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Chapter 10: The Outsider

Detective Blackhorse awoke determined to go and lay eyes on the woman whose name kept coming up in interviews with the townspeople. He wanted to see for himself if there was anything to their suspicions. Normally, he took accusations of witchcraft made against misfits and outsiders with a grain of salt. More often than not, they were baseless and born of bigoted thinking. People always feared and despised people they did not understand, who didn’t fit in. However, Detective Blackhorse wasn’t entirely sure that was the case this time. The memory of that ring of power surrounding Dakota Field’s house was still fresh.

He couldn’t be sure whether or not exhaustion had played a part in the growing sense of foreboding, which came over him, as he approached the deceptively cheerful looking house that night. The very trees around it seemed to radiate dark energy. Of course, Officer Schneider’s outlandish tales about evil spirits inhabiting trees might have been partially to blame for that impression. Detective Blackhorse wanted to visit again, in the light of day after a good night’s sleep and meet the mysterious woman whose name seemed to be on everyone’s lips and draw his own conclusions.

Blackhorse parked in the same spot, he had chosen on his first visit to the forest. Leaving his jacket in the car, he set off on foot, wanting to enjoy a few moments of peace and collect his thoughts. In the full light of a sunlit summer day, the forest seemed harmless. The gnarled trees took on a folksy, whimsical look. He half expected to see fairies flitting around. As Blackhorse approached the trees around Dakota’s homestead, he gradually became aware of a creepy sense of uneasiness. Was someone watching him? He paused and glanced around, straining his ears, but did not see or hear anyone. A rustling of leaves made him turn quickly, in time to see a squirrel scuttle away. He chuckled, silently chastising himself for being jumpy.

The trees nearing the clearing were progressively large and old, emanating energy from which he felt slight vibrations tickle the soles of his feet. He imagined their massive roots had been burrowing into the soil for centuries, gradually reaching deep into the crust and drawing on power emanating from the earth’s core. Standing at the edge of the clearing, Blackhorse looked up and saw that the trees around it formed a canopy over the home of Dakota Field, effectively filtering the cheerful sunlight which bathed the rest of the forest. The dappled shade turned windows into black holes and gave the weathered wooden house a cold harsh appearance. The garden to the left of her home was planted up with various herbs. Blackshear realized that he was looking at the home of a hedge witch and her guardian spirits resided in the towering trees.

Blackhorse was startled out of these musings by a growl quickly followed by a volley of threatening barks. The large Rottweiler previously corralled in the house came bounding out from behind it. Blackhorse resisted the urge to turn and run, knowing instinctively that as long as he didn’t step inside the ring of power and approach the house, then the creature wouldn’t cross the line still furrowing the dirt. As he stood watching the beast’s frenzied barking, Dakota seemed to materialize in front him.

Where had she come from? Blackhorse stood his ground, ignoring the dog lunging ever closer to his thighs baring its sharp fangs. Instead, he took in Dakota’s long black untamed mane, framing a surprisingly youthful face in soft waves. His gaze drifted down along her generous curves, over to the mocha skin of her arms taking in the tribal tattoos peeking out from short sleeves and through the summer weight crocheted shawl draped over them. Seeing that Blackhorse was unfazed by the dog, Dakota silenced it with the snap of her slender fingers.

“What can I do for you Detective Blackhorse?”

“You know who I am?”

“Word is out all over town. Everyone is talking about the Indian detective called in to investigate the slayings. The bodies were found in the woods, so I knew it was just a matter of time before you paid me a visit. No doubt, more than a few townies volunteered me as a suspect. Of course, I know nothing about it. I’m afraid you’ve wasted a trip.”

“Speaking of the word around town, folks are saying the victims were put to death because they owed you a debt which they refused to repay.”

Dakota laughed bitterly, “think about what you just said. If I went around killing people who owed a debt to me, then I wouldn’t be in business very long. Dead men can’t pay bills.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“You tell me. I’m sure people have already filled you in.”

“So, you are a hedge witch.”

“If that’s what you choose to call it.”

“What would you call it?”

“I’m a herbalist. I make tinctures, poultices, medicated syrups and herbal teas. A lot of people in town can’t afford health insurance or expensive doctor visits. So, they come to me. Some of the same people who call me a witch and imply that I’m evil are actually patients of mine. Granted, many of them only come around when they’re in a bad way. Their eagerness to throw me under the bus just goes to show you that my…otherness will always make me a convenient scapegoat.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You stand there in your brown skin and you have to ask why? You might have a badge, but you’ll never be one of them. No matter how good you are at your job.”

“One of them?”

Dakota gave him a patronizing look, “We’ll always be savages to them. Nothing more than convenient scapegoats.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’ll answer a question with a question: how many of my accusers told you that they knew one of the murder victims?”

“I was already aware that they had a problems with all four of them. I’ve been interviewing people who called in complaints about them.”

“That’s not what I mean. They knew one of them on a personal level. Bet they failed to mention that, because one you find out they had an axe to grind, then they become suspects.”

“Are you saying that some people had a personal relationship with one of the vicitims?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Herbert Simmons went to school in town for about three years, before his dad got a job a couple of towns over and they moved.”

“Now, how would you know that he was one of the victims, unless you were at the crime scene.”

“Nice try detective. I was nowhere near that crime scene. Didn’t have to go near it. The town grapevine is a powerful thing. Everybody knows Herbert was one of the victims.”

“The only way they would know that is…”

“If there was a leak down at the precinct. Yeah, you best get used to that detective. Everybody in town knows what the cops know. Hell, I’m sure half the town is already speculating about your little trip out here.”

“Is there anyone in particular who you know of that might have had a personal grudge against Herbert?”

“If I was to start calling off the names of everybody who loathed that man, then we’d be here all day. Not gonna lie; Herbert was a nasty piece of work. I know for a fact that Alice Barnhill had a grudge against him. She was a teacher, until Herbert got her fired. I’m on her shit list, because I refuse to enable her addictions. Let’s see, I know you questioned Helen Brown. There’s no love lost between the two of us either. Let’s just say, she was infatuated with someone who liked me better. As a teenager, she had an…intimate relationship with Herbert. This was long before he fell in with the wrong crowd and his life went off the rails. Still, he managed to get her knocked up, right before his folks pulled up stakes and moved away. Left her high and dry to cope with her shame and raise their child alone. Of course, that’s supposed to be a secret. So, you didn’t hear that from me. The official word is that the fool she duped into marrying her is actually the father of her child.”

The sound of approaching footsteps interrupted the interview. They turned and a squat, barrel-chested man waddled into the clearing, mopping his florid face with a white handkerchief. He began coughing forcefully, using the square of cloth to cover his mouth and then stuffed it into the right pocket of his overalls. Dakota turned and gave the man a sympathetic smile.

“Oh, good morning Ted. How have you been? I see your cough has returned. Let me whip up a little something for that.”

Blackhorse took the sudden appearance of a customer his cue to leave. He brought the interview to a hasty close and took his leave of them, relieved to escape the chilly shade and emerge back into the sunlight. He was eager to look into Dakota’s allegations.

