Chapter 3.42 – A Brew or Two

After a long, cold night in the dank forest of Forgotten Hollow, Sage had finally arrived home. She stretched her aching legs and cracked her stiff back as her old bones groaned and protested back to position. Oh, how she longed for her bed, the soft eiderdown and the plump, duck feather pillows.

She sighed. It would have to wait. Maintaining her one ruse at night did not mean she was free from maintaining her other during the day.

Thankfully, she thought, as she crossed the threshold into her small kitchen, she had a brew or two in the refrigerator that would pep her right up!

“Oh dear sweet Mother Moon!” Sage hissed under her breath, clutching at her chest as she saw what lay in wait for her upon her kitchen counter.

She took a moment to catch her breath, staring into the glazed eyed before her, rocked with revulsion and, simultaneously, huge relief. Finally able to breathe evenly, she reached into the pocket of her skirt, withdrawing the small phone that Wyatt had insisted she take along, in case of emergencies. She stared blankly at the screen, willing it on.

Nothing.

She pressed a few buttons and, she wasn’t sure which did it, but the screen finally came to life. To avoid confusing her further, and ensure she didn’t accidentally call someone she shouldn’t, Wyatt had only programmed in two phone numbers; his own and Broof’s. She called the latter.

The phone rang precisely three times, before Broof’s smooth voice responded. “Broof Hogwash.”

“Hello darling,” Sage trilled, remembering their last encounter and adding an extra layer of sugar to her words. “How are you?”

“Sage? Is everything all right?”

Sage glanced over at the body-less head on her countertop and lied through a smile, “Wonderful. Say, would Lilith happen to be with you?”

A moment’s hesitation then a curt reply. “She is.”

“Can I speak with her?”

Another delay. Muffled voices. Sage wasn’t sure if it was him, or something to do with this new-fangled thing she was holding to her ear. Finally, Lilith’s cool call resounded in her ear. “Sage.”

“I suppose you think this is funny?”

Lilith had an unusual laugh, rather more a snort. And that was all the answer she gave.

Sage didn’t wish to admit that she found any of this amusing, and tutted impatiently.

“Do grow up, Lilith, for goodness sake. So, who have I caught here?” Sage asked with a note of impatience and waited until Lilith finished laughing. “Well?”

“His name was Fallacy Fangstock,” Lilith replied.

“Fallacy Fangstock?” Sage repeated, playing along. “Any relation to Sophistry Fangstock?”

“Offspring, I believe,” Lilith purred. “Since his father’s demise, Fallacy has been in hiding. It’s not clear why he returned to Forgotten Hollow after all this time, but there we go.”

Sage looked towards the ashen face on her counter. “Just as I think I’ve caught them all, another one crawls out of the woodwork. I’ll let the high priestess know immediately that the threat has been removed—”

“Do you think that’s enough time to be compelling?” Lilith interrupted.

Sage clicked her tongue. “I was still talking, Lilith. And yes, I always used to catch them within a day or so—”

“—back when you were a sprightly hundred-something. Don’t forget that you are now geriatric. If you want this to be convincing, you’d be better to wait a few days.”

Sage wanted to defend herself, but the creak in her limbs held no argument.

“Good point,” she conceded. “Darn it. More nights in the forest it is then.”

“Boohoo,” Lilith teased.

Sage looked carefully at her new trophy, taking in every detail. “You’ve done a good job here. He’s rather well finished.”

“If you’re after free surgery, Sage, you’re not getting it.”

Sage bristled. “He’s so young, the poor man. Who was he actually?”

“A vagrant,” Lilith said softly. “A nobody.”

“From the morgue?”

A pause, just a second too long. “Yes.”

“I see. Well thank y—” Sage began.

“I didn’t do it for you.”

Sage’s handset beeped and flashed back to the home screen. Call terminated. How very rude. But then, Lilith had always been rather frosty.

She looked again at the head on the counter. The pale skin, the chiselled cheeks, the neatly filed fangs. The hollowed eyes and haunted expression. ‘Fallacy Fangstock’ looked every bit the former society vampire gone rogue. This poor man.

And poor her! As if having a fridge full of blood vials wasn’t bad enough, now she had to store a severed head for a few days.

The clock in the hallway chimed to denote the hour and Sage groaned. She had no time for a perk-up potion, she had a hair appointment to attend. She didn’t need to have her hair manipulated by a human to keep it so buoyant and fresh, but she did need to keep up appearances.

She swept down her dress and ran her fingers through her hair, causing it to coarsen and texture in her grasp until it resembled that of a regular person. Then she placed the head gingerly into a carrier bag and popped it in to the fridge, leaving a note on the door so as not to alarm her guests when they discovered it.

She’d pick up some groceries while she was out and perhaps pay Moon a visit, as she had departed so rudely on their last outing.

And then she’d be coming back for a long, long nap.

The box that been delivered was bordering on enormous, but its weight was no problem for Caleb.

He settled it into the corner of the flower shop and gently pried it open to inspect the contents. Even though he had very little interest in plants, he had to admit that the stock deliveries were amusing. He had no idea that there were so many plants in this world, so many different potion ingredients. So many combinations. He ran down the inventory list with his fingertip, speedily checking off everything present and mentally cataloguing it, also.

Caleb couldn’t really explain it, but he did have a knack for anything like this; stockpiling and organising words and trivial information. He only wished that skill extended to more complex data; to instructions that didn’t make sense and to the intangible.

His thoughts wandered, as they often did, to his little vampire wife. He’d been following her most of the last few days, blocked at every chance by Wyatt or his mother. He pictured April as he’d last seen her, from afar, as he’d headed up towards the store for his shift. She’d been bent over the cauldron, carefully stirring the oversized pot with a humongous spoon.

He wondered how exactly she and Wyatt would turn these seemingly random items into potions and whether one of those potions would actually be able to cure them. Lilith had tried lots of things over the years, experimented with all sorts of plants and unusual pursuits. And then, one day, she’d simply given up, and therefore so had he.

But now? Perhaps there was a chance. He rifled through the box, studying each item. Was bloodstone the missing ingredient? Maybe Lilith had only been a daffodil from her cure? Perhaps datura was the answer?

Caleb would never admit this to his sister, but he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be mortal. Unlike Lilith, he didn’t remember ever being mortal. Would he instantly know how to breathe? What if he didn’t? Could he learn fast enough? Or would he be cured and then instantly suffocate?

Worse were the other human inconveniences – would he need to be potty trained?

He was snapped from his morose thoughts by the sound of someone trying the shop door handle. That was unusual; the door barely latched, even the wind could blow it open. Caleb would have been long gone by now, if it wasn’t for that invisible barrier Sage had cast, the same barrier that also meant that he couldn’t simply open the door for this lady.

He peered through the glass, gesturing for the customer to enter.

She had been focused on her efforts to lift the handle but, as he approached, she jumped back, startled and skittish, her eyes snapped up to his own.

Caleb’s heart metaphorically stopped. At least, he imagined that’s what this room-spinning, stomach-plummeting feeling he was suddenly experiencing was. This pale, elegant, cat-eyed woman, who was somehow incapable of opening a door, was the single most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on.

He took a few rapid steps towards the door, mind blank, hand outstretched. He could feel the vibration in his fingertips, in his limbs as he tried to push through Sage’s invisible cage. Cat Eyes watched him eagerly, whispering something under her breath.

Caleb continued to push, his fingertips inches from the door, his skin on fire and just as he thought he would make contact—

The ‘explosion’ that tore through the store was immense, dispersing and resetting every fibre of Caleb’s body. The heavy boom had given way to a tight ringing in his ears that echoed around the town square setting of a series of alarms in waves.

He quickly scoped his surroundings, expecting to see carnage and yet the store was unscathed, not a single flower had moved.

Caleb jerked his head towards the door, seeking the mystery woman. She had gone.

Caleb tried to think although his head was a foggy, rainbow mess. Surely this would not go unnoticed by the witches. Would they think he’d tried to escape? Would there be reprisal? As the temporary tinnitus waned, he slowly became aware of a familiar candy-floss voice emitting a wail.

April.

All thoughts of the green-eyed woman left his brain as Caleb sensed that he might have put his beautiful bind in harm’s way. In a flash he had descended the staircase to the basement, to the cauldron room…

Well, what was left of it.

He swallowed hard. Should he apologise? Play dumb?

“Woah,” Wyatt laughed, rubbing the ash from his eyes. “That was the second biggest explosion I’ve ever seen. And now we know – there’s no bloodstone in this potion.”

“Oh my goodness!” April cried. “That was so scary! We could have died!”

