"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Monday, February 25, 2013

17. The Messenger

Glaring fiercely, Syrus was just about to bark at Valeria for disregarding his instructions, when the door slowly opened, revealing the tall, elegant form of a Messenger.  The being was mesmerizing, from the alabaster face, so flawless it was impossible to determine gender, to hair of purest white flowing down the creature’s gossamer robes and trailing behind for several feet like the most exotic of wedding veils.  Eyes glowing like amber, lit from within, gazed calmly at the two men before glancing out the window. 

Syrus came around his desk and stood next to Taurin, then both bowed with respect.  One of the Higher, beings so evolved they had risen to the pinnacle of knowledge and enlightenment to reside on the uppermost level in the Ethereal.  They answered only to the Universe, though occasionally a select few were chosen to deliver communiques of importance or interest to the lesser planes.

Waiting quietly for the Messenger to speak, Syrus grew uncomfortable at the creature’s fascination with the view.  He cringed inwardly, hoping the hills weren’t riddled with lightning-fried sheep.   “How may we help you, Higher?”

Reluctantly, the creature looked away from the scenery, and smiled serenely at them.  “For warden Taurin, I have the key.”  The voice was low, soft, melodious, like a long-forgotten song whispered on the breeze.   A slender hand emerged from the folds of the robe, and held out a golden chain.  A small oval medallion, wings etched into the center, dangled between the creature’s fingers.  “When you are ready, wear this around your neck.  It will take you back to what you once knew.”  The Messenger paused, stared intently into Taurin's eyes for a moment, then said gently, “You may find what is lost, though perhaps not what you seek.” 

Replaying the confusing words in his mind, Taurin carefully reached out to take the medallion.   As the thin gold chain slid through long, tapered fingers, the being murmured, “When the time comes, removing the key will return one to his rightful place.”  With another curious look out the window, the Higher turned with a slight smile and glided silently out of the room.

 Syrus and Taurin looked at each other, then stared at the necklace swinging in Taurin’s hand.  “Did you follow that?” Syrus asked, shaking his head.  “It’s all riddles and ambiguity with them.”

“The only thing I really care about,” Taurin said, lifting the medallion to eye level, “is that this will get me to Valentine and the book.”  He narrowed his eyes at his boss.  “Since it's clear they know about this mess, why aren't they handling it?  This is a breach so unprecedented, I can’t fathom why they would let just a warden deal with it.”

“You’re not just a warden, you’re the best.”  He clapped a hand on Taurin’s shoulder.  “And believe me, even though we don’t have a clue what it is, there’s a purpose behind this.”  Glancing out the window as he walked back to his desk, Syrus was relieved to see the landscape wasn't dotted with the blackened remains of a flock of sheep.  Distractedly, he returned the scene to the actual glowing mists that swirled around the seventh level, muttering, “There’s always a purpose.”

Captivated by the ornament shimmering in the gilded light, Taurin stared, his hand trembling slightly as the medallion began to sway gently in a phantom breeze, the carved wings in the center moved gracefully as if alive and eager to fly.

“When do you leave?” Syrus asked.

Startled, Taurin tore his eyes from the charm and quickly dropped it into his shirt pocket. “Soon as I can clear my schedule and arrange a few things.”

“I’ll take care of your schedule.  Just get ready, then come back here before you go.”

Taurin nodded, then hurriedly left the room, already cataloguing what he might need, discarding any lingering unease about what he was about to do.

Staring after his warden, Syrus frowned,.  It was a rare thing to have a Higher come to his office, let alone provide tangible assistance—though stealing a book from the Library of Souls went beyond rare and into never, no doubt explaining the involvement.  Right.  In that case, why then did he feel this edgy concern for Taurin?

Spinning in his chair, Syrus scowled out the window.  Sheep were suddenly running madly over lush green hills, dodging snowballs that rained like bombs from a clear, blue sky.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

16. Coming To A Decision

The two men entered the office and walked across the expansive marble floor.  Syrus rounded the desk and flung himself into his chair with a scowl.  Taurin remained standing, legs spread, arms behind his back, waiting.  At least a head taller, Taurin was well aware the man’s shorter stature meant nothing.  Syrus was built with a muscular strength few men could stand against--as anyone stupid enough to test him found to their peril.  His face was rugged, cheekbones sharply delineated by the long salt-and-pepper hair pulled tight at his nape, the tail resting between his shoulder blades.  His hazel eyes were afire with a vivid intensity as he glared at Taurin. 

