Tag Archives: Fantasy

Free Fiction Friday: The Ghost Must Go On

There’s no business like ghost business.

Locker thirty-five in Springside High School has always been haunted.

At least, as far as I know.

I press a hand against the cool metal, searching out the sensation that tells me an otherworldly presence is nearby. My business partner, Malcolm Armand, places his hand above mine. He stands so close that the pocket of air between us warms with the scent of nutmeg and Ivory Soap.

“Do you sense anything?” I ask, keeping my voice hushed in the long-emptied hallway.

It’s like we’re violating some rule, milling about the corridors long after everyone has left for the day. No teachers. No kids. Some places feel off when completely empty. A high school is one of them.

“There it is,” Malcolm says. “Do you feel that?”

Something stirs beneath my palm. It feels like a yawn. “I think we woke it up.”

“Man, I’ve met some lazy ghosts, but this one barely registers. I’m not sure it’s an actual ghost, never mind our culprit.”

“It’s not,” I say. “I only wanted to make sure.”

Truthfully, part of me wanted to check on an old friend. The ghost of locker thirty-five might not possess a sparkling personality, but it is consistent. I’m not sure there is a culprit, not in this case, and we’re in for a long night of walking the halls and checking bathrooms for a ghost that doesn’t exist.

“Does it ever do anything?” he asks.

“Only on pep rally days, then it”—I wave a hand at the locker—“expels everything onto the floor. It gets excited. I think.”

During my four years at Springside High, I never had locker thirty-five, although I’ve stepped over the mess its occupant made plenty of times.

“Performance anxiety?” Malcolm suggests. “I used to throw up before every cross country meet.”

I turn to him. The hallway is dark enough that reading the expression in his eyes is difficult, but this surprises me. Malcolm is always so confident, so self-assured. I’ve only known him a few months, but if you asked me, I’d say he had one of those charmed high school experiences.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah. Really.” He takes my hand. “Come on. Let’s tell Gregory he doesn’t have a ghost problem.”

His skin is so warm against mine. Technically, we’re working, which means, technically, we shouldn’t be holding hands. But the lines blur after five in the afternoon. Malcolm, my business partner, becomes Malcolm, my boyfriend. We have rules around this because, as co-owners of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists, we work so well together.

We don’t want K&M the couple ruining that.

But rules have exceptions. I think holding hands with Malcolm while walking the halls of my old high school happens to be one of those.

“What do we tell Gregory instead?” Malcolm asks.

“That it’s most likely kids playing a practical joke on him? I mean, I’m sure they’ve all seen the Ghost B Gone webcasts. They’re still up on YouTube.”

Before Gregory took on a substitute-teaching job and volunteered to direct the school play, he was Gregory B Gone of Ghost B Gone, a web show that did weekly ghost evictions.

Granted, the most dangerous thing they ever “evicted” was a sprite—well, almost. There was that encounter with an evil entity, but that never ended up on video. It’s not something any of us like to talk about.

“He wants more than anything to see a real ghost,” Malcolm says.

Oh, he does. He really does. That Gregory built an entire career and life around something he couldn’t see, never mind sense, still puzzles me.

“This plays right into that,” Malcolm adds.

I’m sure this is something the entire cast and crew of You Can’t Take It with You have figured out. So when we arrive at the auditorium doors to find Gregory out front, expression lit with anticipation, I take the easy way out.

“You tell him,” I whisper to Malcolm.

Unfortunately, Gregory hears.

“Tell me what? You found something, didn’t you? I was right this time! Tell me I was right.”

Malcolm skewers me with a look. “Coward,” he mouths.

Why, yes. Yes, I am. Besides, of the two of us, Malcolm is the one who can work a room, talk to anyone, convince the only law firm in town that they need us on retainer. (You’d be surprised how many divorce lawyers end up haunted.) He can handle Gregory.

Me? Well, I make the coffee.

Malcolm shakes his head. It’s a slow, consoling sort of gesture. “You know, Katy and I were talking, and we think it’s probably a practical joke your students are playing on you.”

“We open in less than a week.” Gregory throws an arm toward the auditorium’s double doors. “Why would they do that?”

“Because they can. Because they’re high school kids.” Malcolm shrugs. “Maybe they want to see Ghost B Gone in action.”

Gregory strokes his beard. It’s closer to a goatee now, more award-winning director than rugged ghost hunter.

“So the flickering lights with no one in the booth?” he asks.

“A timer,” Malcolm says. “That’s pretty easy to rig up. I can even show you how.”

“What about all the thumps and bumps?”

“Special effects?” I say. “I mean, you guys are in a theater. You have that sort of thing, right?”

“The malfunctioning curtain?” Gregory tries again. “That couldn’t be caused by a student, could it? The whole thing came crashing down. Someone could’ve been hurt, and the kids were shook. I let them go early.”

And that was when he called us. I want to suggest that the kids took things too far, so of course, they were scared. I cast a glance at Malcolm and see the same conclusion reflected in his eyes.

“And nothing since, right?” Malcolm says. “Things don’t happen when you’re here alone.”

“I feel like I’m being watched.” Gregory rubs a hand across the back of his neck and shudders. “It’s kind of creepy, actually.”

I decline to point out the overabundance of security cameras in the school.

Gregory pushes open the auditorium door and secures it with a stopper. He waves toward the stage and the curtain pooled at its edge. “So all of this? Just a practical joke?”

We head down the aisle to where we’ve left our field kit. I open my mouth to speak, to frame my response in the nicest way possible when an otherworldly presence invades the space. It’s insidious at first, like a fine mist you don’t notice until your clothes cling to your limbs and your hair is plastered to your scalp.

Gregory remains despondent, arms crossed, expression dour. His sense of the supernatural is nearly nonexistent. But Malcolm’s isn’t. I reach for his hand and find him doing the same. We lace fingers just as a jolt runs through me, cold, wild, and wholly unpredictable.

Then an unearthly howl fills the entire auditorium, one that we all hear—even Gregory.

* * *

Behind us, the auditorium doors slam shut. The lights flicker. An icy surge of air flows up the aisle, bathing us in goosebumps. The presence swirls around us, pushing us into one of the rows.

“Coffee?” Malcolm asks.

“Down front, in the field kit.”

“We’re about to go into a full-on ghost infestation here,” he says, his voice taking on an edge.

I know, and the cold that comes with that will render the coffee we do have useless. We’ll have to backtrack, get the camp stove, or figure out a way to brew on the premises. Assuming this thing will let us leave. The way it’s shoving us into our seats makes that unlikely.

The ghost pushes again. I’m braced against Malcolm. He holds me steady, but his arms tremble with the effort. Gregory, on the other hand, lands hard in one of the seats. When he tries to stand, he’s shoved back down again.

All ghosts want something, are driven by one overriding desire. Often this is nothing more than to feel human again, which is why coffee works so well to catch them. But some ghosts have an agenda. This one has enough strength that I’m not certain a cup of coffee will distract it long enough so we can trap it.

Assuming, of course, we can reach the field kit and the set of precision-made German thermoses filled with Kona blend.

With us pinned in the theater’s prime viewing spots, the ghost retreats to the stage. It flows over the fallen curtain, the material undulating, and lets out another howl. The lights flicker again until a single spotlight shines on center stage.

“Katy?” Malcolm stares straight ahead. His voice is low, perfectly measured. “Do you think this ghost wants to star in a play?”

“A ghost could want that?” Gregory asks.

A ghost could. Not so long ago, Malcolm and I caught a ghost that wanted nothing more than constant attention and praise. Why shouldn’t a ghost want to star in a show?

“You’re brilliant,” I whisper to Malcolm.

“Eh, not really.”

But I catch a hint of a smile.

I clutch the seat in front of me and pull myself to standing. An icy cold finger shoves me backward, but Malcolm steadies me with a hand on the small of my back. 

“I don’t have a program,” I declare. “I want to know who the star of the show is.”

The neat stacks of programs by the door shoot upward. The space erupts in a flurry of paper. I duck, hands covering my head, but the sting of paper slicing skin is sharp. Malcolm swears. The cyclone of torn scraps tightens until it has swallowed up every last program. Then, like a cloudburst, the whole thing explodes, and bits of paper rain down on us.

Next to me, Gregory turns ashen. He stares, mouth slack, and then he buries his head in his hands.

“Those were the programs for opening night.”

“Sorry?” I say, but it comes out small, pathetic, and useless.

Malcolm leans down to pluck a wayward program from the floor. He flattens the paper against his thigh. I read the list of names and realize my mistake.

Of course. The program is filled with student names, the actual performers in the play. No ghost included.

But then, neither are we. Well, Gregory is, as director. With that thought, an idea takes shape. I’m still standing—barely, but I straighten and call out.

“Malcolm, haven’t you always wanted to work in the light booth, but no one would let you?”

Gregory casts me a look like I’ve lost my mind. To Malcolm’s credit, he merely grins, those dark eyes of his taking on a gleam. He almost always knows what I’m thinking—and trusts me even when he doesn’t.

“Yeah,” he says, “there was this clique at school, the theater group. I never got the chance.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a stagehand.” My voice doesn’t ring quite as false now. There’s something about talking nonsense to ghosts—and especially talking nonsense to ghosts with Malcolm—that inspires confidence. Besides, as a stagehand, I can approach the stage.

And then, I can grab the field kit and start pouring coffee.

“We have our director,” I say, easing past Gregory.

He peers at me through the v made by his fingers. The look is both accusatory and curious. “We have our tech crew.” I nod at Malcolm, who starts creeping along the row in the opposite direction.

I throw my arms wide. “And we have our star!”

The stage shimmers with the ghostly presence. Then the image contracts into an almost humanlike form. I squint, trying to detect something familiar about its shape, something that might give us a clue to what this ghost wants. Its outline is blurry, but I get the impression of an otherworldly sword in a scabbard at its side.

There must be thousands of plays that involve swords, but my mind goes blank. I can’t think of a single one.

I approach cautiously, each step deliberate. I inch forward, crouching lower and lower with each step. By the time I reach the first row, I’m hunkered down, next to the floor. I loop the canvas straps around one arm and hurry toward the stairs to my left.

Center stage, there’s a table already set up. It’s the perfect spot to place the cups and start pouring the coffee. For a ghost this strong, we’ll need all twelve cups: three black, three with half and half, three with sugar, and three extra sweet and extra light.

Always twelve, always the same combination. My grandmother, who taught me everything about ghost hunting, was adamant about this.

“As if ghosts don’t have a preference,” she’d always say.

I’m halfway there when I need to shield my eyes from the glare of the spotlight.

“Hang on,” Malcolm says. His voice echoes in the quiet auditorium, and it’s odd to have him sound so close without having him by my side.

I miss his sturdy warmth, his conviction. He either knows what to do or believes I know what I’m doing. In most cases, I’m running on instinct—this time included.

The brightness fades to something softer, an evening sort of glow. I blink, scan the stage, and locate the ghost. It’s wavering as if it can’t decide whether it likes me interfering with its show.

“Katy,” Gregory calls out in a stage whisper. “There’s a scene in You Can’t Take It with You where Alice and her father have an emotional moment. It’s just the two characters on stage. Maybe that’s what this thing wants, to act out a scene.”

I shake my head, not because he’s wrong, but because he’s so very right. And I know what comes next. My heart takes up residence in my throat. I can barely swallow and must force the protest from my mouth. “I don’t know the play.”

Gregory rummages in his messenger bag and pulls out a script. “I’ll feed you the lines.”

I meant to be a stagehand, to pour some coffee, ready a Tupperware container, and pounce on the ghost once it drank its fill. I have no intention of starring in a play, not with a ghost as a leading man, not even if the audience is only Malcolm and Gregory. Heat floods my cheeks, the sensation prickling. Even in the soft glow of the stage lighting, my blush must be apparent.

So must my discomfort, my awkwardness. Suddenly, I don’t know what to do with my limbs.

“Just repeat the lines and pour the coffee,” Malcolm says, his voice low, encouraging. “I bet that’s all it takes.”

So I do. Gregory feeds me each line. I stumble through the words. My hands shake, and I slosh coffee over the rim of three cups. I’m never this sloppy, haven’t been this sloppy since I was eight.

At the scene’s end, I’m supposed to embrace my father—or rather, my character is supposed to embrace her father. The ghost continues to waver by my side. Once or twice, it surged forward, swooped around the coffee cups, and then retreated.

The coffee’s starting the cool. It won’t tempt ghosts—or humans—for much longer. The ghost makes a final pass. As I’m reaching for the Tupperware, it settles next to the cup with extra cream and sugar.

“Yes.” Malcolm’s whisper fills the auditorium.

I’m poised to make the catch when the ghost slips beneath the table. All at once, the table leaves the floor, shooting upward. Cups scatter everywhere, and coffee splatters across the stage, onto the curtain, and—of course—onto me.

* * *

“Katy!”

Malcolm’s voice is so loud that the speakers screech a protest. I slam my hands over my ears, not that it helps.

“Katy,” he says, quieter now. “Are you okay? Did you get scalded?”

Scalding is an occupational hazard. I pluck damp sleeves from my arms, blow on the back of my hands. A few spots sting, but nothing requires immediate attention or the burn kit we keep in my truck.

“I’m okay. The coffee was already cool.”

Well, cool-ish, anyway.

“You’re sure?” Doubt laces Malcolm’s voice. Yes, he knows I might lie about something like this.

“I’m sure. Really.”

I peer into the rows below me. Gregory is standing, arms slack, script dangling from his fingers. He mouths something that might be a curse or a prayer.

“Maybe it doesn’t like comedies?” I say.

To be honest, part of me is relieved. I don’t want to stumble through more lines or playact on stage. I want to catch this ghost, go home, and wash the sticky, coffee-soaked sugar from my skin. I have the feeling that won’t be happening any time soon.

Despite the spotlight’s glare, I see the moment Gregory’s eyes widen. His mouth opens, but it’s Malcolm’s voice I hear.

“Katy! Watch out! To your left … right. Just—”

The creak of wheels against wooden floorboards has me jerking around. Barreling toward me is a structure that appears positively medieval—a battering ram or some elaborate device for scaling castle walls.

I leap back as the thing zooms past. It stops, abruptly, a few feet from where I now stand. Dust mingles with the scent of coffee, and I feel grit in my eyes and against my lips.

I sneeze.

“Oh,” Gregory says, almost conversationally. “It’s the balcony.”

“Balcony?” I squeak.

“From last fall’s Romeo and Juliet.”

Of course.

From nowhere, a script lands at my feet with a thump. I pick it up before the puddles of coffee can do too much damage. I’m not surprised by the playwright’s name.

William Shakespeare.

“Maybe it wants to do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet,” Gregory suggests.

The ghost whirls around, its joy tangible. It fills the air with sparks; the underlying menace, the threat of a full-on ghost infestation lessens—slightly.

The ghost flies upward and smashes itself against the glass of the sound booth. Malcolm yelps, and his cry reverberates through the theater.

“Mood lighting, tech crew,” Gregory says, sounding every inch the put-upon director. “We can’t keep our star waiting.”

The ghost returns to the stage the moment the lights dim, and Malcolm paints the area around me a deep indigo. Tiny fragments of light speckle the floor beneath my feet, the backdrop behind me, and I want to ask him how he figured out how to create starlight.

“Uh, Katy?” Gregory says.

I turn to face him, arms crossed over my chest.

“The scene needs a Juliet,” he says. When I don’t respond, he adds, “That’s you.”

He’s right. The way this ghost swirls about, bumping against the back of my knees, I can already sense what it wants—me, on the balcony, waiting for my Romeo.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to do a role reversal?” I say to it.

The whirling doubles, flavoring the air with anger—and more dust.

“Yeah,” I mutter, “I didn’t think so.”

The balcony is oversized, cumbersome. Its shadow stretches across the stage, and I feel tiny in comparison.

“Secure the wheels,” Gregory calls out. “We don’t want you rolling off the stage.”

No, no, we don’t.

With the toe of my sneaker, I lock each wheel into place. Then I grip the rails that will help me navigate the set of stairs to the top. The climb takes longer than I expect, and my thighs protest each steep step I take.

Once I’m at the top, I grip the balcony’s edge and peer out over the auditorium. Even though I’m fully dressed—if coffee-soaked—even though it’s only Malcolm and Gregory witnessing this debacle, I feel exposed. I feel … alone.

