Myself: [opens mouth]
Me: It’s half a scene! Barely a scene! [intelligible sounds, shrieking] Content warning, this is a romance and sometimes characters have sex!
Myself: I was just going say that you forgot the cc for Deacon’s zombie stiches.
Me: Oh. Yeah. I umm…I didn’t realize the file wasn’t in the mods folder. Sorry.
Akira stamped the snow from off his boots as he stepped inside the cabin. The mirror portal spat them out in the lodge bathroom, but they still had to trek through the woods for five miles before they got to their cabin. Even as he knew the snowstorm would cover their tracks, he took to the trees every mile, doubling back to make sure.
“A-are y-you s-s-sure that’s enough?” Miko asked, teeth chattering as he set down a cordon of wood.
It wasn’t that he didn’t feel cold, he wasn’t a vampire, but winter in the Fae Realm was a brutal affair so he was used to it.
He smirked, “Why? You plannin’ on goin’ out there to get some more?”
She scowled, and he chuckled as he crouched down to build a fire. “I’ll go out and get some more whenever we need it.”
It was hard to know how many days they’d be here. The gnomes hadn’t even agreed to see them, and negotiations with them were long, raucous affairs. He’d need some sort of boon to get their attention. It was always difficult to tell what the little buggers wanted: Coffee? Toys? Expensive electronics?
He shoved the coffee table out of the way and pulled over a padded bench. Miko’s teeth chattered even more violently.
“Take off that jacket and gloves, they’re fuckin’ soaked through,” he coaxed.
She nodded but watched him warily as he stripped his coat off too. Ignoring her look, he swept her into his arms and took a seat on the bench. For a brief moment, she relaxed, bringing a hand to gently cup his face.
He smiled at her, and her cheeks burned.
“Stop it! I’m just cold!” she squeaked. “We should…um…uh…sit back to back.”
He agreed, but only because he was wearing her down. He was going to be his best behaved, most charming self. The fire roared and crackled as Miko inched even closer to him.
“Well, it is some kind of blizzard,” she admitted. “Maybe…maybe we could share the bed. For warmth.”
“Clothes on!” she added after a moment.
“Maybe we could,” Akira agreed, not letting his voice betray any excitement.
“Do you think Mikel and Penny made contact with the dryads? Should we let them know we got here safe?” she wondered, “Not that I wouldn’t be safe with you because we’re um a-acquainted,” she replied quickly.
“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged, continuing to keep his voice light.
It was hard to keep a pleasant look on her face while staring at James. Given the number of times Penny had walked through this lobby with Bjorn, it must be giving the poor man a heart attack to see Bjorn standing there with his wife.
James’s smile was genuine, though. “So nice of you to ask after the children. The kids are great! In fact, we thought they could get together for another playdate. Jenny and I think it does them good to play with someone like Gwendolyn. You know,” he dropped his voice, “Covenless orphan. It reminds the kids to be grateful for what they have.”
Penny tried very hard not to grimace even though the word stung. She knew all about Bjorn’s attitude towards his adopted daughter, but it wasn’t something she could do anything about. She was trying to find missing witches, not look after some kid. Penny had survived being a “covenless orphan,” Gwendolyn would too.
“Oh, Clara, it’s nice to see you,” James simpered. “You never come by the office! What’s the occasion?”
“Who?” Mikel asked, looking around. Penny coughed and discreetly stepped on his foot. “Oh! I mean, yes, Janice…er…James, nice to see you. Do I need an excuse to visit my husband?”
“No, no, not at all, I was just…surprised to see you. I thought you all were taking a family vacation? Bjorn’s calendar says—”
“That’s right,” Penny intervened, “We decided to leave tomorrow…at the last minute. I’m just going to pick up a few items.” She began walking away briskly, pulling Mikel behind her.
“Oh well, in that case, you should know that you already have a—”
“Hold my calls!” Penny snapped and yanked Mikel through the doors.
“You are shit at being covert, which is shocking because your whole fucking deal is being covert!” Penny fumed when they were finally upstairs.
Mikel looked embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s difficult to keep multiple stories going at once. I’ve got to pretend to be a sim and then pretend to be a sim being another sim. It’s confusing!”