“Tell me what happened,” growled his boss.  "I got your message yesterday, and though I agreed with your request for complete need-to-know, I've waited long enough.”  Eyes piercing, he narrowed his gaze, then asked quietly, hopefully, “Any chance this is just a misunderstanding of some kind?” 

“No, sir.  Not a misunderstanding, mistake, or some kind of bizarre accident.  Daniel Valentine somehow managed to deliberately call up, then steal, a soul book that was definitely not his own.  If I hadn’t seen it for myself, felt the touch of the book under his clothing as he disappeared out of my grasp, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.”  He grimaced.  “Almost worse however, I then had to convince Deacon it was true.”   They exchanged a long look. 

“I can imagine how that went,” Syrus muttered. 

“It was beyond imagining, sir,” Taurin replied wryly.  “Eventually, we were able to scan the card Valentine used, and because it hadn’t been wiped, we know the identity of the woman who belongs to the book, but that’s about all we know.  There’s no clue why he stole it, what he wants with it, or how, by all the gods, he managed to take the book out of the Library.” 

Syrus stood and turned to look out the floor-to-ceiling window behind his desk.  On most levels, thoughts became whatever reality a being wanted or needed in the Ethereal, making it fairly easy to judge the Warden Master's state of mind based on the view out the window.  At the moment the outlook was vacillating between the Storm of the Century and a bucolic scene of sheep cavorting over green hills. It didn't take knowing the man for centuries for Taurin to clearly see that Syrus was struggling to find his equilibrium. 

Still watching the vista, Syrus asked softly, “What do you think happened when he got back to the world?  For all we know, maybe this…misadventure killed him.” 

“Save me the trouble then,” Taurin said, matter-of-fact. 

Smiling, Syrus returned to sit in his chair, grazing sheep and fluffy white clouds taking precedence over the dark storm.  “I’ve known you for two thousand years, Taurin.  You might have to slay a demon or two, wrestle one of the Toll House denizens to prove a point, but we both know you’re one of the most level-headed, empathetic wardens in the Ethereal.” 

Taurin hesitated, then with a rush of words, he said, “I want to go after him, sir.  Deacon was able to extract Valentine’s soul signature off the card.  I can trace him, no matter where he’s hiding.  I’ll get him and the book, and bring them both back in short order.” 

Syrus considered him for a long, serious moment.  “You haven’t been on the earth plane for centuries.   You gave up that world, made a commitment to stay here, become a warden.”  He shook his head, then murmured thoughtfully, “I’m not even sure it can be done.” 

“Like a soul book can never be stolen?” 

In the silence, Syrus leaned back in his chair, pressing his steepled fingers to his mouth as he spun to face the window.  Taurin tried to stifle his laughter, but the sight of lightning bolts chasing the sheep around the hills was too comical.  At the sound of his soft chuckle, Syrus swiveled back and gave the best warden he’d ever known a fierce look.  “I’ll have to go up the chain of command on this,” he said, rolling his eyes upward, “and no telling what will come of that.” 

“We need to get on this as fast as possible, sir.  Valentine’s almost two days ahead of me, and who knows what that means to the woman and her book.”
     Syrus opened his mouth to speak, but was stopped by a soft tap at the door.

Monday, February 18, 2013

15. Betrayal Drives A Warden

      Taurin strode through the west entrance of the seventh level, struggling to contain the storm that seethed inside him.  How could such a thing happen?  And by someone he had befriended, had known since the man was a mere boy.  He hissed between clenched teeth, long legs and an icy bitterness fueling his rapid progress toward the Master Warden’s office.

Wardens were chosen for their cool self-possession, their ability to remain calm, unruffled, whether facing demons, minions or any of the myriad creatures that haunted the lower levels.  They were chosen for their ability to work alone, think quickly, deal swiftly with anything, anyone, that threatened the Ethereal balance.  On the other side of the coin, wardens were equally adept at compassionately guiding and soothing the lost or confused, helping wherever they were needed.

Nearing the arched opening that would take him to Headquarters, Taurin slowed his pace and tried to find some semblance of his usually unflappable composure before he spoke to his commander.  Balling his fists, he closed his eyes and took long, deep breaths as he fought for control, something he hadn’t had to do in over two millennia.  At that thought, his temper spiked again and grinding his teeth until his jaws burned, Taurin acknowledged there was no way he was going to calm down anytime soon.  Not until he found Daniel Valentine and dragged him back to the Ethereal to face his punishment. 

