“I finally have an idea that just might work.” Anders looked out over what land he could see. “The Empress doesn’t believe we’re capable of controlling our people or our Mother, who we can’t keep locked in a tower forever by the way.”
“She will remain where she is for as long as she’s a threat.”
“When isn’t she a threat?” Anders searched the clouds for the answers he knew wouldn’t come. Their mother would be a threat till the throne was theirs and even then, his brother would consider her a liability best kept in a gilded cage. “Let me take her to Bionfiorge as a prisoner. The accommodations aren’t nearly as lavish as what your mercy has extended to our mother but they are known across the lands to be harsh. Some say they’re inhumane.”
Tarrin rose from his seat and joined Anders at the window. “No.”
“You are the favored son. You are as likely to free her as you are to confine her where she can’t be found.”
There was a grain of truth in the sentiment but it was for naught. Quelling the unrest benefited them all, their mother included. The Empress would pull her men from their towns and away from their borders. The spies were impossible to stop but there would be less.
“Then let Ekran escort her. We can arrange for an accident to happen, either there or on the water. Word will spread of her death. We’ll do our duty as children to mourn her then our duty as Salathiels to do what’s best for our people.”
“And what’s that?” Tarrin asked mockingly.
Anders smiled a slow, dark smile. One Tarrin soon mirrored as the pair watched the sun rise. “We will take the throne.”
They didn’t arrive fast enough. Their failure was evident in the darkened red smears along the wall that led to the aftermath of the slaughter. There was a traitor in the midst, but by the time they received word of the traitor’s plan, it was too late. The traitor had wiped out the coven’s guardians, one by one. Or, from the way the bodies were gathered just at the back of the room, all together in one show of force. Power wasn’t the goal. That would have called for them to be there rather than away from the manor. No, the traitor wanted to leave a calling card.
The coven filed out into the night to watch their manor burn. They’d honor their fallen by answering the call in kind. Blood for blood. Truce be damned.
Aine set down her notes and spread out the records her sister managed to collect over the past few days. The details distracted her all day. They were important, she could feel it, but they weren’t what she needed to pay attention to. There was something to the bigger picture.
Usually, their work catered to the subtleties of things. Weird marks, trails of deaths, disappearances – the little nuances that surrounded each of those things made tracking and finding the creatures that went bump in the night that much easier. And they had plenty to track. There were vampires, griffins, kelpies, trolls, demons. Creatures people idolized, and wrongly entertained themselves with, and creatures only those with advanced education and interests knew about.
She skimmed the pages, one by one, then laid them out in a grid as she looked for the pieces that seemed to fit together like an intricate puzzle. Simple deaths explained away. A domino effect of misfortune and woe. Nothing really unusual or supernatural about any of it. A heart attack was a heart attack. But…
“That’s it,” she whispered to herself. “Echo! I got it!”
“Huh?” Her sister lifted her sleepy head from the comfort of her folded arms. “What?” Echo rubbed the little amount of sleep from her eyes that Aine let her enjoy and rounded the table to join Aine. “I don’t see it.”
“Nobody would. That’s the point.” Smiling, Aine handed Echo a police report about one of the victims. “This woman said that there was someone harassing her at night. See? Eyes at the window, constant banging at odd hours of the night, and then this.” Aine slid over the notes she took from the open house. “The realtor said that the upstairs windows were all new.”
“Just wait. Remember when I went to talk to her friends at her book club?” She waited for the nod before trudging on. “One of them told me how Mrs. Taylor told them about an old wine cabinet she bought at an estate sale. I didn’t think anything of it till now.”
Her words tumbled out faster and faster, one over the other, as if wasting any time would cause death to another innocent person. If it was too fast, her sister didn’t let on. Instead, Echo was reading over the papers and nodding along to her sister’s hasty deduction.
“I looked into the sale. Guess what happened to the previous owner.”
“Died from natural causes?”
Aine nodded. “Just like Mrs. Taylor. And the owner before that also lived in town.”
“Did they also die naturally?” Echo looked at Aine who nodded again.
“But not without multiple hospital visits. Everyone thought he was accident prone, but it was that cabinet.” Everything in her knew she was right. It was the only thing that connected the people. “Echo, it’s a dybbuk box. It has to be.”
