Writing Prompt ~~ “You here to finish me off, Sweetheart?”

Art by Vyrhelle-Comm @ http://vyrhelle-comm.deviantart.com/art/We-need-No-I-need-you-275135835

 

“You here to finish me off, Sweetheart?” she asked in a lightly accented whisper, barely audible over the rolling thunder as its grumbles dissipated and the patter of rain on the muddy ground.

There was no emotion in her voice, just as there was no life left in her pale blue eyes. No will to live. Even the chill of her pale flesh beneath his hands was able to pass through her clothing and his gloves, as though death was already claiming its next.

His hair, darker than the night sky between flashes of sizzling, white lightning, was sopping wet and escaping the braid he wore at the nape of his neck. Still, it couldn’t touch the darkness of the scowl that furrowed his brows over one, luminous amber eye, and the eye-patch he wore over the ruin on the right side of his face.

“You had that handled well enough on your own, I’d wager,” he said. His words were clipped, and the anger in them was like the first rush of desert heat when leaving the cooler air of mag-temp buildings.

Something fluttered briefly behind her eyes, which had tears running down both sides of her face, and he took in her disheveled appearance. Her wet, pale, ash blonde hair was pooling in the mud, which was also spattered along the back of her uniform. It was made of the typical material the Cynosures used: lightweight, deceptively strong, formfitting, and covering her from the top of her neck to the top of her boots. It would deflect everything from knives to the intense rays of the harsh sun that beat down mercilessly over Heartland. However, she was missing the head gear for it: a low-hanging, pointed hood to shade the eyes, and a fitted face mask to protect the mouth and nose from dust and dirt kicked up by the desert winds. The fashion for kertilla varied between civilian men and women, but the Cynosures–soldiers of Heartland–all wore the same, simple type.

It had been months before Fyna had relented and taken her kertilla off, stating it was helpful even on his ship out on the vast oceans. Graeym couldn’t imagine how anything so suffocating, not to mention something that limited your vision to such a degree, could be helpful. But it hadn’t hurt anything, so he’d just shrugged it off, and silently admired the way the sun tanned Fyna’s flawless skin as she wore the kertilla less and less.

Grief raked through his chest like the claws of the sea-dwelling saerens, who dragged sailors to their blissful deaths in the depths. He clamped down on the emotion by clenching his jaw, swallowing hard, and cursing Fyna and her final request of him.

With her memory as fresh in his mind as the first breeze after a sea storm, he saw the ghost of Fyna in her younger sister’s features. The delicate brows, elegant nose, and angelic lips were all a few years removed from the life Fyna had crafted at sea with Graeym.

But this was not Fyna, and it took every ounce of his willpower to keep that rooted firmly in his mind.

“Your sister sent me,” he said, his words less angry and more final, like the throwing down of a gauntlet.

When she jerked in shock at his proclamation, he gripped her wrists tighter, and shifted his body weight to prepare for her to try and buck him off. Mostly because her service weapon was scant inches from her hands, which were now balled into fists ready to fly at his refined nose or strong jaw. Her lips curled into a snarl, her nostrils flared, and she did indeed try to buck him off.

Graeym maintained a calm facade, but his patience for her behavior was wearing thin, and fast. It had never been his strong suit, and his crew–well, his former crew, anyway–knew the signs for when their behavior was intolerable for their Captain.

Unfortunately for Edlyn, she didn’t know, and Graeym lost his cool.

“Stop! Or so help me, Enos, I will finish what you started!” he barked at her, a mere inch from her face, his words ending in a growl.

She froze, but instead of being in fear for her life her eyes narrowed. “You are that filthy pirate that killed my sister,” she hissed.

He’d expected it; the Cynosures would have sown their own story of how the magus deserter had perished. It still made him want to scream wordlessly at Edlyn until his throat was raw. To vent at the only person on the other ‘side’ he had access to.

Fyna’s final words came to him, like a murmur amidst the howling winds of the hurricane of his agony; “Find my sister–Edlyn. Tell her I love her. Tell her…I’m sorry, but that I had to do it. Please, Graeym.”

Like a fool, he’d agreed, and held her till she passed. The attack orchestrated by the Cynosures had been swift and deadly, taking Fyna and most of his crew. Of course, the Cynosures had used actual pirates to take down the Abyssian sailors, and Abyssia–not wanting war with the Heartlanders–denounced Graeym and his crew. Calling them traitors and murderous pirates. Because, what were a few sailors in the grand scheme of peace?

Graeym, grievously injured and grieving, had been carried off by his few remaining loyal crew to a healer. He was still getting used to the change in depth perception that losing his right eye had caused, and his numerous, newly healed scars littering his body were still tender to the touch.

“I am no pirate, but if that is what you would prefer to believe, kill me now. It will save me the trouble of dealing with you.” He was only half-serious, of course. He also left out the part where he’d told his men waiting for him just over the crest of the hill, that if she did manage to kill him, to kill her in turn.

It would have been simpler for them all if she’d just agreed and shot him. Life was anything but simple, however.

At his words, something uneasy passed through her expression, followed quickly by her wiping her face clean of any emotion, and looking down and away. “My sister was no fool, pirate,” she spat the word at him like venom, trying to deflect his attention to her guilt, “and she did not trust easily. I will listen to your tale, but if I do not believe you, I will kill as as surely as the sun will rise.”

“Fair enough, but just so we are clear: I am armed, and will not hesitate to kill you should you reach for your weapon. I am here as a favor to Fyna, nothing more. I can do this just as easily with you dead as I can with you alive.”

Her eyes met his, fluttering to an all-over pale gray before fading back to their usual blue, and then she raised a single brow. “That is a lie.”

He growled, and silently spat another curse at Fyna. “You are an Axiom. A truth-sayer.”

She nodded, and her body relaxed beneath his grip. “I do not have to use my powers so overtly, as I just did. Most of the time I can get a read, or ‘feeling’, without doing so. However, I wanted you to know before we spoke.”

“Why? Wouldn’t you have more to gain by not telling me?”

“Because I do not lie knowingly, either directly or by omission. Not telling you before we spoke would have too much flavor of a lie for my comfort.” Then she looked away again, squirming just a hair in his grip as though uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “You are not the first to arouse my suspicion in regards to the means of my sister’s death,” she admitted. “Can I get up now?” she asked, tone as neutral as she could manage.

He hesitated a moment, eye flicking to her weapon, but released her and backed away quickly to avoid an attack, hand going to his right hip but not drawing his own weapon. Not yet.

She rose slowly, keeping her hands away from the weapon. When she stood, she pushed her mud-clumped hair back over her shoulder. The rain was still falling, but it was a warm, summer rain, common at the bottom of the mountainous border between Heartland and Abyssia. So while they were wet, they were not chilled.

Edlyn motioned to the closest crop of rocks, a couple of which were the perfect distance for two not-quite-allies to converse, and the two made their cautious ways over and sat down.

Graeym told Edlyn all that he knew, all that Fyna had suspected, and why she’d deserted and started to work for the Abyssia, whose strength came from the ocean. Corruption was at the heart of Heartland, and a country who traded heavily with Abyssia for resources not found in the desert could be swayed toward better treatment of its people if pressured with losing said resources. What was in it for Abyssia? The influx of Heartland refugees would would slow in the face of better conditions at home, or that was the hope.

Fyna had never made it that far, however, only having spoken with Graeym’s upper command once. She’d been placed on his ship in the hope that she’d be safe as far from Heartland’s desert as they could get–out on the ocean. There was a lot they didn’t know, but with Edlyn’s help, maybe Graeym could carry out the vision for a better future for her people that Fyna had painted for Graeym.

Well, that would be a positive byproduct of him getting his revenge for them killing a woman he’d grown to love, but who he’d never had the courage to tell. He left that part out.

“So, are you in?” he asked.

She considered his words, the silence extending between them as the final drops of rain fell from the sky. The gray clouds didn’t part and the sun didn’t shine down on them in a sign from Fyras, god of fortune, that their path was luck-laden, but Graeym had never put much stock in fortune or luck. He usually made-do with sheer willpower alone.

“Yes. I will see this path to its end, whatever that may be,” she said, and nodded.

He nodded in return, and they both stood to leave. As a sign of their agreement, he walked over, picked up her weapon, and handed it to her butt first. She’d extended the first token of trust by not grabbing it and trying to kill him, even though he told her he was armed, and now it was his turn.

As she took it and holstered it, her outfit was still incomplete. There was something that he’d wondered from the moment he found her abandoned kertilla at the bottom of the hill, followed by her on the top of the hill, kneeling, gun pointed toward her head.

“Why did you take your kertilla off? Fyna wore hers more than I figured must have been comfortable.”

She glanced at him, then toward the sky, and a small, sad smile graced her lips. “I’d never felt the rain on my face before, and I guess I wanted to know what it was like before I died,” she said.

He took a deep breath, and dipped his head once, in understanding.

Maybe she was more like Fyna than he’d first thought.

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Nine

The conversation went as well as one might expect. There was lots of shouting, and plenty of expletives and name-calling. Knight’s hair was sleep tousled, which was the only difference in his appearance, and it didn’t help that he was consistently running his hands through it. His suit was just as wrinkled, and I wasn’t sure if this was just his usual state of dress, or if I just kept meeting him under rushed circumstances. I sat there, taking it all in, and when Knight paused to breathe I interjected:

“Don’t you want to know what I found out?”

