onceafairy-2-01

10/20/14

I had a dream last night of a beautiful man. Not like the men I see every day, who are beautiful in their own way – of course, none of them so much as my lost-forever Jay. No, this man was beautiful in the way of the Faerie, which I’ve never seen beyond my own reflection. I have always heard of dreams, and though I have slept in this world tens of thousands of nights, I have never had a human dream.

Perhaps it wasn’t a dream. Perhaps he was reaching from my homeland. Perhaps he has come to take me home.

And I would start my “fairy tale” all over again.

I could dare to hope for a new start, to leave these endless days of longing and grief behind, to stop hiding my magic… but this beautiful man had something dark within. His eyes were not quite right, and he had a glamour to which I was drawn in spite of my repulsion and fear. I’m quite certain I have met him before, in that other world. A time which I cannot remember. If he is what waits for me in that shimmering, sunlit world, I certainly do not wish to go.

I saw this beautiful man, but neither of us spoke. I could not run away. He lifted a flute and tilted his head, as if to say, “Remember?”

But what do I know of music? I have only ever played one instrument – my voice – and for only one man. And I shall never see that man again.

Perhaps it was only a dream.

No, a nightmare.

 

***

Help me,” the spirit said, a whisper on the wind. “He’s after me!”

Lana blinked, distracted. It had been almost a year since she had heard such a voice, whispering to some unknown receptor in her mind or soul, like a spark from a far away candle.

She had thought such things were over for good – and with it, perhaps her time in this world drawing to an end.

“What’s wrong?” Matilda nodded to the waiter for more coffee. She was a coffee addict without shame. Her face lit up as she watched the fluid fill to the brim. She took a deep inhale and sighed happily, as she did with almost every cup, with the wide-eyed excitement of a child. Lana smiled, and declined her own refill with a polite head shake, still enjoying the last sips of the locally brewed beer. Matilda would have preferred a coffee shop to this bar with its pretentious candlelight and ethically sourced wood. Lana loved it for those very reasons.

Matilda indulged many of Lana’s strange whims, and Lana in turn indulged Matilda’s sometimes unfathomable joys, and so they made the best of friends. Lana was eminently grateful for this woman, who reminded her in these last difficult years of so many things she loved about the human world: curiosity, whimsy, joy, wonder… and loyalty. Lana sighed. She probably hadn’t been as appreciative of that loyalty as she ought to be. Trust had become a difficult thing for her.

She smiled softly as she watched the curiosity in Matilda’s warm brown eyes. She chose to share honestly, to trust, if only in a small way. “Yes, I think it’s okay. A lost spirit’s voice.”

“Oh my! It has been a while, hasn’t it?”

“It has.” She had not spoken of what that silence might have meant for her future, however. Matilda understood her as well as any human ever had, but there were some things Lana held back. She had learned it did not help to get too close, too soon… and she had known Matilda for only 3 years.

“Do you need to go?” Matilda stirred cream into her beverage.

Two men – deliciously, vibrantly young, and equally attractive – entered the bar. Lana squinted against the setting sun, but still saw how they stared at her, captivated without understanding why, how their auras changed from orange (such a typically college color) to the red of passion, how they had a hard time pulling their eyes away. Lana lowered her own gaze, not out of any sense of false modesty, but simply to be fair. She kept most of her power over humans hidden away, but she could not change the glamour of her mere existence. Even covering her face wouldn’t fully reduce the power of her born magic, but limiting eye contact did seem to help.

She had experimented. After all, there were consequences of being a fairy on Earth. This was not a problem most people cared to hear about, so she mostly kept it to herself and did her best to limit potential harm.

“Lana? Do you need to go?”

She shook her head. “No, I think there is time. It was first contact, and… She seems faint, definitely not next door.” She took a sip of the beer. It gave her energy, as coffee did most other people. “She may return to lead me somewhere, but not yet, I think.” She added softly, “She seems scared, though.”

She settled back in the booth, soaking in the feel of the wood – not as lovely as the support and communion of a living tree, but still comforting. She felt suddenly… recharged in a way she hadn’t in such a long time. So much of her uncertain future had been looming ahead of her, casting a shadow. She had tried not to think about it, but deep within, she knew she was not ready to return to that unknown world… not at all.

Lana hadn’t even let herself acknowledge how afraid she had been. Now she let herself feel relief at a difficult decision saved for another day.

After all, there were more pressing matters in the mortal world.

“So! Tell me about your new beau.”

Matilda lit up, and not just her always-pink aura. She glowed, from the inside out, as she did every time she fell in love. A charming sparkle, as if her skin was made of mica harnessing the sun. She wore a knitted black hat – she not only crafted the hat, but also spun and dyed her own yarn – that made her face-framing brown curls look even daintier than usual. Her face was round, almost impish. She wore a black dress with quilted, brightly-colored planets, the skirt balanced over layers of tulle which weren’t quite agreeing to stay under the table. “Oh, Lana! He’s amazing! He’s so kind and such a good listener. He writes books! He reads tarot cards, even! We have so much in common. You should see his Twitter! He’s so funny.”

She looked dreamily off to the side, straight through the young men who looked like they might still be thinking about approaching. “I’m in love!” she said loud enough for the whole bar to hear, throwing her arms back and giggling. The potential suitors turned their attentions quickly elsewhere.

“I’m so happy for you, dear.” A deep sense of loneliness belied her words… a loneliness that had been coming on for a while. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, to take one of those young men home with her tonight. Perhaps the blond and blue who looked like he could be on foreign exchange from Norway…

But no, that wasn’t her way. She didn’t use people, however tempting it might be. Besides, she was over all that. She was an old lady, for all intents and purposes. Yes, they would see a tall, slender woman in her mid-twenties, with silver-blond hair and deep green eyes – but inside, she felt gray and so, so old. Sometimes she wished her appearance hadn’t frozen in time on her wedding day. It would be easier to show her true age, she often thought.

“Can I do your cards?” Matilda was already pulling the velvet holder out of her over-sized maroon patchwork bag. “Maybe there will be love in the cards for you, too! Then we can double-date.”

Lana couldn’t help but laugh. “Girl, sometimes you’re more old-fashioned than I am.” She worked at keeping modern vernacular, especially since the time she had once been caught using “chum” decades out of fashion. “But no, dating isn’t for me. I am far too…” old, she thought, “…different,” she said. She would leave love to her human friend, who seemed to be smitten every other week (and heartbroken in between, though Lana sincerely hoped that would not be the case forever).

“Lana!” She rolled her eyes, clearing the table. “No one is more different than me.” Oh, if only you knew, Lana thought. “If I can find true love, anyone can. Besides, you’ve been married before. There’s no reason you… well, you know, no rush. But still, your cards are always so interesting. Please?”