Smiling with grim anticipation, he stomped through the archway, sharply turning down the left corridor with lethal purpose.  Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice the junior recruit who took one look at his face and backed into the wall with a barely contained whimper. 

“I need to see Syrus,” Taurin barked at the commander's assistant, an attractive woman seated behind a large desk in the reception area.  “Now.” 

“I’m fine, thank you so much for asking.  And it's lovely to see you, too, Taurin.”  Sarcasm stung the air. 

They glared at each other for a moment, then Taurin ran a hand through his hair, and sighed heavily.  “My apologies, Valeria.  I’ve got a major situation, and much time has already passed—” 

“He's in a rare temper.  I hope you have answers.” 

“Not yet, though I may have a way to find them.  Getting Syrus to agree might prove more difficult.  My plan is unprecedented but then, so is this theft.”

“How was it even possible?” Valeria whispered, her eyes wide with alarm.  “Does this mean any book can be taken?”  The very thought was horrifying. 

“No,” Taurin growled, “I'll get to the bottom of it and this won't happen again, not on my watch.”  He struggled to soften his tone.  “I’ve just come from being locked in the Library with Deacon while we tried to fathom how this was done, though half my time was spent peeling him off the ceiling once convinced a theft had truly taken place.  Calming that man was harder than wrestling a fiend back into the depths to finish a penance.” 

Valeria stood.  “I’ll tell Syrus you’re waiting.  It should take just a moment; he is very anxious for details.”  She walked to the tall double doors behind her desk, knocked softly and disappeared inside. 

Taurin paced back and forth, eyes on his boots as thoughts spun, filling him with turmoil.  He needed to find his equilibrium or Syrus wouldn’t even consider the idea he had in mind. 

Raising his head, he found himself in front of a map that covered an entire wall in the room.  He rarely saw the Ethereal like this, laid out in shimmering layer upon layer. He marveled at the tableau, as if it were a cross-section of each level and yet also an aerial view.  That brought a slight smile; in his earthbound days, the only things that flew were birds and Roman spears. 

He traced a finger from the lowest levels—cruel, unrepentant, evil places—noted the twenty toll houses, then moved upward to the broad band of light where souls arrived after death, reconnected with family, departed in rebirth, made their choices.  Rising higher, he touched each softly-colored plane as it blended seamlessly into the one above. 

At the sixth level, his finger stopped, his mood abruptly darkening.  The Library, sacred and revered, housing a book for every soul.  Inviolate, never breached.  And yet, Daniel Valentine, for whatever reason, had done it.  It would have been beyond madness had he tried to leave the Ethereal with his own book, but to take one that didn’t belong to him?  It defied understanding.  But still the question remained:  Why?  Taurin, still reeling from the theft, and the betrayal, would have his answers, by fair means or foul. 

Dropping his hand, he continued to stare at the map, eyes moving above the Library to the seventh level where he now stood, where the Wardens lived and worked.  There were four entrances—at the compass points of east, west, north and south—that eventually led to the center, to the commander.  For Taurin, this was his home, his life. 

Finally, his gaze rose to the heart, the essence of the Ethereal, the plane beyond all planes.  Golden wisps of light radiated downward, touching every level, even the most abominable in the lowest of the low.  It was breathtaking to see it like this, see the complete picture, the magnificent embodiment of the Universe, the— 

“Taurin.”  Syrus stood in the doorway to his office.  Jerking his head for Taurin to follow him, he paused to say softly over his shoulder as Valeria returned to her desk, “Hold everything, Val.  And I mean everything.  No exceptions.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

14. At Last They Meet

Leaning over to wedge the platter between two cookie sheets in the dishwasher, Lily caught a slight movement in her peripheral vision, at the same time she again felt that odd trembling vibration from earlier in the evening. 

Slowly looking over her shoulder, she stiffened in shock to see a large, disheveled man standing at the threshold, one hand holding the swinging door open, the other gripping the strap of a battered leather messenger bag where it crossed over his chest.  The ambient glow from the street lights shining through the beveled glass of the front doors, outlined his tall, muscular body in a surreal aura of splintered rainbows against the shadows at his back. 

