This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2016 by NICOLETTE JINKS
NICOLETTE JINKS asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
You may contact the author via email: [email protected] or check in at , , [ GoodReads+]. To follow the author, her blog is , where she writes about writing and life.
Independently Published by author
doing business as Standal Publications
393 River Road Bliss, Idaho 83314
In a daze after a wraith-hunt gone terribly wrong, Brandy Silver faces one final attempt to silence her—life leeches.
The moon was dipping below the horizon when they’d arrived. A line of dark vans and SUVs pulled into the defunct grocery store. People in armed uniforms spilled across the asphalt.
They saw the bodies first, the blood growing tacky in the chill of the night. Someone was sick at the sight of bone and tissue exposed by a swipe of a wraith’s claws. Others started to search for me. Despite instructions otherwise, I had removed myself from the phone booth in order to hide.
That almost cost me my life.
“If we hadn’t taken our K-9 unit, you’d be dead,” Jane Dell told me for the fifth time in as many minutes. “What were you doing?”
Running from hunters and shadows. My answer had alarmed them once they knew I meant it. They’d hurried to get me to the healers. The trip to the dungeons, the botched wraith hunt, and now this frantic rescue made me feel out of control. I was a pawn nudged one square forward, used to capture the black knight. I hated revisiting that childhood feeling, and I hated even more knowing how wrong I’d been to not follow directions. I should have remained in the phone booth.
“What’s wrong with me?” Over my head, the gray roof of the van spun as two people turned me on my side. A chill draft marked the progress of a pair of scissors removing my shirt down my back. Aches, cold flashes, and fever could be attributed towards the cold I knew I had and which the dungeon cell would only have aggravated. But a heart which hammered one instant and crawled the next, that was not typical of a standard issue virus.
Jane stripped off her armored vest, exposing a red t-shirt which was four sizes too big for her. She left my range of vision and pressed against a spot in between my shoulder blades. Though I knew it was blue glove against my bare skin, it felt as if the contact were happening through another layer.
“Life leech,” a man’s voice said, muffled as if he didn’t want me to hear. He clicked on a flashlight and added, “Yellow and red. Amazonian.”
“What?” I didn’t remember ever having a leech attached to me. Consistent with what I’d heard regarding leech bites, I hadn’t felt a thing when this one had latched on.
They prodded my back in various places, none of it felt in any way painful. A mild tingling when they were close to the spine, that was all. Since they did not speak to me again, I let my fingers unravel the edge of the newly cut shirt. Would I feel anything at all when they pulled the leech off? The threads which came off in my hand were short, a couple inches long at the most. As one half of my shirt dangled over my arm, I tugged it down a little more and blinked several times to be sure I wasn’t seeing things.
There were holes the size of a dime cut through my shirt the way moth larvae eats through clothes in storage. Life leeches had burrowed through my clothes to get to my skin, which meant what, that I’d laid on them? The dungeon mattress had to have been infested prior to my arrival. It was the one place where I’d laid down, aside from the dirt beneath the bushes, and I doubted that I’d acquire Amazonian Life Leeches from ordinary dirt.
“How long have you had hallucinations?” Jane asked.
“Not hallucinating,” I said.
Pinching sensation in between my shoulder blades, soon followed by piercing pain, like popping the biggest zit of my life.
I squirmed and said, “Since dungeons, I don’t know, half the time I’ve been gone.”
“This will hurt. Stay awake.”
With the next wave of pain, I moaned the low heart-breaking moan of an animal giving birth. I’d never seen a human birth, but I’d worked my adolescence on a ranch, and I’d pulled plenty of too-big or breech babes into the cold world. Closely linked with the sound was the knowledge: it’s fifty-fifty from here on out if I live or die. Darkness seeped into my mind.
Awareness struck with the rocking of the van. People clung to safety bars. We hit a bump, pain flashed across my raw back. One person’s scribbling on charts, catching up with voices. Another yells at the driver. Someone sees I’m awake: “You’ll be fine. Seen loads of people worse than you.” He’s an older fellow, I believe him. “You’re Nicholas Wraithbane’s partner?” I nod. There’s a jolt of pain and a person behind me swears. The older man goes pale. I don’t believe him any longer. Darkness seeps in.
Awareness struck with the van turning. I can’t wriggle to ease the crease indented across my chest. Staring at the floor. A tickling sensation runs down my ribs. Blood and saline solution drips onto the absorptive black mat beneath wheels locked in place. The mat edges are gray, meaning they’re dry. It’s obvious that I’ve lost fluid, but why? Leeches aren’t meant to leave gaping wounds, are they? Darkness seeps.
Awareness strikes. The rattle of wheels clattering in doorways. Straps strangle like the iron bars which held the test subjects as their red eyes and black veins gave way to revenant. Rolled into a room. Small, white. A room to die in. Darkness.
“He can’t be a donor.”
“…rejecting all others…”
Their arguing wakes me. Paralysis. Can’t breathe. A black-clawed hand covers mouth and nose, a skinny arm writhes as I cannot. Voice in my ear, “I know you from before.” My heart pounds, I try to scream, but it doesn’t work. Why don’t they notice? Tears down my cheek, I scream louder, all my force in it. If I can make them hear me, they’ll help. Another thought: I’m not somehow going revenant? I scream. A slight vibration in my throat. I know I’m dreaming, makes it no less real. The nightmare goes on, a revenant’s smoking face peers up from beneath the bed and it grins. It tightens its hand around my lips, cutting into my skin. Hot tears streak down my cheek. I try to scream again.
“It’s too soon. We can’t endanger…”
The face of death crowds me, taunting as it lowers its lips to pass through its own hands, muggy breath hot against my mouth. Screaming bloody murder escapes my throat as a whimper and I’m crying. Why don’t they help me?