Wyatt only laughed and immediately Caleb knew how to react. He grabbed April’s waist pulling her to him. In her dismay at having been in the path of a volatile potion, she didn’t seem to have noticed that he was standing behind her and she squirmed in his grasp; that cute little ‘eek’ setting all his remaining nerves alight.

“What did you do to her?!” he snarled at Wyatt.

“Nothing,” Wyatt replied. “Are you OK, Apes?”

April writhed in Caleb’s grasp, gently removing his hands from herself. “Yes, I’m OK,” she said in a small voice. She glanced at Wyatt and stood a little taller, lifted her chin. “Caleb – no.”

“No?”

“Let me go.”

Caleb could sense something in Wyatt and could tell from April’s face that something was wrong. He didn’t understand why he suddenly felt like he was being accused of something when, for once, he’d done nothing wrong.

He glared at Wyatt, but backed off with a mumbled apology.

Was it his imagination, or did April shuffle a little closer to Wyatt? He’d just caused a massive explosion and she’d still rather stand near him. What in hell what that about?

“Look at this mess, Wy,” she whispered. “Oh my goodness, Grandma Sage will disown us!”

“Nah,” Wyatt said dismissively. “She’s got errands all day and then she’s out vampire hunting again all night. We’ve got loads of time to fix this. She’ll never know.”

“We can fix this?” April asked, with awe.

“Sure. At least the walls are intact this time, mostly. Totally fixable. Unless…” he tapped his chin and raised an eyebrow at Caleb. “Was there anyone in the store? ‘Cause if there was, I’d better go find them and spin them a tale or my butt will be on literal fire.”

Caleb’s mind wandered back to the mysterious green-eyed woman, and he almost replied with a ‘yes’. But then, technically, she hadn’t actually been in the store…

“No,” he replied. “We had a delivery, but the driver had left.”

“Oh! That’s a relief! Ooh a delivery?” April replied giddily. “Is it more ingredients?”

“Not afraid of another explosion then?” Wyatt teased.

April looked up through her lashes. “It was quite fun.”

“That’s my girl,” Wyatt laughed for a second before his face fell and he looked away. He cleared this throat. “I ordered loads of new plants for us to play with – I mean, experiment very seriously with – in this stock.”

“Ooh yay! That sounds fun!” April clapped. “What did you get?”

Caleb interrupted, to reel off the inventory he’d read a few moments earlier. April’s eyes grew wider with every item. Now who had her awe? Caleb thought, smugly. She must be so impressed.

“Aren’t some of those plants poisonous?” she asked, looking back towards Wyatt. “I’m sure I’ve read about datura.”

“Yeah, that’s poisonous.”

“Oh… but we can eat them? Vampires?”

Wyatt shrugged. “No idea. A wise man once told me; ‘you can eat everything, son, but some things might kill you’.”

 “That doesn’t sound very wise.”

“Datura is poisonous, but don’t worry,” he soothed. “In tiny doses, it’s fine – I use it in the tea. Too much and you’ll probably pass out. But, like everything else it’s totally safe when handled properly. I won’t let you handle it though, ha!”

April huffed. “I didn’t know that a ‘thumbful’ meant ‘a big pinch’ rather than, well, the equivalent volume of my thumb! You could have told me that adding too much would make it explode!”

“Total honesty; I had no idea.”

“But you know everything!”

Wyatt visibly faltered. He glanced up at April almost shyly. “I don’t know everything or we’d have a cure by now,” he laughed, but there was definite tenseness in it. “Uh… hey, Caleb, can you stick the box of goodies in my room? There are a few things in there I wanna take out before Mum sees. Oh, and make sure you close the door behind you, yeah? I’ve got the tea brewer set up in there. Last thing I need is her asking questions.”

“Tea brewer?” April and Caleb said together. April let out a squeal, “Ooh! For the strawberry tea?”

“Yeah, strawberry for you and Mel. I’m blending it with some vein juice; hopefully that’ll make it less ashy.”

“Yummy!” April giggled. “Oh, wait, won’t you be joining in then?”

“I will,” Wyatt confirmed, poking his finger into the remains of the potion in the cauldron. “I’m making a slightly different batch for me though, obvs.”

“I’m so excited!”

Almost as if to punctuate the trill of her glee, the shop bell rang. Wyatt made to move and then glanced down at himself and over at Caleb.

“Wait, nope, Caleb’s in the shirt today – off you go, Vatore.”

Caleb went back upstairs slower than he’d come down. He could hear the pair behind him, whispering, but he was too far from April to hear what she was thinking. Although, if he had to guess, he’d wager it was probably more of the same thing she’d been thinking the whole time he’d been standing next to her.

Wyatt is so smart.

Pfft. Wyatt couldn’t memorise a whole inventory list in a minute, like Caleb could.

Caleb arrived in the store to see the door rocking itself ajar in a strong gust.

Wyatt looks after me.

Caleb could look after her – if he could get anywhere nearby. But he couldn’t, thanks to Wyatt. Always there, always watching.

Fixing everything.

Making tea.

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Chapter 3.41 – New Digs

Warning: Very morbid. Contains graverobbing, vandalism, open graves and talk of death.

“Isn’t it a thing of beauty?” Bernard, the groundskeeper, said in a not-too-convincing manner as he sensed the pair approach from behind him. “A fitting monument to an icon. And in my humble grounds. An honour. Yep, that’s what it is.”

Lilith shrugged. “Personally, I think it’s tacky and ruins the atmosphere.”

Bernard turned swiftly; his face brightening as he laid eyes on his graveyard guest. “My, my, my! Lilith Vatore? It’s been a while; thought you’d gone straight. You look, oh, youthful as ever, look at you.” He turned to Broof; his breath hot and reeking of stale tobacco as he said in a comic whisper, “I swear this one is immortal! Hasn’t aged barely a day in all the years I’ve known her!”

“You flatter me,” Lilith purred. “You know no one ages in Del Sol Valley.”

“True, that is,” Bernard mused, looking back at the Sandy Moss monument. “It really is awful this, isn’t it? Were the searchlights necessary?” He shook his head. “So, what brings you here?”

“I’m visiting Mr. Barnabas Flange.”

“Really now,” he looked towards Broof. “Friend of yours?”

“Somewhat.”

Bernard narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen you for ages and you turn up with a fancy guy in a suit.”

“He only dresses like that to throw people off.”

Bernard continued to stare at Broof for a while. “I know you.”

Broof stared back, hoping he wasn’t about to be interrogated about his former employer. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I do. You’re the Pa of that little ’un over on west wall with the weird name. Cauliflower?”

“Cabbage.”

“Cabbage. Yeah, I knew it was one of them farty vegetables. Haven’t seen you for a while, either. Night shifts have been pretty quiet here, especially since they stopped the fanatics coming in. But I know how it is; life gets in the way and the dead fall into the background, slowly forgotten.”

Broof bristled. “I haven’t forgotten my daughter, I’ve been—”

“—In prison,” Lilith finished.

Bernard whistled through his teeth, looking suddenly much more interested.

“Really? What did you do?”

“Nothing, he was innocent,” Lilith winked.

Bernard continued to squint – or perhaps he had a lazy eye, Broof couldn’t tell. Eventually the old man nodded, deciding to trust the lying vampire and besuited crook before him.

“Aren’t we all.” He pretended to zip his lips. “A’right, follow me.” He continued to talk as he led the pair through the tangle of vines and huddles of tombstones.

“’Ere we go; Barnabas Flange. Male, late thirties, died alone in an alleyway. It was a few days before anyone noticed, and then it was only because it happened to be bin day. I’m not sure what you’ll get, but… here.” He pointed to where Broof was standing, where the ground softened and yielded beneath their feet.

“Same deal as usual?” he asked Lilith.

She nodded. Bernard nodded back, a silent agreement, the long-standing kind where no further words were needed. He stepped back and started making his way back through the graveyard, whistling as he went.

Broof waited until the old man was out of earshot before he asked Lilith, “What is this deal? Does he know what you’re doing here? What you are? Is he one?”

“Do you want to let me answer one question before you bombard me with another?” Lilith rolled her eyes.

“What is this deal?”

“What do you think? He gets half of the findings. It’s a win-win situation, unless you’re Barnabas Flange.” She waved her hand towards the fresh, but minimalist, headstone.

“Half of the findings?” Broof repeated aghast. “What, so, half of his head? Is he a cannibal?”

