The short walk to the cottage was a game of snide to-and-fro; backhanded compliments batted between the two, as Lilith wholly expected. She and Sage had always had the kind of relationship that teetered on the cusp between friendship and hostility, easily tipped from one to the other throughout the centuries. The subject of the blazing arguments that drove them apart always eventually pulled them back together. Whether they liked it or not, some dead things would not stay buried.
Sage was not used to walking anywhere and she was complaining about the pain in her spindly legs before they’d even left the village walls.
Lilith, however, could barely hear Sage’s whining over the whirring of her own thoughts as she ran through Sage’s plan. They would call Caleb when they reached the cottage, so he could instruct April to leave, and then the four of them would get a taxi back to the flower shop where Lilith and Sage would explain everything to everyone.
If Lilith had any say, that would not be happening. Of course she wanted the girls to be safe and where was safer than under the carefully crafted ruse of the great vampire hunter? She knew no harm would come to them as long as they lived by Sage’s rules and she had no reason to believe that Melinda and April wouldn’t happily do that. Caleb, too.
But she was also sure that it would only be a matter of time before Seth found out where they were, about who they were with. And if he hadn’t remembered Angeline yet, he would the second he laid eyes on his daughter.
Lilith watched Sage hobble along. She looked every inch the little old lady. If Lilith could just eke it out a few more years…
“Oh my, this load of rubble is still standing,” Sage trilled as they approached the path leading from the road to the riverside cottage. “Definitely built by a witch,” she said assuredly.
Lilith rolled her eyes. “Or a good craftsman.”
“Same thing,” Sage sang. “How does it feel being back here after all these years?”
“Like being staked through the heart,” Lilith murmured and Sage’s laugh rang out.
“Honestly! You stake someone once and you never hear the end of it!” Sage tutted. “Is anyone home?”
Lilith didn’t want to admit that, from out here, she couldn’t really tell. For all she knew, Faith had returned and Seth was waiting just inside the door to screw everything up. “Just the two girls and the basement boy,” Lilith guessed. Sage clicked her tongue, demonstrating her disapproval of keeping anyone captive in a basement.
As she stepped through into the dimly lit room, the unusual stench of centuries of unaired dampness and cheap supermarket own brand tomato soup, intermingled with notes of one of the most expensive perfumes money could buy, assaulted Lilith’s senses. She had barely noticed this the first time she’d arrived at the cottage; how worn down was she? Perhaps that small breakfast had done the trick. Witches were, after all, exceptionally satisfying to feed on. Divine flavour, exquisite nourishment…
Or maybe it just stank more in there. Even Sage wrinkled her nose.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, aghast, automatically lifting her hand. Lilith promptly slapped it down, sending a fine shower of stars cascading to the floor from Sage’s outstretched fingers. The ethereal lights hissed and spat as they contacted the slate tile, bringing the speckles beneath to a brand-new colour and shine.
“No devilry,” Lilith said firmly.
“I’ll only do a quick freshen up,” Sage insisted, raising her hand again to Lilith’s growl.
“Neither of these girls know witches exist. You’ll freak them out,” Lilith hissed.
The pair glared at one another for a while and this time Sage conceded.
“It’s like stepping back in time!” she said cheerfully, scanning the room. “And I thought my décor was dated.”
“It is,” Lilith confirmed, listening to the frantic, open thoughts approaching from the basement. “Melinda is about to arrive—” Lilith started, forgetting just how speedy the fledgling was. Melinda zipped into the room; her face brightening as she saw Lilith then falling slightly as she saw Sage.
“You came back!” she gushed, looking at Sage imploringly. “Hello.”
“Of course I came back,” Lilith scoffed. “I would have been back sooner if it wasn’t for this old witch. How’s April?”
“Same,” Melinda said sadly. “Maybe worse.” At Lilith’s lack of introduction, Melinda smiled at Sage. “You’ve brought a friend?” she asked warily. Lilith, I couldn’t even bring myself to ask Danny for a drink today. Please don’t say this sweet old lady is prey.
She’s not, although if you fancy draining her, be my guest. “This is a friend of mine, Sage. Sage, this is Melinda.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Sage. Can I offer you a drink?” How much does she know?
Enough, Lilith projected back.
Sage, naturally oblivious to the hidden conversation, smiled at Melinda. “Oh my sweet dear, aren’t you a peach? No drink for me, thank you. We need to get you girls out of this house but first, I need to pay a swift visit to the basement.”
Melinda glanced quickly at Lilith, “Um, I… um…”
“No judgement, dear. I know it wasn’t your idea and that you’ve been struggling to feed. We’ll get you sorted; don’t you worry. Is April ready to leave?”
