Takes place shortly after the ending of City of Ghosts, which was also written for the Academy of Bards Halloween Challenge and can be found here: http://www.academyofbards.org/halloween/2007/kamouraskan_cityofghosts1.html
Dedicated to Cathbard, who loved Gabrielle and Aphrodite, and all that is best in this world; there are so many reasons to miss you. At my most selfish, I wish you could have betad this. It would have been so much better.
Thanks to Jordan Falconer, the Bardic Circle and Steph for the Invitation
Disclaimer: Brief references to plots and characters I don’t have the rights to, specifically Xena: Warrior Princess. Possible spoilers for several episodes, specifically Dreamworker. Situations involving women in love with each other and if that’s not allowed where you are, I feel your pain.
And yes, there is a village of ghosts, and I do have keys to its Saxon church. So if anyone isn’t doing anything this Halloween….
Kamouraskan’s Homepage: http://dreamcatching.atwebpages.com/kam/index.htm
Village of Ghosts
It was night, that much I knew.
I was surrounded on all sides by forest, with a thick canopy of leaves overhead that blocked all of the sky except for a sliver of moon that kept bobbing between the leaves. I shivered as the cool evening breeze swept across my thin clothing and an intimation of uncertainty followed it along my spine. Some part of me knew I needed to turn back. Back to…?
My Partner. That was it. Even if this was a dream, I knew I needed to find my partner. She’d make everything all right.
There was a fire ahead, a small one, gleaming through the trees a short distance ahead, and I could hear a sound that for some reason calmed my nerves. It was a scratching, a rhythmic, scrape…scrape… scrape. Pausing. Then it would begin again.
Scrape… scrape… scrape.
But as I approached… the sound was no longer comforting, it was quickly drawing my nerves into a pinched bundle. I began to walk faster. Against every instinct. Towards the sound.
Scrape… Scrape… Scrape.
But the relief I expected to feel when I broke through the trees into the clearing didn’t appear. Yes, there was a familiar figure in the fire’s glow hunched over a blade, but something still seemed off. I couldn’t be sure what it was. It was my partner, and yet?
She didn’t acknowledge me, but she had to have known I was there. A long polished blade was being raised to the light for examination, and the fire danced along the newly burnished steel. The whetstone was brought along the edge once more and that sound, a sound I knew should have calmed me, rasped against the air.
I knew I’d been standing perfectly silently, my breathing should have been masked by the cool air, but as always, my partner was aware I was there. But the sense of the wrongness, that something was not at all right, seemed to centre on that familiar form and as she turned about, I waited, frozen, until the well known face, those blue eyes shining, met mine and… it wasn’t my partner. It was, and yet… There were flowers, some kind of daisies in a crown about her forehead and she crooned, sickly sweet, “Hey Mavis. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Whoever I was in this dream, I knew my name was NOT Mavis. I froze again and forced out a stutter, “Ummm, Who? Is there, is there someone else here? Who is here?”
That odd smile broadened even further. “Oh, lots of people. Old friends. Yours, mine… People we killed... You must remember?” She turned to stare at the blade in her hands. “My victims… your victims. How could you forget?”
The sing song tone sharpened as her face once more turned towards me. “My son’s here. Or did you forget him too?” That terrible smile only seemed to grow in intensity and she slowly rose before adding, “Because I didn’t.”
I spun, trying to run away, to run away from the one person in the world I trusted, but her hand somehow stretched across the distance, to grab my elbow, a strong unmovable hand which pulled me hard, struggling, closer, closer to her and I tried to yank my arm away but it was held so fast until the fear gave me the strength to pull even harder and…
I fell out of the bed.
“F… iddlesticks! Owww! ” On my way to slamming into the floor, I’d snapped the wooden dowel in the headboard of the bed as I pulled my trapped arm through it.
“Owwww!” Still not quite awake, not sure where I was, until the familiar outlines of our bedroom came into focus. I grabbed the alarm clock from the nightstand and switched on the LED light to examine my arm. There was definitely going to be bruising. I wiggled it to get some circulation, and I had a moment to try to figure out what the heck this latest dream was all about.
There’d been a series of nightmares lately. All very real while I was dreaming them, all completely detached from my present reality or of any reality I could imagine. Mainly because, and I was very appreciative of this fact, my life was about as perfect as any dream I might have. Our ancient house in an even older village (that Alex snarkily called the Capital of Nowhere,) was secure, far off the beaten track, roomy enough and exactly what we had searched for. Our missions, as what my friend Dot called self-appointed do-gooders, could occasionally be just as terrifying as they were gratifying, but still more fulfilling than anything I had ever wished for. And thanks to the freakishly accurate investment advice at key times from the same Dot, we were more than just financially secure. The love, friendship and passion that Alex and I shared were so much more than I could have ever imagined.
So why were these dreams all about doubts and insecurities when my real life was so solid?
Where was Alex, though? As I shambled about the dark bedroom in the fog of my sleep-filled mind, I remembered why the bed had only me in it; I’d just laid down for what was supposed to be a nap. The recent nightmares had meant I hadn’t been sleeping very well, so I’d grabbed the opportunity for a catch-up when Alex had thoughtfully offered to stay up with our five year old until her bedtime.
Cassandra had been allowed a few pieces of Halloween candy after the traditional ghost walk through the neighbouring village, and I had been struggling to keep my eyes open waiting for her sugar rush to burn off. She’d been babbling, bright-eyed since her return about the various local legends of grey ladies and Monks that walked through walls or hitched rides in cars that passed over their graves with what Alex had tried to convince me was a healthy enthusiasm. Things were changing though, even in the villages. Maybe in a few years we’d be taking her on the North American style door-to-door Trick or Treating, as it had begun to spread throughout most of England’s larger cities. Which was ironic considering that most of the other Hallow’s Eve traditions we considered ‘American’ had originated in these olden villages of East Anglia many thousands of years ago.
Picking up our bedside alarm clock again, I could see it was not even 11:00pm and therefore still technically Halloween. But again I wondered, where was Alex? My mind must have been holding onto a faint echo of my nightmare, for I felt a shiver as I thought about my need to find my partner. But that wasn’t going to stop me. I wanted, needed to find my partner. Needed her reassurance and one of her nerve-softening, mind melting hugs. For no reason I could think of, I shivered again. God, I really needed one of her hugs!
The hallway was dark as I sleepily made my way to the winding stairway. It was absolutely silent, but few sounds ever pierced our thick stone walls or layers of the thatched roof. It was just as I turned the first corner of the spiral that I heard a sound that made me stop cold.
I resisted the urge to pinch myself, because any residual sleepiness had vanished at the sound. With trepidation, I continued my downward descent, bare feet along cold century-old oak planks, eyes and ears adjusting to the light and sound coming from the kitchen, my movements and heartbeat echoing the dream of only minutes before.
Like the dream, I found Alex seated, but our unfinished kitchen was hardly a campfire in the woods. Like the dream though, she was turned away from me. And examining a long blade in her hands.
All of the reassurance I had hoped to find, that I always found when I was with her, vanished
She’s a tall woman, certainly taller than me, so the blade disappeared from my view when the sound began again.
As I slowly approached, I could see over her shoulder that she was simply buttering a piece of toast, which should have been a relief, but the reverberation of the dream had me on edge still. The pumpkins from our garden that we had carved didn’t help; they were surrounding her, their candles extinguished but their maniacal grins undiminished. Like the dream, I stood quietly, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence.
Eventually she spoke. “So you’re up?” she casually threw over her back.
Cautiously, I pulled a mug from the counter and moved to sit down across the table from her.
“Cass get to bed okay?” I asked.
“Uh huh,” she mumbled, still focussing on her task.