She straightened and turned to face him.  They stared at each other across the kitchen as bizarre, inexplicable thoughts tumbled through Lily’s mind:  how tired he looked; how much she wanted to run her fingers through the long, tangled strands of his dark hair; why did his green eyes darken with an emotion she couldn’t read as his gaze swept over her face, down her body?  He was angry about something too, jaw flexing as he ground his teeth.   Since she didn't believe in coincidence, the odds that two strange men—Dominic and this one—would both arrive at her bookstore in the same week, on the same night, clearly pointed to a connection of some kind.

Strangely, Lily felt no fear of him, and in fact still harbored more misgivings about Dominic then the man scowling at her from the doorway.  What was scaring her, making her tremble as she fought the impulse, was the overwhelming, irrational urge to leap into his arms.  If he’d give her an opening, any opening at all, she would throw herself at him. 

Narrowing her eyes, she scrutinized him, from the tips of his scuffed boots to the wild, unruly hair that kissed his shoulders, then she studied his face.  They had never met and yet…there’s a place inside me that knows him.

Daniel took in the long, straight black hair, the dramatic makeup and clothes.  She was tall, with fine features, full lips and large, warm brown eyes, and unusual golden-red eyebrows.  He blinked, his confused sense of her changing in an instant as he realized she was wearing a wig as part of her Halloween witch persona.  Distracted by the image of what she might look like without the costume, he had to shake his head to clear it, then couldn't stop staring at the woman he knew so intimately; this woman who was so entrenched in his life, and would be again, though she didn't yet know it.  If she ever forgives me.  And there it was, the reality bite in the ass he needed to get focused.

His voice, low and rough, sent a slight shiver down her spine as he growled, “Your instincts are right not to trust that bastard.”   Stepping closer, but not leaving the relative safety of the doorway, Daniel sucked in a breath then said quickly, “This is going to sound so outrageous and crazy, I won’t be surprised if you think I’m mental.”  He glanced toward the back door.  “Cantrell can't know I'm here.  My life—and yours—are at stake, and possibly that of your friend as well.” 

At the widening of her eyes, the alarm that crossed her face, he muttered under his breath, “Not the best way to inspire confidence, you ass.”  One more step into the room, at the limit of holding the door open, Daniel dropped his voice, his eyes again darting to the back door.  Urgently, he said, "Please, please give me a change to explain.  Please trust me long enough to talk to you, because I swear, cross my heart and hope to die—though I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that—I’m here to protect you.”

Lily opened her mouth to ask him why she needed protection, and from a total stranger, when both their heads swung toward the back door as they heard muffled voices coming toward the house, Katy’s giggle underscored by a deep chuckle from Dominic.  The door knob began to turn, then abruptly stopped.  In the silent kitchen, the soft groans clearly explained what was happening on the other side of the door.

Somewhere deep in her mind warning bells were clanging, but Lily ignored them.  Without hesitation, out of character and completely reckless, she yanked a ring of keys out of the pocket of her skirt and tossed them in his direction.  “Up the stairs to the third floor,” she whispered.  Another breathless murmur from outside caught her attention, but when her head snapped back to warn the man to hurry, he was already gone. 

Dominic and Katy rushed into the room, a cold blast of October air swirling in behind them.  Bemused, Lily wondered if she had conjured the mysterious man, imagined the intensity in his manner and words.  She turned from the laughing couple and caught the almost imperceptible swing of the kitchen door as it settled into place, and knew with a bone-deep certainty that everything in her life was about to change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

13. Tremors and Trust

Lily was heading for the kitchen with a overflowing tray of dirty glasses, balled up napkins and paper plates, when the air around her began to subtly vibrate in small waves like a stone tossed into the deep stillness of a lake.  She froze, quickly searching the people laughing and partying around her.  No one else seemed to notice, though it had literally felt like the air had trembled.  Puzzled, she shook her head when the sensation faded, continuing on to the kitchen.  Maybe there’d been an earthquake, though it was strange she was the only one to feel it.

 She backed through the swinging door, then turned to set the tray on the kitchen counter.  And nearly plowed straight into the broad back of a pirate, who was at that moment holding Little Red in his arms, nearly two feet off the ground, and appeared to be kissing her senseless, if the soft moans were any indication.  With a grimace, Lily quietly spun on her heels and was back out the door before—she hoped—her presence had even registered.  Grudgingly, she had to acknowledge that not only was Dominic Cantrell a hunk, but it looked like he was a great kisser too.  Lily just wished she could shake the feeling he was up to no good with her best friend. 

