3.03: Game Night

Everything was in flux. From one day to the next it seemed that nothing, no matter how basic, was guaranteed to remain unchanged. But even in Tortus Bay, where once a month the fundamental forces of reality upended themselves, Henry relied on one thing: Whenever the world might go fuzzy, Niles could make it clear again. But it wasn’t he who answered the door.

“There are three rules in this house,” Clair said. She leaned against the door-frame, arms crossed, with a strange glimmer in the eye. “One: no shop talk; two: no magic talk; three: no talking about any event which may or may not have transpired yesterday. And four: no talking about how tired we are. That wasn’t one of the original rules, but I think the committee will back me up once they get a look at you.”

“Yes,” Henry said, “hello to you as well.”

“Do you agree?”

“I suppose I have to.”

She pulled him into a tight hug. In sharp contrast with the last time they’d been in close proximity, she now smelled of fruity shampoo and damp cotton.

Free space in Niles’ living room had been forcibly achieved by shoving the excess stacks of books against the walls. Some sort of complicated board game was spread out on the table and part of the floor around it, consisting of dozens of plastic figurines and hundreds of cardboard tiles. Kara and Niles hunched intently over the chaos. “What is this?” Henry asked.

“Sorry,” Niles said, “Clair insisted that she answer the door. Didn’t get a chance to warn you.”

Clair swept back into the room, and rolled a handful of colorful dice. “The host doesn’t get up. That’s rule number five.”

“We have an even number now,” Kara said. “Can we please switch to the trivia game?”

“You don’t want to play this one out?”

“No.”

“Come on, he can be on your team if you want.”

It was game night. After a moment’s hesitation Henry settled in, and the four of them sat around Nile’s small table, moving pieces, drawing cards, and rolling dice. There were homemade chocolate-chip cookies to snack on. Eventually Niles produced a pizza from the kitchen. Bruce broke in every now and again, sniffling madly at the source of attention that was not him, until he got his fill of head pats and belly rubs. Kara and Clair had each brought a bottle of wine with them, and Niles provided several more beside.

Somehow, despite all logic and reason, Clair’s rules worked. Under her watchful stare none of them dared broach a forbidden topic, and so they talked about pleasant nothings. Henry’s exhaustion melted away. The tangled knot in the pit of his stomach came loose, and he found he was able to laugh again. 

“I swear, this die only rolls fives,” Clair said. “Okay, ignore that one, but I’m serious. It was like six fives in a row.”

“Is this something that you guys do?” Henry asked. “Have I been missing out this whole time?”

“Never once.” Niles took the die from Clair, and rolled a five. Her eyes became saucers. “But apparently word got out that I have a stash of games in the garage. Haven’t played most of them. They were left over from the previous owner.”

“And you thought, ‘why not invite everyone over now for their inauguration?’”

“I came looking for you,” Kara said.

Clair nodded. “So did I. Knew you would show up eventually. Now shut up and play.”

 A clear, pleasant night fell while they played. Darkness seeped through the window into their bubble of oblivious light. Over the course of the night, Henry found himself casting sideways glances at Clair. That mischievous glimmer stayed, but he thought there was something else hidden underneath. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Her face puckered sour. “Who’s turn is it?” Kara passed her the die, and she busied herself pretending to read the instructions on the board.

“I’m serious,” he pressed. “You spent a month out in the woods. How are you?”

“This is a violation of the rules!” she said, wagging her finger to soften the sudden bark in her voice—but the three of them only leaned back and gave her expectant looks. She sighed, set the die aside, and spoke slowly. “Physically, I am fine. In my head, I am not. In my heart, I am not. Is that what you want to hear?”

“I only wanted to hear the truth.”

“Then there it is. Are you surprised? None of us are doing okay. Three people died. People I knew. Well.” As she spoke, her words came more frantic, until by the end she was nearly shouting. “And I should be at home crying for them, but I don’t have a house to go home to. It’s still in pieces from Leia’s ransacking, and the power was shut off. But all of that should be obvious, so I have no fucking idea why you would make me say it. No, I’m not okay. Are you?”