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Chapter 8: Links in the Chain

Detective Edwardo Hector returned to his desk and began jotting down a few notes, while his interrogation of Archer Miller was fresh in his mind. Pausing to think, he looked up into the anxious gaze of Madeline Miller. She was standing in front of his desk, so quietly that Detective Hector hadn’t heard her approach. Startled, he wondered how long she had been there.

“May I help you,” he asked.

“I…well, I came to see about bailing out my son and they told me to come and see you.”

“Who is your son?”

“Archer Miller.”

“I just interviewed him. He committed a pretty serious offense. So, bail won’t even be set until he goes before a judge.”

“How long will that take?”

“I really can’t say ma’am, you’ll have to contact the arraignment clerk.”

She looked lost and confused, gazing at him wide-eyed and wringing her hands. Detective Hector relented.

“Here, let me see if central booking has entered an arrest number in the database yet. The arraignment clerk will need that, to pull up his court date.”

“Thank you so much,” she gushed. Detective Hector looked up from his computer monitor and was momentarily taken aback by the watchful look on her face. The sharp-eyed look vanished. Gazing into her teary eyes, Detective Hector wondered if he had imagined it. He jotted down the arrest record and phone number for the arraignment clerk on a Post-It note and handed it to her. She smiled gratefully.

“Thank you so much Detective Hector.”

“No problem listen, I actually do need to interview you.”

“Me? Why do you want to interview me? Officer Palin already took down my statement.”

“Well, that was just a brief interview, conducted mostly just to identify witnesses.”

“But, I don’t know anything. All I did was find my employer dead. I already told Officer Palin that I didn’t see who did it. You don’t think I did it do you? You do don’t you? That’s why you want to interrogate me. You probably arrested my son just to lure me here! Or is he the target? Are you trying to get me to incriminate my son, so you can pin the murder on him? He’s innocent and you won’t get me to lie”, she blurted.

Detective Hector held up a restraining hand to halt her ranting and forestall any further hysterics. He smiled reassuringly and tried again.

“Please calm down Ms. Miller. Your son was arrested because he assaulted someone. I’m going to be interviewing Liam Anderson’s husband and neighbors, so I’m not targeting you. It’s just normal investigative procedure. As the one who discovered the body, you may be able to recall details which turn out to be valuable clues. You can understand that can’t you? Please have a seat here beside my desk.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say. I walked into Mr. Anderson’s office and he was dead on the carpet.”

“Hold on., why don’t we start by getting a little additional background information first. I see here in the database that Officer Palin already got your name and contact information. How long had you worked for Mr. Anderson?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with his murder,” she said petulently.

“Trust me, it’s relevant. Just answer the question please.”

“About five years.”

“How many days a week did you work for him.”

“Six days a week. I had Sunday’s off.”

“So, you were familiar with his moods and routines. Was anything troubling him on or around the time of his death.”

“Like I told Officer Palin, Mr. Anderson was a little on edge but that wasn’t unusual. He was always a little on edge.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“He had a lot of what I guess you could say was nervous energy. It made him kind of short-tempered and impatient. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but Mr. Anderson was always preoccupied with his business dealings, so he really wasn’t the best listener. When things weren’t going well, he could be a little… abrupt and jump to the wrong conclusions.”

“Like the time he accused your son of stealing from him and called the police?” She nodded wordlessly, tears welling up in her eyes. Detective Hector quickly changed the subject, before she cold go off on a tangent about it.

“How would you characterize Mr. Anderson’s interactions with his husband?”

“They were happy…for the most part. But, recently things had become a little…tense.”

“What do you mean tense?”

“I’m not a busybody. But, working in that house every day you couldn’t help but hear it when they argued.”

“What did they argue about?”

“Well, Mr. Stanfield didn’t like some of Mr. Anderson’s clientele. I got the feeling that there were some…shady things going on.”

“Shady? You mean illegal? Like what?”

“I can’t really give you any specifics. Like I said, I didn’t snoop around and Mr. Anderson never confided in me. I’m just the housekeeper. But…Mr. Stanfield had issues with the way that Mr. Anderson…procured some of the artifacts he sold.”

“Interesting. From what I understood, he ran his business from home.”

“Yes, that’s right. He mostly sold things through local auction houses which stored the antiquities for him. He only kept his most prized finds at the house.”

“Do you remember any recent calls or unscheduled visits from disgruntled customers?”

“Stuff like that happened all of the time. Mr. Anderson dealt in rare, valuable antiquities. So, he got more than his share of hate from people whose bids were passed over.”

“Any of them call or show up on the day of his death?”

“He did have a meeting, but I didn’t get to see who with because I was out running errands for him.”

“I thought you were more of a housekeeper than an assistant.”

“I am, but sometimes Mr. Anderson would send me out on errands when…when he wanted privacy.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“Mr. Anderson sometimes dealt with buyers who demanded a certain level of secrecy.”

“Why not just ship the item to them? Then, they wouldn’t have to meet with him.”

“For high ticket antiquities, buyers usually wanted to come and see the items before making a sizable bank account transfer as payment. Sometimes, they brought an appraiser with them to verify the item’s authenticity.”

“So, what time did you leave the house?”

“I think I left at around 11:30 A.M.”

“What time did you return?”

“There was an accident on the highway, so I was late getting back. I think it was around 4:00 P.M. The house was so still. I went to Mr. Anderson’s office, intending to stick my head in and apologize for getting back so late. He didn’t respond to me knocking at his closed door. I pressed my ear to it, thinking maybe he was in the middle of a phone call, and couldn’t hear anything. So, I opened the door and there he was…lying in a crumpled heap on the floor with blood just streaming out of his slit throat. I was so scared, I ran straight out of that house and used my cell phone to call the police.”

She began sobbing uncontrollably, her words becoming unintelligible. Detective Hector tried and failed to calm her down. He felt his frustration rising, as the volume of her wailing increased and drew attention from the other detectives in the bull pen. Finally, he sighed annoyedly and ended the interview. She immediately calmed down and took her leave of him. He was relieved to see her go. Detective Joseph Graves looked up from his desk next to Detective Hector.

“What was all that about dude? You really put the screws to her. That poor woman was in tears.”

“Nothing, I was just asking her a few simple questions. I guess the memory of discovering her boss murdered really got to her.”

Detective Hector was mystified, when Graves and the other detectives started laughing. He watched them giving one another knowing looks. When they began mocking Madeline’s hysterics, he spoke up.

“Don’t you think you’re all being a little cold blooded? I don’t see anything funny about a woman in distress.”

“That’s ’cause you got taken in by a pro. Moaning Madeline and her son are frequent “guests” at this establishment. No matter how many times one of them gets arrested, she acts like she doesn’t know how things work and starts crying about how they’ve been wrongfully accused. Get a clue dude, nobody told her to come see you about posting bail.”

“Why would she tell such a pointless lie?”

“Because she wanted an excuse to come get a read on you and find out about your investigation.”

“That doesn’t sound…wait a minute, did you say she has been arrested before?”

“Moaning Madeline has a rap sheet longer than my arm.”

“I didn’t see any charges in the database.”