Suddenly tired, and too hot in her long black dress and pointy hat, Lily headed for the front counter to retrieve the old glass fish bowl filled with the votes for Best Costume.  All she could hope was that Katy’s heart wouldn’t be ripped out of her chest and stomped into the dirt before the mysterious Dominic moved on.  Because she had no doubts he would.

Scowling, she berated herself.  Was she just being a jealous bitch, imagining the worst because that’s what she wanted to see?  After all, earlier tonight when Katy had finally introduced them, Dominic had been everything that was polite and courteous, and throughout the night, she’d kept her eye on him, watched his interactions with Katy, but no matter how she’d watched—sneaky or blatant—she could find no fault with the guy, nor how he treated her best friend.

Leaving the tray on her desk, Lily sat on the tall stool behind the counter, removed her hat and kicked off her uncomfortable witch boots, wiggling her sore toes with relief as she pulled the over- flowing fish bowl toward her and began to sort through the ballots.  With a sigh, she relished being off her feet for the first time all night.

“Did we get any votes this year?”

She looked up, then smiled at Steve, one of the Dracula wannabes.  “Not so far, but I’ve just started counting.”

Mike came up behind Steve, laying a hand on his partner’s shoulder.  “We decided to give someone else a chance this year anyway.”

As she listened to the two men banter, Lily was reminded of the incident between them and Dominic.  Casually, she asked, “Hey guys, do you remember earlier when I asked you to help Katy, and the—”

“—Pirate threatened to kill us with his cutlass?  Yeah, we remember,” Mike muttered.

“What?  Threatened to kill you?”  Lily stopped counting and stared in alarm.

“No, no.  Not exactly,” Steve said.

I heard the only way to kill a vampire is to cut off his head.’  You don’t think that’s a threat?” Mike sputtered.

“Actually, the words were less scary than finding out his sword was real,” Steve replied.  He nudged Mike with an elbow.  “And don’t be such a drama queen!  He apologized later, and really, like he said, he was just playing the pirate role.  It is Halloween.”

“It was the way he said it, and the look in his eye,” Mike grumbled.

As they wandered away, arguing as usual, Lily absently counted the strips of colored paper as she thought about what she'd just learned.  Had Dominic actually meant the threat, or was it just an act?  And, a real sword?  She didn't know what to think about any of this: Dominic, her weird dream, trembling air waves.  Maybe I need a holiday.

A short time later, votes counted, Lily turned off the CD player behind the counter, signaling the final event of the party.  Padding to the staircase in her bare feet, she went up a few steps so everyone could see her, and looked into the faces of her guests as they crowded around the base of the stairs, laughing and eager to hear who had won this year’s contest.  All around her stood customers, vendors, friends, even a few competitors.  Lily felt a rush of contentment flow through her.  This was her place.  Her home.

     Clearing the emotion from her throat, she smiled.  “I want to thank all of you for coming, for making this the best Halloween party ever, and I want to invite each and every one of you to come back next year.”  She waited until the  whistling and catcalls died down.  “So, to close the Halloween festivities for another year, it is my absolute pleasure to announce the winners of the Best Costume.” 

Lily grinned, drawing out the suspense until Dominic, of all people, standing by the front counter with Katy pulled against him, flipped up his eye patch and shouted, “It’s me!  I know it’s me!  What did I win?”

Over the laughter, over other voices arguing that no, surely they had won, Lily raised her hands in a settle down gesture, then again looked around the room. “The winners of the best costume ever seen at Enchantments…are the Bodley twins, dressed as Peace and Quiet!”  The room burst into applause, and amid the happy shouts and congratulations, the two tiny, elderly spinsters, Agnes and Estelle Bodley tottered to the stairs.  Aggie was dressed as a hippie from the 1960s, with a large peace symbol sewn on the back of her beaded vest, while Stell wore the traditional black and white face and clothing of a mime, right down to the French beret.

Handing each of them a small white envelope, she said, “Your names and photo will forevermore be showcased on the infamous Wall of Best Costumes, and you both have received a $50 gift certificate.”  Beaming smiles spread over the creased and aged faces of the twins, both women wildly waving their envelopes, accepting the cheers and accolades with great delight.  Lily stepped down to the main floor, bending to give the women a warm hug, congratulating them on their clever costumes before taking them aside for a quick photo.

Then it took nearly an hour to get everyone out the door and safely on their way.  Katy made sure those who had too much to drink were either leaving with sober friends, or going home by cab.  The Bodley twins were thrilled to be escorted home by Dominic, both secretly wishing they lived much farther away from the bookstore than two short  blocks, and while he was gone, Katy and Lily made short work of clearing the main room.

