he’d leaned forward until maybe half a foot separated us, his eyes looking up into mine where I still stood. I was not an incredibly tall person, so his face wasn’t all that far from mine. I swallowed hard but couldn’t move.

“I still don’t see what’s in it for me,” I said, my voice barely more than a whisper.

His smile went sharp and rueful again. “I had hoped you would simply go along, maybe in some gesture of defiance to your father’s people, but I should have known your fear ran far too deep.” He snapped his fingers, the sound cracking on the air almost like a whip. “Remember: this was not how I wished to go about this, but I have no choice,” he said, his voice low, but not really sounding very sorry at all.

“Everything before a ‘but’ statement is a lie,” I said, offhand.

“Perhaps,” he mused, and the sound of the front door opening and closing set my nerves on edge.

“Who…?”

Then she was there, moving her wheelchair into the kitchen, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Hello, Gwynnie,” she said, her voice soft and alluring, the accent lilting and rolling the words from her mouth like a tumbling stream.

I finally sucked in a breath past the tightness of my throat. “Hello, Seirian,” I said, barely choking the words out.

There was an air of resigned melancholy about her, like a haze diminishing her old, exuberant nature. Her usual emerald green eyes that sparkled like dew on fresh spring leaves, were instead dull. Her smile was small and sad, her skin an unhealthy pallor instead of shining white like moonlight. Her hair, which was more a shimmering platinum than white like mine, was pulled back in a ponytail. She’d told me after she healed, it made it easier to hide some of the scars on her scalp. Because, oh yes, scars littered her body like a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers.

Yet, she didn’t hate me for what happened, even though it was our friendship that had the Queen and my father destroying her life. Terrible did not even begin to describe what I felt over it. I wanted to crawl under a rock, curl into a ball, and die the slow death I deserved.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” I asked, though the part of my mind that wasn’t riddled by guilt had already started working through that.

“The Cauldron, Gwynnie, it can heal me,” she said simply, and made a small gesture to the Devil. “Karroth approached me about persuading you go along with this. However, I would never ask you to do something to put yourself at risk. I’m just glad I got to see you again, since you’ve been avoiding me. And I know that you would never let something silly like guilt get between our friendship,” she said wryly.

I saw her smile widen a fraction just before I cast my eyes down to the floor in shame. I didn’t think it possible, but her words made me feel even worse.

“You should be furious at me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“I could never be angry at my one and only friend,” Seirian said.

I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears I’d promised her I wouldn’t cry anymore. Seirian wasn’t a noble, in fact she’d been my servant at court, but I counted her as a friend and treated her as an equal. Which only made my father even more furious at me. That list was a long one.

“I-“

“I swear to the gods, if you say you’re sorry one more time I’ll learn to walk again just to beat the snot out of you,” she said cheerfully.

My head snapped up to look at her, and despite her tone it didn’t reach her eyes. She may not be mad at me as I thought she should be, but she wasn’t happy. Seirian was a being of cheer and light. She deserved to be dancing in the dappled sun of a forest floor in a piece of forest unseen by human eyes. Instead, she was here, in a city, dying the slow death of a Fae kept too long among humans and their modern technology and pollution.

I took a small, faltering step forward and reached out for her hand. When she reached forward and took mine in hers, her gasp was sharp in contrast to my slow, rattling exhale. Fae were touchy-feely creatures, and to have gone so long without touching one of our own, even a simple touch like this one, was a painful reminder of what we were lacking.

Our natural magics danced over each other’s skin, though mine much more muted than hers.

“Oh, Gwynnie, you feel like you’re on death’s doorstep,” she said in a choked whisper, voice bordering on horror. “Why would you do this to yourself?”

My small huff of a laugh was self-deprecating and bitter like the dandelions little Fae loved to eat.

“Like death, eh? What was the better choice, then? A slow, painless death over the centuries of torture they likely have planned for me?” I asked. Not meaning to sound as harsh as I had, but it was still there.

Some part of me had known being separated from my soul had the potential to kill me eventually. The changes over the last nine years or so had been gradual, creeping things. Until, one day, I realized everything around me had become muted: colors were subdued, food was ash, smells muted, music flat, and there was no feeling anything through the haze. I could still experience the range of emotions, but it was all on the surface—nothing pierced too deep. Except fear, it seemed.

Seirian’s hand gave mine a little squeeze. “We can do this Gwynnie. We have to, for the both of us,” she said, her eyes searching mine.

“At worst, maybe if we try this our deaths will be quick,” I joked.

Seirian raised a single eyebrow, letting me know she did not appreciate my dark humor.

“So, will I be able to report a favorable outcome to my masters?” Karroth asked.

He’d been quiet during the entire exchange, and I turned my gaze to him. His posture, words, and expression were the very definition of neutral, but there was that fire behind his eyes again.

My options were not fantastic. I could choose a slow death from lack of a soul, slowly fading out of existence, and keeping my friend crippled. I could do this, and then they’d slaughter us sooner or later. Maybe Seirian would survive, but she had a bad habit of trying to defend me, so she’d likely die, too. Of course, we might succeed, and that was the rub. Hope was as deadly, or more so, than despair.

I had no doubts that, given my blood and access to the Cauldron, they might have a decent chance at wresting it from Cerridwen. I just wasn’t optimistic on my chances as collateral damage. Because, if the Devils pulled this off, they would surely know I was involved. As Karroth pointed out, coming across this opportunity was rare, and rare circumstances were easy to pinpoint.

I sighed. “Fine.”

Seirian’s grin was the biggest I’d seen it since before her maiming, and even Karroth seemed to be genuinely excited about my answer.

“So, just how are we going about this convoluted form of suicide?” I asked, trying for humorous.

Seirian, buoyed by the light at the end of the tunnel of her injuries, took her hand from mine and wagged a scolding finger at me. Telling me to stop being so fatalistic.

Karroth, on the other hand, simply cleared his throat once she was done and started detailing the plan, because that’s where one of the Devils’ deadliest power lay: in the details.