For a second, the hand becomes an oxygen mask. That second is gone, the revenant is back with a vengeance. It pinches my throat.
As I suffocate, I make out a single word.
Wet drops strike my lips, bringing darkness.
I’m somewhen else.
A world of morphing, drifting fog swirls through steep mountain peaks. Rocks shift beneath my feet on the trail heading towards palisades made of pointed sticks jutting outward to defend the homes within its enclose from horsemen and worse. Though it’s day, heavy clouds blot out any trace of the sun until it is evidenced only by a faintly shimmering ring hanging low in the west. As I near the bridge drawn over a twelve foot ditch surrounding the palisade, I see the first sign of life outside the settlement: the body of a giant bear pierced by spears. Then I see the smoke marking a big fire in the meadhall.
The sentinels watch in silence as I pass over the bridge and step through the swinging gate intended to keep livestock inside the enclosure. Though the people on watch give no greetings, it is implied. Had I been a stranger, I’d have been pelted with arrows when I placed my foot on the bridge. Yet it gives an ominous feel as mud squelches beneath my shoes through the footpaths. A cow and goat stand near a stranger’s horse which is being led into the chieftain’s stables. The boy sees me and waves.
He’s wearing the blue tunic which his brother had worn before him and his hair looks like the stray flax fibers which have been swept out from under the weighted loom. He’s showing me the horse, a black beast with heavy hooves and scars along his hide from fangs and claws. Though the charger is tame now, he is alert and shows no fear.
The boy is about to say something, but just then the door opens to the meadhall. The chieftain emerges in his finest cloak and crown, smiling broadly, a drinking horn of wine coloring his cheeks. Behind him are two men, one slimmer and taller, the other shorter and powerful; neither tied by blood yet camaraderie binds them. Mercenaries. Not for hire against other men, but against the shadows of the night.
I wonder which one of them has afforded my bride-price as the meadhall falls away, the chieftain hazes, and the world of drifting fog swirls me into awareness.
Back in the white room, I was strapped to a hospital bed so a wall faced me. A tray in the foreground was enlivened by a still-life composition of scalpels and standard operating equipment. A trash can sat on the floor half-full with bloodied paper towels. Memory of the rescue returned, the disjointed ambulance ride, the complications. For a minute it seemed less real than the dreams. I curled my hand into a fist and writhed.
“Are you awake?” The voice was familiar, yet I didn’t immediately put a name to his face. Everything was confused and I thought I might return to the meadhall again. The cloudiness passed and I knew where I was.
“Nicholas?” I blinked, discovered I couldn’t turn my head. He sat behind me. The mental image of his shoulder-length hair and green eyes made me relax. “I saw you in the meadhall.”
“Did Thaimon jar loose some memories?” He tucked a stray strand of blond hair behind my ear, paused, then traced a knuckle along my jawline. “Ask me later.”
“I’m confused. I thought Charlotte was Victorian.”
“Shhh.” Wraithbane leaned close to whisper, so close I smelled the musky spice of his aftershave. “For some people, this is their first life. Others have two. Still others have more. Don’t ask right now. If they hear you speaking of meadhalls and archers again, they’re going to keep you longer.” He eased away and spoke normally. “You’re in the Marina Containment Center under observation.”
Alright, so I’d been wrong about where I was. I’d thought hospital. Containment Center did not bode well. I groaned.
Wraithbane laughed gently, not the way I’d grown to know his laughter. “It isn’t so bad. Life leeches deserve low-rank safety levels. An infestation is easy to pass from one host to another, but they got it cleared in time. It was a matter of minutes which saved you. You can thank the van driver for that. Not many are brave enough to plough through a portal. Shh, don’t talk. Let me do the work. You haven’t heard of life leeches before. They do what you would guess, but their appearance is tropical-slug with nasty rows of teeth. If you have a gallon or so of Bliss, you can buy a single Amazonian Life Leech off the black market. You had thirteen mature leeches embedded, if that gives you an indication about the caliber of your opponents.”
He showed me all thirteen locations by circling the bandaged areas on my back and shoulders. It was one continuous trail, his finger skimming along my skin in a way which made me hold my breath. Once he was done, he didn’t stop touching, instead drawing lazy swirls on my undamaged skin.
“You wouldn’t have felt them. Unless someone searched for them, they wouldn’t have been noticed. Victims usually die due to delayed treatment. No doubt you were expected to perish as a backup plan should you manage an escape. We’ve been speaking with the White Wizard Council, and they have been evasive in their responses. I happen to know our contact person, and she’s not playing coy with us. She doesn’t know the answers to our questions, which worries her, I’m certain. That is all I can tell you for now. There’s another thing I have to tell you, and I want to be the one to say it.
“Life leeches drain magic. Without a certain balance in your body, you can die. It’s the same as anything else related to your health. This is why doing too big of a spell can kill some spell-casters, it drains them completely. Think of it like losing all your blood. You can expend a fair deal without irreversible damage, but there comes a point when too much is gone. The leeches drained you to a critical range, and your body was preoccupied with healing itself. It’s possible you could have lived without intervention, but Doc Mike didn’t want to risk it.
“They tried giving you basic donor goop, but your body wouldn’t absorb it. Guess it didn’t like the cheap stuff after it’d had a taste of Bliss. They recruited me to take Bliss to donor for you. You’ve been doing well, but don’t get greedy. I’m still recovering myself.”
How I wished I could see his face now. “You’re Blissed?”