“She… she can’t leave,” Melinda admitted, her face and thoughts both very confused by these events and the sudden arrival of this unusual woman. She was fretting so much about what to say next that she said nothing at all.
“A minor detail,” Sage cooed. “Go and get her, sweetheart. I will sort out Danny.”
Melinda looked to Lilith, who nodded her encouragement. Still grossly unsure, and questioning if Lilith was under some sort of duress, Melinda headed up the stairs.
“Well, isn’t she an angel?” Sage gushed. “Right, you call Caleb, I’ll go and fetch the boy.”
Lilith nodded and pulled her phone from her pocket. With a skill that could have put the great Sandy Moss to shame, she tapped the screen a few times and scratched her head, swinging the device in the air.
“Oh dear,” she said, with as much conviction as she could muster. “It appears that I have no network coverage here.” She looked at Sage’s blank face. “No signal, I can’t connect a call without it. Whatever will we do now?”
Sage looked over at the screen, pointing to a symbol in the top corner. “Is it not that thingy there with the two bars?” she asked.
“No, you old mare. That’s the screen brightness,” Lilith lied. “Falling out of touch with society, are we?”
Sage bristled, but remained her saccharine self. “I know nothing about these new-fangled devices. I can’t know everything.”
“There’s an admission to put in the history book,” Lilith scoffed. “I guess we’ll have to go back to the village and fetch Caleb.”
Sage scrutinised Lilith for a while, and Lilith tried desperately to keep her face looking honest and neutral. It seemed to have worked. “When Wyatt has these blippy issues with his mobile telephone, he stands just outside,” Sage said. “Would that work?”
“Worth a try,” Lilith replied, fighting her smile. “You go and see to Danny and I’ll see if there’s any signal outside the door.”
Sage joined Lilith out the front of the house, a spring in her step. “Any joy?”
“No,” Lilith said, looking at her phone screen, which reflected only the sky above her. “No signal and – oh no! – now the battery’s died, too.”
“Well, now that’s unfortunate,” Sage murmured and hastily hushed Lilith before she could answer as Danny appeared at the front door. He looked around as if he couldn’t believe his eyes and then began to run towards the back of the house.
Lilith and Sage watched from their partly concealed position, as Danny ran past, ran in circles for a while, before eventually spotting the path that led to the road and sprinting along it as fast as his legs would carry him.
Lilith watched him go and then turned back towards Sage who was grinning in a suspicious fashion. “What did you do to him?”
“Nothing,” Sage replied sweetly.
Lilith scratched her head. “Nothing? No spells.”
“No spells,” Sage repeated. “Muddling memories is your forte, not mine.”
It took Lilith a minute to comprehend this. “You actually did nothing.”
“The very definition of.”
It was like a bomb went off in Lilith’s head. A bomb made of anger and disbelief and despair that exploded from her mouth in a torrent of obscenities, followed by, “Are you bloody insane?! Are you completely bloody senile? We need to go get Caleb right now— before Danny returns with a mob! They’ll ransack the house! We… we… why are you smiling?
“Isn’t it a shame that your telephone isn’t working. Such a shame.”
Lilith looked down at her phone and then back at Sage. Oh, how she hated the wily bitch. She shoved the device back in her pocket; too stubborn to admit she’d lied. “It is a crying pity,” she spat her voice dripping with insincerity. “Oh, pray, wise witch. Whatever the bollocks are we going to do now?”
“Plan B,” Sage said smoothly.
“Do enlighten me; what is ‘Plan B’?” Lilith asked, sarcastically.
“Well now,” Sage said in her most patronising tone. “If we can’t take April from the house, then…”
“We take the house from April?” Lilith asked, incredulously as Sage nodded. “How the hell do you propose we do that? Tear the place down, brick by brick?”
“Oh goodness no!” Sage beamed. “That would take forever!” She walked back a few paces, and Lilith followed, feeling the ground beneath her feet vibrate.
“Sage…” Lilith warned. “Don’t you dare tear my house down.”
“Understood,” Sage said, her face erupting into a wide, maniacal grin. “I’m not going to tear it down. I promise. She paused a few feet away and pivoted on her heel until she was facing the cottage.
“I’m going to blow it up.”
“You… I… Argh!” Lilith screamed. “But the girls are inside!”
Sage looked at Lilith like she was the crazy one. “I wouldn’t be blowing the house up if they weren’t inside, Lilith.”
“But it has… you can’t… it has memories!” Lilith sputtered. Sage sighed softly and placed a hand on her back.
“Good ones?” At Lilith’s silence, Sage nodded. “Then perhaps I’m doing you a favour. Right,” she said, flexing her fingers and shrugging her shoulders. “Let’s see how much life is left in this old dog, shall we?”
Arguing was pointless. Persuasion was pointless.
