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The air shimmered and rippled like it was a living thing, like something crawled or swam just beneath an unseen surface. He put his hand out, long fingers plucking as if at the strings of a guitar, seeking purchase and finding… nothing.
“Fuck,” he muttered. He slipped a knife from the inside pocket of his worn leather jacket and crouched down in the dirt. The forest floor at his feet was littered with browned pine needles; a sweep of his hand cleared them away from the soil. With the handle of the knife, he scratched a mark into freshly-exposed earth.
As he straightened up again, a shadow flashed at the corner of his eye. He whirled, booted feet planting fast as he scanned the treeline. His sharp gaze darted between the trees as his grip adjusted around his blade.
These days, one could never be too careful. Hunter so easily became hunted.
“Come out, come out, whatever you are,” he called into the woods. “I’ve been looking for a spot of fun all day.”
The witch known to some as Walter the Nameless lowered his arm to his side and trekked back the way he came, back to the edge of the Devil’s Wood where it met the roadside.
Today had been a disappointment. This month had, really. That was why, when he reached his car and found that it was not sitting by its lonesome as it should be, he was less than amused.
“No,” he told the girl, pointing at her with the tip of his weapon. “I’m not in the mood to listen to your teenage woes right now, Jules. Not that I ever am, mind you.”
Julian sat perched on the hood of his car, and had been long enough to get bored and start fiddling with her phone while she waited. Her first attempts at finding Walter didn’t get her very far. She dropped by the Seventh Star just out of curiosity to see if he’d be there only to find it locked up and closed. Her initial psychic mojo attempts went as expected. You couldn’t psychic up the whereabouts of a witch trying hard not to be found. Julian had to get creative instead, which involved looking for Walter things. His car, apparently, was part of his no-lookie spells, but it didn’t stop Julian from zeroing in on his Cream CD. When she found the car parked at the edge of the wood, she was really, really proud of herself.
That was probably why she was grinning ridiculously wide, all teeth and cheeky smugness.
“…do you ever get your assumptions right, or is it just me you totally fail with?” Julian asked, genuinely curious. He was still alive and surely had to be good at being the witchy overlord of Silent Pines. But he never did get her right. Maybe his blind spot was weird teenage girls.
She stuffed her phone in her jacket pocket as she bounced to her feet. Now he was getting a different kind of look. An examining gaze and squint of her eyes as she tried to figure out what he might’ve been doing wandering around the woods carrying around a knife.
“I actually have more interesting problems. Witchy overlord level problems, maybe. I could probably take care of it all myself, but it’d be a lot easier cashing in those ten thousand favors you owe me.”
“The fact that you’re even here tells me you’re getting better at being a psychic, so maybe I’ll believe you.” He stared at her, tucking his knife away again. “You are one for interesting predicaments, when you’re not chasing dead boys.”
There was something different about her, he decided, tilting his head. There were any number of things it could be. He would have to mull it over before he settled on any one cause. In the meantime, if she thought she had something interesting, Walter was all ears. God knew he could use the entertainment.
“What do you want then?” he cut right to the chase. His hands slipped into his jacket pockets.
Walter was a man of many uniforms. Today’s was the jacket, worn over a dark blue plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Practical for roaming about in the woods. Around his neck hung his pendant, as always, but this time it wasn’t tucked into his clothes.
He wasn’t the only one wearing special jewelry either, he noticed.
“I want more of those mints.” she said first, turning on her heels to wander over to the driver’s window. She cupped her hands so she could shield the glare of the sun from the glass and peer inside. “What I need is answers to a million questions and I don’t know where to start first.”
Julian turned around to lean against the door, tilting her head as she put all her questions in order and debated what was most important and what would be easiest to get resolved faster. The Augur concerned her the most, considering he was out to kill anyone he deemed kill-worthy, and would come with the expected lectures. Lucinda was going to end up being a tricky discussion. Witches were Walter’s business and that would be a whole ordeal, probably with extra lecturing.
She glanced down at her hands, where she was already subconsciously fussing with the chain of her pendant.
Whelp, this one was an easy one.
Julian lift the chain with both her thumbs, dangling the pendant in the light.
“This first! It’s mine and I know it’s mine. I also know it’s my family’s. But I’ve never really seen it before until I found it stuffed in my mailbox with no clue of who sent it. Which is beyond weird. Aaaand being a dumb teenager girl, I checked with the boyfriends first.” she said with wry grin. “They have no idea either. So now I gotta ask the witchy Overlord what it is and where it’s from.”
Ah. Now she had his attention.
Walter stepped forward, leaning in to inspect the pendant- though he didn’t touch. He wasn’t born yesterday.
“That, Jules, is a very interesting gift for someone to leave you. The most interesting part being, of course, where the fuck they found it.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “Wasn’t me. Sorry to break your heart.”
Straightening up again, he tilted his head, tapping his foot. Walter had seen the charm before, but only in pictures. Nonetheless, he could shed light on one or two things. If Jules was ready to hear them was more the question.
“I can tell you what you’d get from a Google search or better yet opening an actual book,” continued the witch. “The main stone is called blue lace agate, and it’s meant to help with calmness and communication, especially with your ‘higher self’ or with beings not of this world. The little one is rose quartz. You’ll like this; it’s considered a love stone. Mainly because it’s good for healing emotional damage. Both of them have focusing, healing, and protective properties. If you buy into crystals, which you actually should. It’s not all garbage. Not in the hands of the right people.”
He wiggled his fingers at her mockingly.
“I could’ve gotten that kind of information from Angela.” she sounded just slightly exasperated. “When this stuff first came up a few months ago I did the Googling thing about stones, but I didn’t really do much with it. ..Uhm, not sure why that was the first thing I thought of, but I guess it makes sense now.”
Julian pulled her hands back and turned the pendant abut in her hands as if she could the answers she wanted written on the stones and metal somewhere. She’d probably done it a dozen times already in random moments followed by long stretches of time where she just forgot it existed at all. Or perhaps less like it didn’t exist, and more like it was such a normal thing for her to have that even despite the little buzz to it, Julian just didn’t notice.
Kind of how her shadows now didn’t get a second thought. They were just there. They were always there.
