I gave him the abbreviated version while he re-bandaged my hands: the gnomelings, Jericho’s Compendium, the egg.
“And you didn’t think it important to relay this information to the proper authorities?”
“Relay what?” I hunched as a shiver rippled through me. The stone was heavy, but pleasantly warm. I kept it in my lap while he finished tying off the second bandage. The rest of his team stood in a protective circle around us, weapons at the ready. “That some chicken-eating pixies showed up in my neighbor’s backyard and, coincidentally, some scholars working out of Stanford have a hunch that maybe they just might possibly be linked to a few natural disasters, maybe?”
He leaned back and I lifted my hands to re-tie my hair. I was getting better at working around the gauze, but I couldn’t manage a nice neat knot; I had to settle for a sloppy ponytail.
“I’ll make you a deal, Special Agent in Charge Dare: let’s go kill whatever that thing is that’s laughing while it slowly destroys Boston. And, going forward, if I come across anything that I think the authorities need to know, I will give you a call. Even though I have no idea how to reach you or what agency you work for.”
I handed him the black rock and pushed myself awkwardly to my feet.
He stood, slowly turning the stone over.
“The organization is known as The Nameless House.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Cas’ head whip around. She stared at Dare in surprise, then seemed to collect herself.
I shook my head. “Never heard of it.”
He passed the stone back to me. “Good. The road connecting Fenway and Park is still passable. We’ll use that to cross the Muddy River, and kill whatever is threatening Boston.”
Hours passed. Once we crossed the river, we headed down Park Drive in the general direction of the Charles River. The Fens spread out to either side of us. Where Park Drive had once marked the border of the Fens, now it stretched another mile or more, all the way to Brookline Avenue. I could hear owls and bugs, and bats swooped through the night. A deer screamed and I heard the distinctive crunching sound of a strangler hag devouring her meal.
We had to keep stopping, waiting, listening. When we heard the laughter again, we would continue towards it, then stop. Wait again. Listen. Continue towards the sound. Again and again.
It was exhausting.
I pulled out my last remaining nutrition bar and munched on it. The rock was heavy in the crook of my elbow.
I still wasn’t sure how we were supposed to use the damn thing, or even what we were facing. What could create and control monstrosities like the viney octopus thing and roots that tore through the earth?
I got a better idea when we came across one of the dead spots that Dare had mentioned.
Everything was white, leached of color and life. The trees were bare, and beginning to lean and crack under their own dead weight. The grass and shrubs were brittle, and crunched under our feet. A fine dust hung in the air.
I stumbled to a halt, partly out of exhaustion, partly out of surprise, and stared around me.
Dare stopped next to me, directing my attention to a branch high off the ground.
A dead crimson throat hung off the tree, its razor-sharp beak gaping open. Wings that had once shown like metal were a dull greyish-white, and clawed feet that could tear out a grown man’s throat were curled up and shriveled.
I leaned close to him. “How many of these have you found?”
He just shook his head.
And we kept walking.
It was dawn when the laughter finally led us to the old Victory Gardens. I only knew that was our location by the rusted metal sign that marked the entrance. Like the dead spots that dotted the Fens like mold, the Gardens were a mixture of overgrown green and bone white. A tree groaned and shattered, sending out a plume of dust. A rabbit hopped out from beneath a juniper, stopped at the edge of a white spot, turned, and fled.
We paused on the pathway, crouched low behind shrubs and wild vegetables and massive rose bushes. The source of the laughter was obvious now.
If the creature had been of earthly origin, I would have described it as a hyena. In mummy wrappings. With no eyes. It was huge, easily the size of a horse. Its flesh was rotted, the white length of cloth hanging loose to expose the lesions and bones and matted fur; the bandages twisted and writhed around it — like the vines. The hyena’s eyes had been sewn shut. It swung its massive head back and forth, stinking clear drool dribbling from its mouth, panting, and occasionally letting out a sniggering, breathless laugh.
The sound made me shudder.
As it moved around the Gardens, the grass turned grey and then white beneath its feet. The longer it stayed in one place, the larger the dead area. And as the Gardens died, the hyena healed — for a few moments. The lesions would begin to close, the fur to unsnarl, the bones to knit. But then the dead spot would stop growing; ten, maybe twelve feet across. And the hyena would begin to decay again.
And it would laugh, and start walking again.
It had to be in excruciating pain.
I was pretty sure that it was insane.
Dare motioned to his team, sending them around, circling to either side of the hyena. They stayed low, half-crouched behind shrubs and pieces of old fencing and trees.
He looked at me, eyebrows raised, and then down at the stone.
I shrugged and mimed a throwing motion.
I froze. Beside me, Dare went completely still.
The voice was rough and raspy and getting louder. There was a terrible laugh. Grass crunched. “You sssmeelll of eeeeg.”