“Well, try harder!” Penny commanded. She stiffened and waved at an employee passing by.
“So why?” Mikel asked as they continued walking towards Bjorn’s office.
“Why…keep searching? For your family. It’s been years. Don’t you think they’re…” Mikel didn’t finish the sentence, but Penny knew the word he was looking for.
“It’s not about them,” Penny revealed, surprising herself with how candid she was willing to be, “I mean it is, but not because I think I can save them. I’m sure they’re dead. I just know something is seriously wrong. Witches have gone missing for centuries, and there’s an entire system saying it’s no big deal, and worse, you shouldn’t even risk asking questions because it could happen to you. Meanwhile, someone is benefitting from all that power.”
“Like the Great Sixam Games,” Mikel muttered.
“Nothing,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m sorry I brought that up about your family. I…I get it.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Penny assured him as they turned the corner. “I brought you into this shit. You have a right to ask—” she snapped her mouth shut.
Of course, Simeon Silversweater was waiting outside of Bjorn’s office. Of. Fucking. Course.
Windenburg Wash ‘n Fold
Deacon was overwhelmed by the Wash ‘n Fold’s underground black market, and Caleb found himself delighted by it. The joy of feeling back in control was something his therapist would undoubtedly warn him against, but it felt so good.
“Okay, but even if the fairy’s not cool, what about that green chick or that red dude?” he countered, recalling the creatures they saw on the gallows.
“Accomplices,” Caleb warned, “Wanted in ten counties, and before you ask, the reward is being collected by a centaur who even I would not cross.”
The questions continued as they made their way through the Negotiation Lowlands.
“Whoa, is that a—”
“Arachne. And no, you should not trade with them. They cannot be trusted.“
He said the last part loudly and laughed to himself when the arachne hissed. Was her name Esmerelda? They slept together once; an enjoyable experience given all the extra appendages. However, he did wake up to her attempting to hack his computer system and sell their employee records on the necromancy forums.
After a few more distractions and digression, they finally reached the mermaids’ grotto.
“Holy shit!” Deacon whistled, “I thought those twins were hot, but this is even better!”
A curvy siren wearing her sim form jumped up when they approached. Unconsciously, Caleb licked his lips.
“What a surprise, it’s Caleb Vatore! Come for business or for pleasure, vampire?”
He gave her a crooked grin. “Amisyia, please. A vampire can’t do both?”
She tittered and motioned at Deacon.
“He’s with me,” Caleb explained.
“A zombie? Freshly made too. How delicious,” she winked at Deacon, who waved like a lovesick idiot. Perhaps forcing the zombie to put on clothes had not been wise. They could have used Deacon’s attractiveness to their advantage.
“And him?” Amisyia asked, pointing to the sim from upstairs who now stood a few feet away from them.
Caleb shook his head.
She signaled, and one of the other mermaids began to sing. The sim walked to the pool’s edge in a daze, stripped, and sank beneath the water with barely a sound.
Caleb nudged Deacon to wipe the shocked look off his face and then turned his attention back to Amisyia. “I need to track a siren. And before you turn me down, know that I’m well aware of the metal you stripped from that alien spaceship.”
Penny pasted on a smile as Simeon approached. She wasn’t worried about her disguise. There were advantages to practicing all three classes of magic, and a few of the older, forgotten classes. Penny’s potion was airtight; it used as much mischief and illusion magic as transmutation.
“Simeon, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Penny said, parroting the way she’d heard Bjorn answer the phone when she was getting dressed.
“It is an important matter, Bjersten, one we have been preparing for,” Simeon indicated.
The emphasis on the last part made Penny both scared and excited. She had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t know if she could fake it, but this was very likely the break she had been looking for.
“Right, precisely. That’s wonderful news. You know Clara?” Penny put her hand on Mikel’s back and pushed him forward. She had no idea if Simeon had ever met Clara. She assumed so, given the number of functions they attended. Bjorn certainly wasn’t bringing Penny to the Witch Council Ball.
“Yes, indeed. Clara, it is very nice to see you.” Despite his words, Simeon looked as if he’d smelled something rank, “You won’t mind if your husband and I talk business? Witch Council matters. You understand?”