I feel like I’m back in high school, back when I was the girl who caught ghosts with her grandmother, the girl who made numerous trips into the boys’ locker room to do just that.

The girl who was always the odd one out.

“You’re Juliet. Look … pensive,” Gregory commands, still in director mode. He’s scrolling frantically through something on his phone. He eyes me, and then his phone’s screen. “I’ll read Romeo.”

He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, his full, modulated tone startles me so much that I nearly tip off the balcony.

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Damn,” comes Malcolm’s whisper through the speakers. “I need to learn to do that.”

The ghost surges upward as if it’s Romeo, and I’m truly its Juliet.

Gregory continues to speak, low and sonorous, things like: O, it is my love! and O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!

Malcolm coughs, once, twice, the third time coming out as a growl. Gregory casts him a quick look over his shoulder. Whatever passes between them is lost on me.

I’m still leaning forward as if I’m hanging onto every one of my ghost Romeo’s words. The planks beneath my feet creak. I tap the wood, not certain the construction is all that sturdy. I grip the rail of the balcony even tighter.

I’m so distracted by this that when Gregory clears his throat, for what must be at least the third time, I start.

“What?” I say.

“Not what, wherefore.”

Wherefore? Oh. Wherefore art thou. Of course.

“Romeo,” I begin, and my voice is a thin, reedy thing. “Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

At least I know these lines, but then, I think everyone knows these lines. I’m poised to continue, to utter the next couple of sentences, at least. The next line is there on my tongue, so strong I can almost taste it: Deny thy father and refuse thy name, for if thou wilt not but be sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Before I can, the planks beneath my feet groan again. The sound is ominous and fills the auditorium.

“Katy,” Malcolm begins, his voice hushed and worried. “Maybe you should—”

I never hear what Malcolm thinks I should do. I plummet through the balcony floor, the only thing keeping me from falling to my death—or at least grave injury—is my grip on the balcony’s rail.

I think I scream. At least, my throat aches in the aftermath of my plunge. One plank hits the stage with a thud, the other swings next to me, barely tethered to the structure by a couple of nails. At least, I think they’re nails. I’m mostly concentrating on my tenuous hold on the rail, not to mention the long drop below.

And the fact I don’t have too many options.

Gregory starts for the stage, but before he can clear the row he’s been standing in, Malcolm tears down the aisle. He doesn’t bother with the stairs but launches himself up and onto the stage.

And then he is there, standing beneath me, arms outstretched.

“Cross country?” I manage. 

“And track in the spring.”

“Varsity?”

He gives me a sheepish look. “Co-captain my senior year.”

Around us, the scene is still set. The light is soft, like twilight. Malcolm looks every inch a knight in shining armor—or at least one in loafers and a pressed dress shirt. He looks like a boy I might have crushed on in high school, the one who might have never acknowledge my existence.

That isn’t Malcolm. If I have any doubts about that, they vanish the moment he gives me one of his sweet, dark-roast smiles.

“Let go,” is all he says.

“But—”

“Let go.”

“Won’t I hurt you?”

“You could never hurt me.”

Sweat builds beneath my grip. My arms ache from fingertips to shoulders. Another minute and this won’t be a choice. I’ll slip.

“And I won’t drop you, Katy.”

So I shut my eyes, and with one deliberate movement, I commit.

I let go.

The fall lasts forever and is over in a second. Malcolm catches me. He teeters for a moment, then we both crumple to the stage. We remain there, panting, gasping, and when I catch his eye, I don’t even need to ask.

He’s okay.

So am I.

“Uh, guys,” Gregory says. “You should probably do something about that.”

We struggle to stand, Malcolm tugging me up with a hand, and confront the thing that Gregory is pointing at.

Center stage, one of my Tupperware containers sits. It’s one of the larger ones, and it’s missing its lid. That, in itself, isn’t so remarkable. What’s remarkable is what happens to be inside the container.

Our ghost.

Malcolm laces his fingers with mine, and we approach, steps soft and controlled. But I’m not sure the effort matters. When we reach the ghost, it floats contently inside the Tupperware. Something that sounds like a ghostly sigh fills the space around us, and in it, I think I hear an apology.

I kneel next to the container and ease on the lid.

“Now what?” Malcolm’s hand rests on my shoulder. “Nature preserve?”

That’s our standard procedure for releasing a ghost once we’ve caught it. For the really nasty ones, we drive further out. Once, we went all the way to Wisconsin.

I hold up the container and peer at the ghost inside. “Actually, I have another idea.”

* * *

We hold hands all the way to locker thirty-five. The fact that it’s dark and the halls are empty doesn’t bother me on this trip. We stand in front of the locker, Tupperware positioned at the vents. My fingers are on the lid, although I haven’t cracked it.

“You sure about this?” Malcolm asks.

“Not totally,” I admit. “But I think this one just wants to belong … somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is here?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“We can always come back.” I rap the side of the Tupperware with my knuckles. “If this one doesn’t behave.”

Inside the container, the ghost swirls its agreement. At least, I think it agrees with me. With ghosts, you never can tell. I crack the lid.

The ghost streams through the vent. I place my palm against the locker, and Malcolm adds his above mine.

“Verdict?” he asks.

There’s a bit of nudging, some jockeying for space, but then nothing but warmth.

“I think it belongs here,” I say.

“I think you’re right.”

Malcolm takes my hand again. When we reach the doors to the school, his arm wraps around my waist.

And I think: Yes.

 I belong here.

That’s right! Another Coffee & Ghosts story, this time a standalone short story that I wrote a few years back.

Hey, it’s October, we all need some more ghosts (and coffee).

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Ghost in the Coffee Machine

For October it’s ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night.

When it comes to ghosts, my grandmother has one solution: brew a pot of coffee. Like today, in Sadie Lancaster’s kitchen.

Sadie clutches her hands beneath her chin and stares at our percolator, her eyes huge. The thing gurgles and hisses as if it resents being pressed into service. My own reflection in its side is distorted. When I was younger, I thought this was how ghosts see our world.

In places with bad infestations, they swirl around the percolator. I can reach out, touch hot moist air with one hand and the icy patch of dry with the other. One time, a ghost slipped inside. It rattled around until the percolator sprang from the table and hit the floor, splashing scalding water everywhere.

I still wear the scars of that across my shins.

But Sadie’s ghosts are barely ghosts at all. I’d call them sprites. They might annoy you on the way to the bathroom at three a.m., but little more. They also, as my grandmother points out, help pay the bills. So I remain silent while she pours the coffee: three cups black, three cups with sugar, three cups with cream, and three cups extra light and extra sweet. Twelve cups. Always. If anyone complains, my grandmother snorts and says, “As if no one has a preference once they’ve died.”

Don’t get her started on instant coffee, either. Since I was five, my job involves carrying the cups throughout the house, up and down stairs, into bedrooms, dining alcoves, walk-in closets. We never skip the bathroom, no matter what.

“The last place you’d want a ghost,” my grandmother says to Sadie. “Lecherous little beasts.”

I walk past the two women, my steps slow and steady. I still burn myself, make no mistake. My hands wear the scars of multiple scaldings. We keep a burn kit in the truck. But as I place the last cup on the edge of the sink, I smile. At least I won’t need that today. I rush back to the kitchen for the Tupperware.

Some ghost catchers use glass jars, but ghosts confined to small spaces can manifest images—grotesque or obscene or both. Ghosts, generally speaking, are pissed off and rude, which is why you don’t want one in your toilet. We buy the containers with the opaque sides, since what you can’t see won’t offend you. I use several at Sadie’s that afternoon, although truthfully, I only snag three little sprites in the den.

“She’s imagining things,” I whisper to my grandmother.

“Yes.” Her hand steadies my shoulder. “But how many repeat customers do we get?”

She has a point. We’re good. When we’re really in the zone—the right type of coffee beans, perfect brewing temperature, clean catches—a house might stay ghost-free for decades. If we’re not careful, there won’t be any ghosts left to catch.

With the sprites in the back of our pickup, we rumble down the county road that leads out of town and into endless fields of corn and soybean. Ten miles out, there’s a windbreak with a little creek. This is where we’ll set the sprites free. They’ll be, if not happy, content at least, and in no hurry to find other humans to haunt. I’m setting the sprites free—legs braced, container at arm’s length—when my grandmother speaks.

“When I’m gone, Katy-girl, I’ll come back and show you how to rid them once and for all.”

I sigh. I’ve heard this before. “But then I’d be getting rid of you.”

“You wouldn’t like me as a ghost. Besides, they don’t belong on this plane. This has been my life’s work.” She touches three fingers to her heart. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be my afterlife’s work as well.”

She always says this. I always tell her she’ll live a good long time. Then we drive home, empty containers rattling against the flatbed, percolator perched between us, belted in, our third—and quite possibly most important—passenger.

* * *

That was three months ago. If my grandmother raged against the dying of the light, it didn’t show in her expression the following morning when I found her. She left me her house, the family business, and of course, the dented, silver percolator. I have yet to see a hint of my grandmother’s ghost. I’m not sure I want to.

The house is quiet without her in it. Even the ghosts have stayed away. I shake the canister of roasted beans, give it a sniff, certain I’ll need to dump it and buy fresh within a matter of days.

Sadie Lancaster calls as the first cascade of beans hits the garbage sack. I decide on those fresh beans now, and instead of running next door, I jump into my truck and head for the Coffee Depot.

Ten minutes later, I pull up in front of Sadie’s house, but I don’t find her cowering on the porch (her usual position pre-eradication). Percolator under one arm, I ring the bell.

“Oh, Katy,” she says, urging me inside. She beams like she has a secret. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

This is it. My grandmother has chosen Sadie’s house as the spot for her grand reappearance and that’s why Sadie isn’t scared. My steps quicken, heart fluttering something crazy. Do I want to see my grandmother like this? I’ve never been afraid of ghosts, but this is different.

The aroma hits me first—rich, aromatic, turmeric, saffron, and a hint of rose petal. Sun glints off the sides of a samovar squatting in the center of the kitchen table, in the very place I always set the percolator. I clutch the thing to my chest as if that can protect us from its flashy usurper on the table. The samovar is gold-plated brass—I squint at it—in the Persian style instead of Russian.

“Katy,” Sadie says, throwing her arms wide, “I want you to meet Malcolm Armand. He catches ghosts with tea the way you do with coffee.” Her fingers twitch as if she’s urging us closer together. I stand my ground. “You two have so much in common,” she adds.

Malcolm runs a hand over smooth, dark hair. His white dress shirt gleams in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows. I’m in torn jeans and a T-shirt. Why anyone would attempt ghost catching in something so fancy is beyond me. Even so? I can’t help but feel grubby in comparison.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he says, extending that same hand, one without a single blemish or scar.

I fight the urge to whip my own hands behind my back, out of sight. I gulp a breath and shake his hand, breaking contact the second it’s polite (okay, maybe a couple of seconds before it’s polite). I try not to stare too hard at Malcolm, so I let my gaze travel the kitchen, the dining alcove. No ghosts here. I’d be surprised to find even the weakest sprite. And certainly, my grandmother isn’t in residence.

That leaves me alone with Malcolm—and the tea-scented suspicion about where all my business is going.

* * *

When I walk into Springside Long-term Care, the first thing I see is Malcolm standing in the center of the common area, enchanting all the residents, the gold-plated samovar glowing on a side table next to him. I freeze, so every time the automatic doors try to close, they bounce back open again. This draws attention. I sigh, give up my plan to sneak out, and step forward to meet the facility manager.

“Oh, Katy,” she says, a flush rising up her neck, “I meant to call, so you wouldn’t make the trip out here.” She waves a hand at Malcolm. “He offered a “try before you buy” and well … the residents just love him.”

Or at least most of the female ones do. They gather around Malcolm and his shiny, shiny samovar, their oohs and ahhs mixing with the scented steam.

I don’t point out that Springside is—and always has been—a gratis account. Older people, my grandmother always said, are haunted by many things. It’s only right that we chase some of their ghosts away.

I’m backing toward the door, willing myself not to inhale a hint of rose petal and saffron, when a bony hand grips my wrist. The percolator crashes to the floor, adding one more dent to its history.

“Katy-girl, are you going to let him get away with that?” Mr. Carlotta nearly growls the words. He may hold the world’s record for longest unrequited crush, in his case, on my grandmother. Even now, sorrow lines his eyes. His fingers tremble against my wrist.

“What can I do?” I wave my free hand toward Malcolm. “He’s so flashy.”

“More like a flash in the pan. Mark my words.”

A part of me grabs onto what Mr. Carlotta says. Be patient. Business will pick up the second it’s clear you can’t catch ghosts with tea. Because honestly, who ever heard of that? My practical side—the side that pays the property taxes and utility bills—wonders if the local coffee shop is hiring.

* * *

I trace the scars on the backs of my hands while waiting for the Coffee Depot’s assistant manager. My qualifications are thin. I know ghost hunting and how to brew a damn good cup of coffee. But customer service? Well, when you ghost hunt, people don’t mind if you shove them out of the way, not if you trap the otherworldly thing shaking their house to the foundation.

At the Coffee Depot? They probably frown on customer shoving. Still, the converted train station is quaint and life as a barista can’t be that bad, can it?

The assistant manager plops down across from me. He wipes fake sweat from his brow and gives me a grin.

“So,” he says. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

“I make the best damn coffee you’ve ever tasted.” I declare this because I’ve read online that you should be confident in your interview.

He chuckles but doesn’t sound amused. “I’m sure you do. But tell me,” and now, the amusement is back, “what about frothing milk?”

I like cappuccino, even if frothing milk is something I’ve never done. Likewise, I’m sure there are many fine answers to his question. I do not choose any of them.

Instead, I say, “Why would you want to do that?” It’s like I’m possessed by the spirit of my grandmother, since in that moment, I sound just like her.

“Right,” he says. He clears his throat, then gives me a long look. “I’ll take that challenge. Go make me the best damn cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted.”

So I do. I stand, and with his nod, round the counter so I’m on the other side. My fingers barely brush the silver, industrial sized coffee machine when it starts to tremble. The thing wheezes. The tile beneath my feet shudders, sending a shockwave that resonates from toes to jaw. Next to me, the barista’s teeth clack together, and she pitches toward the cash register, clinging to it. Then, the machine erupts, spewing water and coffee grounds with so much force, they coat the ceiling, the walls, and all of the tables.

* * *

I offer to clean up. I offer to rid their machine of its ghost—for free. Everyone is damp, but since the water was only lukewarm, no one was scalded. This is why the assistant manager pushes me out of the store instead of calling the police.

As the door closes, his voice echoes behind me. “Yes, do you have the number for Malcolm Armand …?”

Something won’t let me leave the sidewalk in front of the shop. My feet remain rooted there, next to the planters with the sugar maples. I stand there so long it’s a wonder I don’t sprout leaves. But since I do stand there so long, I’m treated to the view of Malcolm Armand double parking and springing from his two-seater. In the passenger seat, belted in like a trophy girlfriend, sits the samovar.

“That’s not very practical,” I say.

He halts in his trek up the walk, samovar held away from me. “What?”

“Where do you put the ghosts? I mean, once you capture them.” I point at the convertible. “There’s no room.”

He eyes me, my coffee-soaked shirt, stained slacks, and all. He sniffs, nose wrinkling, and tromps into the shop without another look in my direction. I turn, uproot my feet, and inch toward the front window.

Inside is the mess I made, but I ignore that. What I want to see is how Malcolm works, what he does, how he entices the ghosts. I stare so long, the sun dries the back of my shirt. I study the inside of the shop, the placement of the samovar, and track Malcolm’s every move until the assistant manager jerks a cord and Venetian blinds block my view.

Whatever grips me about the shop—the ghost or Malcolm—loosens its hold. Dismissed, I trudge home, leaving a set of coffee-colored footprints in my wake.

* * *

“K-k-aty? Are you there?”

The call comes at nine in the morning, on a day so sunny and bright, only the most dedicated pessimist could remain that way. Since I have all my overdue bills spread out on the dining room table, I’m well on my way to joining their ranks.

“Sadie?” It sounds like her, but I’ve never heard her voice so shaky.

“Please hurry.”

“What’s going on? Where are you?”

“My porch. They won’t let me inside.”

“Who won’t?”

“The ghosts.”

“Why don’t you call Malcolm?” The question comes out sharp, laced with acid and jealousy.