“I need to know more than the dictionary stuff. The what it’s for and where it came from stuff. Especially now that my dreams of being the Witch Overlord’s favorite feisty apprentice have been totally dashed.” There went that grin again, cheeky smugness and deliberate teasing. But just as quickly it vanished, leaving Julian tilting her head as she adjusted her posture against his car. She crossed her arms, tapping her fingers against her elbows while she bit in to her lip with a thoughtful frown.
“Really, I guess I’m not worried about it and whether it’s good or bad, but more of why someone sent it all anonymous. If it’s not someone I know, that means there’s a person out there lurking around being creepy and pulling strings. And I don’t LIKE it. Everyone is paranoid enough without having to worry about a mysterious benefactor messing with me. I’ve got enough to deal with already.”
“Sounds to me like you already have it all figured out.” She was actually doing quite well. Color Walter impressed. “Which means you can get your grubby ass off my car.”
He made a shooing motion as he fished out his keys and reached past her to unlock the door. Without waiting for her to budge, he hauled full force on the handle. If she fell, it only served her right.
“What the internet couldn’t tell you is that your new favorite accessory is contraband. Stolen,” Walter clarified, giving her a look that made it clear how much he doubted whether she knew what “contraband” meant.
Julian stumbled but caught her bearings pretty quick. Walter earned a very offended pursing of her lips before she stomped around the front over to the passenger’s side. Her fingernail tapped gently against the glass near the lock. If Walter didn’t unlock it, Francis would. Today the witch was stuck with her until she at least had enough information to stop feeling like she was flailing about in a rain storm without an umbrella.
“I KNOW what contraband is.” she stated with a huff, casting him a frown from over the roof of his car. “Stolen from who? Hollingers? I do know it’s been gone a long time. Black and white pictures of old dead people long time.”
Raising up on her toes, she stretched out her arms to drape over the car roof. She grinned again, wiggling her fingers in his direction as if she were trying to coax the answers out of him. “Why don’t you just tell me what it is already? If you’re dragging it out to spend more time with your new best friend, don’t worry. I have plenty of other stuff to talk about too.”
“I really don’t have anything figured out.”
Walter didn’t unlock the door for her, because he wasn’t getting in the car.
He leaned in to fetch a tin of mints from the cup holder by the gear shift, tossing them to her over the car’s roof; a moment later, he reached inside again to fish a map from under the driver’s seat. He slammed the door shut and spread the map out flat across the hood of the car, fingers outlining the words Devil’s Wood. The paper was old and faded, creased so badly in bits that it was splitting apart.
“Do you want to know what I’ve been up to, Jules?” he asked, as if he hadn’t heard a thing she’d said in the last minute. “Or do you think I’ve been sitting around with my thumb up my ass all month.”
Julian was glad people couldn’t hear her thoughts, because even she knew that was a goofy thing to suddenly get excited about. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize that exclamation was also written all over her face. The tin got a little shake as she tried to guess how many were in there, then immediately opened so she could pop a couple mints in to her mouth.
The rest vanished in to her jacket pocket.
“Of course I want to know.” she admitted, sliding over a few steps to lean and take a look at his weird old map. He was wandering around in Devil’s Wood, obviously she’d be curious about the whys. This thing just made it worse, too. How was she supposed to ask all of her questions if Walter was going to bait her with interesting things like this.
“I didn’t think you’d tell me what sort of Overlordy things you get in to, so I wasn’t going to ask. I was just going to tell you all of my problems and see if you had anything helpful to say, and if not, I was going to take the candy and run.”
Twisting up her mouth and eyeing the map, she held out a hand before laying her finger down on a spot.
“Very good,” Walter told her, satisfaction brimming under the surface. “Except for the part where you have no idea what you’re finding. Get Thing One to give you a little more tutoring. Then again, I understand his idea of tutoring is to throw you down holes and play children’s games.”
Walter splayed out his hand, palm-side down atop the map just beside where she prodded it. His knuckles were not quite bumping into the tip of her finger.
“You can’t stumble around blind forever, Jules, and hope to find what you’re looking for.”
He was talking about more than just her visions, now.
“I’ve been checking for wear and tear,” continued Walter. His thumb brushed over a rough spot on the paper. “Places where the air thins, shall we say. It’s been worse since David tried to force what shouldn’t be forced.”
Julian let out an exasperated breath and rolled her eyes to the sky. “You’re absolutely right. Wandering around clueless just isn’t working for me. I should probably seek out someone that’s been around before, knows a lot about the town history, and probably magic too. Someone smart and kind of powerful, or I don’t know is an asshole witch boss.”
She had to wonder if he was like this on purpose just to be a pain in the ass.
“If you’re going to act like one of those vague old wizard mentors who spits out mysterious statements that I’m not going to understand until three months later, this is going to be a really frustrating relationship.” she complained, slumping over the hood to rest her elbows on the metal surface and then her chin in her hands. Her eyes glanced over the map again. Walter was looking for the thinning of air? What did that even-
All she had to do was step through it. All she had to do was–
Julian blinked and frowned. Her mouth twist to the side as she chewed in to her lip.
“He put the wrong key in the lock.” she mumbled softly. “The veil is a place and it’s supposed to be a locked place, but it’s not been locked for a really long time and now it’s bleeding through because Hightowers are jerks? And you are… Well. If you’re a GOOD witch overlord, you’re trying to sew it all up.”
“But what would I know, since none of you want to TELL me what you’re actually up to.” The statement came out as a surly huff.
“Get used to it.” She was far too easy to rile. Girlie ought to work on that, he reckoned, but in the meantime he’d enjoy it. “You surround yourself with people who don’t like to share. I could likely read all sorts of things into that, but instead I’ll get the ball rolling a bit so you don’t perish of impatience.”
Tugging the map out from under her elbow, he rolled it up and wiggled it in front of her face, clearly waiting for her to take it.
“Of course I’m trying to patch it up,” he said. “Don’t be stupid. It won’t be a pretty sight if something gets its claws into a hole and widens it enough to slip through. Between all the bullshit David and Tasha have been pulling, I’m not certain something hasn’t already.”
Get used to it? No, Julian was finding the very opposite was starting to happen. Every last one of them wanted to be difficult, and she was quickly losing patience with the entire ordeal. One of these assholes was going to answer her the way she wanted them to, or she was going to hold them down and MAKE them do it.