“I am.” He sounded pretty happy about it. I still remembered how it felt to share magic with another person, the elation associated with it. No doubt he hungered for another kind of contact, something better than this chaste touching. I certainly had, after we’d kissed. That euphoria was addictive. Wonderfully and terribly so.
“Bliss transfers through contact.”
“Yes, I’ve had to keep a hand on you nonstop for hours. They drew a boundary line on your back. It’s the implied consent box.” He stroked my shoulder slowly, as if savoring the feel of me underneath him. He added, “I just went outside of it.”
I grinned. “I’ll tell.”
“If that’s how you’re going to be, I’ll have to resort to my alternative plan for amusement.”
“Which is what?”
He removed his hand completely, and I felt the void as if it had been replaced with a block of ice. My muscles contracted and I started to shiver. There was the rustle of a plastic sack, then the sound of fingers grasping a book, the flip of pages. Warmth as his fingertips touched the slope of my neck. In a lower, more melodic voice than his conversational tone, Wraithbane began to read.
“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce high for her too,
Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!’”
“Are you reading me poetry?” I asked.
“It’s a classic book,” he said, sounding defensive. “It was this or Pride and Prejudice, and I can’t stomach Austen.”
“Which book?” I strained against my straps to see.
“If you don’t know yet, you won’t find out by asking me. Shush, or the healers will make you sleep. That poem,” he said it like a distasteful word, “was by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers and it appears in the lines above Chapter One.” He resumed reading. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
I listened as he continued, mesmerized by his voice, puzzling over the identity of this book. Self-reflective, philosophical, narrator separate from the main character. The name wasn’t coming to me, nor had I read those words recently. I was going about this all wrong. What kind of classic book would Wraithbane feel drawn to share aloud?
“…it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men—”
“The Great Gatsby!” I said. I wanted to dance a little in triumph, but the straps wouldn’t let me even wriggle.
His hand stopped moving on my shoulder. “I haven’t gotten to that part yet. If you’re going to jump ahead, I’m going to go back to the implied consent box.”
“Mmm, can’t have that,” I said and held still. I was enjoying the thrum of his voice and the absent-minded stroking of his thumb in the dip of my neck.
“Thank you. I’m bored of the box, too,” he said. There was the rustle of clothes and the creak of a chair. “Good, they’re gone. You spoke of the lodge. Do you remember the oath? It’d be easier if you did. It went fine until Thaimon…” Wraithbane sighed and his voice held a hint of an older self peeked through, a thinner and harder version which had seen things he’d sooner forget.
I tried to catch up with the sudden change in topic. I repeated, “It went fine until Thaimon—what?”
“Until Thaimon became Thaimon.”
“I thought he’d always been…” I trailed off.
“His old name has been lost, but I remember who he had once been. He’s not so different now, on those days when he isn’t mad.”
“Thaimon and you, you used to be bonded somehow?” I asked.
“He was part of the Vanguard then, and had not yet taken his current name. We were brothers in arms, adventurers, merry-makers. Not all of it is clear, but I know how it felt. Thrilling, dangerous, but we didn’t torment people unless they tormented us. He and I together were a force to be reckoned with, but you made us stable and gave us direction.” He smoothed hair out of my face with an expression undeniably admiring, all roving eyes and luminous smile. “I knew for certain I’d found you again once you tricked Sit Tight and bungled your escape, but I had suspected that we were bonded somehow when we first kissed.”
“You’re muddling the story,” I said. “I don’t really understand anything.”
“Very well, from the beginning. The very, very beginning a long time ago. I’ll call Thaimon the short name for Vanguard. It’s what he was then, and I don’t know his true name any longer. The story of meeting you starts with Van seeing a maiden rinsing woad out of a tunic and me stealing her turnshoes. How the fire burned behind eyes violent as water and deep as the sky, how she used her walking-stick as a sword and her tongue to throw words as sharp as daggers. How she was fearless, indomitable, a spirit which burned through the dark.
“It was before the Veil separated our world from the Otherworld. It was easy to slip from one place or time to another. There were long periods of day and dark. It wasn’t called night. Nights came after the Veil tamed the darkness. Creatures passed swiftly through the dark and rarely through the day. Today how long it remains light or dark is predictable; then it was not. Darkness may last several hours or several weeks. Mankind and their animals huddled within firelight, but at times that was not enough to keep the creatures at bay.
“That was the first world I can remember, the world I was created for. The dark grew things which could withstand the light and walk amongst the daykind. To compensate there were others like me, who could walk in the shadows. The dark was thrill and danger, I did not fear what was within it. I hunted and killed those things which killed men, and they grew to fear me. The Vanguard had long been been protecting their people. One man in particular grew up with me and was my friend throughout everything.”
“Thaimon?” I asked, finding it strangely easy to believe.
“Yes. He was suave and charming, gifted with a silver tongue and easy manners. Even his appearance was kindly, so much so that he was contested often by those who did not know him to be Vanguard. I frightened people, and I scoffed at them for being frightened. Youthful arrogance.
“The best of men found me terrifying, some called shadow-walkers abominations. Were I anything else, the shadows would not flee at my presence. Enough people were brave enough to speak with me and drink with me and enough women took me as their lover that I was not lonely nor completely outcasted. I broke some hearts, but I hadn’t asked for their love nor promised them anything. Unlike Van, who promised the world and left them with sweet kisses and hopeful hearts.
“We travelled and hunted the worst of the creatures, protecting the hamlets which were least defended. Kings and their stewards paid us for heads of monsters, and their minstrels conveniently forgot us in winter ballads of the trophies. It didn’t matter. We had songs of our own to sing on the long, cold resting periods when there was little else to occupy our time.