“He’s t-trapped inside.”

“Trapped?”

“Dead?” Sadie’s voice hitches.

“Ghosts don’t …” Kill. No, normally ghosts don’t. But they can. “I’ll be right over.”

The second I pull the half and half from the fridge and give it a good whiff, I realize right over isn’t happening. I toss the reeking carton into the garbage and head to the canister with the beans. A few lone ones rattle in the bottom. I haven’t been back to the Coffee Depot since my disastrous interview, but it looks like I’ll be stopping there today.

With the percolator strapped in its seat, a four-pound bag of sugar snug against it, and several containers of half and half on the truck’s floor, I run two red lights on my way to the Coffee Depot. By the time the little bell above the door stops jingling, the assistant manager is rounding the counter. He stalks forward, arms loaded down with bags of coffee beans. He skids to a halt and shoves the beans at me.

“But—” I begin.

He holds up a cell phone. On the screen, a message reads:

Malcolm: Give her anything she wants.

Still uncertain, I blink at the words. In my arms, I hold everything I want, or at least need. For now. I head for the door.

“Call or text if you need a resupply,” the assistant manager shouts after me. “I’ll have someone run it over.”

The door whooshes closed before I can say thanks.

* * *

I test out the front door, the garage, even the window to the bathroom. Every surface I touch ices my fingertips. Sadie Lancaster’s house is in full-on ghost infestation. Usually something like this takes years to build up, or a sudden invasion of strong ghosts—a group of them. True, I haven’t cleared the sprites in a month or so, but that can’t be the cause of this.

My gaze travels the structure, from chimney to foundation. All the windows are black, the cheery blue paint molting into a dead gray. I need to get inside. I need to do that now. So I do the most logical thing. I march up the porch steps, press my palm against the doorbell, and let it ring for an entire minute. Then I cross my arms over my chest and tap my foot.

“Nobody’s getting any coffee if someone doesn’t open up this door.” I sound bossy, just like my grandmother. I kind of like it.

A moment later, the door creaks on its hinges. I scoop up the percolator and my bag of supplies and race for the kitchen.

“Malcolm?” I call out. “Are you okay?”

Is he even here? Maybe he went out the back once the ghosts released their hold on the doors. I plug in the percolator and take a few deep breaths so I don’t rush the preparations. Ghosts this strong will need the best coffee I can brew.

I survey the beans the assistant manager shoved at me. One hundred percent Kona? Really? Shame to waste that on ghosts. But the air prickles the skin on my arms. It must be fifty degrees in here and getting colder. One hundred percent Kona might not do the trick if I don’t hurry.

“Katy?” A voice rasps.

For a second, I mistake it for a ghost.

“Katy?”

No. Too deep, too human for that.

“Malcolm?”

“In the dining room.”

I set the percolator to brew and run. On the threshold, I trip over something bulky and sail through the air. I land hard, but manage to tuck and roll. When I stop, the blown out end of a gold-plated samovar fills my view, the brass twisted into vicious curlicues.

A groan comes from the threshold. Malcolm props himself up on one elbow, his cell phone clutched in one hand, his shirt, torn and tea-stained.

“What happened?” I say.

“It just … blew. I was adding in a sprite when—”

“Wait. You’ve been storing all the ghosts.” I heft the samovar, careful of the edges. “In here?”

He nods.

“You don’t release them?”

“Never have.” He shakes his head, eyes downcast. “Honestly? I don’t know how.”

This sad, honest confession tugs at me. We don’t have time, however, to go over the finer points of ghost hunting.

“Can you stand?” I ask. “Walk?”

“I think so.”

“Then you can help.”

In the kitchen, I pour the twelve cups. Malcolm adds the half and half and sugar. His hands are steady, and he stirs each cup without spilling a single drop. My grandmother would approve.

From there, we divide and conquer, carrying the cups to various spots in the house.

“Be sure to put one in the master bath,” I call from the living room. “There’s bound to be one in there.”

“It won’t let me in,” he says a moment later.

Oh, really? Nasty little bugger. Ghosts and their toilet humor.

At the door to the bathroom, I ease the cup of coffee from Malcolm’s hands then kick on the door. It flies open with all the strength of the supernatural behind it.

Malcolm places a hand on my arm. “I don’t think—”

“It’ll be okay.” I hear it for the lie it is, and so must Malcolm, but he lets me go.

I close the door and place the coffee on the vanity. That icy patch of air flutters past, swirls into the steam, and revels in it. Oh, it is having the best time—at everyone’s expense, too. Before I can trap it beneath some Tupperware, that same feeling from the coffee shop washes over me. This is the ghost in the coffee machine. This is … my grandmother.

The realization makes me drop the container. Malcolm pounds on the door, but I ignore him.

“Grandma?”

Now, the ghost swoops around me, a frigid caress against my cheek.

“What are you doing? I thought—”

Something that sounds like hush fills the air. Whatever her mission, it’s not for me to question.

“I love you,” I say. “And I miss you.”

I pick up the container and my grandmother flows inside, compliantly. I secure the lid and hug the Tupperware to my chest. During her life, my grandmother was right about most everything. But here’s where she was wrong:

I do like her as a ghost.

* * *

We drive out to the nature preserve, a good thirty miles from town. In a deserted campsite, I demonstrate how to open containers and set ghosts free. I even let Malcolm release a few. (Only the sprites, but you have to start somewhere.)

“Will they come back?” he asks.

“The strong ones can, but most choose to stay here, or find an old barn to haunt. Something’s got to scare all those Scouts on camping trips, right?”

Malcolm studies the backs of his hands. The beautiful olive skin is pink from scalding.

“You should put something on that,” I say. “Before it scars.”

“A little scarring never hurt anyone. I’m sorry for a lot of things.” He raises his hands. “But not for this.”

I nod and he gives me a piercing look that I swear could scar—if I let it.

“You know something,” he says, “I think this will work.”

“What will?”

“You and me. I’m all sizzle, and you’re the steak.”

“I’m a vegetarian.”

He throws his head back and laughs. And while I have no clue what he means, I can’t help but like the sound of his laughter.

* * *

I let my fingers trace the gold lettering on the window—for the tenth time in as many minutes. I can’t help it, can hardly believe the words are real.

K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists

In the store window, the gold-plated brass samovar sits, backside hidden in midnight velvet. Somehow, Malcolm talked the bank manager into a small business loan. Somehow, we’re on retainer with the only law office and investment firm in town. Somehow, my worry about bills and property taxes has evaporated.

Malcolm still wears the scars from what we call the day of the ghosts. He boasts a few fresh ones as well. So do I. We take a new, electric samovar with us when we go out on a call. Because even I must admit: some ghosts prefer tea. Sometimes I feel that particular presence and an icy caress along my cheek. Sometimes I say things that make Malcolm throw his head back and laugh.

What I don’t tell Malcolm: I do it on purpose.

What I don’t tell my grandmother: I know what her afterlife’s mission really is.

And I love her for it.

You knew I had to include some Coffee & Ghosts for October, right? Right? The story that kicked off what might be the world’s most niche series. Ghost in the Coffee Machine was first published in Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic.

It was subsequently produced in audio by The Drabblecast (with sound effects!).

And, of course, the entire series is in audio, narrated by the incomparable Amy McFadden. Check it out on your favorite audio store, or from my store on Authors Direct (for a deep discount).

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Filed under Coffee & Ghosts, Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Dragon’s End

Sometimes the end is just the beginning.

The knock on my door comes before sunrise. Three quick raps that sound sharp and official. When I answer and see Mayor Simos on my stoop, the words sharp and official sear my thoughts.

“It’s time,” she says.

Her face is creased from sleep and the weight of her office. A breeze rustles loose strands of her hair, wisps escaping the coronet braids.

I want to ask time for what, but her expression is cold and foreboding. I know I don’t want the answer.

“Bring your tools,” she adds, and then, almost as an afterthought, “and the book.”

Ah, yes. The book. A simple word that answers all my questions.

I know where it is, of course, locked in the trunk at the foot of my bed. The key, heavy cast iron, weighs down the cord looped around my neck. The cast iron flashes cold, then hot, against my skin.

I’m not certain I remember how to insert the key into the lock, not certain I can lift the lid. I haven’t done so since my grandmother passed the book to me before she passed on herself.

“Miri,” the mayor prompts, and she is all sharp edges with a razor-like gaze.

“Yes, sorry. Just a minute.”

I don’t invite her in. Instead, I shut the door against the protest that’s forming on her lips. I sag against the wood. There are few privileges to being me, but this is one of them.

The trunk at the foot of my bed is ancient and solid. The wood is reinforced with iron bands, the lock larger than both my fists. The key slips into the lock easier than I think it should. The tumblers click with far more assurance than I feel.

When I lift the lid, a fine layer of dust bursts into the air, filling my mouth, grit stinging my eyes. My nose twitches, but I hold in the sneeze.

I stare at the inside of the trunk, at the items I thought I’d never need to use. The saw with its serrated edge. The plane and the awl. The long, elegant pick with the hook at its tip. I pack these into a canvas bag. Next comes the book.

No one has touched it since my grandmother wrapped it in linen and placed it here. The trunk itself hasn’t moved in decades. I now sleep in the bed she slept in, the bed she died in.

The second my fingertips brush the linen, I’m afraid the soft material will crumble in my hands. The book must remain wrapped, at least for the trip to the caves. After that? Well, after that, I guess we’ll see what’s inside.

I open the door on Mayor Simos, her fist poised to knock. The reprimand is sharp in her eyes until her gaze lands on the bundle in my arms.

Even Mayor Simos respects the book.

The sun casts a glow on the horizon. There’s enough light to paint the sky indigo. And enough that I can see the playground where the village children gallop and run with the hatchlings, the earth bare and packed from feet, claws, and the swish and thump of tails.

When I was younger, I sat far back from the playground, up in the tree that shades the house my grandmother—and now I—live in. With my belly flush against a thick branch, my arms wrapped tight, I’d watch, envy fizzing inside me.

I wanted a hatchling of my own. I wanted to be chosen.

I am, of course. Chosen, that is. The book in my arms is proof of that. But I would never choose this path for myself. I would never choose it for anyone else, either.

Mayor Simos leads the way. Her coat, trimmed with gold braid, sways as we trudge toward the foothills north of the village. Cottages give way to pastures until we reach the foothills. The sun crests the horizon. Its warmth touches the back of my neck, almost like it’s urging me forward.

Tendrils of smoke issue from the caves. These caves, the ones closest to the village, are not our destination. This is where the hatchlings sleep. Their gentle snoring makes me think of puppies dozing by the fire. Somewhere, deep down, that envy fizzes once again.

Mayor Simos casts a glare over her shoulder as if my longing is both tangible and unseemly. I will my expression to remain placid, and we continue our trek up the mountain.

The snoring grows deeper, more sonorous the farther up we go. The cave openings are larger. If you were to wander inside, you might be lost for days—or forever. It would all depend on the humor of the occupant.

At last, we reach the final cave on this branch of the path. Dragon’s End, we call it. Nothing but blackness pours from the entrance. Worse is the silence. I strain my ears, hoping for a muted snore, but hear nothing.

“How long?” I ask.

“Five days, we think,” Mayor Simos says. “It’s hard to tell. They don’t need much in their retirement, so the shepherds seldom visit more than once a week.”

I nod as if this is vital information I can use. It isn’t. I have no idea what will greet me when I enter the cave.

We stand at the entrance for so long it becomes clear that Mayor Simos is waiting on something. Profound words? A dismissal? I don’t know. But there is one thing I’m sure of.

I go in alone.

I turn to do just that, but the mayor takes my arm.

“Miri, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It may have been more than five days.”

“Has no one come around to check?”

I see the answer in her gaze. No, no one has, perhaps not for a very long time.

Instead of envy, anger bursts to life inside me. How could no one check? You could send a child of five up the slope. It isn’t dangerous. They care for our own in the way we do their hatchlings. They would never harm a child.

I clutch the book to my chest, the linen rustling in my hands.

“I’m sorry,” Mayor Simos says again. “I should’ve sent someone around. I simply didn’t think…”

I shake my head and shake away her apology. Maybe it’s her fault. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure it matters. No one in living memory has performed this task. Even my grandmother was a small girl when her own grandmother told her of the last dragon tended to in this manner. That tale has been lost over time. No one knows, for certain, what happened.

This is not supposed to be happening. I was never meant to take this trek up the path. I was supposed to live my quiet life. At some point, I’d give birth to a girl, who in time, would birth one of her own. I would pass the tools and the book onto my granddaughter. This undertaking is one that skips a generation.

Dragons live for such a long time. Chances of any of them needing our services are inestimably small. None of us ever thinks we’ll be the one to journey up the mountain, enter a dark and foreboding cave, crack open the book, and read the words inside.

After that? Here’s where the oral instructions become vague. My grandmother wouldn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—tell me.

I go in alone. Without Mayor Simos. Without any counsel. Without any hope of coming out again.

I draw in a breath. The sun has touched the valley below us. If I listen hard, the delicate snoring of the hatchlings fills my ears. I step forward, the cool air of the cave washing over me. Before I can dive in, before I can fully commit, Mayor Simos touches my arm.

“The book,” she says.

Ah, yes. The book. I consider it now, still clutched against my chest.

“In a week,” I say. “Send someone in for it. A child would be best.”

Her grip on my arm tightens.

“They would never harm a child,” I add. No matter what mess is left in my wake, this mountain possesses enough residual enchantment for a child to navigate into and back out of the cave. “A hatchling, perhaps, could go with them.”

Her grasp lessens, but I still feel her fingers against my skin. I don’t know what else she can tell me, but I want to enter the cave before she delivers any additional bad news.

So I wrench free, my arm and then sleeve slipping from her hold. I dive into the cave, committing fully. This is one rule I know, the one rule my grandmother insisted I follow.

Once past the threshold, do not hesitate.

* * *

But I do. I halt several steps inside the cave. Behind me, the entrance is barely a flicker of light. Before me? The cave splits in two, no four, no six directions.

“Which do I choose?” I say these words aloud as if there’s something else in the cave with me, something sentient and far cleverer than I am.

Nothing answers my plea except for the echo of my own voice, tiny and forlorn. I peer down each tunnel, but nothing distinguishes one from the other. Perhaps they all lead to where I need to go. Perhaps that’s why there’s no need to hesitate.

I pick the fourth tunnel, simply because I like the number four, and stride forward. The moment I do, a rumbling sounds behind me.

Rocks tumble and slide down the sides of the cave. I dash forward, pebbles and stones chasing after me. The walls of the cave shake. The earthen floor trembles, my feet skidding on the unstable surface. At last, a final boulder fills the path and blocks the entrance completely.

Yes. Of course. Do not hesitate.

I take quick, shallow breaths in the dust-laden air. The taste of earth fills my mouth. My heart thunders, much like the rocks and stones did. I wait until the dust and my breathing settle.

I peer toward the entrance. “How will they retrieve the book now?” I’m not sure who—or what—I’m asking. The rocks that block the path? Whatever force sent them tumbling in the first place?

As if in answer, a hint of sulfur rides the air.

“I guess that’s their problem, not mine.”

A rumble reaches me. I want to say it sounds like a laugh or, at the very least, a snort. More likely, the rocks are merely settling.

It’s not dark. At least, not as dark as it should be. A thin sliver of light emanates from the depths of the mountain. I’ve already hesitated enough.

I follow the only path open to me.

* * *

The strap of my canvas sack bites into the flesh of my shoulder. My arms ache from clutching the book. My fingers cramp from where I’ve gripped the sides. I can feel the hours I’ve trekked in my legs. My mouth is parched.

The muted light guides me. It’s barely there, this sliver of illumination. I don’t question it. To question it is to lose it, and I can ill afford to lose this one small advantage.

I have no provisions, didn’t think to bring any. Slowly, over the past hours, my anger at the shepherds has simmered into sympathy. How do you care for something can’t find?

And if I can’t find the dragon? What then?

The thought makes me stumble. I reach out a hand, my aim the cave wall, or really anything to keep me from falling, breaking an arm—or worse, a leg. The moment my fingers brush against the cave’s surface, a golden glow fills the space.

I remain there, palm flush with the cave wall, the stone cool beneath my touch. The glow around me, however? That looks warm and inviting. My eyes adjust, and I step closer to inspect the source.