“Don’t be an idiot your whole life, Broompig,” Lilith scoffed. “Humans, in general, have at least one of three traits; superstitious, sentimental or stupid. It usually means that when they bury their dead, they stuff the coffin with all manner of sparkly and valuable items, only for it all to rot or waste in the belly of the earth.”

“Wasn’t this man homeless? What will he be buried with?”

“Probably nothing, but I have thought of that.” She tapped her pocket to demonstrate the presence of something metallic within. “One of Caleb’s watches and a neck chain. Solid gold. My guess was that they belonged to Barnabas’s father and they were so sentimental that he couldn’t bring himself to sell them, even when he fell on the hardest times. Not that Bernard will ask. The old crook might as well be a magpie.”

She picked up a shovel from against a nearby headstone and poked it into the soft ground.

“Let me get this straight,” Broof said, interrupting her. “We’re going to dig up this Barnabas Flange, cut his head off, and then give the groundskeeper a piece of jewellery, pretending it was Barnabas’s, in order to buy his silence?”

“Yes. He doesn’t know what I am or why I really come here. He just thinks I’m some post-mortem pickpocket and he’s remarkably relaxed about that.”

Broof chewed his tongue, thinking of the items he’d buried Cabbage with. A silver bracelet. Her favourite pillow. A teddy bear with a button on its tummy that played a lullaby when pressed. Over the years, the repeated usage had impacted the tiny cassette, turning the bouncy lullaby into a woeful drone. But still, she could never sleep without it.

He thought about someone digging her up to take it. Worse, he thought of it rotting under six feet of earth along with his little girl. His stomach lurched.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

“That’s fine,” Lilith shrugged. “Wouldn’t want you ruining your nice trousers.”

“It’s not my trousers I’m worried about,” he insisted, although now it was. “This whole situation; robbing graves? What would his family say? What if someone had done this to my daughter’s grave? I would have been… I would’ve…” he retched. “It’s wrong, on so many levels. I can’t do it. I can’t be a part of it.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Lilith said, matter-of-factly. “You were the one who said you wanted to come here.” She folded her arms. “I know this is godawful, but for what it’s worth, it’s very unlikely Barnabas will have any visiting family.”

Broof watched her for a while as she gently nudged the earth, contemplating it as she went. “Is there another option?”

“Yes, but it’s worse,” she said dryly. “We kill someone.”

“Blimey. Yes, that’s worse,” Broof gasped. “But what if… um… what if the high priestess recognises him?”

“Broof, you’re getting on my nerves,” she hissed, jabbing the shovel into the ground. “There is a method to this that you learn after centuries of avoiding detection. Always choose the ones who no one knew, who no one will miss.”

“No one will miss him? Someone must, surely. He was young. Look, he was buried – someone stumped up for a stone.”

“No one attended his funeral. The stone appeared automatically when he died.”

“No one went to his funeral?”

“No.”

Broof swallowed hard, looking at the pillowed ground. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. It happens a lot, though. There are many, many people in this world who fall through the cracks. Barnabas was just another one.”

Broof looked around at the other markers. He’d frequented this graveyard many times to clean and care for his daughter’s resting place, but he was noticing for the first time how many grave stones were leaning, broken or missing. The weeds that grew around their bases, the absence of trinkets and offerings.

“Why do I never hear about these people?”

Lilith glanced up, brushing her fringe back. She tilted her head as if it was a foolish question. “Why would you?”

Faith could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be defined as heavy but carrying her anywhere was a tiresome activity. She had complained that her feet hurt, which was hardly surprising when she insisted on wearing such ridiculous footwear, but she had, of course, refused to take them off.

“Would you stop wriggling?” Seth snarled.

“I can’t help it,” she whined. “One of your knives is jabbing me in the ass. At least, I think it’s a knife,” she purred, writhing against the offending object.

“It’s a knife,” he muttered, setting her down and opening the door to their newest abode. “Home sweet home.”

“Our new digs. Del Sol Valley – I never thought I’d live here!” Faith wandered in, still swaying and staggering in her state, and her excitement quickly died. She huffed. “Is this it?”

Seth made an affirmative noise, already feeling like he couldn’t wait to leave this place. He had known, beforehand, the layout of this apartment and its downsides, but being in here in reality was quite different. If he extended both arms, he could probably reach the parallel walls and with every passing second, the room began to get smaller until it was pressing him in on all sides.

Still, he didn’t plan to be spending a lot of time indoors.

“It’s tiny,” Faith stated the obvious, staggering towards the bedroom, naturally her first attraction.

“It’s adequate.”

“Such a man thing to say.”

“You’re no fun,” she moaned at his lack of response, flopping on to the bed. “Ooh fuck, this is comfy. Wanna come join me?”

“No,” he muttered. He didn’t have the energy to argue, to come up with witty quips. He needed to go and sink his teeth into a neck, before it was hers. “I’ll leave you to rest awhile.”

After two seconds of silence without the expected dozen questions about where he was going, he turned to find her curled up on the bed, dead to the world.

Thank the devil. Perhaps with her passed out, this hold she had on him would cease.

He groaned in near-agony as he hauled himself towards the door, trying to listen through the walls to see which of the neighbours might suffice as a sanguinary snack. He stopped in his tracks as an unusual thought wheedled through his tired mind.

She said her feet hurt. You should remove her shoes.

With a heavy sigh he turned back towards the bed and looked forlornly at her sticky shoes. His gazed roamed up her body noticing how tight her jeans were, how the studs pressed into the flesh of her hips.

He wandered up further, wondering if she was wearing a brassiere, if it had a wire in it.

If she had earrings in.

It doesn’t matter! he berated himself. None of those things mattered and yet, they all did.

It’s to save yourself the drama, he reasoned, as he walked back towards the bed to undress her. That’s all it is.

That’s all any of this is.

After much toiling and a hefty amount of swearing the pair had managed to excavate the grave.

Far from being six-feet-under, they had encountered the plastic vault that housed Barnabas’s simple, unadorned coffin a mere two feet in, which had horrified Broof but not as much as Lilith’s nonchalance had.

In fact, knowing how idle the old groundskeeper was, she was surprised he’d gone this deep. Maybe he’d been anticipating her.

Broof had originally refused to participate in the night’s events but, after watching Lilith digging in the dirt for a while, his chivalrous nature – and she used that term with her tongue firmly in her cheek – had won out and he’d offered to help. He was actually pretty good at it.

Barnabas had been delighted with his new, gold watch. He hadn’t even questioned the initials ‘C V’ engraved on the casing and had even offered to refill the grave. He didn’t lift the coffin lid before sliding the wooden box back to its resting place; corpses gave him the creeps, apparently, so Lilith and Broof left him to it without him suspecting a thing.

They wandered back towards the cemetery gates as casually as one could when they had a severed head in their inventory.

“It really is absurd, isn’t it?” Broof commented.

“It is,” Lilith agreed, not knowing for certain what he was referring to, but feeling that that statement encompassed it all. He’d stopped in her path, forcing her to do the same and follow his gaze.

“Oh, that,” she tutted, looking at the Sandy Moss monument. “Yes, it’s hideous. And you know what else was absurd? Of all the surgery requests I ever got, ‘Sandy Moss’s nose’ was the most common one.” She looked around conspiratorially. “How much do you think they’d pay for her actual nose?”

“Y-you’re kidding, right?”

“I am,” Lilith grinned. She turned her attention back to the shapely statue. “She was such a big name, such an inspiration to so many self-conscious or downright deluded people. Was she as glamourous as they all thought?”

“No,” Broof said bluntly. “The world saw a very different woman to what April and I saw.” He looked back at the lit-up resting place. “Sandy Moss’s eternal marker on the planet that loved her, in a world where she could do no wrong. It actually sickens me. Preserved forever as the goddess of the silver screen and a philanthropist, while all those who were closest to her take the fall.”

Lilith felt an usual heat surround her, a waft of warm air, like stepping out into the sun a warm day, or opening a hot oven. It took her a second to realise it was emanating from Broof and another to realise what it was.

She looked up at the statue he was focused on. She had no idea what he was thinking, which part had made him so tense, but she could hazard a guess at what he wanted to do.

“Do it,” she whispered, the devil at his shoulder. “Nobody is looking. Blow it to smithereens.”

For a while after Broof’s anguished cry and the shower of sparkles, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the smallest flames began to lick at the base of the buxom figurine, swallowing the wreaths of flowers and melting the hand-made candles.

“That’s pathetic,” Lilith stated.

“Yes, I know.”

As the fire took hold, the bright flames caught the attention of the groundskeeper a beat before an alarm began to wail.

“Oi! Not again! Bloody kids!”