His face resembled a teapot close to boiling over. “No! I do not! Stop with the interfering before you get killed.”

“I can’t.”

There was a moment where I thought his head might actually explode, but then he just stormed out of the Sphinx’s office, muttering under his breath.

“Well, that was incredibly entertaining,” Thea said from her perch on the desk. Her legs hung over the side, swinging back and forth, and a manic smile donned her face. Well, I wasn’t actually sure she had many other expressions, but it suited her, somehow.

“Yes, Knight has always had a way with people,” the Sphynx observed. He turned his attention to me. “We were never properly introduced, what with you telling me I should die and all, but my name is Dymas.”

I cringed, and held out my hand. “Holly.” We shook, and everything drained from me at once. “And I think I’m ready to go home now.”

“Understandable,” Dymas said. He motioned toward the doorway, and Krot lumbered into the room.

“Wotcher, Squawker?” Krot said, and stopped not too far from me, and laughed another big-bellied laugh.

“Krot,” Dymas said, half in reprimand and half to get his attention.

“Eh?”

“Escort Ms. Holly out to her car, and keep your hands to yourself, if you please,” Dymas said, and held out a hand to help me to my feet.

When I stood, Thea hopped off the desk. “Which way ya headed?” she asked, her orange cat eyes bright with typical cat mischief and amusement.

“Uh, back toward town. The—,” and I stopped. I wasn’t sure what all I was getting into, or who these people might be affiliated with, but I didn’t want to just outright tell them where I lived. “Yeah. Back toward town.”

“Excellent! Mind if I get a ride?”

“Sure,” I said slowly, and glanced at Dymas. He gave a small nod, which I hoped meant she wouldn’t murder me en route to my apartment.

“Thanks!” she said brightly, and exited the office.

“Well, I guess that’s my cue. Th—“

“Don’t thank me,” he said, but not in a, ‘I’m politely declining your thanks as most people do,’ kind of way.

I reared back a bit at his conviction.

He dipped his head. “There are those who consider it an insult. Beings as old as time. While still others take it to mean you owe them a debt. It’s best if you simply find another way to express your gratitude,” he cautioned.

I nodded, still not sure. It went against just about every single thing I was taught by my parents regarding manners, but what could I do? “Then, the way you handled the situation was exceptional?”

He nodded again. “That will do. Compliments are never a bad way to go.” Then he paused for a moment. “Usually, anyway. Rest well,” he said, and walked back around his desk. He sat down and straightened the papers knocked askew by Thea sitting on it, getting the already tidy desk back in perfect order.

I took this as my cue to leave, and headed out through the tavern, while Krot shuffled along behind me. It was now mostly empty with only a few hangers-on; my co-workers who hadn’t tried to slit my throat had shuffled by the office to bid me farewell and apologize for Celinwel’s behavior. When I went outside, Thea was next to my car but thankfully not sitting on it.

I pulled my keys out from my purse, which someone had retrieved from the table for me while I was in his office, while trying to smooth out my frayed nerves.

“Watcha self, Squawker. Hate ta see ya die,” he said, and laughed. Then he shuffled away without waiting for my witty reply. Which was good, since I didn’t think I could muster enough brain power to do that if my life depended on it.

“So, Thea. Where am I taking you to?” I asked, and unlocked the car. I tossed my purse in the back while she climbed in the passenger seat, and then I got in as well and we were off.

“Just start heading toward town. I’ll tell you when to stop,” she said, watching the landscape go by as I drove.

O-kay. She’s a bit of an odd duck, Primal Brain observed.

More like an odd cat. I wonder what she is…Rational Brain wondered.

The drive from The Salty Wench was uneventful and silent. I wasn’t much of a jabberjaw with people I knew, let alone a complete stranger. Not to mention, I’d stuck my foot in my mouth enough for the last couple of days without doing so with one more supernatural.

The woods passed us by, their darkness almost a living, breathing thing that could reach out to snatch us right from the road. Despite the lightening of the pre-dawn sky, the threat of the shadows had me on edge. There hadn’t been much time to process everything I’d gone through so far. With Celinwel’s attack, I’d gone from thinking it was a little scary but somewhat cool, to just being terrified. It also might be the fact I was tired, and hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep the night before.

Add that to all the everything else going on, and, well, I couldn’t say I was coping terribly well.

A giant yawn cracked my jaw, and I did my best to keep my eyes open.

“Tired, huh?” Thea asked.

I nodded, keeping my eyes on the road.

“No worries, we’re almost there. Just stop at the road past The Tree, and you can drop me off there.”

Have you ever seen one of those moments where a television or movie character slams on the brakes when another character reveals something shocking? Well, that’s not what I did, because my brakes were on the sphincter-tightening side of reliability. However, it was a moment that certainly called for such a reaction.

“The Tree as in The Tree. The one in all the local legends?”

“One and the same!”

“Uh, are you sure you want me to drop you off there? I’ve heard…stories,” I finished lamely.

I know someone mentioned the witch older than the town itself, but not all the stories revolved around the Witch of the Wood. Some of them had to do with creatures, or even the trees themselves coming to life and killing unsuspecting humans. Not to mention, this stretch of road had more car accidents than any other in this county or the ones bordering ours—combined.

“Those stories are nothing more than humans trying to deny human cruelty. Just because the woods are a favorite spot for body dumps and suicides doesn’t mean there are monsters about,” my father grumped. He’d said this to me after I’d rushed home with another story told by a gaggle of teenage girls, trying to scare the nerdy outcast.

Now I knew better, though.

She waved me off. “Don’t worry about it. Of course,” she added slyly, “you could always come home with me, and you can hear the stories first hand from the Witch herself.”

I chuckled nervously. “I think I’ll pass this time.”

She shrugged. “Here it is.”

I pulled over across the oncoming lane, but tried to stay as close to the road as I could without someone swapping paint with me. I put the car in park, and peered out the window like a child peeking out from underneath the covers on their bed. People tend to feel invincible in their cars—look at all the road rage you’ve encountered that turned to fear once the other person gets out of their car—much like a child feels safe beneath their blanket. Watching the darkness that refused to shrink back from the lightening of the sky, and seemed to say, ‘Come into my parlor…”, all while licking its chops, it sent a shiver that went through my being.

No, Primal Brain said, the authority here, because that was what that the pitch black was: primal. It was the presence that made cavemen huddle close to their fires at night, though they knew no physical predator was near. What was in this dark wouldn’t hurt you physically—it would steal your soul.

Then there was the tree itself: a towering, old-growth evergreen, with ridges so deep in the wood they were like thousands of canyons, forged by the weather and time. It had a beauty all its own, like the whisper of the devil on your shoulder, convincing you to do what you know you shouldn’t. It was more subtle, but the more I stayed here on the side of the road, the more insistent it became. In combination with the darkness it was a one-two punch for my human mind.

If the darkness was the monster under my bed, the tree was the bully in high school that drove you over the edge of your ability to cope. Supernatural versus human.

I shuddered, a chill settling in my spirit. “Why would anyone live here?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, my voice sounding as though I’d spent the last hour screaming for dear life.

“Certain bits of land hold power for various reasons: death, belief, sacrifice, and so on. If someone knows how to tap into that, they can be very powerful indeed,” she said, though her voice was a distant droning despite being in the car with me.

Come to me…

A searing pain across my hand broke whatever hold the edge of the road had on me.

“What the fuck?” I shrieked, and looked down at my right hand. Four thin, bloody scratches raced in angry lines across the back of it. I looked over to Thea, who was shaking her hand as though it were sore. “Was that–?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well let you get out of the car and kill yourself, now could I? Pain was the fastest way to snap you out of it,” she said, far too chipper for what nearly just transpired.

“And what, besides the obvious, just happened?” I growled. I wasn’t too keen on the fact I’d nearly just killed myself because some tree wanted to get its jollies by watching me die.

Thea paused in thought, as though considering not only the question, but her words, and how much she could reveal.

“As I said, some land holds power and some people can tap into that power. When this is done, the forest becomes as much a manifestation of the being using it, as the person can take on the traits of the forest. Of course, like attracts like. A forest with dark power born of blood, black magic, battle, and so on, will attract beings with similar power. They…hunger for each other, the way two psychopaths in a relationship will feed off each other’s psychopathy.” She paused, making sure I was following her words.

I nodded. “The way people of similar natures congregate with each other, or how the mob mentality can take over.”

“Precisely. My Mistress has never been mistaken for a nice person, nor would you count her among the more altruistic witches living near Seattle. If she does something that seems nice, or helpful, it is only to further some plan that will benefit her.”

There was another long pause. “Why are you telling me all this? Won’t she be angry?”

Thea shrugged. “I am her servant, or what people today know as a familiar, and we are so bound that if she did not want the words to leave my lips, they would not. Such is her power over me. The fact I am able to tell you, either means she does not care that you know, or more likely that you haven’t enough power to do anything with the information,” she said, then added; “There will come a time when this information is useful to you. The Mistress chose me when I was human for my ability to See the future, or what we call a seer. You’ve landed in a large tangle of a supernatural mess, and you’ll have to pay the Mistress a visit. These are both words of caution and wisdom I offer you.”

I absorbed her words, and the implication that someday I would be taking a walk in those deep, dark woods. I shuddered, and the icy claws of fear gripped my heart.

She smiled a small, understanding smile that held all the cheer of someone watching the start of an execution. When the person being executed finally understood the doom looming over their heads, and terror shone bright in their eyes while they choked on their panic.

