A Wonder

Happy Friday, Readers! It’s time again (already!) for Friday Fictioneers. I’m going to continue exploring the lives of Miss Emmeline Price and Mr. Nick Ramsey. If you missed last week’s story, you can find it here.

As always, I offer my thanks to Rochelle for providing us with a weekly prompt, and this week special thanks to J. Hardy Carroll.

Enjoy the story!

Copyright: J Hardy Carroll

A Wonder

“Emmy, this is crazy.”

“It’s Emmeline, Nicholas.”

“He’s a recluse! He never accepts visitors!” Nick stumbled over the uneven sidewalk. “Do you really expect to get in?”

Emmeline stopped suddenly as they arrived at the gates. An old intercom was attached to a pole. With practiced ease she punched in a set of numbers. There was some static, then a raspy voice said, “Is that you, Miss Price?”

“Yes, Lester. But I have a follower today. Should I leave him at the gate?”

After a pause, the voice rasped, “Bring him up.”

“You’re a wonder, you know that?” Nick whispered.

Unsettled, But Setting Out

Hello Readers.

This is going to be my last post about Stella and Griffin for a while. I’ve decided to expand this story, and it’s going to be my focus for Camp National Novel Writing Month in April. I hope you won’t mind the wait! It will be worth it (I hope). If you need a refresher before starting this story, check out their last adventure here.

Sorry in advance for a cliffhanger….enjoy!

Unsettled, But Setting Out

My dislike for the crone increased with every minute. She was patronizing, cryptic, knew far more than she was telling us, and there was an aura of otherness about her that made my skin crawl. The fact that she owned a grimoire was extremely suspicious. I was tempted to arrest her, but if I did that then our only lead to the location of the Soul-Eater would be lost.

I ground my teeth. “Then I guess we’d better be on our way.” I glanced at Stella. She was staring at the table with utter fascination. I followed her gaze. Her eyes were not fixed on the map, as I had originally thought, but on the pushed aside grimoire, still open to the page about the Soul-Eater. I didn’t know what was so interesting about a shapeless blank blob on an aged page with crooked writing, but I decided it couldn’t be good, whatever the reason was.

“Stella,” I called. She flinched violently and stepped back, a look like guilt flashing across her face before she lifted her eyes to mine. I frowned.

Horatia laughed. “Such a rush…”

“You just reminded us our time is short,” snapped Bart suddenly. He had been unusually quiet during the entire visit but now appeared defiant; meeting the old woman’s piercing eyes with a firm, level gaze. It was as if he had been deliberating some weighty decision in his mind and had finally settled it.

“He speaks at last,” Horatia said.

I bristled, ready to jump to Bart’s defense should she turn her sharp tongue on him, but he merely shrugged and turned to me.

“Shall we go, Master Griffin?”

I searched his eyes, looking for a sign of what had been passing in his mind, but there was only his usual steadfast and earnest loyalty. Nothing to indicate Horatia had told him anything untoward or disturbing. I nodded. “Prepare the horses.” As he started forward to leave, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you Bart.” He said nothing, just inclined his head and left the cottage.

I turned back to face the room and found Horatia watching us intently. “What did you say to him?” I demanded, my temper rising.

“Nothing for your ears,” she said airily, waving a hand. Red flickered in my vision.

Suddenly Stella appeared at my side, one hand fisted in her skirt, the other coming to rest on my arm with a feather-light touch. “Come on Griffin, let’s go.” She smiled and inclined her head towards the old woman. “Thank you for everything, Horatia,” she said sincerely. “We will defeat the Soul-Eater. I promise.” She fidgeted slightly, rocking on her feet. Her hand on my arm trembled ever so slightly. I frowned. What was wrong?

Horatia had turned her intense gaze on Stella. For a few moments she said nothing, just seemed to study Stella as if she was a riddle that needed answering. At last she nodded and grinned, revealing straight, even teeth. This unnerved me more than anything because of the unexpected sight. “You are welcome, star-girl. We will meet again.”