Lilith turned to grab Broof but he was already fleeing towards the gates, shaking with adrenaline, like a child who had just rung his neighbour’s doorbell.

She followed, overtaking him at some point and stopping him a half mile down the street where he was doubled over, fighting to catch his breath through his laughter, and infecting her with the giggles.

The pair laughed until neither could stand, until the fire truck, the police and a press van had passed them, until the stars blurred and they forgot why they were laughing.

Why was she laughing?

“We should get back,” Lilith whispered mechanically in the silence that had swollen around her, inside her. “We should put this in the fridge.”

“Oh. Yes,” he agreed, stepping back, deflated. “We should do that.”

Lilith turned to walk the long road back home, clutching her night’s earnings. She was walking much faster than usual, but she didn’t need to look back to know that Broof would be following, matching her stride.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

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Chapter 3.38 – The Butler Code

Disclaimer: Drugs mention, tiny bit of blood.

Broof had never before been into the forests of Forgotten Hollow, but he had, of course, heard all about them. As he and Lilith made their way along overgrown paths and through ever-thickening trees, Broof’s shoes became muddied and his field of vision became smaller. As the darkness began to swamp them, robbing him of his sight, he clung to Lilith’s arm as she navigated through. He could feel his own pulse racing, amplified against the cool stillness of her arm, and he began to wonder what on earth he was doing there.

What had been a kind decision, to escort Lilith to her house and help her to carry her things, now seemed to be a stupid one. How was he going to find his way back, laden with her belongings, when he couldn’t see two feet in front of himself? As for what lurked in the woods… Broof was very much relieved that Caleb was back at the flower shop, sated and mostly harmless. He only hoped that Caleb was the only murderous creature in these parts.

On the car ride over, Broof had fed back to Lilith the information he had learned from Moon. She had listened thoughtfully, but true to her form she hadn’t said much. It seemed that the high from Wyatt’s donation had left her system. Either that, or she was dwelling on the confrontation with Sage, that he pretended he hadn’t overheard.

He wasn’t sure who exactly the man was that they were discussing. According to Ma, Sage’s father had been a crook who had faced the guillotine before Sage was even born. Sage knew that, surely. He really did have to wonder if senility was taking hold on the aged witch. But, regardless, the knowledge that Sage had been using Lilith to further her status in the coven made his blood boil.

The fact she’d singed his wallpaper and hadn’t remedied it put her firmly lower on his list of preferred acquaintances.

Lilith reached back and took a firm grip of his hand to navigate him through a particularly thorny patch. His heart skipped a beat as he squeezed back against her cold skin. She’d survived centuries trapped with this curse, purging the world of her own kind and trying to keep her brother from destroying everything in his path, living out her days in hiding and isolation on the promise of a cure, of salvation, only to be thwarted at every turn by the witches. She was amazing.

If he hadn’t been motivated to find a cure before, he certainly was now.

He realised that, absentmindedly, he’d been caressing Lilith’s knuckles with his thumb. She yanked her hand away with a hiss, and grabbed him at his wrist instead.

“It’s a long way,” he commented senselessly, to ease the embarrassment he felt.

Lilith only grunted.

“How does the mailperson find you?” he asked.

“They don’t,” Lilith replied, yanking him through some draped vines that Broof couldn’t identify. “We’re here.”

Broof looked skywards and noticed that the canopy of trees had thinned and, as his eyes adjusted to the hazy black, he could make out a house that was nothing like he’d expected. Although he wasn’t sure what he expected – a castle? A forest-y cottage? Something more den-like, for certain. This house looked almost normal, barring some gothic architecture. And the crypt in the front yard.

“You have a crypt,” he stated moronically, peering closer to read the engraving on the stone slab. “Vatore’. Is that where you’re buried?”

He could just about make out Lilith rolling her eyes. “I really need to clean that thing out.”

“Clean what out?”

Lilith snorted sarcastically. “What do you think I keep in a crypt?”

“Oh, heck,” Broof gasped. “The remains of… of prey?”

“So you do have a brain.”

“Hold on, can’t we—?”

“Take one of their heads?” Lilith guessed. “No, they’ve all been dead thirty-plus years. Well, except for one.” Lilith looked thoughtful for a while.

Broof wanted to ask about this one prey, uh, person, but he also didn’t want to know the detail. He’d seen a lot of horrible things in his time, cleaned up – and covered up – a lot of disturbing and disgusting details, but never before, to his knowledge, had he been standing on site with countless murdered people beneath his feet. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The trees around him danced in his peripheral vision; their leaves whispering messages from beyond. The knots in their bark were playing tricks on his mind, conjuring up faces. He could have sworn he saw someone, or something, peering through the void…

“Broof!” Lilith snapped, jolting him from his dream. He glanced over to her where she stood on the porch, beckoning him in impatiently. He glanced back to where the creature had been but it was, predictably, empty.

April was having a super good time.

Grandma Sage had had to leave for the night to pretend to be looking for vampires, while the real vampires were curled up on her sofa watching really bad movies. Sage had made Wyatt drink a potion that originally smelled like apples but, once inside his tummy, it had made him smell really gross instead. April couldn’t describe how bad the smell was; it was like sweaty socks and poop and dead things all rolled together. He smelled so bad that even though he was sitting on the other side of the room, it still made April feel a bit queasy and had driven Caleb into another room entirely.

Melinda seemed mostly unaffected by Wyatt’s smell. She also seemed happier than April had seen her for a while, doing that thing she always used to do where she tickled the soft part of April’s arm. April liked that.

The movie they had been watching, about a gigantic, hungry chicken with flames for eyes, had ended and the credits had just finished rolling. Wyatt had it set up so that the next movie would play automatically and, after a brief pause, the screen lit up with the next title.

“Yay! It’s starting! Ooh… Vampire Whores from Outer Space,” April read, then immediately realised what she’d said. “Oh my goodness! Is this…?” she dropped her voice to a tiny whisper. “Pornography?”

Wyatt laughed from his corner. “Nah. Have you never seen this one? Zero budget, terrible acting, the crew are in shot half the time. Literally, it sucks.”

“Sounds great!” April clapped her hands.

“It really isn’t,” Wyatt said. “It’s marginally better when you’re loaded, though.” He paused and jumped up. “I’ll be back in a mo.”

“I guess he really needed the bathroom,” April shrugged and settled back against Melinda, who huffed.

“I think he’s gone to get high, April.”

April frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on. He’s always high.”

“Is he?” April thought for a moment about how happy and goofy Wyatt always seemed to be. She pictured the lazy look he often wore and replayed how soft his syllables were. Maybe Melinda was right; she often was. She sighed. “Oh. Oh dear.”

“Yeah. Didn’t you know?”

“No.”

“Oh. Are you OK?”

April nodded. “I suppose it’s not so much worse than Mother always being inebriated, is it? In fact, it’s better because Wyatt is happy when he’s high but Mother just got more cross.”

“Hm,” Melinda mused, drawing a small circle on April’s wrist.

“Have you ever taken any drugs, Mel?”

Melinda looked at her friend and laughed. “Me? Come on.”

“Have you ever wanted to?”

“Not really. Why, have you?”

It was April’s turn to shrug. “I haven’t really thought about it before. I do like the fuzzy, giggly feeling I get when I drink alcohol. Do you think drugs are the same?”

Melinda squirmed. “Um, I don’t know, April.”

“Oh! Do you think if we asked Wyatt nicely that he’d let us try some?”

“Sorry, I thought it’d just be a leak, but all these fibrous potions Mum is giving me… TMI,” Wyatt said, entering the room again. He threw himself back into his chair. “What do you want Wyatt to let you try?”

“Nothing,” Melinda said at the same time April blurted out, “Drugs!”

Wyatt made a face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh,” April said turning to Melinda, “But you said he’s always high!”

“Uh…”

“Heh, I’m screwing with you,” Wyatt laughed. He glanced around conspiratorially. “But like, don’t say that in front of everyone, yeah? So, what d’you wanna try?”

April tapped her chin thoughtfully before declaring, “Heroin.”

Beside her, Melinda choked around a laugh and before her Wyatt grinned wryly.

“Yeah, that ain’t happening.”

“Oh,” April shrugged, wondering what she’d said that was so wrong and feeling very silly. “How about, um, oh I don’t know. I don’t know any others.”

“Really?” Wyatt grinned. “Thought you’d have been surrounded by ‘em at all those fancy-schmancy celeb parties.”

“Oh!” April gasped, a memory or three coming back. “Of course! What about that white powdery one that sticks to your nose? Is that one?”