Mikel smiled and grabbed Penny’s hand, pulling her in for a hug. “Dear, you’ll call when you’re finished or if you need something?”
Just as Penny was getting ready to mentally curse him, she felt the small remote he pushed into her hand. She pulled back and looked at him, nodding that she understood.
“Absolutely, darling. Nothing to worry about.”
Windenburg Wash ‘n Fold
At the mention of the alien spaceship, Amisyia bustled them over to the seating area, affording them a bit of privacy. Caleb bet it was because none of the other mermaids knew she hadn’t cleared the salvage with the areas’ creatures. Mermaids were known for sticky fingers. Around them, anything not bolted down would disappear, and some of the things that were bolted down too. But they hadn’t survived this long without figuring out who not to piss off with the taking.
Amisyia curled into her seat, the look on her face utterly lethal. She was a powerful siren and rarely used force, so her actual abilities remained a mystery. Not that she needed it. If Amisiyia wanted something, woe be unto those who stood in her way. You’d agree to your own death after five minutes with her, and praise her for suggesting it.
“What makes you think I could track a siren?” she asked demurely.
“Don’t play coy, Amisiyia, there is not a mermaid in this realm that you don’t somehow have eyes on. The dryads would be interested to know about the ship salvage. It’s their territory after all.”
There was a small break in her facade. She glanced at the other mermaids who were studiously pretending not to eavesdrop.
“Leave us,” Amisiyia commanded, her voice full of ice.
The grotto cleared out in five seconds flat.
Not that it helped. Twenty minutes into negotiating, they’d made no progress. Amisyia was too smart to give him anything worthwhile without more information. And Caleb was not going to expose himself by giving her more information.
“You could be more helpful, Siren,” Caleb ground out.
“I am being helpful, Vampire,” Amisyia replied with a tight smile.
“It’s his sister,” Deacon cut in, his voice exasperated.
“The ancestor spirits value family. He’s not asking you to betray her for anything else. She’s family,” Deacon insisted.
“Sulani mana,” Amisyia whispered, staring at Deacon. Caleb had no idea what that meant, but he wasn’t going to get distracted. He needed to shut this conversation down.
“Clearly, I’m not here on a personal mission. Lilith is a…a…person of interest in my work,” he fumbled.
“You should have said something, Caleb. All these years, and you would not tell me?”
Caleb avoided her gaze. He had known Amisyia since the 1940s when they found themselves tracking the same target. A type of partnership formed. Caleb would pay Amisyia to procure or keep the information he needed, and in return, he made sure the mermaids and vampires were never on opposite sides of any conflict.
She sighed. “We know the siren who was with her. Nalani Mah’ai. We can track her, but it will cost you. Six grilled cheese sandwiches—”
“Five,” Caleb interrupted, holding up his hand. He was grateful to be back to business, but he wasn’t a fool.
“I haven’t finished,” she growled. “Six grilled cheese sandwiches from the banshees and a unicorn horn.”
Caleb narrowed his eyes. Six sandwiches was highway robbery, and she was adding on the unicorn horn just to be spiteful. He didn’t have time to go all the way to the Realm of the Fae.
“Four grilled cheese sandwiches, and I have time to stay.”
“Do you?” she asked, her smile suddenly coquettish.
“Of course, and I’m sure Deacon can entertain himself,” Caleb said, unbuttoning his coat.
“Oh yeah,” Deacon exclaimed, jumping up, clearly looking around for the other mermaids.
“Throw in any information you have on that alien spaceship, “Caleb continued, “And I’ll let you use your teeth.”
Amisyia smiled and opened her mouth, baring four sharpened rows. “Agreed.”
She held up a hand when Caleb began stalking towards her, “Not so fast, vampire. I’ll take those grilled cheese sandwiches first.”
Inside Bjorn’s office, Simeon shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He seemed excited and wary. Penny couldn’t decide if it was just his general disposition or if something was really wrong.
“Our opportunity has arrived. Morgyn has shown his true colors, and we need another Sage,” he explained.
Penny’s eyes widened just slightly. Morgyn wasn’t a Sage anymore? Could they do that? “Oh, that is surprising.”
“Pardon? You were the one who told me not to trust the Sage of Untamed Magic. You said he’d prove to be a false friend.”