Stella said nothing else, just turned on her heel and pulled me out with her. I gave one last look back at the old woman, still grinning and then left the cottage without a word.

Outside, Bart was ready and waiting with the horses. Stella shrugged away his offer to help her into the saddle and hoisted herself up. I watched her, an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something was bothering her, but I couldn’t say what. Perhaps she was just thinking about Roy, or perhaps my confession outside of the cottage had unnerved her. That idea left me feeling anxious to appease her. I grunted and shook myself as if to shake away the feeling. Out of habit I double checked my saddle bags and touched the hilt of my spare sword, tucked away among my bags and supplies. Then I took the reins from Bart’s outstretched hands and mounted. Bart quickly followed suit.

A quick glance back at the cottage revealed Horatia watching us from the window of the cottage. She grinned at me when she caught me looking, and turned away, spurring my horse forward. “Let’s go,” I said gruffly. I would be happier once we put some distance between us and this village and that strange old woman, even if I had my doubts about her information. Our path would lead us through the rest of this wood and out onto the main road for many miles before reaching the river. “If we keep a steady pace,” I said, “we should reach the river by tomorrow night.”

“That only leaves us one day to reach the tree and stop the Soul-Eater,” said Bart doubtfully. “Perhaps we should consider riding through the night.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re going to need every bit of strength in us to face this thing, and no small amount of courage. I won’t have us face it swaying on our feet in fatigue.”

Bart nodded. I looked at Stella, who hadn’t said a word since we left the cottage. She held her reins in a tight grip and had her eyes straight ahead. “Stella?” She jolted, as if coming out of deep thought.

“Hmmm? Yes, whatever you say,” she said absently. Bart turned his head sharply at her, concern etched on his face, and my frown returned. Had she even been listening?

The village was well out of sight now, but I glanced back anyway, half expecting to see a glimpse of a grinning old woman, bent and twisted in shadow. There was nothing but quiet woods and the worn path we followed, dappled with afternoon sunlight. “Are you alright?” I asked, returning my focus to Stella. She shrugged and gave both of us a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“Yes, of course, I’m fine,” she answered. “Just a little tired, I suppose. And Horatia gave us a lot to think about.”

Bart and I shared a look and a string of silent words. “Perhaps we should rest now, for a little bit. Take some refreshment,” Bart suggested.

Stella shook her head. “No, I don’t need anything. Let’s just keep riding.”

“You’re sure you’re alright?” I asked, not wanting to let the issue drop.

“Yes!” she snapped, glaring at me. “I said I was fine. Let’s just keep riding. We can ride until we can’t see the path anymore. I agree we should get some rest, but I also want to have as much time as possible to defeat the Soul-Eater. We don’t know what we’re walking into, so the more time we have to scout things out, the better, I think.”

I was taken aback. It was a good plan, one I probably would have followed had she not been with us, but I was pleased she suggested it. Still, though it was a practical and good plan, it did not answer my question of what was on her mind. For a few moments, the only sound between us was a soft clop-clop of horse hooves on the path. “Very well,” I said at last. I would let the matter drop for now. “We’ll ride on.” But when we stopped for a rest, I would make her talk one way or another.

In Training

It’s Friday again, dear Readers! I’m back with more adventures in the lives of Nicholas Ramsey and Emmeline Price in this week’s Friday Fictioneers! (If you would like to read about their previous adventures, try here and here.) Special thanks to Rochelle, as always, for providing the prompt. The photo credit goes to Jennifer Pendergast, a fellow blogger!

Enjoy.

Copyright: Jennifer Pendergast

In Training

“Do I even want to know how you managed this?” Nick watched as workmen carefully carried piece after piece of priceless artwork into the hall.

“Not in the nefarious way you are no doubt imagining,” answered Emmeline, stamping the delivery sheet with the Answering Angel’s seal of approval and her flourishing signature. “Believe it or not, people are more willing to help charities than you think.”