Julian was already gearing up, debating how exactly she was going to do that now when he wagged the map in her face. Just like that, her plots of stuffing Walter in to the trunk of his own car vanished in the wake of something a lot more curious. At the very least, if he needed help she could learn things along the way.
Holy crap, did he mean actual claws in to holes and things skittering out in to the world? David did mention other, scarier things…
Julian snatched the rolled up map, holding it up with both hands as she tried to keep that wide-eyed look off her face and tempered to something that gave the impression she had SOME idea of what she was doing.
“Whaaaat if I told you I maybe see things sometimes, but never really direct things, but I know they are THINGS kind of like my shadows, but not really shadows, and they are definitely not always ghosts, or visions, or my usual brand of weirdo companions?”
“…and that’s not even what I wanted to talk to you about, by the way, but if I help you with this,” she wiggled the map, “will you help me with my things? I have an augur problem and a possible witch problem, and at least one of those has to be your business.”
“Augurs?” Walter’s eyebrows rose. “That sounds more like your pets’ business than mine. Either of them killed anyone lately?”
He hoped not. Jules would likely be impossible to deal with if Walter had to put down Thing One or Thing Two. Walter knew which of those two he’d prefer to get his hands on, but he’d do what was necessary regardless if the little bastards couldn’t be trusted to keep their fangs to themselves. He didn’t need an Augur to handle that for him.
Walter drummed his fingers on the hood of the car, narrowing his eyes at her.
“These things you’re seeing might be nothing. Well, not nothing. Glimpses. I’ve known someone else who could see through to the other side, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s all it is. I’ll keep it in mind, though. Moving on… what sort of witch problem? That, after all, is my business. Really the thing you should have led off with, Jules.”
Yep, she knew he was immediately going to assume one of her vampire boyfriends killed somebody. …To be honest with herself, she was worried it might be true. Leo hadn’t recognized the guy or knew who he was, but she hadn’t had a chance to talk to Michael about it yet. With the way he lost it a few days ago and the things she knew about him now, it was pretty easy to believe he could have. Julian didn’t know how she was going to deal with that yet.
She pushed it back and focused on the present moment. If she got upset about it now, there was no telling how her Francises would try to help.
“I like to save the complicated problems for last.” Julian muttered, leaning against his car as she crossed one arm around herself and tapped the edge of the map against her chin. Now that she had the opportunity to say something, Julian was finding it hard to do so. It’s not like Lucinda told her not to. She encouraged her to bring it up with Walter if she wanted. …but there was this weird unsettled feeling, like it was a bad idea. Like someone would get hurt?
But that was crazy.
…and it meant she absolutely needed to say something.
“My new counselor is a witch.” she blurted out quickly. “Erm. My therapist, who is now the new school counselor, is a witch. And I didn’t realize this until she was setup in the old counselor’s office with a spell I finally clued in about. I got ill every time I left her therapy office and it happened again. At first I thought it was the spell.”
“But I’m NOT stupid, I know something isn’t right. …it’s just, I don’t want Leo to know how much I believe him and that I’m concerned about it. He’s already got enough bullshit to deal with. So I kiiiind oooof need to know what to do about a potential stalker witch who I KNOW, really know, isn’t trying to hurt me, but is still super shady? Leo wants me to give her a different spell and see what she does, but I kinda just want to go kick in her door and ask questions.”
That was absolutely too much hysterical rambling to parse through quickly. Walter was going to need a minute.
He reached out to clamp his hand over her mouth to ensure he got one.
“That’s better,” he observed. “Right. Your counselor- no, therapist– is a witch. You get ill around her, and there’s some kind of fuss about a spell that might be the culprit. I’m assuming the fact you didn’t know she was a witch and the unexplained illness are the causes of concern?”
Walter waited half a beat, then peeled his fingers away.
“Oh right,” he intoned drily. “You may speak now. Clearly and to the point, please.”
She actually made the sound after he pulled his hand away. Because she was still leaning there, arms crossed, but now with her eyes as wide as saucers and this are you kidding me look of bewilderment plastered all over her face. Soon enough it shifted, until she was pursing up her lips as if she had just been chewing on a sour piece of candy. It’s what it felt like too. Julian was pissed, but even stronger than that was the urge to burst out laughing.
Walter was such an unbelievable shit. Why did she LIKE these kind of people?
Julian sucked in a deep calming breath, mostly just to make sure she didn’t actually laugh or give him the satisfaction of a grin. Instead he received the most imperious, unimpressed teenage girl stare she could muster up.
“I am SO sorry. Let me translate that in to slow old man.” she pointed at him with the frayed rolled up map. “Hiding Spell, Oh Shit a Witch, Cranky Julian, Scared Witch, Reasonable Explanations, Sick Julian, Stuff Still Feels Wrong, What do? Is that more to the point for you?”
Julian paused long enough to drop the sass and shrug her shoulders. “I’m missing something, is all. I thought it was the spell because it blocks everything outside the room. I step inside and nothing gets in even for me, I feel kind of smothered? Then when I leave I have this huge headache, like a hangover but it’s more psychicy.”
“Hm.” A contemplative expression crossed his features. “Interesting. Have you had the same problem with my car? No, can’t have. You had that vision on Halloween, and you rode around in it for hours…”
“Leo said the same thing.” Of course Julian knew this was going to be the general consensus. “Your car is different. Just by a tiny little bit? Maybe David’s spell was a bit different too, but I can’t really compare it since I was half dead to begin with.”
There went the shrug of her shoulders again before she tilted her head back and sighed. “Thus, Leo said I should get a new spell from you to give to her. Tell her that her spell makes me sick and see what happens. She did tell me that I could ask you about her spell if I was still suspicious about her? I would have told her right then I feel sick after leaving her office, but I didn’t remember THAT until I was already gone. Normally I feel better on my walk home and it’s not really a big deal, this time it was just worse than usual and Leo was worried about it.”
Julian blinked for a split second before she suddenly frowned. “I don’t remember telling her about you.” …Just as quickly as that thought occurred to her, she wilted and huffed. “Buuut, Leo DID ask Tina about you. My social worker. And SHE talks to her so…”
“Ugh. See! That is what I mean, little things seem off and there’s always a perfectly normal explanation! But I still feel weird about it.”
“Always listen to the little voice that doubts, Jules. That’s how you live to see the end of the book.”