Henry set aside his wine. “No. I’m not.” He looked down at his limp arm. “I’ll be number four, soon enough.”

Her eyes locked onto his. They were solid, for a moment, as she processed the words. Then her lips started trembling, and angry tears spilled down her cheeks. “Fucking liar.” She scrambled toward him, knocking over glasses and game pieces. “You fucking liar,” she said again, taking him by the collar. “Tell me that’s not true.”

Niles gently pried her away, and handed her a package of kleenex.

“Teresa thinks we might still find a cure,” Kara said. Her voice was quiet.

Clair sat in a blubbering huddle, dabbing her eyes with tissues.

“And there might be something,” Kara continued, “that I can do with my charms. Some way to protect against whatever it is that’s hurting you.”

“I’m giving the charms back. Both of them.”

Now it was Kara’s turn, to wear a disbelieving expression. “Why?”

“You can’t keep going on as you have been. If I hadn’t been there…”

“That’s never happened before.”

“What if it does? You’re stretching yourself too thin.”

Kara’s face became stone. “It’s my art, Henry. This is what I do.”

Clair sniffled. “This is why we had the rules.”

A hand on Henry’s back made him jump. Niles had come around behind him. “Do you want to step outside?”

***

They walked by moonlight under a dense canopy of stars. A song of cricket chirps and rustling grass surrounded them, but they did not speak. After a lap around the house Niles took his hand. They leaned against a rickety wooden fence. In what passed as the village’s mini suburb, their view was less than inspiring, but they pretended.

“I’m not very good at this,” Niles said. “I’m not used to it. It’s like waking up early one day, going to the window to watch the sun rise, and it never comes.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing used to change around here. We got a baby a year, and maybe a death too—but they were expected. A person could build a life like a blanket, and sit wrapped in its warmth for decades. Now change is coming, no matter what anybody does.”

Henry considered his next words carefully. “Change is good. If you live your life in the same blanket, or looking back at a blanket you lost, you might never recognize the options in front of you. Sweaters, for instance.”

Niles’ hand ran up his arm. “A sweater?”

“Or a snuggie.”

“No, not that.” Niles pulled him in, and their lips met in the dark.

3.02: The View From The Top

Henry wandered for a time that night. Many people insisted that they accompany him, but he was more insistent on being alone. There was a pressure—a sort of buzzing—building inside of his head through which he couldn’t talk. It wouldn’t let him think. 

What Kara told him about the village was true. Though he discharged himself from Teresa’s converted field hospital well after nightfall, and cast his eyes down, people in the street still spotted him and tried to approach. Gone was their characteristic fear of the dark. Now it felt like a real festival in Tortus Bay; everywhere people chatted loudly and drank deeply beneath the moon. Whenever he was spotted, he hunched over and hurried on. That was enough for most of them. For the rest, there was the cold shoulder. They were still too polite to be that much of a bother—and there was still somewhere that none of them would go. Somewhere Henry could be alone.

The door to the lighthouse sat ajar, unobstructed by boards or police tape. It was completely scrubbed out. No evidence remained of the crime which had been committed there. The crime, or its inevitable repercussion. Regardless it was with hesitation that he stepped inside. The window he’d smashed was now whole, and the splintered staircase reinforced with new wood. Up top, additional boards had been fitted to occlude the sky, but not so completely that he was unable to wedge his way in-between. There he saw the moon again, reflected infinitely over the ocean’s placid waters. He sat on a block of broken stone. 

Teresa put his useless arm in a cast. Kara told him that they might yet find a cure. Niles said nothing at all, but looked at him with sad eyes. Henry couldn’t hold any of it in his mind. He watched the waves, and thought about nothing.

***

He did not properly sleep that night, but neither could he claim to have stayed awake. All he knew was that eventually the sun rose, arced through the sky, and beat down from overhead. He made his way down the stairs, and out the lighthouse door. 