“That’s because as a practitioner of magic, her crimes tend to involve the illegal use of the dark arts. Those crimes are arraigned in a different court. Anyone arrested for those kinds of acts aren’t even housed in this building.”

Detective Hector started to smile, believing he was about to be the butt of another joke. Detective Graves wasn’t laughing. Detective Hector gave him a bewildered look.

“Wait, you’re serious aren’t you?”

“Dead serious dude. You better watch your ass around Moaning Madeline. She didn’t offer you a stick of gum or a mint or something did she?”

“I…no, she didn’t offer me anything.”

“Good. Don’t put a damn thing in your mouth that she offers you and don’t ever come back and eat or drink anything, after leaving it in her presence and walking away.”

“You think she would try to poison me?”

“Naw dude, use your head. Even she wouldn’t be able to talk her way out of a murder conviction, after something that obvious. Moaning Madeline isn’t stupid. However, she’s not above casting minor enchantments.”

“Minor enchantments,” Detective Hector said dubiously.

“Yeah, mostly spiteful little shit like giving you a raging case of hemorrhoids or diarrhea. If the charges against her are serious enough, she might do something to cloud your judgement right before you interrogate her. None of it is permanent, but the effects last long enough to cause a great deal of grief.”

“I didn’t see a rap sheet on her in the computer. How do I pull up prior charges against her in the database?”

“You can’t access it in the general database. They won’t even appear on any official report. Can’t have the public requesting a copy of a police report and inadvertently finding some reference to a paranormal investigation. Civilians either don’t believe in the dark arts or they’re so superstitious that any mention of it gets them all worked up. If word got out about any paranormal investigations, the police department would either become a laughing stock or accused of going on witch hunts. We all know how the last official witch hunts ended. You can’t even access the occult crimes database without a special password. As a member of the occult crimes taskforce, they should have told you about the database or give you a password? Maybe ’cause you’re still a newbie. Ask your supervisor. He’s the only one who can grant access.”

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Chapter 57: Night Terror

Plum turned the lights off on her way out of my room. I lay in the darkness turning things over in my mind, frantically searching for a solution and despairing when I found none. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Plum using me to set a trap for Delilah. Added to the pressure of having to live my life under the oppressive cloud of an active criminal investigation for shady real estate transactions was a hex about which I knew next to nothing. To top it all off, every time sleep came, images of Delilah’s violent death would startle me awake.

Seeking to distract myself from such dark musings, I allowed my mind to wander back to the time before I met Plum and recalled how uneventful it was. Back then, life seemed to be passing me by. My loneliness felt like a life sentence. I would have done anything, just to have someone to talk to. How ironic. My wish finally came true and I was surrounded by people, but none of them could be trusted. That made me feel even lonelier than those solitary nights I’d spent crying my eyes out. Plum was my best friend and she had basically ruined my life. I actually felt safer, back when I had no friends. In light of all the trouble my new circle of “friends” was drawing down on me, being alone suddenly didn’t seem so bad.

But the hex had effectively ended any serious thoughts about striking out on my own. As maddeningly selfish as Plum could be, I felt safer by her side with that curse on my head. In the midst of my troubling thoughts, exhaustion closed over me. I dropped into a deep dreamless sleep. Moonlight was streaming in through the window beside my bed, when a chill in the air roused me. The temperature in the room had dropped several degrees. Only half awake, I shivered. My comforter was on the floor and realized I couldn’t retrieve it because I could not move. Startled fully awake, I sensed a presence in the room. Unable to lift or turn my head, my eyes scanned the room and detected the dim outline of someone in the darkeness by the door.

That shocked me, like cold water dashed in my face. For a desperate moment, I allowed myself to hope that Plum or one of the other ladies had just slipped in to check on me. The shadowy figure stayed in the opposite corner, still as a statue. That definitely wasn’t normal. My heart leapt into a gallop, making it hard to breathe. I gasped and saw my hot breath huff back out cloudy in the cold room. I suddenly recalled all of the witches who had recently died in that very house. A chill raced down my spine. I tried and failed to speak, to cry out for help. My vocal cords seemed to be paralyzed, along with the rest of me.

I could feel the shadowy figure intently watching me from across the room. Menace radiated out in my direction. In the blink of an eye, the figure shot across the room and I finally saw who it was. Moonlight shone on Delilah’s dead face, as she bent over me, leaning down until our faces were inches apart. The blood and gore from her crushed head had dried and crusted on her ashen skin. Delilah’s voice was an unintelligible croak as her hot breath blasted me in the face.

My eyes went wide with disbelief, as her bony fingers slipped around my neck and began crushing it. Everyone always says your life flashes before your eyes, when you’re dying. That did not happen to me. I was in too much pain. My entire focus was on getting oxygen into empty lungs, which felt like they were on fire. I must have blacked out, because the next thing I knew the lights were on and Plum was asking me if I was okay.

“Hell no, I’m not okay! Delilah just tried to kill me again,” I sputtered.

“Sorry about that sweetie, we really should smudge this room.”

“That’s not going to help me. I’m cursed remember? That makes me a sitting duck. Delilah will just keep coming back, until she succeeds in killing me. How do I get rid of the hex?”

“I told you, Hiromi has all the answers. The person who cast the spell has to be the one to break it.”

“Well, then I am royally screwed. Hiromi doesn’t care about me. Once she realizes that I failed in the mission she sent me on to kill you, she’ll be far more likely to kill me than to help me. “

“That’s why we’ll have to force her hand. Are you up for it?”

“At this point, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to break this curse.”

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Chapter 58: The First Wave

Ted spent a few indecisive moments looking from Marko to his dead partner, until a sudden building rattling energetic explosion sounded upstairs. They flinched, eyes darting upward nervously as plaster rained down from the ceiling. Ted panicked and shouted into his walkie talkie requesting backup. His request and questions were met with silence. Marko was reaching for the walkie talkie, when a chorus of muffled screams from the upper level halted him. A multitude of heavy footfalls thundered across the floor above their heads, followed by the patter of running feet.

Janet and Andrea exchanged anxious looks, instinctively moving closer together. Several portals abruptly popped open around them with startling flashes of light. Marko herded them against the wall, bracing himself for combat, as strangers came rushing out of the portals. Ted placed a restraining hand on his arm.

“It’s okay Marko, they’re Doorkeepers,” he explained.

They stood watching the newcomers rush in around them and hastily start regrouping. A larger portal opened and two men came through dragging a injured man between them, whom they lay on his back. The man’s body twitched and tremored ceaselessly. Marko called out to the two men.

“Hey, what’s wrong with your friend?”

“One of those winged demons managed to sink his fangs into Paul’s shoulder,” said the tall one.

“Then that man is infected! Why the hell did you bring him down here?”

“We couldn’t just leave Paul behind.”

“You sure as hell could and should have! You’ve put us all at risk for exposure by bringing him down here.”

“Look man, I don’t know where you came from but, us Doorkeepers stick together!”

“In another minute or so, he won’t even be human anymore! Either take him somewhere else or get a containment field around him.”