Motherfucker. She needed to give Bjorn more credit. “I just mean I wasn’t expecting it to happen this week,” she replied smoothly.
Simeon narrowed his eyes. “Yes, well, it has happened, and now we need to gather a group of the most powerful witch families to head out to Magic HQ for a summons. I imagine there will be some sort of contest or demonstration, Faba and I have not yet decided.”
Penny thought the best way to navigate this situation was to say as little as possible. She made a sound of agreement.
“We will need to gather a list of our top choices. Last time we spoke, we were in disagreement about the Fyres family.”
Penny swallowed nervously. “Yes, right, let me just take a look at my notes…” she fumbled around on Bjorn’s desk, trying two locked drawers before the third one finally opened. It held a box of condoms and lube.
Practical magic on a stick! Could her luck get any worse?
She looked up at Simeon and smiled. “You know what? I’ve got it all up here!” she said, tapping the side of her head while her other hand frantically patted the desk, hoping a note or a sheet of paper with answers would just materialize. “I think we would do well with the Munches or the Villareals.”
“Yes, yes,” Simeon made a swiping motion. “We’ve already agreed on them. You mentioned a conversation with members of your order. There was an unexpected choice. You said they were forgotten, but you had a close connection.”
Unexpected choice? She ran through the list of top families in her head. Who the hell would be powerful, forgotten, and a close connect—
Her hands landed on a piece of heavy cardstock. She glanced down. Bjorn had clearly been in the middle of writing a letter on behalf of some group known as the Good Order Monks. Penny had never heard of them before, but that wasn’t important. What mattered was Bjorn’s plans for a new Sage.
“You motherfucker,” Penny whispered.
“Pardon?” Simeon bristled.
“Nothing,” Penny coughed, “A slip of the tongue. Let me…let me tell you about my idea.”
Windenburg Wash ‘n Fold
Caleb sighed with frustration and checked his watch. That Amisyia demanded payment before they went to bed was insulting. True, he was hoping to distract her so much with the sex that he never had to deliver on the banshees, but it still rankled.
He stared at the staff behind the counters, their rotting flesh occasionally falling onto the surfaces. They were zombies, but not at all well made.
“Banshees own a restaurant?” Deacon asked, “And zombies work the counter? That doesn’t seem very zombie-like, but then again, life really throws you some curveballs, huh?”
Caleb shook his head and prayed for patience. “You’ve been a zombie for all of five minutes. I don’t think you’re really the expert on what they do or don’t do. And yes, the banshees own a restaurant, but that’s really a misnomer. They don’t serve any—”
Deacon’s voice rang out loud and clear behind him, “Four grilled cheese sandwiches to go, please. And also, can we get a soda with that, or is that extra?”
“What the fuck are you doing?” Caleb exclaimed. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
“Ordering the grilled cheeses, so you can bring them back to that mermaid chick and get laid.”
An ominous shrieking rang out from the kitchen.
“The banshees don’t serve anything,” Caleb hissed, “Especially grilled cheese.” He quickly donned a pair of headphones.
“Oh,” Deacon frowned. “That’s a shitty restaurant idea. How do we get the sandwiches then?”
Caleb’s lip curled, “We pry it from their cold, dead fingers.”
“Metaphorically,” he added because it pained him to be so imprecise. “They are already dead, and they don’t really have a physical form. Also, they won’t be holding the sandwiches.”
He looked around, trying to pull some kind of plan together.
“Move those stanchions!” he shouted while glaring at Deacon. “If you had been listening earlier, you would have heard that we are just here doing some recon. We need five creatures to bind a banshee. And we barely have two!”
The shrieking was growing louder.
Deacon finished shoving the posts out of the way. “Oh. My bad,” he gestured at the other zombies behind the counter who were still staring disinterestedly out into space, “Can’t they help?”
Caleb rolled his eyes, trying to calculate the time it would take him to rush back to the main area and summon help. “Sure,” he replied, pouring on the sarcasm, “Why don’t you just ask them?”
Deacon stepped up to the counter and opened his mouth. An ugly, retching sound followed.
The other zombies immediately perked up, returning the same horrid sound.
“Cool, they’re in,” he said with a thumbs-up.