“If she’s so powerful, why isn’t she in charge around here?” I asked in a whisper, silently thanking the fact she wasn’t inclined, whatever the reason. Just the vibe from the forest told me this was not a person you’d want running the show.

This time, Thea’s smile was fiendish, as though she relished her next words. “Land will call to a witch, and they need it the way humans need water to survive. The more powerful the land, the more powerful the witch it attracts, like moths to a flame. The longer a witch remains with her piece of land, the more powerful she and the land become. She has been here so long, the Native Americans in this region have stories of my Mistress dating back to the first time they settled this land.

“That being said, there is always a price for magic. The more powerful the magic, the bigger the price. When a witch binds with her land, she has a limited area and time she can leave that land. The weaker the witch, the larger the range and longer the time she can be away from it. Covens circumvent this by pooling their power in their piece of land, the way the Seattle Coven does. Of course, this also means they cannot work magic of any magnitude without the cooperation of the others.”

“So it hobbles them,” I said.

She nodded.

I looked toward the forest again, then quickly back to Thea. “What of your Mistress?”

“The last time the Mistress left her forest was to steal me from my parents, but she didn’t have to go far. A few steps at the most. I…don’t remember much. She stole those memories from me, and keeps them somewhere safe, and away from me. I do remember my parents were explorers, foolishly coming too close to her territory, and I’m around 150-200 years old. It was right on the edge of the forest she took me, wooing me away from the safety of our camp. She knew what I was, though I hadn’t come into my powers yet.” She stopped, and looked at the tree. Ghosts and shadows moved through her eyes, and her youthful appearance suddenly took on an older, wearier image.

“My mother and father searched the woods for me, despite their fear and the words of caution from the others they traveled with. When their group found them three days later, my father was dead, murdered by my mother who’d been driven mad by her grief. ‘What have I done?’ she’d asked. Before they could stop her, she scrambled up to the highest branches of a nearby tree, and threw herself to her death. The Tree is her tree, and my parents aren’t buried far from it, their souls trapped inside the Evergreen by their anguish and grief.”

Her sorrowful words hung in the air like the musty smell of a long-abandoned house. When you’re a kid, magic is something amazing, and in stories it seems to do so much good. So far, from what I’d heard tonight from Odella and Thea, it brings nothing but pain and anguish.

“Any way,” she said, taking on her usual bright, cheerful tone, “thank you for the ride. Go home and get some sleep, if you can. From what I’ve Seen, you’re going to need all the rest you can get,” she said, and winked.

Before I could ask just what my future held, she got out of the car and walked around the front of it. Between one blink and the next, a larger than normal black, shorthair, rumpy Manx cat took her place. It stared at me for a moment, bright orange eyes taking me in, and then she turned and disappeared into the gloom.

 

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

Chapter Two
Unforgiving Winds and Ornery Beasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talonia smiled, and simply mounted the beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fan Fiction (World of Warcraft): The Greatest Gift

Chapter One

The air was bitingly cold, and Lyriah Moonstrider’s breath misted out in front of her. She shivered, and snuggled her face further down into the soft, brown wool scarf wrapped around her neck. It had been a gift from her mother and father in preparation for her father’s most recent business trip to Northrend.

A low yowl sounded at her feet, and Lyriah looked down at her shivering companion.

“Oh, Titian,” Lyriah said, and huffed out a laugh.

The little lynx’s black tufts at the end of her ears, and mane of reddish-brown hair moved with the gusts of wind. There were flakes of snow caught in it, which she shook off in annoyance. She had her oversized paws tucked underneath her, and her short tail circled as far around her as she could manage. Her glowing, green luminescent eyes, the same color as Lyriah’s were closed, and the lines of black fur that ran from them around her muzzle looked like dark tears.

Lyriah sat down cross-legged on the cold, wooden planks of the Wind Rider Master’s landing deck, setting her simple, but lovingly crafted bow down at her side. She opened her heavy coat and pulled the little lynx onto her lap, and wrapped her jacket around the chilly creature. The lynx snuggled down, and began to purr, the rumbling going through Lyriah’s chest.

A low, disapproving chuff came from nearby, and Lyriah glanced up from the top of Titian’s head to her mother’s lynx, Vermilia.

“Hush now; she’s only a kitten,” Talonia Moonstrider chided the larger pet.

Vermilia twitched her tail, and then began cleaning her paws, ignoring Talonia’s admonishment.

Talonia chuckled. “Stubborn creature.” Her mother was tall and thin, as most Blood Elves were. She had long, onyx-black hair pulled into a high bun at the back of her head; ‘You don’t want hair in your face, spoiling your shot.’  Since she wore no makeup, the light dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks were visible against her lightly tanned skin. She also wore no jewelry; ‘Running through the brush with jewelry on is a good way to get an earring caught on a branch.’

Mother and daughter wore similar outfits of dark brown leather, from their boots to their helms, while their hooded cloaks were a drab, olive green. Her mother’s were finely made, having won them through perseverance and countless battles with enemies ranging from ogres to elementals, while Lyriah’s were crafted to look like hers. They had also been a gift after Lyriah’s beginning hunter training was complete.

It was Talonia’s bow, though, that Lyriah admired. The grip was covered by an ornate shield with the Blood Elf crest on it. The limbs of the bow were painstakingly carved wood of phoenix heads facing the shield, while further down they were embedded with gems, and glowing with an eerie Fel light. The tip and recurve were made of two talon-like protrusions on each end, swirling with the same vivid energy, with the bowstring connecting two of the four talons that pointed back toward the wielder.

Lyriah glanced at her own bow, and though she loved it—as her mother had made it for her—she couldn’t help but wish for her mother’s. Though as a newly minted hunter, as well as only just turning eleven, there was a snowball’s chance in the lava flows of the Searing Gorge that would happen.

The wind picked up momentarily, and when it dropped her father’s voice drifted over to the pair. He was negotiating their passage with the Wind Rider Master to Sholazar Basin. Though he’d been given coin upfront for travel expenses, An’dras Moonstrider was not above negotiating to bring the price as low as he could manage. It was a habit he’d picked up from one of his colleagues, a Goblin by the name of Baxraz Copperblast; ‘Never pay full price.’

The patient Tauren’s low voice wasn’t audible, even to Lyriah’s long ears and their sharp hearing. Though from her father’s gestures, he wasn’t getting the calm, yet stubborn, woman to budge. Talonia was tolerant of her husband’s acquired quirks, but it was always easiest for Lyriah to gauge her mother’s moods by the body language of Vermilia, whose tail was now thrashing the air. Vermilia let out another low growl, this one far more annoyed. Her father turned and caught sight of the lynx. His long, platinum blonde eyebrows shot up to his hairline. Though they couldn’t see his eyes behind his engineered goggles with their scope on one side and glowing magenta glass on the other, she had no doubt they widened in alarm.

He chuckled nervously and turned back to the Wind Rider Master. Then he ran his left hand through his short, spiky hair, and handed the coin over to the Wind Rider Master with the other. She counted the coin, and nodded to An’dras. At the Tauren’s smile, it didn’t take a rocket engineer to know the steadfast woman had won, and likely still would have, even without Talonia’s annoyance.  Lyriah hid her own smile in Titian’s mane.

Talonia turned an amused look down at Titian at her daughter’s movement. “Worry not, kitten. Where we’re going, you’ll be plenty warm, if not in excess.”

An’dras strode over to them, rubbing his gloved hands together, either from nerves at his wife’s mood or from the cold. It was difficult to know which. His clothing was a hodge-podge of leather, patched here and there by her mother. He’d often come home from a lab accident, with holes burned through by fire, acid, or whatever concoction he and Baxraz were attempting to perfect. Such a substance was the reason they were on this trip in the first place.

He’d come home one day, grinning from ear to ear, his hair still smoldering at the ends.

“We’ve done it!” he said, and lifted Lyriah up, spinning her through the air.
She’d been dizzy when he sat her back down. Titian growled at her father’s exuberance when Lyriah stumbled and had to catch herself on the edge of the table.

“Done what, dear?” her mother asked calmly, handing him a damp towel to extinguish his hair. She was well rehearsed in this routine.

“We’ve finally come up with a substance to combat the humidity damage experienced by machines! Weslex will be pleased,” he said, and laughed.

Her father and Baxraz were top-notch mechanics and engineers, who also dabbled in concoctions to help their machines and weapons run better, faster, and smoother. It was a side-business to their primary one, to be sure, but it seemed to bring them joy, not to mention numerous injuries and the need to reconstruct their lab every couple of months.

“And Weslex was…?” her mother prompted him. He had so many clients, ranging from both factions, it could be difficult to remember them all.

“The flying machine mechanic and flight master for Hemet in Sholazar Basin.”
An’dras didn’t take note of the cutthroat flash in his wife’s eyes at the mention of Hemet’s name.

Lyriah sucked in a breath and her eyes widened at her mother’s predatory smile. Even Lyriah, as new to being a hunter as she was, had heard of Hemet.

“Hemet, you say?”

At the inquisitive tone in his wife’s voice, An’dras froze, just now realizing his mistake.

“Uh,” he started, and thought—only briefly—about trying to take back the name, but there was nothing for it. “Yes?” he said, hesitantly.

“Hah!” she exclaimed, and hit a fist in the palm of her other hand. “I can finally shut that loud-mouthed braggart up for good.” Then she looked down at Lyriah, her grin still feral and triumphant.