“From Van, I knew how to charm a blushing maiden if she took my eye. And so took my eye this maiden of bright spirit who felt no fear at the sight of me when I ripped the stick out of her hands and held her at my mercy. I had gone my entire life seeing fear in those around me. Van alone had never feared me, because Van alone knew me. This maiden, even when she should have been afraid, did not fear me in the least. She challenged me to try to make her afraid. She said, ‘Do what you’re to do, then. I haven’t all day to wait upon you.’”
I laughed, imagining the reaction. “Taunting a man never does anything but draw attention to yourself. What did you do? It surely wasn’t letting her go.”
“No, I didn’t let her go. I may have, if it had been the two of us alone, but Van was present as well. He said, ‘This one’s fierce as a direhound. Shall we see if you can frighten it?’ Direhounds were massive dogs, their backs came to about your shoulders, as tall as a small horse, excellent against mounted opponents and considered protectors of any home which could afford to feed them. We never kept a direhound ourselves. In between shelters, there was too little food and drink to keep the two of us content, nevermind enough to keep a direhound from the brink of starvation. We did, however, have a warhorse. Just the one was all we needed, a brave beast which made the cowardly direhounds tremble.
“We bound the maid up and tossed her abreast the horse. The day passed, leaving the maiden unshakeable and confident enough to call me many uncouth names. We never once harmed her. When darkness crept in, I thought she would become afraid at last. But instead, I learned that she was working to bring back the fabelled world of long ago one hex at a time.”
The story was flitting through memory, stirring up images. I said, “I broke free from you two. There was a man who wanted my help. I remember…” But then I didn’t. As soon as it was there, the image of the shadowy figure with an outstretched hand slipped my mind. I went to the next thing I knew. “I sheltered on my own. The two of you thought I’d gone to my death.”
“We went to your village…”
“…to start up a search party, but they knew better.”
“They said you’d be back once you were done with your tasks. Van was smitten. I respected you well enough to give an ultimatum: pay the bride price or leave you alone. We’d come to hire your hex-breaking services, but to add the bride price your mother set on top of that … well, it was very costly. In total, it was slightly under our combined wealth. It would all go to you no matter what, but it still needed to be paid.”
My heart skipped. “What did you do?”
Wraithbane went very still and kept his tone level. “It was a different time in a different culture. Van and I were closer than brothers. We each paid half of the services fee and half the bride price.”
Breathing became difficult, not necessarily in a bad way, but neither was it comfortable. “You both married me.”
“You married us, too,” Wraithbane said. “The choice in all things was first and foremost yours. Even the bride price wasn’t to buy you, it was to prove our worth. Things worked differently then. People paid kings and chieftains, and so husbands paid wives. You’d refused all others, yet you found us acceptable. In our bonding oath, you said that some souls are forged together and destined to find one another throughout time. We swore to safeguard and honor one another, even after we constructed the Veil and ended the dark.”
I went quiet, not recalling those exact words, yet the resonance was impossible to deny. “And you still feel connected to that oath today?”
“Our triad all feels that oath to protect and safeguard one another.”
“Even when you’re trying to kill Thaimon and he’s trying not to kill me?” I had a hard time believing it. “He’s a total manipulator.”
“True, but the oath still comes into effect.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“Hmm, they’re coming back. I’ll tell you why I’m trying to kill him later. Meanwhile, act normal,” he said before resuming his oration of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The door opened and healers entered, tending to my back as quietly as they could. They didn’t leave for a long time, prodding my back, scraping up samples. I heard one of them say to Wraithbane that they hadn’t seen any eggs yet. After I heard that, I deliberately focused only on Wraithbane and soon grew sleepy. Probably something they’d given me. Wraithbane continued to read uninterrupted.
Hours rolled by as if we were in some kind of timeless spell. The containment center room fell away and we could just as well have been lounging on a settee before a quietly crackling fire. He must have lulled me to sleep with the rhythmic way his hand stroked my skin, the trancelike quality of his voice, because I found myself drifting on swirling fog into dreams.
Shapes emerged from the mists, concealed and revealed at the twitch of an eye. There was a baby in a bundle, left alone on the doorstep of the fire department. A hood dripping with rain and soldiers with ale. Hooves and the smell of horse leather. A silver coin spinning as a bullet struck it midair. Parlor tricks at night entertaining guests. Things drawing near me, cowering, scraping, begging. In their hearts a shard of blackness, tedious to remove. Each new shard harder to ease out, slimmer and smaller than the one previous, apt to shatter and dissolve. I dreamed of iodine-orange fingers and the stench of vinegar. Vials lined up on shelves, scrawled upon in an old handwriting long gone out of use.
Words whispered through the mists, It’s all balanced on the blade of a knife right now, and you can illuminate the world.
Awareness seeped in. I rested in my new bedroom in the housing assigned to Kettle agents. It was night. Who knew how much time had passed between Nicholas Wraithbane reading The Great Gatsby and me waking up in a real bed.
A plastic band wrapped around my wrist, too thick to snip off without wire cutters. An iridescent DISCHARGED was written over the top of a list of quantities and spell abbreviations. My entire body glowed with spell traces like a cartoon vision of radioactivity. A cottony sensation filled my mouth.
“It’s all we can do for now,” the attendant had told Doc Mike upon my release. “Here’s a list of symptoms. If she starts to display three or more of them, it may mean that they got into the bloodstream. Incubation period is ten to fourteen days. They will attach to the liver at twenty-one days, so it is important to catch any complications as quickly as possible.”
Complications meaning eggs? I assumed so.
I snorted. As if I was going to fall back asleep after that. And it was a decent night out, by the looks of things. By dumb luck or a fortune of the hour, I didn’t awaken Kayla as I left the house using her the light from her phone to navigate the hallway.