Wyatt whistled. “Proper lil’ junkie, ain’t you? I ain’t getting you that either.”

“Well, I don’t know!” April huffed. “Stop laughing, Mel. I just wanted to try something new.”

“Apes, you are freaking adorable. Tell you what. If you’re that curious, I can whip up a lil’ batch of tea for tomorrow night, just for you two.”

“Um, I—“

“Tea?” April asked, frowning. “What flavour?”

“That’s her first question?” Wyatt chuckled to himself. “Adorable. What’s your favourite flavour?”

“Strawberry!” April blurted. “Although, I suppose it’d just taste like ash now.”

“Strawberry ash it is.”

“What does the tea do?” Melinda asked, although she didn’t sound very excited.

“Turns the world into a kaleidoscope. Caleb tried it, first day he worked here; he was tripping his balls off, seeing elks and all the bright! but for you two I’d tone it down, uh, a lot.”

“OK!” April said, snuggling back against her friend. “A kaleidoscope! And I’ve never seen an elk! That sounds like so much fun, doesn’t it, Mel?”

“Um… I’m not sure if I want to…”

“Cool. No pressure, you can just chill,” Wyatt said casually. “You’ll have more fun watching Apes off her face than watching this crap, anyway.”

“What? I have to take my face off?”

“Adorable!”

The first thing that Broof had noticed about the house interior was the scent of decay.

The second thing he noticed was that the place was immaculate. He knew from having Lilith as a houseguest that she wasn’t a messy person – when she was sober – but he didn’t have her down as a fellow neat freak.

Lilith hadn’t bothered to give him a tour, instead taking him straight up to her room and ignoring him almost entirely while she packed her belongings into her suitcases. Broof, who had spent a good portion of his life being ignored by those he served, didn’t feel bothered by this; he was occupying himself by browsing the books on her shelves. Many of them were medical journals, some even looked handwritten, he wondered how old they were. Surprisingly, there were a few botany books in the mix.

Strange and Forbidden Plant Genetics,” he read aloud from the spine of a book. “Huh. I didn’t have you down as a botanist.”

“I’m not,” Lilith said, gesturing to a potting station that was covered in plants in various stages of dying. “There was only one plant I was interested in.”

“Oh?” Broof asked.

Lilith set down a blouse she was holding and crossed the room. She plucked an ancient book from a shelf, propping it on a stand and allowing it to fall open to a page that had been viewed so much it had been broken into the spine.

Dr. Blorgfart has synthesised ‘a plasma fruit’ – a pome fruit, with a mealy and succulent flesh and no obvious core. The fruit, which has a mild, metallic flavour and high iron content, induces nausea when consumed and has no known medicinal or culinary applications. The fruit is the latest unusual endeavour devised by Dr. Blorgfart’s team, who claim it can be used as an alternative food source for the likes of mosquitoes, fleas, bed bugs and other such bloodthirsty creatures. Although, why one would wish to feed hematophages, rather than eradicate them, remains a mystery.

“A plasma fruit? I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds revolting. Is that what you were trying to grow here? Who was this scientist, Dr. Blorgfart?”

“I don’t know,” Lilith shrugged. “The only other mention I can find of him afterwards is a small newspaper clipping that simply said the Dr. had closed his laboratory and where to direct queries. It appears he vanished. Although I have an inkling that it had something to do with rogue vampires or…” she hesitated.

“Or..?” Broof coaxed.

“Never mind.”

Broof swallowed hard. “Or something to do with the witches, yes?”

Lilith chewed her lip and turned away.

“Lilith, I overheard you talking to Sage—”

“Spying on me. Typical. So you don’t trust me, either.”

“You were in my house. And no, that’s not what I meant, I meant that—”

“You goddamn witches are all the same; so bloody righteous.” Lilith stared at her half-packed suitcase. “Maybe staying with you isn’t such a good idea. In fact, it definitely isn’t. Get out.”

“No. Bloody hell, Lilith let me speak!”

Lilith blinked at him in surprise, muted, and he couldn’t say he blamed her.

That was not in the butler code.

“I get it,” he said, trying to soften his edge. “I get why you despise witches. I would too in fact… I do too.”

Lilith snorted. “Right, of course you do. I’ve heard this bullshit before ‘I’m on your side, Lilith!’”

“I am.”

“You lot—”

“Please, don’t ‘you lot’ me, I’m not like the others.”

“Heard that before too. You’re like a book of clichés, Broompig. You’re all a bunch of self-serving bastards, on the side of preserving pure magic, ensuring that no creature can ever usurp you as the pinnacle of Sim.”

“I’m not on the side of ‘pure magic’,” Broof whispered his throat dry as he prepared to unburden himself of his secret. “Not anymore.”

Lilith folded her arms. “Is this something to do with why you can’t cast any spells? Yeah, I’ve noticed. What did you do to piss off ‘Mother Earth’? Cast your circle widdershins instead of sunwise?” she asked sarcastically. “Burn the wrong colour candle? Ooh, cardinal sin, that one.”

“No,” he whispered, feeling his heart pause. “I tried to resurrect my daughter.”

“…What?” Lilith managed eventually after what felt like an hour of staring. “But you can’t do that with pure magic… to do that you’d need to use… and that goes against… and she would have been… oh, holy fucking shit.”

“Yeah,” Broof exhaled the breath he was holding and wilted like a flower. “But to know that my child was gone and that there might be a way I could bring her back? Who wouldn’t?”

“It didn’t even work, obviously, probably because I had no idea what I was doing; it’s not like you learn this stuff during your mentoring. The complete lack of understanding from the coven when Cabbage died; the total unwillingness to try… it changed my whole outlook. What am I worshipping? What’s the damn point?” he growled. “Tell me; how can wanting to give life back to a child possibly be construed as wrong, or punishable, or as… as…”

“Evil?” Lilith asked.

“I was going to say ‘fair’,” Broof sighed. Lilith was so close he could smell her unusual perfume. Vanilla and something he couldn’t identify. “But I suppose that too.”

Lilith nodded. The two sat in silence for a few minutes before she patted his knee and climbed back to her feet. “Come on. Now’s not the time for moping. In the room next door is some of April’s stuff that she dumped here before they all ran off and left me for dead. I was going to sell it, but seeing what Sage is dressing her in… ugh, poor girl. Go grab what you think she’d want. I’ll finish up here and meet you at the bottom of the stairs.”

Broof scrambled up as panic gripped him. “Look, you don’t have to stay with me, but, well, no one knows about… about what I did, or about the lack of magic. Well, Wyatt knows about that but not why… and I—”

“Your secret is safe with me. Hey, who knows, one day I might give you one of mine in exchange,” she teased. “I’m going to stay with you, if that’s still all right, which I presume it is. If you smiled any wider you’d split your philtrum.”

“My what?” he asked, glancing down.

“Oh my word.” She walked back over to her bed. “And don’t flatter yourself; I’ve had enough of this house, this forest, is all. Besides,” She snapped her case open. “Us ‘tainted beings’ have to work together, don’t we?”

A collective of those who misuse magic, practice dark magic…

…Necromancers and beasts.

< Previous Chapter | Index | Next Chapter >

Chapter 3.37 – Decipher

She could get used to this.

Lilith had taken a long, hot shower – a blessing, as Caleb had often used up all the hot water before Lilith got her turn – and she’d settled down on the neat little sofa, in the pristine room in the quiet and minimalist house to leaf through another of the Windenburg Witches’ leather-bound book of hexes.

Ah, if only she were a witch… she’d definitely cast a ‘strangeify’ or two on her too-pretty-for-his-own-good brother. And oh, the fun she could have with ‘morphiate’.

She zoned out for a moment, imagining what she’d turn her least favourite people into, when one of them materialised before her.

“Don’t you know how to knock?” she asked.

Sage didn’t answer, choosing instead to glare at Lilith in silence.

Lilith glared back. “What?”

“You know ‘what’,” Sage insisted, a little foam bubbling at the corner of her lips. “You told me he was dead.”

“Bloody hell, not this again,” Lilith muttered. She sighed and set down the book she was reading. She was feeling rather spritely today – feeding from the witches was really putting a pep in her step – and she was very tempted to wave her hand around and pretend to transform Sage into a literal old bat. But something about the old witch’s demeanour made Lilith’s cold, dead heart plummet into her withered gut.

Lilith took a deep, but pointless, breath and replied, as she always did, “He is.”

“Codswallop,” Sage scoffed. “He’s not. Not entirely, anyway. I know he’s got the girl; the whole world knows – it’s on the news!”