“Time to pack, dearest. We’re heading for Sholazar Basin.”

 

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

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

Apparently, supernatural bars didn’t have to worry about pesky human laws regarding alcohol, because it was still flowing freely around the tavern. I sipped my cranberry juice as the conversation flowed around me. People had started filtering out of the tavern as dawn approached, and those remaining cast disapproving glances toward our rambunctious group.

There is an exhausted giddiness people succumb to when working overnights; when you stay up beyond when you should have gone home and fallen asleep. You get loud and not a little obnoxious, but the others were having fun and most of the other patrons were leaving anyway. I nibbled on my food—some kind of appetizer I didn’t have the courage to ask about. None of it really had any taste, as I tried to turn over a plan in my mind to get Celinwel alone, as well as confess to Strib’s murder.

Easy peasy…

Odella stood, as though to leave, when the Sphinx called out to her.

“Not going to leave us with a song tonight are you, Odella?”

There was a split second of silence, and then a cheer went up through the tavern. Odella smiled a small, pleased smile, and then she turned to me and winked.

“Listen closely, and maybe you’ll learn something interesting.”

She sashayed up to the bar, and those still there made room for her, removing bar stools and people too drunk to move themselves. She took a seat on the bar with a graceful hop, and she hovered in the air for a moment before settling lightly as though gravity meant nothing to her.

She signaled to a man on the opposite side of the room. He was as out of place here as a fish out of water, wearing a button down shirt of Oxford blue, with an almost scale pattern of lines that shimmered dully in the low light. The pants were black, pressed, and fitted perfectly to his lean, almost slender frame, with a wide, brown leather belt cinched snug over his hips. His shoes were black leather Oxfords, and he moved much in the same way Lia did. Like water given life, all grace and flow.

As her name crossed my mind, I turned to look at her, and was met with an expression that moved between various emotions faster than flood waters: longing, disgust, sadness, and hope. I had to turn away from such turbulent emotions, as they had the feeling of something not meant to be witnessed so openly without invitation.

When I turned back to the man, he was watching Lia with an equally intense expression, though far more sad. His eyes were a blue so light they were nearly white, set in a diamond-shaped face with cheekbones that stood out prominently above sunken cheeks. His hair was so pale it bordered on translucent, and was longer on top, carelessly brushed back and curling at the end. The rest was short, fading to a length that was shorn to his skull the last inch or so.

He broke eye contact with Lia, though he’d never broken his stride, and made his way to the bar. The man didn’t join Odella on the bar itself, but bowed to the wildly clapping and howling crowd, and produced a violin from thin air with a flourish of his hands.

Just like magic, Primal Brain noted.

You don’t say, Rational Brain added, sarcastically.

Shut up, Primal Brain said sullenly.

Odella cleared her throat. It was nothing more than a small sound, barely audible, and yet it commanded the entire room to fall silent, and set everyone on the edge of their seats in anticipation.

Odella then murmured something to the man, who nodded, and brought the violin up into a ready position.

It only took a couple of notes for me to recognize the tune: Go Tell it on the Mountain, which I found to be an odd choice for a vampire. But what he was playing was not the lively song I’d been raised with, and was almost set to a funeral march pace, the strings almost weeping as he drew the bow across them with aching slowness.

Then she began to sing, her voice clear as a bell and sorrowful as death.

 

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

 

While the lyrics were different, I was still unsure why a vampire was singing something so obviously religious…

Then the man dragged the bow across the strings, the screeching wail setting all the hairs on my body at attention.

 

That everybody’s dead

 

Until the last line.

My eyes widened, though she kept hers closed as she sang.

 

The man came to the village

And charmed all the women

They started disappearin’

One by one

 

They searched for days and weeks, but

Their husbands could not find them

Their mothers were a-mourning

For their daughters’ souls

 

They found where he was hiding

Deep inside the forest

He’d dug them all a grave

And, laid the girls to rest

 

When the day was over

And darkness fell around them

The women all woke up, though

They were not the same

 

Time for a feast, girls

Time for a feast, girls

Time for a feast, girls

Drink until they’re dead

 

The villagers were screaming

Their throats were all ripped open

Fangs flashed in the moonlight

And the blood, it fell like rain

 

One of the women

Came to her senses

Her husband’s lifeless body

Laying in her lap

 

She ran through the forest

Back toward the village

She went right to her house

But could not enter there

 

She called out for her children

But they would not come near her

They sensed something was different

With their mother, drenched in blood

 

She fell to her knees, there

Her red eyes full of tears

Hollow words, they passed her lips

Her voice so harsh and raw

 

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

That everybody’s dead

 

Leave upon the sunrise

Faster than the Spring winds

For if the man catches you

You’ll both be dead, as well

 

Then the man appeared, and

He pulled her up and held her close

With one last look at the children, said

“Catch me if you can.”

 

The children did not answer

And waited for the dawn, then

They ran down to the church

And, crying said the words

 

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Go tell the preacher

Everybody’s dead

 

I hadn’t known I was holding my breath until the last bittersweet note died on the air as Odella had all those year ago. The despair, which had the weight of centuries behind it, was dizzying, and too much for my brain to handle.

“I can’t breathe,” I whispered hoarsely, as someone asked; “Are you alright?”

“Bathroom,” was all I managed to get out, my throat closing around the words as my stomach heaved.

“Down the hall,” the same voice said, the words faraway.

My vision narrow, and not able to see too far in front of me, I stumbled my way down the hall and into a door that had a big ‘W’ on it, which I hoped didn’t mean something else in supernatural taverns.

I barely managed to make it into a stall before I started heaving, my body trying to physically purge what my mind would never be able to.

I don’t know how long I knelt there in front of the toilet, the cold, hard tile floor digging into my knees. The door to the bathroom opened and closed as few times while I was there, but the last time the soft footfalls ended right outside my stall door.

“You going to be okay?” Odella asked, her usually upbeat, somewhat manic voice was softer, and full of concern.

“How could you go on?” I choked out, tears running down my face, my forehead resting on the corner of the chilled, metal toilet paper holder.

Clothing rustled as she made some small movement, perhaps a shrug. “How could I not? Those first years you are dedicated to your Master. Even though I’d broken free for only a moment, to warn my children, that wasn’t the case from then on out. It was nearly a century of blood, and of course death, before I left him. By then, time had dulled the pain to something more bearable, though of course I never forgot.”

A heavy silence followed her words, and belied the nonchalance she was trying to project.

“What were their names?” I whispered.

“Balfour was my son, and Myra was my daughter. My husband’s name was Tobias.” Her voice was hesitant and quiet, as though if the words left her lips they’d fly away with the memories of them, never to return. In that moment she’d shared something deeply personal with me, and though I forgot names as easily as women lost bobby pins, I held onto the names with everything my mind had.

“I have to leave; dawn approaches. Will you be okay?” she asked.

“I’ll be fine, you can go,” I croaked, but made no move to get up just yet.

“Okay. Get some rest, and sweet dreams,” she said, and laughed, the sound like shattered glass.

The door opened and closed, though I didn’t hear her footsteps. It was a long moment before I heaved myself off the floor, which in retrospect was now really creeping me out, because public restrooms were not known for their cleanliness.

I flushed the toilet, and left the stall to wash my hands. I was still shaky, but judging by the noise outside of the bathroom, everything had returned to normal. I slipped out of the bathroom, and looked both ways down the hall. Some small flicker of movement caught my attention. It was at the end of the hall, and of their own accord my feet began moving that way.

You’re acting like every girl in horror films with too much curiosity that we make fun of, Rational Brain warned.

It wouldn’t hurt just to peek, Primal Brain said.

Ration Brain threw up their proverbial hands. Morons, the both of you.

I tiptoed down the hallway, and as I passed the men’s room and grew closer to a corner, raised voices filtered in between the music from the tavern.

“Not what—“

“—swore you’d follow through!”

“You didn’t say—“

I made it to the corner, but I didn’t dare take a look around it. One of the voices was Celinwel’s, and boy was she ever pissed. The other voice I didn’t recognize, was brushing Celinwel, and her concerns, off.

“Look, he’s dead. What does it matter?”

“It matters because whoever killed him didn’t leave any evidence behind!”—I wondered briefly how she knew that—“Which means they’re going to suspect me now. I gave you what to plant on his body after he was dead so someone else would take the fall.”

“I don’t know why you’re so upset, jeez. Just calm down.”

“Calm down?!” she said, her voice a strangled screech. “When that great green lump has his healers do a thorough examination of Stribs, they’ll find the sedative that I gave him. Without the other evidence, it all just looks like me!”

“You don’t know that. Stribs used to do all kinds of drugs. Why would this be any different?”

At this point I took a quick glance around the corner, and Celinwel had her hands balled into tight fists at her side, looking up at the other woman. Nothing struck me as particularly supernatural about her: she had an oval, plump face, framed by thick, dirty-blond hair in a side part, held back from her face with two marbled black and brown clips. Her nose turned up slightly at the end, which she held in the air in a rather haughty nature, and looked down it at Celinwel. She raised a single, thin, pale eyebrow at the angry Gnome.

“Because it’s not a drug you take for any reason, except when a healer is doing a healing on you.”

“So?” the other woman asked, and shrugged her meaty shoulders. She shifted her weight to jut out a fleshy hip, and moved her long, forest green cardigan out of the way to rest her hand there. Her medium rinse jeans with stylish holes and tears were tucked into knee-high, burnt umber boots. When she tossed some of her hair over shoulder, it revealed an ample chest barely contained beneath a dove gray top.