Nick scoffed, but his retort was cut off by the box of place cards Emmeline shoved into his arms. “Now make yourself useful,” she said. “I’ll make an angel of you yet, Nicholas Ramsey.”

It’s The Little Things

Happy Friday, Readers! Can you believe it’s here already? As promised in last week’s Friday Fictioneers, I will be continuing the story about the characters I introduced – Nicholas Ramsey and Emmeline Price. If you missed their first story, check it out here.

Thank you to Rochelle for providing us with a prompt week after week. And special thanks to Shaktiki Sharma for providing this week’s photo.

Enjoy!

Copyright: Shaktiki Sharma

It’s The Little Things

Nick came running when a sudden shriek tore the air. He rounded the corner, certain Miss Price was being mugged or worse. What he found was Emmeline desperately swatting the air with her pamphlets. Then in the most dignified manner she could manage, she smoothed her dress and patted her hair.

“What happened?” asked Nick, breathless.

Emmeline cleared her throat. “It was a bug.”

Nick stared at her, dumbfounded. Here was a woman who walked unafraid in the slums of Chicago and faced business tycoons on a daily basis, but shrieked at the sight of a bug. He burst out laughing.

Time Is Short

Hello Readers! I hope you aren’t languishing too much waiting for the next installment in the Stella and Griffin story (I really need a title, don’t I? I’ll work on it.) If you are, never fear! For here at last is the next chapter in their adventure. Things are looking pretty grim for our heroes, especially with their dark pasts (see the last excerpt Dark Memories for more) but perhaps Horatia has a solution for them…read on to find out!

Found via Pinterest.

Found via Pinterest.

Time Is Short

It took all of my effort to smile and look into Griffin’s eyes. I squeezed his hand and spoke with a confidence I was far from feeling. A tremble started in my hands and I quickly pulled away from Griffin, turning away so he wouldn’t see the shadow cross my face. Inside, it felt as though an icy blade had pierced my chest. I hugged myself, trying to stop the sudden onslaught of anguish filling me. Poor Griffin! To think he had been carrying this same grief around with him, just as I have been carrying my sorrow for Roy!

I sneaked a glance at him. He was pale. For a moment I could see every wave of grief lining his face and darkening his eyes, but in an instant it was gone and the grim face he had been wearing ever since we entered this village slipped back into place. I looked away before he could catch me looking and hurried forward back to Horatia’s cottage. At the front step I paused and looked over my shoulder. Griffin was still standing in place, his fists clenched and his grim face looking like it was carved in stone. “Are you coming, Griffin?”

He revived at the sound of his name and strode forward faster than I expected. I startled when he gently put a hand to my back, pushing me forward. I stumbled as I entered the small cottage and Griffin smoothly reached out and caught me. Horatia and Bart were both watching intently as we entered and I turned my face away, feeling my cheeks burn.

I thought Bart or Horatia would say something about Griffin’s sudden behavior, but neither said a word. Bart looked a little dazed, as if his mind were somewhere else. My brow crinkled. What had he and Horatia been talking about while Griffin and I were gone?

I wasn’t given a chance to ask. Griffin was staring down at Horatia, his arms crossed and feet set shoulder length apart. “I’m ready to hear you, woman,” he said gruffly. All traces of the grief he had just been feeling was gone.

I stood between the two of them, uncertain if I should rejoin Bart at the table or remain at Griffin’s side. Horatia met Griffin’s fierce gaze with a smirk. “Very well,” she said. She stood suddenly. “You have three days to complete your quest, and if you face the Soul-Eater, one chance to live.”