“I…” Caleb found himself speechless. A rare occurrence.
The appearance of the first banshee snapped him out of it. He began pointing and shouting orders, “You: draw a chalk circle, you: light these candles, Deacon: go to town on that banshee with everything you’ve got!”
With the first banshee distracted and the zombies setting up a binding circle, Caleb opened his phone and flipped through the book of spells he’d purchased from a freelance witch. Like most witches, Penny Pizzazz hated vampires, but she was more practical than superstitious, unlike most of her kind. She understood the value of a diverse customer base. He closed the document; confident he had the words in the right order.
He glanced back at Deacon. Although his fists kept going through the banshees, the zombie’s enthusiasm never dulled. It was the perfect distraction.
Caleb cleared his throat. “Alright, gather around you idiots and repeat after me!”
They chanted until the words became a mash and Caleb felt his lips go numb. The banshees shrieked, but the zombies were unaffected, immune to any sort of charm or illusion-based magic.
Finally, the banshees were bound, writhing and flickering, they gave a final scream before erupting into flames…
And leaving a plate of grilled cheese in their place.
It was more than what they needed for Amisyia, and Caleb was already anticipating what useful weapons he might be able to buy with them.
He fell back, exhausted, taking a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow. He would have to call Penny tonight and thank her. He had a whole new appreciation for a witch’s work.
“So, do we get to eat these or…?” Deacon pointed at the sandwiches.
“Shut up,” Caleb commanded.
And then, because he knew Deacon needed encouragement and just maybe, perhaps, it was nice to have someone on his side, he relented.
“Your performance was adequate.”
It took everything Penny had to describe Bjorn’s plan without choking. It was so awful and so shaming. No one paid attention to covenless orphans, apparently, not even Penny.
“I told you I had an unexpected choice, and I do. As you know, the Barristers were a powerful family, and while the adults are missing, presumed dead, they did have a child, and she is expected to be the powerhouse of her generation.”
Simeon scrunched up his face. “A child? How would that work as a Sage?”
Penny hated Bjorn. But more than that, she hated herself. She hated that she dismissed him and disregarded Gwendolyn even as she noted how Bjorn and the rest of the family treated her. Count yourself lucky, kid, Penny had thought, you could’ve been covenless in the orphanage instead of Bjorn’s fancy house.
“She won’t come into her power until she is a teenager, but in the meantime, she could be sent somewhere for training,” Penny replied, reading almost word for word from the note Bjorn was writing. She could not keep the uncomfortable look off her face as she said the last part. “I am her guardian, so I could take on a custodial role until she is of age.”
Penny could tell from the glint in Simeon’s eye that he adored the idea of having Bjorn as another Sage. That Bjorn was weak as hell was only a selling point—Simeon could remain superior. None of this boded well for Gwendolyn. Bjorn had no reason to see that she got proper training and learned how to wield her power. Not when it would be cause for him to step down.
Now, Penny understood why Bjorn’s treatment of Gwendolyn went beyond the usual disdain witches had for orphans. Gwendolyn was meant to see herself as nothing special because then she wouldn’t be a threat.
Penny cursed herself again for not taking any interest in the kid.
“I agree. This is the wisest and best course of action,” Simeon decreed. “You have a school in mind, I’m sure. We’ll still need to keep up appearances, so you should draw up that list. Furthermore, I’ll need the report you promised me on The Owl.”
“I’m sorry?” Penny said without thinking. “Er…I mean…what specific piece of information were you waiting for me to get?”
What the fuck did Bjorn know about The Owl of Undoing?
“You tell me!” Simeon snapped. “You’re acting very strangely, Bjersten, what is going on?”
“Nothing!” Penny answered with a too-wide smile. Shit, shit, shit, shit! “I’m just trying to…uh…ensure that I’m efficient with information…”
She got up and tried to put some distance between them. Simeon followed, his eyes glittering with violence.
Holy mother of practical magic, he was going to attack!
“Now see here, Bjersten—” Simeon began, reaching for his wand.
Shit! She pressed the remote that Mikel gave her and prayed he had a plan to get them the fuck out of there.