Walter tucked away a tidy little mental file labeled Lucinda, to be dealt with at a later time. For now…
“I’ll give you your spell,” he told Jules. “After we go on a little field trip. It’ll be good for both of us. You help me with something that helps all of us, and you get help with your therapist problem. Along with a bit of that practice you so desperately need. Really you’re getting the better end of the bargain here, I think.”
He pointed a long, bony finger at her.
“Your turn. Lead the way.”
They had to leave the car behind again; the path Julian forged led them back into the wood, far deeper than Walter had been on his earlier forays and far away from the relative tameness of the camping trails and Lake Glass. The woods here were still untouched by the modern age, the trees remnants of an older and wilder time.
Walter felt right at home. But then, he supposed that was because he was.
It was hard to say if the sun was going down or if the canopy was just so thick here that nothing much of the sun could break through. Whatever the case, the light grew dim. Mist rose in thin wisps from the ground, casting the air in a haze. Up ahead through the trees, Walter caught a glimpse of a large bulging shape.
The nearer they drew the more clearly they could see that it was a great mound of earth. It was easily three times Walter’s height and overgrown with moss and brush and even some saplings- one which he guessed would come up to his shoulder, if he were to stand alongside it. But the flora wasn’t precisely the most interesting facet of its appearance.
Its surface was pockmarked with holes. Literal holes, some the size of his fist and others much larger. One on the side facing them was just large enough for him to walk into, if he stooped.
Past the mouth of the cave was nothing but deep black.
All circumstances aside, Julian actually enjoyed hiking through the woods. Even though Walter was not a forthcoming conversationalist and even despite how the brush got more difficult and more eerie to stumble through the farther they got away from the public forest, she still like it. There was fresh air, pretty trees, and it was nice and quiet.
If she ignored the whispering anyway. Julian was so busy squinting at a couple shadows trying to figure it out if that was them or something else, that she didn’t notice the creepy hill of holey hell until she glanced up to see a gaping black space.
She stopped and jumped back so suddenly she nearly crashed in to Walter.
Letting out a breath and shoving her hands in to her pockets, Julian flashed the man a dirty look as if her stumbling was his fault, before she gave a wary glance around. She did not like the feel of this. Why was she always wandering off and finding the creepiest looking things lost in the forest? First that cabin and now this. It couldn’t ever be a ice cream shop or a bunny farm, could it.
Out of paranoid reflex, Julian turned slowly on her heel to scan around for sight of that spooky doll. There was no telling how far Kyle chucked it in to the woods, and if the damn thing had other ways to be mobile. Thankfully that thing was no where near by and not her problem.
“What do tears in the veil look like, anyway? Or am I just really good at finding places to get murdered at? Because THAT-” she pulled a hand out just long enough to point, “looks like a murder cave.”
“You can’t actually see tears in the veil, don’t be silly.” He glanced at her askance. “Well. Maybe you can. These though, these are very much of the physical realm.”
The witch swatted the girl out of the way and strode forward until he could easily place one hand against a solid part of the mound. The green growth sprouting up from the loamy soil was damp and cool beneath his palm, slick from the mist and recent rain.
“This, Jules, is what we call a barrow.” He smiled. “A burial mound. You may call it a murder cave if that’s your fancy.”
When Walter relinquished his hold on the moss, a pale light kissed the tips of his fingers. He splayed them outward and the faint glow grew stronger.
“Flashy, I know. But I’m afraid I didn’t bring a torch.”
“Okay, not a murder cave, a cadaver cave. That’s better I guess.” A burial mound did sound a lot less scary than all the crazy things her imagination was trying to come up with. Julian could handle dead people.
Her hand swiveled until her finger was pointing at him instead of the cave. The words what the fuck were mouthed rather than said. Probably because in that split second she realized this was either fancy nature science that only Angela would understand or it was a little nature fueled magic, which would be really awesome to see in action when it wasn’t getting flung at her in the form of fireballs or kicking off an apocalypse.
“For a witch overlord that’s paranoid about everything, shouldn’t you be a little more prepared?” she asked, slipping her hand in to her pocket to pull out her key-chain and spin it on a finger. Julian jangled her keys before she held up the tiny little key-chain flashlight. It wasn’t going to be much better, but that wasn’t the point.
She stepped over to the cave opening, pressing the flashlight button with a click and shining it inside.
Yeah, this was only going to save her from walking face first in to spiders at best.
Julian frowned at Walter. “Give me one of your knives and I’ll go first?”
“No,” he refused flatly, giving her a thoroughly unimpressed look.
“I am prepared,” he continued with a wiggle of his luminescent fingers. “That’s one of the nice things about magic, you know. It reduces the amount of crap you need to carry with you. Like batteries. Unfortunately, it means you’re the batteries.”
Walter didn’t share Julian’s hesitation. He grabbed her by the elbow and tugged her along as he stepped into the mouth of the cave, holding his hand aloft to light the way. Despite the soft glow, it illuminated the tunnel fairly well, creating a small sphere of light around the pair. The inside was hard-packed earth, riddled with the roots of plants and small chips of stone.
It was also deathly quiet. He wondered if Julian had noticed that the insects and birds had faded from the background noise as they reached the clearing containing the mound, but now even the wind and rustling of trees was muted. The only sound was the soft echoes of their footsteps on tamped-down dirt.
Julian almost asked why the hell not about the knife, but she got the impression it was less about giving some kid a weapon and more about Walter just not liking people touching his stuff. Now that she thought about it, whatever did happen to the one knife she confiscated back in the mausoleum on Halloween? Angela made sure it didn’t leave the Whelan house with her. Did it ever make it’s way back to Walter?
That question got shoved to the back of her mind in the wake of their current adventure. Julian fussed just enough to yank her elbow free and give Walter a sour expression. She didn’t need to get dragged in; she was on board with this creepyass adventure. All she was concerned about was the unexpected ways this was going to go wrong.
It was kind of funny. A couple months ago she hated the thought of knowing what was coming, because it felt like she had no control. No choice. Now it was the opposite. Now she could do all kinds of things.
If the psychic mojo would just work the way she wanted it to. That was the catch, though. It never did.
“And what do you do when you don’t have your magic battery charged?” she asked, with just a know-it-all snark that every teenager in Silent Pines instinctively knew how to do. The beam from her flashlight waved briefly in his eyes. “Twenty different weapons in your pockets, I bet.”