I cleared my throat, but she didn’t look up. She just sliced off another pat of butter and resumed making that sound that was beginning to make fingernails on a blackboard seem like a reprieve.
“Could you… stop doing that?” I asked, quietly.
She paused. “Why?”
“I had a dream,” I started, “A really creepy dream, and WELL, I come down here and it’s like the dream. And you, you’re acting, well…”
Her head lifted at this and her blue eyes met mine. “I’m acting…?”
Alex blinked. “Creepy?”
I blinked right back at her. “Yes! And it’s The Shining-type creepy.”
She shook her head. “So go back to bed. Make a better dream. Keep the phone nearby to call the neighbours if I start chopping through doors with an axe.”
I nearly choked. It wasn’t simply the words, it was the tone. Not even the smallest echo of her occasionally arid wit. I mean, sure, she could be cold sometimes, with most people. But not with me. Never with me. I stared at her, waiting for something more, anything, an acknowledgement of my nightmares, some measure of comfort. She just yawned and went on buttering her toast with the monster of a knife. It was then that I noticed that since I’d last seen it, the knife had been sharpened on the dull side of the blade, and in such a way that it brought back the whispers of my dreams.
Another tiny portion of butter was sliced from the dish, and she continued to stroke the toast ever so slowly. The hairs on my arm were standing straight up with each stroke.
Scrape… scrape… scrape…
“Please stop that,” I asked again, but not as quietly.
“I just had a really scary dream, and instead of reassurance, a hug, something, you are acting really odd.”
“Yes!” I nearly shouted.
“I’m buttering toast.”
“With a Buck knife.”
She sliced another tiny pat of butter onto said knife and began running the edge along the toast once more.
“I’m buttering toast!” she repeated.
“With a Buck knife,” I repeated.
“So. It’s just a knife. Does the job just like any other knife.”
“It’s a Buck knife. And a Buck knife you’ve sharpened the blunt edge of.”
She looked at the knife now, as if seeing it for the first time. “Yeah. Huh. I did that. Yesterday?” As if it’s a question I should know the answer to.
“That’s what the Manson Family did to their knives. Their Buck Knives.”
She shrugged. “So it’s not so weird. Other people do it.”
“Yes,” I said slowly. “Other people… like the frigging Manson Family!” I raised the stakes, in full rant, now that I had her attention. “I don’t think the Buck Knife Company went to them and asked if they’d do commercial endorsements. Customise the knife that ripped Sharon Tate’s baby from her womb. Comes in a choice of three decorator colours.”
“Why. Are you pregnant?”
“No! How? What? What the hell question is that?”
“You were talking about people being pregnant.”
“Pregnant… and being gutted.”
“Lemme make a note.” She pantomimed writing, “Jen expecting axe through the doors… not a baby.”
“Arghhhh!” I jumped up from my chair, and reached across to grab at the knife. My reflexes are quick but never as fast as hers, but somehow even as she evaded my lunge, I managed get the grip just enough to cut her above the palm.
She swore and dropped the bread and I was left holding the knife. I should have jumped up to apologise, to look to see how badly she was hurt, but suddenly all I could see was the knife.
This knife with the blood, trickling along the steel.
It seemed to shimmer, and it, for the briefest moment, changed, warped into another blade, one far more sinister and frightening to some deep atavistic core of myself. It was only a second and once more I was in the kitchen and Alex was at the sink. I dropped the knife as if burned and rose to see how she was. She’d taken some kitchen roll and was staunching the blood flow and glaring at me. I swallowed and apologised. “Sorry, it’s just been these dreams lately…”
I looked down to the blade, lying apparently harmless on the floor, feeling it still could harm me in some way. “Last night, there was a knife in my dream…”
Alex was searching for plasters in the kitchen shelves and threw back at me, “This the dream with that girl, the one who said you’d killed her? What was her name?”
“Can’t remember. I knew it in the dream. It started with an ‘M’, I think.”
I tried to catch her eye and asked, “Are you okay, do you need…?” She cut me off with a shrug, and there was an uncomfortable silence. I sat back down and wanting some sort of conversation, continued as if I hadn’t just nearly sliced her hand.
“The worst thing, or it seemed that way in the dream, was the way she said I’d killed her, as if she was amused. Like it was a big joke, and the joke was on me. And in the dream, I felt guilty… as if it were true. That I’d killed her”
Alex yawned again. “Maybe you did, in another dream.”
There was still a bit of anger under the guilt and it never takes much to set me off. “Why would I dream that? Why would I dream anything LIKE that? I’ve never killed anyone!”
“Lucky you,” Alex said flatly.
I groaned inside. This is why I shouldn’t get angry. The only reason I hadn’t killed anyone was luck, and Alex being there for me when there was no other choice. That and her Special Forces back story meant this was a really touchy subject, so who was being insensitive now?
“Alex, I didn’t mean…” but she sat back in the chair facing away from me, and worst of all, picked up that damned knife and went back to scraping the bread. Without cleaning the blood off.
Feeling guilty about my goof didn’t mean I wasn’t still upset. I mean, I was expecting my partner, my lover, the woman who I depended on to always have my back in this crazy life we’d made for ourselves, to calm my stretched nerves. I stood up and began to stomp out of the kitchen and all I could hear was that damned noise,
…and then it stopped.
Completely. Like a switch being clicked off.
I turned around in the hall and looked back through the doorway and… she was gone. And I mean gone as in the toast and the knife were still lying on the table, the kitchen chair was exactly where it had been, just… empty. The door outside had not opened and there were no other exits or even a cupboard big enough for her to hide in. She was just gone!
I became very aware of my breathing and my heart pounding for a moment. Maybe it was some sort of survival instinct trying to make sure everything was still working. “This isn’t funny…” I called out to the empty room, or perhaps to the damned grinning pumpkins. Hell, empty room? The whole house seemed suddenly vacant of any life other than mine.
Which immediately sent my mind to our daughter, Cass. Was she still here? Was she okay? Screw rationality, I needed to see our daughter. Right then. I needed to see her safe and… well, see her. Safe.
I raced back to the stairway, ran up the first steps and was just about to turn the half way landing when I saw a shadow standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for me. Someone was leaning against the railing, and what was really a problem for me was… it was Alex.
But it couldn’t be, because she couldn’t have gotten past me and she’d changed from the clothes she’d just been wearing seconds ago. Changed into something dark, and whatever or whoever she was now, it suited her.
She gave me a smile that wasn’t at all a smile and tapped the ancient wall. “Did you know they walled up cats inside these things?”
I refused to cower and continued to climb the steps towards her, but I might have swallowed before nodding. “Yes. It was supposed to bring good luck.”
“Not for the cat.” And she laughed – no, giggled. It was not a pleasant sound.
I was at the top of the stair now, and she moved back to lean ever so casually against the hallway wall.
I forced a smile and said quietly, “Alex. You said you weren’t going to go all The Shining on me.”
She just chuckled. “Alex? I think you know I… am… not… Alex.”
My breath froze in my lungs, my mind locked down as well. The apparition began to advance towards me. “Last time, we made the mistake of taking you on while she was loose and able to fight with you, Innocent. We’ll see how much fight you have when she’s bleeding to death on the ground in front of you.”
The cold and detached manner the words were spoken, made it clear that this was a real threat, and no dream or nightmare. This, whatever it was, Alex, or a doppelganger, was serious, serious as the death she, or it, was predicting. Instincts finally kicked in, literally. As I turned around, the whatever it was, assumed I was about to run and moved into range of my heel as I spun it right into its face. For a phantom, it was very solid and its head went back with a snap. While surprise was still on my side, I sucker kicked its legs, but it managed to leap up and away. I was regaining my balance when it reached out to grab me, but its arm got an adrenaline-fuelled chop right at the elbow that had to hurt. Pulling back, it just gave me that eerie smile that chilled every part of me. I could hear myself panting as it stood up, its eyes evaluating me with a cold stare. I retreated, watching for its next move, feeling betrayal even though I knew this was not my partner. To reaffirm that knowledge, I said out loud, “You’re not Alex. And I am no innocent.”