The two men defiantly crossed their arms, as the other newly arrived Doorkeeper spell weavers gathered around. Marko looked from one to the other incredulously.

“Did you hear me? Get him out of here or behind a containment field, before it’s too late!”

When the others made no move, Ted spoke up, “do as he says guys. He knows what he’s talking about. Gavin refused to listen and look at what happened to him.”

The group turned and seemed to see the prone body of the pudgy Doorkeeper for the first time. One look at the blood pooling under his head was all it to took for some of them to turn and hastily spell weave a containment field around their now convulsing comrade.

“Did anyone else get bitten or scratched?”

The men avoided looking at him, instead glancing furtively at one another. A ginger haired young man reluctantly raised his hand, looking around self-consciously. Those closest to him warily took a step back, opening a small space around him. Marko crossed his arms resolutely.

“You all know what that means. He’s going to have to get inside the containment bubble with the other one.”

The ginger haired man’s friends started to protest, but he went willingly. A moment later, Paul let out an unearthly scream, as a pair of large bony projections broke through his scalp growing into massive curved horns. Transfixed, the group moved closer. They realized the constant twitching in his body were the sinews and muscle bulking up. The girth of Paul’s arms and legs were slowly expending into trunk-like masses. His skin darkened into a muddy grey tinge. Horrified, the other Doorkeepers shouted his name. They eyes which opened in response to their cries were red and predatory. There was no gleam of recognition in Paul’s gaze. As the last of his humanity slipped away, he uttered a scream which gradually changed in pitch to a deep bellow.

Fully a barrel chested beast, Paul slowly rose up onto his haunches, eyeing them warily and growled. His comrades backed away slowly. Taking their cautious retreat as a sign of weakness, Paul attempted to lunge at them. His attack was blocked by the containment field. Undaunted, Paul leapt again and again, seeking out a weak point in the energetic field. The ginger haired man backed as far away from Paul as the containment field would allow. Ted grew concerned and turned to Marko.

“We can’t leave Carl in there with that thing. He’ll get trampled!”

Marko held up a finger to forestall his argument, directing his attention back to the activity inside the containment field. Carl was doubled over on his knees. The seams of his clothing strained and then split apart, as his wiry frame expanded and lengthened. Tufts of hair were sprouting all over his body. The furry hands covering his face and the widening feet bursting from his tight shoes spread into paws with fingernails and toenails growing into sharp claws. Carl suddenly stretched out on all four claws, surveying his surroundings through bright green feline eyes. Seeing Ted peering down at him, Carl swiped at his face with extended claws and succeeded only in raking up sparks from the containment field.

Suddenly aware of Carl’s presence, Paul turned and charged at him. Carl evaded the attack with ease, sitting back on his haunches and then leaping up onto Paul’s broad back and began mauling it with razor sharp claws. Paul frantically attempted to reach back over his shoulder and pull Carl off. The Doorkeepers crowded around, arguing amongst themselves about what to do, until an unearthly scream startled them into silence. Another one of their number was mutating. They turned and quickly scrambled away from a black haired man. His back arched, as a pair of leathery flesh colored wings sprouted from his back. They could hear bone knitting together as the wings grew and slowly unfurled. The goosebumps on his arms, legs, feet and face germinated pale scales. Marko shouted, to spur them into action.

“Don’t just stand there! The others of their kind will be here soon and we’ll be overrun. Do you really want to expend your energy maintaining containment fields? Yours friends died as soon as they got scratched or bitten. I hope you see that now. You all know what must be done.”

Marko’s words fell on deaf ears. Panic had set in. Rather than banding together, the men scattered eyeing one another. They hesitated long enough for the black haired man to complete his transformation. Belatedly, Ted rushed forward and launched a volley of enchantments which missed their target, as the bat winged creature took to the air. It flew straight up to the arched ceiling, turned and dove down towards the group, twisting and turning to avoid the spells cast it its direction.

In selfish attempts at preservation, while ducking and dodging its outstretched talons, the others launched weak individual attacks on the creature. One or two spells struck the winged creature, succeeding only in making it more angry. As if sensing the weakness in the Doorkeepers’ disorganized defenses, Carl and Paul began charging at the containment field hurling themselves at it. Ted began to pant from the exertion of running, hurling magic and reinforcing the containment field. Between gasps, he shouted to Marko.

“I don’t understand why we can’t bring that thing down. We are some of the Doorkeepers’ best spell weavers. Why is our magic not working? That creature’s relentless attack is breaking our concentration and wearing us down. Panic is causing the others to become unfocused. I can’t maintain the containment field all by myself. If it breaks down, we’ll have two more demons on our asses!”

“Whatever bit that man must have been an elven vampire,” replied Marko.

“A what?”

“An elf brought back from the dead by a vampire. The only thing other than ancient magic that will kill it is steel.”

Marko looked around and caught sight of an antique coat of arms wall plaque with crossed shields mounted on it. He grabbed Ted’s arm and pointed at it.

“Are those swords made of steel?”

“I…I’m not sure…I think so.”

“Well, there’s one way to find out.”

Marko ran over to the plaque and wrestled one of the swords from its mount behind the coat of arms.

 

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Chapter 57: Reconnaissance

Marko was still arguing with the spell weaver, when a bang sounded in their midst.  The group ducked, looking around for a shooter. They were bewildered until Janet drew their attention to a red dot of light which suddenly materialized, right in front of her. They watched it grow steadily into a small pulsating orb, that momentarily hovered in place, before weaving and darting among them. Marko protectively pushed Janet and Andrea behind him. 

The pudgy spell weaver snickered derisively at Marko’s wariness and the orb flitted into his face. Pointedly ignoring it he said,” as you can see. Ted and I have things under control down here.” He swatted the orb away and it zipped back into his face. Marko smiled despite himself. The spell weaver sighed irritably and brought his hands up on either side of the orb, murmuring a quick binding incantation to encase it. Marko shook his head.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Is that so? Well, I don’t really care what you think. You’re not a Doorkeeper. So, your opinion doesn’t matter.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s a fairy.”

“That makes no difference to me. Only a low level fairy would manifest this insignificantly small. Besides, it’s invading the Doorkeeper compound and making a nuisance of itself. It needs to be taught some manners.”

The spell weaver laughed again, watching the orb frantically flitting around inside the invisible trap. It began to emit a frustrated high pitched shriek, which was initially muffled then steadily grew in intensity, until the others reflexively covered their ears. The spell weaver held out for as long as he could, sneering at them. Eventually, he gave in to the ratcheting pain in his eardrums and released the orb from its prison.

He was caught off guard and ducked awkardly, when the orb charged at him. It was their turn to laugh at the orb’s small measure of justice. Then it began singeing him. They laughed uneasily at the tatto of burn marks appearing on his face and hands. His irritated shouts became startled barks of pain. The others instinctively backed away watching with wide eyes as the orb suddenly shrank and flew inside his ear. The spell weaver was momentarily dumbstruck, his eyes growing wide.

The group looked on helplessly, as he began clawing at his ear and screaming in agony. They looked to Ted, expecting him to spring into action, dismayed to see that he appeared to be immobilized by fear. Marko tried to get his attention. The spell weaver was transfixed by his partner’s suffering. Marko stalked over to Ted and grabbed him by the arms, shaking him roughly.