Lilith pressed her fang into the lining of her cheek as she fought to keep her face straight. She had, of course, practiced what she’d say should this situation arise. “On the news?” She paused, as if thinking.

“Oh! You’re on about that strange feature, the one about the man supposedly with Faith?” She laughed heartily. “Wait, you think that’s Seth? Your Seth? Oh, Sage! You kill me!”

The whole house began trembling beneath Lilith’s feet as Sage’s patience wore thin.

“I just might. Where is he?” she demanded, her palms glowing; her eyes brightening to that eerie green.

“I…I don’t know,” Lilith admitted, alarmed by the intensity of the shaking. “Sage, calm down—“

She was interrupted by a beam of light, that emitted from Sage’s palm and hurtled towards Lilith’s head. Lilith hadn’t dodged so fast in her unlife. The light collided with the wall behind her, scorching a perfectly-round hole into the wallpaper.

You have been lying to me for centuries!”

Lilith had barely registered how close she was to having a fireball in the face, before Sage shrieked again; her palm alight once more. Lilith stood firm. This wasn’t the first time Sage had thrown a tantrum to try and get information from Lilith, although it was the first time she’d tried it as a fully-grown adult.

“Sage, listen to me, it’s not the same man—”

“Bullshit!” Sage hollered, sending another searing ball in Lilith’s direction. Lilith was prepared this time; she dodged much more smoothly, allowing this crackling orb to sear an identical hole next to the first.

“What are you doing to Broof’s wallpaper?” Lilith gasped. “He’ll have a fit.”

Sage wailed again, but this time was much more ‘dying animal’ than ‘war cry. She sent a smaller, far less threatening spell in Lilith’s general direction.

Lilith didn’t even attempt to dodge this one. She let the prickly heat radiate through her and frowned at her wrinkled companion, who was panting and shivering from her effort.

“Are you done?”

Sage didn’t reply, falling to all-fours, her panting becoming wheezing. “Where… are… they? You can’t pretend he doesn’t exist, Lilith! I’ve seen his face! He has the scar!”

“Sage, honestly, it’s not him and I don’t know where Faith is.”

“You must know!” Sage shouted, choking on her own breath. “You must know. I’ll bet you’ve known all along. Oh, sweet Mother Earth, oh… oh my…”

Lilith reached a hand down to Sage, who batted it away. “Why haven’t you caught him, or found her?” Sage panted. “You’re a bloody vampire hunter!”

“I’ll find her, give me half a chance,” Lilith snarled. “Are you alright?”

“No, I’m not ‘all right’,” Sage hissed through her teeth, fighting her way to her feet. “My so-called friend has been lying to me for my whole life about my father and I want to know why.”

“Don’t play that card. He’d have been no father to you, Sage. You know what he did to your mother.”

“Spare me the lecture,” Sage spat. “I have twice the power mother did and I have the whole coven behind me.”

“Exactly,” Lilith muttered.

“Oh? And what does that mean?” Sage looked at Lilith’s impassive face quizzically before snarling. “For the Sun’s sake! Tell me how to find him. I know you know! How did he get to Faith if not through you?” At Lilith’s stoic silence, Sage growled. “You have kept a man from his daughter—”

Sage’s breathless pants became a cry of frustration at Lilith’s continued silence. “Lilith! Please! Look at me! I’m ancient, I’m becoming frail. If he’s still out there, we can find him, confront him… it might very well be my last chance.”

Lilith couldn’t restrain her sarcastic laugh. She gestured to herself, to the wall behind her. “You wouldn’t stand a chance against a wild vampire, Sage.”

Lilith knew the next track Sage would try. She’d tried attacking, hacking, wheedling and even pity to get to the truth. She only had one left. Threat.

“Tell me how to find him or I will… I will…”

“You’ll what?” Lilith asked. “Withhold finding me a cure for my affliction for, ooh, another three hundred years? I think young Wyatt and co. might have something to say about that, don’t you?”

“When they hear my reasoning—“

“They’ll know just how spiteful you are. How you led me on with promises of ‘tomorrow’, built your reputation on my dirty work, banished me to the shadows for ‘my protection’,” she scoffed, “And then refused to look for a cure because you just can’t accept that daddy-bloody-dearest is dead.”

“I saw him on the news.”

“You saw a photofit of a man who has only ever been seen by a drug-addicted rock star. OK, granted, it’s a weird coincidence, but Seth is a common name – every SimLit seems to have one. Think rationally, Sage. They interview the GliTS on that news channel, it’s all bullshit. All of the Rogues were taken out by me and Ma – you heard the story enough; we completely obliterated them. He’s dead, Sage; they all are.”

Lilith knew she’d won when Sage pouted like a stroppy teenager. She lifted her arm, no doubt to hurl more magic at Lilith’s face or to leave in a puff of smoke, the magical equivalent of slamming a door in someone’s face, but abruptly stopped. “Broof! Oh, hello dear!”

“Sage? I wasn’t expecting you.” He looked over to Lilith. “Uh, Lilith…? You look…” he blew out a deep breath that almost sounded like a whistle and Lilith realised she’d shifted form at some point. “What is going on here?”

“She was just popping by to ask about the head I owe her,” Lilith said, glancing at Sage. “I’ll drop it by tomorrow.”

Sage stared back at Lilith with so much venom that if Broof didn’t pick up on it, it would’ve been a miracle. Thankfully, the bearded man was nothing if not polite and remained mute.

“See that you do,” Sage muttered and vanished as she’d appeared.

“So! How was your visit with Moon?” Lilith asked brightly as Sage left. She positioned herself so that Broof hopefully wouldn’t notice the two new scorch marks on his wall, but she needn’t have worried; his eyes followed her every move, like a cornered mouse.

That increasing beat of fear. She hated that she liked it.

“Lilith, do you know that you’re… ashy?” he whispered. “And your eyes are…” he peered closer.

“No! Don’t get too close! Otherwise I might… I-I- ARGH!”

“Sorry, couldn’t help myself.” Lilith smiled and forced herself to think happy thoughts until she felt her skin loosen and soften. “Better?”

Broof’s heart was pounding but he remained outwardly calm. He probably had been a great butler, Lilith thought. Or a good poker player.

“That’s your dark form?” He paused as if about to ask another question, but Lilith shook her head.

“Don’t ask. It’s rare that I’ll change, but when you’ve known someone as long as I’ve known Sage, well, you know exactly how to get under the others’ skin.”

“It’s really quite distinct,” Broof started, he cleared this throat. “But that wasn’t what I was going to ask. I was more wondering how you’re going to get a head.”

“Get ahead of what?”

“A vampire head.”

“Oh. I know a guy who knows a guy who owns a graveyard and looks the other way when I turn up with my shovel. Don’t look at me like that,” she huffed in response to Broof’s sceptical squint. “No one will miss it. A little tooth filing and bingo; one fresh vampire head.”

“That sounds messy.”

Lilith rolled her eyes. “Never dug up a grave, Broompig?”

“Not quite…”

“Your life really was dull before all this, wasn’t it?” She clutched her towel higher in response to a slight dip in his gaze. “After my spot of grave-robbing I think I’ll be heading back home.” Via a bar or three.

His eyes immediately darted up to hers. “There’s no need to rush off. April texted earlier so I stopped by the flower shop on my way back. The potion, the arrhythmia elixir… no, that’s not it… um, Eunomia? No. What is that word? Does it have an ‘m’ in it?”

“The erythrocyte elixir. Just say red blood cell potion, or something.”

“Yes, the red blood cell potion – you know, that isn’t as catchy – is finished, and I have a supply, so you can stay here as long as you like and help me to research. Unless, huh, do you need different blood groups to survive? Can you survive off one person indefinitely?”

“I don’t know. Every other human I’ve kept imprisoned dies after a few weeks.” Lilith laughed at Broof’s horrified face. “I’m kidding. I had some of Wyatt’s donation today and it’s done funny things to my head.”

“Oh. Wyatt’s, I see. Is it, um, good?” Broof asked.

“Hm. It tastes better than yours,” she teased, enjoying the slump in his shoulders that he tried to hide. “But, I don’t think ‘high-as-a-kite clown’ is really me.”

Broof perked up. What was wrong with this man?

Lilith tried to sound serious. “Look, if I stay, would you really be happy having a slightly rotting head in your fridge for the night? Having me dine from you every single day? Having Sage popping by every now and then for target practice?” She gestured at the wall. At his grimace, she smiled. “I know you’re worried about me drinking myself to oblivion as I mourn my career, my freedom and my youth, but don’t be. I am ninety-nine percent sure that I can’t die by alcohol poisoning.” More’s the pity.