The doppelganger continued to smile, lazily cooing, “I am more like Alex than you know. But you’re right, you’re no innocent, not like you were back then.”
Back then? Back when?
“No.” I swallowed and moved into a defensive crouch against the person that looked exactly like the love of my life, “Alex would never, never hurt me.”
“You think you could take me?”
“Why not?” I lifted my chin in defiance. “As you said, you are not Alex. Not at all,” I added, as confidently as I could. Those blue eyes evaluated me again, assessed my stance.
“Maybe we should try something else…” And it turned and walked down the corridor into the inky blackness. Even as I neared collapse, I still held my crouch. The footsteps died out and I knew that whatever it was, it was no longer in the hall, maybe not in the house at all.
Getting out of the house suddenly seemed like a really good idea for me too. But Cass! Whatever was going on, I was not leaving this place without her. First things first, though. I went to our linen closet, and used the fingerprint lock to open the gun cabinet. Considering how much the doppelganger had looked like Alex, I was prepared to find it empty, but there was still a full complement of weapons inside. I pulled out my lightweight Glock and slid the loaded magazine into its well with shaking hands, releasing a breath when I heard the click as it locked into place. I might not have killed with it, but I damned well had fired it enough. Though considering what the prospective target looked like, I was really hoping I wouldn’t need to tonight.
I closed the cabinet and took a long deep breath. The gun was pretty steady in my hands, impressive, considering I had no idea whether I could shoot whatever was sharing the house with me.
Cass’ room was next to ours and she’d often been hard to get to bed after sweets. So I hated having to wake her without a plan first, but I needed her. Whether we were running from the house or not, I also needed hugs and her smile. Being cut off from Alex was more than my nerves could handle without a reaffirmation of our family.
I looked into her room and was relieved to see her safely in her canopy bed; our little princess. Bundled safely under her blankets and I could hear, as a break in the silence, her even breathing. I closed my eyes and took another deep relaxing breath.
Cass must have heard me, because she stirred and as I walked over to her, anticipating the warmth of her in my arms, she spoke. “Mother?” she queried.
I stopped. Mother? It was a bit odd, because we were always Mum or Mommy. Cass rolled a bit and turned to face me, but the smile, so much like Alex’s, stopped me and my heart.
Oh God. No.
This wasn’t my lovely child, and whatever it was, wasn’t even pretending to be her. The little figure raised itself, directed its hands to the sides as if preening, showing off its latest purchase.
Oh God. Oh Damn.
My only excuse for what I did next was that I was suffering from too many horrific shocks in too short a time, because I found myself raising the gun towards my own child, or whatever was occupying her body. Her cool green eyes stared at the gun, as if trying to understand what threat it represented. She lifted the blankets tangled about her feet and whispered, “Hardly the welcome I was hoping for, Mother.” The smile was dropped for an insincere sympathy. “Don’t you remember? Don’t you want to fix all of the mistakes you made? This time can be different. Because she’ll be one of us. She won’t stop us. And if you join, this time we can all be together. A family…”
The gun in my hand had begun to shake, so it seemed right to lower it. I tried to speak clearly but could only croak out, “I don’t know… what is happening… But you… You, Get out.” I took a long breath. “Now! Get out. Out of her and out of this house, whatever you are.” My voice rose with each word until I was shouting, “Get out getout GETOUT!!!”
My panic seemed to amuse her. She simply laughed and in that eerie whisper, said, “I can see you’re… upset. I’ll come back. In a little while. When you’re ready to talk.”
And in front of my eyes, she vanished.
The bedding slumped about where she had been, the mattress sprung flat and again I was alone. And close to a heart attack. At that moment, scared shitless nearly became more than just an expression.
This had to be a dream. I could not possibly be awake. Halloween and some bad candy, that was it. I was actually still asleep in my bed. But everything I touched and saw and smelt, kept screaming to me that this was all too real. I made my way along the corridor, gun cocked and ready, remembering the training that, ironically, Alex had given me. Room by room I went down the hallway, kicking in the bedroom doors, doors that had once been welcoming portals, scanning the room with the gun first, then my eyes.
They were all, each of them, empty. She, they, whatever they were, had vanished.
I should have been relieved, but my heart wouldn’t stop pounding. What did they mean when they kept referring to last time? And that puzzle wasn’t the only thing that was beyond me.
I needed to get help. I needed to get out of the house. Find some speck of a rational world before I went mad.
After searching the downstairs, confirming that all of my family were truly gone from the house, missing, I made up my mind and headed for the front door.
But the doorknob would not move.
I’d installed that door and the doorknob myself, and I knew this wasn’t a sticky mechanism. It was stiff and solid as granite, as if it had never turned in its entire existence. I went to the nearest window with mounting apprehension and tugged futilely at the handle. We’d greased all of the windows so they normally slid quietly and easily… but we were all out of normal. A quick run to the backdoor found that possible exit in the same condition.
The phone, of course, had no dial tone.
I am pretty good about not panicking. Alex and I have been in many very tight situations, but this was so very different. The idea that Alex or something all too like her could jump out from behind me, had me spinning randomly literally and figuratively as I paced the livingroom. I tried to think rationally, think of potential exits, but how could I trust my own mind after what my eyes and ears had shown me? What if I was hallucinating, carrying a gun, a danger to my family instead of the other way around? I needed help, I needed someone…
At that second the dead phone in my hand began to ring.
I nearly dropped it, but impressing myself with yet another reserve of nerves, I hit answer, very much expecting it to be more attacks on my sanity.
I was right in a way, because it was Dot.
She was burbling away, wishing us all a Happy Halloween, when I cut in and said, “Dotty? I need help. Alex… Cass, they’re gone. The house is sealed up somehow and I’m trapped in here. I don’t even know if I’m going crazy, if this is actually happening…”
I was still trying to explain, when I swear there was a sparkling glow at the door. Then I heard the doorbell ring. I looked at the phone and said into it, “There’s someone at the door. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s…”
“Open the door, Cutie,” her tinny voice interrupted.
“How? I told you. The doorknobs won’t work. All the doors, the windows, they don’t OPEN!” I shouted to her.
Her confident voice sounded through the speaker, “I could give it a shot.”
What was wrong with this woman? She really wasn’t listening. “From California?”
“Maybe. I never tried. But Sweetie? That’s me at the door.”
“Bloody hell, why didn’t you say so?”
The up-till-now immovable door swung freely open and Dot strolled in, wearing whatever was most fashionable somewhere much warmer than the Midlands of England in October. And as good a friend as she is, I swear I have never been happier to see that blonde nutcase as much in my life.
Right up until she closed the door behind her.
I ran but was too late to catch it before it slammed very soundly shut. I held up my hands and shouted, “You shut the door!”
She sighed and explained as one would to a very dim child, “That’s what you do with doors after you walk through them.”
I tried the knob, knowing it wouldn’t move. “I told you, I’m trapped in this house. You managed to open it from the outside and then went and locked us both in!”
“Door worked fine for me.” She nudged me aside and tried the door herself. Guess what?
“Still working fine?” I asked snarkily.
“Piffle?” This required a very deep breath. “Maybe I should have mentioned I’m trapped with a demonically possessed family, nightmare ghosts crawling up my wazoo and you say… piffle?”
“You should be more careful who you let into your wazoo,” she laughed.
“Laugh away. Let’s see how you feel now that you’re trapped in here too.”
“Trapped? Me? Piffle. Whatever is screwing with you has not bargained on me.”