“Come on man, do something!”

“I…I don’t know what to do,” blurted Ted.

“Isn’t there some sort of spell you could cast to get rid of the damn thing?”

“Not without hurting Andrew. It’s inside of his head!”

The agonized screams abruptly stopped and Andrew dropped to the floor with blood dripping from his ears. They were alarmed by his stillness. His eyes were open and staring sightlessly at the ceiling. He had stopped breathing. They were cautiously approaching his body, when the orb suddenly reappeared. Ted dropped into a defensive stance, knees bent and arms raised for spell weaving. The others held their breath, bracing for an attack. Instead, the orb shot straight up above their heads and disappeared. Ted heaved a sigh of relief.

“Oh, thank the Lord. I’m so glad that thing is gone.”

“It isn’t gone. It went upstairs. I think it’s conducting reconnaissance of the compound. You better get on the radio and warn the others,” Marko snapped.

“What are you saying?”

“Let me ask you something. Are there enchanted artifacts from the Unseelie Court in the Doorkeeper vault?”

“Maybe…I really don’t know. Sage is the one who inventories the antiquities vault and he’s in no condition to even answer that question right now. Why?”

“I think that little fairy is a scout for the Unseelie Court and it’s going to report back to them. It’s only a matter of time, before they come for us.”

“What’s the Unseelie Court,” asked Andrea.

“A troop of traveling fairies.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad. You mean like Tinkerbell?”

“Not even close. The Unseelie Court fairies are the damned who dwell in cursed places. They’re basically marauding demon’s with wings. I think Mukesh has enlisted them with promises of powerful enchanted weapons and jewels from the antiquities vault. Ted, tell the other spell weavers to hurry up and get their asses down here!”

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Chapter 56: Wrongfully Accused

Plum left me alone, so that I could rest, with a promise to send up a dinner tray. She admonished me to eat everything, because I needed my strength. I was sound asleep, before the door closed behind her. What felt like a moment later, a nudge awakened me. Thinking that Plum had forgotten something, I opened my eyes expecting to look up into her smiling face. Seeing Delilah caught me completely off guard. My first instinct was to brace myself for a second attack, so it confused me to see her standing there with a dinner tray. I attempted and failed to sit up, eyeing her warily as she slammed the tray on the dresser across the room. She turned to me, with her arms crossed.

“Plum forcing me to serve the bitch who murdered my mother is a slap in the face! Well, you know what? She didn’t say I had to hand it to you, so get up and serve yourself!”

“I did not kill your mom Delilah.”

“Yes you did! I saw everything, while our minds were merged.”

“Then be honest with yourself and admit that her death was a terrible accident. If she hadn’t attacked me, then she would not have died.”

“You could have helped her, but you chose not to. Just like you choose not to help me get my coven back!”

“How did it become my responsibility to save you both from your own reckless behavior?”

“I hate you!”

Delilah lunged at me. Too weak to move, all I could do was lay there. She straddled my chest, pummeled my face with her fists and then started choking me. Her hands felt like a steel vise squeezing my neck. I clawed weakly at them, my strength continuing to fade as my oxygen dwindled away. Delilah did not even seem to feel my nails gouging her hands. She tightened her grip, staring fixedly into my eyes and smiling.

“At first, I was going to poison your food. But this is so much more…satisfying. I want to prolong your suffering, before I let you die,” Delilah growled through clenched teeth.

I saw stars and my vision was blurring out, when I heard shouting coming from the hallway. Someone ran into the room and pulled her off of me. All I saw was a pair of hands grasping Delilah’s shoulders. Then there was a tangle of bodies wrestling on the floor, as Carrie, Shanice, Kimberly and Crystal came running and joined the fray. Delilah was punching and biting anyone who tried to restrain her. They persisted in their efforts, yelling at her to stop resisting.

They all piled on her and held her, until she stopped struggling. All at once, Delilah uttered some sort of incantation and they went flying off in every direction. I winced at the sight and sound of them hitting the walls. Kimberly was launched backwards into the hall and struck the far wall over the staircase, before dropping and tumbling down the stairs. Delilah looked like a madwoman, standing in the middle of the room whipping her head around to glare at them wild eyed. Her her hair was standing up all over her head. In between heaving breaths, she warned them to stay out of her way. They were still struggling to their feet, when she came at me again. Carrie, Shanice and Crystal managed to get to their feet and hastily knitted together a conjuration to restrain her.

Delilah’s advance on me was abruptly halted, as she was dragged backwards kicking and screaming. She turned and uttered a counter spell consolidating their expelled energy in her hands and using it to whip them. I watched in shock and dismay as she cracked the lambent lash and it tore at the arms they threw up to shield their faces. She found their threats and pleas amusing. Delilah whipped them mercilessly, laughing and uttering imprecations over their disloyalty.

Fed up, Carrie unleashed all of the energetic force she could muster. Unprepared for the frontal assault, Delilah was blasted backwards across the room. There was a sickening crunch, as the pointed corner of my dresser pierced the back of her head. We all froze, staring fixedly at her body jumping and twitching like some obscene marionette, until her death throes dislodged her body. It dropped to the floor in a heap and still, none of us moved. I heard Plum at the foot of the stairs, exclaiming over Kimberly and asking her if she was okay. Then, she came charging up the steps and burst into the room.

“Are you all okay? I came in from the patio to get something to drink and I heard all of the commotion. What happened?”

Still in shock, we looked at one another for a few silent moments, at a loss for words to describe the enormity of what had just occurred. Since the whole incident had started before they had entered, I cleared my throat and told Plum about Delilah hurling accusations at me. Then Shanice jumped in. Before long, we were all talking at the same time. Carrie began weeping inconsolably, as she explained how Delilah had died. Plum consoled her, allowing Carrie to cry on her shoulder for a few moments.

She directed Shanice to take Carrie away from the distressing sight of Delilah’s crumpled body and the gore dripping from my dresser. Plum grabbed an old blanket from the linen closet in the hallway and enlisted Crystal to help her roll the body onto it. They carried Delilah off somewhere and I heaved a shaky sigh of relief. Crystal came back with a rag and bucket of soapy water to scrub away the blood and brain matter. When Plum returned a short time later, closing the door behind her, I was still all shaken up. She came and sat beside me on the bed.

“Are you alright darling?”

“I…to tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I can’t really say I’m surprised that Delilah attacked me. After all, she actually succeeded in killing me once.”

“When we came home the other day to find her bleeding, you gone and neither of you willing to explain, I knew that something nasty had gone down between the two of you. What I didn’t realize was how resentful Delilah had remained, until she stabbed you. That kind of anger and resentment…hatred really, is toxic to a coven. It made her a danger to us both. As the founding member so to speak, of this ragtag coven, she still wielded some influence over the girls. So, there was always a chance that she could get them to turn on us, when we least expected it. That’s why she had to go,” Plum said placidly.

“You say that like you planned all of this…wait, you knew this was going to happen?”