I sucked in a breath. My heart skipped a beat. Three days. One chance. Roy. The words echoed in my head as I stood frozen, staring at the ancient woman. Moving with strange quickness, she went to a laden shelf and withdrew a thick, worn-looking book with what I hoped was animal skin. As she turned around with it and brought it to the table I couldn’t help but lean back. When she flipped it open, Bart nearly fell out of his chair pulling away from it. He scrambled to his feet and stood beside Griffin while Horatia flipped through the tanned, stained pages. I hoped whatever she was about to show us wouldn’t take long.

Opening the book seemed to have made the cottage air oppressive. The shadows around the room had grown darker, and my ears buzzed with murmurs I was certain I hadn’t heard before.

“Where did you get that?” Griffin asked sharply.

“That is a tale you don’t deserve to hear yet,” said Horatia, not pausing in her page turning. My eyes widened as she passed one page with a grisly looking diagram of what resembled a human body but  had large curling horns sprouting from its head and large bat-like wings. There was a stain on that page what was almost certainly blood. I shuddered.

“What is it?” The words slipped from my mouth before I could stop them.

“It is a grimoire,” answered Griffin, surprising me.

“A what?”

“A manual for summoning demons,” growled Griffin. His hand was at his sword hilt at his belt again. Beside him, Bart was doing the same.

“It is,” said Horatia calmly, still thumbing through the pages.

I gasped. “But why would a medicine woman have such a thing?”

At that Horatia paused. She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned. “Who ever said I was a medicine woman, star-girl?” She gave me toothy grin. Beside me there came a whisper as Griffin started to drawn his sword, but Horatia held up a hand. “There’s no need for that, boy.” She stepped back and gestured to the gruesome book, now open to a hideous drawing of a large demon made of shadow. I blinked and tried to focus on the drawing. It seemed to be shifting so I couldn’t make out the edges or the full form of the thing. I shook my head. There seemed to be a barbed tail, but in another blink it was gone. I rubbed my eyes.

Horatia laughed. “That won’t do you any good, darling. It’s an ever-changing being. No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, and if you do, then you’re probably dead.”

“If no one knows what it looks like, then how are we supposed to find it?” said Bart, voicing the same question that had occurred to me.

“Trust me, if you go looking, you’ll find it,” said Horatia darkly.

“Just answer the question,” snapped Griffin.

“No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, that much is known. But it is also known that the Soul-Eater cannot survive in this world without a vessel.”

“A vessel?”

“A body to inhabit.” Horatia continued as though she’d never been interrupted. “Whatever body the Soul-Eater chooses will take on the qualities and strengths of the demon, making it particularly hard to kill, though not invulnerable.”

“What type of body do you think it will inhabit?” Griffin asked, his hand still not leaving his sword.

Horatia frowned, creating even more lines on her already heavily lined face. “A Soul-Eater that’s already feed once in this world will need something of considerable strength to contain it. I would guess it would be fairly large as well.”

“A bear? A wolf?” guessed Bart.

Griffin said nothing. Suddenly an idea occurred to me. “What about Titan?” I blurted. Three sets of eyes fixed on me. Heat rushed into my face. “Titan?” I repeated. I appealed to Horatia. “Surely you’ve heard of it. The giant willow tree that stands along Old Water River? It’s not 10 miles from here, surely.”

Horatia said nothing for a moment, but appeared to study me. My cheeks were certainly flaming now. At last she nodded. “Yes, I think I know it,” she said.

“It’s a local landmark for my village,” I said quickly, trying to explain myself. “We’ve always called the tree Titan. He’s so big.”

“Could a tree be the vessel?” Griffin questioned Horatia.

“It would explain the large numbers of demons roaming about. If the Soul-Eater is immobile, then it would need its victims to be brought to it.”

“But what would the demons gain by working for the Soul-Eater? It was my understanding that demons were solitary creatures.”

Horatia was nodding again. “They are, mostly. But the Soul-Eater is powerful. It could be pressing the other demons into service, or offering them bribes. Human flesh, perhaps. Other bodies to inhabit.”

I gasped. “No!” Bart sent me a sympathetic look.