Moonlight showed me the central courtyard. It was a crisp, frigid night which was softer on my skin than the nights before had been, a sign that winter’s fingers were leaving the land and spring was thawing her way into existence. Flowers later than the snow-parting crocus brushed their way out of the soil; the first leaves of a tulip, the narrow stem of a daffodil. Tree branches formed nubs awaiting a sun-kissed day to open in pinks and whites.
Suddenly, I wondered what on earth I was doing walking around the courtyard at night. What would they say if someone found me like this? What would I say? “Don’t mind me, I’m just enjoying being alive for another day?” Not a concerning comment at all.
At Wraithbane’s door, the moonlight cast a cool sheen upon the doorknob and revealed a shaking shadow as I reached for that door. It was a hand I didn’t recognize as my own, with its broad palm and short fingers, hands accustomed to physical work and unblemished with chemical burn speckles or blots of ink. Yet these hands were the ones I had known all my life until last night. I felt conflicted. These stories were crazy, and yet they also felt true.
He’d promised to tell me about Thaimon. Perhaps not tonight, but when he woke up, maybe… In any case, he’d be least likely to think I’d gone crazy.
Without disturbing Wraithbane by knocking, and guided by a sense of familiarity, I entered his home. Just as he’d said before, nothing was locked. Open-door policy. That didn’t stop him from having spells on every door and window, spells formed like a string of bells made in his floral green signature.
His furniture called to the old world; large, wooden, and way too heavy for any thieves to be interested in. His wealth proved to be invested in the kitchen. A copper set of pots and pans; antler-handled Damascus steel knife set attached to a magnetic strip above an antique enamel oven; an abundance of produce hanging from netted cotton bags from the ceiling; a set of red willow china. Finally, a row of antique books whose shelf ran along the top of the wall, stretching from room to room with no beginning and no end. I found a fridge stocked with cured meats and prime cuts. A cabinet with a rainbow of unopened liquors shimmered under a whisper of gas light.
“Didn’t take you long to seek me out.”
Wraithbane’s voice startled me. The round of cheese I’d been handling dropped to the floor.
“Sorry. I think it’s still good.” I bent to pick it up, blushing. A zing of pain raced down my back as the movement tugged stitches. I stood upright to find him watching me. The way the moonlight illuminated his hazel eyes made them appear lambent and green, an exact match to the hue of his magic.
Rough callouses brushed my hands. I jerked away a fraction and instantly regretted it. Even more embarrassed than before, I gave him the cheese and rubbed my tired eyes. Then I saw him. Really saw him. He looked horrid, dark hollows in his cheeks and under his eyes, shoulders slumped, movements sluggish and without their usual grace. The Bliss was taking its toll.
“I shouldn’t bother you. It’s so late.”
Though I wanted to nudge by him and make my escape, what I found instead was that he blocked the entire doorway by the simple virtue of possessing a wide set of shoulders.
“You haven’t eaten in too long,” he said and entered the kitchen. When his palm slid off the doorjamb, a spell sprouted there, interlacing its ivy-like arms to form an impenetrable mesh. While he polished the wax of the cheese off on a tea towel, I pressed a hesitant hand against the ivy spell. It pushed back against me.
Wraithbane said, “You can run off again once you’ve had a meal.”
“Alright, if I’m not bothering you.” I watched him for any indication that I wasn’t welcome. He gave none. I asked, tracing one of the stems barring my exit, “What’s this one called?”
“What does it look like?”
“Have you seen those strangle vines which climb trees and when the tree dies, there’s the hollowed skeleton of the vines still living there in the shape of the tree?”
Wraithbane paused from his quest of seeking out meats and cheeses. From a drawer he withdrew a pencil and pad of paper, tore out the grocery list, and gave the rest to me. “Draw it.”
“The lights are a bit low.”
He shrugged, reached around me so close we nearly touched, and adjusted a lever to brighten the faint blue of gas lights. As he made short work of a pear and tomato, I began a sketch. I regained my motor skills as I drew. It was too large for the paper. I hadn’t scaled it down accordingly. I made the best of it by turning it into a botanical illustration, marking the jagged shape of the leaf and the prominent veins. I lost myself in the feel of pencil sliding over paper, the way the lines smudged at the slightest touch.
When I finished, Wraithbane stood still and silent with a platter of bread slices, buttermilk crackers and saltwater wafers; wedges and crumbles of cheese; salamis and pancetta and meats I couldn’t identify; sliced pear, tomato; a dipping bowl of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, a pat of butter. Grabbing a small, stemmed glass, he asked, “What’s your poison, moscato or port?”
“Moscato’s my favorite.”
He nodded, as if he’d anticipated the answer. The bottle popped open, trailing a soft spiral of bubbles in my glass. He took some port.
Wraithbane traded me the moscato for the drawing. He smiled and held it up to the doorway, as if comparing the rendition to the original. I was about to say that it wasn’t the best—but I stopped. He wasn’t comparing. He was imagining what it was to see Carriager’s Blockade through my eyes.
“It’s elaborate,” he said.
“Are they all like this?”
I gave the question consideration. “I suppose they are, but the bigger ones are easier to see the details on. Others are like snowflakes. You can get the overall shape at a glance, but to see everything about it, you’d need to magnify it a lot.” I hesitated. “Everyone seems surprised by my ability.”
“They aren’t very many people like you.”
“Huh.” I considered his reply and decided it was fair. “Do you remember what you said to me in the containment center?”
For an instant, I didn’t know if I should pursue the topic. Carriger’s Blockade remained in the doorway, which would surely prevent him from running, too, if he thought I was a nutjob. “I need answers.”
He was quiet, but listening.