“Ninety-nine percent?”

“Maybe ninety-five percent. Definitely more than eighty.”

“I’m not worried about you,” he insisted. “I like having the company and we both have a lot of information to share. It feels like we could really be close to a breakthrough… with the cure, I mean. Besides, there is even more media attention in Forgotten Hollow since Caleb’s, um, controversial, um, murder – it’d be more peaceful for you here.”

Lilith laughed and hiked her towel up again. The thing now seemed unable to stay put. She half-wondered if Broof was somehow doing it. “I need to go home. I need to go and get fresh clothes, if nothing else—”

“Then at least allow me to drive you,” he volunteered. “We can talk on the way.”

Bloody hell; the man was a limpet. Although, this information he had gleaned did sound interesting and, selfishly, keeping Broof sweet would only further serve to ensure she had an ally if Sage did decide to once again sabotage the cure efforts, or worse.

Wait, how much had he heard?

She smiled in a way that she hoped looked pleasant.

“Thank you, I’d like that.”

They’d been in this smoke-screened hole for long enough. It was time to leave this soulless city.

Seth rested on one of the many the balconies, looking out over the concrete wasteland. Endless towers of steel, of cement. Pane upon pane of glass. Billboards. Automobiles. People. The sights of the city really were nothing he enjoyed to behold.

The only benefit it held, besides the plentiful prey, was the anonymity. But even that was about to run its course. A human as well-connected as the previous occupant of this gaudy penthouse would not be missed for long.  

Seth knew that Faith was unlikely to approve of his suggestion to move to the Grotto. Thankfully, he had a back-up plan that would be more suitable for his stubborn student.

Ah, it was tiresome, having another to consider in everything he did. The most tedious tasks required perfect planning and she was continuously finding ways to trip him up, set him back and throw him for a loop.

Every time he thought he had her stripped bare, she revealed another tantalising layer to peel, a challenge to solve, a clue to decipher.

The day had been, as many others recently, lost to a blur of bare skin, banter and breakdowns. With every tear she’d shed he knew she was getting closer. Each time she began trusting him a little deeper, she became easier to read. Her control on her own mind was becoming so fragmented and he could feel it, that tantalising talent of hers, beating beneath the surface. Pulsing, ripe and waiting.

He wanted that power, but, most inconveniently

…he also wanted her.

He had spent many an hour mulling over the impact of his decision. She often lamented how much of a ‘shit vampire’ she was; would she even notice if he took from her? Would she still want him if she knew what he did?

Would I still want her if she was worthless?

“Probably,” he muttered aloud to the question nobody had asked. He rubbed his temples, willing his thoughts back to their main endeavour, but distraction had taken his hand and led him down the path he denied existed. A dark and intangible path made of – ugh – feelings that, as of late he couldn’t seem to avoid.

She’s not worthless.

“You do, don’t you? You love me?”

What the devil am I doing?! Have I learned nothing?!

Never again.

Seth drummed his dirty, worn fingernails against the wall, idly watching a crowd of people a hundred feet below, gathering around a car. Someone who only pea-brained humans cared about was posing for photographs.

He hated this place. It was toxic. It was draining. It was addling his brain, that’s what was happening.

Or was it her addling his brain? Could her ability actually project her feelings into him?

Seth knew that the best way to siphon the skill from his fellow undead creatures of the night, was to coax it out it gently, softly, so they didn’t realise it was happening until it was too late. Had Faith maybe realised what he was doing and was actively trying to thwart him? Or had he fallen under her spell while she didn’t even realise she was working it?

Did she know exactly what she was doing?

He thought that, against all odds, he was developing genuine feelings for her sharp wit, her teasing, her soft lips, her smooth skin… but, was he? Is that why it had all been so fast, so intense? Was it that he didn’t love Faith, but that she had bewitched him, turned her mis-placed affection to him and convinced him that it was his own?

Yes. That must be it.

Seth groaned with need. This power she had, it was far more dangerous than he’d anticipated. Mirroring minds and amplifying actions were enticing enough, but having the ability the change true desire, the very heart of another? Oh, the chaos he could craft. He licked his lips. He needed to take this, to make a clean break and he needed it soon, before he lost himself again to another treacherous tart and their trickery.

A plan began to form in his crowded brain. A way to take what he wanted and to show her, and all others, that he was not to be messed with.

“It’s almost Joy’s birthday… I know I can’t go and see her…”

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Chapter 3.36 – My Foot

The winding path up the steep hillside was almost too much for the bearded, sleep-deprived witch. Only the promise of what was waiting for him at the peak of this hill motivated him to continue to climb it, instead of rolling back down to his parked car – that he was probably not in a fit state to be driving – and heading back to the comfort of his neglected bed.

The cottage he was visiting, a tiny little dwelling nestled amongst the trees a few miles from Windenburg square, was as remote as it was picturesque. On any other day, Broof would’ve idled; taking in his surroundings and enjoying the sun on his face, but today he had work to do.

He had called ahead, polite as he was, so it was no surprise when he approached the front door to Moon’s house and it swung open to permit him. He stepped inside the quaint little cottage, a familiar place from his childhood, and immediately Moon called to him from the adjacent sitting room.

Dodging a pair of curious cats, Broof walked through to greet his fellow witch, who was staring at her easel with a look of bemusement.

“I am trying a new art style,” she stated. “Something different, to test myself. What do you think?”

Broof hesitated, glancing at Moon’s other paintings on the wall that were a much finer quality, in his opinion.

“It’s definitely different,” he said positively.

Moon paused, tapping her chin. “You’re too kind. It looks like I painted it with my foot.”

“Still, I’m sure someone on Plopsy will buy it. Anyway, welcome! Drink?”

“Please.”

“What will it be?” Moon asked. “Mojito? Oh, wait, is it too early for mojito?” she glanced at her watch.

Broof didn’t want to mention that he was driving; witches typically didn’t drive if visiting one another, it would only look suspicious. “Yes, it’s too early. I’ll take a lemonade, please.”

Moon nodded, filling the glasses without even visiting the fridge and settling in her chair while Broof took a place on the sofa. He glanced around the room that hadn’t changed much since he was a boy; full of stacked bookshelves that groaned under the weight of a hundred dusty, old books.

Moon had wasted no time in filling the brief silence; speculating and commiserating about the tragic news that had circulated in the coven this morning. Broof hadn’t known the deceased, but had worn purple today as a sign of respect. Moon was also wearing purple, although she often did. Broof had to wonder if that was a stylistic choice or whether she, too, had someone she couldn’t let go of.

He nodded along in the all the right places while sipping his lemonade, which tasted far better than anything he ever managed to conjure. He was half-listening, but also thinking how best to approach the subject he needed to talk to Moon about. It took him a moment to realise she had stopped talking.

“I see that something really is on your mind,” she said softly. “What is it, Broof?”

Broof swirled his glass in silence. He’d run through the conversation in his head a few times as he’d driven over; carefully chosen his words so that he wouldn’t arouse any suspicion as to why he had suddenly decided to visit Moon and ask her a load of questions after barely talking to her for years. Thankfully, because he wasn’t a frequent visitor to this neck of the woods, the reasoning behind his sudden interest in her hadn’t gone unnoticed by the older witch.

“How are things going with young Wyatt?” she asked. “He’s your first student, yes?”

Broof’s eyes glistened as he was presented with this perfect cover. He smiled, politely. “Yes, so as you know, Wyatt chose me as his mentor.”

“A fine choice.”

“Um, thank you,” Broof said, unable to hide his surprise. “However, I’m feeling a little unprepared for the role, if truth be told.”

“Oh! You’re only here for mentoring tips!” Moon laughed and flopped back into her chair. “Thank goodness; I thought you were going to tell me more dreadful news.”

“You won’t tell anyone I’m struggling, will you? It’d be horribly embarrassing for me, especially with what happened with Claudia. I already feel like the coven must think I’m an idiot.”

Moon placed a hand to her chest in sympathy. “They don’t, and of course I won’t. You did the right thing by coming to see me, and there’s no need to worry; we can’t all know everything and you’re not expected to be perfect. Besides, I’d wager Wyatt would be a handful, even for an experienced teacher, with that unruly magic of his.”

“He is a handful,” Broof agreed.

“So, how can I help? Is it a general conduct kind of issue? Is there a particular spell he’s struggling with?”

“No, he’s involved and well-behaved and pretty good with spells already – a fast learner, I mean!” Broof said quickly. “It’s more that he asks a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to.”