“How could a tree be eating souls?” Griffin wasn’t wasting time.

“The tree would no longer be a tree,” reminded Horatia. “It may still resemble the tree at first glance, but if the Soul-Eater has chosen it to inhabit, then it will all demon.”

“Can we be sure this Titan tree is the demon?”

“There are ways, but none can be done quickly. Do you have a current map?”

“With the horses.” Griffin turned to Bart, but he was already striding out of the cottage. For a few minutes, silence sat heavy on the air. My eyes kept darting to the writhing mass of midnight ink on the grimoire’s open pages. I blinked. For a second, I could have sworn it looked like a bent old woman. I shook my head and it was an unrecognizable mass again.

When Bart returned, Horatia pushed the grimoire aside to make room for the map on the table. Griffin stepped forward and I hurried to his side. “There have been attacks here, here, and here,” he said, indicating three red circles on the map. Numbers had been written inside them. 17, 8, 32. “Reports of demon sighting have been recorded in this area, as well as an undetermined number of missing persons. Your village has not been recorded yet, but it looks to be the most serious attack. If what you say is true about the demon staying for one cycle of the moon, then this is consistent with the attack pattern of last time.”

There was an involuntary twinge in my heart. Last time. He was talking about Lila and her village. Horatia leaned forward over the map, bending over so far her nose nearly touched the parchment. She ran her fingers in between the attack sites, murmuring so low that we could not hear. “Is this your Titan, star-girl?” she said, startling me. I looked to where she was pointing. A large green shape sat beside a bend in the river not far from the main road.

“Yes.”

Horatia continued her muttering for a minute more then straightened up. “I cannot be certain without tests, but it is very likely that this tree is where the Soul-Eater is residing. Its position near the road and to these four villages make it ideal for harvesting victims. And the size and age of the tree make it even more likely.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Then the Soul-Eater will return to the Otherworld and your lost souls will be lost forever. Your time is limited, hero.”

A Chance Meeting

Happy Friday, Readers! It’s been a couple weeks, but I’m back with a Friday Fictioneers story for you! Thank you as always, to the lovely Rochelle for providing a weekly prompt for us Friday writers, as well as providing the photo this week!

I’m not making any promises yet, but I think this little story could turn into a series…I’m going to challenge myself to continue to write about these two characters over the next few weeks, every Friday.

Enjoy!

Copyright: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

Copyright: Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

A Chance Meeting

On a busy street corner in the windy city, Nick collided with a beautiful brunette in a green peacoat. Books and pamphlets scattered with her exclamation of “Oh!” and Nick found himself scrambling to grab everything before the wind or oblivious feet carried it away.

“I am so sorry,” he said, reaching for a fluttering pamphlet next to her white heels. “So sorry, Miss…?”

“Price. Emmeline Price.” She stood, clutching her books and papers to her chest with one hand while reaching out with the other. “Thank you, Mr…?”

“Nicholas Ramsey.”

She smiled. “Do you believe in angels, Nicholas Ramsey?”

Dark Memories

Hello, dear Readers! I hope you are having a good week. I come with another excerpt from the Stella and Griffin story! Picking up where we left off last time in Must Be Magic: Part II, Stella, Griffin and Bart are in the old woman Horatia’s cottage, hoping to learn something that might help them in the fight against the Soul-Eater. Stella is all ears, but Griffin is wary. Let’s find out why.

The WordPress Daily Prompt word of the day is Tremble.

Enjoy!

Found via Pinterest.

Found via Pinterest.

Dark Memories

The girl was a fool, no doubt about it. But saints help me, so was I. Stella raised her chin at us, her eyes flashing with defiance and a challenge, but I caught her bottom lip tremble just a bit. She was desperate to save Roy, to know it was still possible. I know because I had felt that same desperation before, not so long ago…

The old woman put one of her ancient hand over Stella’s small worn ones. “I might be able to help you with that, star-girl,” she said.