She hadn’t realized how quiet it had gotten until just then. Somehow she had reflexively lowered her voice as to not disturb the weird muted silence. Grimacing at the feel of it, Julian used her little flashlight as a spotlight to hover over the things that caught her eye. She wasn’t exactly the investigator type, but even she could tell that this wasn’t some freshly dug out hole by a bear or anything. The ground was just a little too hard.
“…is this even supposed to be here?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth towards Walter.
“The barrow is a remnant of another time,” Walter answered. “Not all of the first residents of Silent Pines chose to be interned in mausoleums or beneath headstones in their family plot. And not all of them had a choice.”
It wasn’t far into the tunnel that the walls became rough-hewn stone. This had once been the real entrance, Walter imagined, before the years had deposited more and more earth atop the mound. Even to him, there was an eerie feeling as the oval of sunlight grew smaller at their backs. A prickling sensation, as if something, somewhere, was watching and waiting from within the depths of the cave.
It sounded like his imagination was running away from him… but Walter knew better.
“Places like this tend to wear down on their own,” he continued, stepping over a stray bit of bone. Animal, he reckoned, though he doubted Julian would be able to tell. “I’ve been here for a little maintenance more than once. Significant events, significant places… The more friction, essentially, the more often it needs a bit of patchwork. It’s part of the job.”
He gave Julian a measuring look.
“The last time I was here, I wasn’t alone either, as it happens. Life is a funny thing, Jules.”
Something about his job description sounded familiar. Almost as if someone else had tried to explain something similar to her a long time ago. Were she not battling with the oppressive weight of the dark, she might’ve thought more on it. Ever so often she’d glance back to make sure she could still see the little bit of light from the entrance of the cave. The fact that the walls shifted from dirt to stone wasn’t much of a comfort. It almost looked like the same stone that lined the walls in the underground crypts. Could those tunnels reach out farther than just the graveyard? Or were there just a lot of things buried under Silent Pines.
Julian poked at one of the bones with the toe of her sneaker. Her previous thought of being able to handle dead people was amended. She could handle dead people, but not dead bodies. At least none of these bones looked like they belonged to a person. She hoped.
“Were you with your friend witch? Claudia.” She’d remembered the name, practically snarled at her in one of those rare moments Walter revealed something personal. His partner at the Seventh Star, murdered by Tasha in her quest to help David do whatever crazy thing he was trying to do. It was hard to imagine Walter even having friends. He sure didn’t seem to be keen on working with people in general.
“No. Another old friend.” Walter ducked his head as the ceiling of the tunnel grew lower, stretching out his glowing fingers ahead of him. They were getting close. “His name was Jeremy.”
The end of the tunnel opened into a central chamber within the barrow. Walter closed his hand into a fist as they stepped across the threshold, the soft light of his spell extinguishing. There was no longer a need. The many holes within the barrow’s outer shell all led to the center of the mound, casting small circles of dim sunlight across the dirt floor like scattered leaves. Walter crossed to a broad stone pedestal in the center and placed his palm against a basin emblazoned with a familiar symbol… the Iron Star.
A flame flickered to life atop the pedestal.
“I wouldn’t look at the walls if you’re squeamish,” he advised Julian. “They didn’t feel a need to put things out of sight so much, in those days.”
The skeletons didn’t bother Walter, not as long as they stayed safely tucked in their cubbyholes and let him work. He’d seen many worse things in his lifetime.
By reflex her eyes started wandering towards the walls before she quickly jerked her gaze back to the unusual pedestal. There had to be some kind of irony in the fact her wardrobe was littered in random skulls, but the thought of seeing real ones made her skittish. Maybe once upon a time this sort of thing didn’t bother her at all. Before she started dating dead guys and hanging out with witch overlords.
Julian kept her tiny flashlight on, giving the scattered holes in the ceiling a distrustful frown. She slipped her other hand in to her pocket and popped open the can of mints. As she pressed one to the tip of her tongue, the name Jeremy sank in.
“You said we met before. Did you know my family?” Both her dad and grandpa were named Jeremy, and sure the name was common enough it could’ve been anyone, but Julian was finding very few things were just coincidences these days. If Hollingers were always strong psychics and Walter made it his business to know who was who in Silent Pines, he had to know them.
Suddenly, Julian wasn’t so concerned about cave skeletons, mysterious pendants, or eerie feelings that more than just her shadows were lurking around. Walter was a possible connection to a history she still struggled to remember.
“And you have to tell me this time. No more questions for questions. I’m just going to follow you everywhere if you don’t, and you won’t have any candy left.”
“Yes,” Walter told her. “I did.”
He didn’t elaborate. Ignoring her, he turned in a slow circle, his eyes scanning every inch of the chamber. He couldn’t see anything other than bits of bone peeking out from within the walls. But this close, he could feel an unraveling, like little frayed threads brushing at the back of his neck. If he could just pinpoint the source…
But then, that was why he’d brought the girl.
“Alright, Jules. Old game, new rules. Close your eyes and tell me what you see.”
Julian got her confirmation, but that was it. She should have expected it, really. Walter wasn’t going to suddenly become more forthcoming and a less of a pain in her ass. Her unamused, urging stare continued and Julian had every intention of badgering it out of him. Up until his request reminded her that the only reason he was putting up with her round of questions was because she was supposed to be helping.
“I don’t usually see stuff when I close my eyes,” she complained, closing her eyes anyway with a frown. Julian folded her arms over her chest, clicking off her flashlight when she rolled it between her fingers. Though she didn’t know what she was looking for, she got the gist of what she was supposed to be doing. He wanted to find something here and the sooner she found it the sooner she could get her answers. Her mouth twisted to the side as she tried to get a feel for the place.
…was that why he was here with her dad or grandpa before?
“Was it Dad or Grandpa?” Julian couldn’t help but ask, needing something to focus on beside the witch. Like Michael and Leo, Walter was very present in the space. She was trying to ignore everything that was distinctly Walter and feel out the rest. Earth, stone, and shadows along with something eerie and familiar. Julian closed her arms tighter at the chill of goosebumps.
Julian could barely hear his footsteps over the bees-in-a-jar buzzing of Walter’s magic. It almost felt like the bees were in Julian’s bones. But she did realize he was getting closer, even before the hand fell on her shoulder. Weirdly, his touch seemed to ground her; the buzz faded to a dull hum in the background.
