It was all still taking some getting used to. Lilith stepped into the little cottage and the overwhelming smell of bleach was the first thing to greet her, as always. But that in itself wasn’t what caused her pause, or tied her insides into knots.
“Evening, Lilith,” Broof called out from his position at the counter. He smiled and wiped his brow on the back of his hand, barely breaking his rhythm with whatever he was scrubbing. “How did the research go?”
It was like some sort of retro TV show.
‘Hello, dear! How was your day?’
Lilith wasn’t sure where the children had come from in this sudden fantasy. Or why she was having these thoughts at all. The truth was, as grateful as Lilith had been the past two months for Broof’s daily donations, this calm, this domestic bliss the pair had fallen into, was really unsettling for her.
The support and understanding he had provided when she’d lost her brother.
His willingness to offer her his veins every night without expecting anything in return.
His soft brown eyes and his kindness blanketed with wit.
It was too much, too close, too familiar. Lilith couldn’t relax, she couldn’t let her guard down around him. She couldn’t let him fall for her.
Not this time.
Lilith glanced out of the window at the still and silent night, but found that she could still see him in the glass’s reflection. Even when she actively tried to ignore him, there he was in her field of vision. And even though she fought not to see him, she kept being drawn to him and not, as she had originally, with the hunger of a hunter.
Worse, in the reflection she could clearly see that he was looking at her, and not with the fear of a prey. If anything, it looked like the roles had reversed.
Grief makes people irrational, she reminded herself with irritation, and I’m clearly not immune.
“Terrible,” she said bluntly in response to his question that he’d been patiently awaiting an answer for, as he had nothing better to do. “What a waste of bloody time.”
“Oh?” Broof asked. He studied her for a moment and then rinsed his soapy hands in the gleaming sink. “Didn’t find anything useful?”
Lilith’s eye twitched. “If I had done, it wouldn’t have been a terrible day,” she huffed at the slightly sweaty, bearded man, who, by now, was more than used to the salt she sprinkled their conversations with. He smiled.
“So what did you find?”
Lilith stared down into the sink. It was so shiny that even a vampire might reflect in it. “More of the same. Another bookcase full of books that were conveniently missing pages. Oh, one had a dehydrated eyelid inside, that was mildly interesting.”
“How should I know?” Lilith rubbed her finger on a perfectly clean patch of counter, watching Broof’s eyes dart straight to it. A weighty silence hung in the air.
With the obvious exception of Caleb, Lilith had lived in relative isolation for over a century. On most days, her only conversation had been discussing in-depth the shape of some wannabe’s dorsum followed by an evening of rant lubrication for the local drunkard. Small talk was not a skill she had.
Out of pure politeness, and not because she gave a damn, she tried to remember what he said he was going to be doing today. He was dressed quite formally, but he wore a suit jacket when gardening, so that wasn’t a great help.
“How was the… thing?”
“It went well,” he said softly. “Until they asked for references.”
Of course! That’s why he was wearing a silk shirt, he’d had a job interview with Judith Ward’s people. The washed-up actor was looking for a new butler, Lilith now remembered. She wasn’t interested enough to think of a follow-up question; it was obvious why he hadn’t got the job and she didn’t want to hear about Sandy Moss today.
Unfortunately, Broof had a way of answering questions she hadn’t asked, probably as a result of his years of picking up on Sandy’s cues.
“Turns out that it’s a dark mark on my resume, having been arrested for the murder of my former employer. Who’d have thought it?” he joked with a hollow laugh.
“I’m not in the mood to hear a Sandy story.”
“I’m not really in the mood to tell one. So,” he said. “I notice you don’t have any books with you this evening. Are we taking a night off?”
“No, I finished the last case of them.”
“Wow, really? There were centuries worth of books in that basement!”
Aha, this was better – worthwhile conversation!
“It’s not the first time I’ve read a whole library,” Lilith said. “Got to do something to pass the long nights. Do you have any more witch friends with a basement full of suspicious tomes I can plunder?”
“Hm, unlikely. Sage kept all the coven’s tomes and grimoires as far as I know; Ma entrusted them to her.”
“What about that other senior witch, your ex… Clara? Gloria? Would she have anything?”
“Claudia. I highly doubt it. Ma and Claudia never really… well, let’s just say that you should always trust your grandmother’s opinion of people. No, if the knowledge isn’t within Sage’s collection, it doesn’t exist in the coven.”
“Bullshit. One of you lot must know where these missing pages are or what was on them.”