At once hope flared in Stella’s eyes and she turned away from me, missing the frown that instantly formed at the old woman’s words. I didn’t trust her. Something about her felt strange and she told a lot less than she knew, I could tell. Stella might not have noticed, but I hadn’t missed they roundabout way she had been speaking to us. I glanced at Bart, who was fidgeting in his seat, his eyes darting back and forth from Stella to Horatia.

“Might being the operative word,” I said dryly. I couldn’t help myself.

Three pairs of eyes turned towards me. Stella’s reproachful ones, Bart’s amused ones and Horatia’s sharp ones, which narrowed even as she smiled good naturedly at me. “I am just a simple old woman, it’s true,” Horatia said. “I certainly cannot face the demon myself. But my knowledge could be of use to you, hero.” She held my gaze, staring at me as if she could see straight into my soul. I repressed a shudder.

“How do we know what you say is true? How do we know we can even trust you?”

Horatia shrugged and took a sip of her tea. “You don’t,” she said simply. “But what possible reason would I have to tell you otherwise?”

“You could be a demon yourself, working for the Soul-Eater, sending us to our deaths.”

Horatia gave a short bark of laughter, making Stella jump beside me. “Oh, to be certain, I am sending you to your deaths, hero.” Stella’s cup clattered as she dropped it on the table, spilling some of the contents. Horatia continued as if she hadn’t noticed it. “Yes, all three of you will be walking straight into your deaths should you fail at your task. There is no other outcome.”

When I remained silent, Horatia smiled wickedly and said directly to me, “But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will escape death twice, Griffin Shadow-Destroyer.” She spat the last two words at me, flinging them like an insult.

I reeled back. She knew. Somehow she knew my past, knew about Fellforough. I dared not glance at Bart, though I felt his eyes on me. He couldn’t have missed the reference. Only Stella remained in the dark, and she was staring between us with wide eyes, questions welling up inside her. I closed my eyes just as she burst, fixing her fierce gaze on me.

“What is she talking about, Griffin? What does she mean, escape death twice? Have you…”

I cut her off by standing abruptly. My chair fell to the floor behind me and I turned and strode out of the tiny house, ducking under the herbs and weeds drying in the rafters. I didn’t even bother closing the door behind me. I just kept walking blindly forward, my mind racing.

I shouldn’t have left Bart and Stella in there on their own with that woman, but I wasn’t thinking straight. It shouldn’t, couldn’t be possible that the old woman knew, but her entire manner suggested otherwise. I paced back and forth. I should barge back in there, grab Stella and Bart and just leave. I wanted nothing more to do with the old woman. But if she was telling the truth and she really could help us, it might be our only chance at defeating the Soul-Eater and saving Roy. I growled and kicked the dirt at my feet.

From behind me I heard the soft patter of Stella’s footsteps running after me, and a second later she called out, “Griffin! What on earth is going on? Why did you storm out? What aren’t you telling us?”

I stopped pacing suddenly and spun around, nearly colliding with her.  She stumbled and I reached out and instinctively caught her and set her gently back on her feet. She flushed, her face and neck turning pink, but was not silenced. “Tell me. What is it, Griffin?”

“I don’t trust that woman,” I growled.

Stella scoffed. “It’s more than that and you know it,” she said, putting both hands on her hips. The pose struck a memory I had long ago buried but I quickly pushed it away.

“I don’t have to tell you everything about myself,” I snapped.

“You do if it causes you to run out on us!” Stella shouted.

“I’m not running out on you, Lila!” I shouted back, and instantly wished I hadn’t. I turned away, cursing my treacherous mind for dredging up memories best laid to rest and my tongue for giving them a voice.

I had a few seconds silence before Stella softly asked, “Who’s Lila?”

I didn’t answer right away, but my mind silently filled in the blanks. Lila. Beautiful, lovely, funny Lila. Bossy, clever, quick Lila. “No one,” I forced out. I breathed in deep though my nose. When she looked about to protest, I snapped. “Who’s Roy?”