Chuckling in mild disbelief, Echo glanced at her. “There’s no way.”
“Why not? All a dybbuk box is is a haunted object. In this case, it’s a wine cabinet.” Aine pouted as Echo’s chuckling turned into full blown laughter. It wasn’t that hard to believe. As hunters, they crossed paths with multiple creatures. Many of which that were far more intimidating than a restless spirit bound to an old wine cabinet.
“An old piece of wood, no bigger than a shoebox, is responsible for an old lady’s heartattack?” Echo’s mocking grin made Aine roll her eyes.
Switching tactics, she tried to get her sister to come around. Facts weren’t enough so she’d add things Echo already knew. “Echo, we’ve seen worse.” Their family vault was full of worse and yet, somehow, a haunted wine cabinet was where Echo drew the line. “Everyone who had it in the last two years is dead. There’s nothing else here that makes sense. Why would we be called out here if something supernatural wasn’t going on?”
“Fine.” Echo was still smiling but the laughing has stopped. “It’s a cursed box. Do we know where it is?”
“Uh? What do you mean, uh?”
“I mean…” Aine’s mouth went dry as she stared down at her notepad. “Well. You were busy and I thought I’d track it.”
“Aine, tell me it isn’t here.”
“We can’t burn it.” Despite the not so explicit confession, she rushed to explain herself. “If we do then the dybbuk is released and then we’d have to capture it again. So, I thought, if we had it, then we could figure it out and keep people safe.”
Any hope of avoiding a lecture faded the longer Echo stared at her. Her eyes were narrowed slits of disapproval. Her arms were crossed in irritation. And her mouth was set in a tight line of a barely held back argument. Aine looked back down at her notes. The quick glance up was enough for her to regret taking it upon herself to locate the thing. She thought about filling Echo in but the cabinet itself distracted her. It wasn’t every day that she got to see such a small wine cabinet. And Echo knew she liked antiques.
Shaking off her internal rationalizing, she glanced at her sister again. “I sealed it with some wax and wrapped it in a black cloth marked with protection and containment sigils.”
Echo sighed. It wasn’t too heavy but it wasn’t the usual, I forgive you, one either.
“We have to take it home.”
“I know.” Echo ran a hand over her face. “I know we do.”
“But now I don’t get to relax.”
Relax? “Echo, why would we relax on a job?” Unless it wasn’t a job. And then it made sense. Why Echo dragged her feet for the first two days, and why anything job related seemed to put her on edge. “We’re here for a guy, aren’t we? You set this whole thing up.” And she actually felt bad for a second.
“No.” Echo pulled out the chair to sit. “I heard there was something going on here so I may have suggested that we get the job. I didn’t think it would actually be something we’d have to go back to the compound for.
Aine shook her head, a tsk on her tongue. “I can’t believe I almost apologized.”
“Love you too, sis.” Echo grinned up at her.
Still shaking her head, Aine gathered the papers into a neat pile. “I hope the dybbuk gets you.”
“How did you get this number? Tell me or I’ll shove that phone down your throat as an appetizer and serve you your tongue as the main course.”
Brian clutched the handset. There was no turning back. He looked out the storefront window and, with trembling hands, tried to answer. “I’m, uh, my name’s-“
The phone disappeared from his hands mid stammer. He was partly grateful. He hated, Hi, Master Overlord of Evil, right? Remember that town you threatened to wipe off the map? We need your help. Because that sounded so manly and hero like. Thankfully, his cousin had more finesse. Not that he thought yelling at the person to get their villainous ass in gear and do something was going to actually help, but it sounded better than what he had come up with.
Brian vigorously rubbed his sweaty palms over the cool fabric of his jeans. All he wanted was a real family get together. The holidays seemed like the perfect excuse but what he thought would be the best surprise for the town, and his family, turned out to be the very possible end of their small suburban town.
A car sailed by the window and he quickly looked to the one normal person in his family of superheroes, Keke. The number he called had been scribbled in the margins of his great grandmother’s journal as The Wrangler. No extra notes. Nothing to discern whether this Wrangler was friend or foe. Nor could he recall a time when his great grandmother mentioned being on any kind of terms, good or otherwise, with a villain.
