Rain and wind raged on the glass roof above the old biplane swaying over the books I was reshelving following a recent incident with a storage ghost. It was the sort of day that called for a mug of hot cocoa and a roaring fire to take the cold, wet feel out of the air. Not that I wanted any sugar in that mug, mind. Just straight cocoa and milk would be perfect. Ever since I had an encounter with Death which, I supposed, had triggered my father’s shifting ability to become active in me I haven’t been able to stomach sweet things.
Mordon Meadows was a few rows over, doing something with the Roman pithos-jar-thing. It hadn’t been physically broken, but the ghost had animated it and if it was left to its own devices, it would roll around the floor seemingly with the intention of smashing anything in its path. His reddish hair had suffered badly from the storage ghost, but so far he hadn’t noticed. I anticipated that once he did realize the tangles, he’d want my smoothing comb from upstairs. Aside from the dust coating his black shirt and the smudges on his knees and hair which looked like a mouse had braided it, Mordon wasn’t looking too shabby. Not that I was staring at him, exactly.
“I think I’ll go make up some Drake’s Brew. Maybe I’ll make up enough for myself, too,” Mordon said, standing up and brushing the dust off his knees. Drake’s Brew was nothing at all like hot cocoa, but I liked it so well I wondered if I had an addiction to the colony’s recipe. He’d been feeding me constantly ever since we got back from the Wildwoods two weeks ago, apparently under the impression that the fight I’d had with my parents prior to leaving the woods could be soothed through the stomach.
Mordon owned the shop and was the principal force behind forming our motley crew into a formal coven. Unlike me, his heritage hadn’t been formed through the melting pot; he was all-drake and found my parentage intriguing rather than threatening. He was also biding his time before stepping up the ranks into the Kragdomen Colony’s rulership, performing an occupation he called a Watcher. I thought it was a clever ruse by the Colony elders to keep their up-and-coming lord just far enough away from the roost so he didn’t get impatient enough to snatch the title for himself a little early, or otherwise butt heads with his superiors. Perhaps it even served as a ‘get out and see the world’ function. Now that I thought of it the Colony didn’t have many people about my age lurking in their hallways, though the rest of the Colony talked about their adventures.
“Sure,” I said. “When do you think the trio will be home? I’m wondering if it’s worth it to slap dinner together.”
“The two of us can cook when we’re hungry. Leif and Lilly will eat at the celebrations, but Barnes will stick around until late to see all the drunks home. Want me to close up the shop? I doubt anyone will come by now.” Mordon stroked his nonexistant beard in thought. “We could still go, if you’d like to?”
For once I didn’t tell him I wanted to be left alone. I smiled. “You asking me on a date?”
His fingers froze in place and his brow knitted in confusion. “Yes,” he said, “I think I am. What a strange concept.”
“It’s approaching evening on Midsummer Day. Are you sure you want to ask me to that?”
“Why? What have you heard? That we’re to dance naked around a tree and drink freely of wine to encourage good crops and animals?”
“Mmm, I hadn’t heard that bit. No, Lilly mentioned something about jumping over bonfires and tossing wreaths of flowers into the duck pond.”
“Lilly’s doing the kiddie activities.” Mordon grinned mischievously. “Want to take a guess of what the adults do? The fairies are taking charge.”
I had a feeling that I knew what some of those activities included, if the way he was looking at me was any indication. “Whatever, I’ll give it a shot. Just know I draw the line at anything that’ll get me knocked up.” This was one of those times when the filter between brain and mouth failed, and I regretted the lapse. So I tried to fix it. “Spring is way too early for me to be ready to even hold a child, nevermind raise one.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You held my nephew pretty well.”
“You have no clue how lucky he was.”
“I think it is you who has no clue how lucky he was,” Mordon said, knowing that I’d embarrassed myself already, the gleam in his expression telling me he found it adorable to see me flustered. “Are you trying to find a way to tell me no? You could just say it, unless you like teasing me.”
“I accept, before you change your mind and don’t take me out at all. Close up shop, go sear some steaks, I’ll tidy up here and meet you upstairs in five.”
He hooked a thumb in the pocket of his black silk trousers, still taking in my doubtless red cheeks. “Will I be escorting you to the kiddie pool, or do you think you’re big enough for the deep end?”
I laughed. “Where on earth did you learn that turn of phrase? You haven’t been to a swimming pool in your life.”
“From you. And you’re deflecting the question.”
“Depends what I’m in the mood for and if you are going to be a rogue or a gentleman.”
“Which one leads to jumping in the deep end?”
I looked for something to toss at him, found nothing that would not be damaged, and formed a burst of compressed air instead, which he tried to catch and ended up ruffling through his red hair. He laughed and moved away, humming a jaunty tune. I shook my head, my cheeks still hot, and tried to return my attention back to the books, but I kept wondering…I’d only ever seen him shirtless twice before…and even then, only had one decent look at him. Not that I was willing to be reckless to see more. Definitely not. I planned to stay well away from the free-flowing wine.
I hardly heard the locks slide, grind, and groan their way to security, but I knew from the contented purr through the floorboards that not only was the shop itself happy, Mordon was, as well. They’d been worried about me—everyone had been. The day that a letter had formed itself out of a curl of smoke and a tendril of flame, I may have seen my father’s handwriting on it and fallen into an angry rant and refused to open it. On top of my frantic panic at having the man I’d killed reappear mysteriously from the dead, I hadn’t exactly been faring too well in the steady nerves department.
He’d spoken out publicly addressing my statements. I’d read the speech in the next day’s Thaumaturgical Tribune.
Cole Addresses Swift’s Allegations, Expresses Sympathy
TRANSCRIBED BY SIMONA ECCLES / AMERICAN SORCERERING TODAY
Upon my safe return to my family, I was made aware of the trial and hardships Miss Swift has endured as a result of my carelessness.