After a few seconds, Clara Bjersten burst through the door. “How could you, Bjorn! I was just minding my own business and looking at your phone like a good wife does, and what do I see? Texts from that whore, Penny Pizzazz! You’re sleeping with her!”
Simeon’s eyes practically bulged out of his head.
“Whore?” Penny balked; tone offended. “I mean, she’s not a whore. She’s brilliant and beautiful, and if she is sleeping with me, she has her reasons. And they’re definitely not whore reasons!”
Mikel threw up his arms and burst into tears.
Simeon turned; the discomfort evident on his face. “It…er…seems that you’ve got a domestic issue to handle, Bjersten. I’ll see myself out.”
“Clara,” the Sage nodded as he stepped gingerly around a sobbing Mikel.
After the door shut, Penny breathed a sigh of relief. “I know I’m going to live to regret this, but holy practical magic, you’re a fucking genius. I mean, whore was a strong word, but I’m gonna let that go because you just coasted in here like you were up for a Starlight Accolade and saved our asses.”
Mikel wiped the tears from his eyes and smiled. “Thanks, I figured we should have some kind of back-up plan in case things went sideways. Sims tend to be highly uncomfortable around emotional outbursts.”
The relief made her giddy. Penny jumped up and gave him a hug, then immediately stepped back, embarrassed.
“Don’t get used to that,” she admonished.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Mikel beamed. “So, what now?”
Penny had a bad feeling about Bjorn, about the Barristers, about the whole thing. She had failed to protect the kid before because it wasn’t any of her business, but she would be damned if she was going to let her fall into danger now.
“We search this motherfucker’s office. And then we search his house.”
Windenburg Countryside, Dryad Territory
“You are a poor student,” Vlad chided, his grip on Alice’s wrist solid and unyielding.
“I am not a poor student,” Alice shivered, “I’m just…I’m…distracted.”
“I know,” Vlad said, “It makes you a poor student.” He pushed her down and dipped his head, grazing his fangs along her neck.
“I am only trying to be helpful,” he purred, not quite biting, but something close. “You need only do one small thing.”
He was not trying to be helpful. And doing something small was much harder than doing something big. Especially when Alice’s pulse was pounding in her ears, and her desire was swinging wildly from the ceiling.
She schooled herself to think about all the things he’d done recently to drive her crazy, like making her explain and re-explain credit cards and putting a clerk through a store window for reasons he would only define as “revenge.” Grabbing hold of that irritation, she tried to focus through her anger.
Like a dimmer switch, she reminded herself, letting a jolt of electricity roll off her fingers.
Vlad gasped as it ran through him.
“Too much,” he reprimanded, pulling his hand back. “If I were mortal, you would have stopped my heart.”
He nipped at her neck. “Again.”
Alice grumbled and sent another jolt.
“Even more dead.”
“A third heart attack.”
“Is this foreplay?” he quipped.
Alice sighed. “You’re insane. Look, I yield, I’m a poor student. My command of my godly power needs work and blah blah blah take off your pants.”
“Please,” she tacked on because she was trying to be a little less prickly with him.
“As you request,” he murmured with a kiss.
Just then, his phone began to ring in the other room. Alice clutched at his shirt with both hands, all thoughts of reigning in her temper abandoned. “Don’t even think about it! Vladislaus, look at me, I will kill you,” she growled.
He leaned down, kissing the spot right below her ear before he whispered, “You’ll survive not having sex for five minutes,” and disappeared in a black vapor.
Alice flopped over on the couch and tried to slow her racing pulse. Okay…so that’s what that felt like. It seemed so much more reasonable when she said it.
Vlad reappeared, a few minutes later, an inscrutable look on his face. “How do you feel about ice cream?”
“Is this a sex thing?” she asked, sitting up excitedly.
“No,” he sighed, “Unfortunately, it is not.”
Back at Bjorn’s house, Penny stopped photographing paperwork and shot Mikel a strange look. “How did you know I was sleeping with Bjorn?”
He shrugged, “You always take a scalding hot shower and make yourself a McDillan Single Nect when you get home. The only other time you do that is when something explodes in the cauldron.”
Penny nodded; a bit bewildered. Mikel was way more observant than she thought.
Mikel quickly hacked Bjorn’s computer while Penny used a key they found in Bjorn’s office to unlock a filing cabinet.