Minutes later, after halfway-properly respectful coffee-and-beer-meditation-slash-card-shuffling, the layout was complete. The Empress was in the center: her card, always the randomly first-drawn. Lana suspected Matilda of slight-of-hand, though she swore that was not the case. Sometimes Lana suspected there was more to Matilda’s talents than simple New-Age enthusiasm, but she had not yet figured out what that might be. She was crossed by Transition, in other decks known as Death. This also came as no surprise.

The rest of the cards were laid out in Matilda’s own unique pattern around the Empress. “Two men, you vixen!” Matilda ignored the other brightly colored cards, working instead toward the love story she carried around in her heart at all times. Lana recognized a few of them well enough from repetition, however, to see what she already knew: a life that was influenced by death and loss; the Emperor in her past – Jay – the man of balance, solid foundations and clear vision; that she was now watched over by the Sun (always a little odd, considering how bright light generally made her feel tired) that she felt represented her intrinsic connection with the natural world. Matilda interpreted the sun to demonstrate the joy and opportunity available in life.

“They come soon, and not far apart…” Matilda continued to study the cards, referring to her book. (She claimed it was just as meaningful; she just couldn’t memorize all the meanings.) Lana glanced inconspicuously at the men at the bar. Too young. “The first is the Knight of Wands, a defender and an agent of change… there’s an implication of self-sacrifice with him being crossed by loss with the Four of Pentacles….

“The second guy, I don’t know. He’s the Magician, which sounds right up your alley, but he’s reversed and crossed by the King of Swords, also reversed. I can’t get a read on what that means. The book doesn’t make sense of it, either.” Her face scrunched up, then she said, “Maybe they fight over you?”

“Matilda-” she started in a gently chiding voice, then smiled. She had a sudden flash of fortune-telling of her own – something that happened as rarely these days as voices of the dead. She had seen it so suddenly, so clearly, that she didn’t think twice before blurting out in delight: “You’re going to have a baby!”

The light quickly left Matilda’s face. She seemed to grow smaller, physically, though Lana knew it must be an illusion of the light. Her voice was barely a whisper. “That’s not possible.”

Lana rushed to reassure her. “No, not now, that’s not what I meant. But… within a year, you’re going to be a mom.” Matilda’s eyes were pools of fear, and she shook her head slowly, sadly. “That’s not possible,” she repeated. She sat so still and looked so pale, Lana was worried she might be about to faint.

“You know what? Ignore me. I’m being silly; it was just a passing fancy.” She reached to pat her friend’s hand, and tried to smile reassuringly. “You know how I can be.”

“But you’re never wrong about that,” Matilda hissed, snatching her hand away, swiping the cards into a rough pile before tossing them in her bag. She was definitely upset; she usually treated the cards like they her most prized possession. “Why would you say such a thing?”

Lana stammered. “I- I’m so sorry. I thought you would love to be a mother.”

Matilda looked on the verge of tears as she packed up her bag. “I have to go.” As she slid out of the booth, something caught her eye and stopped her.

“Matilda? Please, don’t go like this.”

Swords!” It came out as a whisper. Her eyes were wide.

“What?” Lana’s head was spinning. She wished she had the power to reverse time, to take back what she’d said that had upset her friend so badly. But no, of course she wouldn’t have any useful magic. She had the horrible feeling something had changed between them for good – or perhaps she had been blind to something between them that she had never understood, because she was so eternally different from the people around her. From the people she loved. She felt on the verge of tears herself, but forced the surge of emotion down.

She was long practiced at forcing feelings down. It wasn’t hard.

Matilda leaned toward her, wiped away an escaped invisible tear, and smiled – though it clearly took some effort. “Okay, you owe me.” She tilted her head toward the bar. “Look who’s wearing a UVA sweatshirt! Cavaliers, Lana. Swords!”

Lana sighed. Yes, the shirt did indeed have crossed swords emblazoned across the chest. “I guess you’re going to want me to talk to him.”

Matilda brightened a little – and just like that, things were back to normal, or at least seemed to be. “You bet your tall trees I am!” She nodded her head vigorously, curls bouncing. “You can’t ignore destiny.”

 

****

He was so close, now.

What torture it had been to watch her from afar, unable to touch her, to smell her, to taste her. He shivered. An eon of desire, pent up inside. He could still feel the last lingering magic he had stolen from her – though it wasn’t really stealing, as she was his – coursing through his veins.

When he got to her, he wouldn’t waste a moment. He had wasted enough time – decades of peering through the a pea-sized window between worlds, decades of learning her clunky adopted language – but he was close enough now to taste the victory. He would finally be able to cross over and vanquish the Unworthy. How dare they talk to her, to consider her their equal? Lana (as she was known in her foolish adopted world) was born to be a queen.

His job was to make sure she ruled.

Never again would the hands of the Unworthy touch her. His pleasure ebbed momentarily as he considered the hands that had caressed her, the man that had dared to call her Wife. As if she could be such a trifling thing.

He would have to punish her for that, of course.

But then, but then, he would love her for the rest of time. As he had loved her, unconditionally, from the moment he had first seen her. How clearly he remembered their first night together, though he had himself been barely old enough to walk. He had crawled to her crib of morning glory vines, nestled in a glen sparkling with decorative Faerie stars, fully prepared to hate her. The forest had celebrated her birth as royalty. The birds had sung a wretchedly joyful chorus. Creatures had circled around to coo, sing and dance.

And what of him? Her born enemy, he was not celebrated at his birth, nor ever. He was just another troll child, unappreciated, forgotten. Even his parents hated him, giving all the best, tasty small creatures they captured to the eldest boy, calling him “strong as a rock,” patting him on the head as they nibbled worms. Brokk (his given name, long since tossed away) was better than any of them – better than anyone in the forest – and he knew it.

Brokk waited until Frayda (her given name, ever so much more fetching and appropriate to a queen) was unattended, then crawled from beneath his rock. He crept to the side of her crib, drawing his tongue across the sharp ridges of his teeth, aching deep inside for his first kill. His kind usually stuck to the critters that skittered and wiggled along the forest floor. Even at his young age, however, he knew his tastes were more sophisticated. He would serve his hunger and take this indulged beast from the world before she could grow strong and do harm to him and his people.

But then he had dug his fingers into the dark green, thick-woven vines and pulled himself clumsily up, and he had seen her true beauty. She looked at him – right at him – and smiled so sweetly. Her warm golden light touched him and captured his heart. She was just a baby, but he alone saw all she would become, the woman she would become. That was the moment he knew: she hadn’t been born for the Faerie kingdom; she had been born for him.

He pulled himself over the edge and nestled in beside her, sniffing her strange soft skin. Without knowing quite why, he wrapped his hand around her neck. She squirmed. His hand barely covered half of her warm, pliant throat, but his long gray fingers made up the difference. He held on firmly for a few moments, feeling the dual life force throbbing under his rough skin, watching with wide-eyed fascination as she coughed and turned blue. He let go and traced the flow of energy as it continued down the center of her small body, locating its center in the middle of her chest.