“No eeeeeggg fooorr meeee. Wwhhyyyy?” The question ended on a painfully high squeak. If the creature hadn’t been so horrifying, it would have been pathetic.
Dare was on his feet, pistol in either hand, firing before the sound of the hyena’s voice had faded. More gunfire as his teammates joined him, the sound echoing off the trees. The few birds fled in a panic and I spotted a crimson throat racing away, deeper into the Fens, its wings slicing through the greenery.
The hyena laughed.
Then it jumped.
The gunfire stopped as the hyena slammed into Dare, shoving him to the ground. I scrambled out of the way as white wrappings snapped in the air, stretching, searching. The hyena clawed at Dare’s chest and its massive head lunged down towards his face. He caught the huge jaws on his arm, grunting, almost screaming.
I expected to see him fade, turn grey, and fall into dust like everything else the hyena touched. But he didn’t. His armor — that strange woven shadow — held strong. The hyena’s claws and teeth didn’t catch or tear; it was like they were sliding across oil.
Gunfire again, as Dare used his free hand to shoot up into the hyena’s belly.
Swearing, I pushed myself to my feet, stumbling as I ran around in front of the monster for a better angle.
“Hey!” I yelled.
Rush appeared at my side, rifle against his shoulder. He aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger. He shot the hyena in the top of the head.
The creature lurched away from Dare. For a moment, those sewn-shut eyes seemed to fix on me.
I threw the black stone hard, hurtling it through the air and into the hyena’s mouth.
It gagged and stumbled backwards. Its feet caught in the writhing bandages and it stumbled again.
Now would have been a really good time to have my bow.
Dare lurched upright, one arm half covering his face. He aimed his pistol and fired a single shot.
The bullet hit the stone. There was a crack, a pause, and then flame.
Fire and heat and I was tumbling across the ground. I slammed into a tree and felt it crack.
The hyena yowled. It was a rasping, heaving, coughing cry, suddenly cut off by what sounded like … metal? Vibrating?
I forced my eyes open.
The magma of the stone boiled through the hyena, spreading through its blood vessels, muscles, bones. It hardened as it flowed, changing from red-gold to shiny black. The hyena twisted its head, trying to escape its own body.
But there was no escape.
In seconds, the hyena was gone. A shining metal statue stood its place, mouth agape, claws extended, sightless eyes still fixed on me.
It took us more than an hour to hike out of the Fens. I was exhausted, sweaty, hungry, and covered in dust and river goop. I badly needed food and a shower. When we exited onto Longwood, the hospital crowding along the far side of the road, it was well after dawn on Thursday morning. The intersection was filled with vehicles, and agents in suits and tactical armor.
Agents from The Nameless House. Whatever that was.
I was shoved onto a gurney inside an ambulance. Why I couldn’t just walk across the street to the hospital, no one would tell me. But I did recognize the healer who treated my injuries: Krysa, a dedicant of Eir whom I had briefly met at the Capron Park Zoo a few months ago.
I wasn’t sure if they remembered or recognized me. I had been disguised as a transient at the time, and I doubt they ever saw me later in my “witchy business” clothes, as Mr. White liked to call them.
Krysa gently examined my hands and the burns on my face. They peeled off my leather corset and tugged up my shirt to check the nasty bruise left by my slide across the floor. And my ankle, which I now realized was sore from being grabbed and yanked by the rotten vine.
I spent the entire examination straining to see through the half-open door. I caught glimpses of Dare’s team, and of Dare, and of more people in armor entering the Fens, loaded down with weapons and spells.
A woman appeared, blocking my view. “Doctor Moretti? We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Will.”
I still thought of her as the suit who had driven me home from the Zoo. “Will. Nice to finally put a name to the face.”
“Yes, ma’am. I just wanted to say that it was … interesting to work with you. I learned a lot just by watching you last night. And that whole falling through the roof of the museum …? That was, well, epic.”
I grimaced as Krysa placed their palms on either side of my right hand, and began to whisper a quiet prayer. The Goddess answered almost immediately, and I could feel the tears in my flesh begin to mend.
“Epic, hunh?” Breathe. “You all saw that?”
“Oh, yeah.” Will nodded, grinning. “I seriously thought Dare was going to have a fit. He was pissed.”
Epic. Pissed. I felt like I was having a conversation with one of my students. My younger students.
I leaned to the side, tilting my chin towards Dare. He had been speaking to the same man in a fancy suit for twenty minutes. “That looks like a bureaucrat. Dare’s not in trouble is he?”
Will glanced quickly over her shoulder, grimaced, and turned back to me. “Suppose bureaucrat is close enough. And, no, he’s not in trouble. We more than achieved our mission objectives.”