Embedded in the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are coins, layer after layer of them. Gold and silver shine forth. The coin of our realm, yes, that’s expected, but it’s more than that. I trace my fingers along the bumps and edges, trying to discern the languages written there. They are either from places too far away or too long ago for me to recognize.

I continue forward.

Other hues join the gold and silver of the coins, the walls now studded with gems—rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Some fall as I pass, as if the slight breeze from my movements is enough to dislodge them from their perch in the cave wall.

I wonder at this. Did the shepherds never wander this deep into the cave? A single gem could keep a family fed for generations. Certainly, the dragons allow this sort of barter—a small token in exchange for care.

A wave of dizziness strikes me. The air is, perhaps, a bit thin back here. Still, it would be worth the journey, even without the lure of riches. I don’t understand why no one has ventured this far into the cave. I would gladly tend to a dragon, were I to have one.

Gladly.

The dizziness crashes over me again, forcing me to my knees. Before me, the path is pristine. Behind me, my footsteps are sharp outlines in the dust. No one has been this way for ages. My chest tightens until pain radiates along my breastbone. I’m not truly dizzy. I’m not deprived of air. This is something else, something that’s simmered and fizzed for a long time.

All I ever wanted was a hatchling of my own.

What I have now is someone’s loyal and neglected companion, a creature who, while not dead, is not that far away from death.

Dragons can be killed, certainly. In battle. With the sharp edge of a sword angled just so or with boulders flung with catapults. But they can’t die naturally, not as humans do. As part of our alliance, we offer them this one, final service.

It falls to one family, generation after generation. This family is forbidden any other contact with dragons, from hatchlings to elders. It’s said to contaminate the pact. Often we’re never called upon to complete this final task.

Until we are.

Like today.

* * *

I find my breath. A few moments later, I muster the strength to stand and for the journey still ahead of me. The cave glows blood-red now from the gemstones in the walls. Perhaps this is intentional, meant as a warning, and my pulse beats in my throat.

I round a bend in the cave. And there, just like that—blocking my way forward—is a dragon. Its girth at midsection blocks my view of its tail and the cave beyond. I can only assume there’s a cave beyond, at any rate. Perhaps the cave ends here, and the dragon, grown so vast in old age, can no longer crawl free.

The claws on its forelimbs shine like mother of pearl. Its eyes are closed, mouth as well. If the creature breathes, I cannot detect it. Perhaps someone—a shepherd, maybe—has already done my job.

But there is no stench of death, of decay. The cave is dry, the air scented with a strange mix of brimstone and pine. It is not unpleasant.

I ease the canvas sack from my shoulder. The tools jangle, and I freeze, afraid the noise will wake the dragon.

It doesn’t move.

I place the book, still in its linen wrap, on the floor as well.

I don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the answers are in the book. That’s why it’s been passed down from generation to generation, cared for, but never read. I’ve never even been tempted before. I only ever wanted a dragon, never to kill one.

With careful fingers, I unwrap the linen. The leather cover is worn, the gold embossed title barely legible. I turn to the first page and find …

Nothing.

I flip to another page, and then another. I tear through the book, unconcerned with its age or condition. Nothing but yellowed parchment greets me. No words, not even barely legible ones in faded ink. All the pages are blank. At last, I stand and shake the book, hoping for a loose page or a note or something to flutter to the cave floor.

“I don’t understand.”

I whisper the words. They swirl in the space around me, their echo soft yet insistent before the sensation of being scrutinized washes over me.

I glance up and find myself staring into the golden eye of an ancient dragon.

* * *

Everything I thought I knew about my task has vanished. I’m to take my tools, the book. I am to perform what amounts to last rites for an ancient dragon. It will be in such a deep sleep that the steps I must perform to end its life won’t disturb it. This, my grandmother assured me.

Now that ancient dragon is gazing at me. A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils. Again, that odor of brimstone and pine surrounds me. I can taste the smoke against my tongue. The book slips from my fingers and crashes to the cave floor.

“I see they’ve sent me a child.”

The voice is deep and sonorous. It rolls through the space and shakes my bones.

“I’m no child.” My voice quavers, but the words come stronger than I expect. I lift my chin. “I live on my own,” I insist, as if this is proof of my maturation.

The dragon snorts a spurt of smoke. “Little more than a hatchling.”

“What am I to do?” I point to the book. “It doesn’t say.”

“Doesn’t it? Are you quite certain?”

Oh, spare me mind games with an ancient dragon. I’m ill-equipped for this sort of sparring. Besides, it must know even if I don’t. But it will no doubt make me work for that knowledge.

“Am I to kill you?” I see no reason not to be blunt.

“Are you? That seems rather rude. We’ve only just met, after all.”

“Then am I your…?” I trail off, a wholly different thought occurring to me.

“Sacrificial lamb, the morsel meant to appease me?” It tilts its head so both glowing yellow eyes can survey me, from the top of my head to the tips of my dusty boots. “You’re rather small for that.”

“Then, what am I?”

Its claws retract and then rake the earthen floor in front of me. “What you are, my child, is very much stuck.”

* * *

I very much am. Stuck, that is. Had the shepherds performed their assigned tasks, there would be provisions in here, a cistern of water at least.

“Why am I here?”

“Have you consulted your book?”

I spear it with a glare. Without water, I won’t live out the week. So I will be fierce in my dealings with the dragon.

The creature snorts another laugh. “Humans, always so inquisitive, and yet, so oddly obedient. Did it never occur to you to have a peek inside? Gird your loins for your one task in life?”

Well, no, it hadn’t. I spent my time gazing at the hatchlings. “I never wanted this.”

“Well, it seems to me you have it.” A sigh rumbles in its throat, dual streams of smoke rising from its nostrils. “A child, and an incurious one at that. What a disappointment.”

“At least it’s mutual.”

“Oh, perhaps this child has some fire, after all.”

The dragon looks not at me, but past me with so much concentration, I must resist the urge to glance over my shoulder. That’s what it wants, of course. But no one shares this space with us.

“We seem to have reached an impasse,” the dragon says. “You have no idea how to complete your task—”

“Do you?”

The dragon regards me with narrowed eyes before continuing. “It’s any guess who will succumb first. I will be reduced to some nether-slumber while you.” Once again, it surveys me from head to foot. “Will eventually shrivel up. Will I be conscious long enough to blow the dust of your bones from this spot? Who’s to say? Shall we place bets? Winner take all?”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest, a slow, painful sort of beat. Perhaps this is why elder dragons are banished to the upper caves. All I ever wanted was a hatchling, a dragon of my own. But this one? It’s an old, bitter, cruel thing, and I want nothing to do with it.

There’s no escaping its girth, but I find an outcropping of rocks on the side farthest from the dragon. I take my tools and the book.

Yes, even the book. The leather is soft enough, and so are the pages. It will make an adequate pillow. Perhaps that’s all it was ever meant to be.

“Ah, yes, and now the poor thing pouts.” Its words are a mere whisper, although clearly, it wants me to hear them. “I abhor tears,” the dragon adds, louder now. “So, if at all possible, refrain from crying.”

This last is the only thing we agree upon.

I comply.

* * *

In my dream, I am a warrior, a dragon as my mount. In my dream, we soar through the air, dodging arrows alight with flame. In my dream, the roar of battle shakes my bones.

My eyes fly open. The roar continues even as my dream fades. The world is dark, my bed like stone, nothing but the scent of brimstone and pine.

Then I remember.

The roaring grows ever louder. In the middle of the cave, the dragon thrashes its head. Its eyes are shut tight. It must be dreaming. The same sort of dream? Of battlefields and fire? Or is this something more, something worse?

It thrashes again. The agony in its cry races up my legs, my spine, settles at the base of my skull. I don’t think. I do not hesitate.

I rush forward, dodging its swinging head, nearly eclipsed by its jaw. I’ve never touched a dragon before. But from my perch in the tree, I’ve watched the village children do this so many times.

I leap and wrap my arms around the dragon’s neck. I hold on with all my strength even as my legs swing beneath me. One foot connects with the dragon’s chest, although I doubt it feels the impact.

“Shh.” I keep my voice low and soothing. There’s a trick to this, to the hushing of dragons. To say I have no training is true. But I listened; I practiced using that same tree branch. “Shh.”

Its head continues to swing, but slower now. My arms ache, but I clutch its neck, my feet scraping the cave floor.

“Evelynne … Evelynne.”

The cry rips through me. I’ve been so consumed with wanting a dragon of my own that I never considered what happens when the human a hatchling first bonds with is killed or dies.

How many humans does a dragon lose during its lifespan?

It could make you bitter. It could make you cruel. Perhaps this is why, at a dragon’s end, they are banished to the upper caves.

“Evelynne.”

The dragon’s swaying comes to an abrupt halt. I dangle from its neck. I cannot see its face, but I suspect those great golden eyes are now open.

I let go and drop to the cave floor.

It takes one look at me and then collapses as if its head is too heavy for its neck.

* * *

I am a bitter disappointment. The yellow gaze the dragon casts tells me that. I remain immobile on the cave floor, palms against the dusty surface.

“You should not know how to do that,” it says.

No, I shouldn’t.

“Lace your hands,” it commands.

So I do. True, it took years to learn the correct placement, of which finger goes where. Incorrect placement of fingers, of hands against a dragon’s neck will enrage rather than soothe. It’s a skill even those with hatchlings find difficult to perfect. Indeed, I had no idea if I was performing it correctly at all.

Until now.

“How do you come by this knowledge, child?” A fiery edge laces the dragon’s words, and its displeasure tastes like sulfur.

“My house overlooks the village playground.” My voice comes out steady and dull. “I would watch the hatchlings and the children. I would practice on a tree branch.”

“There’s more to it than that.” The dragon shakes its enormous head, its jaw whooshing mere feet above me. “There’s the bonding, the spellcasting. You should not … we should not.”

Because it’s forbidden, this contact. No thrill of fear courses through me, no regret. I would gladly calm this creature once again, given half a chance. I would gladly do it even if it meant my death. To prove it, I push to stand and anchor my hands on my hips.

Those great amber eyes blink, a shuttering of its gaze. When the dragon opens its eyes once again, something has shifted in its expression.

“What have they done to you, child?”

I shake my head, uncertain what it means.

“Why sequester the most talented humans like that?” The dragon murmurs the words, the question meant for its own pondering rather than for me.

Despite that, I decide on my own question. “Why do they banish the old ones to the caves?”

The dragon swings its head around so quickly that I’m nearly flattened against the floor. It regards me for a moment before speaking again.

“Forgive me, child.”

“Whatever for?”

“My temper, my rash judgment. Undoubtedly I’ve lived long enough not to give in to either.”

“Or maybe it’s because you have lived so long you gave into both.”

Something sparks in that golden gaze. Its lip curls, revealing sharp and gleaming teeth. “Yes. Precisely. Do you suppose they count on that?”

Do they? I glance back at the way I came. Even if I had strength and time on my side, digging through the debris would be impossible. I peer into the darkness behind the dragon’s girth.

“What is at the other end?” I ask.

“Other than my tail?”

“Yes.” I laugh because its tone is sly and full of humor. “Other than that.”

“A dead end, appropriately enough.”

I turn my gaze upward and follow the trajectory of the smoke that rises from the dragon’s nostrils.

“That is merely a thin layer of rock,” I say.

“Oh, my child, I am old.”

“So old as that? Truly?”

“My wings. I—”

The walls around us groan, and the dragon trembles with the effort to spread its wings.

“You see,” it adds. “I have tried.”

“But, they have given me tools.” I race to the alcove and weigh each tool in my palm, judging the merits of each. I return with the awl.

I hold it up so the dragon can see.

“Indeed,” it intones. “That was their mistake.”

The dragon lowers its head. A thousand times, I have seen the children and their hatchlings perform this maneuver. I step carefully, only lighting a foot on its forehead before settling between its horns.

Something washes over me, that scent of pine and brimstone again, along with something more—the feeling that I belong here.

The dragon raises its head, so my own nearly brushes the cave’s ceiling.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper.

With my first strike, dust rains down, followed by a stream of sunlight. It touches my cheeks and makes the dragon’s scales glow a fiery red. Its power, its strength, rushes through me.

This is why they confine the ancient ones to Dragon’s End. Or perhaps it’s why we’re both here. Together, we are something more, something powerful.

With a final chip at the thin crust, the earth that blocks the way out tumbles down.

“You’re free,” I say.

“No, my child, we are.” A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils, and this dragon reminds me of an old man with a pipe, contemplating a riddle. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a flying lesson, have you?”

“I don’t suppose I have.”

“But you’ve seen how it’s done.”

“A thousand times.”

“Then you should be adequate. But first things first. Go get the book.”

The book? I peer to where it still remains on the floor, leather cracked from where my cheek rested against the cover.

“Don’t you need to return it?”

The slyness in the dragon’s voice has me sliding down its neck, scooping up the book, and then returning to that spot of honor.

“I have no saddle,” it says, “and no reins. You’ll have to hold on.”

“I have years of practice.”

The dragon’s wings tremble and shake. Its hind legs quiver. With a mighty leap, it clears the edge of the cave and unfurls its wings.

“What is your name, child?” The question reaches not my ears, but my mind. Its thoughts touch mine, and the sensation is as intimate as a kiss.

“Miri.”

“I am Mercurial.”

“Of course you are.”

The dragon snorts a laugh and sends sparks into the air. “It is also my name.”

Mercurial swoops toward the village, wings shadowing the earth below. We are close enough now that I can see the chaos erupt on the playground. At the sight of Mercurial, a dozen hatchlings scamper and fling themselves in the air, wings beating furiously until they tumble and land once again. Their children race after them, laughing and crying out.

Work at the mill halts. The village elders emerge from what must have been a meeting, Mayor Simos among them.

“Now, my dear.”

I toss the book into the air. When it’s halfway to the ground, Mercurial shoots a stream of fire at it. The book lands at the mayor’s feet, flames chewing through the parchment.

“What a shame,” I say.

“Yes. All that knowledge, forever lost.” Mercurial circles the village a final time. “Where to, my sweet?”

“The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Dragon’s End.”

“Then hang on. We have the entire world before us.”

So I do. I entwine my arms around Mercurial’s neck. I don’t look back.

Not even once.

Dragon’s End was written specifically for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Miller’s Daughter

Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.

The part at the end, when I tear myself in half, is the worst. But it’s dramatic, and everyone seems to like it. Besides, I’ve perfected the move.

Mind you, I don’t actually tear myself in half. That would hurt. When I stomp my foot, much like a toddler, it opens a passageway to another forest, another miller’s daughter, another king intent on fortune.

I’m not sure why I slip through this passageway, only that I do. I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does. I leave one life for another, each familiar, but distinct. I’ve done this for so many years that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a life of my own.

The forest around me is still. I breathe in dry leaves. My limbs feel sluggish, my head even more so. When the sky stops spinning, I’ll need to bolt. I might already be too late. Right now, the hangman may be tightening the noose around the neck of the miller’s daughter. That’s happened more times than I care to count.

It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.

I inhale a steadying breath and push from the forest floor only to careen into the first oak I see. Its bark scrapes my cheek, but the thick trunk stops my fall. My head spins. I clutch the tree like a lovesick girl and wait.

When I merely see double, I head for the village.

From a farmer’s clothesline, I procure a shirt with flapping tails and a tattered overcoat. I jam an abandoned straw hat on my head. The oversized clothes make me appear old, shrunken.

As I leave, a billy goat bleats a reprimand at me.

Stalls line the village square with everything from rosy apples to funnel cakes sizzling in oil. Baskets bump my hips and arms as people hurry past. I can’t move. I am a hollow thing, starved, not just for food, but a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A real life.

When did it all change? When did I change? A curse, perhaps. Or I bargained with the wrong crone. Or perhaps I did nothing, and it’s simply my fate to watch life from the outside.

I shake myself—the miller’s daughter. I must find her.

The tavern. I always start my search there. Nine times out of ten, that’s where I’ll find her worthless father.

Sometimes he’s weeping, it’s true. Sometimes he isn’t even at the tavern, but at home, wringing his hands and concocting foolish rescue plans. Most of the time?

He’s drinking, on credit.

That’s where he is today, surrounded by ne’er-do-wells, a barmaid on his knee. But if he’s here, if he’s drinking, it means his daughter is confronting a room full of straw.

I must wait until dark. Even then, obstacles line my path: palace guards, winding corridors, and any number of locked doors.