Tortus Bay had not yet fully risen. Those few who roamed the streets did so with destinations clearly in their mind, and coffee cups clutched in their fists. Litter built up in the gutters. Henry arrived at the Police Station just as three figures departed the building.. Teresa, Sofia, and Lola looked briefly in his direction, but not one of the three acknowledged his presence. The daughters huddled around their mother’s skirts, and they hurried the other way down the sidewalk.

Leia Thao sat at her desk, looking worse for wear than Henry had ever seen. The bags under her eyes stretched down to her jaw. Her greasy hair stuck up in clumped horns. There were yellow stains around the collar of her t-shirt, and her sweatpants were torn and bloody. She glanced up at him, and sighed.

“I came to talk about Mathas Bernard.”

“Save it.”

“If you listen, I can ex-”

“I said save it!” she snapped. “There’s nothing more you need to say.” A crumpled bag of sunflower seeds sat on the edge of her desk, which she now seized and upended into her mouth. For several seconds she chewed. “Do you remember what I told you three months ago, when I picked you up in the park?”

Henry thought back. “To get a job and fit in?”

“I did, didn’t I?” She smiled, but there was no hint of joy in it. “I also told you that I had never once fired my service pistol. Never one time, in all the years I’ve worked as this village’s sheriff.”

“I’m not sure that shooting a skeleton breaks your record.”

“Three people died last night,” she said. “Heath Tiller, Patil Derderian, and Tod Donald.”

Those words struck him. Heath, the fisherman. Patil, the friendly waitress at the SS cafe. And Tod, the portly bird watching enthusiast. “I didn’t know.”

“We found the bodies this morning. That’s me talking to a journalist, alright?” She spat out a shell. “From what I hear, there would be a lot more names if not for you, Kara, and Teresa.”

He shook his head. That buzzing was back, drowning out the world.

“And what if I had helped? What if I had done my job, as it should have been done? Would that number be zero?” She paused again, but continued on when Henry made indication that he was about to talk. “Do you know what it’s like, to fight for the wrong thing for your entire life? To choose to believe on faith, despite the evidence of your eyes, and in the end have it cost human life? After today I will no longer be the sheriff of Tortus Bay.”

“You’re resigning?”

Leia nodded. “I will stay on in a volunteer capacity, to help clean up. Then Taylor will take over as interim chief, until something more permanent can be arranged. My last official act as sheriff was closing the Mathas Bernard case, which I did today.”

“Oh?”

“The man died of a heart attack outside of his home. There is no basis for further suspicion.”

Henry didn’t trust the strength of his voice to last for long enough for him to say what he needed to say, so instead he turned to leave—and made it nearly to the door before she spoke again.

“How’s the arm?” she asked.

“Very bad.”

***

Exhaustion finally caught up with him. Henry took the long way home, to avoid the devastation on main street. He could not bring himself to look at it, yet. Along the way he did not bother to cast his head down or disguise his appearance, but no passersby attempted to stop him. Perhaps they had also heard the news.

On the curb outside of his apartment there sat a lump. Henry squinted. It was a plaid lump. As he approached it stirred, and stood. Clint was red-faced. “You,” he said. The man staggered. He wore the same outfit as he had the day before, torn apart and spattered with his own blood. “I never asked you.”

Henry took a precautionary step back. “Excuse me?”

“I never asked you!” Clint surged forward in a hail of finger jabs. “I never asked you for anything, okay?”

“Fine!”

“It’s not fine!” he yelled. His eyes were clear, and there was no scent whatsoever on his breath. “I didn’t ask you for anything. Ever. Alright?”

“Alright.”

Clint huffed, and shook his head like a wet dog. “Didn’t ask,” he said again, and spun on the spot to wander off down the street.

“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” Henry said, but he wasn’t sure that he heard. He watched the man disappear into the distance, wondering what in the world he should have said instead of what he actually did, and by then he didn’t feel like going to bed any longer. Instead he made a phone call.

“Hey,” Niles said. “Glad you called.” 

“I don’t know where you and I stand.”

“I don’t know either.”

“I don’t know what we’re doing.”

“Neither do I.”

Henry breathed. “I want to see you.”

“Then come over.”