“Glad to hear it.” I waved my hand at her in a grand gesture, which would have been far more impressive if that hand hadn’t begun shaking again.
Dot closed her eyes, seemed to concentrate of something I couldn’t see, and when she opened her eyes there was a definite look of disquiet. “Whoa, what happened to the house?”
“Ha! You see!”
She gave me a very unwelcome glare. “This house was fine last time I was here.”
“Yes, about that. You were the one that said the house was fine. You swore the feng shui or the Chi or whatever was great and it welcomed us.”
“It did. This is, was, a truly cool house. But now it’s all… creepy.”
I collapsed on our couch. “There was a point earlier on tonight when this was creepy. That was about a hundred miles back. I could set off a flare now and creepy wouldn’t be able to see it.”
Dot started fanning her hands and sensing the room or whatever it was she did. “What DID you do to the house!” she demanded again.
I glared up at her. “Piss right off, okay? You are not going to blame us for this. We have made this house very happy. We have been very happy. Happiness has been radiating throughout and within the house until this week.”
She stopped again, closed her eyes before she spoke again. “You’re right about that, the house was fine. This is new.” A pause. “You brought something inside… something wrong.”
Oh good. More good news. “Okay, hit me. What did we bring in?”
“I’m not sure, but…There’s this sense of, sort of like, you know, impending doom?”
“Sort of like…” I shook my head, “DOOM?” My hands went to cover my face. This was not help. Why had I thought Dot would be helpful in this situation? “And we brought it in? Gee, I think I would have noticed if we brought DOOM in with the groceries. Or did we bring it in on our shoes? What the frig do you mean DOOM?”
“You’re sounding hysterical,” Dot said, quite judgementally, I thought.
“Something that looked exactly like my partner and daughter have both threatened my life, the doors and windows are all sealed and NOW, my best friend says we have Doom. Doom! All over the house. This is not me being hysterical. This is a rational response.”
After a few more waves with her eyes closed, Dotty opened them and pronounced with a tone of great profundity, “What we need, is… For you…To make us… A nice cup of tea.”
“Tea???” This feeling of wanting, no needing, to strangle her seemed very familiar. But I could handle it. “Okay, Fine. Tea.” I prepared to stomp over to the kitchen, stopping only to ask, “Wait. You hate tea. You usually drink something a lot stronger.”
She nodded. “I figgered making a typical English cup of tea might make you feel normal.”
“Oh yeah, everything will be fine if I make tea. The sun will come out and the hungry will be fed…” I could hear the whine in my voice but I was beyond caring. “Though, if the water from the taps comes out, you know, as blood, you do realise I might have to boil it twice.” No reply. She wasn’t paying me any attention. She was wandering around the living room, tapping the walls. Then with still closed eyes, she commented, “Did you know they walled cats up in these things?”
“Why do people feel the need to tell me these things?” She ignored my comment, so I grumbled, “I’ll make tea but mine’s having a HUGE shot of cognac in it!”
That she heard, of course. “As long as there’s an even bigger shot in mine.”
I hesitated for a second, considering using the cooking brandy, before grabbing the bottle of Courvoisier from the liquor cabinet. With my Glock in my other hand, I stomped off to the kitchen, warning, “I can’t promise not to put any of our excess DOOM in the cups by accident.”
Dotty was right about the common act of tea making settling me, and the thought of her being right irritated me a bit too. The water boiled as it should, the lights didn’t flicker and the teabags were all where they were supposed to be. Even the milk didn’t curdle. Or bubble and moan threats. So I was feeling just a bit more like myself when I returned to the living room with two steaming cups. And the gun comforting me in my waistband.
“Okay Cutie,” she said, “so start at the beginning.”
I went through the week of dreams, the two confrontations with Alex and then Cass’ threats and disappearances. It seemed entirely unreal and yet I knew they had happened. I needed to do something and all this exposition was winding a spring inside me that was getting closer to breaking.
“So both versions of tall, dark and gorgeous vanished?” Dot asked.
I took a sip. “The second one only fifteen minutes ago. We were talking, or at least I was talking with someone who looked like Alex, when she went down the upstairs hall and then…”
“She was… gone. Doors are locked, rooms are all empty and I couldn’t find her. She wasn’t anywhere in the house.”
“It’s a big place.”
“Not that big. At least it wasn’t until tonight.” I paused, expectantly. For no reason apparently, as she continued to calmly sip her tea. “This is the point where you’re supposed to say, what do you mean before tonight?”
“Why would I say that?”
“Because I hoped you would be the voice of rationality!”
“I did mention I was hysterical.”
The supposedly dead phone rang again. I grabbed it and was disappointed to hear an unfamiliar voice at the other end ask, “Gabrielle?”
I shook my head at Dot and replied, “No, sorry. There’s no Gabrielle here. You must have the wrong num…”
Dot snatched the phone right out of my hand. “Who is this?” she purred into the receiver.
After a pause she said, “No, Gabrielle is NOT here, at least not right at the moment. Who’s asking?”
There was another pause as she listened for a moment. “How did you get this number? Uh huh. You saw a photo?” She turned to me and whispered, “I told you. This is all because that mashugana pic of you and Alex after that raid. I told you to pay the papers off!”
There was no point in arguing with her, the photo had been in a dozen papers and on the wire services before we had even gotten home and seen it. We hated any publicity; it was very dangerous in our line of rescue work.
She had returned to ranting at the phone anyway. “Listen bozo, so you think you’re so smart? You’ve been sending her those dreams, hoping to jar a few memories, right? Smooth move, moron. Because waking up Gabrielle? You won’t like it when that happens. And Jen, Jen is still a blood innocent…. No… NO! She hasn’t killed anyone. Not Jen…. Okay. Sure, yes, she’s an old soul with lots of blood on her hands, but...”
What the hell??? I moved to take the phone but she swung away and said with an imperious wave, “I’m handling this!”
“Locked inside? Us?” she continued to the caller. “I don’t think so. We were just planning to go for a walk, and anyone who comes with is going to be sorry.” A short pause. “Yes, that’s a threat. Uh huh. Uh huh. Really… The Furies too? How did you all meet up? Bumped into each other at Comic Con?” My frustration was growing with every word. Every syllable. Who the hell was she talking to? What the hell were they talking about?
All that was clear, was that she was continuing to blithely antagonise the caller. “You losers have no idea what and who you’re dealing with. These two, and me? We’re the real deal. Your little cults should have stuck to examining entrails of goats and left this particular bride alone, yes, because after we deal with your little hauntings, we’re coming after you… Uh huh…. No, you listen. If I were you, I’d start packing the bags and get ready for another millennium or two of hiding under a rock, you got that?”
She dropped the phone disdainfully. I gave her a very fixed smile and waited for an explanation. She simply sighed dramatically and said, “You were right. Wrong number.”
Steam might have come out of my ears just then. I marched over to glower at her. “Dot. I am a very upset woman. I can actually see myself enjoying smashing your head in with that phone. Tell me what that was about. NOW!”
“Don’t get all testy with me! I knew this was your fault, you two and that photographer.”
“This is happening because someone tracked us through that photo in the papers?”
“I told you at the time it was trouble. And you lied to me then, too! You told me that you were spending your anniversary in London with tea at the Ritz.”
“Maybe it wasn’t quite what we did…”
“You did a night drop, parachuting into a war zone! For your anniversary!”
“We were needed. Did you really think Alex would choose tea at the Ritz for an anniversary?” I shook my head. Dotty was always doing that, distracting me, and I had to get back to the truth. “Who the hell was that on the phone? And you said… How did they send me these nightmares?”
Dot snorted. “Oh, that’s an old trick, doesn’t take any real power. Don’t sweat them. They’re just a bunch of losers worshipping a very, long forgotten god. Not like my people.”