Lily quietly loaded the dishwasher as Katy bundled the trash bags near the back door, knotting them closed before they were tossed in the dumpster outside.  “I haven’t talked to you very much tonight,” Lily said quietly.  “I hope you had a good time, even though you were working.  And by the way, thanks for everything.  I’m going to have to figure out a really good Christmas bonus this year.”

Laughing, Katy tied a knot in the last trash bag.  “I think this was the best party ever.”  Grabbing a cloth, she began wiping the kitchen counters.  “The food was really great, everyone said so, and I think we had way more people than last year, and oh, how amazing was it that the Bodley twins won the contest?”

“I think that was the best part of the whole night.  Did you see the look on their faces?”  She hesitated a moment, then said, “Though I think winning the contest wasn’t nearly as great as getting walked home by your pirate.”

Katy sighed.  “I know.  Seriously, could you believe it when he just jumped right in and said he couldn’t allow two such beautiful women to walk home alone?  If I hadn’t already fallen head over heels, that would have done it for me.”

“Don’t take this wrong, Katy, please, but—”  Lily raised her hand as Katy began to object.  “No, wait!  Just hear me out, okay?”  Snapping her mouth shut, Katy scowled and crossed her arms across her chest.  Lily rushed ahead before she lost her nerve, “What do you really know about this guy?  Who is he?  Where is he from?  Really, he just appeared out of nowhere and—”

Interrupting, Katy snapped, “Look Lil, I know you have reservations about Dom, even though I don't understand what they could possibly be, or why you're so sure there’s something wrong with him.”  Puffing out a short breath, she said in a softer tone, “You’re my best friend in all the world and I would do anything for you.”  She put her hand on Lily’s arm, eyes fierce as she held Lily’s gaze.  “But he hasn’t done anything to make you feel this way toward him.”  Shaking her head, she said, “I can’t explain it.  The connection we have.  I just know for good or ill, no matter what you think, I trust him, and you're just going to have to deal with it.”

Lily opened her mouth, not sure what to say to that, but just then Dominic tapped on the window in the back door, his grin widening as Katy ran to unlock it.  She murmured to him, and after a quick kiss on her nose, he grabbed several of the knotted bags, while Katy dragged out the last two, shutting the door behind her as she followed Dom to the dumpster.

A large platter dangled forgotten in her hand as Lily stared at the closed door.  She couldn’t get over how quickly Dominic had become part of Katy’s life.  Or how certain Katy was of him.  “I don’t care what she says,” she muttered, “I still don’t trust him.”

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

12. Daniel Joins The Party

      Standing in the dark alleyway between a dental office and a dry cleaning establishment, Daniel focused on the building across the street where some kind of party was in full swing. This was an unexpected obstacle, one that was going to make everything he had to do that much harder to accomplish.

      Running a hand over his face, he felt the stubble rasp against his palm like sandpaper. He hadn’t slept, or eaten much beyond a couple granola bars since leaving San Francisco this morning, driving fourteen hours straight. It had been imperative to stay ahead of Cantrell and off the grid, ruling out a quick and easy two-hour flight that could be traced. Though the drive had been exhausting, it had given him the invisibility he needed, and endless miles to think. Arriving in Seattle, it hadn't taken long to get his bearings, find the University District, and then the bookstore.

      Somewhere in that building was the woman who's book he’d stolen, the book that had burned into his body, leaving him marked with a name emblazoned in elegant lettering on his chest, and her entire soul journey crammed into his mind, filling every corner of his brain. Would she know him, as he now knew her? Would she remember how many times their paths had crossed, lives entwined? If not, what could he say to make her believe him?

      A mummy, a zombie and two witches staggered along the sidewalk, laughing with the abandon of the almost drunk. Daniel watched them go up the front porch steps and enter the bookstore, party noise spewing out for a brief moment before the door closed. For Christ’s sake, it was Halloween?

      Weary, Daniel leaned a shoulder against the brick wall. He was bone-tired and maybe not quite rational--he could deal with that--but the tight ball of fear that curled in his gut was becoming too heavy, as much a burden as the book.

      Since stealing it, time seemed to stand still, then speed up, stop altogether, then jerk forward again. He hadn’t had a moment’s peace since crash landing back into his safe room two nights ago, the book melting into his flesh, burning the shirt off his body. The echoing shout of an outraged Warden intensified the unbearable pain inside his skull as images of people and places, the cacophony of a hundred voices, flooded his mind, sweeping away coherent thought.