“That time it was dear Jezza. Your father,” he clarified, after a beat. “Just a little bit the lesser of two evils, I’d reckon. The Hollingers and I have quite the history, truth be told.”
“Jezza.” she stated flatly. Julian could bet her dad wasn’t keen on that nickname. It was surprisingly easy to imagine her dad and Walter shooting snarky comments back and forth in the dark while her dad did psychic things. Her kind of things. She could almost even see past what was fuzzy and concealed about who the man used to be before something had taken a blackout marker to everything even remotely supernatural in her memories.
Unlike outside of the mausoleum on Halloween night, Walter touching her wasn’t absorbing all of her attention. Maybe because this time knowing he’d been here before and have a fairly good idea of what he was looking for was useful. Julian unfolded her arms and shook them out at her sides, trying to get that creepy-crawlie sensation out of her limbs, before she lift her hands and wiggled her fingers. The memory of her strange dream came to mind again. A rippling curtain of nothingness that she could so easily push her hand through. Would that be the veil he was talking about?
“Y’know, this is where you’re supposed to tell me all the fun and murderous adventures you had with my dad so I can be amazed and horrified.” Her mouth turned in a faintly confused expression when she bit in to her cheek and twisted her hand to point off to the side.
“And this is where you’re supposed to be concentrating,” he shot back, dry and mocking. “We can have sappy reminiscences about your twit of a father some other-”
He never finished the sentence. Instead his fingers dug in painfully tight on her shoulder just as his words cut off. Even before she heard Walter swear a sharp curse, even before she opened her eyes, Julian felt the change in the air around them. The temperature plummeted to an icy chill; something pulsed. When she did open her eyes, it was in time to see the flame upon the pedestal die out soundlessly.
One by one, the spots of sunlight on the floor began to wink out.
In the distance, there was a sound. At first Julian thought it was a woman screaming, but it was just a little too guttural, a little too wild- and when she listened closer, it was intertwined with a shuddering and snarling undercurrent.
“Well now,” rasped Walter. “I reckon company’s coming.”
Her flashlight was back out of her pocket again in a heartbeat. The look on her face had to be comical, she knew. Something in between defiant denial and furious horror. Angela had once described it to her shortly after she successfully tricked Julian in to seeing some gruesome thriller. Julian definitely had that feeling now. Only this time she couldn’t go stomping down popcorn littered isles to find the sun again. Instead she was in a dark cadaver cave with a witch who liked to leave out important details until after it was already too late.
“That better be a ghost, Walter.” she hissed, almost stumbling over the words. “Tell me that’s a ghost or a bear or a ghost bear and give me something sharp and stabby or I swear to god-”
Julian didn’t bother finishing the threat, she was already digging in to her jacket pockets for something useful. A ghost would be fine. A ghost she could talk to. But if something a little more physical was about to claw it’s way through those weird holes in the barrow, Julian wanted a better weapon than her rose pepper spray.
“Jules, shut up,” he snapped in a furious whisper. That was when her flashlight turned on him, and she got a halfway-decent look at Walter’s face.
For the first time since they’d met, the witch looked rattled.
“I need you to listen to me,” he told her through his teeth. “Look around you.”
The barrow was dark, but with her dinky little flashlight she could make out the outlines of the holes and crevices that pockmarked the smooth stone. What was she even looking for? Walter didn’t say. Everything looked the same. Except…
The cubbyholes that Walter had warned her about were empty. No skeletons.
Other things were off too, she realized. Little things. The floor was covered in strange stains, and there was something black and throbbing in the basin of the pedestal.
“We are not in Kansas anymore,” said Walter, as the shrieking din seemed to get louder. Closer. “Stop whining and start navigating.”
Nope. Nooo. Nuh uh. No. Noooope.
Julian mouthed the words that were on a repeating loop in her head, but she still forced her feet to start moving. If only because there was no way in hell she wanted to be within stretchy reach of that basin. She didn’t know what was in it, but anything that seemed to pulse all by itself was a bad sign.
This was fine. This was Walter’s day job. So what if the sleeping skeletons were gone and everything smelled like mildew and decay. It wasn’t a big deal the sun was missing and witch overlord mentor sounded just a little bit alarmed about their sudden field trip. Julian slapped her hand over her mouth before nervous laughter, or worse, anxious crying slipped it’s way out.
“Do you want me navigating away from the screeching death siren or towards it?!” she seethed back at him, having dropped her own voice down to a barely audible whisper as she watched where she placed her feet carefully. Last thing she wanted to do was step on something that’d bite her foot off. “…and it’s not whining to want a knife!”
The knife’s handle pressed into her hand before she even finished the word. Walter’s fingertips came away glowing, but the light was far fainter than it had been before. He fished another knife out of his jacket and shifted it into his right hand.
“There’s only one way out of this mound,” he reminded her. “After that you need to find the tear. Provided your powers of detection work on both sides. Here’s hoping.”
Without waiting, he headed into the tunnel entrance.
The walls of the tunnel were… different. Where before there had been dry and tight-packed earth, they were now wet and dripping. The ground squelched beneath Julian’s shoes, mud leaking into her sneakers. The wailing and growling was still muffled and far away, but it seemed to echo unnaturally through the passage.
They hadn’t gotten far before it went silent.
“Lovely,” muttered Walter. “Now we’re blind. Unless you think you can multitask?”
Oh hell. He wasn’t supposed to actually think it was necessary to give her a weapon. Now she absolutely, under no circumstances, could start crying. Crying was no longer an option.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll multitask.” she muttered, gripping the handle of the knife tight. Julian had no idea if she could, but she was now on the tip of her soggy sock clad toes and wary of everything around her. Nothing was going to sneak up on her if she could help it. Psychic mojo in play or not.
“Why is everything so squishy.” she squeaked out under her breath, not really wanting or needing an answer. Despite the icy chill, even the air felt wet. Julian supposed it was from a heavy fog. She caught a glimpse of little wisps curling through the beam of her flashlight.
Grimacing, she made sure to keep Walter within grabbing distance. He had a bad habit of getting attacked by dead things or kidnapped and Julian didn’t want to find herself lost and alone with no idea how to get back. The sooner she found that tear, the sooner she could go home and hide under nice warm blankets.
At the back of her mind, Julian felt a tug.