“Yes, my people.” She turned away from me slightly, before turning back with a demure expression. “I have my own people. My…I wouldn’t call it a cult exactly, but…?” She paced for a second more and turned, a decision clearly having been made. “Sweetie, I have never liked keeping you in the dark and if stuff like this is going to keep on happening, I’m not going to keep to some stupid rule about what mortals are supposed to know about. Capisce? Because anything you see tonight, I want you to remember.” She gave a glare at the telephone, “And the first thing to remember is, I am not to be trifled with. And these guys are just a trifle. So, let’s get out of here, and find some place where you can get a bit of a recharge.”
“Out of here? You mean through the door we can’t open?”
“Doors,” she sniffed. “Not a problem.” Having somehow dealt with that, at least in her own mind, she snapped her fingers. “Hey, that church down the road, the one you gave me the tour of? Does it like you?”
I hung my head. What now? “Does the building, the church, down the road? Does it…Like me?”
“Well, if not like, does it at least know you?”
“The church? Know me?”
“Yes!!” she said impatiently.
“Well, I guess it must like me a bit. As it hasn’t screamed rape when I put my keys in its door.”
Dot clapped her hand in delight. “You have your own set of keys?” I nodded. “That ancient Saxon church? Over a thousand years old that you said was built on a sacred site, where people worshipped for thousands more years? And you have keys to get inside? Why didn’t you tell me!?”
“Probably because I was more worried about my family going psycho and dying a hideous death. Is it important?”
“Important? You’re an old soul, especially around Samhein, it’s like the ultimate battery charger. It’s like me living across the street from the Uffizi.” I looked at her with my now usual puzzlement. “Nevermind. We’ll get to that. What’s important is that you have keys to the oldest worship site for miles. Why didn’t you go there when this started?”
“Family going psycho and dying a hideous death and oh yeah, the house won’t let me leave?”
“Oh right. The house you filled with doom.”
“Would you stop saying that!”
“We need to go to the church.”
“Even if we could get out, I really don’t like leaving Alex or Cass alone with whatever is here.”
She waved a hand. “Cass and Alex are being held by whatever these losers conjured up. And whatever is here, is after you, Sweetie. So if you leave, they’ll have to follow us. The seal on that door and the length of time you’ve had nightmares means these guys must have been here for weeks. They know this house, they’ve taken it. Let’s take them somewhere else. Somewhere new. Cass or Alex will either be able to break free or follow us. Either way, they’ll be in less danger if we get out of here.”
As weak as Dot’s stratagems usually were, this seemed sound, but there were a lot of unanswered questions. I don’t mind following the right leader, but with Dot as captain, this was a ship I was reluctant to board. Even after everything that had happened. “You said take them somewhere… new? Maybe they’d prefer a nice haunted pub? Or a country garden? Maybe the local Museum? And while I’m asking questions, just what the FRIG… are we taking along with us?”
“I’m pretty sure but…”
“You will tell me, right?”
“I know, isn’t it great!” Dot clapped her hands, looking at me with such enthusiasm, she might as well have been about twelve. “Finally, we can have an adventure and you get to remember it afterwards! I mean the stuff I’ve had to keep from you, it’s put real pressure on our relationship. This won’t be at all like last time.”
“Why, does everyone keep referring to ‘last time’?” I moaned. “What am I supposed to have forgotten? Is this a past lives thing?”
“Past lives, parallel dimensions, alternative realities, you name it, you’ve done it.”
She went into the closet – so at least that door was still opening. I checked the phone out of habit; no dial tone again. Dot grumbled as she rummaged through my clothes and began divining which coats she deemed were fashionable and still suitable for escaping from demons and God knows what.
“Dot? I really, really don’t like leaving without knowing what is happening, with Alex? Or Cass? Give me something, please. Like where they are?”
It was clear her concentration was focussed more on selecting the coats, but she answered casually, “I’m sure they’re fine, In fact, I can feel Alex. She’s in the basement.”
I thought about that for maybe a second. “Dot. We don’t have a basement.”
She turned to smile. “I know. Talk about extreme makeover?”
I tried once more to bring her back on point. “Now, you see… Alex being safe in our imaginary basement, is not encouraging me to leave, even if we could. I really don’t want to leave without them.”
“Look, Honey. You have to trust me. I pretty well know what’s going on and as I said, these things are after you.”
“Uh huh. Not encouraging me at all.”
“They’re only hurting Alex and Cass because you’re the target. They’re hostages. I told you. You want to help them? Then get out of the trap they’ve made and take them away with you. Somewhere where you might be able to fight back.”
“And you can get us out of here.”
She tossed me my trench coat, and in a show of faith, I took the church keys from the wall hook. “The church, then?”
“The church, the site, it’s a place of great power, power you will be able to tap into, promise.”
“I’m still really not happy about just leaving Alex trapped in a non-existent basement.”
My tone was drowning in concern, so she rolled her eyes and said, “Fine, fine fine. You keep saying that the next project here is to put hardwood floors down, right?”
I assumed she was just trying to distract me again, but discussing normal stuff like DIY was as comforting as a cup of tea. “We would have done it when we moved in, if we could have. Alex is tired of bashing her head on the low doorways so we need to lower the floors since we can’t raise the ceilings. Even though it’s all fairly new concrete, planning permission could take at least two years before we can get the permits for anything like that in a listed building.”
Dotty had already moved to the corner of the room and with surprising ease, ripped the carpet up off the floor, then tore off the underlay revealing the modern poured concrete floor. “Hate to break it to you, honey, but this place is about to have a big bunch of renovations.”
From somewhere I couldn’t see, she produced a large chalk, and proceeded to draw a large rectangle on the exposed concrete. “I saw this on Charmed,” she confided.
I looked at the chalk rectangle disbelievingly. “Tell me that’s not your idea of a door for Alex. How is she supposed to open that?”
“Picky picky. Not clear enough?”
I shook my head.
“Maybe if we…” She flounced over to the front door, and somehow pulled the knob right out of it. While I was still blinking at that, she slammed the doorknob, bang, into the floor, and to my astonishment, it stuck in place. “That a door now?”
I looked at her, dumbstruck. “How…?”
She waved me off. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
I had been willing to suspend disbelief that Dot really knew what she was doing, but I had to ask, “Okay, now that my solid concrete floor has a handy dandy doorknob… how do we open the front door now it doesn’t have a knob?”
Dot smiled confidently. I admit I liked that. “Doorknobs? We don’t need doorknobs…” She flexed her fingers and thrust them toward towards the door, which did…
My faith thus far having been unrewarded, I snarled, “And for your next trick?”
She stared at the door as if it was a turd floating in her vichyssoise. “The door should have opened. This is not right.”
“Of all the things that are not right, the door not opening because you flung air at it, is not my biggest surprise.”
Venting was good, I thought, until I heard that noise.
Scrape… scrape… scrape…
I forced my head to turn towards the floor behind us, and yes, something was reaching out… coming right out of the solid floor, and it wasn’t Alex. Whatever it was, it was long dead. Some dark, flesh rotting but otherwise barely visible hand, reaching out, trying to grasp the concrete floor. With cracked nails that scraped across it. And then another hand, fingers flexing, also desperately scrabbling to find purchase on the cement.
Scrape… scrape… scrape…
Finding that purxhase. Bloody muscles pulling, crawling up, first one elbow. Then a head. No… more of a skull. Then arms... Bones visible through strands of exposed, bleeding muscle. Then , something like legs. Until I realised that what I thought were legs were actually two more skulls. Then another hand and more hands pulling up and pressing down on the floor, hauling themselves painfully into our livingroom from whatever hell was beneath. Before any managed to lift their bodies out, there were even more heads popping up between the chalk marks. Turning to glare at me. Pushing for space and trying to squeeze their way out of the small rectangle in the floor.