      Daniel didn’t remember much of those first hours, he was too busy being consumed by the burning agony in his chest and the data dump into his brain. Unable to stop or separate himself from the barrage of memories and details that belonged to her, they ripped into his head, shoving aside his own thoughts until his defenses collapsed and he lost the struggle.

      After an unknown period of time had passed, he gradually returned to awareness. Managing to drag himself across the floor to the small bathroom, he was violently sick. Repeatedly. Too unsteady to stand, he clung to the edge of the sink and weakly turned the faucet. Hands trembling, he splashed cold water on his face, rinsed his mouth, then with cupped hands began drinking like a man dying of thirst. When he began to feel marginally human again, Daniel slowly rose to his feet, then bent to dunk his head under the faucet, shivering as the cold water ran in icy rivulets over his shoulders, down his chest. Carefully straightening, he looked into the mirror, not yet ready to lower his gaze, see the damage caused by whatever the book had done to him.

      He also wasn’t ready to see a pale, unfamiliar face peering back at him. Frowning in disbelief, he leaned closer, staring into green eyes, now darker somehow, the amber flecks barely discernible in the haunted, thousand-yard stare; sooty shadows under his eyes made him look like he was ill, or hadn’t seen the light of day for weeks; his cheekbones had a sharper, more chiseled look that was startling. What the fuck had happened to him? Stomach roiling, unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, Daniel took a deep breath, clenched his fists, and deliberately lowered his eyes to his chest.

      Instead of the terrible black and blistered skin he expected to see, the flesh looked...new. Smooth and healthy. Arched across his upper chest, the word Lilith was embedded with a graceful flourish as if it had always been a part of him. Raising a hand, he hesitated a moment, then lightly touched an emerald letter with a shaking finger. In an instant his mind began to flicker with countless images not his own. The pain was staggering, and with a deep groan he blindly groped for the rim of the sink to stop himself from falling to his knees. Hanging his head between outstretched arms, Daniel took long, deep breaths, willing the pain, the images to stop. Christ, he thought, no wonder a soul book has never been stolen before. It meant excruciating pain and agony, no doubt leading to certain death when your head exploded.

      Between bouts of crushing pain and debilitating nausea, Daniel spent the next day and night trying desperately to return to the Library, give himself up to the Wardens, accept his punishment, forfeit his life if need be, anything to stop the torment. But, for the first time in his life, the way would not open for him. No matter how he tried, struggled, thought or imagined, he could not enter the Ethereal.

      Now, in the cold darkness of a strange city, Daniel yielded to his weariness, lowering himself to the cement step at the alley entrance to the dry cleaners. Resting back against the door, he idly watched the party activity through the large windows of the bookstore. After so many hours in the car, his entire body was vibrating, everything around him surreal and alien. Except for the woman across the street. A woman he knew more intimately than he knew himself now. His stomach churned, anxiety making him feel as queasy as those first hours when he'd returned from the Library. He knew he should eat, but that would have to wait until the party was over, and after he'd talked to her.

      Closing his eyes, hoping to rest, even for a few minutes, he wasn't surprised to find himself reliving another event from the book. Daniel had slowly learned, between the pain and retching, that if he didn’t fight it, but let the scene play out, he wasn't affected as much. And that was about the same time he'd realized just what it was he was seeing, and what it meant.

      In the early morning hours—was it just this morning?—Daniel had finally understood. He was the only person, other than Lilith herself, who could have called the book. Somehow Cantrell had known, which explained the burglary set up, the blackmail, though he was pretty sure the bastard hadn’t planned on the book burying itself in Daniel's chest. Other than the pain and the puking, that part of this whole mess made Daniel smile.

      Spurred into action by his revelations, now knowing who she was, Daniel had done a quick search on his computer, relieved to find Lilith within striking distance. Throwing clothes into a bag, securing the house for an extended absence, he had driven out of San Francisco as if a legion of Hellhounds were breathing down his neck--and considering how things had been going, they were probably on their way.

      Seattle was easy to reach by car, allowing him to stay under the radar and with luck, slightly ahead of the Cantrells. The hard part was going to be convincing Lilith he was telling the truth about the book, their connection.