The more she saw, the more alarmed she grew—pages and pages of recruiting forms for weak-bloodline witches, sketches for dark circles and portals, binding spells that mystified even Penny.
“Previous subjects were bound too late in their development, resulting in a significant power increase but a distinct lack of obedience and control. See reference notes: Phobos, Limnatis (Lady of the Lake).”
What did that even mean?
She snapped the book shut. When the Bjerstens returned, Penny would figure out how to protect Gwendolyn. She could even grab her and run if necessary. Maternal was never a word Penny would use to describe herself. Still, at the very least, she could teach the girl what she needed to know about managing her power and moving through the world without the security of a coven.
It was more than Penny had ever received.
Sadness nipped at her bones, a surprisingly sharp and jagged feeling. Her phone rang, but she ignored it. “I need some air,” she whispered.
Mikel looked up.
“Turn the lights back on,” Penny instructed, throat tight with emotion, “The house should be exactly like they left it.”
It was a dirty secret; the way witches treated their orphans. For a group so steeped in magic and the whims of the universe, they were wildly superstitious.
Spit in the cauldron to cleanse it of bad spirits.
Avoid close emotional ties with a covenless orphan.
Blood would out, but wickedness was a dilution.
Some babes were born wicked, and full of bad luck.
Abandonment felt catching.
That’s what Penny grew up with. Year after year of being avoided, hoping that her abandonment didn’t rub off on anyone else.
And if she wasn’t avoided, she was being paraded—thing to be pitied, a warning, and a reminder.
She was supposed to be grateful, and show that gratefulness through her “deeds.” Errands, favors, service to influential members of other covens was another hallmark of her childhood.
She had been raised to hate vampires, and for the most part, she did. Vladislaus had killed innocent witches, to be sure. And like most vampires, he was a sociopath and a menace.
Every once and a while, though, he got a witch that abused Penny. One of the ones who wronged her, bid on her family’s possessions, or encouraged the community to shun her.
When he drained those witches, Penny dutifully attended the services and bowed her head.
But inside, she was cheering.
Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe, Windenburg
Alice bit her cheeks to keep from laughing at Vlad’s face as they strolled into the ice cream parlor. How Gwendolyn had managed this, she didn’t know. It was one of those retro-themed places, with the staff dressed in brightly colored 50s style uniforms, doo-wop, and rock ‘n roll playing over the loudspeakers.
“This is a travesty—a grave miscarriage of justice. An architectural monstrosity,” Vlad muttered.
“Let me guess,” Alice gasped, now openly guffawing, “You hate the 50s.”
“More than any other period in all of time.”
“You’re old!” Gwendolyn exclaimed.
“He is,” Alice agreed. “So old that one might wonder how he was manipulated into making this trip?”
Vlad gave her a dark look but didn’t deign to answer.
Alice continued to cackle. She was getting the hang of it. The waitress currently giving them the side-eye as she walked past? Meant nothing to him. In fact, if he hadn’t fed earlier, he’d probably drain her. But Gwendolyn? Vlad clearly had a soft spot for the kid. Strangely, it made Alice feel all kinds of warm and fuzzy inside.
“I want a bowl of Haunted Mint!” Gwendolyn patted her pockets and then looked around sheepishly. “Uhh…my foster parents didn’t send me with any money so…”
Vlad scoffed. “Of course they didn’t. No matter, hellion. Eventually, you will learn that you have other talents. The witch you will become is beyond their wildest imaginings. In the meantime…”
He strolled up to the cashier and waved his hands. Alice doubted anyone else could see the green tendrils of magic unfurling from his fingers. He explained that vampires could glamour people, scramble their brains like eggs if they had enough strength.
“You will give this child any flavor she asks for…”
Alice coughed delicately…okay well, loudly. She might be a god, but damn it, she wanted ice cream too.
“And the adult woman who, for reasons that allude me, wants ice cream too,” he added flatly.
A few minutes later, they were all tucked into a booth chowing down.
“I’ve decided I like ice cream,” Vlad proclaimed, but there was an edge to his voice that made Alice’s heart rate kick up a notch.
“What are you talking about?” Gwendolyn asked.
“Nothing,” they both answered at the same time.