When Celinwel didn’t answer immediately, she continued. “Won’t that just mean it’ll implicate who you wanted to in the first place? Who knows, maybe he really did do it?”

“Even if he did, what makes you think he’d tell them that?”

“Some misguided sense of love for you, maybe?”

Celinwel snorted.

At least she has some kind of self-awareness to know she’s not an entirely likable person, Rational Brain observed.

But if it wasn’t her…Primal brain said.

“Point is, we had a deal. I take care of your ‘problem’, and you take care of mine.”

“And I still say it was taken care of, even if it wasn’t how you wanted it done.”

“I—“

Someone behind me and out in the bar area dropped a glass, shattering it, and it caused Celinwel and the woman to look over toward me. All eyes widened, and my brain scrambled along with my feet to get back down the hallway.

I severely underestimated how fast Gnomes were.

She hit me right behind my knees and tackled me to the ground after barely more than two steps. A small hand grabbed my shoulder, and turned me over, slamming said shoulder into the floor. Pain jarred through my shoulder and rattled my teeth. I bit my tongue and tasted blood.

When I opened my eyes, a dagger hovered a mere inch away from vision. My breath wooshed from me faster than the air from an over-filled balloon punctured by a fork wielding toddler.

“Have you been eavesdropping, little Ord?” she growled.

It shouldn’t have, but the whole situation must have finally rattled some morbid humor loose from my brain, because I laughed.

“’I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves sir, honest,’” I quoted, and giggled like a madwoman.

Celinwel’s dagger-free fist connected with my chest in a quick, powerful downward punch, and knocked the wind from me, chasing away my amusement as quickly as it’d found me.

My eyes watered, and I looked up at the Gnome straddled over my chest, dagger still more than an idle threat not far from my left eye.

“Celinwel!” someone barked from behind me, and her head jerked up. It sounded like the Sphinx, but I wasn’t risking a glance to see for sure.

“What?” she spat, annoyed at the interruption.

“She has eaten and drank beneath my roof. By our law I am honor-bound to protect her from all threats, up to and including killing whatever is threatening her if said threat cannot be dissuaded. I already smell her blood, Celinwel. Do not test me.”

The dagger dipped a mere centimeter at the speaker’s pronouncement, which sounded as though he was quoting something, and I swallowed a lump in my throat. He didn’t sound particularly motivated on my behalf to kill Celinwel, but his honor seemed like it’d be reason enough.

Won’t do me much good if we die before he can get to us, Rational Brain squeaked.

She considered his words, emotions flashing across her face faster than the rapids of the waterfall in springtime: anger, fear, defiance, and finally grudging resignation. She’d weighed the potential threat to her life against that of killing me, and I suppose she didn’t like her chances.

The dagger vanished to locations unknown, and she turned her attention back down to me.

“This isn’t over, Ord,” she growled, placing emphasis on ‘Ord’.

“It sure isn’t if you don’t stop calling me Ord,” I mouthed off before I could stop myself.

I didn’t need to see, or hear, the Sphinx shake his head. Disbelief at my stupidity was as palpable on the air as the smell of ale.

He and Knight can start a, ‘Why are we protecting this nitwit’ club, Primal Brain snickered.

If looks could murder, I’d have been dead twice over and once more for good measure. Celinwel was none too happy, but she moved away so fast I wasn’t actually sure if she’d jumped or ran. She was next to the other girl, whose eyes I could now see in the low light of the hallway were a baby blue with a glint of crazy. Much in the same way a pond looks safe before a gator breaks the surface and drags you to the bottom to drown you.

I might not have been able to picture her as the murdering or murder-for-favor type until I saw that look in her eyes.

“We’re leaving,” Celinwel said, and they headed back down the hallway to where they’d been arguing. A moment later the backdoor slammed, followed by a gust of cool dawn air.

As I lay on the floor, not quite willing to move so soon after my near-death experience, I wasn’t sure the situation could get much worse unless someone had called my parents to come pick me up.

“I had Thea call Knight.”

I was wrong.

 

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Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

The Salty Wench was a tavern on the outskirts of town. The kind of place my parents would drive by and turn their noses up at. Even my Army father who’d been in dives down and dirty enough to make your hair curl would sniff disdainfully every time we passed. I couldn’t even pinpoint what it was that made my parents detest the place so much. There was an old-timey, wooden sign hanging from wrought-iron hooks off a weathered post. The sign itself read ‘The Salty Wench’ in curling, archaic letters, charred black against dark, aged and varnished wood.

Set back from the road was the tavern itself and the gravel parking lot, surrounded by towering evergreens. It looked as though it was plucked from every RPG starting location, as though if I walked inside someone would have a quest for me. Single-story, wooden, and with a rustic charm, the Yorkshire, lead-lined windows shone with a warm yellow light into the deep darkness. It was inviting, delightful, and beautiful.

Yet, disgust pervaded every iota of my being, and I wanted nothing more than to turn the car around and leave. Instead, I grit my teeth and parked in the lot next to Odella’s sleek, black sport’s car.

Run! Flee! Primal Brain howled.

Rational Brain raised an internal eyebrow. You’re making a scene, you know.

It’s gross! And dangerous! We must leave.

There won’t be any reasoning with her. Rational Brain sighed.

I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, eyes fixed on the dashboard display, while gripping the wheel as though I’d be swept out to a sea of panic if I let go.

“There’s a charm on the building,” Odella said.

I twitched, and tried to rip my fingernails off in my haste to clench my hands into fists. I turned to face her, my eyes wide with shock and pain. She’d opened the door without me noticing, and bent over a little at the waist to meet my gaze.

Odella smiled a small, pleased smile, and her nostrils flared wide. Her ample chest expanded with a deep breath, and the material of the shirt strained to keep all of her contained. Her breasts were intimidating.

“Do you all have charms and spells to keep humans from noticing you guys?” I asked. I broke eye contact with The Intimidators, and gave the rest of her a once-over, but didn’t note anything like what Slies carried. Of course, she could have been keeping it concealed.

“Just those of us who can’t pass for human, or places where we’ll be gathering in large groups. The only reason you were able to drive onto the property was a combination of following me here, and the fact they can’t make the charm too strong, or people will drive off the road to avoid the lot.” She paused, and tilted her head, trying to catch my gaze.

I knew better now, and shifted my eyes to her chin. When her grin widened, it revealed her unnaturally sharp canines gleaming dully in the yellow-amber glow from the parking lot light. I swallowed against the hard lump lodged in my throat.

“Don’t worry, dear. You’re not on the menu tonight.”

Not precisely reassuring, Rational Brain mumbled, as she stepped back so I could get out of the car. I tried to move out of the car’s doorway to close it, but my feet remained firmly rooted in place.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, mischief dancing through her eyes like the flame of a candle in a stormy breeze. Then she leaned in and kissed me, full on the mouth.

My eyes widened again and I froze, too afraid to react let alone move, like a rabbit caught in the jaws of a wolf. Her lips were soft, and the kiss was gentle as a spring rain, but the hunger she held in check ran through the center of her being like a piano wire on the verge of snapping. Then I realized her lips were cold—the same temperature as the chilly night air.

I shuddered, and broke away from the kiss, and went to wipe my mouth on the back of my jacket sleeve. She reached up, fast as a snake striking, and grabbed my wrist. Her grip was strong as steel bent around my arm, like a bracelet that could crush my bones with just the slightest tightening of her slender fingers.

She leaned back in, nuzzling along my cheek and jaw until her mouth was near my ear. Her breath tickled the fine hairs on my skin as she spoke. “Now, now. If you do that, I’ll have to kiss you again, and this time I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to hold back,” she said, her voice low. “Our DNA allows temporary access, sort of like a stamp to get into a club. It marks you as belonging to one of us.”

“Us?” I asked, the word spoken so soft I wasn’t even sure I’d said it out loud.

“Supernaturals.”

Then my brain slammed into gear. “Belonging to?” This time the words were louder, and an edge of hysteria crept in, but I remained still.

“Just temporarily. We’d have to do something more…invasive for it to be permanent,” she reassured me cheerfully, leaned back, and patted my hand.

I shuddered, and didn’t care to think further on that particular statement.

“Is it okay that I’m here? They don’t seem to want humans around,” I hedged queasily. Rational Brain thumbed through all the scenes of every horror and fantasy movies we’d ever seen, as well as all the books we’d read, and what a supernatural being could do to a human…Well, things weren’t looking all that great for my chances of survival.

“It’ll be fine,” she said, and waved away my concern. Despite her words, her shoulders were tense.

My stomach clenched. “I guess.”

Or not, Primal Brain Fumed.

So glad you could rejoin the conversation, Rational Brain teased.

Primal Brain sent a particularly scathing glance toward Rational Brain. We’re not going to talk about that.

Rational Brain harrumphed.

Everyone else’s cars were parked, and they were probably already inside. I was delaying the inevitable. I was teetering on a mental cliff, ready to fall down into a dark chasm, not knowing if I’d die once I hit rock bottom. One thing was for sure, though: nothing would be the same.

You’re in the dark, in front of a bar full of supernatural beings, and you were just kissed by a vampire. This is it. Walk away now, before you get in so deep the alligators are eating your eyeballs, Rational Brain said.

Uh, gross. Primal Brain scoffed. Also, this is the coolest thing since, well, ever that’s happened to us.