But people are creatures of habit and convenience. I’ve crept inside countless castles, pried open dozens of locks, procured keys hanging from the same hook, in the same spot, in nearly identical guardrooms a hundred times over. Tonight is no exception, and I tie the keys to a bit of rope that I loop around my waist.

On the other hand, the miller’s daughter is unpredictable. Sometimes she’s crying. Sometimes she’s resigned or angry. Sometimes she’s both and refuses my help.

It’s better now that I obscure my face, hide my true form. Those first times? My appearance was so shocking that no amount of reasoning could calm her down. Guards poured into the room, followed by the king himself. And I found myself slipping through that passageway far earlier than I had planned.

So it’s with caution that I ease open the door. The miller’s daughter stands in the center of the room, eyes dry, gaze contemplating the truly mammoth pile of straw. This king must be extraordinarily greedy. When she catches sight of me, she nods as if she’s been expecting her supernatural helper—and I’m late.

“The king wants me to spin this straw into gold.” She casts an almost regal hand toward the towering pile.

“That’s quite a task,” I reply. “One I’m well suited for. I could help you.”

She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”

I execute a low bow. “But of course.”

She tugs a ring from her finger. “Will this do?”

I barely glance at it, because, yes, of course, it will. People are wary of getting something for nothing. I don’t need the ring, can’t take it with me when I travel to yet another miller’s daughter and her predicament, but it always makes this part go easier.

“Rest, my child,” I say, indicating a wool blanket in one corner. “You will wake to find this room filled with gold.”

The miller’s daughter lifts the hem of her skirt and retreats, settling in, her back to the room. She is unusually compliant. I pause, taste the air, breathe in the dry, scratchy scent of hay. The room is as it always is, and yet, I hesitate. But only for a moment. There’s no time to waste.

I return to the farm and lead the billy goat and several of his companions into the room filled with straw. No one ever questions an old peasant herding goats, not even in the middle of the night. I set them to work, and they’ll gladly eat their fill.

It’s not like I can spin straw into gold. That’s ridiculous.

The keys to the kingdom jangle at my side—quite literally—including those that unlock the royal coffers. Rarely do I find them empty.

The greedier the king, the more gold he already has.

This king’s treasure room glows. I pick my way through a maze of coins and jewels, of gold buried beneath more gold, a vast amount to last a hundred lifetimes. I unearth the ancient treasures, the acquisitions long forgotten.

It takes all night to lug enough gold to replace the straw. It always does. By morning, I’m covered in the ancestral greed and grime of this current king. As recompense, before I leave, I slip enough coins into my overcoat pocket to see me through the inevitable wedding and birth of the first child.

Predictably, I receive the necklace for my second night’s efforts, and by the third night, I’m floating with relief. It was so easy this time. All I need to do is extract the promise of her first-born, fill the room with gold, and take a well-deserved rest before my final performance.

I bound into the room, but skid to a stop at her outstretched hand.

“You’re not needed here,” she says.

“But…” I survey the mountain of straw that towers over us—bale upon bale stacked precariously until I’m certain the entire mound will tip over and crush us both.

“If I spin this straw into gold, the king says he’ll marry me, and if I don’t, he will kill me.”

“He’ll keep his word,” At least, he always has—so far. “He’ll marry you.”

“I would marry a man who has thrice threaten to execute me simply because I cannot perform the impossible?”

She shakes her head so hard, her glossy black braid comes undone. Her hair tumbles free. On reflex, I clutch the hat closer to my scalp.

“No, I don’t wish to marry such a man, not even to save my life.” She leans forward as if to peer at me. I shrink further into my coat. “You’ve been more than kind, but your services are no longer needed.”

Stunned, I open my mouth, but no words come out. I grope in my pockets and offer up the ring and the necklace.

“Those are yours,” she says. “They belong to you.”

I try all night long, but she won’t budge. With the first rays of dawn, I leave the room, my eyes prickly and raw from hay and sorrow.

I attend the execution. I owe her that. Upon the scaffold, in the village square, the hangman is shrouded; she is not. Her black braid glows in the morning light, and she surveys the gathering crowd with what looks like pity rather than fear, her eyes sharp and alert.

She scans each newcomer. At first, I think she’s searching for her father. When her gaze touches mine, the miller’s daughter smiles, and I realize she’s been looking for me. My stomach clenches, and I can’t glance away.

The hangman places the noose around her neck.

With her gaze still locked on mine, the miller’s daughter winks.

The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.

But she doesn’t hang. Her neck doesn’t snap. Beneath her, the cobblestones shimmer. The rope unravels, and she slips through an all too familiar passageway.

I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does.

The village square erupts in chaos, crying and wailing and shouts of witchcraft. My heart pounds so hard it fills my throat. I am frozen in place, hollowed out.

I remain there long after the crowd disperses, and the guards dismantle the scaffold. I stay for so long that the bustle returns, and the stalls reopen. Warm spice and the scent of ale dull the edges of my earlier terror.

It’s only then I pull the hat from my head. My braid tumbles to my shoulder, glossy and black, a mirror image of the miller’s daughter. I stare up at the space where the scaffolding stood.

Did she know from the start?

I brush my foot against the cobblestone. If I stamp hard enough, will I, too, vanish, leave as she did, as I’ve always done in the past?

I decide not to try.

Instead, I pull the ring and necklace from my pocket.

Those are yours. They belong to you.

It’s been ages since I felt the weight of the chain around my neck, but I secure it now and slip on the ring.

I am the miller’s daughter. I cast a glance over my shoulder toward the tavern but decide not to bother with this world’s version of my father.

After all, I have a pocketful of coin. The possibilities of what that might buy loom large: a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A life.

I turn toward the stall, the one with the funnel cakes sizzling in oil, and decide to start there.

Rumpelstiltskin is another one of those fairy tales that I think deserve a retelling (or two).

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Free Fiction Friday: The Troll in IT

Posey and Luke are back for a second adventure. Miss the first one? Head on over to Knight at the Royal Arms.

I lean across the guard desk as the glimmer settles in the lobby. The whisper of it raises hairs on the back of my neck. The guards’ faces relax in the muted glow.

All is quiet—except for some gentle snoring.

I stretch and switch off the cameras covering the loading dock and the ones in the stairwell. Then I catch a glimpse of myself at the guard desk. Yes, of course, it will be my face the police will scrutinize tomorrow morning.

Decorative plants cast shadows in the dim light, their leaves wavering in the breeze from the ventilation system. Chin lifted, I gauge the air. Now that the glimmer has fallen completely, I can taste the shadow creature that lives here. The space is full of that anticipation before a hunt and the promise of treasure at the end.

But is it a troll? I’m not convinced. I’m a damsel in distress, after all. I know trolls.

The sound of boots thudding pulls my attention to the large double doors that lead to the loading dock. One door creaks open as if the person on the other side doesn’t trust that I’ve cut the feed to the cameras.

Granted, all four of them are shadow trackers, like I am. The five of us together?

Well, we have trust issues.

In the center of the lobby, I stand, hands on hips. The rest of the team emerges with painfully slow steps. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. The glimmer only lasts for so long. We don’t have all night. Or rather, that’s all we have.

This office building houses not only a software company but also a law firm and a yoga studio on the mezzanine. The moment the sun crests the horizon, and the glimmer lifts, someone is bursting through the front doors. I don’t want to be around for that.

I tap a foot clad in a steel-toe boot and wait.

“All clear, Trombelle?” comes a voice from those double doors.

“Of course, it is.” My sigh echoes in the quiet of the lobby.

The leader of this little expedition is Parker Pankhurst. He’s a pain to deal with and has the bad habit of grabbing his share of the treasure and running. According to him, he’s turned over a new leaf. These days, he specializes in ridding places of malignant shadow creatures (trolls would be among those) for both a fee and any treasure found in their lair.

As business models go, it’s not a bad one.

“We don’t have to bring you along,” he says to me now.

That’s the thing. They do. Nothing happens without a damsel in distress to lure a shadow creature from its lair. True, we often end up bound, ankles and wrists, eyebrows singed. But if a creature has no reason to leave its lair, it won’t.

No unguarded lair? No treasure. It’s that simple.

Trust me, nothing’s venturing out for the likes of Parker Pankhurst.

“Stop being such a knave, Pankhurst.” A new voice joins the conversation, this of Luke Milner.

In truth, the criticism is a bit harsh. Parker Pankhurst is a knave; he can’t help his DNA the same way I can’t.

The same way Luke Milner, knight in shining armor, can’t.

It’s who we are and why we’re able to track the shadow creatures to begin with.

Pankhurst casts Luke a dour look before nodding to the stairwell. “Let’s go,” is all he says.

The IT department is on the third floor. Even so, I feel the climb in my thighs. I’m glad we’re not trekking all the way up to the executive suites. Although maybe we should. I’m still not convinced there’s a troll here.

On the other hand, a crafty sort of shadow creature—say, a dragon—would make its home on the top floor, where it would have a spectacular view, not to mention the run of the executive washrooms.

On the third floor, we emerge to a forest of cubicles. Pankhurst leads us through the rows, each turn taking us deeper into the maze. When we reach what looks like a collaboration area, he holds up a hand, and the rest of us halt.

“Here,” he says. “Here’s where we set the trap.”

Yes, and I’m the bait.

“Do you sense a troll?” I whisper to Luke. Maybe my instincts are off, and I’m simply not detecting it.

“Not at all,” he says.

“Then—?”

He shrugs. Luke is all angles and planes, chiseled good looks. Shrugging just makes him appear elegant.

“We should at least be able to smell it,” he adds.

“Trombelle, over here.” Pankhurst barks the order. Next to me, Luke bristles.

I comply since it puts me front and center, and I can make my case. Pankhurst takes me by the wrists and tugs me toward a whiteboard on wheels. He secures me to one of the supports before locking each wheel in place with a solid click.

“Do any of you smell a troll?” I say. “Because I don’t smell a troll.”

The other two in our party—a blacksmith and her apprentice—exchange glances.

“Trust me,” Pankhurst says. “It’s here.”

“We should be able to smell it,” I insist. “This place should reek.”

And reek so badly that even when the sunrise banishes the glimmer, the stench would linger. Just how badly? Take a pair of old sneakers, simmer them in dog pee, and toss in a couple of rotten eggs for good measure. Inhale deeply and multiply that by a thousand.

That’s a troll.

“I’ll level with you.” Pankhurst turns, addressing us all. “I got a tip from a reliable source. There’s a troll. It’s making its home back in the server rooms. That’s where the rest of us are headed.”

I’m less than reassured. Luke’s mouth is a grim line. The blacksmith blinks a couple of times, shakes her head, and then secures her long black hair into a ponytail. Her apprentice looks bedraggled. They could probably use their portion of the treasure.

“You okay with this, Posey?” Luke’s at my side, a hand on my bound wrists.

“I guess I have to be,” I say. “It’s what I do, right?”

He’s wearing a pink bandana tied around his upper arm, my token from our first outing together. Since then, we’ve partnered a couple of times. Typically, knights in shining armor are all too little, too late.

Not Luke. If anything, he’s too scrupulous.

“If things get … bad, I’ll double back and get you.”

I nod, and as much as I want to trust Luke, I’ve heard this promise from other knights far too many times before.

“But just in case.” He slips something cool and metallic into my hands and leaves me with a wink.

I’ll grant you that winking is in the knight in shining armor skill set. Still, I’m pretty sure Luke must practice endlessly in front of a mirror.

They head off, through the maze of cubicles. I wonder if rather than a troll, there’s a Minotaur hiding among all those twists and turns.

If so, we may all end up as a midnight snack.

* * *

Only when the scuffling of boots on carpet fades do I investigate the object in my hands. My thumbnail finds a metallic groove. There’s just enough give in the ropes around my wrists that I can spring open the pocketknife.

The barest hints of the workaday world hang in the air—burnt microwave popcorn and room-temperature lattes all mixed with starch and sweat. At least this isn’t my world. Sometimes it is better being a damsel in distress, the occasional singed eyebrows notwithstanding.

I get to work sawing my way through the rope. I don’t dare cut all the way through. The troll—or whatever shadow creature is here—will know. Never mind that they can’t tell steel-toed boots from dainty satin slippers or practical canvas pants from flowing gowns. They’ll know the second I’ve cut the last thread of rope.

And if they know, they won’t venture from their lair to investigate. Never mind no treasure, Luke and the others could end up as that midnight snack.

I can only imagine Parker Pankhurst’s wrath if I botch this hunt—and what it might do to my standing in the tracker community, and Luke’s as well. Not that I’d mention his part in this. Still, knaves have a way of finding things out.

So I saw at the rope and wait, saw and wait, holding my breath each time the knife slips in my fingers. When I notice the shift in the air, I can’t say. The glimmer glows brighter, enough to make the whiteboard shimmer behind me. A clattering comes from several rows away. It’s a light tap-tap-tap of a noise, almost joyful.

It’s certainly not the sound of a troll dragging its knuckles across industrial-grade carpet.

My heart kicks up a notch. I scan the workstations, but nothing looks out of place—just endless rows of chairs and monitors. There’s a rustling and then a decided chomp. All at once, something leaps from one cube to the next, clearing the five-foot-high wall with ease.

Then the creature—or whatever this thing is—bleats.

It sounds like it’s laughing, or more precisely, laughing at me.

This is no troll.

I don’t bother with the pocketknife. Instead, I yank my wrists apart and break the last threads of rope. I rub the tender, red marks around my wrists and consider my next move.

The bleating echoes down one of the many cubicle aisles.

I decide to follow.

* * *

The twists and turns are endless; truly, there can’t be so many employees in this company. I suspect a combination of the glimmer and the shadow creature itself. This is an illusion meant to throw me off its tracks.

I creep past cube after cube, taking each opening with caution because there’s always the chance that this creature is leading me into a trap.

In fact, I’d bet my share of the treasure that it is. Even so, I trail after it. Luke would advocate caution. I know he would. Again, blame my DNA. I’d rather run after a creature, get myself into a tight fix, take the chance that this time it won’t end in a damsel-in-distress grab and dash.

I reach the end of a row and halt. The space in front of me is so dark and vast that it resembles the opening of a cave.

The creature slips inside with a playful kick of its hind legs. There’s that clattering again, like the sound of something hard striking stone. Then nothing but a gentle thud, thud, thud.

I pause outside the entrance. Dark shapes loom from either side. The scent of burnt popcorn is stronger here, as is the aroma of charred coffee. Blinking lights come from one corner, and it’s then I know where I am.

It’s the kitchen break area for this floor, lit by the numbers on the microwave ovens.

The thump, thump, thump continues. The sound is headache-inducing. I wince and rub my temples.

The creature pauses in its relentless battering to let out a plaintive bleat.

Trap, I tell myself. This is just the sort of trap someone—or something—might set for a damsel in distress. But the crying is too real, the creature’s distress palpable.

I decide to take it by surprise. I leap into the kitchen area, pocketknife at the ready. I slap my free hand against the light switch and confront the creature.

There, by the garbage, a microwave popcorn bag in its mouth, is the world’s most adorable baby goat.

* * *

The baby goat drops the popcorn bag and lets out a tremendous bleat. I stash the pocketknife and then drop to my knees so we’re on the same level.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, my voice as soft as I can make it.

It stops bleating, but eyes me, the look in those strange, rectangular pupils wary and full of stranger danger.

“You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

It must, simply because, at the moment, my DNA is kicking in but hard. I want to give it a bath, tie a ribbon around its neck (although it would probably eat that), and give it lots of hugs and kisses. Or maybe pose it for some cute Instagram photos.

I’m a damsel in distress, after all.

It bleats again and bumps its head against the side of a cabinet.

“Do you need help?”

Now it jumps about, its little hooves clattering against the linoleum tile.

It has already amassed what amounts to a goatly treasure. The microwave popcorn bags, of course, but also a stack of paper to-go cups, a bag of Jolly Ranchers with only the grape ones left, and five greasy pizza boxes.

The cabinet it keeps bumping its head against?

The mother lode, also known as the kitchen garbage can.

The cabinet is one of those new models. The slightest pressure of your hand opens the door. As long as you press in the right spot—and not endlessly knock your head against its center.

I pull out first one and then another sack, both brimming with apple cores and grease-soaked paper towels. The plastic is translucent, and the baby goat dances with glee at the sight of Lean Cuisine packages and giant filters filled with soggy coffee grounds.