Dot was still glaring at the front door, running her hands along it, feeling its vibe, I guess. I tapped her on the shoulder as carefully as I could while holding back hysterical shrieks. “I was mistaken.” I said, quite quietly I was proud to notice. “Your little drawing opened a door, but it seems to be letting out dead people.”
She completely ignored me. I looked behind me and even more gruesome figures were fighting to emerge and still she kept looking at the door. “Shush,” she directed. “Let me figure this out.”
I tapped her shoulder just a bit more urgently. ”Dotty? Could you figure out how to stop the Dead People first? The lots of dead people? Back here? The army of dead people?”
Still nothing from Dot. Meanwhile there were what looked like about a dozen rotting corpses squeezing, hauling their way out of and onto the floor. Like whales beaching themselves.
“Okay,” I said thinly. “I can see you’re busy. You stare at the door while I just get hysterical. That okay with you? Then when you’re ready… in a minute or two, I‘ll still be back here. Just look for me. I’ll be the one being eaten alive by the zombies.”
Dot was mumbling, “That should have worked. I mean, I was just at the Louvre this afternoon! I am not going to be kept inside by a bunch of second rate acolytes of an Oneiroi.”
“A what?” I asked, still retreating as much as I could from the ghastly apparitions climbing out of my floors. Though part of me worried it was very poor hostessing.
“Oneiroi. They must have been here for weeks to seal the place this well.”
“Ah. So we’re all going to die then?” I asked.
“Oh, chillax. If you had even a bit of your memories you’d be much more cool about this. If the door doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. You also said you didn’t like this window, right?”
“Yes, it doesn’t let enough light in.”
Once again, Dot flung her hand, but this time the entire wall bulged, and to my complete and stunned astonishment, the entire frame and window blew out into the street leaving a massive gaping hole in my wall.
Dot looked back to me smiling proudly. “Does now!”
“Holy Christ!!” That was more like it!
Dot waved a finger. “No swearing when we get to the church, right?”
The things crawling out of the floor seemed to move with greater urgency, trying to stand, presumably realising we were about to get away from them. I could see expressions of anger and real hatred on what was left of their faces. As barely visible as they were, it seemed as though they were dressed in different costumes, from uniforms to peasant clothes, though they were just rags that draped skeletal and translucent bodies.
Getting out the window seemed like a great idea, the best I’d ever had.
I couldn’t have cared if there were jagged pieces of pane left, but the glass had been blown completely into the empty streets outside. We quickly clambered over the sill through the hole to join it.
As we dropped onto the mist-damp pavement, I flashed on that hatred in their eyes, and remembered what Alex had said in the dream. About victims. My victims.
“These things, them,” I pointed back to my once lovely living room that was still filling up with corpses, “You said I had past lives. They’re part of that, right? They’re… my victims, aren’t they? People I killed?” My voice echoed against the stone walls in the fog-drenched empty street.
Dot gave me a wan smile under the lamplight. “Some, mainly Alex’s, but yeah. But sweetie, these were bad people. You’ve never, no matter what plane of existence, never killed without a reason and regret for every life. You’ve always been one of the good guys.” Her voice became softer, but very sure. “Your lives have always been one of nobility, courage and sacrifice for a Greater Good. Believe me, these guys were scum. The only reason they could be conjured up was because they were too screwed up to move on, too evil to get past how they died. But don’t dwell! Places to go!”
She grabbed my hand and started pulling me down the street. I looked back towards our house, through the gathering gloom and chilled silent street. Once empty, now under the sodium yellow streetlamp, it was progressively filling up. With living corpses. And this wasn’t Night of the Zombies or Thriller. No, they were far more frightening than any purposeless shambling crowd. As the dead flowed out the walls and windows of our house into the narrow street, they gathered into a line, a pack. Facing us. Glaring at me with hatred and glee. They seemed to be waiting until enough of their numbers were in place and then, once they filled the street from side to side, silently, began to slowly stride towards us. They marched like soldiers, with purpose, behind them more, gathering into further rows, filing down the lanes and jittys, falling in behind each other with growing numbers.
I stalled, unmoving, despite the threat of their approach, terrified, not just of them, but that I would see Alex, my Alex, in their numbers.
Dot grabbed my hand again and hauled me down the street and towards the church grounds. “She’s coming,” she called back. “Don’t worry so much.”
“How do you know?”
“Which? That you were thinking of her or that she was coming?”
Dot slowed our sprint to smile and say, “Because you’re always thinking of her, and if you’re in trouble, nothing will stop her from getting to you.”
I must have been out of shape because even after a few minutes dash down the deserted street lined by our neighbours’ stone cottages, I was panting. The church steeple seemed not any closer, and the sounds of the steps of the fallen behind us much too near. We eventually reached the gate to the footpath that led up the hill to the church, surrounded by the deteriorating gravestones of the churchyard. Looking over it, it seemed that no one was climbing out of the graves yet, but I wasn’t going to check too carefully. To my relief, the gate’s rusty latch lifted and we began the run up the hill, our feet barely finding a tread in the slippery dead leaves scattered across the path.
The old church was silhouetted against the late autumn sky, the sliver of a new moon riding behind the steeple, illuminating it like a Renaissance painting. One more reminder of my earlier dream and of how much I wanted to be with my partner. As we charged up the path through the tilted and cracked headstones, towards the wrought iron gates still so far away, I already had one hand fiddling through the church keys in my coat pocket. The other was being wrenched out of my shoulder’s socket by my long legged friend. As I fumbled with barely controlled panic, I was able to discern which was the smallest key that would be for the padlock on the front gates, and had it out right away, hoping I’d be able to find the keyhole in the dark.
Trying to open a heavy padlock with one hand is not possible, but Dot’s grip seemed incredibly strong considering how cool she appeared. “I need both hands!” I yelled.
“No need to get snappy.”
“No need to… arrghhh!” The key would not go into the lock, and I would have taken a calming breath but it would have taken time we didn’t have. The front line of the ghouls were already on the path, grinning or scowling, who can really tell with a skull? I switched the lock around and this time the key slipped in. A quick twist and it snapped open. I gripped it and threw it at our pursuers. I was gratified to see it strike one, and it seemed to cause him a lot of very gratifying pain. Of course in the next split second I realised that one, this meant they weren’t filmy little apparitions any more and could interact with us on the physical level. Something I really didn’t want. Two, in the time it took for me to think that, they were even closer, eagerly closing the gap so they might begin interacting very physically with us.
I slipped off the latch and flung open the gates, their creaking echoing throughout the silent graveyard. This left the main oak door. It required two keys, in sequence, and I’d never opened them in the pitch dark of the porch. So I needed some light. I handed Dot my cell phone and told her, maybe yelled at her, to turn on the key light, which she did. Towards our attackers as if it would keep them at bay. Of course, instead they seemed drawn to the damn thing. This time I definitely yelled at Dot, “Over here, I need the light to see the keyholes!”
I had the first lock turning just as the first of the ghouls reached the reception gates. I could feel and even smell them now; these were no longer flimsy apparitions anymore, but a mix of bone and flesh and things in between that had my gut churning. I counted slowly in my head, carefully fitted the second key into the lock and turned the massive ring just as the skeletal hands began to reach through to stop me. I pushed open the heavy oak door, squeezing Dot and I through and then slammed it shut.
We were inside. Inside a very dark, very gloomy, very empty church. The mustiness, dark and age struck me hard, so I reached up to hit all the main light switches. Then I rested my butt against a pew, so thankful for the light, the normalcy and that we were safe.