Her power – no, his power. He felt on purpose for the first time in his life, that his first birth had been incidental, but in this moment he was born into his true reason for being. He lowered his teeth to her neck, feeling the blood flow as she whimpered pathetic baby tears. No one came to save her. How tempting it was to take her blood then. Oh! The power and control he felt with her destiny under his sway. Instead, he held her down and brought his mouth to her chest, where he drank from her other life force – her magic – and giggled as it surged through his veins. Ignoring (enjoying, the thought he pushed down now) her cries and squirming resistance, he almost went too far.

He was startled when her parents approached, the so-called King and Queen. He barely escaped, surging with magic beyond his years. Oh, it was unfair how much power the High Faerie were born with, how much unfair advantage – but he was righting the imbalance.

He continued to make it right as he crept back to her sleeping glen, almost every night, week after week, for years. He held her close and told her he loved her, then drank her magic. Only the trees watched, and they didn’t have the language to betray his secrets. Sometimes he played Frayda music on his stolen flute to quiet her, but more often he put a hand over her mouth and told her he would kill her and everyone she loved if she cried.

She was so smart, from such a young age. Such a good listener.

He grew strong and hearty, and his parents were delighted with their new favorite son. They gave him all the juiciest, most tender slugs, danced circles of delight around him, and ordered his brother to lick the dirt off his feet. (Brokk was a kind brother, though; he always shared his dinner before allowing Dain to bathe him.) They called him the Best Child, and prepared him for a future outside the Boulders.

They taught him to use his increased magic – powers far beyond those any troll had ever known- to change his appearance, to grow tall and lean, long-limbed and pale, to blend in with the High Ones. He apprenticed to a jeweler, though his interest was not truly in gems. It allowed him to blend in and learn the ways of the High Faerie, preparing him for his future as their leader.

He never could change his gray eyes, but few noticed. Those rare children who did – particularly the ones who dared mock him – he lured away and killed. This sated his taste for blood for entire years at a time.

Meanwhile, his love for Frayda grew stronger every day, though as she grew older she increased her fight and struggle. She talked back more than was good for her, until he was forced to take more of her power to weaken her determination.

She did tell her parents about him -often, as he watched from nearby, delighting in her futile attempt – but they were too foolish to guard their most precious possession. They deserved whatever happened to them for their carelessness. Still, it grew increasingly difficult to keep her quiet long enough to get what he needed. In the end, her fight motivated him to learn magic to control others – a gift really, as it helped him strengthen his abilities.

Since they heard nothing in the night, her parents were convinced it was merely the delusional fantasy of their weak, sickly child. She had turned into a disappointment as a future queen, barely able to walk in the sunshine, much less able to cast a spell for the well-being of her kingdom.

Brokk knew what her parents did not, however: they had served their purpose in existence by bringing Frayda into the world. She was destined to be his possession, to help him become the kind of king the Faerie truly needed. Every night he kissed her lips and throat and heart, he imagined their shared destiny: to rule this land.

Until…

He cursed even now at the memory of their last night together (a memory as clear as that of the first), a night that should have been perfect: a full moon, and Frayda growing out of her awkward childish shape into a feminine, womanly beauty. His own adolescence had come years before, deepening his desire for a more intimate connection. Holding her, touching her, being near her… it had always been the center-point around which his life revolved, but of late it changed into something more. At first he was afraid of the desire, but soon he relished in the fierce craving that laced his every waking moment. His sensory experience of being close to his love was increasingly overwhelming, until it was no longer her cries he struggled to subdue, but his own moans of pleasure.

He had vowed inwardly not to take her before she was a woman – he wasn’t a monster, after all – but he thought perhaps tonight she would be ripe. She had been taken away the week before with other young women for a secret ceremony, and he suspected some rite of passage; it seemed an encouraging sign. Tonight, the monthly moon celebrations were occurring far away, and the family had – as always – left their sickly child behind in a silent glen to heal in the light of the moon.

He stripped his clothes as he approached, but kept his High Faerie affect on, his dark hair draping down his back. She woke from a light sleep on a bed of moss – she never slept deeply – wearing a thin, transparent shift that made him hard. The light shone softly on her skin and silver hair. A rabbit hopped away. She sat up, slowly. “I’m not going to let you come here anymore, troll.”

Brokk wasn’t worried. Frayda had made such protestations before.

He smiled and sat next to her, caressing her hair, then wrapped it tightly in his fist and pulled. He watched her fight down a gasp of pain, her green eyes darkening to the color of the moss they sat upon. He licked his lips. “Oh, my love, you know that’s not true.” He kissed her throat, then her lips, releasing her hair with a sigh. “You know I love you. You know this was meant to be, that you were born for me. Call me by my name.”

She shook her head. “No. I know you’re an evil troll who has haunted me my entire life, and made me ill to steal my birthright. You’ve stolen my family by making them think I am crazy. But that’s all about to stop.” She held up her hand. He blocked it, and used his own to push her roughly to the ground.

“I love you, my Frayda. I love your magic, our magic, and…” He stroked a hand along her waist. She didn’t struggle, and she didn’t look away. In spite of her words, she wanted this, too. He placed a hand on her small breast, circling his thumb there. “I love your body. You are becoming a woman. My woman.” He lowered his mouth and took her nipple between his lips for the first time, relishing its tender feel even through the fabric. He threw one leg over hers.

Tonight was the night. It was destiny. He could feel it. He suppressed a moan. He had to stay in control. He could not appear weak, not now.

“You can take my magic. You can take my family and my crown. You can even take my body.” Her musical voice sounded so calm. It worried him a little – just a little. “But stealing something will never make it yours.”

Oh, she was getting feisty with age. He rather liked it. “You are wrong.” He grabbed the hem of her shift and lifted it between them until it was above her breast. He sucked roughly at the tender flesh, feeling his desire rise and overtake him until he was on the edge of blood-lust. He felt her wince as his teeth dug in, and he stopped himself, breathing hard.

The layers of temptation were confusing. Would he be able to stop himself, truly, if it came to that…? Perhaps once they had children, he could taste her blood, as well…

She pulled away and her resistance brought him back to clarity, to his purpose at hand. He slapped her (not for the first time), then settled his weight on top of her. He pressed her hands above her head, firm to the moss. “I’m not stealing you, my Frayda, you were born for me. For me to touch, to make me strong, to create a new world, to create a new reign.” He took just a sip of her magic from the bright spot between her eyebrows, using the extra power to immobilize her.

Leaving her arms as they were, he traveled his lips down her body. “We will make new rulers together, when you’re ready,” he whispered. He lowered his mouth to her heart, taking great gulps of the energy now.