I knot the sacks so they won’t disgorge their contents all over the floor.

“Where to?” I ask the baby goat.

With a wag of its tail, it tippity-taps toward the entrance.

I swallow back a pang of guilt along with stale air and a hint of rancid butter. I’m not tricking it, not really. If there ever was a troll in IT, it’s long gone—as is its treasure.

Still, I’d like to know what this little fellow is up to.

Also? I really want to tie a bow around its neck.

* * *

We are deep in the bowels of the server room. My skin puckers from the chill, and my breath emerges in great clouds of fog. The baby goat leads the way, its hooves a light tapping on the elevated floor. I follow, the slosh and scrape of the garbage bags in my wake.

The glimmer is thicker here, like stardust. The air sparkles, but it’s a cold beauty. In all my years of tracking, I’ve never encountered a glimmer quite this strong.

A prickly sensation crawls up my spine. I glance over my shoulder, but if something’s spying on us, I can’t see it. I also can’t see my way back out of this forest of servers. It’s icy and dark, and the sort of spooky that makes me think of goblins, orcs, and especially trolls.

Not for the first time, I wonder who is playing the trick here.

If you were a goat and had a troll problem (as goats so often do), you might lure a damsel in distress into its lair as a way to appease it. Yes, this baby goat is adorable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a crafty little bastard.

And yes, I know. I didn’t just walk into this.

I volunteered.

Worse, I left Luke behind. He doesn’t know where I am. Then again, I have no idea where he and the rest of the group have gotten themselves to. The IT department isn’t as vast as all that, not normally anyway.

With the strength of this glimmer? That’s another matter. The glimmer can bend to a shadow creature’s will and create a world for it, one free of annoying trackers like Parker Pankhurst. There’s a good chance Luke, Pankhurst, and the others are wandering through the maze of cubicles no closer to the creature’s lair than when they first started.

The goat leads me around a final corner, and there, standing in the center of the space, a club raised in one meaty hand, stands a troll.

The garbage sacks slip from my grip and land with a splat on the floor. I choke back a scream on the off chance the troll hasn’t seen me yet. I’m about to dash back the way we came. There might be no end to the server room, but this particular spot is definitely a dead end.

I don’t move.

Neither does the troll.

We stand like that, both of us like stone until I realize that there’s a good chance one of us actually is stone.

The air is a bit ripe—all coffee grounds and barnyard—but not troll-level ripe. Nothing emerges from its mouth. No roar or howl or the truly strange obscenities trolls favor. I inch forward, the baby goat dancing about me, and swipe a finger along one bulging arm.

Stone—from its hairy toes all the way to its bald, wart-infested head.

“How did you do that?” I ask.

The goat springs and kicks its hind legs. It bleats what must be a tremendously funny story judging by the tone.

“So, there really was a troll in IT.”

“Indeed, there was.”

The voice freezes me in place. The baby goat halts its scampering and ducks its head as if it’s been caught skipping school.

A ponderous clacking sounds against the floor. The steps are serious, and I resist the urge to straighten my shirt and retie my bootlaces. From one of the rows of servers, a second goat emerges.

It’s wearing a pair of rimless glasses and a black turtleneck sweater. The goat gives me a brief once over before taking a knee and inclining its head.

“William Gruff the Third, at your service,” he says.

I bob a curtsey. “Posey Trombelle.”

“Posey?”

“Short for Poinsettia. I was—”

“A Christmas baby, no doubt.”

I raise an eyebrow. Usually, I have to explain my name. This is one clever goat.

William Gruff turns a disapproving eye on the baby goat at my side. “And you led her here?”

The baby goat bleats and stamps its hooves. Then it scampers around the overflowing sacks of garbage, both bags threatening to burst.

“It seems,” William Gruff says, turning back to me, “that in all our precautions, we overlooked damsels in distress.”

“Everybody always does.”

It’s all sorry about the goblins or what do you mean, you didn’t get your cut of the treasure.

“Now that you’re here, why don’t I show you around?” William Gruff nods toward a room shrouded by a glimmer so thick it looks like a curtain of golden beads.

Without recourse, I heft the garbage sacks and follow both goats inside.

* * *

“Here’s where the magic happens,” William Gruff announces.

And yes, he means that quite literally.

The space hums, not so much with industry, but the activity of a single goat working on a desktop computer. I’m not sure how, exactly, its hooves hit all the right keys, or any keys for that matter. Again, magic.

The baby goat bites open one of the garbage sacks and scurries to bring its compatriot a series of treats: an oily bag of microwave popcorn, the Jolly Ranchers, and a dripping filter filled with coffee grounds.

William Gruff chews a to-go cup contemplatively. “We need to keep our programmer happy after all.”

I count the goats once, twice, and a third time. Yes. There are only three of them. Of course there are. And they’re doing what, exactly?

“Are you running a … startup?”

William Gruff plucks a business card from nowhere and shoves it along the floor with a hoof.

Gruff Cyber Security
Industry Leader in Eradicating Trolls

Because of course they are.

Again, I peer at William Gruff, at the turtleneck, the glasses, the distinct tuft on his chin that could best be described as Jobsian.

“How—?” I begin.

“You’ve met our angel investor, I believe.”

The troll in IT. I can’t help it. I laugh. The baby goat bleats its approval. Even the second goat lifts its head in acknowledgment.

Then all hell breaks loose.

* * *

The claxon is zombie-movie loud and obnoxious. The glimmer around us shudders. William Gruff charges forward and crashes into me.

“Who did you lead in here?” he demands. “Who? Who? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Pankhurst?” I stumble backward under the onslaught. “Oh, no.”

William Gruff pauses, but I suspect that’s only to gather steam for another attack. “Yes or no? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Yes, it’s Pankhurst.” I raise my hands, hoping to ward off another jab from those mean-looking horns. “But I didn’t bring him here, not on purpose.”

But maybe he used me. Oh, no maybe about it. I’m the overlooked precaution, after all. And Parker Pankhurst—that knave—knew that all along.

“Didn’t you?” William Gruff swipes one hoof and then the other across the floor, gearing up for a colossal attack.

“He tied me up and left me for troll bait.” I hold out my hands and point to the faint red marks around each wrist.

William Gruff turns to the baby goat. “Is that true?”

The baby goat scampers about, bleating and stamping hooves in what sounds like a drawn-out explanation. Then it comes to stand by me. Oh, I love it so much. When this is over, I plan to bathe it, brush out its hair, and dress it in little outfits—with its consent, of course.

Pankhurst bursts through the glimmer. “Get them! Get all of them.” He whirls and points at me. “Get her! She’s conspiring with them.”

The blacksmith leaps onto a desk, but stops when her gaze lands first on the goat and then on me. Luke skids to a halt. The apprentice, wisely, chooses to hang back.

“Posey?” Luke’s brow clouds with confusion and what might be hurt. “What are you doing here?”

“There’s no troll, not anymore. There’s no treasure.” I want to explain about the startup and cyber security, but I can’t put it into words because I don’t have the whole story.

“They stole my treasure.” Pankhurst jabs a finger at William Gruff.

“You left us for dead.” William Gruff takes a ponderous step forward. “You tethered this little one in a conference room, left him with no chance of escape. We were nothing but bait to you.”

Pankhurst’s entire face turns red. “You lie.”

“And then you ran.” William Gruff looks serene, but there’s a terrible glint in those rectangular pupils. “We cleaned up your mess. We reaped the rewards.”

“You’d believe them.” Pankhurst gestures, a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the goats. “Over a human.”

No one speaks. The glimmer vibrates a warning. Daybreak is imminent. We’re all in trouble if we’re still here when the sun rises.

I glance down at the little goat at my feet. Its expression is both soulful and hopeful.

“Yes,” I say. “I would.”

Parker Pankhurst whirls then and charges not at William Gruff, but at me.

The baby goat leaps, one of those feats that can take him over those five-foot-high cubicle walls. But he’s so tiny and no match for the combined muscle and beer-gut girth of Parker Pankhurst.

Frantic, I race forward. I’m not fast enough; I’m not strong enough. The second before the collision, the baby goat is plucked from the air and cradled in the capable arms of Luke Milner, knight in shining armor.

He tucks, rolls, and deposits the baby goat safely beneath a desk. He springs to his feet, ready to take all comers. Instead of charging again, Parker Pankhurst shrugs, palms skywards, and shoots us all a slimy smile.

Then the bastard turns and runs.

It’s then I notice the blacksmith and her apprentice have already vanished. It’s then I notice the glimmer fading into nothing. The sun must be up, and that means we have no way out.

“Hurry, both of you.”

The order comes from William Gruff. The baby goat darts from beneath the desk and butts the back of my legs, urging me farther into their room. With a solid kick of a hind leg, it shuts the door.

“Spend the day with us,” William Gruff says.

“But—” I scan the room. I can’t see the glimmer, but it whispers against the back of my neck, caresses my cheeks in a ghostly kiss. “How—?”

Luke looks as perplexed as I feel. He reaches out a hand as if he might touch the glimmer that isn’t actually there.

“You’ve heard of artificial intelligence, haven’t you?” William Gruff says.

“Of course,” I say, “but this isn’t—”

“Possible?” He forages around in a garbage sack and plucks out another to-go cup. He gives it three thoughtful chews. “Are you certain?”

A computer-generated glimmer? Really? No wonder Parker Pankhurst was so interested. Access to the glimmer, day or night? You could do anything with that.

Like launch your own tech startup.

“So this room.” I turn in a slow circle, taking it all in. “It’s protected by the glimmer.”

William Gruff gives a nod.

“And we’re safe?”

“As long as you don’t stray from here. Once the sun sets and the glimmer returns to the rest of the building, you may leave. I’ll grant you safe passage through the server room.”

“My face is all over the security footage,” I say.

William Gruff nods at the second goat, who clatters the keyboard with its hooves. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”

Luke and I exchange glances. He gives me another of those elegant little shrugs. I pluck at the bandana tied to his arm.

“Mind if I borrow this?”

He gives me a tired smile. I don’t know if that’s from this long night or me in general. I suspect the latter.

“Not at all,” he says, and that smile turns indulgent.

I tug the bandana free and, in a matter of minutes, have it fashioned into the cutest bow. I hold it out for the baby goat’s approval. He doesn’t eat it, which is good enough for me.

From the depths of my cargo pants, I pull out my phone and hand it to Luke.

“Take our picture?”

* * *

When you’re a shadow tracker, most nights end without any treasure. This isn’t one of those nights—or days, as the case may be. Both Luke and I leave with shares in Gruff Cyber Security.

I join the yoga studio. Since goat yoga is a thing, no one questions me when I show up with an actual baby goat.

My #goatsofinstagram posts keep racking up views, and I have hundreds of new followers.

Sure, somewhere out there, Parker Pankhurst has a poisoned arrow with my name on it.

But I have something he doesn’t.

A knight in shining armor and three devoted attack goats.

The Troll in IT is another exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Fire and Ivy

For September, it’s stories about dragons and trolls (although not necessarily at the same time).

In Fire and Ivy, bargains have a way of backfiring.

Ivy Bremer stood at the edge of Merryside Township, shotgun in hand. Behind her, flags from the Fourth of July celebration fluttered. Pollen hung in the air, casting everything in a yellow glow.

Her arms ached from gripping the shotgun, her hip protesting the weight of the revolver strapped there. Both weapons were heirlooms, handed down from generation to generation until they sat in the town museum, displayed in shadow boxes, their purpose forgotten. That morning, Ivy had smashed the glass and freed them both.

Mayor was a thankless job—interim mayor even more so. It served her right for skipping that last city council meeting. Or maybe not. Maybe it was because she’d been standing in this very spot twelve months earlier. She’d seen him first. Either way, she was here now.

He was coming. The breeze shifted, lifting sticky strands of hair from her neck. A buzzing filled the morning, the sound like the drone of a prop airplane. Each approaching footfall shook the earth, a reverberation that traveled up her legs, captured her limbs and wrapped around her heart.

Ivy glanced behind her, at the town too quiet to be a real town, and caught the menacing shadow of the catapult. Silver pails glinted, and hoses coiled like snakes, strategically placed for the fire brigade.

As if that could stop the burning.

When had she known? Certainly not that first day, when she’d nearly drowned in the depths of those amber eyes, his gaze alight with the heat of flame behind it. Amber eyes! Why hadn’t she thought to question that?

The breeze picked up. The footfalls remained ever steady, and the buzzing seemed to penetrate her eardrums. In the fields bordering the road, cornstalks quaked. To Ivy, it looked as though they trembled with fear.

When had she known? Not at that first city council meeting, when they unanimously voted him mayor. She’d only felt hopeful. Not when he’d taken her under his wing—how apt—a month later. She’d only felt protected. Not when he proposed. She’d only felt cherished.

Was it the record profits for every business in Merryside? The flood of scholarships for their graduating seniors, the grants to improve the schools, the roads, the infrastructure?

They’d basked in the bounty, never thinking of what it might cost.

So, when had she known?

After the warmest January on record?

Perhaps.

After surveying the charred remains of the winter wheat?

Definitely.

Now she stood at the edge of town, the only one who never took coin, the only one who gave, the only one who could stand there. She widened her stance. The shotgun, heavy as it was, reassured her. The revolver at her hip felt right, like she was born to wear it.

He would not pass.

A thin column of smoke rose from the horizon. His footfalls shook the ground so much that her knees buckled—certainly, that wasn’t from fear. At first, all she saw was his head and the misty smoke issuing from his nostrils. The tip of his tail flicked into view. Had he been a dog—which, of course, he wasn’t—Ivy would’ve said he was happy to see her.

Then all of him came into view. His bulk cast a shadow along the road, shading her from the sun long before he took his final step.

“Ivy.” Her name from his mouth was both sulfurous and sensual. “Did the cowards send you to stop me?”

“I came on my own accord. I’m the mayor now.”

A laugh burst forth, one filled with brimstone. “A thankless job, is it not?”

His scales glinted in the summer sun, throwing rainbows across her vision. His talons sunk into the ground rhythmically, as if he were a cat kneading its owner’s lap. The claws churned up asphalt and dirt. Despite herself, Ivy calculated the repair costs and weighed them against the town’s diminishing budget.

But his eyes. Those amber eyes. Those were the same. She recognized herself in their reflection.

“Do you bar me entrance?” he asked, the question issuing with a stream of smoke.

She hesitated for a mere fraction of a second. “I do.”

He bowed his head as if in defeat. “Do you love me?”

This time, she spoke without the hint of a delay, her heart answering for her. “I do.”

Something crackled then, like a fire coming to life. Behind her came a whisper of sand and the sound of bows being pulled taut. She held up a hand, and both sounds ceased.

“Then grant me entrance,” he said, voice low, melodious, almost human. “Let me collect what’s mine.”

With deliberation, Ivy set the shotgun on the ground. She unbuckled the holster from around her waist and placed that next to the shotgun. She felt suddenly lighter without the weight of either, like she might step off into the air and float away.

Instead, she took a single step forward. Waves of heat washed over her skin. Her lungs struggled for oxygen, and sweat coursed down her spine.

“This is what’s yours.” She placed her hands on either side of his muzzle and kissed him.

The earth trembled. Ivy squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the single tear from slipping down her cheek. In an instant, the dry heat stole it away.

The sizzling started near his tail. It traveled along his spine, the scales falling away in ones and twos, and then faster, their clatter like rain on a tin roof. Then her world imploded in a cloud of acrid smoke.

The wind picked up again, chasing away the clouds of smoke and revealing a man crumpled on the road in front of her. There he was, that same dark-haired stranger who had strolled into town a year ago.

Ivy crouched next to him, eased her thigh beneath his head, cradled his face with her hands.

His eyes locked onto hers. “Why?”

“They would’ve harnessed you, used you—or killed you in the attempt.”

“Or I, them. That’s the way it is, the way it’s always been.”

“Not now. Not anymore.” A tear wove a track through the grime on her cheek. “I had to stop this … them, and I’m … sorry.”

He shut his eyes, bliss washing across his face. He had the look of a man finally free. “I’m not.”

Another teardrop slipped from her cheek and hissed against his skin. His eyes—those amber eyes—flew open. He brought his fingertips to his mouth and then pressed them against her lips in a dry and dusty kiss.