“Well, I didn’t know exactly how things would unfold, but I knew that Delilah wouldn’t come out of it alive.”

“How could you be so sure?”

“Think about it Patricia. Delilah’s own coven pretty much abandoned her. That’s enough to piss anybody off. There was that blowout she had with you and lets not forget her resentment towards me for taking control of the coven. She was basically a ticking timebomb. All I had to do was light the fuse.”

“So that’s why you asked her to bring me a dinner tray! But she could have killed me, before anyone knew what was happening!”

“Not a chance. Why do you think there was no drink on that tray? I pretended to forget, waited a few minutes and asked Carrie to give it to you.”

“Oh, so she’s the one who pulled Delilah off of me.”

“I’m sure that Carrie going against her yet again and sticking up for you after all they’ve been through together pretty much pushed her over the edge.”

“But why put us through all of this? If you wanted Delilah gone, why didn’t you just banish her from the coven?”

“And have her out there somewhere plotting and planning against me? She might have joined a rival coven and told them everything she knows about us and how we operate or just attack me out on the street somewhere. No, she had to go.”

“Well, why didn’t you just kill her yourself?”

“Weren’t you listening a minute ago? As the founder of this coven, the girls will always feel some measure of affection for her. They knew her long before us. If I was to kill Delilah, then they would always resent me on some level. She’s like family to them. As you just saw, resentment has a tendency to fester. We are about to go up against some pretty powerful rivals Patricia. If this coven is to have any hope of surviving, then the girls must be completely loyal to me. Otherwise, our spells will be weak and at any given time one or all of them could decide to jump ship and join one of the other covens. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take advantage of this teachable moment and talk to the girls about controlling their emotions and focus during battles. Don’t look at me like that darling, I’ll do it in a sympathetic way.”

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Chapter 7: Conspiracy Theory

Detective Eduardo Hector sat across from Gustaff Karlsson awaiting his assistant Aron’s return with the client list. One awkward silent minute dragged on into five, under the weight of Gustaff’s unwavering appraising gaze. Hector’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket and he was relieved to have an excuse to leave the room.

“Excuse me Mr . Karlsson. I need to take this call.”

He stepped into the hall and answered his phone. Officer Palin said, “You’re not going to believe this. The neighbor Nathaniel, who I interviewed for the Liam Anderson murder case, is in the hospital. Before lapsing into a coma, he told his nurse that the assault that very nearly killed him was in retaliation for the stuff he told me about the International Trading Company and their black market auctions. Get this, the assailant is the son of Liam’s maid. We’ve got him in custody and he doesn’t deny it. He actually confirmed that there’s a price on Nathaniel’s head. Did you want to question him, before we finish processing him?”

“Most definitely, thanks for the heads up man. I’m actually still at the trading company. Give me a few minutes to wrap things up here and I’ll head back to the precinct.”

Hector stepped back into Gustaff’s office smiling broadly. His host warily returned the smile, watching him sit back down.

“I have to give it to you Mr. Karlsson, you sure don’t believe in wasting time,” said Hector shaking his head.

“Excuse me? I’m at a disadvantage here Detective, given that I have no idea to what you are referring.”

“I haven’t even left the premises and you’re already attempting to hunt down my witnesses.”

“I really must apologize. I’m still in the dark here.”

“Now I know why it’s taking so long for your little assistant Aron to get that client list printed up. He’s been busy getting the word out that there’s a price on the head of my witness!”

“More baseless conspiracy theories. A less tolerant man would be offended by all of these baseless accusations. Oh good, here is Aron with the list now and not a moment too soon. You have just worn out your welcome Detective. Is there anything else you require? I’m a very busy man and this little…meeting has taken up far too much of my time.”

“No, not right now. Rest assured though, I will be back…most likely with a warrant for someone’s arrest.”

Hector made it back to the precinct in record time, eager to see if he could come up with enough evidence to return to the International Trading Company with an arrest warrant. Nathaniel’s assailant was Archer Miller. Hector took a few moments to peruse the rap sheet that Officer Palin had printed off, noting a string of charges for petty theft, armed robbery and assault. Entering the interview room, he quickly appraised the suspect. Archer was in his early twenties, long and lean with mid-length greasy hair curtaining his spaced-out eyes. He sat reared back in his seat, absentmindedly yanking on each end of the pull string of his hoodie. He declined Hector’s offer of water or coffee.

“So Mr. Miller, I understand you assaulted Nathaniel Boyce today.”

“Is that his name?”

“You mean you didn’t even know what his name was?”

“I knew his first name. We’ve had words several times before. He’s always giving my mom shit for parking in front of his house, seems to think he owns the entire damn street. When they told me about the price on his head, I jumped at the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone so to speak.”

“Who is they?”

“Just some guys I vibe with, they clued me in. Hell, the word is out on the streets. I just happened to get to him first.”

“Who ordered the hit?”

“Look, I have no problem taking responsibility for what I did, but I ain’t taking nobody down with me.”

“Fair enough Mr. Miller. So, why is there a price on Mr. Boyce’s head?”

“All I was told is he’s got a big mouth. Rats like him have to be eradicated ’cause they’re a threat to the coming new world order.”

“New world order? That sounds like some illuminati bullshit. I hate to break the news to you pal, that organization hasn’t existed since the 1700s,” quipped Hector.

“That’s what you think,” Archer snapped.

“No, that’s what I know,” Hector persisted placidly.

“Oh yeah, well then explain all the chaos going on in the world right now. All the violence constantly jumping off in the streets is just one symptom of the corruption in our diseased political system. The end time is coming. More and more people are joining the resistance every day. ‘Cause they’re fed up. The eye of providence is all around you dude. Why do you think Liam had to die?”

“You tell me.”

“Because he wouldn’t sell that grimoire to the right person and it’s the key. He wanted to sell it to some private collector who didn’t even know what the hell it was, just to make a bigger profit,” said Archer.

“That grimoire is the key to what?”

“Everything man…” murmured Archer peering intently at Hector through locks of tousled hair.

“So you attacked Liam, just like you assaulted Mr. Boyce.”

“Naw dude, don’t try to lay that at my feet. I don’t do wet work. That’s a little too… intense for me.”

“People do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally do, when there’s bad blood, like what went down between the two of you. I hear you were enraged, when he accused you of stealing from him and then called the cops. You wouldn’t be the first person to murder someone to settle a score.”

“That was just a misunderstanding. I’m telling you dude, you’re barking up the wrong tree. I had nothing to do with that.”

“So who did it?”

“I got no idea. Of course to be honest, I wouldn’t tell you even if I did know. Whoever offed that asshole did the world a favor,” Archer said with a sly smile.

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Chapter 57: Past Echoes

Richard awoke and lay still, cautiously sifting through his dim recollections of the previous day. The loss of his mother was still razor sharp. Everything else was disjointed and distorted by a haze of migraine pain. He recalled the shock of a stranger looking out at him through Harriet’s eyes and realized that he had seen that strange look in her eyes before. At the time, he hadn’t understood what it meant. Richard still was not certain. What he did know was that shift in her seemed to make the pain in his head worse.