I continued, “I’m so confused and turned around, I don’t know if I’ve lost my sanity.”
“It’s taken you this long to question it? You have a high tolerance.”
While I was reasonably certain he was teasing me, I didn’t appreciate it. “Will you tell me or not?”
“I’ll tell you if you eat while I explain.”
“Fine.” I paused, picking my first question. “You said some people have multiple lives. How many have I had?”
“I’m not sure. That’s your history, not mine.” He held up a hand, his arm quivering ever so slightly, a reminder of the Bliss aftermath and a testament to what he was enduring for my sake. “Before you get frustrated, hear me out. Our triad tends to find one another, so I can say that this is the fourth time I’ve known you. I’ve known you in Queen Victoria’s reign, I’ve known you at the eve of the Black Death, and I’ve known you before the Romans conquered the earth.”
“If Thaimon became Thaimon after the oath, does it still apply?”
“I’ve often wondered if Thaimon is still tied to us, but he seems to be. Losing your identity is part of the price of becoming a wraith, and no doubt why the medieval lifetime is such a touchy subject for him.” Wraithbane chuckled. “I’ve found that out the hard way.”
I snorted, letting a bit of anger flare. “At least Thaimon had the honesty to say he knew me from before.”
“I didn’t know you at first. My own recollection of you came a bit later. Thaimon’s mind and memories have been intact since the Black Death. He hasn’t died since he became a wraith. He recognizes people and things far faster than someone who has died twice between then and now, which gives him an advantage over both of us.”
“So, there was a time you didn’t know about your past lives?” That made me feel less naive and stupid.
“During adolescence. When I was a child, I had memories. My parents dismissed it as an active imagination.”
“I guess I had a few times like that, too.”
“Once you’re older, that sort of thing becomes a ridiculous fancy, doesn’t it?”
“My earliest memories are a favorite. It was when I had freedom, when I was important, and when I learned the most about myself. Thaimon has indicated he doesn’t recall too much from that era. I know from both you and him that I was part of the Victorian time, but I personally can’t see it very well. You seem rather plagued by it, however.” Wraithbane took the first bite, leading the way by dipping a piece of bread in the oil and vinegar and eating it with meat and cheese. “Each one of us have faced times when the world didn’t want us any longer. For me, it’s the day the Veil fell and we didn’t need a shadow-walker anymore. For Thaimon, he became a wraith and the Black Death started. And for you, it seems the Victorian era particularly disliked your ambitiousness. Curious, isn’t it?”
“Hmm.” As soon as I began to eat, I was instantly ravenous and ruthless about not sharing. Once a certain selection of anything began to get low, Wraithbane replaced it with something new from his pantry. Beyond the third glass of wine, I lost count of how much I’d had because he kept topping the glass off rather than letting me finish it first.
I couldn’t resist not asking, “I want to know who I am. Who I was.”
“You are as you always have been and always will be, yet you’re a very changed person all the same. You are Brandy Marie Silver, you are Dawn Marie Smith, and you were Charlotte Lovell and others before her. A few ignorant individuals still think of you as Charlotte, but you’re distinctly different from her.”
“What of Dreamweaver?”
Wraithbane scoffed. “Dreamweaver was a fictional creation of sensationalist media. A physical embodiment of a monster society wanted to fear. A villain for a power-seeking government.”
“I thought you didn’t know if she’d killed her husband or not.”
“Your questions had me intrigued. I found some information, not much, but enough. I know how to spot propaganda when I see it.”
I joined him by the oven, not-quite brushing elbows with him, positively purring inside when he slung an arm over my shoulders. “Is this why you were so insistent on having me as a partner?”
“I knew that you’ve been a hex-breaker, and I knew the Kettle needed your talents. Hex-breakers need someone to watch after them. They lose themselves to their work, forget to eat, have trouble sleeping and knowing which day it is. It wasn’t until later that I tied you to my memories.”
Call me pathetic, but I knew he was right. I did lose myself to work, forget to eat—and even tonight I’d failed to sleep even with the aid of pharmaturgicals. Had it not been for Kayla’s phone, I wouldn’t know what day it was.
I groaned and tried to forget about all the questions, about Thaimon and past lives and just everything. I closed my eyes and we talked about cheeses first, then about nothing. For the first time in a long time, I felt easy just talking with another person, swimming in the conversation, saying whatever words came to mind in whatever order they came to me in. Feeling unquestioning confidence in how it would be received. Getting bolder with the things I hadn’t felt safe talking about in the hours before.
“It’s good to be back,” I said. “When I was in the dungeons, they had me in a cell which had no spell traces at all. Blank walls. Everything felt dead. Worse than dead. Decaying, infectious. Not that I knew it literally, though.” I thought of the life leeches. “Here, there’s bits of your spells hanging around. Lots of them really faded and old, but even those matter. Things from Jay and Willow, too, and every now and then from Doc Mike. I thought I’d never see it again.”
“It is a terrifying feeling.”
I snorted. “I can’t imagine you ever feeling isolated, helpless, and unable to do even the simplest thing.”
Wraithbane rolled a cigarette. Or something like it. The sulfuric scent of a match tickled my nose as he said, “Not even tied down to a hospital bed, drugged, watching the suits haul away the person who just saved my life?”
A flash of heat touched my cheeks. “I hadn’t thought—I didn’t mean to be…”
Wraithbane exhaled a puff of smoke, looking like a dragon. “Want to make it up to me?” He held up his rolled cigarette to my lips.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea? I just got out of containment.”
“You’re in the wrong line of work if you want to reach a ripe old age.”
He had a point.