Krysa moved to my left hand, leaving bands of bright red, partially healed skin on my right hand. The wound was clean now, and looked a week old, rather than a few hours. “If you two are quite through distracting me ….”
Will cleared her throat. “Sorry. Ma’am.” She dipped her head towards me and disappeared around the side of the ambulance.
Half an hour later, Krysa was just finishing with my ankle when Dare knocked on the back door. “Doctor Moretti. We’ll have a few follow-up questions, but you’re free to go.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Other than a light case of trespassing — performed due to an overabundance of civic concern — I haven’t done anything wrong. Why would I not be free to go?”
Krysa grunted, sounding vaguely amused, and handed me my boot and corset.
Dare ignored the question. “I’ll give you a ride home. Witch Clarkson is expecting you.”
“Don’t bother. I have a horse.” I clambered out of the ambulance and turned to half-bow to Krysa. “Healer. You and your Goddess have my thanks.”
Krysa dipped their head in return.
“Horse?” Dare sounded dubious.
“Yeah, you know. Quadruped equine. Aside from buses and pedicabs, they’re the primary means of transportation for those of us without access to cars.”
“I am familiar.” He walked alongside me as I hopped into my boot. “At least allow me to drive you to retrieve your horse. There are a few questions I would like answered now, rather than later. Such as the nature of that creature, and why it was after the kithirin egg.”
All valid questions, and I didn’t know the answers to any of them. “I’m really not —”
“Where is your bow, Doctor Moretti?”
I stopped walking. I tapped my heel against the ground to push the boot into position, and looked up at him. “Tell me about your armor, Special Agent in Charge Dare.”
His mouth thinned in annoyance.
“Thought so.” I tucked my corset under my arm. “Have a nice day.”
Of course, he was waiting for me at home.
From the road in front of White’s house, I could see him standing at my gate, hands clasped behind his back. His truck was parked by the sidewalk, a second smaller car across the street in front of the Donaldsons’ house. He didn’t wave. He just waited.
Shaking my head, I gingerly climbed off Regina and led her into the stables. Mr. White came out, took his time inspecting Regina, silently noted the missing blankets and saddlebag, then looked me up and down. He wrinkled his nose when he saw the state of my clothes and hair.
(William had given me much the same look, handed over Regina’s reins, and walked away, shaking his head.)
“Eh, well, don’t worry about the saddle or rubbing her down. I’ll take care of that. You, uh, get your witchy business taken care of?” He cleared his throat. “Have anything to do with that scary-looking fellow and his scary-big truck? And those fellows in suits who came by earlier?”
“Eh, went in to see Miss Ellen and haven’t come out yet.”
“Don’t worry. They’ll all be leaving soon. And, yes, the witchy business is taken care of.”
White grunted, nodded, and turned away. His attention was on Regina now.
I stumbled out of the garage, my feet dragging.
Mr. Heineman sat in his rocking chair on his front porch, pretending to read a newspaper. Mrs. Donaldson was in her front lawn, clad only in her bathrobe and slippers, madly trimming a perfectly sheared juniper shrub.
When I reached Dare, he flicked up the latch and pushed the gate open. He motioned me to proceed him.
Rolling my eyes, I headed up the pathway and shoved open the front door, Dare only a step behind.
“There you go shouting again,” she huffed. “I’m right here.”
And there she was in her favorite chair by the fireplace, feet up on the stool. She held a mug of tea in one hand, and a plate with a half-eaten sandwich sat on the table next to her. Two official looking men in suits occupied the other chair and the couch.
They leapt to their feet when they saw Dare. One of the men smoothed his tie nervously and crunched down on something in his mouth. He continued to chew for a few more seconds, while his partner flicked embarrassed glances between Dare, Ellie, and the plate of cookies on the side table.
The chewing stopped.
“Lin. Parker, “ Dare said, voice flat. “Why don’t you two go watch the car.”
They nodded — “Yes, sir.” “Sorry, sir.” — and bolted for the door.
When it had closed behind them, Dare turned his glare on Ellie.
“Oh, pish.” She waved her hand dismissively and slowly pushed to her feet. “Don’t be such a grump. I was being a good hostess. You really need to feed your people better.”
“They’re adults. They feed themselves.”
I was tired and dirty and I stank and I hurt all over, and this conversation was making me more aggravated. I turned towards the kitchen, hoping for a glass of juice to tide me over while I took a shower, only to be brought up short by the stack of papers next to the telephone.
“Ellie, did you grade the essays for my Chinese Philosophy class?”
“You’re welcome.” Plates and cups in hand, she walked past me towards the kitchen.
“How did you grade the essays for my Chinese Philosophy class?”
“Randomly.” Her voice echoed around the corner. “Although I did give the paper with the two page-long footnote an A. That sort of dedication to detail and research deserves a reward. Don’t worry, all the marks are in pencil.”