But when his cousins arrived, and the normal exchange of petty jabs of who contributed more to the greater good morphed into actual jabs, that number came to mind. The Wrangler.
“Wants you again.” Keke’s impromptu interruption got an unintelligible string of words that sounded more like groggy noises than anything else but it worked. She was handing the phone over and he was once again on the receiving end of a threat.
“I’m going to hang you by the laces of your foolish ideals. And if I get there to find Lizzie’s barrier was destroyed, you’ll be the sacrifice needed to erect it again.”
The line clicked.
Looking up, Brian’s frown deepened. Keke was grinning ear to ear. Their family was busy using the town as a battle ground for an age old family feud. There were bikes, chunks of debris, and fire hydrants hurling in every direction. Those that didn’t fight long distance were clashing at speeds that made them no more than a booming blur every time they hit each other. And then there were the ones with the powers – freezing, levitation, fire. They were terrorizing the town and did they care? Not at all.
The smart ones who knew his family took their leave as soon as the rival sides showed up. The rest either didn’t know better or they shared his misplaced optimism.
He must have made a face because the next thing he knew, his cousin punched his shoulder and he doubled over. “Shit.” He hissed. He gripped his throbbing shoulder and glared up at her. “What the hell?”
Shrugging, she went back to watching the mayhem outside the window. “You okay?”
“Not anymore.” He grumbled. Before, it only hurt when he moved his shoulder. Now? Now the throbbing didn’t stop. And did she have to use her super strength to hit him so hard? As he clutched his shoulder, he wished he never called for a family reunion of a bunch of superheroes.
It was the second week of winter vacation for the school kids. I remember being like them: energetic and giddy from the excitement of being out of school. Boredom would come eventually, just like it always did, but till then, everything was fun and different.
Maybe that was why I picked the park for my date. It was different compared to our predictable daily routine of work, eat, sleep. It wasn’t a restaurant or a cute busy bistro. It wasn’t the most sanitary place to be either but that didn’t deter Bailey.
Bailey showed up with everything and then some. Blankets, little hand warmer packets for our pockets, and a cooler – or in this case a warmth keeping container – full of food and hot beverages ranging from hot cocoa for him to sweet milk for me. And so we laid out the blankets and made ourselves cozy. We talked about the kids running around us, which, naturally turned into comparing our childhoods to theirs.
It was easy to talk to him but had I known that the topic would reignite a deeply buried and equally deeply rooted childhood wish, I would have steered the conversation towards anything else. I didn’t grow up in Hallow Hills like him. I didn’t know about the big tree that loomed over the town or that nearly every kid had to climb it. Both of which I had the misfortune to learn about while staring at the backside of my tree climbing fiancé.
The kids of Hallow Hills enjoyed carrying on the tradition of climbing, what they call, Old Uncle Rootie. Nobody knows how the tree came about the name but they use it all the same, including Bailey.
“Old Uncle Rootie was my first real tree,” he said proudly. “I worked my way up to it though. I didn’t want to fall and break my arm like my dad or not make it up at all like my brother.”
I probably should’ve stopped him then. I didn’t. Instead I smiled and asked him when was the last time he climbed anything. And that was it. That sealed the deal. Bailey grinned. You could almost see the kid he used to be in his brown eyes. He was going to scale that tree and “show the kids how it was done.”
And so there I stood, watching my fiancé climb higher and higher. His footing was sure and his hands knew exactly where to go. Still, I was nervous. “Come back”, I called up to him. “I get it. You’re a forever climber.” But he didn’t. He kept going. He was willing to back up his claim that he could climb that tree, and I had no choice but to watch as he made it only for his foot to slip on the way down.
I’ve never seen someone fall out of a tree before. He didn’t fall backwards. No. He went straight down, narrowly avoiding limbs, one of which he must have grabbed long enough for him to kick himself away from the tree. That was how he ended up on his back instead of his feet. Neither option appealed to me. A fall was a fall.
I rushed over, asking him if he was okay while calling him every name in the book and all he did, after catching the breath the landing knocked out of him, was grin. This idiot was all teeth. There was even a chuckle in his throats as he told me he was going to go again.
That was how a fun date in the park landed us in the emergency room.