“Goodbye, Ivy.” He smiled at her. In it, she caught the feral glint of teeth and tender mouth that had so willingly kissed her own. “And thank you.”

The fire that consumed him burned cold. The smoke was thick but sweet. One moment, his weight was solid against her thigh. The next, it was as light as the pollen in the air.

Then, he was gone.

All that remained was dust and ash. Something shimmered there among the specks of gray and black—a single scale. Ivy held it between her finger and thumb, turning it this way and that. Its surface shattered the light, threw a rainbow of color so bright it might blind. She let it rest in her palm before tucking the scale into her pocket.

Ivy stood. She didn’t bother to strap on the holster. She simply pulled the revolver from it. A single shot incapacitated the catapult mechanism, its net hanging loose and now useless. With the shotgun on her shoulder, she marched into town.

No one said a word as she returned the weapons to the museum. They were heirlooms, certainly, with their own sort of magic. Ivy licked the dust from her lips and regarded the relics, locked away in their shadow boxes once again. With luck, that was where they’d stay.

After that, all she had to do was point. Without a word, children collected the buckets. The volunteer fire brigade rolled up the hoses. Members of the city council dismantled the catapult, destroyed the arrows, filled in the trap.

Ivy surveyed the work. Behind her, the cornstalks whispered in the wind. On the breeze, she heard the echo of his promise.

I give you one year and one year only.

Everyone had wanted more, her heart included. She pulled the scale from her pocket, and it glinted in the sun. She held it aloft and let it cast a rainbow across the entire town of Merryside.

Everyone froze in place, like they had that first day a year ago. For a moment, her heart leaped; something that felt like hope filled her chest. Ivy glanced behind her, willing him to step into view.

What she saw instead, through that prism of light, was what could be—if they let it. That was its own sort of hope.

Ivy pocketed the scale. Decision made, she walked toward the town hall and the mayor’s office. The breeze dried the last remaining tear on her cheek.

Yes, she thought.

She’d give it a year.

Fire and Ivy is another story exclusive to The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Letters of Smoke and Ash

Words remain even when the friends do not.

Madam,

I have no idea how your missives have found their way among my papers. And yet, here they are, scrawled notes filled with rambling angst more suited to a twelve-year-old than a grown woman. (I’m assuming that you are both grown and a woman; there’s no need to correct me if I’m in error.)

Whatever sorcery this is, I ask you: please cease. I have actual correspondence to attend to.

Alistair Payne

P.S. After reading your missives, I encourage you, for the love of all that’s holy, to find some sort of therapy.

 

Sir,

I have no idea who you are or how you’re reading my private words. Or, for that matter, after realizing that, yes, they are private, that you continue to do so.

There is no such thing as sorcery, and this prank isn’t funny. You’re not funny. You’re cruel.

Not that it’s any of your business, but my “missives” as you call them are part of my therapy. I’m supposed to burn them, but I can’t stand the smell of smoke, so I tuck them away into this box. I don’t read them. No one else should either.

Lacey Grant

 

Ms. Grant,

I assure you, there is such a thing as sorcery. Those of us who practice the craft are always on the lookout for those who wield it as well.

I suspected you as one of those. Indeed, I still do, since—yet again—several missives, along with your note, have found their way into my correspondence box. This annoys and vexes me. I only wish to know why, every time I lift the lid, I find yet another scrap from you.

Perhaps if you stopped writing, things would right themselves.

Alistair Payne

 

Mr. Payne,

You are aptly named. But you know what? I’m not going to stop writing my “missives” or using this box simply because it inconveniences you.

I don’t care where my journal entries go or what you do with them. Crumple them up or take pleasure in burning them. Toss them in the recycling. It’s a relief to open the lid and not see them in here.

Lacey Grant

 

Ms. Grant,

I take no pleasure in burning.

 

Mr. Payne,

Then we have that in common.

 

* * *

Dear Ms. Grant,

It’s been a few weeks now, and I wonder if you’ve found a new way to … deal with your journal entries. At first, I was relieved not to see them among my correspondence each and every time I lifted the lid.

Then I started to worry. It’s evident that you’re hurting. It’s also apparent that you have a keen and vibrant mind.

To be honest, I miss them. There’s a good deal of sass among all that pain.

If you wish to continue your therapy, by all means, do so. I won’t even respond if you don’t wish me to. Nor will I read what you have written. I’ll simply tuck the “missives” to one side and let them be.

Regards,

Alistair Payne

 

Dear Mr. Payne,

Did you just call me sassy?

Lacey Grant

 

Dear Ms. Grant,

I believe I referred to your words and thoughts as “having sass,” but I suspect the adjective applies to the writer as well. I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.

You’re confronting your pain, and that’s no small feat. Take it from a man who has had many decades of practice in avoiding his own.

Regards,

Alistair

 

Dear Mr. Payne,

You could write missives of your own, you know, if you were looking to get rid of that pain.

Lacey

 

Dear Ms. Grant,

And relinquish my name? I think not.

Alistair

 

Dear Alistair,

For the first time in a very long time, I laughed. You made me laugh.

Thank you,

Lacey

 

Dear Lacey,

I wish I’d been there to hear your laughter. I’m certain it’s filled with a certain amount of—dare I say it—sass.

I’ve noticed a lack of journal entries. If that part of your therapy is over and you’ve moved on, then I congratulate you. If you’re avoiding it for any other reason, please continue. I meant what I said. I won’t read them.

Your private words will remain that way. You have my promise.

Regards,

Alistair

 

Dear Alistair,

No, I’m still supposed to write my journal entries. I haven’t been because I don’t want to put them in the box. I don’t want to burden you with them. These thin sheets of paper feel so heavy to me.

Most of all, I’d rather see your notes. I would rather keep writing to you. I’m tired of my journal entries. I’m tired of all the things that end up in them. I’m tired of writing to an uncaring universe. I’d rather write to a person.

I’d rather write to you.

But I doubt you want that.

Lacey

 

My dear Lacey,

I am a man who owns a box whose sole purpose is to hold correspondence. What makes you think I don’t want to receive your letters?

You’re right in one respect: the universe does not care. This isn’t to say it’s deliberately cruel. When you’re as vast as the universe is, you can’t play favorites. You set things in motion and then let them be.

Sometimes that is for the best; often, it is not.

You could continue your therapy in our letters if you so choose. I understand that you served in the military. To be frank, I’ve not kept up with the recent wars. I’ve seen too many and fought in several that few have heard of, never mind remember.

I understand the wasteland of the aftermath, how something can be vast and empty and claustrophobic all at once. I know what it’s like to burn and be burned. I’ve surveyed that wasteland and have been left wondering what it was all for.

Certainly, we had a reason for our destruction. In the end, it’s sometimes impossible to find that reason.

But we do not need to talk about such matters. We can do those mundane but delightful things correspondents do, such as provide advice and swap recipes. For instance, as of late, I have come into a surplus of figs. Regretfully, I have no idea what to do with them.

Yours truly,

Alistair

 

Oh, Alistair,

How many wars have you fought in? Honestly, I’m not sure I understand who—or what—you are. You mentioned sorcery. Are you a wizard? Are you very old? I would feel foolish asking you these questions except that some sort of magic must be involved. There’s no other way that my notes find you and yours reach me.

I remember many things about my time in the military, about the war, but none of them make sense. I can’t form them into a narrative, either in my head or on paper. This is why part of my therapy is writing things down. Things are trapped, locked away in my mind. If I can coax them out, expose them to sunlight, perhaps they will … not go away. None of this will ever go away.

Perhaps I won’t feel so fractured. Perhaps, with time, I can stitch the pieces of myself back together again.

But I’d rather ponder your fig dilemma. I’m including a recipe for a chocolate and fig tart. I’ve never tried it, but I found it on the internet, and it sounds delicious.

Yours truly,

Lacey

 

Dear Lacey,

Ah, I must get myself an internet one of these days. At one time, in what seems like an eon ago, I was what they refer to as a lead adopter (I believe that’s the term).

I am more of a Luddite these days, although I have no desire to destroy machinery. Neither do I eschew technology. I fancy myself a bit of a kitchen witch, and the gadgets these days have made prep time a joy rather than a chore.

So, there, I’ve answered one of your questions. I am a witch. Women and men can be witches, and where, when, and how this wizard distinction came about, I can’t say. (I imagine that’s one of the many things an internet might tell me.)

In mortal terms, I am ancient. In witch terms, I am in my prime, such as it is. Witches have a lifespan that can stretch across the ages.

I have lost so many friends already. Mortals burst into one’s life, bright as a flame, only to be doused just as quickly. You all live such short, hard, beautiful lives, but after a while, the pain of saying goodbye becomes too much. Perhaps this was why I was a bit brusque with you in our initial exchanges.

Witches turn to other things, hobbyhorses, and perfecting the art of the curmudgeon. They bake twenty chocolate and fig tarts for the elementary school silent auction and then slip away before anyone can thank them. Because they know that they’ll outlive every single kindergartener who wanders past their table.

It’s why they … I … enjoy exchanging letters and notes. Words remain even when the friends do not.

I suspect some sort of sorcery connects my correspondence box with yours. Perhaps they were fashioned from the heart of the same tree. Two halves of a whole, if you will.

Yours,

Alistair

 

Oh, my dear Alistair,

Yes, I think I understand. It’s easier to push people away. It was always easier to keep new arrivals in our unit at a distance. Not to be mean or cruel, but as a way to protect yourself.

Because when we went out, there was a chance—a good chance—we wouldn’t all come back. There was a chance some of us would come back in pieces, physically, emotionally. When you’ve been broken, I’m not sure it matters which pieces are flesh and blood and which ones are merely in your head.

I know so many people who think they want to live forever. Isn’t that the goal? Immortality? I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose everyone you love again, and again, and then again.

I think you might end up shattered. I hope you’re not shattered, dear Alistair.

Lacey

 

My dearest Lacey,

You are too kind, and I should not burden you with such things as my longevity. I assure you, witches come equip with coping mechanisms. I’ve mentioned my fondness for kitchen witchery. Truly, I have stepped into my kitchen at Thanksgiving and not emerged until the spring equinox.

Some spells and concoctions take time and patience. I can put something to simmer over the fire and then settle into the rocking chair I keep next to the hearth. I read and, of course, write to my heart’s content—for days or even weeks.

We have companionship in the form of familiars. These souls come back to us time and time again as different creatures: a cat one decade, an owl the next, and so on. It’s delightful to discover an old friend in a new physique.

Truly, if a witch is wise, he or she realizes that it’s not the quantity of friendship, but the quality.

Your friend,

Alistair

 

Dear Alistair,

I think I would like that sort of life, one where I could put a pot on to simmer and then curl up and maybe read or write or knit.

I’m learning how to knit, although I’m not very good at it. All I can make are square potholders. Honestly, not a single one has come out as an actual square. Can I make you one? You’ll have to tell me where to send it. I’m not sure it’s something a correspondence box can deliver.

Does it bother you to sit by the fire, since it burns? Last week, my veterans’ support group went on a hayride that ended in a bonfire. The hay made me sneeze, but I didn’t mind too much. The fire was beautiful and awful.

I found I couldn’t get close to it. I knew it couldn’t hurt me. Well, I knew that in my head. My body had other ideas. The fire, the burning—it’s what I remember most about the attack where I was injured. I never went back. After my wounds healed, I was discharged from the Army. I’ve been … had been … a soldier since I was eighteen. Some days, I don’t know how to be anything else.

I stared and stared and stared until the fire died down, and a couple of the farmworkers doused the flames with water.

In the smoke and ashes, I swear I saw something. It sounds crazy, but it looked like figures, people rising into the air and then coming apart. And yes, I know detecting patterns is something humans do—seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast and all that.

Still, I would swear these figures were real.

Even crazier, I stayed because I thought those people needed someone to watch them go.

I shouldn’t even place this letter into the box except that witnessing those things made me feel … not better, but helpful, perhaps, purposeful. That maybe there’s something else I can do in this world besides soldiering.

Between that and writing to you, I feel more like myself.

Your friend,

Lacey

 

Oh, my dearest Lacey,

Indeed, there must be a bit of magic about you, a power that goes beyond our twin correspondence boxes. I can’t say for certain what you saw. Depending on where you were, the possibilities are endless.

Undoubtedly, the souls of the trees burning were among the figures you saw. Invariably, they appear old and wise (most trees are, but some are simply stubborn and foolhardy).

As for the rest, well, the ground on where the fire burned determines that. What you saw was likely the aftereffects of past events, an echo of something that occurred. Those souls wanted a witness. You honored them by giving them that.

I, too, have a complicated relationship with fire. I still maintain a fire in my hearth. Some spells demand flame and cast iron and will not abide ceramic-coated cookware and the electric stove. In the winter, a fire is lovely and warm.

And yet.

I hesitate to tell you this, as I do not wish to cause you any additional pain. It is all in the past for me.

I have thrice been burned at the stake.

In theory, anyway.

In practice? Witches don’t burn; mortals do. So often—too often—a friend of mine had been caught up in the same net that snagged me. Or, far more likely, snagged because of me.

I can change my form in such cases as this, appear as nothing more than smoke and ash.

I can—and could—do nothing to save my mortal friends.

Perhaps it is this that makes me so reluctant to make new ones.

Fire is such a necessary, destructive thing, but there are times when I wish I could simply do without it.

Alistair

P.S. A kitchen witch is always on the lookout for new potholders. No, I don’t think the correspondence box works that way, but give it a try. Who knows what sort of magic it wields.

* * *

Dear Lacey,

I’m not certain what has happened. I’m not certain this letter will reach you. Today when I opened my correspondence box, a thin stream of smoke rose from the interior. Instead of a note, ash greeted me, fine as silt, smelling charred and damp.

I don’t know what to make of this. Was it our talk of fire and smoke? Certainly, a hand-knitted potholder couldn’t wreak such damage.

Did something terrible happen? I worry that our exchanges took a turn toward darker thoughts and feelings. Perhaps that was not for the best. Perhaps I’m at fault here.

If you can, please respond and let me know how you are.

Your friend,

Alistair

 

Oh, my dear Lacey,

I have done it this time, haven’t I? Nothing remains of our correspondence except my last (presumably) unread letter to you. I was tempted to break the promise I made to not read your journal entries. But those, too, have turned to ash.

If this is of your own doing, if you wish to break off our correspondence, I will honor that. I beg of you, however, to jot a single line to that effect. Let me know you’re alive, that you’ve moved on.

I will wish you well and shower you with all my blessings.

Alistair

 

Dear Lacey,

A wise man once told me:

This is how the world burns, my friend. Not all at once, but one human heart at a time.

He meant it as a warning, I believe. I had—and perhaps still do have—the propensity to rush into things, in witch terms at least. Friendships, relationships, new-fangled kitchen gadgets. Once, so very long ago, I even had a mortal family of my own.

Today I feel my heart burn. I miss you, dear friend.

Alistair

 

Dear Lacey,

Today I ventured from my cottage and took a trip to the library. There, I asked a reference librarian for assistance in using the internet they have for patrons.

Awkwardness ensued. I simply cannot keep up with human fashions. I have a few spells that maintain the clothes I do own in pristine condition. I purchase a new coat once every hundred years or so. I might upgrade if something catches my eyes. (Of late, I must admit, nothing has.)

Given all that, even on my best days, I appear eccentric. I dressed up today, thinking it would help my case. I suspect that this, too, was a miscalculation.

The conversation with the young gentleman went something like this:

Librarian: What else can you tell me about your friend?

Me: She was in the military.

Librarian: That’s a start. How old is she?

Me: I haven’t the foggiest.

Librarian: Where does she live?

Me: If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here, requesting your help, would I?

Librarian: You said you were pen pals.

Well, yes, I had said that. It seemed reasonable enough at the time.

Me: She’s in the military and recently moved.

Yes, a lie, and not a very good one. Honestly, I’m in such a state, and I didn’t think any of this through.

Librarian: In that case, maybe it’s better if you let her get in touch with you.

Wariness and pity warred across his face. His voice? The sort you’d use when trying to appease a willful child or someone slightly disreputable.

The obvious struck me then. I admit that I often miss the obvious. I think of myself as a witch first, and as a man second, or even third. Yet, there I was, an oddly dressed older man seeking out someone who is most likely a young woman.

I left right as he signaled his supervisor, a woman with hair the color of steel and a demeanor to match.