3.01: Aftermath

All other considerations evaporated, and Henry sprinted from the old graveyard on foot. By the time he made it through the trees Niles had caught up with him, and wordlessly pulled him onto the back of his motorcycle. They sped together to the outskirts of Tortus Bay, where the Anderson Warehouse sat unperturbed beneath the cool noon sun. Inside, Kara lay lifeless on the floor. A dim halo surrounded her. How many of that day’s falls and wolf bites had been hers to bear? Too many for the woman—for any person—to have sustained.

Henry was the first at her side, taking her limp form by the shoulders and calling her name. Her lips were purpling; if she breathed, it was too shallow to be felt. Behind him others filed in. They had followed in the wake of the motorcycle, and now fanned themselves out with somber looks on their faces. Teresa was one of the last inside. She had only just elbowed her way through the crowd when she cried out “Wait! Stop!”

But it was too late. Henry had already placed his hands over Kara’s heart, and closed his eyes to focus. Once more the magic of the village flowed through him. It filled his body, streaking from his mind through his chest and finally into the tips of his fingers. This time a horrible burning sensation came along with it, as though white fire and not blood coursed through his veins. Everybody but he saw the black rot on his arm expand, growing into a complete sleeve. Everybody but he saw the black rot on his shoulder leach onto his chest.

Kara drew in a loud, shuddering breath, and opened her eyes. Henry opened his own, but saw nothing. He fell down beside her, writhing.

***

Teresa’s house was quickly transformed into something akin to a field hospital. What few stretchers she possessed were set up on her lawn, for the use of those too hurt to walk, but not so hurt that they needed constant attention. Beds and spare mattresses had been set up inside for people more critically injured. 

That is where Henry awoke that evening, confused for a time by the sight of Teresa’s kitchen, until his mind caught up with his body. He was lying on an inflatable camping mattress, which had lost most of its air on either end. “Kara,” he said, trying to sit up. Nausea forced him back down.

“Shh.” Niles sat beside him, holding his hand. They were on the floor to the side of the table, off of which someone’s arm dangled. The counters had been cleared, and people slept there as well. It seemed that every spare inch had been giving over for makeshift beds. Not everyone got as lucky as an inflatable mattress. “She’s fine,” he said. “Up and helping out. I can go get her, if you want. I’m supposed to tell Teresa when you wake up, anyhow.”

“Yes,” Henry said, but he did not let go of the man’s hand. He squeezed as tight as he could manage.

Niles smiled, and brought his lips down to kiss Henry’s forehead. That sensational smell of sweet bread and lumber hit his nose, undercut by something foreign—but pleasant. Gasoline? “You did good. I’ll be right back.”

Cold dread worked its way through Henry’s gut. Stale sweat slicked his body. In Niles’ absence, the stench of clotting blood overwhelmed the room. He did not need to lift his head and look down upon his body to know that his injury had escalated. Not only could he not move his left arm, or any of the fingers on his left hand, but he could not feel any of it whatsoever. It was as though the appendage did not exist at all, so that he could only convince himself that he had not undergone an emergency amputation by reaching out and feeling the clammy flesh with his good hand.

Then the door opened, and his anxiety was pushed aside in a rush of light and movement. Kara skidded to a stop at his side, and then threw herself on top of him in a fierce hug. “You idiot,” she said, wiping away her tears. “You absolute moron. You saved my life.”

“You saved mine first.”

“Who’s keeping track anymore? How are you feeling?”

“Like I jumped into a pit of wolves.”

She ran her fingers along the crook of his elbow. Once, that would have been ticklish. “It’s a complete circus outside. The whole village knows the truth now. A line of volunteers are keeping non-injured people away from the house. They all want to see you.”

He sighed. “That might be worse than when they all thought I was insane.”

  “Everybody in a ten mile radius with so much as a bruise to complain about is going to want to see you,” she laughed. “How did you discover that you could do this?”

“Clint,” he said, remembering. “I left him back in the Tortoise Shell. Is he okay?”

“Leia dragged him out. He’s not feeling great, but he’s still alive because of you.”