First, I feel it is my civic duty to apologize for all she has had to endure. Although some would say I owe her no such apology, I feel one is required.
As to Miss Swift’s allegations, I am as surprised as anyone else—however, I do understand the cause behind it and I know the reason for her conviction.
As with many sorcerers, I protect my family and home. Miss Swift’s story goes to a time when my beloved wife, without my knowledge, contracted Miss Swift for housework. As I was not aware of the arrangement, I did not release the protective wards within my house. These wards are of a delusional, persuasive nature, intended to frighten by employing the target’s own imagination. I use this rather than lethal force, but it is said to be the most frightening thing to ever endure.
Miss Swift did witness as she said she did, but it was an illusion. Not knowing this, she returned at a later date and confronted me. Being in a state of agitation myself, I reacted unwisely and, though misinformed, Miss Swift behaved bravely and in the belief she was doing good. It was an unfortunate turn of events and I am sorry for the disgrace and discomfort she has had to endure on my behalf. The courts must release her at once from any and all culpability.
It was an accident and an illusion. It was not real. I furthermore expect and anticipate apologies to be given to her from those who have maligned her good name and brave nature during my weeks of absence.
Thank you and good night.
“He’s up to something,” I said to myself, glad for a little bit of time to think without being stared at. “A bigger fish than little ol’ half-feral me. But what?”
Nothing came to mind. Cole was clever, I knew that much about him, even if I knew little else. Once I discovered what he was doing, then what? Find a way to foil it without entering the limelight, that’s what. The last of the cloth-bound books nestled in place, making a satisfyingly pleasing arrangement on the shelf.
I stood, stretched my stiff back, and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Was someone here, despite the way the doors were locked? Casually, I fell into a defensive position with my ring held in front of me to face the intruder.
It was a woman. She held herself upright against the glass display case which glittered with jewelery at a flash of lightning, blindingly bright light filling the shop. My ears stung immediately afterward with the clap of thunder directly overhead. The rain pounded harder. When I next could see, the woman hadn’t moved, but she had doubled over, and her cry of pain echoed with the next burst of lightning and thunder.
She spoke. I couldn’t hear what she said. Brown hair askew, she took shuddering gasps and tried over and over to tell me something. She looked pregnant and in distress, but her sudden appearance had me wary. I approached her and leaned my ear in closer and closer, until I could make out her words.
“Are you Feraline Swift?”
She looked up, now certain I’d heard her.
How she knew my name, I could only guess, but I saw no reason to deny it. “I am. Who are you?”
“Josephina.” Wild-eyed, she grasped me by my shirt and dug talon-like nails into it. “Gregor Cole…was dead.”
I wetted my lips. “The papers say he just went missing for a time.”
“He was with Death and we both know it! He was snatched out of purgatory and placed back on the earth. And they want to do worse. Didn’t say what.”
I hadn’t felt so exposed since I’d had a classmate confront me about cheating on a college algebra pop quiz, wanting to deny all she said but being unable to do so convincingly. I ignored what she said about Death.
Josephina had the black, shining eyes of a bird of prey, one which fear had touched and driven to wit’s end. She begged, “Don’t let me fall into his hands. Promise it. Swear it! On a blood oath, swear to me you won’t let me into his hands.”
Though I tried to step away from her, my feet were rooted in place. I explained, “Josephina, I can’t. I don’t know anything about what’s happened to you. Let me fetch someone who can help you.”
“You can help me. If you want to help me, swear.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Inimicus inimico amicus, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Now, swear—” A scream of agony broke off the last word, curdling my blood. Her face went red and white with pain and her free hand clasped my arm and her fingers sank into my forearm.
Lingering half-way between staying beside her and running off, I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I was wasting time but not knowing what I should do.
“Sit down, I’ll get Mordon.”
“No time.” She threw back her head and forced her body to relax a fraction. “It’ll be here in minutes. You know Cole. You know what he intends. He wants me.”
“He’s not my enemy, he’s the lapdog. The real enemy, the real one—” She stifled a scream. “Immortal. Is the Immortal. Will you let him have me?”
I stared at her, suddenly my mind was blank yet filled with questions. How did she know about the Immortal? About purgatory and Death? How did she believe in actual manifestations of the things people thought of as myth?
The wind thrashed against the ceiling, finding crevices to enter the shop through, making the papers shift and shake. Any dismissal I’d had for her earlier was gone; I couldn’t tear my eyes from her. A vital part of Cole’s mysterious plan was right here before my very eyes.
I couldn’t draw myself away from her.
I stood there, gazing into eyes wide and black with exhaustion from too many portals and too little sleep, understanding the depth of her concern the longer I looked at her. By the time she had settled into breathing shallow little puffs of air, it was as if a piece of her soul had left her and entwined with mine.
Damp clothes hugged her body, her wrists and ankles livid with angry red welts. Images of ropes burned into my head. No bruises, no beatings. They didn’t want her information.
But they had wanted her.
Our eyes met again, my expression saying that I knew what I saw written on her body. The dip of her head and wet strands of hair falling before her face communicating that she’d been afraid I’d bar the door from her.
By the time the sweat dried on my own skin, the wind tickled goosebumps up and down my arms with the expanse and collapse of her chest. Not too long ago, I’d come to this shop seeking help, too. With the memory of my own desperate hope—and the realization that this may have been how Mordon felt upon first seeing me—my last inkling of wariness was disappearing.
“No. He won’t have you.”
Crazy as it all might be, insane as I might be, terrified as I was of this woman and her condition and of whatever she might ask of me, I knew that for certain there was no way I was going to back down from her needs. No matter how frightened it made me feel.