And dangerous, Rational Brain reasoned. Plus, weren’t you just freaking out?

That was the spell. Primal Brain sniffed. We have an agreement, anyway. We can’t just back out now: think about your brother.

You don’t care as much about him as you’re letting on. You just want to go on some cockamamie adventure.

Enough! I cut in on the bickering.

“Let’s go,” I said, looking down into the proverbial chasm and giving it the finger before taking the plunge.

“Fantastic!” Odella gushed, and linked her arm in mine. She practically dragged me away, and I did my best to close the car door and set the alarm before I was out of range.

She pulled me along to the door and I tried not to stumble through the gravel. Though the entrance toward the front door was lit, the short hallways was not. It held deep shadows like a cup, and only the small window in the door cast a dim light no mere mortal could see by.

In those shadows, a small lump moved.

“Eh, Odella? Whatcha got?” Whatever-it-was snorted. “Somefink tasty?”

“Keep your grubby fingers to yourself, Krot,” she said amiably, “this one’s mine.”

“That so?” Krot queried, and a small, hairy face moved into the light, its up-turned, pig-like nose giving a snort of derision. The small, beady black eyes shone with mischief, and something that edged too close to darker things played in his feral smile, displaying blunt, yellowed teeth. He took a couple of cursory sniffs, leaning further into the light. I couldn’t tell if he wore animal skins, or if he was just that hairy.

“I smell ya, a-sure. Mayhaps she wants my grubby fingers, eh?” He brought the aforementioned digits into the light and gave me a finger-wiggle wave. “Think she’s a squawker?” He cackled.

“Try and find out, and you’ll lose more than your fingers,” I hissed, my ire rising along with the scaredy-cat hairs on the back of my neck.

Everyone you meet is a potential enemy. Show them no fear. Even if you’re quaking and shaking from it, give them nothing to use against you. Fear is the small death, the falling of the little rocks that lead to an avalanche that will crush the life from you. Now go, and refuse to give in to your terror.

My father’s words echoed through my mind. It was a speech he’d given to me at my seventh birthday party, when we’d all been given foam dart guns and sent out into the woods to wage elementary-school war on each other. I’d always been afraid of the woods, and of being shot in the eye with a dart. Both stemmed from my brother; the former because he told me there was a man in the woods who’d eat my fingers and toes if I went in, and the latter because he’d once shot me in the eye with a dart.

In a fit of parental, ‘get the fuck over it’, my father had arranged this little ‘game’ to force me to confront my fears. It didn’t work. I still hated the woods and those damn toy guns, but his words were great for slapping some steel in my yellow spine, and at least faking it till I wasn’t at risk of being eaten.

Krot’s cackle grew to an all-out belly laugh that had him doubled-over.

Well, if you can’t make them fear you, making them laugh seems to be a legitimate alternative, Rational Brain observed.

I imagine it’s something like a kitten hissing at a dragon. So absurd it has to be funny, Primal Brain agreed.

“Go on, then,” Krot said, sinking back into the shadows as through the blackness was a pool, and had substance. “But I’d keep this’n close. Not everyone’s as nice as me.”

“Of course, Krot. You’re the soul of benevolence,” Odella said, and unhooked our arms. She took my hand in hers and tugged me along.

Krot laughed again, but said nothing in return.

Odella opened the door, and a blast of warmth, laughter, and the smell of alcohol and too many bodies shoved into a small space assaulted my senses. Before I could get my proverbial feet beneath me, Odella had pulled me in, and the door shut with the smallest of thuds behind us.

The issue, I found, was that my eyes didn’t know where to look first, my nose couldn’t decide what to smell, and my ears what to listen to. It was a typical bar and grill, but not. Like someone had taken a medieval tavern, a modern pub, and a mythological encyclopedia, and thrown them all into a blender.

The area was a large, nearly open-spaced rectangle, interspaced with large, load-bearing pillars of smooth, grey stone. The crossbeams were age-worn, and wrapped with decaying, frayed rope. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in no clear pattern were a clash of ye olde times and contemporary. They were wrought iron, with three bars connected together at the top with what looked like an upside-down call bell, hanging from a chain. The bars then went down and ended in hooks, which hooked through a metal circle, where five, electric pillar candles ‘burned’ atop flat wrought iron discs. They cast a typical, candle-like glow on the area, but cut down on the potential fire hazard.

Televisions were shoved into various spaces, displaying everything from crime-drama to sports. All along the wall were deep mahogany bar tables and stools, while everywhere else had matching regular tables with chairs or benches, depending on the size.

To the left was a gigantic stone fireplace, where some kind of two-foot, naked fire woman danced along the twenty or so logs. Her hair was long and thick, and swirling around her body as she spun, pirouetted, and swayed her curvy hips to some kind of music only she could hear. Her skin and hair were in varying shades of orange, yellow, red, and pink—one minute like a brilliant sunset, and the next like a blazing wildfire. She threw her hair back and lifted her ample chest up as she jumped, and then slid back down to the logs on a fiery stripper pole she conjured from nowhere. Then she used the fire like some kind of stage curtain to tease and titillate. When she saw me staring, she winked her solid red eyes at me, like someone had removed all the facets from a couple of rubies and polished them smooth. I blinked, long and slow.

She was cheered on by a couple of leering Satyrs, dressed to the nines in button-down dress shirts rolled up to their elbows, suit vests, and ties. One had varying shades of gray from dove to slate, and it went well with his raven fur and hooves, small, white, curling horns, and the rosy-pale skin of his face, fingers, and pointed ears peeking through his thick, slicked-back hair. The other had a white shirt, and a dark blue tie and vest. His fur and hair were cinnamon, and he’d left his hair to curl around his face. His skin pleasantly tanned, and his hooves and horns were more of a coffee with heavy cream color. Every few seconds they’d try to snatch the dancing fire girl, and she’d blip out, like when you blow on a candle and it seemingly sputters in and out of existence. Then she’d reappear in another spot, with her laughing silently, as though mute, and the Satyrs roaring with glee and clapping each other on the back. Their snazzy attire was at odds with the lower half of their bodies, where thick, curling hair did little to conceal just how happy they were to watch the fire-woman.

That sight was one of many vying for my attention, but Odella decided I’d had enough time to adjust to my surroundings, and pulled me along toward the bar that was taking up almost the entire back wall. There were a few double-takes as I went by, and silence followed behind us like the wake of a boat. I kept my eyes on the back of Odella’s head, not willing to chance a look around.

I wasn’t normally one to tiptoe around, afraid of offending someone. I’m not saying I go out of my way to be a bitch, but for the most part people could take their hurt feelings and go nurse them in a corner. Here, though, it was a different story. Maybe looking someone in the eye would mean a fight to the death, or a certain hand gesture might mean I’m down for an orgy later. I just didn’t know, so I erred on the side of caution.

Then we reached the bar, and my eyes widened when I caught sight of the bartender.

He was tall, easily six and a half feet, with warm eyes that were a caramel color. When he smiled, his fangs were a shocking white against his skin the color of a dark espresso without the crema. A dark, charcoal mane—literally, a mane—was brushed back from his face, which was unwrinkled, but spoke of an age that stretched into the thousands of years. The mane disappeared into his t-shirt, which was, to my surprise, the color of boysenberries. His nose was turned down, cat-like, with the darker, single line versus a human’s double philtral ridges leading down and splitting his upper lips. He didn’t have any whiskers, that I could see, but everything from the neck down was that of a well-muscled lion-man. Human hands, with slightly knobbier knuckles ended in sharpened, non-retractable, thick claws. The paler, tawny fur over his arms shone, glossy in the low light, and he had tufts of fur at his elbows. Amber eyes, with round, widened pupils gazed back at me through the dark, and rounded, furry ears twitched in my direction.

The silence in the bar was thunderous, and I dared not look away from his gaze, or even draw a breath.

Then he spoke; “A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in three years. Which room is safest for him?” His voice was a low rumble, like thunder grumbling in the distance.

“Are we talking about regular lions, or supernatural ones?” I asked. I knew the answer, but my usual riddle rulebook was thrown out the window in the presence of beings that shouldn’t exist. I’d gotten a little too obsessed with a certain trilogy in middle school, and decided to memorize an obscene number of riddles in case I came across any evil creatures lurking in caves, carrying all-powerful rings. Also, I apparently hated the idea of being popular, and decided instead that annoying my classmates with riddles they couldn’t answer was the best way to get friends.

He smiled again, though this time it was less feral, fangs, and eat your heart, and more amusement. “Normal.”

“Then it’s the lions. Lions—normal lions—who haven’t eaten in three years are dead.”

“Excellent,” he said, and meant it. “So glad I don’t have to eat you. Welcome to The Salty Wench.”

“Th-thanks,” I stuttered, the breath knocked from me by his statement.

The activity in the bar resumed, as my place amongst them was validated. I’d been seconds away from being consumed, and didn’t know it. Sure, I’d reckoned it as a possibility, but to have it boldly stated as fact…Primal Brain wanted to shriek internally again, but Rational Brain had something else in mind.

I yanked my hand out of Odella’s grasp, and glared at her, accusing. “You knew I might be eaten if I answered incorrectly?”

“Well, yes, but I had the utmost confidence in you,” she said cheerfully, and beamed like a proud parent.

I could only splutter in indignation, and Lion-Man chuckled.