By the time they had made it back from the nursing home, the unrelenting pain had rendered him insensible. He had no recollection of going up to his room and lying down. At some point, he had stumbled downstairs for a glass of water. Richard could not recall what happened next or how he wound up back in bed. He awakened a short time later in darkness, to find his sister sitting by his bed with Joshua standing over her. They were whispering. Richard detected tension in the harshness of the whispers. Their silhouettes were dimly visible in the moonlight streaming in through his open window. Joshua grabbed her arm and she yanked it out of his grasp. Confused, Richard had struggled to sit up and focus his bleary eyes.

“What’s going on? Why are you two fighting,” he asked

The other woman spoke with Harriet’s voice blurting, “now look at what you did Joshua. You woke him up.”

They offered hasty reassurances, urging him to lay back down. Joshua allowed himself to be shooed out of the room. But Richard was wide awake.

“So, my brother knows about you too? How long has he known?”

“I just found out that he was aware of my presence, so I can’t really say,” Samentha murmured.

“Who are you?”

“Why do you ask questions to which you already know the answers?”

It was strange hearing his sister speak in accented English. It sounded African to him, though he had no clue from which region. Richard couldn’t get over the fact that the harsh, husky quality of the stranger’s voice was completely contrary to Harriet’s soft halting tones. In place of his sister’s timid stoop shouldered posture was erectness with a proud lift of the chin. The effect was remarkable. In the dim light, Richard felt as though a complete stranger was sitting beside him. He was at a loss for words, but felt compelled try and figure out what exactly was going on with his sister. Was she just pretending to be someone else? Was Harriet having some sort of nervous breakdown and didn’t know who she was…what did they call it…a fugue? Maybe, if he said her name, he could bring her out of it.

“Look Harriet, I don’t really know anything about your life, before you came to live here and mother adopted you. I’ve heard that trauma can cause people to develop split personalities,” Richard murmured.

“You don’t know or you don’t remember,” queried Samentha.

“Huh? Mother never told me anything about your past. What are you trying to say?”

“Let me put it this way, what can you tell me about your life before you were adopted?”

“I was in foster care…”

“Before that Richard, where did you come from? Who were your parents,” she prodded.

Richard attempted to cast his mind back before his time in foster care and discovered that he could not remember anything. He attempted to push past the mental block and it made him feel anxious. The woman sounded scornful.

“That’s what I thought. You’ve got a lot of nerve trying to psychoanalyze me, when you don’t even have the balls to face up to your past and where you came from. People around here look to you as some sort of savior. What would they think, if they knew how big of a coward you are?”

“Look at whose talking! You’re afraid to tell me who you are.”

“You know who I am Reshard!”

Richard felt a sudden stab of pain between his eyes. “If you’re going to call me out, at least have the decency to pronounce my name correctly,” he snapped.

“I am pronouncing it correctly Reshard,” shouted Samentha.

The name struck his stunned ears again, sending shockwaves through his mind. Richard sat bolt upright with his fingertips at his temples, in a futile attempt to halt the agonizing bombination by applying pressure. A sudden flood of repressed memories exploded into his conscious mind. He tried and failed to make sense of the many disjointed sounds and chaotic torrents of images. The onslaught continued until Richard blacked out, his already overwrought nerves short circuited by the traumatic mental and physical pain.

Awake hours later, Richard was confused. How long had he been unconscious? A few minutes or a few hours? It was dark outside. Was it a new day or the same night? Had it all been a dream? He turned his head and was relieved to find himself alone. But a chair was beside his bed. So, Harriet or…or someone had actually sat with him.

In the morning, Richard felt a stab of anxiety with the realization that leaving his room meant that sooner or later, he would see his sister again and be forced to deal with everything. In that moment, Richard wanted nothing more than to talk to his mother about it. She could tell him where he had come from and help him put things into proper perspective. He did not always like what his mother had to say, but she always said what he needed to hear. What was he going to do without her wise counsel?

As he fretted over his problems, growing fear and anxiety spurred his heartbeat into a gallop. Richard felt himself struggling to catch his breath. In a few moments, he would start to hyperventilate, if he didn’t get his breathing under control. Richard forced himself to take deep breaths, in order to stave off a panic attack.

He had not experienced one of those since…since the dark days after his wife had tried and almost succeeded in killing him. Richard hurriedly conjured up a more pleasant memory. He was giving serious thought to just staying in bed, when a soft knock sounded at his bedroom door. Without waiting for permission, Joshua opened it and stuck in his head inside the room.

“Oh good, you’re finally awake. You were in such a bad way last night, we let you sleep in today. I hope you’re feeling better, because there’s something you need to know.”

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Chapter 8: Like Pulling Teeth

Chester strode into the Sit N’ Dine, half an hour after he had agreed to meet at the diner. Marcus looked up and forced a smile onto his face, to match his friend’s lopsided grin and mask his irritation. Ordinarily, he felt cheered at the sight of his buddy. Recent events had him questioning everything he thought he knew about the man. Chester weaved around tables and slid into the booth across from Marcus.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“No worries man, why break the habit of a lifetime? I knew you’d be late so I went ahead and ordered the usual for us.”

“Thanks dude, so what did you want to see me about? You sounded a little upset over the phone. Have you found out what happened to Cat?”

“That would be a neat trick, since you neglected to tell me some very important details.”

“I told you everything I know.”

“Quit playing man! Your mother told me more…”

“My mother? You told my mother about this? Why the hell would you do that?”

“Because you gave me nothing to go on Chester.”

“Well, you wasted your time going to her. You can’t believe a damn thing she says.”

“So, you actually don’t have the gift?”

Caught off guard, Chester momentarily froze. His eyes darted away guiltily and Marcus had his answer and shook his head in disbelief. All those years of friendship, with a secret like that being kept from him. Chester was like a brother. Didn’t he trust Marcus? How many times had Chester used his talent right under Marcus’ nose? More importantly, had Chester ever used magic on him? It felt dishonest… like a lie by omission.

Marcus sat back and impatiently waited for an explanation. It was obvious that behind Chester’s frozen smile was a frantic assessment of how much his friend might know and calculation of how much to divulge. To Marcus, that degree of caution meant there was more to the story than he was likely to get out of him. Chester was about to lie. Not wanting to lose more trust in his friend, Marcus spoke first.

“You know everything about me. I can’t believe you would keep something like that from me.”

“You’re descended from a long line if witch hunters I…”

“Oh come off it Chester! You know damn well you can tell me anything and I would never hold it against you.”

“Ok fine, you wanna know the truth? I kept my gift a secret, because it was the only competitive edge I had. Don’t look at me like that Marcus we competed all tge time and you know it. Everything always comes so easy to you. You’re good at everything you try. I had to use magic, just to keep up. That’s all I ever used it for, I never cast a spell on you or anything.”

“Don’t try to make it seem like my life was a breeze Chester. We were roommates. You saw how hard I worked. Nothing came easy for me either. I did well, because I put in the work.”

“Yeah well, I tried too. Some of us just fall short. As the first person in my family to go to college, I was under a great deal of pressure. Failure was not an option. It would have meant proving Aria right.”