Her mouth shut and she pursed her lips. A cruel sort of satisfaction welled up inside me and I swallowed it down, sick with myself. Lila wouldn’t have wanted me to behave like this. Lila wouldn’t have wanted a lot of things.

“You still aren’t telling us something,” Stella finally said. She crossed her arms over her chest and gave me the impatient look I was beginning to know so well. “What is it that you and Horatia know?”

I looked at the sky, then back to the cottage. I said nothing. Stella started tapping her foot impatiently, then drumming her fingers on her arm. When she took a big breath to start another round of questioning, I spoke.

“I’ve faced the Soul-Eater before.”

Stella let out her breath and stared up at me wide-eyed, then. “You have? Then how did you defeat it? Is this the beast of Fellforough? You’ve destroyed one before! You can do it again! Why haven’t you said something before?” She was talking a mile a minute, her voice rising with each question, excitement filling her words. I looked at my feet and she trailed off. “Griffin?” she asked uncertainly.

“I didn’t defeat the Soul-Eater in Fellforough,” I said, the words falling from my mouth like heavy stones. “I didn’t kill it, and I didn’t save anyone.” I looked up and gazed straight into her blue eyes, so unlike Lila’s warm brown ones. Each word was like agony to admit. “I fought it with a group of soldiers in Fellforough Wood on a night with no moon. We were powerless against it. Our weapons did nothing. All around us the Taken walked and wailed, driving the men mad even as they themselves became Taken.”

I paused, the horrors of the night flashing through my mind as if it had been yesterday. “ There were demons everywhere. We fought them with our swords dipped in burning pitch but it wasn’t enough. And when the night was darkest, there was a tear in the air and from it spilled smoke that was darker still. It swirled around the Soul-Eater, enveloping it, drawing it closer to the tear. I tried to stop it but when my sword touched the smoke it froze and the fire burning along it was choked out.”

Stella gasped. Her hand was covering her mouth and she was looking at me with such shock and pity, I could hardly continue. “I pulled out my knife, though my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold it. I waited a moment and found a break in the smoke. I drove the knife into the side of the beast up to the hilt. It started to shudder and I thought maybe I had wounded it enough to stop it, but then I heard it.”

I stopped again, bile rising in my throat. I forced myself to continue. “It was laughing,” I said, choking on the words. “And then the beast lashed out with its barbed tail and struck me across the chest, sending me flying back. I could only lay there helpless as it crawled into the tear and disappeared, tear and all.”

I stopped again, closing my eyes against the memories that kept coming. I flinched as Stella’s small hand reached out and touched my arm. “Griffin, I…”

I shook my head. “That wasn’t it,” I said. My voice sounded raw, even to my ears. I cringed to think of how I must sound to Stella. “The Taken were still there. But when the beast and the tear disappeared, the wailing stopped. It was like all the sound had been stolen from the world. I…I hurried over to one of them, a young woman. Her eyes were a solid milky white and her skin was grey, right down to the freckles on her nose. Her clothes looked as though the color had been bleached out. I called to her but she didn’t respond. I shook her shoulders but she made no move that she could hear or understand me. She just stood there.”  I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. “All around me the bodies of my men lay slain on the ground, mixed with the bodies of demons. Above them stood the Taken, frozen like statues, like stone angels in a cemetery. Then one by one they crumbled and turned to dust. I reached out and grabbed the young woman by the hand, but she too turned to dust in my hands.” I lowered my hand from my face and stared down at it, opening and closing it for a few moments. “Nothing but dust, I murmured.

Suddenly Stella’s hands were in mine. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said firmly. “You did what you could. This time will be different. Horatia is going to tell us what she knows, and then we are going to defeat that beast once and for all.” She squeezed my hands in hers.

Very gently, I squeezed back. I wished I could share her optimism. But all I could feel was her hands turning to dust in mine.