“Odella was only following the rules. No warnings to the Ords, and any cheating ends in automatic consumption. It keeps the level of unworthy Ords at a minimum, ensuring this remains a safe haven for Supernaturals,” he said, reaching under the bar for a wine glass.

I ground my teeth at his use of the slang term for humans, but kept my opinion to myself. He could still eat me at his discretion, I was sure.

With the glass in hand, he turned and drew something from a metal canister, with some kind of writing unknown to me scrawled across the side. When he faced us again, I swallowed hard against the knot in my throat.

“Fresh today, Odella, my sweet,” he said, and handed her the glass that was half-full of a thick, red liquid that looked suspiciously like blood.

She giggled, and took the glass from him. He looked over at me. “And for you?”

“Uh, just some cranberry juice. I have to drive later.” I paused as he poured the drink. “Didn’t the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex kill herself when Oedipus answered her riddle correctly?” I asked.

He handed the glass over to me, and nodded. “Yes, but that kind of ‘falling on your sword’ honor went out of style when humans started murdering us every chance they got. Enjoy your drink,” he said, not a little huffy, and moved on to an ugly, oversized humanoid creature with greyish-green skin, and small, black, unintelligent eyes, waving him down at the other end of the bar.

“You’re so fantastic at making new friends,” Odella quipped, as she started to move through the crowd toward the back-right corner, not far from a hallway with a sign stating it was where I could find the restrooms and a payphone, of all things. “Suggesting the man should have killed himself when you got the riddle correct, instead of introducing yourself and asking his name. It’s a wonder we don’t bring more humans around,” she finished bluntly.

My face flamed with embarrassment, and I stole a quick glance over to the Sphinx. He caught my eye, and I gave him my best apologetic grimace, and mouthed ‘Sorry’. He shrugged.

I turned back to follow Odella, and grumbled my irritation at myself, while getting fleeting glances of my co-workers as the crowd shifted away from us.

I love it when you give me an awkward, shameful moment as fodder to replay in your mind, over and over again. You’re too kind, Rational Brain said, and bowed.

Fuck you, I spat back, as the first of many replays of the moment ran through my mind like a movie projector I couldn’t turn off, and shame washed through me like someone flushing crap down a toilet.

Don’t forget, we still have a job to do, Rational Brain said, and played the moment again.

I sighed, and caught sight of a particularly pissed off Celinwel.

Maybe I should have just let the Sphinx eat me.

 

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Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin, Chapter Six

Chapter Six

Aside from my brother, I’d never really had roommates except in college. The only reason it worked with him and me, was because we didn’t have a choice. We were two pet rats thrown in a cage that never got along, and no amount of biting, clawing, or squeaking our dislike would change the rat owners’ decision to house us together. My mother never really wanted to deal with our bickering, and my dad’s solution was to tell us; “Get along, or get beat.”

College had been a bit of a challenge for me, in the way it was challenging for a betta to tolerate another of its kind in its tank. I’d thought it was my chance to expand my horizons, meet new people, learn some spiffy new stuff, and potentially make friends far removed from my awkward high school years. Maybe it was me finally being away from home that made my usually pessimistic self so hopeful, but my four years at a state college socked the optimism from me faster than a heavyweight fighter versus a lightweight. It also just made me hate people more.

I was drained. I’d reached the end of my, ‘Adrenaline is a totally appropriate replacement for sleep!’ tether. With rebellious eyes drooping of their own accord, I faced Knight.

“No,” he said, and pointed a finger at me, eyeing me up and down. “I’m not driving you home, and if you get pulled over for erratic driving you better not mention my name.” A flicker of something passed through his expression, too quick for my sleep-addled brain to track.

He scoffed and shook his head, either from exasperation, or trying to hide whatever I’d missed. “Get out of here. I need to call the owner to let him know he can open the store back up. You and the green crew need to skedaddle before then.”

I looked toward the back door. The other Goblins were already piling into the back of the van, leaving just Slies, Knight, and me in the kitchen. I turned weary eyes down to my new hip attachment.

“How does this work? You can’t walk out like that. Do you have some kind of disguise?” I asked, knowing I’d lost any semblance of tact the minute the words tumbled from my mouth like a waterfall of word vomit.

“Something wrong with the way I look?” Slies asked, belligerently.

“Uh, no. I just mean it isn’t very covert to walk around with a green man the size of a toddler.”

“Who you callin’ a toddler?”

The situation had the vibe of a trap with no outcome except the loss of a hand, or something equally vital. So I just stared at him a moment, and then turned on my heel and walked away.

“Hey!” Slies hurried up with me, his pack slung over his shoulder. “Jeez,” he said, under his breath, “can’t you take a joke?”

“I’m too tired for yours, or anyone else’s, shit at this point. And I still have to work tonight.” I groaned. My toenails still throbbed from being on my feet all night, and weariness weighed on my shoulders like concrete dragging me down into the icy depths of exhaustion.

“No worries. You won’t even notice me around.”

Doubtful, Rational Brain said, dryly.

“To answer your question, we have, ‘look the other way’ charms crafted by a local Witch. As long as we’re not actively trying to draw attention to ourselves, people can’t see us.”

He’d caught up to me at that point, right as I stepped out into the sunlight. The van had driven off, taking all the other Goblins, dead and alive, back to wherever it was the Goblins lived. I looked down at the talisman he held out.

It was a disc that fit in the center of his palm, about two inches across. It was made from dark, reddish-brown cherry wood, which I knew because my father went through a weird phase post-military, where he wanted to reconnect with his inner man and work with his hands. Or something equally teenage eye-roll worthy. It was varnished with something to make the wood darker, and for some reason my bones were aching from more than sleep just from being in its presence. There was a symbol etched into wood, a triskele, in fact. A swirly Celtic symbol I recognized from one of my more eccentric college roommate’s books. It was like three octopus arms, curling out from a central point in the same direction, sans the suckers. When I tried to concentrate on it harder, my eyes slid away, like water across a puddle of oil. It had a small hole through the ‘top’ and sides, like a long tunnel through the wood, in which a length of worn, brown leather cord was threaded through and looped around Slie’s neck.

There was something disconcerting about the sensation, and it left me mildly uncomfortable. Whatever powered the charm didn’t seem to care for me, almost like a person rolling a piece of hard candy around in their mouth, just to spit it out when the flavor didn’t suit their taste.

“Witch, you say?” I asked, curious despite the disagreeable impression from the talisman.

“Yeah, she’s as old as the woods around the town, and the Boss has been doin’ business with her for almost as long as that.”

Brings to mind some interesting questions about the lifespan of supernaturals, Rational Brain noted.

Sleep, Primal Brain mumbled, and I stumbled on one of the small bits of gravel. Although, I could trip on the air itself some days, so I couldn’t blame my worn state. I managed to make it to my car, and Slies hopped in on the passenger side after it unlocked with an ungodly cheerful chirp.

As I slid in on the driver’s side, Slies asked, “You okay to drive?”

“I’m fine,” I groused, as I tried at least three times, unsuccessfully, to get the key in the ignition. On the fourth, with Slies’ eyebrows climbing ever higher with each failure, I managed to get it in. “See? No problem,” I said, and yawned so big and long, a tear was one stray water molecule away from rolling down my cheek.

“I’m so reassured,” he muttered.

I puttered out of the lot, and headed back to my apartment. Slies only had to shriek once, or twice, to alert me that I may have been driving off the road. We made it to my apartment without any accidents, and I trudged bleary-eyed up to my door. I unlocked it, opened it, and shambled to my room. The one thing I made sure to do was close and lock the bedroom door. I was too tired to care about what else he might do in the apartment. I flopped onto my bed and fell asleep.

****

An insistent beeping invaded the black, dreamless void of my mind, and I groaned and reached blindly for my phone. It was time to wake up, oh joy. I flipped open the cover on my phone, and poked the screen until the beeping stopped, never taking my face from the pillow.

“Time for work, eh?”

Adrenaline slammed through my system like a locomotive through a car on its tracks, and I scrambled in my covers, an unholy shriek torn from me like yanking out someone’s spleen. My feet tangled in the beige sheets, and I fell over the side of my bed. My head bounced off the carpeted floor, and stars skated across my vision like water striders across a lake.

When the little lights cleared, the tips of two large, green ears peeked over the edge of the bed, followed by the rest of Slies’ face.

“What the fuck are you doing in my bed?” I screeched.

Slies’ ears curled at the loud noise, and he scowled. “Jeez, you’re loud.”

I crabwalked backward a few feet from the bed, and it was then I saw enough of him on the bed to see he wore a pair of loose, blue cotton pajama pants pulled tight at the waist with a drawstring. He was shirtless, and a patch of curly black hair was spread across his chest, over his sternum, and then in a thin line down his midline all the way to his pants.

“And why are you half naked?” I was louder this time, and Slies actually covered his ears.

“I don’t like sleeping with a shirt on, and I’m in your bed because I’m not sleeping on that pathetic excuse for a futon you have out there. You might as well sit right on the springs, the thing is so thin.” He paused, removed his hands from his ears, and if possible his scowl deepened. “Not that your bed is much better. What the hell are you made of, that you can sleep on this rock?”

“Apparently sterner stuff than Goblins who shouldn’t be in my bed any way,” I growled back at him.

He shrugged, and took a gander around my room. “Also, you need to fire your interior decorator.”