“Your mom wasn’t supportive?”

“Not at all. She thinks college is for norms who weren’t born with the gift. I don’t know why they even call it ‘the gift’. Having powers has always felt more like a curse.”

“If you’re waiting for me to shed a tear, then you’ll be waiting a long damn time. Most people would kill to have magical powers. Having them sure as hell would make my life easier. You can literally use magic to whip whatever you want up out of thin air!”

“It’s not that simple. Surely you of all people understand that Marcus. Didn’t your folks ever explain it to you? There’s always a catch. Using magic takes a toll on the spellcaster…it exacts a price. You studied physics right? Then you know Newton’s third law also applies to magic: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The bigger the spell, the higher the price.”

“I take it your sister also has the gift but elected to use it, rather than follow in your footsteps and live a…normal life. Don’t even bother denying it Chester. I searched her apartment. Your mother told me that Cat is uses her talent to grift. Don’t you think it was important for me to know any of that?”

“To tell you the truth, I figured you already knew. My sister has a tendency to…hook up with my friends and then use them. I’ve lose more friends thanks to her. You mean the two of you never…”

“What? No, I barely even know your sister!”

“You’re a good man Marcus. Sometimes, I forget how honorable you are. You’re right, totally should have told you about her lifestyle instead of assuming you knew about it.”

“So, how about telling me the whole reason why you asked me to find her.”

“I already told you why. I haven’t been able to reach her and when I went looking for her, I had a run in with some crazy dude.”

“Some crazy dude?”

“Yeah, I don’t know if it was some mark she screwed over or an ex-boyfriend…”

“Cut the crap Chester! I happen to know that Luca Moretti is looking for her. One of thugs was snooping around Cat’s apartment. He’s got syringes and bottles of truth serum. So, Luca either believes that she saw something, heard something or took something she shouldn’t have…which is it?”

Chester broke eye contact again. A haunted look flooded his eyes, as they flitted around the room. Marcus resisted the urge to fill the uncomfortable silence, knowing instinctively that his friend needed to confess something. The waitress came and sat their plates in front of them. Marcus busied himself with his meal. He was almost finished eating, when Chester leaned forward eyeing him anxiously.

“Alright Marcus, I’ll level with you. But this has to remain between us. I wasn’t going to share this with you, because I figured if anybody asked you about it then you could honestly say you knew nothing about it. A week ago, Cat was hanging out at my place. An associate of mine stopped by and asked me to hold something for him. He handed me a duffle bag in private, but my sister has a bad habit of eavesdropping. It wouldn’t have been too hard to figure out anyway, since he walked into my house with the bag and left without it. I didn’t even look in the thing, I just chucked in a hall closet and forgot all about it. Three days later, the dude turns up dead. Word on the street was, he stole something from some very bad people and they tortured him over it.”

“I’m assuming Cat took the bag. But how would anybody even know she had it?”

“Because, she is trying to sell the contents to the highest bidder.”

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Chapter 9: Killer Confession

Caitlyn continued to scream hysterically, until Diedra slapped her across the face. The effect was instantaneous. Caitlyn looked dazed and then came to her senses. She started to speak, then looked back over Deidra’s shoulder towards the bathroom mirror and her knees buckled.

Deidra caught Caitlyn and walked her over to the bed, supporting her weight and then easing her down onto the mattress. She lay back, curling her body up into a tight ball. Deidra sat beside Caitlyn and gazed anxiously down at her tear streaked face. Vincent had placed the girl under her care.

If he returned, before Deidra got her calmed down, it was obvious who would get blamed for Caitlyn’s upset. She shuddered just thinking about the pain he might inflict as punishment. Caitlyn abruptly sat up, looking tormented. Was she about to start wailing? Deidra cast her mind frantically about for some way to soothe her.

“Are you thirsty? I’ll get you a glass of water,” she blurted.

“No thank you. I’ll be alright. I’m just a little upset. I didn’t realize that I…that the change had progressed. I’d convinced myself that letting those…monsters feed on me was okay, that it wouldn’t affect me, as long as they didn’t complete the process. I should have known better. All those times I attacked people…I thought it was just a fever dream. That’s what Vincent told me and I believed him, because I wanted it to be true.”

“I know it looks bad right now, but the changes might not be permanent. Maybe, if you stop letting them sink their fangs into…”

“And do what? Go back to solitary confinenent in the dungeon? Go back to life under Heather’s thumb? She hates me Deidra. I’m not strong enough to cope with her sadistic mind games.”

“If you put your mind to it, you can deal with anything. Look how far you’ve come. You found a way to get out of the dungeon once. You’ll do it again. Besides, you won’t be alone this time. I’ll help you. Together, we’ll find a way to get out of here and go home.”

“You really mean that don’t you? You’re such a good person. I wish we had met sooner. Things might have turned out differently. You’ll make it out if here for sure, but I can’t go home. It’s too late for me. I’m not even human anymore.”

“Don’t say that! You just got a little freaked out by your appearance…”

“No, it’s much more than that Deidra. I’ve done…horrible things. You’d be surprised by the evil things a good person can do, under cover of darkness. Or maybe I did them, because I never was any good. The first time I took someone’s life, it felt cataclysmic. Committing such a sinful act…but then the sun rose on a new day and it was almost as if it never happened. Nightmares came for me of course, but you can get used to anything over time. Besides, the thirst for blood drives out all other thoughts. At first, it only comes over you at night. Then it grows, as the change takes hold. I’m thirsty all of the time now, it’s just not as…intense during the day.”

A chill raced up Deidra’s spine and broke her scalp out in goosebumps. She shook her head, wanting to negate the confession. Shock sometimes made people babble. The way Caitlyn was staring vacantly at some invisible spot on the wall certainly made her appear not to be in her right mind.

Deidra opened her mouth to point that out and interrupt her terrifying speech. She didn’t want to hear any more of it. What Caitlyn had already said, in that weird robotic monotone voice, was unnerving. Deidra suddenly recalled the way Caitlyn had crawled towards her across the ceiling of the dungeon with eyes glowing and canine teeth extended to slash at her flesh. She remembered the agonized screams of the man being ripped apart that night, by others of Caitlyn’s kind.

The vivid unbidden thoughts sent her into a tailspin of panic. With a jolt, she realized that the petite flower of a girl, perched on the bed in beside her, became something altogether different at night. Less than an hour ago, Caitlyn had leapt from that bed, intent on killing her. What had she just said about being thirsty for blood all of the time? Deidra tried not to think about the fact that the door to the hall was still locked and the bathroom door lay in spinters all over the floor. There were no hiding places left.

With her thoughts taken captive by those traumatizing realizations and suppositions, Deidra had to force her attention back to the present by degrees. She became dimly aware that Caitlyn’s lips were moving and Caitlyn was looking right at her. For one terrified moment, Deidra couldn’t hear her. What did she miss? Was Caitlyn about to attack her again? Would she be as strong as she had been during the night? Deidra had to block out the onslaught of terrifying thoughts, in order to counteract the paralysis of fear.

“I’m sorry Caitlyn. What did you say?”

“I want to give you something.”