“Why? They could have been missing for hundreds of years. They’ve been that way as long as Moon can remember and she’s… well, I’m not sure how old she is, but she’s certainly seen a few centuries. I think she was around in 1600s, I’m not sure how old she was then, but she refers to herself as a ‘girl’ when she talks about that time, so it stands to reason she was young, definitely under a hundred…”
Lilith rubbed her temples. It felt like they were talking in circles. The pair of them had pored over every book and scroll that seemed to exist the past two months and come up against dead end after dead end. Every flicker of hope had ended in a blank or missing page. There was no solid mention of a blood fruit, no evidence of a vampire cure and a barely a mention of where witches went when they were banished. There was a gaping, village-shaped hole in the information within the coven’s records.
Lilith knew that wouldn’t find what she needed talking to the brainwashed witches. She had an inkling where she might find her answers, she just hadn’t established how she would get there. But she did know one thing.
She had nothing left to lose.
She had no clinic to run, no Caleb to watch, no Sage to dance around. The girls were happy and not even Seth was bothering her these days. She’d read more witch literature than she’d ever wanted to and she was tired. She was fed up. She needed to make this one, final attempt at finding the fruit before she could admit that didn’t exist.
And gave up completely.
“The current high priestess is from the swamp, aka, the ‘village of the free’, right?”
Broof, who had still been calculating Moon’s age, faltered before he cautiously replied, “…Yes.”
“Are all your coven leaders shady hypocrites?”
Broof opened his mouth as if to argue, thought a moment, then mumbled. “It seems that way doesn’t it? Although, it was her mother, not the High Priestess herself, who was cast out. Why do you ask?”
“I might pay her a visit, ask for directions to her family home.”
Broof laughed for a whole ten seconds before he realised she wasn’t laughing with him.
“Oh bloody hell, you’re serious. Lilith, even if you weren’t a vampire, she’s not going to divulge that information to you, or me, or anyone!”
Lilith enjoyed the flustered look on his furry face as projected to him, she’ll have no choice.
He flinched, as he always did when she threw her voice into his head. “That’s… painfully true. But do you think it’s wise to be poking a High Priestess in the head? She’s leader of the coven for a reason. She’s pretty formidable—”
So am I.
“Please stop doing that. To get information out, don’t you have to address a direct question to her subconscious?”
“You’ve done that to me. It felt like you had cleaved my head in two and were scooping out the insides. There is no way you can do that without her knowing something is up.”
“I can do it while she’s sleeping. She’ll be more malleable. She’ll never know.”
“Oh. Yes, I guess that could work… wait, what? Y-you can do that?”
Lilith wasn’t really sure if she could do that, but the look on Broof’s face was priceless as he started wondering what illicit secrets she’d lifted from his dreams. She nodded confidently.
“Of course I can. So, it’s decided. I’ll sneak in, in the dead of night, mesmerise her, poke around for a while, and be out before daybreak. Now, what shall I wear? All black, or bright orange with a neon arrow?”
Broof fiddled with the loose curl on his forehead for a while. “You do know she lives in the Wangshaft Manor, yes? That place is a fortress.”
Lilith didn’t previously know this, but she did now. She pulled back the tendrils she was reaching towards the bearded butler in order to source information about his coven leader’s residence; he was donating it freely.
“…I went there for an interview once. The place is huge and maze-like. They have guard dogs. Old Wilbur is so paranoid that I’d be surprised if the place wasn’t laden with booby traps. And, as I said before, the High Priestess is formidable; her magic is very powerful and she’s highly skilled at using it. Granted, she might not use it so freely if she’s living undercover with mortals, but she has a small child – I doubt she’d rein it in if she feels there’s a threat to him. Have you thought this through? She might not even be sleeping when you break in—”
“She can cast a mean scruberoo, she’s got a baby and she lives in a maze. Piece of cake.”
Broof looked horrified. Like Sage, and even like Moon, Broof was reluctant to turn his back on or otherwise let down the coven that he no longer believed the ethos of. It frustrated Lilith to no end. She wished that he’d just make a decision, once and for all, on where his loyalties lay.
“It’s fine. I don’t expect you to come with me, Broof.”
“Good, because I’m not going! It’s a crazy idea!”
“I’ll go tonight, by myself,” she said. “And I’ll be sure to leave for the swamp straight after so as not to incriminate you in any way, shape or form. All right?”
Broof froze on the spot, exactly as she’d expected. “Y-you’re leaving me? Tonight?”
“No point in hanging around.”
“B-but how will… what will you survive on?”
“Passing travellers, unsuspecting villagers, the odd unsupervised child. I survived 320 years before I met you, you know. It’s what I’m designed to do – puncture the unwilling necks of my terrified prey. Hopefully I don’t get a taste for it, again.”