She felt so good, so soft, so warm… He could not hold back much longer.

“Maybe tonight,” he breathed against her. “Are you ready tonight, my love?” He could hear the question in his voice, the loss of control, the desperation. He hated himself for it, but it did not matter now. All that mattered was her magic, her body, her life, so vibrant beneath him, both his for the taking. “Yes, yes. I hear you, though you cannot speak. We will make rulers with our magic,” he gasped. Breathing heavily, he shifted into the position of which he had only dreamed, poised to take more, to take everything, “My magic. Mine.”

And again, almost an incantation for the magic moment when they would finally come together as one, after his long, long years of waiting, he hissed, “Mine.”

It was the last word he spoke to her in their world.

For then, something changed. The flow of magic ceased. He could not move. He could not speak.

She replied, only the barest hint of anxiety in her voice, “Never. And thanks for teaching me that trick, asshole.” Frayda screamed for her family, and he was surrounded quickly – too quickly.

A trap!

After a lifetime of successful escape, he was caught on the worst possible night, in the most damning position – the one that should have been perfect.

Demented troll, they had called him.

Send him away, they had said.

But he had shown them.

***

Jarrod Collins sat behind the ancient, deeply scarred wooden counter, feet shamelessly propped on the surface. He leaned back on the rear legs of the equally ancient (but sturdy) chair while he read Murder on the Orient Express. He had never been a big reader, but he had to admit, Agatha knew how to spin a good yarn.

The store was open, and three customers were there, but he didn’t really have to worry about working. He didn’t even worry about talking to customers, or offering assistance. This close to closing time, it was just the regulars (aka the Denizens): Timid Tim, who read erotic fantasy under the table while keeping Neil Gaiman open on the table; Emily of the long skirts and awkward eye contact, who clearly liked Tim but showed it by sitting on the farthest opposite side of the store (girls, man) and actually reading Neil Gaiman (there are easier ways, Jarrod wanted to tell her), and Shelley, writing her second novel. Each of them bought a book or two a week to justify the endless hours they spent in the store, but none showed signs of stirring from their comfort zones anytime soon.

Jarrod had been working at Haunted World, a bookstore specializing in genre fiction, for exactly three months. He wasn’t thrilled with retail life – too much time alone with his thoughts, at least in a business that had been eaten alive by Amazon – but it meant, at least, a warm bed and food on the table (or to be more precise, on his lap while he watched late-night television).

He had met the owner by happenstance – Derek Stormborn, obviously living under an alias – and had been offered the gig. At the time, it had seemed a better option than sleeping in his car another night. When it was too quiet, though, like tonight, he felt the itch. It was sometimes too much, the threat of memories of what (who) he had lost, how much had been his fault. (All of it.)

Yes, he would resume the run from his demons soon enough.

In the meantime, however, Agatha seemed to do the trick.

The bell above the shop door rang with its annoyingly cheerful chime, and Derek entered with his usual slow, purposeful stride. He didn’t enter any room without taking a glance around. Smart man. Jarrod lifted his chin in greeting (no point in over-exerting himself) before turning a page, but the Denizens waved and smiled with a chorus of, “Hi, Derek!” Like their favorite uncle was stopping in for a chat with Auntie. He waved back. “Hello, Denizens! We’re closing in twenty.”

Derek was tall, solid, and dark skinned. He had been a Senator’s aide out of college, then bought a small paper that he sold three years later at profit. A profit with which he bought this bookstore from what he described as “an Angela-Lansbury type bound for Florida”; apparently the man had no desire to actually make money.

That was the sum total of Jarrod’s knowledge about Derek. Like Jarrod, the man kept his cards close. That was one of the things Jarrod liked about him.

Derek had a habit of disappearing into his basement “office” for whole days at a time. He kept the door triple-locked and had never invited Jarrod to enter. He was also one of the kindest, least assuming, men Jarrod had ever met. So he was probably a serial killer or something.

Jarrod didn’t really have the energy to worry about other people’s demons, though.

Derek leaned on the counter with one elbow, wrapping fingers around his hefty set of keys in the other. He waited until Jarrod looked up from the book. “We need to talk.”

“Sure, man, what’s up?” He settled the chair into its normal, uncomfortable, position, and marked his place. He laid the book down and took an arms-overhead, back-cracking stretch.

“Don’t let me rush you.” Derek tossed keys in his free hand, considering. “Remember when we met?”

Odd question. At least, when you weren’t getting it from a girl, and you hadn’t forgotten the anniversary.

“It’s hard to get nostalgic about the three month milestone, but yeah, we can celebrate over a candlelit dinner if you want. Longer than most of my relationships lately.” The bar they’d met in was off the highway, a total dive. He’d been there for hours when Derek showed up and rudely interrupted his staring contest with Jimmy Buffett clock (“It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”). Small talk about sports had led to a job offer that included an apartment above the shop.

Jarrod realized he was wearing the same jeans, white shirt, and leather jacket he’d been wearing that night. All were clean – but still, maybe it was time to go shopping.

“If you’re buying, sweetheart.” Derek stepped to the right of the long, scratched counter to the basement door, the only bright blue fixture in a shop whose color scheme was beige, brown and more brown. Three locks, three keys: one, two, three, click, click, click. “We need to talk. I didn’t tell you the whole story that night.”

“Aw, Hell, you do own this place, right? Tell me we’re not squatters.”

Derek turned to the actual squatters, speaking more brusquely than usual. “Listen up. Shelley’s in charge. Make sure no one steals anything. Turn off the lights when you leave. See you tomorrow.” He opened the door.

Emily asked, “What if someone wants to buy something?”

“Are any of you buying anything?”

They each avoided eye contact. “Right. See you tomorrow.” He started down the stairs, turned to Jarrod, and lifted a shoulder. “Well? You coming?”

Jarrod stood and followed, the instinctive red-alert signal flashing. “Lead the way, Hannibal. But I tell you, if you show me the bodies, I’m killing you myself. I’m not calling the cops.”

“Man, you are one jaded SOB.”

“I’ve been around.” It was a short stairway, ten steps, and Derek was already at the bottom.

“I know.”

That stopped Jarrod. Derek clicked a light switch. From where Jarrod stood, it looked like any basement: cement floor, low lighting, cheap metal shelving.

It might be time to run.

He heard Derek cough. “Our meeting wasn’t an accident.”

Oh, shit. He hesitated, doing the quick math: estimated minutes to throw his meager possessions in his suitcase and take off. Five minutes, tops.

“I’m a friend, Jarrod.”

Shit, shit, shit. He beat himself up, but didn’t turn tail. Yet. He had been blind, and drunk – maybe blind drunk. Still, he thought as he descended the stairs, watching for any sign of attack, he should have paid attention to the signs – like the ridiculous cover name. He should have known there was more to the story, but he had accepted a stranger’s face value like a moron.