Still, I hesitated. Wraithbane wasn’t the sort of man who took sharing lightly. The food had been one thing—this was another. Even stealing a sip of coffee had nothing on what he was offering. Not to mention the other connotations, thoughts which turned me suddenly shy. Quickly, I took a small puff.
Wraithbane tutted. “Into the lungs. That barely made it down your throat.”
Blushing even more fiercely than ever and pleased by the encouragement, I did as he said.
“Hold it for a little.”
Tasting it across my throat and tongue, I slowly exhaled in his direction and wagged a finger at him. “That’s not the usual flavor of Marlboro.”
“That’s because it isn’t Marlboro. Cheap cigarette. If you’re going to have a vice, make it a good one,” Wraithbane said and eased his weight against the enamel oven, watching me with soft, bright eyes. Whatever he was smoking was taking the edge off the withdrawal pain. It made me feel better to know that, but perhaps I shouldn’t call it a cigarette. Or was it one? I didn’t want to admit not knowing, so I stayed quiet and just enjoyed being with him.
I loved this side of him, the side that smiled and joked and flirted. I loved it because I knew the other side, the serious, gruff man who was not above underhanded techniques and blunt force. Odd, I’d thought that I’d be angry with him for not coming clean about the past lives earlier, but instead I understood. I’d needed stability, and he’d done his best to provide it.
He said, “I did this backwards. Should have brought out the wine now instead of earlier.”
I said, “You know, this side of you isn’t so different after all. Putting your hands where they don’t belong, bossing others around, shoving if they don’t give over fast enough.”
He laughed, echoing a merry challenge in his smile. “I am what I am, and you haven’t lost your knack.”
“My knack for what?”
“So, what, I magically see what’s wrong with a person and bam, I fix them?”
“Not so easily as that.”
Wraithbane shrugged. “You’re as ruthless in defeating a hex as I am in defeating an enemy. You’ll use whatever resources are available to meet those ends. Rites, rituals, beliefs, lies, truths, herbs, tools, medicines.”
And Bliss, whispered a guilty part of me. I cleared my throat. “What’s a hex, then? A curse?”
Or a black shard embedded in the heart?
Wraithbane said, “Could be. It’s a broad term, covers all sorts of ailments. Physical, spiritual, physiological. The root cause varies.”
I nodded. This made sense with Dreamweaver’s book and what I knew of her past. “Is that why Thaimon wanted me, then? To find a way to make him not a wraith?”
“Perhaps. And it’s time I told you the full reason why I hunt him in particular.” Wraithbane curled a lip and puffed a bit of smoke before continuing, “Prior to working for the Kettle, I was making a good living doing private security. My last client had been a rich man but he was terrified that someone was going to kill him on a certain night. He hired me about two weeks in advance of this date as last-minute security to add to his present forces. I lived in the mansion with his family along with the rest of the force. Everyone had two sets of keyfobs which opened inner and outer doors, there was a metal detector prior to entering his office. All staff had two forms of identification checked should they leave and attempt to re-enter the premises. Supposedly the building had been designed to withstand a small bomb. This is only the start. I can’t go into the less-common security measures. I thought he was paranoid, but you don’t say that to someone who thinks they ‘may get by’ on a six-figure income if the market crashes.
“A week prior to the date, the client stockpiled food and put the building into complete lockdown. No one allowed inside, no one allowed outside. In theory there was not even internet or phone access, but his teenagers found a way around that. Between what they told their friends and what the cook told the maid, I pieced the story together.
“Twenty-seven years prior, my client had been in debt and recently unemployed. At the bottom of a bottle of tequila, he met Thaimon who asked what the client would give to obtain all his earthly desires. They made a bargain, Thaimon withdrew a little blue appointment book, and they set a date for payment. Understandably, my client did not believe that Thaimon had any supernatural powers, so he thought that he was simply wishing rather than signing a contract. Upon hearing the tale, I was not convinced of the so-called Wishmonger, either.” Wraithbane’s lips curled in contempt. “My first mistake. But nevermind that.
“My client, over the following years acquired all that he had desired. After every piece of good news, he received an invoice. ‘One position in corporate headquarters, delivered on this date,’ and the date was the time of his good fortune. Or, ‘the love of your life seen today.’ As the invoices continued, my client became concerned that he could not now stop payment. Then came the note, ‘The day comes six weeks hence.’”
I shook my head. “That’s creepy if nothing else.”
Wraithbane nodded. “One day, Thaimon rang the front bell. The door was not opened to him after a couple of minutes, so he rang again. This time the chief of security spoke over intercom to tell him to leave. Thaimon knocked the third time and when it still was not opened for him, he just put his hand flat to the door and it opened by itself.”
“Unlocking spell?” I guessed.
“At the time, I’d thought that he’d hired a hacker. But, yes. Unlocking spell. The initial guards attempted to remove him without lethal force. Thaimon was quick to disable them, which I attributed to martial arts talents. Not an entirely wrong assumption, certainly what he wanted any observers to believe.
“At the next floor, people started to shoot at him. The closer he came to dying the less human he looked until he walked right up to a terrified guard and killed her. That was when the wraith came out. Taking a life gives him that person’s strength. And the strength doesn’t last long. A few hours at most. But I didn’t know that when I came face to face with him.”
Wraithbane smiled, revealing the whites of his teeth like he was remembering that stupid thing he did last Saturday. “Thaimon didn’t outright kill me. I can’t be positive why. You’ve seen how he fights, how after killing he becomes part shadow and he moves so fast. No mercy. When he fought me, I did not fear him. It was exciting to have an opponent so unusual. I’d gone through my life seeking a fight—not for the triumph but for the challenge.”
“Wait,” I said. “Do you have a record?”
“No, I’m smarter than that.”