Behind them the door opened again, and several more people entered the room. First amongst them was Teresa, who gently nudged Kara out of the way to take her place. Her hair was completely frazzled, and there was a wild bloodshot quality about her eyes. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Can’t feel the arm anymore.”

“You shouldn’t have been so rash.” She took his forearm and pressed her forefinger deep into the skin.

“Take it easy on him,” Niles said. He was hovering back near the door, looking on with a worried face. Beside him Sofia wore a different expression. Her eyes were hard, and her jaw locked. There was no telling if the blood on her clothing was from tending to the patients around the house, or if it was leftover from her encounter with Mathas Bernard.

Henry gave a one-shoulder shrug. “I still can’t feel anything.”

Teresa continued in this manner, twisting and prodding every bit of his arm, trying to elicit some sort of response. Nothing came. Henry didn’t like looking at it. All that came to his mind was necrosis; decaying flesh, and grisly medical operations. So he let his eyes wander, and they eventually found their way back to Sofia. She nodded to him, very slightly. 

“Listen,” he said, “about Mathas, I—I wanted to say that-”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Teresa whispered, bringing her hands from his arm to his chest. “And you certainly don’t have anything to apologize for. Now, tell me when you can feel my fingers.”

He could not do so until her hand was in the center of his chest. “That’s not good, is it?”

“It’s better than nothing,” she said, sitting back. Some of her manic energy ebbed off into exhaustion. “You have a great gift. I’m sure you realize that you cannot use it again.”

“What are you saying?”

“Henry, I’m afraid that this rot is heading for your heart. A small amount of it might be there already. If you use this talent again, it may very well kill you. I cannot say that you have long to live, even if you abstain.”

2.29: Consequences, part 3

Henry regretted his decision all the way down. He landed with a thud in the middle of the madness in the street, and for a long moment there was stillness. Neither the wolves nor Emmaline moved a muscle. Then as one they turned, to regard the strange newcomer, and without warning the chaos resumed. All the world around him became bloody snarls, leaping fur, and great gusts of raw power issued from the dead woman’s quick hands.

He fell onto his hands and knees, and crawled. Paws danced around his head. Bodies thumped against his back. Claws scraped over his skin, and jaws closed around his legs, but each time the charm on his neck burned bright, and the assailant was rebuffed. In time he drew up beside a downed wolf—a sleek mountain grey with a twisted leg—and laid his hands upon it. The beast reared back and snarled at the touch, but then paused and caught his eyes. They stared at one another. Power coursed through his body, streaking down his ruined arm, and spilled from his fingertips.

The wolf leapt up, and resumed its snarling, but this time at any creature who came too close to Henry. In this manner they navigated through the madness of the fight, and he helped several more from the ground. Soon a pack of five stood around him, creating a yelping and snipping buffer zone.

Emmaline blasted one last wolf off of its feet, and paused. The wolves hung back, wary eyes regarding either her or Henry in turn. Leia was still shouting something from down the block, but that sounded as though it was a lifetime away from them. Emmaline swept in a complete circle, and stopped facing Henry. Her empty eye sockets did not stare.

Henry held the locket up, and walked forward. Sweat dripped down his back. His heart beat in his throat. He could not feel his left arm. At any moment Emmaline could have sent him flying through the air, but she did not. Her skull rocked curiously on her spine.

“You want this?” he asked.

She inclined her head.

“Then you’ll have to follow me.” He turned to run, and got a single step away before a bolt struck him in the back. The concussive force sent him stumbling forward, but he managed to stay on his feet. 

Howls filled the air, and the fight resumed. Wolves leaped in to defend Henry. Wolves leaped in to attack the dead woman. Wolves leaped in, it seemed, just to be involved in the fray—and now there were human bodies as well. Taylor whirled through the chaos, issuing sparks and weak gusts of force from his palms. Leia followed close behind, trying to seize his wrists. Emmaline rent through the mass once more, but this time she was not defending herself. She was giving chase.