      Suddenly restless, Daniel jumped to his feet. He couldn't wait any longer. Quickly crossing the street, he took the steps two at a time, paused with his hand on the doorknob, sucked in a deep breath of chilly October air, then opened the door to noise, laughter and the fragrant spice of books.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

11. Halloween At Enchantments...

     Lily came out of the kitchen with another tray of ghoulish cupcakes, dodging the two Dracula wannabes who tried to snatch a few as she passed through the crowd.  Laughing, she said over her shoulder, “Could one of you Vlads make yourself useful and help Katy?  She’s got a load of bottles to refill the punch bowl.” 

The two turned toward the kitchen, but a handsome pirate, head wrapped in a black bandanna, wearing an equally black eye patch and a bright gold hoop in his left ear, pulled a long, curved blade from the scabbard at his waist and barred the way forward.  “Hold, mates.  I’ll be takin’ care o’ the lassie.” 

Protesting, one Dracula began to push the sword out of his way but it stayed flat and firm against his midsection.  Lily watched the exchange, saw the pirate lean forward and whisper something in the space between the two men.  Whatever was said, it was effective. The Draculas turned as one and brushed past Lily, eyes wide with alarm. 

 Frowning, she watched them go, then turned to speak to the pirate, but he was gone, the kitchen door swinging closed behind a flash of black.  Lily stepped toward the kitchen, then remembered the cupcakes.  Heading  for the counter by the front door where all the candies and sweets had been arranged, she glanced across the room to the tables along the far wall where the buffet was set up, two very large punch bowls on either end.  Lily stacked cupcakes on the tiered display, certain she knew the identity of the pirate.  It appeared he’d said something to upset two of her guests, but having been on edge since the strange dream, maybe she was just reading too much into a harmless situation.

When the tiers were full, Lily walked through the crowd, smiling, chatting, diverted for a few minutes by the partygoers and their inventive costumes.  Working her way to the buffet tables, she took note of what needed replenishing, amazed how fast the food and drink were disappearing.  It seemed like all she had done so far tonight was run between the kitchen, the buffet and the counter of sweets.  The price of being hostess, she thought, making her way around the outskirts of the room toward the kitchen.  What was taking Katy so long to refill the punch bowls?  As if conjured by the magic of her name, Katy backed out the swinging door, a large container of soda in each hand, then held it open with her hip to allow the pirate to come through with the rest of the bottles. 

Ah.  Judging by the look on Katy’s face, this was indeed Dominic.  Lily stopped, leaning against the banister to observe the interplay between the two while they were still unaware of her.  Katy looked like a tiny doll next to the large, muscular pirate, the picture enhanced by her Little Red Riding Hood costume.  A thought came unbidden into her mind that Dominic would have made a better werewolf than a pirate: his eyes seemed to devour Katy with a wolfish, hungry intensity.  Lily couldn’t stop the shiver that ran down her spine. 

As the couple came toward the staircase, Katy spotted her and dashed forward, her energy and excitement palpable even through the noisy, boisterous party atmosphere.  “He’s here!  He truly came!  I know he said he would, but then it was getting late and I thought maybe he wasn’t going to show, but then—” 

Trying to wipe the unease off her face, Lily bent to whisper, “Katy, take a breath.”  She didn’t want this man’s ego inflated more than it probably was, though looking over her friend’s shoulder, making eye contact with the pirate, she saw the amusement in his eyes, the slight smile, and knew that ship had sailed.  He already knew Katy was his for the taking.  Oddly, he also seemed to be assessing her, Lily, as if looking for something, searching for…what?  If it was approval, that wouldn’t be happening any time soon. 

Straightening, Lily faced him, knowing she wasn’t being very polite, or friendly.  She had listened to Katy for days now, going on and on about this guy, this elusive and mysterious guy, and suddenly she wasn’t pleased about this whole thing.  At all.  He was definitely a player, no question.  But just who was he really, and what did he want with her best friend? 

Katy looked from Lily’s unsmiling face to Dominic’s mischievous grin, not sure what was going on, her exuberance dimming as she tried to grasp the undercurrents swirling around the three of them. 

Dominic  broke the awkward moment.  “Let’s mix up this Devil’s Brew first, Katy love, then you can formally introduce me.”  Dominic’s voice was low, deep and almost mesmerizing.  Katy smiled happily and led the way toward the buffet tables.  As Dominic followed, he glanced at Lily, grinning wide as he passed. 

Lily stared after him.  Oh this was so not good.  Not good at all.