“And you lack confidence,” Wraithbane said without heat or noticeable anger. “Back to our main point, Thaimon posed a challenge no man had ever posed to me before. He was something hard to physically hit, he moved bizarrely, and he knew how to fight. I suppose that I did him harm when the others hadn’t, but he got behind me and I wasn’t fast enough. He knocked me hard enough it was all I could do to breathe. I saw him open the doors to my client’s study. My client was slumped over his desk, dying of the cyanide tablet he’d taken. To this day I still do not know if Thaimon kills his victims before he takes their soul. What I do know is that Thaimon covered the man’s mouth and took something. I don’t know what he did with it.”
“He eats it,” I whispered.
Wraithbane scowled at the thought and continued, “When he saw me still awake, Thaimon grabbed a chair and sat in it facing me. I thought he was going to torment me, but he called me by name.
“ ‘Nicholas. I thought you were familiar. I know you from before. A very long time before. You swore to kill me. I think it is time you did so. I’m weary of existing and you’re the first shadow-walker I’ve found in five years. If you don’t kill me soon, I will find ways to make you want me obliterated from the face of this realm. I will do all I can to end it. Believe me.’ And over the years, he’s carried through on his promise. Given me plenty of reasons to pursue him. Now here we are. He wants to be stopped, and he can’t do it on his own.”
“We’ll find a way,” I said, though I wasn’t so certain. Killing or curing Thaimon could take a lifetime. Or rather, another one.
“I know. But not tonight. You’ve kept me awake long enough.” He certainly looked exhausted now.
Guilt nibbled away at me. I paused in front of Carriger’s Blockade. “I should go, then. If that’s all you want to tell me.”
“For now.” Wraithbane touched the blockade; it fanned out and dissipated like a spray of water.
At the front door, he leaned against the banister. I thought he was going to say something more, yet he didn’t. Heat rose in my cheeks at the way he watched me. Tentatively, I stepped close, hoping that I hadn’t misinterpreted his thoughts.
He curled his arm around my hips, brought my body flush against his, and his lips brushed over mine. That small contact weakened my knees and I was all too aware of his finger drawing idle circles on the bare skin of my lower back, passing over thin bandages and outlining the big ones. This was one of those storybook moments, all dreamy, rose-tinted perfection which so seldom happened in real life. We took our time kissing, but my back started to ache. He noticed and released me.
I felt breathless with pleasure. Any one of these things by themselves—the wine, the smoke, the sheer proximity—could have made my heart skip, my head light, and my body enliven, but only the triple-dose could have kept me relaxed enough to relish the experience.
He spoke over my lips, “You can stay if you’d like.”
My heart quickened. “What for?”
“To be with me.”
“Just being. If you want anything more, it’ll have to wait until morning.” He disentangled himself, fighting a yawn. “I’m going to bed. There’s room for you. If you like to cuddle.”
I blushed furiously. “I…”
“The offer’s there.” He climbed the stairs slowly. I didn’t know if it was because he was tired, or if he was giving me time to follow.
The doorknob grew warm in my hand. Kayla would throw a fit if I wasn’t home. I opened the door and felt a twinge. It was the same feeling I got whenever I left a house for the last time, but this time the usual bit of relief didn’t come. Regret did.
I was being a pawn.
I wasn’t inherently a pawn, it was a mindset. Choosing what to do was what differentiated a pawn from a queen. A pawn is moved. A queen moves any way she wants. Cold spring air tickled my skin, carrying the faint scent of the purple and silver passionflower vine blooming through the night.
I was no pawn.
I was fearless, indomitable, with eyes violent as water and deep as the sky, a spirit which burned through the darkness seeping in through the Veil.
Decision made, I closed the door, went upstairs, and slid into Wraithbane’s arms.
It’s all balanced on the blade of a knife, and I will illuminate the world.
If you enjoyed this episode, and I hope you did, please show your support by leaving a review, recommending my name to a friend, or picking up one of my other stories. You can also [+ Subscribe to My Newsletter+]. I’ll let you know whenever something exciting is happening like a new book, podcast, or audiobook.
I write, doodle, and look at the world in a different way. I’ve lived near Nevada’s backwoods brothels, Utah’s lakes, Montana’s wilderness, and in Idaho’s high-elevation desert. In Leicester, I experienced the world of curry and the Golden Mile. In Yorkshire, I’ve walked the wolds, stood in awe of the destruction WWII brought Hull, and been to the Beverley horse races. Where I’ve lived has shaped me and my view on how I see the world and humans in general.
Blissed is the scandalous lovechild of thriller, horror, fantasy, romance, and things I don’t want my parents to know I’ve written. The format—deciding to go with episodes instead of chapters—comes about because it’s somewhere between a short story and a chapter. Each episode by itself forms a whole story, but they contribute towards a larger overarching story as well.
Barring extenuating circumstances, there will be one new Blissed episode every other week. Plans are in the making for a podcast, too, so stick around if you want to hear the accent that makes everyone ask where I’m from.
See you later,
When Brandy Silver picks up her friend from a party, she doesn't expect to be forcibly drugged—or pursued by a demonic wraith. Now she's witness to a bliss den that the police pointedly ignore and, worse, the drug can be deadly. What she saw makes Brandy a target for a dangerous magical underworld and at the heart of a mystery no one else wants revealed. In a daze after a wraith-hunt gone terribly wrong, Brandy Silver faces one final attempt to silence her—life leeches. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Hex-Breaker is the ninth episode of Season 1 of the Blissed series. There are plans for 10 seasons, with about 10 episodes per season, each episode about 10,000 words long. To catch every episode, please sign up for my newsletter. Hope you enjoy Hex-Breaker. Nicolette