Confession might work.
Lilith swallowed hard; the pride like a golf ball in her throat. “We can call Caleb – my phone is fine.”
“Oh I know,” Sage chirruped, “I’m not that out of touch with society. But how very good to know that even now, even after everything, I still can’t trust you.”
“—Won’t suffer for your judgement, Lilith,” Sage finished smoothly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Lilith became aware of the sound of every leaf lifted in the breeze, every bird settled in the trees, the distant rumble of a car passing and the trickle of the river as it passed over the stepping stones beside the house. She became aware of all these noises getting closer, denser.
The soles of her boots trembled, like the earth beneath them was trying to shrug her off its back. She could feel the energy pulsing through the ground, pushing up into her feet, warming and soothing but, finding no call or purpose, it swept through her; a rush of life that made her dizzy. The air around her abuzz with electricity that had passed through her from all angles, seeking its target, seeking the woman to her left who stood with her arm pointed skywards, placing a silent request for buoyancy from a force that Lilith could neither quantify nor understand.
But she knew it existed. She could feel it in the hair that rose on the back of her neck, in the abject stillness that had settled on the world, on the shivering form of the soul beside her, who spoke this language, who could call upon this energy and bend it to her will, but not without a cost. Lilith could hear nothing now except Sage’s laboured breathing, the vibration of her heart and the thudding in her own temples.
Lilith closed her eyes.
The sheer magnitude of the blast that Sage directed at the house caused Lilith’s eyes to shoot open, involuntarily. The whole areas was bathed in an eerie green light, so blindingly bright that Lilith could not even make out what was happening before her eyes.
For a while, after the flash subsided, Lilith could see nothing at all.
And then, as her retinas gradually retained their function she realised that the reason she could see nothing at all was because there was nothing to see.
The house was gone.
Sage tapped the last of the power from her extended left index finger and folded into herself, her frail, old body wracked with the effort of what had been channelled through it. Lilith had seen Sage do this before, draw and direct magic, but not on this scale. She stood, open-mouthed, watching the two girls standing on the ground that moments earlier and centuries previous had hidden her, a hundred tangled memories, questions and problems vying for attention inside her; what if someone saw that? Where did the house go? Why didn’t I take the wood carvings? that were all currently muted by shock, except one.
“We can’t leave them in the sun!”
Sage stumbled slightly as she focused on Lilith, her skin flashing with residual charge, her eyes a pupil-less pistachio green. “I’ll teleport them,” she said, matter-of-factly.
The noise Lilith made in response was somewhere between and growl and choke, as her sense fell back into her head, prompted by this crone’s bloody nerve.
“If you can teleport them,” Lilith snarled, through gritted teeth. “Why not just teleport them out of the fucking house in the first place?! Why destroy it!”
Sage smiled, but it lacked sweetness. She looked like she’d been run over by a bus.
“Because,” she explained. “Should Danny return with his armed mob, there would be no house to find, no basement to find, and no April to find.”
Lilith could not argue this, but she wasn’t done. The wounds inflicted from watching her house, Nathaniel’s house, vanish before her eyes had finally broken through her skin and they wept like she never would. “The boy will end up in the goddamn Tower,” she managed, a million miles from her true cares.
This off-kilter challenge seemed to relight the fire in Sage. Her face regained a note of that smug caramel, “At least he’ll have a better view than from his basement cell.”
“I didn’t put him there.”
“Good gracious!” Sage exclaimed, once more at her cloying levels of syrupy insincerity. “Is the view nice from that high horse, parasite?”
I’ll bite you, Lilith projected.
“I’ll behead you,” Sage chimed.
Lilith snorted; starting to enjoy herself. “If you were genuinely going to do that, you’d have done it by now.”
“Um, Lilith?” came a high-pitched call from behind them. “Where did the house go?”
Lilith had almost forgotten the girls entirely. She glanced over Sage’s shoulder to see Melinda, shaking with shock and trying to support her very sick-looking friend in the vast, open space.
“Back where it started,” Sage sang, walking towards the girls. To the unfamiliar eye, everything about the old witch would have seemed in order, but Lilith didn’t overlook the terseness in her tone. Dread settled heavy in the pit of Lilith’s stomach. Something was wrong. “Take hold of me, my darlings,” Sage cooed softly. “All will be explained.”
Melinda hesitated, remembering the last time she’d wrapped her arms around a warm body, but she didn’t argue, taking hold of the soft stranger, as requested and helping to support a very limp April.
“Oh. Bless you,” Sage cooed to the unresponsive girl; a genuine softness that Lilith rarely heard from her and one she remembered. “It ends here, my darling.”
She fixed Lilith with a poignant look, bit her lip, willed a silent prayer and, in a literal flash, vanished.