Careless.

But now he was curious… and for now, that was enough to keep him from running. He pulled out his gun, but froze at the bottom of the steps.

“Oh, shit,” he said, out loud this time.

Derek laughed, “What, are you going to rock salt me to death?”

Jarrod scowled, but put the gun back in his holster. “Real bullets, you fucker.” He did the quick inventory: shelves filled with arcane reference books; desks scattered with books, journals, notes; walls of cork board filled with maps, charts, newspaper clippings and ciphers. All the signs were there. “Fuck me, you’re a tracker.”

Derek picked up a file and handed it to Jarrod. “Not exactly. I’m a researcher, and investigator. Over time, I’ve come to be a one-man support team for people like you, the men and women on the front lines. This file is what I have on you. It’s yours, you can keep it. I don’t have another copy.”

Jarrod took it but didn’t look inside. He knew what he would see, as clearly as the story formed in his head, the pieces all falling into place. “Right,” he said, still checking the place out. “You heard about us through the grapevine. You were scoping us out to determine if we were legit, or just players. You were preparing to reach out to us, and then…” He forced down the memories that threatened to surface like a rising tide. “Things went down.”

“And you vanished.”

He swallowed. “I did what I had to do.”

Derek sighed, rubbed a hand over his face. “I know.” He looked sad, and Jarrod couldn’t take that. He could deal with almost anything in this crappy world but pity. He turned to feign interest in a bookshelf behind him, six feet tall and just about as wide across. It was stocked with the kind of books that used to litter his old home and various motel rooms, the sort of thing Evan would bury himself in for days.

Dammit. Not going there. “What do you want from me?”

“I’m sorry about Evan, man. I’ve wanted to say that to you for a while. A lot of the guys asked me to reach out, too, or arrange a service… but I thought you needed a bit more time, some space.”

“It’s cool.” He picked at the edge of the file folder, wishing for a fire he could throw it into. If only it were that easy to burn it all away, every trace, forever. “He wasn’t my boyfriend, and I’m not big on flowers.”

He approached a wall-sized map. Yeah, these guys got around, all right. There were pins all over the country – and an awful lot from where he’d just come from, down South.

Derek picked up another file, then put it back down on the desk. “I got a tip. It’s local. I don’t have any other ghost guys in the area right now… but I’d understand if you’re not ready.”

“Man, it’s not about being ready. I’m retired.” He shrugged, palms up. He put on what he considered his most charming grin, hoping it didn’t look too forced. “I’m in the book trade now.”

Derek looked at him, unamused. “That’s funny, kid. Because I could have sworn you had one foot out the door, ready to run.”

He lost the smile. “And what if I was? It’s my life.”

“Yeah, it is. And what are you going to do? Sleep in your car? Drink your way up the East Coast? You’ll run out of gas and money, eventually. And, I’m sorry to say, your past will still be there.” He paused, stared Jarrod down. “I can help with the money. Stick around. We’re a network. We have resources.”

“What part of retired don’t you understand?” He threw the file on the nearest desk, ignoring the contents that spilled out. “I’m done. I’m out. I don’t need you, or your resources, or this damn bookstore.” It was time to go. This place smelled like his past – musty basements, old books… and secrets. He was angry, and he didn’t do smart things when he was angry. It was time to hit the road. He headed to the stairs.

“It wasn’t your fault, Jarrod. I hope you know that.”

He froze, hand on railing. “What do you know about it? You weren’t there.”

“I had guys there. They all agreed, there was no other way it could have gone down. You did everything you could.”

It was all he could do not to walk across the room and punch the guy. “You’re wrong, Derek,” he growled. “Wrong. It could have been different. We could have been anywhere but there. We could have been making out with our girlfriends at the lake. We could have been at real jobs. But instead I -”

“Stop it, Jarrod. That way lies madness. This is a real job, and you’re good at it. This job is getting more important every day.”

Jarrod looked up at the top of the stairs. It was time to go. He had stayed too long, anyway. “I don’t have a taste for melodrama.”

“It’s true, Jarrod. Listen. They haven’t stopped. It’s getting worse, in fact – and they seem to be heading this way.”

“Yeah, well, I’m heading North,” he said, not looking back. “So good luck with that.”

Jarrod had been wrong. It only took three minutes for him to go upstairs, lock his suitcase – it was already packed – and leave by the front door. He ignored the curious glances of the Denizens and strode to his car, parked across the lot of the strip mall.

“Jarrod! Jarrod, are you leaving?” It was Emily, running after him, long skirts flowing in the fall breeze. He was tempted to ignore her, but she was a nice girl. He didn’t have to be a jerk every day of the week, as a friend had once told him.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she approached, eye contact unwavering for the first time since he’d met her: blue eyes, long lashes. “Would you like to ask me for a drink first?”

He smiled sadly. “Oh, Emily, you know I’m not the one you want to ask. It’s a good question, though – you should ask that guy in there you’ve been stalking for as long as I’ve known you.”

Emily blushed sweetly, in that way he thought women only did in old books. “What, Tim? No, he’s not that kind of guy.”

Now he laughed. It sounded strange to his ears. “Are you calling me a-”

“A player?”, she interrupted bravely, still meeting his gaze. “Yeah, you do strike me that way.”

He approached her slowly, leaned in, and kissed her on the cheek. “You don’t need a player,” he said softly. “Take a chance on someone you really like.” He stepped back. “And here’s a tip: he doesn’t actually read Neil Gaiman, so don’t bother.”

She nodded. “I knew that. I love Neil Gaiman, though. Maybe that’s why he pretends.” She frowned. “Good luck out there, Jarrod. Be careful.”

“I will, sweetheart.”

Feeling like a cowboy riding into the sunset, complete with Hollywood send-off, he strode confidently away. Then he stopped and cursed when he saw the going-away gift left on the hood of the car: two file folders. He looked around, but no one was in sight.

Derek was faster than he looked.

Jarrod threw the unwanted files in the passenger seat (Evan’s seat), climbed in, and turned the key.

Still cursing, he gunned the engine and headed for the highway, telling himself he wouldn’t look at the files until he was at least two states away.

Some promises were easier to keep than others.

***

Well, this was a mistake, Lana thought to herself without great surprise. Definitely not destiny…

“So Blanton’s take on Chaucer is really dated, I think. My professor says my paper might be publishable – which is a great compliment for an undergraduate.” This man was just a kid, one who had never worked on anything harder than a term paper.

She tried to restrain her impatience at someone trying to impress her with his intellect. Chad was a child, and not just in age. She sighed. She had been through too much, and being next to this boy made her feel older by the minute. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I forgot I have an appointment to keep. I should go.”