Henry weaved to the right and left, trying to move unpredictably, barely escaping bolts of asphalt-tearing power. He made it down the block before his luck ran out. A blunt force hit him in the back of the head, and his charm burned into his chest. Another hit him in the small of his back, and his charm seared through his flesh. Then a third struck his calf, and he spun out. The ground came up to meet him, and he rolled to a rough stop. His charm hung loose and cold around his neck.

Noise surrounded him, but it was a tangled cacophony which he struggled to straighten out. Shouting. Thumping. More gunshots. Bones dragging along the street. A revving engine. “Are you okay?” Disbelieving, Henry looked up into Niles’ frowning face. The man sat astride his cherry red motorcycle, hand outstretched. “Need a ride?”

Emmaline had momentarily turned aside. The mountain grey wolf had hold of her tailbone in its mouth, and she was busy knocking it loose. Henry seized Niles’ hand. “To the old graveyard. Slowly.”

“How slow?”

“Enough that she can follow. Not so much that she can hit us.”

“Hit us?” As he asked the question, Emmaline flourished her bony fingers, sending another bolt in their direction. Niles nodded, and gunned it. “Understood!”

They led a strange convoy through the village, occasionally impeded—but never fully stopped—by the incidence of one of the wolves breaking through to tear at Emmaline’s legs. Bringing up the rear, curious villagers followed along, themselves trailed closely by Leia and her deputy trying to convince them to go home.

“What’s the plan here?” Niles asked.

“The Cass headstone was never meant for protection,” Henry said. “I should have realized when I was talking to Clair. It was designed to imprison her.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Call it a strong hunch.”

When they hit the dirt, the wolves gained the advantage. Their claws dug into the earth, and they moved with terrifying speed. Niles slowed the bike, swerving around boulders and trees. Emmaline walked backwards between their two factions, issuing streams of destructive magic in wide protective arcs. 

They met Teresa and Clair in the thinning undergrowth surrounding the old graveyard. Teresa saw Henry first, and her eyes were drawn to his shoulder. “What happened?”

He had forgotten that he was topless. Most of his arm had gone black, as if with rot, and it limply flailed back and forth against his side. He opened his mouth to answer, but by then she had spotted the circus which was following them. “What have you done?” she cried.

“It’s a lot to explain. I need to know if you can activate these sigils.”

Teresa looked up at the monument, whose unearthly glow was near blinding in their proximity. Its orange light lay on the short grass like a diluted shadow under the yellow of the sun. “Why?”

In the distance, wolves yelped in pain. A tree came crashing to the ground. “Please, trust me.”

“As a rule, I do not partake in experimental magic.”

Henry anxiously scanned the tree-line. “But you’ll make an exception because you like me?”

“I’ll make an exception because I think that if I do not, you will be killed by a skeleton.” She raised her hands, and closed her eyes. The world stilled. A wind rose around the graveyard. Dirt picked up in eddies around her feet, spreading in miniature dust devils which inevitably spun into grave markers and broke apart. The symbols on the Cass monument sparked to life. Like fresh tattoos they flashed stark and black against the orange glow of the spire. “These sigils are old,” she said. “They’re… strange. I can’t tell what I’m doing.”

Human and canine cries alike sounded in the woods, punctuated with the occasional crack of a rifle or the snapping of a branch. “We need to hurry.” 

“I’m going to have to activate everything here, all at once.”

“That’s fine,” Henry said.

Niles and Clair eyed on another. “Is it?”

Teresa’s arms, stuck out at her sides, went rigid. Her fingers curled. Her head lolled back, her mouth fell open, and her feet lifted off the ground. She rose into the air as Henry had only seen from one person before, and began to twirl. An orange light emanated from her hands.

From the forest, a second figure joined her. Emmaline appeared above the canopy, ensorcelled in the same orange glow. Her skull hung loose to the side. Her legs were struck, caught in a running pose. She hovered there for a moment, and then began floating in their direction.

“Can you hear me, Teresa?” Henry asked, looking skyward and shielding his eyes. The woman did not reply. “You have to get her into the grave.”