Perhaps the next step is getting an internet of my own. Perhaps I should venture from my cottage more often. I take the local paper, but I don’t know where you live. If you are halfway across the country or the world, I might never know what’s become of you.

Or perhaps I will take that young man’s advice.

Maybe it’s better if I let you get in touch with me if you can, if you still want to.

I will place this letter in my correspondence box and then wander into my kitchen to conjure up a spell of blessing for you.

It’s been an honor and a pleasure knowing you.

Be well, my friend.

Alistair

* * *

Dear Alistair,

I emailed the link to the article about your tarts. Click on it, and when it appears in your browser, click the little star. That will make it a favorite, and you can return to the article any time you want.

Thank you again for the lovely new correspondence box. I still have no idea how you conjured one so quickly (and yes, I suspect you actually did conjure it).

I know my apartment house won’t burn down again. Two fires are enough for any lifetime. Then I remember how you’ve been burned three times already. Maybe fire doesn’t keep count. From now on, I will store my correspondence box next to my bed in case of an emergency. There’s not much else I would want to save.

A wise man once told me:

Words remain even when the friends do not.

I’m going to put this note in the box now. I’m still not convinced it will work.

Your friend,

Lacey

 

My dear, dear Lacey,

Of course, it worked. I recall mentioning that you had a bit of magic about you. And oh, look! Here is your note, and now, my response.

Thank you for helping me obtain an internet of my own. I imagine I was a poor and exasperating student. Your patience knows no bounds.

Yes, I have read the article numerous times. And yes, I am that vain, but mostly I’m flabbergasted.

Mysterious benefactor’s tarts save art and music programs.

Between you and me? I may have woven in a spell (or two). As you can imagine, chocolate makes an excellent conduit for magic. Still, I had no idea the spell was potent enough to start a bidding war.

I’m also a bit flabbergasted that this article led you to me. I swear, I would’ve recognized you anyway, but arriving on my door stoop with a potholder was a nice touch, sassy even.

I won’t say fire is sentient or that it latches onto individuals. Still, in my experience, it tends to favor those it has touched before. I will continue my blessing spell. Now that I’ve met you IRL, as the kids say (the kids do say that, don’t they?), it will be all the more powerful.

Thank you again for being clever and sassy and for finding me.

Alistair

 

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for helping me find me.

Your friend,

Lacey

P.S. Yes, in some respects, you are still aptly named.

Letters of Smoke and Ash is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Midnight at the Hades Underground

Think you know how the story of Hades and Persephone ends? Think again.

During all the millennia of his existence, Hades had found contentment in so few things. One of those was in the simple act of tending bar.

Granted, it was his own bar, in his own club, far below the sunbaked asphalt and concrete above. A city, and a large one, filled with the clamor and detritus of humanity. Where, exactly? Well, where didn’t matter. The Hades Underground was everywhere.

The Hades Underground never closed.

Zeus leaned back against the bar, a cut-crystal glass in one hand, filled with Glenlivet and ambrosia—a deity-only concoction. Hades mixed drinks for the rare mortal. Although when he did, it was always their last.

“Brother,” Zeus said now. “You have outdone yourself with this.” He raised his glass, indicating the dance floor that pulsated with flashes of blue and yellow, high back booths in midnight velvet, the hallways that led deeper into the bowels of the club. Some mortals wandered down those halls never to return.

Hades liked to think of this last as a feature rather than a bug. He surveyed his club with satisfaction.

Yes, I really have.

“Even she seems to appreciate it,” Zeus added, a certain slyness in his tone.

Hades refused the bait. Persephone haunted the periphery of his vision, of his whole being. There, in the middle of the dance floor—the riot of blues and yellows and greens like springtime—she danced. A group of loyal nymphs created a tight circle around her, with mortal hangers-on forming a wider one.

No one dared approach.

“There are others, you know,” Zeus said.

“We don’t need to have this conversation again.”

Zeus and his matchmaking? No. No, thank you.

“Oh, I think we do.” Zeus pulled out his phone. How he loved that gadget. The constant stream of images and sounds. The entire world in the palm of his hand. Never had the King of the Olympians been so sated.

Who was he at this moment in time? Some tech billionaire, Zeke or Zucker-something-or-other. Hades had long ago stopped keeping track of Zeus’s personas.

“Look,” his brother commanded.

Pictures of women flashed across the screen, one after the other after the other, in a never-ending parade. Hades didn’t bother to count.

“And that’s just tonight,” Zeus added.

Yes, of course. Zeus invariably swiped right.

“Thank you, Brother, for your counsel,” Hades said. “I’ll take it under consideration.”

Zeus laughed, a booming sound that sliced through the chatter, the thump of the bass, and for the barest instant, brought the club to a standstill. Even Persephone halted mid-twirl to see what her father found so amusing.

He slapped Hades on the back, the impact like a thunderbolt. “You could, at least, tend to your little shadow.” Zeus nodded toward the end of the bar. “She’s been there all night.”

All week, actually. Hades cast her a glance, barely a whisper of a look. Most patrons found his full attention distressing, at best. He didn’t wish to inflict that on her.

“She’s an old soul,” is all he said. “It gives her comfort to sit here.”

“She’s more than that.” Zeus stood, swallowed the last of his drink, and then crushed the glass between his fingers. When he unclenched his fist, the shards rose into the air and filled the club with starlight. “And she’s looking for more than just comfort.”

He sauntered off, one of Persephone’s mortal hangers-on in his sights, his first conquest of the evening.

* * *

Hades ignored her—that little shadow, as Zeus called her. For a solid hour, Hades wiped down the bar of gleaming ebony, polished glasses with a cloth the color of lilies, took delight in the weight of the lead crystal against his palm.

There were so few visceral pleasures left to him. He let himself revel in this one.

But Zeus was right, at least in one respect. He should do something about her. It wasn’t her time; she wasn’t the type to fritter her lifespan away—no matter how long or short—sitting in his club.

She was a fighter, and always had been, more an acolyte of Ares than death’s handmaiden.

He approached, shrouding his gaze. She stared at him straight on. Hades suspected that he could lift the veil and she wouldn’t glance away. That was like her. No matter the end, she always met it well.

He signaled one of his mortal bartenders to pour her another drink. The concoction was startling sweet and free of alcohol.

“I don’t merit one of yours?” she asked when he slid the glass in front of her.

“It’s not your time.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t I know?”

“You might lie.”

“I might.” He nodded to concede the point. “But I seldom do.”

She carried with her the scent of harsh wind and dust, cordite and flames, of slick and quicksilver blood. Afghanistan, then. Her eyes held that look, but then they had for centuries now. Once earned, a thousand-yard stare seldom faded. He wondered: Did such ancient eyes in the face of an infant ever startle her mothers?

“Are you tired, my child?” Perhaps it was her time. He’d been wrong before. His gaze darted toward the dance floor. Yes. So very wrong.

She countered with a question of her own. “Why won’t you let me thank you?”

He raised a palm skyward. “Have I done something to deserve gratitude?”

“It was you.” She ran her fingertips around the circumference of the glass, full circle, a trip from birth to death. “Actually, it’s always you. At first, I thought it was Ares who came for me in the end. But war isn’t like that.”

“My nephew is many things. Compassionate isn’t one of them.”

“I’m sorry.” She gave her head a slight shake. “I don’t remember all the times.”

“Truly? I have no wish for you to.”

“And I don’t remember any before the year 1431.”

Even an old soul such as this one could comprehend dying only so many times. He’d erase every instance if he could. But some mortals were more aware than others, and that made it hard for them to forget.

And when the world decided you were a saint? Even harder.

“Humans live their lives as if they have an unlimited number of them,” he said.

“But most only have the one.”

“Yes. That’s the irony.”

“Are there others like me?” she asked.

“A few,” he acknowledged. “Fewer still who comprehend what they are.”

“They made me a saint, you know.” She laughed, not Zeus’s booming guffaw. This sound had a subtle, insidious sorrow. Those in nearby booths tilted their heads to catch the whisper of it. Those on the dance floor stumbled, mid-step.

Even Persephone.

“Yes. I know.” And his own words were heavy with sorrow.

“I never want to be a saint again.” Her gaze returned not to him, but the surface of the bar, as if she could peer into its depths. “It wasn’t the stake or the fire, but all those people pinning their hopes on me. It was a relief when you came. You didn’t need to offer your hand.”

“You didn’t need to take it.”

“Where does the pain go? Do you absorb it?”

“Mortal pain can’t touch me.”

“Do you wish that it could?”

Hades paused in the task of polishing yet another glass. The crystal crumbled in his hands, although if he were to release these shards, they’d fill the club with all manner of winged creatures, bats and ravens, and things not seen outside of Tartarus.

For the briefest moment, he unveiled his gaze.

She withstood it.

Yes, of course, she did. His little saint. His Joan. She would’ve withstood the flames as well had he not taken them from her.

“You never answered my question,” he said. “Are you tired?”

“He won’t stop whispering to me. He makes it sound so very simple, so very easy, so very right.”

“War is never those things.”

“I know.” She peered up at him as if daring him to unveil his gaze a second time. “But what is left for me?”

“The Elysian Fields?”

“So, heaven.”

“In a manner of speaking. Anything you might want, might be, might desire is yours for the asking.”

“That sounds … boring.”

Now he laughed, the echo of it reverberating through the floors of the club. The music hiccupped, and the speakers screeched in protest. A hush fell. Even the gaggle of nymphs ceased their giggling.

“Perfection often is,” he said.

Her gaze darted toward the dance floor. “Is it really?”

Before he could answer, a presence burst into the club. A man, although with a mere glance, it was difficult to tell. Most patrons only dared furtive looks. Some shrank back, into booths or against the walls, hearts pounding frantic prayers. Others preened and swooned, bloodlust thick in the air.

Yes, his nephew liked to make an entrance.

Was Ares here for this little saint? Was the mention of the Elysian Fields too much? Can’t lose a single soldier in the waging of war, can we now?

Ares swooped in, slipping onto the stool next to her. “I’ve missed you, my sweet. Indeed, I thought you’d gone AWOL.” He brought her hand to his lips and caressed the palm, the tender underside of her wrist.

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, her expression filled with doubt, playfulness, and the assurance of a beloved favorite. “You thought that?”

“Feared it.” Ares released her hand and struck a fist against his chest, over the spot where a mortal’s heart would beat. “We still have much to do together, you and me.”

Hades anchored a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “She needs rest. Don’t use her like this.”

“While you have so much to offer?” His nephew regarded him through half-lidded eyes. “This is quaint, Uncle. But really, Hades Underground? Where else would it be?”

She laughed then, and the sound cut Hades like nothing he’d felt in ages. In it was his loneliness, that great expanse of nothing that greeted him every moment of his existence.

He was Hades Underground, and Hades Underground was him. Dark, endless, and ultimately empty.

And now it was midnight. The glitter ball over the dance floor threw beams of sunlight throughout the space. The processional began, Persephone at its center, flanked by nymphs and mortals, all clad in dresses that swayed like petals and cascaded like sea foam.

Hades retreated, left Ares to the spoils of this little scrimmage. Who was this mortal girl to him, anyway?

Besides, he had drinks to mix.

Crystal sang out as he poured and stirred—ambrosia, nectar, and a splash of vodka for the nymphs. They weren’t particular, so he always used an off-brand variety.

Then he mixed the club’s signature drink—and clever patrons knew to order a Persephone instead of a pomegranate cosmopolitan. Hades stirred in a dash of ambrosia.

And, of course, actual pomegranate seeds. Six, to be precise.

They gathered around the bar, Persephone, the nymphs, and her mortal followers alike, squeezing out the other patrons. Her entourage wasn’t especially polite, but as a group, they awed. Others in the club stepped aside, swallowed their complaints, or basked in the glow of spring incarnate.

Slender fingers grasped for equally slender stems of glasses, like plucking flowers from a field. Midnight at the Hades Underground brought sunlight and spring and the taste of nectar against your tongue.

No one—mortal or god—ever left before midnight.

Except, perhaps, his little saint. He didn’t need to glance toward the end of the bar to discern the empty stool.

Persephone had yet to sip her drink. It went that way some nights—most nights, actually. Perhaps if her feet were sore, or if she’d grown weary of her current entourage, she’d deign a mouthful.

Most nights, she threw the drink in his face.

To say he didn’t deserve that would be a lie.

But tonight she halted, drink mere inches from her lips. Something jostled the group of nymphs. They stumbled aside, the force like a scythe slicing through wheat. The commotion caught Persephone’s attention, and she set the glass on the bar.

At the center of the commotion—and its cause—stood his little saint, staring down his goddess.

Gods don’t breathe, not the way mortals do, but just then, everything went still inside him.

On the bar, the drink glowed an arterial red.

Certainly, mortals weren’t faster than gods, but his little saint snatched the glass with the power of Ares behind her. With the practiced ease of a soldier, she swallowed. What she lacked in finesse she made up for in ferocity.

She drank it—vodka, ambrosia, pomegranate seeds, and all.

She slammed the glass onto the bar. The crystal shattered, the sound a gunshot. Sparks erupted throughout the club, like tracer rounds and flares in a night sky.

Hades braced for a fight. Surely this was the first volley in a coming war. Any moment, he expected Ares to roar back in, rile up the mortals, and force Persephone and her entourage from the club.

He expected blood.

Instead, his little saint turned to him.

“May I?” she asked, her hand extended in the manner he’d always offered his. “I know we both have our relationship baggage.” She rolled her eyes, a move that was both goddess-like and purely mortal. “But I think you could use the rest.”

“As could you?”

“As could I.”

Persephone stamped her foot.

Hades turned to her, surprised she was—at last—a mere afterthought. “Go.”

Her eyes—those impossibly blue eyes, the color of the spring sky—widened.

“Or stay,” he amended. After all, he’d fashioned the Hades Underground for her. “It”—he waved a hand—“runs itself.”

“But—”

“My dear, you have never wanted to be Queen of the Underworld.”

“But—”

“It was my mistake to force you. And for that?” He inclined his head. “I apologize.”

He then turned to his Joan, his saint.

His … savior?

He offered his arm. Only when she took it did the emptiness relinquish its hold.

“Is that ‘no’ to the Elysian Fields then?” he asked.

“There are other options, right?”

“None of them very pleasant.”

“Truly?” She tapped her forehead. “Isn’t it all up here?”

“What do you think?”

He led her down one of the endless hallways, the path worn smooth by the soles of so many souls.

“We make our own hell,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she prompted, “Am I right?”

“Hm? I can’t really say. Trade secret and all.”

“You can’t? Or you won’t?” Her words were full of skepticism and humor. She knew. Of course, she knew. Then her voice softened, and she added, “What’s your hell then?”

He nearly glanced behind him, at the renewed frenzy on the dance floor, the golds and the blues and the greens. But no one knew the cost of looking back better than Hades did. So he focused on the images that consumed his little saint, the ones that formed the walls of her own personal hell.

He expected cordite and flames, but they only seasoned the anguish. No, it was the expanse, the emptiness, the loneliness—of backs turned, hands never offered, promises never kept.

“It won’t be like that,” was all he said.

“How long do I have?” she asked.

“An eternity, if you wish it.”

Their footfalls echoed behind them, obliterating sounds that haunted them both—the thump of the bass, the clink of crystal, the rapport of weapons, the thunder of artillery.

“But only if you wish it.”

Midnight at the Hades Underground is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Worlds of Wonder: Free Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Looking for some science fiction or fantasy to read? Head on over to the Worlds of Wonder giveaway. Free books for your e-reader. Go on. You know it’s hungry.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Way Home

Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.

The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.

He’d been deceived.

In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.

He refused to blink.

The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.

The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.

The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.

At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.

A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.

The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.

He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.

The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.

“My love? Is it really you?”

His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.

He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.

“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”

“I can’t—”

“Can’t what, my prince?”

“I can’t rescue you.”

“Can you walk?”

With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”

“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”

With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.

Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.

It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.

His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.

“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”

“Home?” the children echoed.

“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”

Rapunzel remained strangely silent.

“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”

“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.

Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.

Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.

At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.

The prince knew.

This time, he’d deceived himself.

That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?

What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.

“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”

“How is it you—?”

She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”

If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.

“My father’s included?”

“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”

Indeed, he did.

“Come,” she said.

He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.

“I have been so blind.”

In answer, she merely kissed him.

And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.

Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.

The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.

The marsh beckoned.

The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.

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