“Oh? What sort of questions? If there’s a specific topic, I probably have a book around here that you can borrow.”

“Books might be the problem. He’s been staying up late, reading a lot, old tomes and the like.”

“Really?” Moon asked in surprise. “I thought he was more the computer games type.”

“Oh, no, he’s actually very studious,” Broof lied. “Anyway, to feed this hobby of his, I gave him some of Ma’s grimoires and old diaries to study—”

“I’ll bet they’re interesting.”

“They are, and informative,” Broof took a deep breath. It was now or never. “However, they appear to be missing some pages.”

He waited here to see if this elicited any response, but Moon seemed unbothered. “Moths,” she speculated. “They like a nibble on these old books.”

“Possibly,” Broof said as if considering it viable. “Although, they’re very selective moths; only choosing certain books, completely eating some pages and leaving surrounding ones untouched…”

It might have been his imagination, but Broof could’ve sworn the room became cooler. Moon watched her cat for a while; the creature had stolen a ball of yarn from her basket and was noisily trying to kill it.

“Which books do these selective moths seem to favour?” she asked.

“Anything between the years of 1680 and 1730 must be particularly tasty.”

Moon settled back in her chair, suddenly looking far more serious. “I assume you know about that time period.”

“I do,” Broof confirmed. “The trying times, correct?”

“Yes,” Moon sighed. “I remember them well.”

“I know that was a difficult time for the coven, but is there any reason why pages might be missing? Anything I can feed back to Wyatt, I mean.”

Moon pursed her lips and her eyes darkened. Her tone was unusually short. “If you’re suggesting that those missing pages are deliberate, they very well may be, but it would only be for the protection of future coven members and probably not information that should be shared with a newly-fledged – and impressionable – witch in-training, such as Wyatt.”

Broof felt like he’d punched in the gut. He nodded and tried not to look too disheartened. “I see, well thank you for your advice, and the drink—”

As he rose to his feet, Moon turned to look at him, that faraway expression had been replaced with a knowing smile.

“I couldn’t share that information with a witch-in-training,” she reiterated. “However, if you are not in fact asking because you wish to teach your student about the coven history, but because you yourself are interested, then, as a fellow fully-qualified witch, you have earned the right to anything you wish to know, Broof.”

Broof’s legs turned to jelly beneath him and he settled himself back on the sofa. He ran his dry tongue around his dry mouth and weighed up his options.

“You take so much after your grandmother. She also wanted to know everything,” Moon said after a few moments of silence. “Her methods of interrogation were a little more direct though.” She winked; her smile returning and with it the temperature of the room began to rise.

“Nothing gets past you does it?”

“I might have bought it, if I had never met Wyatt. So, what do you want to know?”

He hesitated for only a moment. “I want to know about the Village of the Free.”

“What?”

“I-I found a single mention of it, in an old diary, but all other places where I think it might have been referenced thereafter had been removed. Is this… what have I found here?”

Moon sighed heavily. “Well, I did say ‘anything’. All right. Do you know about the Swamps?”

“Of course. Home to banished witches, those born of curses—”

“—Necromancers and beasts,” Moon finished.

Broof was confused. “What does that have to do with the Village?”

“Everything. They’re the same place,” Moon said solemnly. “A collective of those who misuse magic, practice dark magic, or, as they call it, ‘free magic’. Free magic, I ask you. A limitless well of power and no restriction on how it is used, may seem ‘free’ – but it does not come without a price. It can corrupt your soul, your morals – the very being of your being.” She paused for composure. “The Village, the Swamp, whatever you want to call it… it’s not a place any good witch, any true witch, should ever visit. And therefore, it was decided, that any reference to the ‘Village of the Free’ be removed. At least, it should have been removed.”

Broof’s heart pounded so loudly in his chest that he thought Moon may hear it. “But the current High Priestess, isn’t she from the Swamp?”

“She is,” Moon said with softness. “She realised that their way was not her way and sought to return to the bosom of the Earth. A few witches over the centuries have renounced the drug of dark magic and returned to us. We will embrace them when they truly repent, when Mother Nature forgives them, and then they are welcomed back into the coven. Most choose not to disclose their past, due to the stigma, but the High Priestess likes to do things a little differently, as you may have gathered.”

Broof nodded. “Does she go back? To visit her family, or—?”

“No. She chose not to. It truly is a huge sacrifice, but she felt it must be done – the two magics, the two ideologies, they are incompatible.”

Broof thought of April and that anxious thread of regret returned to tie his insides into a knot. How could she be a hybrid of pure and dark magic when, by all accounts, that was impossible? He thought back to the diary, about the reference to the explorer who was planning to visit the Village, and how many missing pages had followed. Maybe, just maybe there had been something in there? Something that would prove that it was possible…

“Moon, the diary I found this reference in, it spoke of an explorer who wanted to go to the Village, seeking something. Do you know what that was, or what happened?”

Moon blew a strand of hair from her eyes. “No, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t. It was such a long time ago and – whatever is that beeping? Can you hear beeping?”

A tinny series of chirps had begun resounding in the room and both witches looked around for the source of the noise.

“Oh!” Moon gasped, looking at her wrist. “It’s me! I can’t get the hang of this new thing, one moment.” She began pressing at buttons on the watch until it fell silent and something flashed on the screen. “’Cof Sag’,” she read. “What on Earth does that mean— oh! Oh darn! Of course! Coffee with Sage. Darn character limits! I’m so sorry, Broof, I appear to have double-booked myself. Ordinarily, I’d go by the ‘first-come-first-served’ rule but given the circumstances…”

“That’s quite all right,” Broof said. “I think I’ve enough information to be chewing on for a while.”

“Sorry to rush you, out,” Moon muttered, ushering Broof towards the door. “I’ll be in touch if I remember anything else about the Village. Are you going straight home from here?”

“Oh, no, it’s such a lovely day and this is such a picturesque place, I thought I’d take a walk first and gather my thoughts,” Broof said.

“That sounds lovely – be sure to visit the ruins. Well, until next time.”

Broof nodded curtly and headed off down the path, Moon watched him until he vanished behind the trees.   

And then, she also vanished.

Moon arrived to a secluded location near the coffee shop five minutes before she was due to be there, instead of her usual two hours late. She was getting much more punctual these days, thanks to the annoying, bleeping thing her grand-daughter had insisted on buying. Moon had reluctantly agreed to use it after she turned up two days late to the airport for the family holiday to Sulani and ended up stuck in Selvadorada for a month.

The bleeping thing, it appeared, also had the added benefit of abruptly stopping uncomfortable conversations.

Sage had already arrived and was seated alone at a table in the coffee shop. The place was empty except for a bored-looking barista who ignored her arrival.

Sage was staring into her drink – a cup of Earl Grey, Moon guessed. No sugar because Sage was, she’d claim, ‘sweet enough’. A second cup waited before a vacant seat that Moon swiftly occupied. Other than a cheerful hello, Moon didn’t say a word, waiting to gauge the temperament of her elegantly-coiffed companion.

Sage lifted her head, offering Moon a not-quite-smile and a greeting. She looked exhausted, but she hid it well. Not a hair out of place, as usual. Moon ran a hand through her own hair, attempting to smooth it but, by design, it defied her.

“How are y—” she began, but Sage cut her off with swift wave of her hand.

“Awful. Tired. It’s been a long night.”

Moon nodded sympathetically. “Do you need to go home? We can reschedule.”

“No,” Sage said adamantly. “Home is the last place… never mind. I need a distraction before I go completely doolally. What have you been up to?”

“The usual; painting, chasing cats, forgetting where I’ve put things,” Moon replied with a chuckle. “Oh, Broof stopped by earlier, that was nice.”

Sage, who had taken a sip of tea as Moon said this, sputtered it on to the table. “Broof?” she repeated. “Broof Hogwash?”

“Do you know another Broof?”

“What did he want?”

“Lemonade,” Moon replied.

“Lemonade?” Sage repeated. “What are you on about?”

“I don’t know,” Moon said, mopping up the spilt tea. “I don’t think he really knew.”

“How odd. He has been hovering around you a lot lately,” Sage said quietly, her face instantly transforming from fatigue to scepticism.

“Perhaps he wants to be my butler,” Moon joked. The two ladies laughed and settled back to chat idly. Somewhere behind them, Moon was aware of the barista, chattering on the phone. The television, which had been displaying a nature documentary, switched over to the news.

“Oh,” Moon gasped, seeing the displayed headline. “Should we ask them to change it back?”

Sage glanced up at the television and rolled her eyes. “No, it’s fine. They won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”