The apparently solid apparitions were flowing easily through the great stone walls of the church, through the door, through the walls near the door, and the base of the tower. Slipping through without any sign of hesitation or difficulties. We backed away, and angrily I turned on Dot.
“They’re coming in!” I said, stating the obvious. “How?”
Dotty simply looked puzzled and I knew there had been other times I’d been this mad at that exact expression but couldn’t imagine how that was possible.
“You thought they couldn’t get in here?” she said, genuinely bewildered.
“YES! That’s why, why I thought we came here. Sanctuary?” I pointed to the far east end of the church. “Do we have to get closer to the altar or something?”
“No”, she said, still maddeningly cool. “That altar at the back isn’t where the biggest strength is anyway.”
“Why are they able to come in here at all? You said it was a place of great power!”
“It is. But power goes both ways, you know? I mean, think of who and what has been in here over the millennia. You said more than a dozen Medieval Kings and Queens, Regents and their courtiers attended services here. You think those people got where they were by being nice? Winning an audition on the X Factor? Naw, this place is full of all the energies of the past. The centuries of hypocrisy, the tortures…”
“Tortures?” I blurted out, staring about my nice friendly parish church.
“Trials by ordeal. Little villages like this would have had judicial cases resolved by some poor, screaming peasant hauling a ball of molten brass down that aisle.”
“That’s the nave.”
“Not back then, it’s a medieval term, dear.”
I should mention that this argument, and her correcting my history, was all taking place while we were slowly being surrounded by nightmare shapes that she’d said were out to get me. Considering all that, the fact I only shook her once showed great restraint, I think. “Then WHY did we come here?
“I know,” And I did. “You’re trying to kill me! Right? Because…” Maybe the church did have some sort of power for me, because memories flooded through my mind, memories of times with Dot and one in particular. “You did this to me before, didn’t you? I remember. You killed me! You actually killed me!”
Dot rolled her eyes. “You finally start to remember past lives, and that’s what you bring up after a thousand years of friendship? AND… If you would actually remembered everything, you’d remember that you swore you were cool with the whole thing.”
Strangely, the mob had stopped… dead, I guess you could say. For whatever reason if they needed one, they halted, seemingly amused or perhaps puzzled by our bickering. With most of the flesh hanging from their jaws, expressions were not easy to read. Of course, Dot was ignoring them entirely, ranting on unconcernedly, “And if you took a minute to properly remember and not be so obsessed with the times I poisoned you, you’d also remember it was for your own good.”
Having grown bored, their union coffee break over, or more likely because they’d come up with a plan, the spectres once more began to stealthily approach us. This time they were slipping down the side aisles. Both side aisles. Slowly surrounding us. In the quiet of the ancient stone church, I believe I could hear their bones actually rattling - a dull knocking sound as they stumbled and shambled around us. Until we were entirely encircled. Their grinning, or was it grimacing, became more manic, until with an exchange of nods, one group dropped back, allowing a slim, somehow familiar ghoul to take centre stage. He bowed with a sardonic smile, and then indicated to others behind him to bring forward their special guest. “Ladies. We have someone who would like to talk to you.”
Of course it was Cass. Cassandra hoisted by two of those filthy dead men, smiling like a Queen as she was brought forward. She waited until she was settled onto the floor before she began to speak. Bile rose up in my gut just listening to her, seeing her. My child, held hostage by these things.
“Mother,” that sandpaper voice greeted. “Does that interest you? Trial by Ordeal, I mean. Or you could just plead guilty. After all, you are guilty, Mother.”
During all of this, Dot was fussing about before yanking again at my arm to pull me a few steps backwards.
“You want to be here by the centre altar,” she instructed. “This is where the first Christian altar in the old Saxon church would have been. And you can bet the early Christians would have built it right over the original pagan altar. This is where the energies are.”
She shoved aside the portable altar and beckoned me to stand on the spot. The wraiths all seemed to be entirely solid now, but they waited, unmoving, Cass and the rest, as if I was a sacrifice getting into position. So I hesitated, then bit my lip and realised I had to trust Dot.
There was nothing at first, not even a trickle or a shiver. The ghouls seemed to relax and begin to press forward again. Dot grabbed my shoulders and said firmly, “Just stop trying, stop thinking, feel the space, feel the lives and the links between you and all the ages. It’s there, just feel it!”
Nothing. I was feeling nothing, if you don’t count terror and defeat. The front line of the ghouls reached out to touch me, a sickening bone and flesh hand grazing my skin, with a dozen arms and hands moving closer from all sides, and I snapped finally. I shrieked in desperation and frustration, and the shriek was… “XENA!!!”
And that was it. The cork in the bottle blew out. I could feel the centuries, I could feel Alex and all the names and lives we’d had together. A million moments of crisis and peace, vast plains filled with people, or just those wonderful blue eyes. And my breath came in rapidly increasing pants, my skin seemed to tighten and grow cold. There was this slight sound in my ears that grew and magnified. I began to shake, to shiver and I could feel the wraiths take a step back. But I needed more room. I raised my arms and pushed them back, feeling a force radiating from my hands, pressing at them, giving me the room.
Dot clapped her hands gleefully. “That’s it, and ya know, I think… now we have some help.”
From outside I heard a war cry. A very familiar war cry, one that Alex used to make when we had a particularly good moment in the bedroom. That sound was followed by a several shrieks and the sound of something being struck rather hard. Then the church door was smashed open.
And there she was.
Or someone just like her because this Alex was not the dark one of earlier on, but a fully charged, almost glowing with energy Alex who greeted me with eyes that shone even brighter when she saw me. She whooped again, spun and began to smash every one and everything that stood between us, making a broad avenue to reach me. Her first words over the tumult were, “Are you okay?” and I was so damned relieved to see the love and concern that I could almost forget the craziness and threat of the ghosts surrounding us all.
But this was not the time to forget about them. Inspired by my partner to make my own gains, I raised my hands and palms out and actually blasted a wave of whatever it was I was drawing on. If anything was left to shock me on this night, it was seeing those wraiths go basically, poof, well… I guess I was still capable of surprise. Alex jumped up higher than I’ve ever seen her or any human, and yet THAT wasn’t a shock, as if I expected her to be able to do it. I blasted a few more and Alex bounced overhead behind me to do her thing to cover my rear. But Cass, or whatever was holding Cass seemed impervious to it all. She stood firm in front of me, her eyes still burning with malice, daring me to use my new powers against her. But the memories of a very specific past life knew what she was now, and any guilt was burned away by the revelation.
I lowered my arms and spoke to the thing in her, hoping each word would cut all ties between us.
“I am not your mother. I never was.”
The thing in Cass laughed. “More lies, Mother? Still pretending you don’t remember now?”
“I do remember. I remember what I thought, how I wanted to believe, that there was something of myself in you. I remember hoping… believing that you might have a chance. But I was so wrong. And you showed me how wrong I was. You showed me you had nothing of me, just a shell, but not a drop of my blood. From the rape… to your death… you were always a demon. You killed. You liked killing. You wanted to kill again and again, and you killed and threatened everyone I loved, everything closest to me.”
“Never you, though,” she demurred.
“My real daughter would have known how little that would mean to me. And if there was even the slightest drop of my blood in you, you would have known I would rather have died, than… have her son killed.”
There was fear finally in her eyes, and as I stepped forward, she moved back just a bit. “You could have had the world!” she pleaded.
I shook my head. “Nothing of me. Not a single drop.” I dropped down to stare into her face directly. “But I do have a child, not of my womb but far more my child than you ever were. And you will go back to whatever dark sewer you sprang from and let her grow into the adult you never could have been, no matter who raised you.”