Gwendolyn gave them a look that said she was unconvinced but let it go.
“So what’s the deal? Do you know about his wings? What are you?” she demanded.
Alice hesitated. Vlad was doing his damndest to undo the perception that vampires were dark and mysterious and full of secrets.
“I’m a god. But it’s a secret. A very important secret,” she stressed. “And I do know about the wings. They’re…” she paused to laugh at herself. “I had a dream about them once. Before I even know about them. I was running through a haunted forest, and he saved me.”
Gwendolyn looked at Vlad with wonder.
“I mean not hundred percent,” Alice added, recalling more of her dream. “I mean, I had lightning powers. I pulled it right out of the sky.”
Vlad gave her a strange look, but Gwendolyn interrupted. “Yeah, the wings are weird.”
“Tell me about it,” Alice replied with a conspiratorial laugh.
Vlad scowled, “Well, I imagine its no stranger than eyes of fire and—”
“Of what?” Gwendolyn interrupted again.
“Excuse me?” Alice replied.
“What are you the god of?” she repeated. “Duh.”
“Of Death,” Alice smirked, “And he can’t banish you to the Underworld, but I certainly can.”
Gwendolyn had the good sense to snap her mouth shut. Peace only lasted for a few minutes, though, before she fired off another round of questions. Eventually, Alice distracted her with a story from the Book of the Dead—one of Ben’s favorites, about Bonehilda and the reaping fields. Gwendolyn listened with quiet fascination and then, spotting an opening at the dollhouse in the corner, made a beeline for the corner.
“You tell her about Bonehilda sharpening scythes for the start of the reaping season but disapprove of sword fighting?”
Alice laughed. “It’s not the sword fighting, per se. It’s the real swords.”
They watched as another kid walked up behind her. Gwendolyn stilled but didn’t turn around. The kid shook their head and slowly backed away.
“I know hell is pretend,” Alice marveled, “But I think she might actually be a demon.”
Vlad chuckled and pressed a kiss into her palm. “Yes, as I’ve been saying. Now, tell me more about this dream you had.”
“It was silly,” Alice said, but she couldn’t shake how real it felt.
“Not silly,” Vlad corrected, “I had a dream…it was…there were…it was similar.”
“So what’s the problem?” Alice asked.
“I don’t sleep.”
Because he was a glutton for punishment, Akira could not stop himself from opening his mouth. Miko had been moping ever since Penny sent her call straight to voicemail.
“Do you miss us?” he asked, cringing at how vulnerable he sounded.
Miko rubbed her hands together, making him wait for a beat before she answered. “I miss the horses.”
Akira laughed. “Yeah, yeah, but you always complained about those horses,” he waved a hand, imitating her voice. “They have no manners! Who taught them to fly like that?“
She shot him an annoyed look, which only made him laugh harder. When Miko first came to the Realm of the Fae, the flying horses were one of the things she loved most. He used to engineer every excuse to go down to the stables because he knew it would cause her to stay longer.
“You didn’t tell me they couldn’t be saddled like regular horses! I could’ve broken my damn neck!” she huffed.
But she wasn’t angry, not really. She was glorious on a flying horse, nigh-unstoppable once she’d gotten the hang of it. And Akira had enjoyed every moment of teaching her.
“We still have them, you know,” he mentioned.
Flying horses lived thousands of years, Miko’s favorite was still there. He saw her eyes light up, the interest sketched plainly on her face. He needed to find a boon for the gnomes, but he didn’t need to find it right away. He could use every moment of their time together to wear her down.
There was a loud banging at the door. Instantly, he was on high alert, even with all the careful preparations they had been followed.
Easing a finger to his lips, he crept across the room and grabbed his sword. Miko stepped behind him, magic gathering at her fingertips.
The banging continued, but this time it was followed by a voice. A voice that had Akira drawing back his sword and groaning in annoyance.
“Godsdammit, Akira, if you don’t open this door for us, I will blow this cabin down!”
Miko straightened and gave him a confused look. “What is your sister doing here?”
“Not just Titania,” Akira sighed and threw open the door, “Oberon too.”
“Greetings motherfuckers,” Oberon said with a triumphant smile. “Don’t worry, we brought our own sheets.”
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