“Really?” He lifted his pale eyebrows. “On a Friday night?”

“Yes, a date. I’m sorry.”

He looked at his friend with a frown. “That’s fine, we’re expecting friends anyway…” His frat-boy friend -probably designated wingman – nudged him with his elbow before turning back to watching (or pretending to watch) the game on the big screen above the bar.

“Could I have your number?” He lifted blue puppy-dog eyes to her. He really was adorable, but any attraction she might have felt at the start had quickly diminished with actual conversation. Chad leaned toward her, touched her elbow and said, “I don’t think I’ve never met anyone like you.”

Oh, sweetie, I’m sure you haven’t.

Before she could respond, something shattered behind the bar. People looked up to see what the bartender had dropped. Then things happened quickly: bottles on shelves behind the bar began to shatter, one by one, then all at once. People’s drinks were knocked off the bar as if a massively strong gale – seen but not felt – was blowing them away. Some people -including Chad – screamed and ducked. Some people ran, while others held their space or froze or looked for a visible enemy. Lana saw one person laughing, like they were subject to a practical joke. The TV exploded. The bartender held his head and fled for shelter.

Lana wasn’t afraid of the shattered glass, but she was frozen by fear of … something. There was a presence, not a person, behind this – and she had the instant, sinking feeling it was here for her. She listened for a spirit voice but heard none. At the same moment, she looked frantically for Matilda. “Matilda!” she yelled, fighting to be heard above the chaos unfolding around her. She couldn’t let her friend be hurt.

Matilda was suddenly at her elbow, grabbing Lana’s arm. “You’ve gotta get out of here, quick! Back door.”

Only a few others were leaving this way. They escaped quickly. Outside, in the dusk, things were calm and quiet, as if they had imagined the chaos inside. She could barely hear the noise from within; or perhaps it was over already, as quick as it started. Now that I’m gone…?

“Are you okay?”

Matilda nodded. “Did you see that? I think -”

Help! He’s after me! It was the spirit again, and it was leading her with images. She could clearly see where she needed to go. A house. She would need to go by car, but it wasn’t far. “I have to go.” She ran for her car, which was parked two blocks away, in front of her apartment.

Matilda followed her. “Let me come with you. I can help!”

Lana stopped long enough to kiss her on the forehead. “Dear friend, no, it’s not a big deal. Go, have a fun Friday night with your boyfriend.”

“Please, Lana! Let me help -”

“No, really. Go! Please.” Lana hugged her tight, hoping she hadn’t sounded too harsh, then turned and ran.

She didn’t look back.

 

**

Jarrod approached the unassuming suburban house casually, in case the neighbors saw him. The well-practiced “I-belong-here” stride. There hadn’t been much information: just a few notes from the widower, who was a long time customer who had confided a secret belief his wife was still around and causing noise, that he’d heard screams in the night. Derek had also noted that the widower would be staying with his grown children for the next month.

Jarrod had looked at the file over dinner at a burger joint, and against his better wisdom, curiosity had won out. The second file he shoved under the passenger-side seat, which seemed both disrespectful and appropriate at the same time.

He was just stopping by on his way out of town, Jarrod reminded himself on the way up the walk. It wasn’t about the job. He didn’t do jobs anymore, after all. He wasn’t that guy.

But… the town had been good to him for a while. There were some good people here. And this was just his way of repaying the hospitality. He would drop by, check it out… see if it was your average left-behind spirit or a Rogue like he’d dealt with down South.

And what if it was? He wasn’t on the case, anymore, no. So he would check out the situation… then give Derek a heads-up on his way out of town.

Heading North.

There was no car in the driveway, but the door was ajar: the forgetfulness of age or someone inside? He approached with caution, and rapped twice. “Hello? Anyone home?” There was no answer. He entered, then closed the door behind him.

The house was dark. He stood in the entrance as his eyes adjusted. A delayed response came from the living room, “In here.”

It was a soft voice that greeted Jarrod, bordering on musical. He felt a tingle at the nape of his neck – not the one that said Run away (that voice he would never dismiss again) – but the other one, the one that said, Pay attention, moron. This is important.

Jarrod hastened to explain his (break-in) presence. “I, um, got a report… have there been strange noises?”

“Come in, I’ve been expecting you… kind of.” There was a pause. “Why are you after her?”

Pay attention, he reminded himself.

“After who?” He followed the voice into the first room on the left, then could only stand there, staring dumbly. A woman – a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman, at that – sat cross-legged before the fireplace. Everything seemed normal about her: jeans, blouse, long blond hair. With hands resting on her knees, she looked for all the world like a J. Crew version of the Buddha.

All other things the same, he would have assumed he had interrupted someone’s meditation session. You couldn’t go five feet these days without someone telling you how meditation changed their life… but all things weren’t the same. For one, she was glowing. For another, she was staring at him with luminous green eyes that drew him in from across the room.

She was utterly captivating – which was a shame, considering how she obviously wasn’t human.

He took out his gun and aimed carefully. “Let’s make this easy,” he said. “Where are your bones?”

She didn’t look worried, just annoyed. “Really? No, just put that away.”

“Shouldn’t concern you, if you’re human. It’s just rock salt. But if you’re a ghost…” He shrugged, too bad.

The light around her ebbed, then faded completely. She stared at him, hard, for a few long moments. “It would still burn.” She narrowed her eyes. “You should be careful. Especially when you don’t know what you’re walking into.”

“Singing to the choir there, sister.” He put the gun away, feeling a little foolish… and not a little flustered. Maybe she was human, after all. He wasn’t generally prone to great imagination, but she certainly wasn’t like any ghost he had ever met.

They were a hell of a lot harder to have a chat with, for one thing, Rogue or no Rogue. “So what’s your story? You don’t live here, I’m guessing. You a Tracker, too?”

“Hmm, you’re interesting. You’re … different.” She stood slowly, unfolding herself and stretching with a cat-like grace. “She says it’s not you, so why are you here? Are you a demon hunter?”

She says? Who says? “What do you know about demon hunters? I am – I was – a Tracker, name is Jarrod. But I asked first.”

She shrugged. “I’ve met one or two. I am Lana Lansing, and I came to help a spirit pass to the next world.” Though her words were chiding, she grinned. “So what are you doing here, boy?” There was something almost flirtatious in the question.

“Boy? I’m pretty sure I’m older than you, girl.”

He would normally roll his eyes at the communing-with-spirits type, but there was something about this woman. He walked slowly toward her. She didn’t back away. A strange but not unpleasant tingling sensation began to travel from the back of his neck down his spine.

Standing mere inches from her now, Jarrod found himself staring into entrancing eyes, depths of green surrounded by ivory skin. What had he been about to say?

She returned his gaze patiently.