Emmaline drifted over their heads—inanimate as a corpse once more—and lowered toward the headstone which bore her name. Her toes grazed the dirt, and the sounds from the forest died away. The orange radiance dimmed, and the world regained a more natural light. Henry could once more bear to look in the direction of the headstone. What he found was the hollow grey abyss of Emmaline Cass’ eye sockets. They were not looking at each other. Looking required eyes. Just as speaking ought to have required a tongue. 

You owe me fealty, child. Much has been paid. Much more is yet owed.

Henry couldn’t tell if he was hearing the words out loud. The voice was youthful and clear; it rang in his mind like a bell.

I am the protector of the abandoned and the lost. I am the watcher of the tides. I am the chooser, and so I have chosen.

“How are you doing this?”

All power must one day fade. Tortus Bay must not be allowed to follow.

“I don’t understand.”

Are you a traitor?

Teresa twirled in graceful arcs back toward the ground, clothes streaming about her like silk streamers. Henry could not take his eyes off of Emmaline. 

I brought you here. You heard my call, and you followed. But this place is mine, and you will obey.

Teresa landed, and with a sigh the magic thread was severed. Emmaline fell. Her remains were once more remains: A pile of bones, laying inert in an excavated grave. The four of them gathered around its edge.

“What do you guys think of putting a bell on her this time?” Clair asked.

One by one, onlookers emerged from the trees. The first amongst them was Sofia Bramble, who took one look at her mother and burst into tears. Then came Tod and Lucy, heading up a good showing of the TBHWAS. There was Taylor with a flushed smile, and several older folk with rifles resting against their shoulders.

“What happened to the wolves?” Niles asked.

Lucy smiled at them. “Vanished,” she said, “the second that… was that Emmaline Cass?”

“Yes, it was.”

“When Emmaline was lifted into the sky, they vanished. Like they’d never been here in the first place.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

Leia Thao was the last to join them. Drying mud streaked her sagging sweatpants, and blood flecked her face. She allowed her gaze to pass right over Clair, looking long and hard at Henry. “Well,” she said, “what do you figure we do now?” 

His eyes widened. Someone had been hurt. “Kara.”

2.28: Consequences, part 2

The blunt force of a thousand thoughts hit Henry all at once. He scrambled up onto his hands and knees, unsure which he was about to voice, and shouted “Diane!”

Jamal was already at his side. “Staying at her sister’s. Can you stand?”

Henry grabbed Jamal’s arm and pulled himself upright. The world spun. The wreckage of the Tortoise Shell Inn warped and blurred together. It looked like a plane crash. It looked like a lumberyard. “It was just the three of us?”

But the bartender wasn’t at his side any longer. “I’m going to get help! Don’t move!”

He took that advice seriously. He would not move. He tried to stop swaying. He tried not to throw up. The unfocused eyes of Clint swiveled generally in his direction, and blinked.

Henry raced forward and fell to his knees in front of the old man. An entire section of wall had fallen on him. “Can you hear me?” He set his hands on the wreckage. Clint gurgled something. He focused on his arms—on having the strength. He thought of the charms on his neck connecting him to Kara, connecting him to a world of magic. They responded with a pulse of warmth against his chest.

Moving the collapsed wall was not easy, regardless. The boards split as he applied force, so he had to peel the wood away in sections. In the end he had constructed a sort of cocoon, shielding Clint’s shuddering body within. The man’s chest was a swamp of exposed bone and running blood. His skin was pale as paper. He twitched, staring up at nothing.

Henry felt the magic of the village still pulsing through his body. He placed his hands in the mess of Clint’s body. There was nothing else to be done. There was no time to wait for help. He laid his palms flat, and the voice of Teresa Bramble sounded in his head: There are stories of those who could heal with the touch of their hand.

What had begun as a pulsing warmth, the force of electricity he’d felt building over the last few days, finally spilled over, boiling out of his gut through his body—snaking down his arms, and out through the tips of his gore-soaked fingers. Clint gasped. His eyes focused. A nauseating pain radiated from Henry’s shoulder. His arm grew numb. