The witch stood in the forest, staring at the earthen rift. People would die; such a thing was inevitable now. The furrows in the earth were deep enough that a noxious goop not unlike congealing blood began to burble to the surface.
Several hobs popped into the small clearing nearest the furrow.
“What have you done?”
“That’s wretched.” One of the hobs gagged loudly.
“It had to be done,” the witch said mildly.
One hob, a tiny woman no more than a half meter tall, put her hands on her hips and glared at the witch. “Witches will die from this.”
The goop oozed across the loamy soil, leaving plants withering with rot and disease. Despite the severity of the crime, the hobs were limited in what they could and could not do. Hobs, of course, were made by magic. They were the physical embodiment of the very thing that caused witches to come to Crenshaw. In essence, if magic were magic sentient, it would be a hob—diminutive, omnipresent, and occasionally terrifying.
Not that most witches realized that! They had once, the first witches here in Crenshaw. The hobs painstakingly explained magic, built a castle to teach them lessons, showed them the rules, explained the whys and what-fors and if-thens, but witches started out as regular folk. Humans. And humans were remarkably obstinate. Over time, they’d decided they knew better, taken over the castle, and generally gone about mucking things up.
And this witch, this beastly selfish witch, had ripped a hole in the ground so poison spilled out into the haven that magic—that hobs—had made for their progeny. For really, that was what witches were, difficult foolish children of magic. No matter that magic healed their bodies and made their lives last for centuries. No matter that they had everything they had needed in this small safe hamlet.
The witch walked away, singing cheerily, as if poisoning the very earth that sustained witches was something jovial.
“Do we fix it?” one of the hobs mused.
The general muttering that rose up continued for some time, until one hob—Clancy by name—said, “No. We do not. They need to face consequences for their dimwitted actions.”
“It was one witch!” a sweeter hob pointed out.
“Was it, though?” Clancy looked around at his fellow hobs. “Quite a lot of them talking about going back to whence they came.”
Hobs exchanged looks. Going back, of course, would be dangerous. That was why Crenshaw existed in the first place, to prevent magical folk from going about in the un-magical world.
And that, as they say, was that. The fate of Crenshaw was in the hands of the witches now. They’d figure it out or die.
Chapter 1: Ellie
“Ellie!” Aunt Hestia’s voice cracked through the old farmhouse like a whip.
Elleanor Brandeau exhaled in relief. Every day, that insistent voice was like a pressure valve opening, easing the panic that Hestia would vanish. Again. As a younger woman, Hestia had disappeared without a trace for several years. The grumbling archaeologist upstairs rarely mentioned it, but Ellie thought about it every day.
Was this the day she’d be gone? Was this the day that everything fell apart?
There was a reason Hestia had gone, and until Ellie understood it, she wrestled with anxiety. Despite her aunt’s insistence that she knew nothing about that missing time—and plenty of therapists telling Ellie that it was impossible to know—Ellie had doubts. More than that, perhaps, she an irksome sense that there was an answer just at the edge of knowing.
As with every morning, Elleanor Brandeau was downstairs in the kitchen enjoying a bit of silence with a pot of over-priced coffee. As a teen, she would open Hestia’s door, just to make sure she was still there. Now, she was an adult, so she’d watch the automatic pot brew coffee in silence.
Every day, the coffee clicked on at 6:00 a.m. Hestia would wake by 6:15 a.m.
Those fifteen minutes dragged out with a pressure Ellie hated. She’d wait patiently for both the summons and the caffeine.
Fine, maybe not exactly patiently. Ellie watched the pot like a fox watched the hens that used to live in the coop out back. Unlike the fox that still crept around their empty backyard henhouse every so often, Ellie didn’t paw at the coffee pot. She’d wait for the coffee and her aunt, busy herself baking—today was fresh lemon scones—and wait.
“Is the coffee ready, El?” Hestia called from her upstairs lair.
“On the way!” Ellie smiled wider. Life was normal, steady.
Hestia had some sort of internal timer. By 6:15 , she was usually awake and calling to Ellie. Until recently, she’d call out to have Ellie pour her a cup and then come to the kitchen so it was the “perfect temperature” when she walked into the oversized room. Lately, she’d had to wait to have it brought to her.
Sixty-three years of sass and salt in a five-foot package, Hestia Brandeau was as energetic as a woman half her age—and twice as surly since she needed a hip replaced. Surgery was in a matter of days, and it was hanging over the household like a wet cloud.
“Coming!” Ellie sang out as she poured a cup for Hestia and shoved the tray of second scones into the oven.
A piping hot scone in one hand and coffee in the other, Ellie climbed up to the third floor where Hestia was propped up like a Victorian regent in a bed that was so immense that it had to be assembled inside the bedroom.
“Scones already . . . ?” Hestia eyed the plate.
“My, what big eyes you have,” Ellie teased, wiggling the scone.
“Not your granny, you beastly child.” Hestia grabbed the dark wood cane beside the bed and made to stand up. “If you won’t hand it over, I’ll go get my own damned scone.”
“Nope.” Ellie was there beside her in an instant. “Do you want to fall again?”
“No. I want to be on my feet in my own damn kitchen, but I’ll settle for that scone and a cup of black coffee,” Hestia grumbled.
Ellie handed her the breakfast and then went over to the recliner by the window. It was burgundy toned, like the curtains on Hestia’s ornate bed.
“Almost there,” Ellie reminded them both.
A few days until surgery. Then recovery . . . At least three months of Hestia testing the rules, and Ellie trying to convince her parental figure that not all rules were meant to be broken.
Hestia had raised her since Ellie’s parents had died, but she wasn’t a rule-follower by nature. Ellie had started filling that role for both of them by the time she was in her twenties—and Hestia had started testing any and every rule Ellie tried to impose.
Ellie took a long moment before saying, “If you fall down the stairs because you’re being impatient, you’re going to be sleeping in one of those rental hospital beds. That’s the deal. You promised you’d follow the rules if I agreed to not rent one.”
At that, Hestia cackled. There was no other word for it. The elegant little woman in her red damask four-poster Jacobean bed with its ornately carved posts and thick canopy cackled like a wily old witch.
“You’re my favorite niece,” Hestia said once her cackling subsided. “Lord knows, no one else in this world ever had the gumption to stand up to me.”
Ellie smiled, despite best efforts. “I’m your only niece, and you are a cantankerous old goat.”
“You’re no fun, El.” Hestia sighed. “When I was your age—”
“You were just as feisty as now, dating all over, but free as a bird,” Ellie finished.
“Don’t you want more out of life?” Hestia’s teasing faltered. “A woman to settle down with . . .”
“Hestia.” Ellie rubbed her temples. Sure, she wanted that—a great sweep-her-off-her-feet romance—but it wasn’t in the cards. Not for her. She lived a quiet life in a quiet town with an elderly relative. It wasn’t exactly prime conditions for romance. “I don’t need that right now.”
“Well, I do. Maybe we could go into Pittsburgh to a singles bar when I’m on my feet again.” Hestia grabbed her laptop, presumably to start researching bars.
“I swear I’ll take away the internet one of these days.” Ellie ran downstairs to pull the second set of scones out of the oven.
The truth of the matter was that sometimes, when Ellie was alone and thinking about the future, she wondered what was left for her. Was this it? Would she grow old with her aunt as her whole life? There were no advancements to be had in the library, beyond the occasional pay bump, and she had no hobbies other than researching missing people.
She lived a life of stasis. Quiet. Mundane.
If I were to vanish or die, would anyone other than Hestia even give me a second thought?
That thought stung. She wanted something more—a woman who made her heart race and her words tangle. A romance that was book-worthy, dramatic and exciting. To have that meant being someone else, someone not mundane and uninteresting. So Ellie chose safety over dreams. Over and over.
It’s better this way.
A few hours later, Ellie was still pondering her place in the world as she drove to work at the Ligonier Public Library. After Ellie’s parents had died, Hestia had gone from field archaeologist to part-time teaching while writing cozy mysteries and the occasional romance that she passed out like Halloween treats at every possible chance. She’d rearranged her life so as to be both mother and father to a child who was anything but easy at the time.
How could Ellie even think about moving away or finding a relationship now that Hestia needed her? Sixty-three wasn’t old, but it was old enough that Hestia sometimes needed help.
So Ellie got a degree by commuting the hour and change into Pittsburgh. She eventually got a job in Ligonier. She stayed home or worked. Sure, there were occasional flings over in Greensburg or in Pittsburgh, but nothing that could become serious and result in Ellie moving.
She needed to be sure that Hestia wouldn’t vanish again. Despite what her last therapist said, Ellie was certain there was a reason why some people vanished. Not the usual reasons, like murderous spouses or criminals silencing witnesses, but a reason Ellie couldn’t quite understand—despite her copious research. The only thing she had gleaned was the missing were all interesting, adventurous people.
So Ellie decided to be uninteresting, although she had a secret belief that she was far from uninteresting. She laughed it off most days. It was a sort of arrogance, a narcissism, to believe Ellie Brandeau—small-town librarian and quiet wallflower—was anything extraordinary.
And thinking otherwise made her feel like eels were swarming under her skin.
Chapter 2: Maggie
Maggie Lynch was driving through the mountains of North Carolina at the end of her vacation with her son, Craig. By tonight, she would have to turn her son over to his father.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Craig folded himself into the too-small space of the passenger seat. He was all leg and arms, a teen athlete whose body seemed longer and leaner than he knew what to do with unless he was on a field or court.
“Not really,” Maggie admitted. A part of her wanted to just keep driving, to go anywhere else. Fake identities. New lives. Maybe she could waitress or something.
“Something new bothering you?” Craig prompted. “Something Dad did?”
Maggie glanced at him and sighed. “All the parenting books say not to disparage the other parent.”
Craig rolled his eyes. “Uh-huh.”
She still wasn’t ready to tell Craig that Leon wanted full custody—or how much of a criminal his father was. Tell him I knowingly married a crook. What does that make me look like? So Maggie had avoided the conversation the entire trip. Now she felt like something was rolling through her veins and making her feel queasy in the process. Lying always made her feel sick.
“We need to talk about something that came up last week,” she finally said.
Craig deserved to know. His opinion mattered to her, even if Leon hadn’t asked him what he wanted.
“Is it the part where you tell me the truth about Dad’s job?” Craig sounded far too mature for his years. “Or that he’s trying to cut you out of my life?”
“Maybe . . . ?” She glanced at Craig, trying to figure out how to tell him not to antagonize his father.
Would he really hurt his own son?
Then, a terrible snapping noise in the general area of her engine made her pause. Or maybe it was more that it felt like a snap. She couldn’t explain it, but the brakes were squishy all of the sudden.
The brakes weren’t working. The SUV started going faster and faster. Mashing down the pedal did nothing to slow them down. Leon, you bastard! She knew her ex was lower than a possum’s belly, but she’d thought he’d care enough to not hurt Craig.
“Mom!” Craig yelled.
“Hold on!” Margaret knew with certainty that this was how they would die if she didn’t do something, and what felt like a protective bubble oozed out of her, trying to encase her body. She swore she could see it. I don’t want to live if Craig dies. She shoved the bubble at him.
“Slow down!” Craig begged-asked-ordered.
“Trying. No brakes,” she said, one hand tight on the wheel as the other fumbled for the emergency brake.
The imaginary bubble she’d shoved out of herself around Craig was now holding him motionless. She couldn’t say how or why, but she felt it. She felt a sort of barrier that extended from her body to keep him safe.
The edges of the bubble leaked onto her, as if slowing her down, and she shoved it toward her son again.
If they could get around this curve safely, maybe she could try to stop the hurtling speed of the whole vehicle with a second bubble-cushion. If she tried arresting the speed now, they might flip tail over nose.
“Seatbelt tight?” was the last clear thing she was sure she said.
Maggie couldn’t turn the wheel in time, couldn’t get around the curve. There was a clarity, an icicle moment of stabbing comprehension, when she realized there was no way to avoid the accident. They’d gone too close to the berm. The side of the vehicle slammed into a guardrail with a screech of metal sliding along metal. The SUV flipped side-over-top, rolling like one of Craig’s toy cars when he was a toddler.
This is where we die, she thought.
They were careening toward the bottom of a ravine, battered about as thick-needled trees sort of slowed them. They rolled down an embankment and landed with a shudder against a row of old trees. One branch jutted through the back window, and all she could smell was pine sap, overheating engine, and someone’s blood. My blood. She knew with a sudden certainty that Craig was safe. She had always known when he was safe or in peril. Craig isn’t hurt.
“Mom? Mom!” Craig sounded scared.
“It’s all right.” Maggie tried to reach out to him, to comfort him. He was alive. That was all that mattered now. She felt through whatever mom-knowing she had with Craig, had always had with him, that he was okay.
The pain was all hers.
She said, “It’s fine. You’re safe, baby. We stopped and—”
“You’re bleeding.” His seatbelt unbuckled with a clunk, and Maggie looked over at him.
He looked fine, completely uninjured. She felt no pain radiating from him. Bubble. The bubble worked. Her woozy brain insisted she’d protected him, that she’d wrapped him up in a bubble and kept him safe even now. He was fine. That was all she needed to know. She could let go.
“Christ. Mom, open your eyes.” Craig’s hand was on her cheek, like when he was a toddler and she’d had the flu. “Please, Mom? Look at me. I need you to stay awake.”
Maggie reached up to pat his hand. “Mommy’s tired right now. Go play with your trucks . . .”
He slapped her face. “No. Wake up, Mom! I need you to wake up.”
As Maggie opened her eyes, she saw her son trying to get her seatbelt undone. “Come on, Mom. Help me get you out. Focus.”
“Hey.” She grabbed his arm, realizing too late that she was leaving blood on his arm. “I’m okay, sweetie. I’m okay.”
“You’re really not.”
Maggie focused on clarity she didn’t quite have, suddenly doubting herself at the sight of blood on him. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m okay. The blood’s all yours, Mom. I’m fine. You need—”
“Just climb out the window. One step at a time. You get out, and then we’ll get me out, okay? This is just a scratch. . . . Remember when you got that cut skateboarding. What did I say?”
“Head wounds bleed more. Thin skin,” Craig repeated dutifully.
“Right. I’m okay. Just a cut.” Maggie was fairly sure she was lying, but all that mattered was Craig being focused enough to be safe. Her chest hurt where a bone was broken.
My lungs hurt.
Craig climbed out the now-shattered back window with all the agility of a teen baseball player. Then he jerked on her door, shaking the entire SUV in the process. “It’s stuck.”
“Okay . . . but you’re out there now, right?”
“You aren’t, though, Mom.” He looked like he was going to start crying. He’d stuck his arm through the window and tried to force her seatbelt to release her. Her increasingly mature son sounded like a small child now. “Your door’s stuck. Your seatbelt. What do we do?”
“Phone?” she asked, pushing her panic as far down as she could. Her lungs hurt like there wasn’t enough air getting in, and she couldn’t tell if it was an injury or panic attack.
“No signal,” Craig said finally. “I texted Dad, and coach, and . . . that’s it. I’m not even sure if the texts went and—”
“Shhh. Hey? Look at me. I’m okay. Just hit my head.” Maggie tried to sound cheerful, calm, all the things you had to be when your kid was panicking. “I just need a little nap for energy. Then I’ll think of something.”
“I’ll flag someone down,” Craig promised, sounding calmer now that he had an idea. He really was more like her than his dad, and she was grateful for it. He nodded to himself. “I can climb up there. I’ll get help, and then we’ll get you out of there. Just . . . try to stay awake, Mom. Please?”
“I can’t help you if you don’t cooperate,” he said, sounding far more mature than his teen experience would hint. “Stay awake.”
“Got it, but I need you to be careful with the cars up there! If there’s anyone sketchy, you stay away from them. Don’t get in a car with a stranger either. Just ask them to call the cops or ambulance.” Margaret had wanted to grab him, protect him. She was the mother, not a child to be rescued. “Then you come down here with me to wait. Stay with me while they come back, so I can protect you. I love you.”
“You, too. Always, Mom. Always.” He kissed her cheek, and then he took off.
He’d been swearing and darting worried looks at her when Margaret watched him vanish into the forest. That boy was the single greatest achievement of her life. No degrees or legal victories compared to the way she felt looking at the kindhearted man she was raising.
This trip, this escape to nature, was to be a time for clearing her mind. She’d realized she needed it when she starting debating running with Craig, kidnapping him really. That wasn’t fair to any sports scholarships he might get. Is that worth more than keeping away from his dad? In reality, she thought anything, any cost, was fine if it would keep Craig away from his father.
But now Margaret was trapped by the mangled door of the driver’s side, which had bent into the steering wheel. Leon will argue this is somehow my fault. Maggie thought about the car careening out of control, the brakes not engaging. Someone had cut the line.
Leon tried to kill us.
He tried to kill my son.
She’d tried to force the seatbelt to let loose. She’d even tried tearing at it with her teeth. Nothing worked.
So she waited. When Craig returned, she’d get checked out, and they’d run. There was no other choice. Leon was dangerous.
But then, she fell asleep or maybe passed out. She couldn’t say which really, but the sun finished setting, and her son hadn’t come back. Was he in danger? Had he collapsed? What if he had internal injuries and was lying out there in the woods dying?
She felt stronger, though, like whatever exhaustion she’d had was letting up. She shoved at the car door, smacking it over and over as if she could do what her son couldn’t.
“Craig! Where are you?” she yelled.
She needed to get out, to find her son, to get him to safety.
After a blink that made no sense, a knife was somehow in her hand. Maybe she was hallucinating, or Craig had left it there, but she’d forgotten . . . ?
Whatever the reason, Margaret sawed through the seatbelt to get free. “Craig! Can you hear me? Craig!”
Desperation to get to her son was mounting toward a panic attack as the car door exploded outward. She looked for Craig, expecting to see him with the paramedics or police or something.
Silence greeted Maggie as she lurched out—ready to crawl through the forest to find her son. She landed on her hands and knees on the pine-needle-covered ground. No one was there. No vehicles. No Craig. No one at all.
How did the door rip off?
She looked for a . . . bear? Nothing else she could think of other than a machine would be powerful enough to tear the door off the SUV.
As Maggie tried to brace herself on the vehicle’s wreckage, she realized it was gone. The SUV, the crushed undergrowth she’d plowed through, the broken glass—it was all gone. All she had was the knife.
“Craig! Where are you?”
But as she climbed the hill, she’d discovered that she was no longer near the road either. Nothing made any sense. She couldn’t get to her son without finding help, though.
Somehow, Maggie was outside a castle. Tall spires and towers jutted into a blue sky, and balconies clung to the sides of the stone like hastily affixed iron ornaments. Windows taller than a person peppered the whole of the place in regular patterns. Some looked to be stained glass, and others were thick glass that looked opaque from here.
It wasn’t the Biltmore, which as far as she knew was the only proper castle in the state of North Carolina. This was a building that had the look of ages and ages passing. The stone exterior was worn from rain, or time, or both. It was out of place here in the North Carolina forest, and she was not sure how such a thing wasn’t on the map.
Maybe they can help find Craig . . . or maybe he’s here, too!
Something about that answer was wrong, but she couldn’t say what it was. Very few things made sense currently. All she knew was that she was separated from her son, and that was enough for her to press forward toward a misplaced castle in an out-of-season forest.
Because, although there was still a forest, her mangled vehicle was gone, and the trees looked different. Wrong species or whatever a person called types of trees. There was a castle, no car, and Maggie was certain something here was terribly amiss.
“Careful, now,” a man in what appeared to be some sort of historical costume said. “The trip can make you queasy.”
“Craig’s quite fine,” the man said. “Let’s see to you now, Margaret, hmm?”
Maggie studied him as he helped her into a wooden wheelchair and rolled her along the bumpy ground right into the castle. Tall, muscular enough to rescue people from accidents—but he wasn’t wearing a paramedic or firefighter’s gear. He had on what looked like a graduation robe, sans hood. Was there a university here? He certainly didn’t look like any professor she’d ever had with a tattoo on his throat and hipster hairstyle.
“Where are we?” Maggie looked around, expecting to see Craig or nurses or even hotel staff.
“Crenshaw.” He smiled at her in the same way that she’d smile at victims on the stand, pity obvious. “You’ll be okay, Margaret. Rest now. Rest and recover.”
Maggie nodded, and despite the fact she was alone in a castle with a costumed stranger, she fell asleep right there in her wooden wheelchair.
Chapter 3 Ellie
The Ligonier Valley Library, one of the various Carnegie libraries, was built in 1908. It was tucked in the same part of town as the post office, assorted restaurants, a coffee shop, antique and art spots, and The Diamond, a park with benches aplenty and a gazebo in the center. Honestly, if there were ever a Hallmark movie setting, Ligonier’s main street was it.
Today, the brief drive through the wooded area where she lived toward downtown had been alive with color, as if painters had been set loose on the thick trees that lined the drive to work. No matter how many years Ellie had spent here, the coming of winter always felt magical. Change. It was in the cold morning air, and in the landscape around her. Pennsylvania wasn’t far enough north that freezing weather came too early, but winter was edging near, and the air tasted of it.
“Earlier than usual today,” one of the regular patrons remarked as Ellie went inside. She was as much a fixture as the park benches,
Years ago, Ellie had decided to keep her life orderly. Order was uninteresting. Uninteresting people never vanished. They lived quiet lives, perhaps even boring lives, not making waves or attracting attention.
Even if boring doesn’t come easily.
Ellie, like her aunt, was anything but orderly. Impulsivity was her first reaction to most everything, but ordinary people don’t go missing. So Elleanor Zelena Brandeau was ordinary. From the clothes she wore to the car she drove, Ellie was average. Basic brown hair. Not too thin, not too heavy, not too fit. She drove a nondescript white sedan—because three-fourths of all cars purchased in the U.S. were white, gray, or black.
She chose an average small town to work in, and she opted to live in an area outside town with no nearby neighbors. Missing people reports always included talks with neighbors. Ellie had created the most uninteresting day-to-day life that she could.
Her only exceptions were forays into Greenburg or Pittsburgh for dates and a job that was exciting to her. Some people might think being a librarian was uninteresting, but those people were Not Her Sort of people. Anyone who disliked books was suspect.
Possible kidnappers. Criminals. Generally questionable people.
On this topic, Ellie had strong feelings.
Her town—Ligonier, Pennsylvania—was a beautiful little colonial town with a pristine main street, a historic fort called Fort Ligonier, and an hour’s drive away was Fallingwater, one of the most extraordinary of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. As far as places to live, it was both gorgeous and quiet.
One might even call it uninteresting.
At least it had felt that way until today.
Today, walking through the stacks, Ellie found herself face-to-face with a black-clad, elegant woman who looked like she’d gotten lost on the way home from a noir film. She was a far cry from the usual patrons. Long flowing trousers hid most of her legs, and delicately heeled boots completed the unusual attire. She was white in the way of someone who had never seen the sun, porcelain or ivory or some such would be the tone if she needed to wear makeup. She didn’t, though. She had a perfect complexion.
Her face was partially hidden behind a high-collared shawl and low-tilted hat with a short stark-white veil. The combination of the angle and the veil was such that it seemed she was forcing all gazes to her lips—which were painted a shade of red that screamed notice-me-now.
As if she wasn’t already intriguing, she walked through the stacks with a floral teacup of all things.
“Excuse me,” Ellie said, stalking after her. “No open containers in the library.”
The teacup clattered softly as it was returned to a saucer the woman held in her other hand.
Who carried a saucer and cup with them in a library?
“But tea helps me think,” the woman said, as if that were a reasonable explanation for carrying tea so close to the dozens of books that would be damaged if she tripped or was bumped or . . .
“Tea is dangerous to the books,” Ellie pointed out. “Do you need help finding something?”
“Would you help me if I did?” the woman asked, cocking a hip against the shelf.
“That’s my job,” Ellie said.
“To help damsels in distress?” The woman removed her absurd hat and dropped it to the floor.
Ellie stared at her, taking in the elegant pantsuit and striking features. She looked much younger than her voice had sounded. In truth, she looked like a lost movie star from another era—or maybe a queen. What she didn’t look like was a damsel in distress. She had the shape of a woman who could wander into a yoga or cycling class. Fit but not bulky. Tall and lean, painted lips, and flawless skin. She was breathtaking.
“Will you be my hero?” she murmured to Ellie. “Slay dragons for me?”
“We don’t have an abundance of dragons here,” Ellie managed to say even as her heart surged at the idea of being this woman’s hero. She stepped farther into the aisle, trying to be quiet as she answered, “If you need research help, I’m a librarian here.”
“Do you often help strangers, Miss Brandeau?” The woman tilted her head.
“I am a librarian.” Ellie kept her voice professional, although it struck her that she had not shared her name. Was she here for Ellie specifically? The thought of it was impossible; but in that way she always knew when people were lying, Ellie knew this beautiful stranger was previously aware of her for some reason.
She stepped closer. “What if you’re what I’m looking for?”
Ellie felt like she was a bird caught in a snare. Her pulse sped, and her hands twitched as if she might need to defend herself. “I highly doubt that, Miss . . . ?”
“Prospero.” The woman drained her teacup and sat it and the saucer on the nearest shelf.
“What an odd name,” Ellie whispered.
Prospero placed a hand on Ellie’s wrist, fingertips grazing the thin skin there so gently that Ellie swore she stopped breathing. “Miss Brandeau, I came here to find you. You’re not quite like other people, are you? Secretly dreaming of more?”
Ellie shivered. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“No. A great number of people are content,” Prospero murmured, stroking Ellie’s wrist. “You aren’t, though. I wasn’t, either, you know.”
A little zing ran through Ellie, as if the gorgeous woman had an electric current in her skin. Everywhere they touched, Ellie felt currents running through her skin. She stepped even closer to Prospero, so they were intimately close, although the surge of electricity felt real enough that Ellie’s heart sped dangerously.
Who knew attraction could feel so close to a panic attack?
Prospero’s free hand reached up to thread through Ellie’s hair, setting actual sparks in the air. “Tell me, Miss Brandeau. What would you do if you had the chance to be a hero?”
Ellie laughed. “I’m a research librarian with a penchant for baking and reading excessively.”
“And are you content?” Prospero stared into her eyes, as if she could discern hidden answers there.
“No,” Ellie whispered. She thought Prospero was about to kiss her, so she tilted her face upward.
“This might hurt, and I do apologize for that,” Prospero said, hand curling around Ellie’s hip.
“Hurt? Kisses aren’t pain.” Ellie brushed her lips over the bold red lips that were now so ridiculously close.
Elleanor Brandeau was not the sort to kiss strangers in the library. She was sensible, uninteresting. But Prospero’s lips parted on a word or a noise, and all the sense Ellie possessed left the room.
She swayed toward Prospero. After a lifetime of secret dreams of a grand romance, it was happening.
Prospero’s arm wrapped around Ellie’s waist, and the electric feeling surged into something different. Ellie felt like the entire world was on fast-forward, her whole body glowing with some sort of energy that made no sense. Her heartbeat raced at a pace akin to high-speed trains, and her entire body tensed.
Was this love at first touch?
Was that actually possible?
Ellie’s knees buckled suddenly. Her heartbeat sped in a way that was closer to terrified than magical.
Something is wrong.
“What’s happening?” she managed to say, frightened and embarrassed all at once. She had an awkward realization that she might pass out. Her heart actually hurt.
Panic attack or heart attack?
Kisses didn’t give a person—even one as mundane as Ellie—a heart attack.
Carefully, Prospero lowered her to the floor. She crouched down and gently tilted Ellie’s face, so they were eye-to-eye. “Miss Brandeau? I fear this was a mistake.”
Ellie felt Prospero’s touch like a cool flush, and for one brief moment, nothing else mattered. “I don’t know what that was. I don’t have asthma or a heart thing.”
“I shouldn’t . . . I can’t . . . do this to you. I thought I could. I came here to—” Prospero bowed her head, trembling ever so slightly.
At the sight of Prospero shaking, Ellie wanted to be the strong one, the hero, anything it took to put this back on the path Ellie thought it was going. “I swear I don’t usually shake and fall over after a kiss—even when the kissed is from someone who looks like you.”
Prospero gave her what looked like a sad smile. “I thought there were no lines I wouldn’t cross. You’ve proven me wrong.”
Ellie had questions, confusions, but as she pushed herself upward, trying for a more dignified position than fainted-at-a-kiss, all she could say was, “Ccan I see you sometime?”
Prospero leveled her a look that Ellie suspected was meant to be intimidating, but she also saw the hint of a smile thar Prospero tried to hide. “Why would you want to? I’ve left you a jumble on the floor, Miss Brandeau.”
“I kissed you,” Ellie said, marveling at her own audacity. “I never do things like that, you know. Maybe that’s why I panicked. I won’t pass out if you kiss me. I’m safe.”
“Unfortunately, I’m not safe, Miss Brandeau.” Prospero gathered up her hat and stood.
Ellie was a sensible woman, one who didn’t blurt out feelings and such, but she knew with a certainty that Prospero would not flinch away when she said, “I get this feeling of rightness or a knot in my stomach when I meet people. You feel right to me.”
Prospero stared down at her. “Our kiss left you crumpled on the floor, Miss Brandeau. That’s the very opposite of right.”
“Fair. I felt faint, but I’m sure there’s a good reason. I was overwhelmed, or my blood sugar is low or something.” Ellie watched the beautiful woman wrestle with some thought or misgiving, and for a flicker of a moment, she thought she might get an answer.
“See your healer, please.” Prospero straightened her hat, tugging the veil over her face more fully now.
“Over a panic attack?”
“Hopefully, one day we will share a meal and some truths, Miss Brandeau.” Then Prospero swept away, leaving her teacup there like it was discardable.
See my healer? Who says “healer”?
Ellie stared after the mysterious Prospero, admiring the arrogant stride and the measured clackity-click-clack of her footsteps. Then Ellie looked the underside of her wrist; fingerprints bruised the skin and tiny lines radiated out like bolts of electricity had been traced there. Had that been a real shock, not just a panic attack?
Ellie looked around. There were no loose wires in the library stacks. No lightning sparking through walls or shattered light fixtures.
That left the kiss.
But such things were impossible. Kisses couldn’t be deadly. There was a rational answer. There must be. All questions had rational answers.
Had Prospero pressed too hard on my skin and caught a nerve under her fingertips in the process?
Ellie heart still thundered in her chest, but panic attacks and bruises notwithstanding, she couldn’t help wishing Prospero would return. Meeting her was the single most interesting thing that had happened.
She made me feel interesting.
Chapter 4 Daniel
Maybe it was the backpack that caused all the problems. Honestly, it weighed almost as much as Dan did, but he needed things. Food. Dishes for the food. Soap for the dishes. Clothes. First aid. Sleeping bag. Fire starter.
And books. He had to have books.
Of course, pondering the contents of his bag as he fell arse over tea kettle—he’d always liked that term—through the air, branches, and general end-of-life doom was silly. He ought to have had flashbacks. Dan expected a highlights reel of his life. Moments that mattered. Longing for the things un-done.
“Are you broken?” a man prompted.
Dan looked up at the robed man. Taller than average with the sort of muscular form that made him seem menacing. Piercing ice-blue eyes. A black tattoo that barely showed on his throat. The only soft thing about him was a 1950s-retro hairstyle.
There very clearly was an afterlife, and Dan decided that all the years of lousy jobs and mocking coworkers were just fine if this was the reward.
“Hellllooo, nurse.” Dan rubbed his mouth, as he felt like he was drooling embarrassingly. What he found was blood.
Dead people don’t bleed.
The man murmured a word that Dan couldn’t hear, and then sighed before saying, “Many of your ribs broke. Try not to—”
Dan scurried backward, as if he could escape his own blood.
“Something is very wrong,” he whispered, wondering if the guy he owed money to had caught up with him. He’d been beaten pretty badly a few times before, so it wouldn’t be unusual.
A man needs a vice, though.
Dan’s was gambling.
Something was off, though. The idea of the bookie’s enforcers following him to a hiking trail was funny enough to make Dan laugh—which made him wheeze and pass out.
The next time he woke, Dan was in what appeared to be a hospital bed from the feel of the sheets. Maybe it was silly, but he thought coarse sheets were the worst. When he traveled, Dan always brought his own sheets. In fact, he had brought a set of sheets, including a pillowcase that was stuffed with his laundry, while camping.
He looked around and saw his backpack beside his bed. Hopefully, he wouldn’t have to spend eternity lugging it around—especially as it still weighed as much as on the failed hike. Dan glared at the offensive bag and grumbled, “The afterlife is weird . . . and it smells like sulfur.”
He looked up at the approach of a curvy woman in an old-fashioned hat and dress who held out a cup of something green and frothy.
“Is this hell?”
“It smells like it,” he pointed out, scrunching up his face as if to erase the stench of sulfur that seemed to be everywhere.
“You get used to it.” She wiggled the cup. “Drink this, dear. You’ll feel better.”
Dan drank it, and that was that. He was out cold again.
That cycle of wake, drink gross smoothies, and pass out was repeated several times, but each time he felt better and better. It still smelled like rotten eggs every time.
Maybe I was dehydrated.
Maybe I hallucinated the fall and the blood.
But even in his flickers of awareness, Dan knew better. Lies made him feel peculiar—like ants in his veins—even when he was the one lying.
Finally, Dan woke to find the nurse—or doctor?—talking to Cosplay Hottie.
“He had a sickness in him,” she said.
“How long to fix it?”
“Seriously, Sondre? I already repaired everything. As long as he stays here, he’ll be fine. If he leaves . . .” She glanced at Dan.
“Hello?” Dan said, feeling awkward about eavesdropping.
The woman flashed him a smile, pivoted, and was gone.
“I have questions,” he said, louder now. “Am I dead? And why does it smell like bad eggs?”
The man, Sondre apparently, rubbed his face and gestured toward the door. “Come with me.”
Sonde slung Dan’s backpack over one shoulder like it weighed nothing.
Dan stood, testing his stability, and in the next few minutes, he was back on his feet and escorted out of the hospital. After a lifetime of hospital visits, Dan still had a moment of relief each time he was able to walk out on his own. One more day, week, month, year of life was all he could hope for. The thought that the doctor was right—that she’s removed his “sickness” so easily astounded him.
Dan followed Sondre as he strolled out of the infirmary into a courtyard that was straight out of the Middle Ages. Okay, maybe not totally. No horses. No swordplay. But it was a courtyard outside a castle, and in the distance, mountains loomed. It was if a European village had been restored to function.
And Dan felt better than he had in years. Who knew nearly dying was the cure? Dan grinned, almost giddy. His “sickness” was cancer, and from what he’d heard, it was gone. Not “More surgery/have some radiation/sorry about the new holes in your bones.” Just gone.
“This is amazing,” Dan whispered. There was an energy here, a sense of wellness that he hadn’t often felt. He’d chased that sense of peace often enough via gambling. Betting on the horses and on games he didn’t understand created a fleeting glimmer of joy. The peace he felt doing that wasn’t real, though. It was like a quick buzz, but then it faded.
And then he’d lost and compounded the loss.
And then he’d been beaten by men who had no idea how brittle his bones were. A few pins and screws and plates later, Dan thought he’d learned his lesson—right up until the next tumor sent him back to a weekend casino trip.
“Thank you,” Dan blurted. “For saving me.”
“I didn’t save you,” Sondre said.
Dan looked at the man in the cloak as they walked through a vast stone doorway. “Is this a weird debtor’s prison then?”
“No. You are alive and healthy and were in the infirmary.”
“So I’m saved.” Dan nodded. His ill-planned hiking trip ended abruptly with a tumble over the edge of a ravine, but all the people who said hiking would be the answer to his stress had been right. It wasn’t exactly a cure for the debt back home, but look at where he was! By all rights, he’d expected to die this month one way or another. Instead, he was strolling out of a castle—which absolutely made no sense.
“Why a castle? Is this Europe? Is this like witness protection? Do I get a new identity here? I’ll testify against my bookie. Where—”
“You’re in Crenshaw,” Sondre cut him off. “Mae—Dr. Jemison—has healed worse cases than you. Although, if not for that burst of magic you summoned to slow your descent, you’d be dead.”
“Magic?” Dan stopped mid-step and stared. His rescuer had become even more alluring. “I did magic?”
“Yes. That’s why I brought you here. All magic users are relocated to our world.” The man paused. “Do you have questions or doubts or—”
“It’s so ‘Yer a wizard, Dan’ or whatever.” Dan looked around, hoping to see fantastic creatures or wizard duels or something.
Instead, there was still a regular looking courtyard. The ground had a look of age, but the most interesting feature was a few bent trees and some stubborn grass that seemed to be striving to shove through a thin layer of snow. There were no hints of anything extraordinary, but Dan knew the explanation his new hero had offered was true. His mother used to call it intuition, but mostly, Dan simply knew when people were lying. It made him an excellent poker player and a terrible date. Right now, however, it meant he was sure the most wondrous experience was really and truly happening.
He’d been cured by a potion and magic, gone from broken bones and coughing blood and slow-spreading cancer to feeling energized in a mere few days. If there were potions . . .
“Are there wands?” Dan asked. “Ooooh, tell me there are w—”
“No.” Sondre straightened. “Objects can be imbued with magic. Stones. Jewelry. Some spells can be tied to the object temporarily. Also, the term is witch. Not wizard. Historically, witch was gender neutral. Wizard is, etymologically, the term for a ‘wise man,’ and pairs with the female term ‘cunning woman.’”
“Sure, sure. Got it. Witch is gender-free.” Dan walked around the courtyard with a new curiosity. A preponderance of chickens roamed the courtyard, and two younger men were walking around scooping chicken poop. A third was gathering eggs in a giant woven basket. “What about the smell? Is it the, er birds?”
“No. Gas leak from a ground vent we can’t properly seal.” The man sighed and motioned toward several piles of burning plants. “The outside world has some done some drilling and spilling, and the noxious stuff that seeped into the ground—” He held out his hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “We are working on correcting it.”
Looming over them was a castle. A real, honest to Pete castle. It could’ve been straight out of the Czech landscape, or along a Scottish tour, or watching over German forest. The towering stone edifice was neither ruined nor festooned with tour-guide trappings.
“So, er, what’s your name?” Dan tried to sound smooth, but he felt like his geek heart was bursting. He knew the man’s name from overhearing it, but he still felt like they ought to have an introduction. After a lifetime of Comic-Con, local cons, and this one furry con that was maybe best not discussed, he was in an actual magic city and strolling with a real witch. Dan wanted to do everything right.
“Sondre,” Dan repeated in a low voice. Louder he added, “Right. Well, Sondre, point me to the scullery or stables or wherever I need to work. Glad to be here. Ready to work.”
“You’re not here to wash dishes or shovel dung, Daniel.” Sondre rubbed his forehead as if a headache was pressing on him, and Dan wanted to ask questions about potions for that or if they took regular pills like back home.
“You’re in Crenshaw due to the awakening of latent magical traits,” Sondre said in a tour-guide tone. “These traits mean that, in due course, you will decide whether to remain here or return to—”
“I’ll stay.” Dan interrupted the canned welcome-to-Crenshaw speech. “Shovel dung. Slay monsters . . . er, well, try to slay ’em at least. Whatever the bosses want. I’m your guy.”
Dan scanned the sky. No giant eyes. No explosions. No militaristic space orbitals posing as moons, at least as far as he could see.
He glanced back at Sondre. “Is it dragons? Evil overlords? I’m here for it, man. Just aim me. Happy to serve the cause. Die for the nation of Crenshaw. Whatevs.”
Sondre made a gesture and a teacup appeared in his hand. He downed the entire cup, sighed, and then stared at Dan. “You’re in Crenshaw due to the awakening of latent magical traits. These traits mean that, in due course, there will be a decision whether you are to remain here or return to . . . What is your home location?”
“Baltimore,” Dan supplied, wanting to be helpful—and not just because Sondre was handsome or because he was magical or because he’d brought Dan to a magical—
“Are you still listening?”
Dan blushed. “Er, yes. Choice. Staying. Not going back to Baltimore. I heard the other witch say I was healed because I was here.”
“Magic self-repairs the host. Witches are, in essence, hosts to magic.” Sondre looked at him, briefly seeming more approachable, but then he continued. “As part of this process, you will attend the College of Remedial Magic, after which you will be brought to court at several points, whereupon the Congress of Magic will determine if you can remain or be siphoned safely. If you are selected to remain, you will be a part of a magical house—from there you will earn an annual stipend—”
“Removing your magic.” Sondre tossed back half the cup of tea in a gesture that looked like he ought to be in a bar with a shot glass.
“Can we not be siphoned? I mean, man, I want to stay here. If you siphon me, the magic is gone. It can’t heal me then. So well, I’ll do whatever . . . anything at all . . . clean the privy or—”
“We have plumbing here.”
Sondre motioned him toward a massive door big enough to drive a rig into without scuffing the top. The door frame was carved stone, but the doors themselves were wood with silver inlay.
They entered the castle, doors swinging open at a gesture from Sondre. The foyer was everything Dan had imagined. Massive arches swept up and met in a central dome. Beyond the foyer was a staircase that divided into two twin staircases that arced apart, as if they were inverted parentheses.
“I’m never going back,” Dan announced. “Whatever it takes, this is where I belong. Seriously, I don’t want to die. The radiation, the chemo, the surgeries. It’s fucking exhausting. I was expecting to die this month, you know?”
Sondre started walking again, following a passageway that curved behind the staircase, so Dan followed him. The hallway had a row of open doors.
“As you aren’t a noted flight risk like some recent arrivals, you can take a ground floor room if you choose.”
As much as Dan wanted to simply wander off, explore, he felt an embarrassing rush of emotions—too much to leave room for words.
Sondre continued. “The class will assemble shortly. Until such time, you are free to read, exercise, enjoy the sun—although I must warn you that the peacocks are moody. They lay an egg most days here, but they’re loud and grumpy.”
Dan spun around and hugged him. He couldn’t help it. He was a hugger. “You’re the best, man. You saved my life bringing me here.”
Sondre stared at him, arms limp at his side until Dan let go and stepped back. Then, a small smile lifted just the corner of his mouth before he said, “No one around here hugs me . . . Better than a sharp stick to the eye, I suppose, but I am headmaster of the College of Remedial Magic, Daniel, and considered a warmonger.”
“Still saved my life. Over there, my days are limited. So . . . are there textbooks?” Dan asked, stepping back a little more. “I could study, you know. How do I get money? Oh, and will I get a robe? All the boarding schools in books—”
“I will summon one of the resident hobs once you choose your chambers. The hobs will fetch your essentials so you can maximize your time here.”
“Hobs are a manifestation of magic, we think.” Sondre shrugged. “They won’t answer where they come from or why, but when the first witches arrived here, they found the hobs. Magical beings the size of squirrels, but as sentient and civilized as men.”
“Are they like our overlords or . . . ?”
“No, Daniel. They are like neighbors with an ability to make things, change things, and generally infuriate the calmest souls.” Sondre rubbed his forehead. “If they like you, they are willing to invade your house for a fee. Like grandparents who both meddle and cook, but who also will coat your undergarments in poison ivy if you anger them.”
“Got it. Be nice to hobs.” Dan repressed the host of new questions he now had. This was everything he had ever dreamed, even if had started with a dismal attempt at camping.
“Room?” Sondre prompted.
Dan picked the third door because by then, he noticed that each room was alike. Not embarrassingly posh, but more luxurious than he was used to knowing. Antiques still in use, a massive fireplace, and, in the adjoining bathrooms, giant bathtubs with what looked like very modern plumbing. Beside the tub was a basket of dried flowers. To top it all off, there was a door-sized window with a terrace outside. The rooms were beautiful and inviting except for one detail.
“The tubs are sort of brown,” Daniel said. “Big and all, but brown.”
“The water in Crenshaw has gone foul,” Sondre said. “Bathing is safe, but I limit my time in the water since it smells rather noxious. The herbs help mask it.”
The room smelled like eggs and lavender; it was an odd mix.
Dan scowled at the tub. “Kinda weird, man.”
Sondre nodded. “It’s a recent situation, one we are working to fix.”
“Yes, Daniel, with magic. Most everything of note in Crenshaw is with magic.” Sondre stepped closer. “As to money, members of each house—which is a group of witches with the same type of magic—are given an annual allowance by the head of that house. What you do with it is up to you.”
Dan paused in his study of his new home. “Are there gambling spots?”
“Not legal ones, but yes.” Sondre’s voice pitched low as he added, “There are factions in Crenshaw, and choosing the right one can make a difference in whether or not someone of influence argues to reject you or advocates for you to stay.”
Dan swallowed the terror of losing this world, of going back to a nonstop pursuit of dying, and looked back at Sondre. “Are you a person of influence?”
Sondre watched Dan with the kind of calculating look that made Dan tense. “For the right sort of people . . .”
Threat. Dan wasn’t a stranger to threats—a gay man wasn’t as imperiled in modern Baltimore as he was even a decade or two prior, but “not as imperiled” wasn’t the same as always safe.
“Any issues with men loving men?” Dan was ready to fight dragons, but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his essential nature even to stay cancer-free.
“Not a one,” Sondre said. “Not my path, but it’s not an issue here.”
A weight slid off Dan’s shoulders. There was tolerance and magic and not-cancer. That was everything.
He held Sondre’s gaze and declared, “Then, whichever side you support is my choice, too, Headmaster. I’m the right sort of people.”
The smile Sondre offered made Dan suspect he might’ve chosen dangerously, but then Sondre nodded. “Welcome to the College of Remedial Magic, Daniel. I’ll be expecting great things from you.”
Dan was fairly sure no one wholly good sounded quite that deadly.
“And Daniel?” Sondre held Dan’s gaze. “You will keep your silence about anything I share with you or request of you.”
Dan swallowed. Then he grinned just a little, surprised by his own audacity. “Why do I feel like I just joined the dark side of whatever’s going on?”
“Because you are astute.” Sondre dropped Dan’s massive backpack at the edge of the room, turned, and left.