“Hm. Maybe not going with you is the crazy thing? Maybe I could… meet you afterwards… no, what am I saying? I can’t go to the swamp! Iit would be completely reckless of me!”
“It would be.”
“I’m already low in the High Priestess’s estimations, after my mentoring Wyatt went so badly. I’m surprised I’m still allowed to wear my hat! It’d be a terrible idea to do anything that could potentially make my standing in the coven even worse.”
“I’m probably one breath from being banished.”
Broof looked down at the sink and sighed heavily. “Not to mention that if we’re caught trying to read her mind, she’ll have your head. She might have both our heads. Although, I’m probably more useful to the coven as an ornament than as a member…”
“I won’t get caught. And you’re not even coming with me, are you?”
In the absence of Faith, who he had respectfully not followed, at her request, Seth had slipped back into the shadows of the world, the only place that welcomed him. Tonight, the shadows were literal. Engulfed by the dark, he lingered in the bushes outside a small house with pink sidings, contemplating his next move.
In the months that had passed since his crisis on the water tower, Seth had added his failed relationship with the fickle fledgling to the ever-growing pile of reasons to hate and had resumed his godforsaken mission to understand the nuances of his own mind. The success of his attempts had been volatile and varied.
His newest power, that he could not accurately name for lack of true comprehension of what it actually did, had not been beaten to submission by any of his attempts to manipulate it. It represented a wild, untameable side of himself that he could neither predict or understand, surfacing frequently to bewilder him and throw him off an otherwise certain course.
It was an undeterminable dilution of his attempts to physically manipulate his prey. It was a sporadic wave of guilt as his teeth sheared their flesh. It was assigning them significance; pondering how they had been connected to the world and who they’d left behind in the life that he had taken.
He loathed it. It felt to Seth as if he had absorbed the essence of Faith’s being; her care and her contrary.
It was human. It was weakness.
“Compassion is not weakness, Seth.”
Seth growled low in his throat as another disjointed memory of Angeline surfaced to nestle amongst the others; her soft, round face and bright, green eyes reminding him sharply of where he was and why he was there.
Plagued by his memories of Angeline, of a life he’d lost and the reasoning behind it, Seth had resumed his quest for his knowledge. He had started by trying to trace Angeline’s records.
He believed, from his piecemeal memory, that Angeline was about his own age when he had known her, perhaps a little younger, placing her with a birthdate around 1670. But despite his attempts, he couldn’t find any records of her birth anywhere within this timeframe nor the decade surrounding it. There were no marriage records for her. No records of her birthing a child. There was nothing at all.
Snippets of recall informed him that Angeline and her father had travelled before settling in Windenburg, and that she had often fantasised about leaving the closed-minded little town they resided in. He therefore reasoned that her records, and those of any child she’d had, must be in another archive of a village, or perhaps another country, far away.
It was an easier theory to digest than his other one; that she had never existed at all.
With no further leads on Angeline, but a burning desire for answers and validation of his memory, he had instead turned to tracing any links he could think of to her family. She’d had rare surname; there were only two people in the area who still bore it; a mother and daughter. He had located the house of the daughter – the mother appeared to have almost permanent residence at the Tower and he was going nowhere near that place – and he hoped that he would know, upon seeing this woman, that he was on the right lines.
It was a long shot, he knew that, three centuries had passed and every trace of Angeline could have been rinsed away through the generations. But perhaps her striking eyes, a green he’d never seen anywhere else in nature and a shade he’d instantly recognise on any face, would adorn this woman’s features.
Or perhaps Angeline’s compassion was genetic. Her possible ancestor certainly seemed to share Angeline’s fondness for odorous strays.
He heard a latch lift and the rumble of a train of thought moving closer. His target was chaotic in her inner musings, chatty and thinking of a hundred things at once. He could immediately tell that she was intelligent, as Angeline had been, but so were many humans. That didn’t prove anything.
He lingered in his hiding place watching with keen interest as this young, pregnant lady stepped out on to her porch. Her outfit was bizarre, even he could determine that; an ill-fitting and mis-matched clash of colours and patterns. She was clearly a rebel who cared not for the opinions of others – another trait of Angeline’s, but again, not unique.
There was, however, an element of this woman’s appearance, her demeanour, her… something that was triggering his wayward thoughts into overdrive. Something intangible about her that he recognised, on some level.
Her poise? Her jawline? He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but this unexpected familiarity ignited his curiosity.
It compelled him to approach her.
Miss Jessica Spoon.