The room was Spartan, with only a full-sized bed and boxspring set directly on the floor. Saved on me having to vacuum beneath it, if it had one of those simple frames. The sheets were a washed out, greyish-brown the color of three day old soggy oatmeal. The thinning comforter had been washed near to colorless, though it had started life as some kind of trendy-named beige. I had a plastic tote on the floor containing all my unmentionables, as my mother calls them, and a hamper that was occasionally home to the dirty clothes littering the floor. I had a standing lamp that I used for reading at night when the overhead light was too bright, especially given that reading meant changing positions and no one liked trying to block an overhead light with a book.

The closet had a few scattered plastic hangers, with some shirts, a couple jeans, and now my work clothes. When my mother had discovered wire hangers in the closet, she hadn’t beaten me with them, but she had a case of the vapors, to be sure.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” I said, and stood, doing that awkward lifting of your legs and feet when trying to get something untangled from your ankles. I headed for the bathroom, and Slies scooted from the bed.

My hackles rose and I turned a deadly gaze toward him, my eyes a little wide, daring him to complete his path toward the bathroom door. It was one of those bathrooms that had two doors: one to the bedroom, and one to the main area of the apartment. Slies’ eyebrows rose, and he held his hands up in defense as he scooted around the end of the bed, heading toward the living room.

That’s right, you little slug, Primal Brain rumbled, still somewhat amped up on shock and adrenaline.

I don’t think we’re his type, Rational Brain replied dryly.

The bathroom matched the rest of the apartment: small and unremarkable. The shower curtain was that plastic that eventually cracked, and the lightest of airflow would send it sticking to an unsuspecting body part, eliciting an unholy shriek. It was maroon—the color that was on sale—and had matching plastic rings to hold it up. Though a few were blue, to replace rings that had broken, and there were none of the same color to replace them when I bought new ones.

The bathtub itself was the real coup de grâce. It was an older apartment building, before they made the plastic, one-piece shower surrounds. Mine was tile, old and crumbly, and the heavy, ceramic soap holder had fallen out of the wall and onto my foot. The bruise had been nasty, and the gruff, old super with a bent back, wrinkled skin like a hound dog, and salt and pepper hair was unsympathetic. It revealed a real moisture issue eating away at the wall behind the tile, but he’d just patched it up, and told me not to use it. The rest of the tub was the same ceramic, with rust-like stains in the corners and running like a reddish-brown river from the faucet, to the overflow faceplate, and on down to the drain.

The sink was white, vanity top, and sitting over golden pecan engineered hardwood. It was bubbled and warped from too much water left on it, and not being cleaned up, from before I was ever in the apartment. There was no mirror over the medicine cabinet, busted by some druggie tenant prior to me, and never replaced.

The apartment had never been ideal, but it was cheap, and within my means.

I took a shower at land-speed record, and blow dried my hair out. I peeked into the bedroom to make sure Slies wasn’t there, and I went in and got dressed even faster. I walked out into the living room to see Slies dressed, and eating something from a bowl while sitting on the aforementioned rock-hard futon. I assumed it was my cereal, since there really wasn’t much else here to eat.

“No wonder you’re single. You’re the worst housekeeper I’ve ever seen, and your cereal selection sucks,” he said around a mouthful of bran. “Bring some food home with you.”

“No wonder you’re single. You haven’t got a tactful bone in your body, or any manners to speak of,” I shot back, gathering my things for work, and putting on my shoes.

Slies smiled, his sharp teeth revealing bits of bran stuck to them. “I’m a highly eligible bachelor, but I don’t have time to get into the intricacies of Goblin courtship. You ready for this?”

The smallest, teeniest worms of doubt squirmed in my gut. “I’m not really sure what you guys want me to do. Celinwel doesn’t like me, and how am I supposed to know she’s some kind of supernatural drug dealer? It’s not something that comes up in casual conversation at work.”

Slies shrugged. “Guess you better get good at making friends, then, Toots.”

I took the high road and ignored the nickname. Slies hopped up from the futon, and walked over to the sink. He rinsed the bowl out and it thudded in the bottom of the sink.

“I’m taking a shower, then I’ll be out to do some sneakin’. I don’t know if I’ll be home when you get here, but I shouldn’t be too long gone.”

“Later then,” I said, and watched him go into the bathroom.

Should we tell him about the soap dish? Rational Brain wondered.

Nah, Primal Brain responded.

It was only scant seconds after the shower head turned on that a muffled thud sounded from the bathroom, followed by a howl of pain.

The super wouldn’t be happy, but I couldn’t help but cackle as I walked out the door.

****

I’ll admit I was reluctant to be the Goblins’ inept detective, or rather bait to bring out the criminal when I ‘got too close to the truth’. If that ever happened.

Julia and the other humans were already out the back door, and my crew already inside, by the time I arrived. When Julia and I reached each other, just for that brief hand-over report, she grimaced.

“I know it would have been nice to have a slow night, because of Stribs, but it’s turning out to be an average, crazy Thursday. Try to keep them motivated.” She paused. “Somehow. Good luck!” Then she was gone faster than I could say lickety split.

Not that you’d say that anyway. What is this, the 1800s? Rational Brain said scornfully.

In reality, I was stalling. I didn’t want to deal with any of this: Stribs’ death, Celinwel’s animosity, the Goblins, Knight… The list went on. I’d also been flying from one thing to the next without a chance to really process any of it. Sharp claws of panic were making their way up from my gut toward my throat, but I swallowed them down and continued on to the back door. This time they’d left the smallest part of a wedge door stopper in the door for me, so I wouldn’t have to knock, and it allowed just the barest of finger holds to grab the edge of the door. With a casual glance it would appear closed, but it also meant Odella wouldn’t have to wait for me.

I went in, picked up the door stopper and set it on a shelf near the back door, and then headed to the crew room. I could hear the kitchen bustling, though there wasn’t any chatter going on. I hung up my jacket, put my purse on the shelf, and grabbed a headset from the bin over the registers at the first window.

I nodded at Lia as I passed the sink area, and she nodded back, but didn’t offer a greeting. Her expression was a mixture, as though her mind was on a loop of thoughts, and none of them very appealing.

I walked through the grill area, and noted a new face. She turned enough so I could see a nametag that read ‘Thea’, and then our eyes met. Hers were the bright orange of Halloween pumpkins, with vertical slits like a cat, set in a triangular face with prominent cheekbones. She had a happy, somewhat offbeat look, and smiled at my stare.

“Hello!” She beamed. She was on the heavier side, and moved with a bit of a spring in her step. Hair that was in a ponytail but would touch just beyond her shoulders if left down, was straight, thick, and the color of cinnamon streaked with honey.

Everyone within my view tensed at her voice, and it raised some internal eyebrows. It was more than her replacing Stribs. That level of uneasiness went much deeper than that.

“Holly!” Odella called, and I didn’t have any time to think on it further.

The night went by in a blur, punctuated by a few snapshots of interactions.

Bea stopped me on her way to the crew room for her ten minute break and asked, in almost a whine, “I wasn’t too mean to him, right? I just don’t want him to have died thinking I hated him.”

I didn’t want to break it to her that I doubted Stribs’ last thoughts were of her, but I also didn’t want to point out that Stribs wasn’t the nicest character.

“No, I don’t think you were too mean, Bea,” I reassured her. Her shoulder slumped in relief, and she whispered a quiet ‘thank you’ as she loped off.

Odella was somewhat aloof, but I wasn’t shocked, being that—according to all the literature I’d ever read—she was already dead herself. I wouldn’t say she sent out vibes of relief, but she wasn’t exactly broken up about it, either.

Anne was her usual, bouncy self, though she did tone it down an iota around Celinwel. It was our first night without the cloud of Stribs’ negativity hanging over us all, and Anne, being the little neurotic ball of sunshine she was, was going to shine no matter what.

Leo was off for the night, so I didn’t get to see his reaction, but he was a zombie, after all. And Nathan stayed well away.

The real puzzle was Celinwel herself. She’d kept her head down, making food, and her mouth shut, which was odd for her. And instead of being somber, she was more puzzled and angry, than anything else.

In an effort to do what Knight and Gozuk asked, I’d walked up to her on my own ten minute break, and offered my condolences.

She scowled at me. “Like you know anything about it,” she’s said, her voice like an angry buzz of bees. It was also an odd response. Then she glanced over my shoulder, and caught sight of something. Her scowl lessened a hair, though her lips pressed out in a thin line. “Thank you,” she ground out between clenched teeth.

I turned to see what was behind me, and Odella wasn’t too far away, watching our interaction like a mother cat keeping watch on her kitten interacting with a bird of prey. Celinwel didn’t have Stribs with back up her behavior, or her, his, anymore. I faced Celinwel again and nodded. “No problem.”

At the end of the night, as everyone was getting ready to leave, Odella stopped us all and made a surprising suggestion.

“I know I wouldn’t be able to stay for more than twenty minutes or so, but how about we head to The Salty Wench for a drink, on Stribs’ behalf,” she said.

There was a general murmur from all those assembled by the crew area, and it was uneasy and leaning toward ‘no’ before Anne piped up with, “That sounds perfect. Stribs loved that place.”

I looked to Celinwel, who wasn’t happy, but she nodded. The others agreed, except Lia, who begged off. I assumed it had to do with her odd schedule issue, though I assumed Odella’s issue would be the same, her being a vampire.

“I’ll meet you outside and lead you there,” Odella said to me, as everyone headed out.

In all reality, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. But with Knight and Gozuk hovering over me, as well as Slies probably already in my bed, I didn’t have much choice.

“Sure thing.”

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