When she turned around, the inner chamber of the barrow was still within view. As she watched, something dropped from the ceiling and landed with a heavy thud at the foot of the pedestal.
It was large. Something human-shaped, in a loose sense, with overlong arms and legs like a walking stick insect. Its flesh looked charred. Black with veins of raw red seeping through where the top layer was cracked. It lifted its head to look directly at Julian with the empty space where eyes should be.
She’d thought it didn’t have a mouth, either, before it opened wide. Too wide, like a snake unhinging its jaw. And it shrieked.
“Duck!” yelled Walter. That was all the warning Julian got before the knife whizzed over the top of her head and lodged in the thing’s open maw. Undeterred, it screamed and tore the blade out of the dark hole of its mouth. The blade clattered on the stone floor as it tossed it aside.
Meanwhile Walter had grabbed Julian and all but threw her forward down the tunnel. He didn’t have to tell her that he wanted her to start running.
Julian wouldn’t cry, but she could scream. At least she tried to, but nothing more than a strangled gasp came out. Which may have been a good thing considering something definitely not human was chasing after them and Julian had no idea whether or not it had a legion of friends. She’d never been more sure of her footing than right then, hopping over gnarled roots and side-stepping around muddy puddles that might’ve otherwise broken her neck.
“That’s not a person!” she managed to shout when she found the mouth of the tunnel. The lack of sunlight was also concerning, but when she skidded to a sudden stop in the small clearing outside of the barrow it wasn’t the missing sun that stunned her. This place was different. Of course she’d known that moments before when everything got a million times more creepy. There was just a weird deja vu about the trees that had nothing to do with her walkabout with Walter.
She’d seen this place before.
Julian could feel the bottom of her stomach plummeting and the all too familiar threat of her vision blacking out. She tamped it down and swallowed the panic before it got much farther, choosing her direction to run with a split second decision.
The sky overhead was pitch black. Not only was the sun missing, but all the stars were too. A dim, eerie light with no discernible source was the only thing keeping them from being totally blind to their surroundings. Julian’s flashlight flickered and died the moment they scrambled out of the barrow, and Walter’s glowing fingers looked like glow-in-the-dark stars that had run out of juice.
“Tell me you know where you’re going!” demanded Walter, right on her heels. The thing from the barrow was still screeching like a crazed siren behind them.
Julian’s breath was visible in the air in front of her, mingling with silvery wisps of fog that clung to the dark trunks of the pines. Something was moving in and around the trees at the corner of her vision, like shadows- not her shadows, she knew somehow. Something else.
The second her light went out she descended in to hysterical laughter. Because of course it would go out. All roads led to her getting swallowed up by darkness or eaten alive. Julian cursed under her breath, exchanging the flashlight for her phone and hoping the blasted thing wasn’t going to die on her too.
“No, Walter! I’m running around in the wild wood hoping we’ll stumble over a goddamned Dairy Queen so I can ask for directions!” shouted Julian, daring to hazard a look over her shoulder. Regret washed over her immediately. Somehow the thing looked even more terrifying trying to run with all those long gangling limbs, and if there were more of them in the trees or something else equally as horrifying… She was going to be sick.
Home. Maybe she didn’t know exactly where she was running, but Julian knew she wanted to go home. Going home required finding something that didn’t belong open and she zeroed in on that feeling and held fast. It wouldn’t seem like a door cracked wide, like the school library being flooded with hundreds of ghosts. This would be something shredded. A jagged tear through a curtain you couldn’t see unless you were facing it the right way.
The creature’s limbs were obviously cumbersome, but it was gaining- until Walter uttered a syllable and a pathetically small ball of fire blazed up around his fist. Another word sent it flying back at their pursuer.
It simply unhinged its horrible mouth again and swallowed the flame whole.
“You twatmongering fucktrumpet,” cursed the witch. He skidded to a halt, his free hand on Julian’s wrist to bring her up short with him.
“Don’t lose my knife,” he told her, holding her eye. “Do you fucking hear me, Jules?! Don’t let it out of your sight.”
Walter unwrapped his fingers and summoned another pitiful fireball in his supine palm. He turned back towards the lumbering monstrosity as it clambered over a fallen log.
“Now get the hell out of here,” he called out over his shoulder. “Go!”
Why did these jerks always tell her to go on without them?! Julian only hesitated a split second. Just long enough for it to register that this brand of monster could swallow fireballs whole like they were nothing. Yeah, she wasn’t equipped to be anyone’s sidekick in this scenario.
“I’m going to engrave my name on it with GLITTER if you don’t follow me!” The beauty of her threat was ruined by her choking on the words. Unless he wanted his stuff vandalized by a teenage girl, he was going to come back and get it.
She didn’t need to be told twice to keep going, though. Julian ran. Too frantic to keep a leery eye on the trees around her and too fast to suck in more than short icy breaths. The thickness of the fog and a faint sheen of perspiration had strands of her hair clinging to her face and neck. She wiped it away with the edge of her jacket sleeve and reaffirmed her grip on the knife’s hilt.
Walter’s colorful invectives mixed with the sounds of activity and the eerie screaming behind her. When she glanced back, she could just barely make out Walter through the fog. He was drawing the creature’s attention with more balls of flame, tiny pinpricks of orange in the grey and black. He seemed to be leading it in the opposite direction, keeping far closer than Julian thought he should… but always out of reach of the thing’s claws. The noises and shapes faded alike behind her as she raced deeper into the pines.
The further she got, the more she noticed that the woods around her swarmed and swam with movement. Specks of something floated in the air around her; dust, maybe, she thought. As it grew quieter, too, she began to hear more and more of the surrounding environment.
She began to hear the whispers.
Yes, a second voice replied. …time…tell her.
The voices were faint. Almost like static on the radio, broken and distorted. She couldn’t tell a gender, couldn’t tell if they were even human.
And the whole time, she felt eyes on her, and even more so felt a distinct though soft tugging at the pendant around her neck. A gentle, chilly current of air blew against her face from one particular direction.
Something small and soft collided with her cheek. Then another, and another, hitting her arms and sticking to her clothes.
The sky was raining ash.
She didn’t know when her pace had slowed. Somewhere between hoping Walter wasn’t about to be a monster snack and rubbing sooty grey specks between her fingers. Julian probably should have known better than to listen to the beckoning of odd whispers. But she still found herself swallowing the heavy lump in her throat and creeping through the trees, following where the wind would displace falling flakes of ash.