I pointed my palms at the child I loved and gave every bit of focus and energy I had. My hands seemed to burn white, the force radiating from them greater than all that had gone before. She shrunk and cringed, there was this rushing sound that grew and grew, joined by a shrieking from the few ghouls that were hiding behind pillars from Alex’ assault. I was vibrating with strength and burning heat, but I was not going to stop. This was not a time for mercy. I felt her tearing away from Cass, felt her pain and anger and loss and still kept pushing and burning until the shrieking in the whole church grew with hers and grew and grew until…
Cass closed her eyes and slumped into a sprawl on the church tiles. I was close to doing the same, panting. Possibly sweating cobs, but I needed that child in my arms and without any fear slid my arms around her and found the strength to lift her up.
Dot was peeking about the pillars, but except for the four of us, the church was empty.
“So Cool!” she applauded. “Those bozos must’ve used all of their energy keeping Her in Cassandra. She was their anchor, and now? They. Are. Gone!”
Alex glowered, clearly not about to take anything concerning our safety on trust. She lifted her chin to indicate to me that she was going to take a quick look for stragglers and I nodded that we were okay and that she should go, as I knew that she’d never relax until she saw it was all clear.
Dot grinned at our wordless communication. Alex noticed and rolled her eyes at this, but threw me a kiss as she charged out of the great door, a smile in her eyes. I stood up carefully, shifting Cass’ weight carefully, confirming that she was somehow sleeping. A quiet, calm, natural sleep. I breathed in her scent, feeling all of my thousands of years.
I turned to Dotty, no, not Dotty… “Dite?”
“Nononono. We’ve also already had this conversation. It’s Aunty Dotty. Names are important…. Jennifer Gabrielle Hampton.”
“Gabrielle,” I mused. “It’s not just a middle name, is it?”
“Nope,” and she smiled. “More like a sorta bookend.”
I scanned more memories, touched on a dozen events, like old photo albums. “So I get to remember? I’ll wake up tomorrow and the next day, and remember what this was about?”
She laughed. “Yup.”
“And the Furies, Morphius’ followers, they going to try again?”
“Nah. I told you. Fringe cult living on old stories they thought would give them power again. Years of planning and you crush ‘em on the one night their power was at its peak? Chalk one more up for the good guys. Go. Go home and get some rest.”
I tightened my hug on Cass, but I could still feel the weight of all those centuries, and I tried to express it. “We’ve done things, so many things…”
Dot grinned. “You and Alex? Oh fer sure. Little and big things, and…” Her voice softened, “…they changed the world. And I am the proudest Aunty Dotty. Because being with you, watching you every generation, has been the main reason I’ve hung out on this plane for so long.” Once again her tone changed. “Not that a nice bath of chocolate surrounded by naked and adoring hunks and hunkesses doesn’t have its good side.”
Alex, and I’m pretty sure it was Alex, at least as much as I was just Jen anymore, came back in. She trotted up the Nave and proceeded to show me not only that she was definitely MY Alex, but that whoever I was, I was still hers.
Dotty sighed dramatically. I opened an eye over Alex’ shoulder and she smiled at me and said, “I have two hundred sweet little freaks keeping a temple for me in SoCal. And all of them together don’t make me feel as young as the two of you in a moment like that.”
She sighed again, then snapped her fingers. “Right, you need some time alone and I need to go fix something while I remember.” There was a sparkle and she was gone.
“Endora, that’s just what our life needs. Our own Endora,” Alex groused over my shoulder.
“That would make you Darren.”
She stiffened. “Nope, I’ll take that back. She is Dotty and…”
“I am me and you are she.”
“And we are all together.”
“Ook ook a chook,” I completed.
“Let’s get the little chook home then.”
We shut off the lights and locked up, the three of us clutching each other. The stroll back along the dark streets was much quicker this time but we slowed down as we began seeing the bits of glass on the road winking in the streetlight. I hung my head. Alex’s sharp eyes spotted something else though. “What’s that on the window?”
“We still have a window left? Probably something from a burglar.” I groused. “Something along the lines of…Glad you weren’t in when we called, thanks for the easy access, see you next time…”
Alex interrupted my rant. “It’s a construction permit.”
“A what? To do what?”
“Oh, “she said casually. “Just dig out the floors, three weeks conservation exploration and examination, and permission for thinglaze double glazing in new windows, designs and specs attached.”
She held out the drawings under the lamplight. I was stunned once again, but this time in a good way. “These are exactly what we were wanting.”
“How… They said even if they agreed, it would take two years for planning permission. At least two years.”
How she could read the small print in that light, I don’t know, but her finger found a line. “The application was made over two years ago.”
“Not by us.”
“Our agent and project manager, it says”
“Our handy time-travelling Goddess.”
Alex pursed those gorgeous lips. “Time travelling goddess? Just what the world needs. Dot with the power to change time.”
She didn’t pursue the point, possibly because I was once more thoroughly examining those lips.
There was a small and thank goodness, innocent, child caught between us, who whined a complaint before we broke apart. “Mom?” she blearily demanded.
I shifted my precious bundle and answered, “Yes, love?”
That wasn’t something I was going to be able to fix quickly, huge holes in the wall of our house and all. I glared at the sight of all the broken glass and window frames lying all about the street. Alex tilted her head in the direction of our back garden and said, “Broom?”
I smiled a thank you and hugging Cass as tightly as I could, I carried her up the alley to our door. Before taking out the key, I turned the knob experimentally. As I’d expected, or at least hoped, it turned. Normal was back! Shifting Cass, I was able to open the door, and when it opened… it was our house again. Filled with the sense of it being ours, with our scents and a welcome, greeting us. I let Cass jump down and switched on the lights. Cass ran into the living room before I could say anything. When I caught up to her she was staring at the ground and said, “Mommy. Someone made a mess. A BIG mess.” And she added defensively, “It wasn’t me.”
Yes, the section of floor that Dot had drawn her rectangle was all over the room. Bookcases and furniture were covered with several inches of broken grit and dust and huge sections of broken concrete were scattered all over the room. Some a foot wide and weighing almost a hundred pounds each. Alex’s head appeared through the window and gave me an almost frightened look. “Gonna need a bigger broom?” she said, though I could see her lips were quirking in a smile.
“Did you do this?” I demanded.
She tried to evade, “Oh, com’n. It’s impossible in several ways.”
“Did you do this?” I repeated sternly.
Alex shrugged. “Poss-ibly. Maybe.”
I raised an eyebrow, another trick I learned from her, and it seemed pretty effective as she cracked. “Okay, I think so. I remember… I remember… the rest of them getting out, leaving me with…Her.”
“Oh. Not really you, though.”
She gave a shy grin. “You didn’t think so?”
“Nah.” Then I shrugged, “Good dresser, though.”
“You like the black?”
“I like you.” I realised I’d been distracted again, pointed to the livingroom mess and waited.
Alex got the message. “Yeah, well it was just her and me, and she didn’t have anything new to say, and the concrete… it was in the way.” I tried to continue my glare, but how could I keep it up when her next words were, “You were on the other side.”
Probably still worried about punishment for the massive mess, Cass decided to tactically and literally side with me by running to hug one of my legs.
She looked up and asked, “Is Halloween over now?”
“For this year, yes,” I answered.
“Are all the dead people gone?” Alex and I exchanged a look of concern. Cass sounded just a little too disappointed. But she perked up enough to ask, “Can we do this again next year?” This time we both could hear definite enthusiasm, and certainly from my point of view, misplaced enthusiasm.
I pondered my answer. The Doom was definitely gone and it was our house once more. But in a year, when the veil between the living and the dead thinned once more...
I looked down at my beloved daughter. “Cass? How about this time next year, if you and me and your Mum go on a trip somewhere…”
“Anywhere,” Alex added with emphasis. But there was a glint in her eye as she began to consider the ‘anywhere’ and I felt one last shiver. Cass was still too young for night parachuting, right?
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