I sighed, rolling my head back to stare at the ceiling.
“Agent Parker and Agent Lin said there was a dragon in the Fens?”
“No. A kithirin.”
Dishes clattered and fell into the sink, and Ellie popped back into the living room. She gaped at me.
“Doesn’t matter now. Gnomelings killed the kithirin, and the egg is safe with a woodwose.”
Ellie blinked slowly. “Hunh. Well, I can tell that this story is going to take awhile. I’ll put on more tea. Agent Dare, will you be staying to join us?”
I felt my neck and shoulders stiffen. He had been so still and quiet that I had forgotten he was behind me.
“No, thank you, Witch Clarkson. I’m only here because I have several follow-up questions for Doctor Moretti.”
Jaw tight, I turned to face him.
He looked down at me. “Where is your bow, Doctor Moretti?”
I lied and told him that I just didn’t think that I would need my bow in the Fens, and steered the conversation back around to the hyena mummy and the gnomelings and the mercenaries and the kithirin.
He knew I was lying, so he asked me again, and then again. I kept lying and kept redirecting the conversation.
It took an hour to get him out of the house. He told me not to concern myself with the gnomelings or finding their doorway into our world — the very thing that had taken me into the Fens in the first place. It was “already being dealt with.”
As Dare moved down the sidewalk towards his truck, he called over his shoulder, “I’ll be in touch.”
I watched his truck and the car carrying Lin and Parker until they disappeared around the corner. I ignored Mrs. Donaldson’s friendly wave and “yoo-hoo!” from across the street and slammed the door shut.
When I turned back around, Ellie was waiting for me.
“Shower. You stink. And bag up your clothes. And then I want the entire story. Don’t leave out anything.” She paused. “I’ll get a pen and some paper. We’re going to have a lot to send in to Jericho’s.”
I came home from the university late Friday afternoon to find Mr. Tomiya at my front gate, hurling curses across the lawn at my door. When he spotted me, he did a double-take, glared at the door, and hobbled towards me at a rapid pace.
His cane clacked against the sidewalk.
Curtains twitched in the windows at the Donaldsons’ and Hillyers’, and Mrs. Vose was on her front porch, pretending to water her hanging baskets of geraniums.
“You!” Tomiya shouted. “This is all your fault! You are a terrible neighbor! Terrible! They ripped out my flowers! All of them!”
I shifted the bag on my shoulder, grimacing as it hit my bruised hip. Krysa had partially healed it, but the bruise still hurt. Note to my future self: no more sliding across the floor to escape mercenaries intent on killing me.
“Those … those people with their trucks and their fancy suits. They came this morning with fire and saws and magic and they tore out and burned all of my flowers! They killed all of the gnomelings! Every last one!” He shoved closer, cane striking the sidewalk between my feet. “I could have won the Heritage Flower Festival this year! Finally! After twenty-five years, I could have won!”
“Mmm.” From the corner of my eye, I saw the Hillyers’ front window slowly slide up and open. Mrs. Vose had given up on watering her geraniums and was now standing right at the fence, leaning forward so that she could catch every word. “Something I am sure Nathan White would have appreciated.”
“After all, your victory only would have cost every cat, dog, squirrel, bird, raccoon, and assorted other animals in the neighborhood. I’m sure that Mr. Loehn would take great comfort in knowing that the death of his beloved Pekingese was for a good cause. And, remind me again, how many cats do the Koothrapalis have? Naomi does like to dress up the kittens and push them around the neighborhood in her stroller.”
Mr. Tomiya’s mouth was hanging open. “I — well — that is —”
“If it’s any consolation, Ellie and I will come by tomorrow to help you start rebuilding your garden. We have some seeds and seedlings that you can use.” I hesitated, compassion pushing away some of my annoyance and anger. “I know what it’s like to lose a garden, something beautiful that you have worked for so hard. You say that I’m a bad neighbor. Well, let me try to be a good neighbor.”
His cheeks puffed out and he considered me for a long minute. “Very well,” he finally agreed, then lifted his cane to wave it under my nose. “But they had best be extraordinary seeds! Amazing! Worthy of the Heritage Flower Festival!”
“Absolutely,” I assured him, nodding firmly.
“Mmmm.” With one last disapproving glance, he hobbled away, his cane clacking.
I smiled and waved at Mrs. Vose, who waved back cautiously, and then ran into her house; I was sure that she and Mrs. Donaldson would be exchanging gossip in a matter of seconds. Pushing through the gate, I paused to study the oak tree with its purplish bark and mulberry-colored leaves. A handful floated down to touch the ground and disintegrate.
Shaking my head, I climbed the porch steps and shoved open the door.
“Ellie!” I yelled. “Do we have any flower seeds?”
[The End (For Now)]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published anthologies, poems, and short stories can be found there.]