They were quiet for long moments, then she smiled and lifted her eyebrows. “It’s okay,” she said lightly. “It will wear off soon… I am sorry, I didn’t think it had that much affect on you.” She shrugged.

“That what had that much effect on me?” She wasn’t making any sense, but somehow he didn’t think she was crazy. He knew crazy, and this woman had a poise and clarity in her eyes that was anything but.

She was also the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. “You’re…” he started, then stopped, tongue-tied.

“Yes? What am I?” She asked as if she were genuinely curious what he wanted to say. One corner of her lip was lifted in an almost-smile. She leaned toward him, inviting his answer. She smelled like a meadow on a spring day. Okay, Wordsworth, it’s time to go. You’ve seen what you need to, get out of here.

Instead, he blurted out, “Do you…?” Jarrod couldn’t believe the words that were on the tip of his tongue, but they were out before he could stop himself. “Do you believe in past lives?” Oh, you moron, he thought.

She laughed, but not in a mean-spirited way. “Oh, honey, I believe in all kinds of lives.” She slowly looked down, tilting her head. “You should go now.”

Yes, he should, and yet… He had never wanted to leave a room less in his life.

At that moment, a primal scream sliced the air. He felt the blood drain from his face, his own survival instincts kicking into gear: heart racing, breath quickening, the metallic taste of adrenaline. He drew his gun, spinning to find the source of the noise, which seemed to surround them from all sides. He saw every detail in full clarity, even in the dark room, lit only by a street lamp’s secondary light sifting through the curtains: the texture of the bricks in the fireplace, the mismatched lines of the art deco wallpaper, the faces of the Sears portraits lining the walls.

“Seriously? What is wrong with you?” Though Lana directed her chiding at him, he could hear the alarm in her voice, too. “Can’t you tell the difference between a demon and a spirit in pain?” Just when it seemed the scream would never end, it stopped abruptly. Jarrod could feel the tingle of goosebumps, the feeling of hair standing on end.

“Dear God,” Lana said, hushed.

“What was that?” he hissed.

She stepped back to stand next to him, lightly placing her hand on his bracing arm. He felt an electric shock course along his skin. If he wasn’t surging on adrenaline already, it might have been altogether too much. “On second thought,” she said quietly, “keep that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with here.”

“We?” No way that was happening. “No, you should get out of here. This is my specialty. I’ll take care of this.”

She moved her hand away, closing her eyes, “Shh. I need to listen for a minute.”

Jarrod obliged, but not for long. A shimmering light split the air from ceiling to floor, then opened like a split seam. “Um… Lana -” Jarrod began, but was interrupted.

“It’s okay, my love, don’t strain yourself,” said a male voice that seemed to be emanating from the light, “you’ll be able to hear me without any trouble. I’m so close now. So close.”

Jarrod couldn’t look straight at the light: it was searingly bright. There was no physical heat he noticed, yet the vision was blinding. So he looked at Lana instead, who once again seemed to be glowing from the inside out. No, she was definitely glowing.

What kind of woman glowed? Is she a witch? Or a demon? She was wrong about him being a demon hunter, but perhaps there was a reason she knew of them.

“Lana…?”

She placed a hand over her heart. Breathlessly, she said, “It can’t be. Can it?” Then she whispered a name. “Jay?”

Oh, shit, Jarrod thought. What f’d-up situation have I gotten myself into now?

Could it really be him? Her lost-forever Jay? The thoughts swirled through her mind. Was he coming back from the dead? But no, that wasn’t possible. It never had been… not for any human.

But what if…?

As she stared at the shimmering light, one that sang to her of childhood and home, she thought (all in mere seconds) of the ways it could be true: if the spell she had cast on their wedding night had made him different somehow; if her people had found him and invited him to their realm; and if he had stayed in her faraway homeland until…?

Until it was time to take me home.

“Oh,” she whispered, her heart surging with joy, barely daring to hope. Please, please, she thought, one hand over heart and another over her mouth, as if to hold all her long-held, pent-up emotions – love and life and grief and longing – within.

But hoping, hoping….

The voice of the spirit again, the woman she had started to think of as a friend. It hurt her to hear the pain. “Help me! Please! I know you’re there, help! He won’t let me go.”

Lana knew from the few moments of communing with the spirit that her death had been peaceful – blissful even – and she had been ready. She had lived a full, satisfied life and was ready to pass on; but now something was keeping her from traveling to the other side. Lana didn’t even know what the other side was, only that the woman was ready – and that she had been stalked and hunted, blocked from moving on, crying out for help in the in-between.

“What are you doing to her?” Lana cried out, hoping it was some misunderstanding. Because Jay would never… “You’re hurting her!”

The young man at her side – Jarrod – said, “That was… Listen, was that the ghost? I don’t hear ghosts. Ever. Not even when…” He trailed off. “What the hell is going on?”

Lana looked at him, sturdy frame cast in the bright light: a handsome, solid face; short brown hair, handsomely cut, that framed his face like a Roman warrior; furrowed brow, deep brown eyes flecked with hazel … What was he still doing here? He certainly was different from most young men she had met of late; a full world away from the man-child she had met earlier in the evening.

His aura still wore the mix of the hero: orange of courage and white-blue of self-sacrifice – and etched, like her own, with the flecked gray of grief’s fatigue.

No, he wasn’t going anywhere. She thought it strange that he acted like he was under her glamour, but without the aura changing. That had never happened before. She found herself more fascinated the longer she studied his face: rough and scarred with emotion, in the way of humans who had lived long lives in short years.

“I’m not sure,” she answered finally, speaking slowly, “but I think he has opened a passage between dimensions.” She glanced at the opening. “The dead – the recently dead – would be in that passage, too. I think.”

The spirit screamed again – so loudly that Jarrod covered his ears and Lana winced at the pain in her skull.

“What are you doing to her?” Lana shouted again. “Stop it! Let her go!”

“Frayda,” the man said, “my love, don’t worry. She’s dead. She can’t feel a thing.”

The voice was lilting and laced with unmistakable cruelty. This was not Jay. The scream faded, and Lana reached out with her own spirit, hoping to touch the lost soul, hoping to help. She found something, but there was so little spirit left, so little energy, the woman was barely recognizable as a spirit. Hoping against hope, Lana gave what she thought of as a final push – just a nudge, really – toward the other light. She couldn’t connect anymore, and then she knew the woman was gone for good. Lana couldn’t be sure she had made it to her destination (whatever that might be). Her heart sank, and tears welled in her eyes.

Lana felt the grief of her lost husband threaten to overcome her then, triggered by her dashed hopes, this pain long pushed down. The seam grew wider into a rough circle.

The voice that came through from another world, that almost maniacal laughter, and all that certainty and cruelty… She suddenly felt it as memory etched in her bones.

It was a frightening, terrifying memory that she had long sought, but been unable to find. She thought she was beginning to understand why.

“You’re a monster,” she said.

He responded with laughter. A shape took place, a shadow framed by light.

Lana didn’t need to ask who Frayda was. She had always known her given name, but had chosen not to use it, even when she had finally (after long effort) learned the new tongue. Frayda was a name that, even now, made her think of weakness, uselessness, and (worst of all) powerlessness.

Choosing not to use one’s power was not the same as being powerless.

She touched Jarrod lightly on the back, speaking under the laughter. “Stay close to me. Be ready to run.”

He said nothing, but met her eyes and acknowledged his understanding with a nod.

The shadow grew larger. A foot stepped into their world: bare, long toes, pale. “You have called me a monster before. It did not end well. Today will be different. You will call me your King, and take your rightful place as Queen.” A hand came through, then an arm draped with dark green fabric. “You could help me, perhaps, and I might show this mortal who dares to approach you some mercy. I might kill him quickly.”

Jarrod sniffed. “Yeah. I don’t think so, buddy.” He was looking at her still, because he didn’t have eyes that could look directly at the portal’s light. But Lana did. She could tell the man of shadow was struggling to come through. She could see little more than the outline of the face, and it was enough. He was the man from her dream, her nightmare; that was enough for her to know she did not want him in this world.

“I would rather die.” To Jarrod, she said, “I don’t know what this creature is, but I know he is dangerous. You should go now.” She tried to sound calm, but her voice wavered.

“No,” he said simply, with the calmness she wished she felt. She had to admit it was some comfort to have him at her side, for however long it lasted. Even a stranger’s support was better than facing one’s childhood nightmares alone.

“Okay.”

She took a deep breath, and began to draw her attention inward, searching for the power she had locked away for so long. It would be as weak as an atrophied muscle; she could only hope something remained.

She did not know the spell, but hoped words of intention would serve as well. She tilted her head down, opened her palms to the sky and brought to mind images that held her in comforting arms: clouds in the blue sky, firelight in the night, thickets of trees nested with birds, squirrels, raccoons… so many gorgeous forms of life. She saw minnows in the stream, tadpoles become frogs, and caterpillars become butterflies.

She spoke the words from the warmth in her heart that built with increased focus, gathering the light within to a red-orange glow as she spoke:

May evil stay from this world.

Great spirit, keep your children safe.

Let us be loved in light,

And in the dark shelter of night.

Keep the monsters under their rocks.

Goddess or God, Lord of the Light, and

Keeper of the Realms,

Protect this world from light’s poachers.

As she finished, she realized she was speaking in the language of her birth, the one she had thought she had long forgotten with lack of use. Lana brought her hands toward each other, drawing the red-orange glow from the core of her being to the space between her hands. It was more powerful than she had dared to hope – and, she was dismayed to see, more red. Too much anger, her intuition told her, but she didn’t have time to dwell.

To Jarrod, she said, “When I throw, you shoot.”

“Yes, ma’am.” His tone was less that of the Southern contrite than that of a militaristic readiness: ready to do the job that needed to be done.

From the portal, the cruel voice taunted. “I don’t know what you think you are doing, but you will fail. I will find you, and I will find my way to you, wherever you go… and whatever pathetic, weak magic you manage now.”

She ignored him.

“You haven’t been practicing. Which is to my benefit, so I won’t punish you too harshly. But for the other things I have watched you do…”

Fighting down nausea, Lana focused all her power and strength into repeating her improvised spell. When she felt her entire self – mind, body and spirit – connected to the greater force of existence, she threw with every bit of strength she had.

At the same moment she let go, she fell to the floor, sapped of energy. The sound of the gunshot was distant as she floated on the edge of consciousness.

I’m all right, dear. I found my way. It was the spirit. Thank you for helping me. Lana smiled. The woman was okay, and Lana realized, even on the edge of darkness, that she had learned something important in their short communion. She had learned what old age really looked like: the satisfaction of a long life; the feeling that one’s purpose had been fully served. This woman was at peace because she felt she had learned all there was in a lifetime about family, connection and love…

In understanding this, Lana understood something very clearly about herself: she was not, in this sense, old.

She had only just begun.

 

****

Jarrod and Lana stood on the sidewalk, in the circle of light from a street lamp. They were the only ones in sight. After returning to consciousness, Lana had insisted she didn’t need to rest before exiting the house. Jarrod thought she still looked tired.

“Do you need me to take you somewhere? It looked like you took a pretty big hit in there.” Whatever it was you were doing, he didn’t add.

She looked back at the house, the only dark one on a street full of windows lit by their inhabitants and their televisions. “No, I’ll be okay. I hope he took the bigger hit. I’m not sure. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.” She shook her head. “That’s not true. I’ve never done that.” She wrapped her arms around her mid-section.

“Well, it looked solid from my angle.” Jarrod said as he took off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. “It’s getting chilly. Do you want to go someplace warm… maybe get a drink?”

She shook her head, staring at the sidewalk. “No, thank you. I have had enough of bars for one night.” There was clearly a story there. “Anyway, there’s someone I need to talk to, who might be able to help me figure out what’s going on. I have to get there by eight.”

She looked back to the house again, a troubled expression darkening her face.

“What, do you think he’s still there?”

“No, I don’t think so…. It’s just….” She sighed. “I used to live in a house like that.” She shrugged. “I was happy.”

“When you were a kid?” Even as he said it, he knew that wasn’t right. He had only just met this woman, but it was obvious her story wouldn’t be so simple. It was also obvious she had lost someone. He could probably even guess at the man’s name.

“I’m sorry about… Jay.”

She met his gaze straight on for the first time since everything had gone crazy. He felt an understanding pass between them. “Thank you.”

She shrugged out of his jacket and handed it back. “I’ll be fine once the car warms up. Thanks, though, and… thanks for your help in there.”

He found his car keys in the jacket pocket. “I’m not sure I was much help.”

“You were.” She turned and walked the short distance to a compact silver car. He knew that was the only goodbye he was going to get.

His own car was behind him, but he didn’t move. He didn’t feel as driven to get out of town tonight. Maybe he would ask Derek if he knew anything about witches in town when he called to fill him in. Maybe he would see if he still had a room.

He followed the silver car with his gaze until it turned a corner.

“Something tells me I haven’t seen the last of you, Lana Lansing.”

“Oh, that is where you’re wrong, Mortal.” Jarrod turned to find a tall, long-limbed man dressed in green, shimmering robes, looking down on him from what seemed a great height – though he was in reality only a few inches taller than Jarrod.

Though he had only seen a shadow of impression against the bright light moments ago – and that shadow from the corner of his eye – he knew this was the man (creature) who had tried to come through the portal. Apparently it had worked.

“I am here now, and she is my Queen.” The man raised a hand, staring at Jarrod with cruel, gray eyes.

“And you are going to die.”

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