“Tell me what?” asked Julian softly, almost unable to hear her own voice over the pounding of her heart. She squinted through the dark, half expecting to see shimmery forms of ghosts lurking around the corners of trees. Yet, it seemed so much more like the vision at the lake where excited shadows wanted to show her things.
…was this where her shadows lived?
She didn’t long to ponder that idea. Up ahead, she caught a glimpse of something white as it flashed between the trees.
Julian, the voices whispered.
The pathway led to a ring of pines even taller than the rest, seven giants that towered up into forever. The top of one of the trees- the one on the far side- was ablaze.
The sound of a twig snapping behind her made her whirl. She backed up against the nearest tree, her fingers finding it warm to the touch. Oddly familiar. It made her think of a leather-bound book, a lit hearth. She could smell juniper bushes when she sucked in her breath.
Someone stepped out of the shadow of the treeline.
It was a girl with long black hair, wearing a long black dress. Something about her face was wrong; it wouldn’t stay put, shifting and swimming until she felt sick. Her garment wasn’t much better. The pitch-dark fabric bled into the shadow she cast on the ground, a shadow much larger than her small frame should have cast.
“It’s you,” she heard herself say. Her voice didn’t tremble.
It’s me, answered the girl. At last we meet.
“Why at last?” she asked sharply. “Have you been looking for me?”
Yes. The girl glided closer. A piece of her dress snagged on a stick; it broke off and melted into a shadowy pool that slithered away and vanished into the undergrowth.
“Why?” Her fingernails bit into the tree, ash crumbling and clumping.
Because. The face twisted, and some of the features seemed to click into place. It was like looking into the mirror from her fairy tale book, distorted and strange, but clearer now. We have an enemy in common, you and I.
“Her,” she snarled. “Of course. What’s she done?”
Gone places she shouldn’t, was the reply. Warped eyes blinked at her solemnly. I might have thought you’d know.
“I don’t know everything. She doesn’t… And what, you want me to, to find her for you?”
No. The girl reached out her hand. I want to give you a gift. And in return…
In return, you will give me something when I ask it of you.
“…What do you want from me?” A sense of dread washed over her as she stared into that horrible, shifting face. She knew who she was talking to. She knew the sort of things that this girl- who wasn’t a girl at all- might ask for.
Look into the future, seer, said that dispassionate voice. And then you will see.
After a long, silent moment, she reached out and took the proffered hand…
Julian teetered on her feet. She’d gotten so used to the flashes over the past few weeks that they no longer seemed to physically tip her. That wasn’t the case with this one. Maybe because it felt familiar, personal. Little things stuck out so strongly, that it was hard to tell if they were recognizable because of previous visions or if, by some strange twist, it actually involved herself. The contorted reflection in the living shadow’s face. Black silk and ancient trees. What did that have to do with Julian?
“I don’t know what any of that means.” she whispered just as a faint beep preceded the dimming of light. Julian paled, glancing down at the now blank screen of her phone. The fleeting thought that she really needed a new battery got mixed up with the chorus of panicked cursing in her head. Her gaze shot up towards the sky, hoping to find at least one tiny glimmer of a star somewhere amidst the grey and black. Julian needed her stars.
There was nothing but black, empty sky. Julian was left in darkness. It was hard to tell how much time had passed since she had left Walter and that creature behind; she could no longer hear either of them, only the slow but steady current of hushed whispers in the trees.
Then a crimson disk materialized in the sky, like a great red eye opening its lid, and bathed the woods in a dim red glow.
The whispers turned to screams.
All around Julian, the trees exploded with movement. Shadows, her shadows- hundreds of them- came pouring down out of the treetops, swarming into the undergrowth and towards the girl who stood on the path below.
“But-” She clamped her mouth shut. That couldn’t be the sun she wanted to see. Curiosity was almost begging her to stay put and see what it was that could even make shadows quake. They weren’t afraid of sunlight, Julian knew that much. They feared something worse. But all Julian had was a knife and a dead cellphone. She was woefully unprepared to protect a hoard of frightened Francises.
Turning on her toes she sprinted off, stuffing her phone in to her pocket and shifting Walter’s knife in to her other hand. Where was she supposed to hide? Everything that was once a dull grey was now rusty red, everything except for her shadows who stood out like a blanket of black snowflakes.
“Don’t cluster!” Julian gasped. How many times had she yelled at them to stop huddling up together or piling on top of her and turning her room in to a giant pit of darkness? This wasn’t her room. It wasn’t a safe space. Julian was certain anything with eyes would notice a big pile of shivering shadows here in the woods. They needed to get back home.
“Where’s Walter? Where’s my house!”
The shadows milled around her as she ran, winding in and out of the trees around her. One in particular darted between Julian’s ankles like a frantic cat, then took off like a shot down the path.
In her mind’s eye, Julian caught a flash.
Running as she was, that vision blinded her to the brambles that blocked her way. She stumbled, her hands flying out to brace against the forest floor.
A blood-curdling, horribly familiar shrieking pierced the air from her left. Long, blackened claws raked the dirt an inch from her arm.
There wasn’t a shadow in sight.
[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type=”1_4″][et_pb_post_title admin_label=”Featured Book Image” title=”off” meta=”off” author=”on” date=”on” categories=”on” comments=”on” featured_image=”on” featured_placement=”below” parallax_effect=”on” parallax_method=”on” text_orientation=”left” text_color=”dark” text_background=”off” text_bg_color=”rgba(255,255,255,0.9)” use_border_color=”off” border_color=”#ffffff” border_style=”solid” saved_tabs=”all” global_module=”2310″ /][et_pb_text admin_label=”BLOOD MOON CHAPTERS” saved_tabs=”all” background_layout=”dark” text_orientation=”left” use_border_color=”off” border_color=”#ffffff” border_style=”solid” global_module=”314″]
- Blood Moon 001: The Shadows (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 002: The Monster Inside (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 003: Bonfire (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 004: Lake Glass (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 005: I Need Help (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 006: Slipping (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 007: The Veil (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 008: Bullets (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 009: High School Problems (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 010: It Starts With a Letter (Original Draft)
- Blood Moon 011: Into the Woods (Original Draft)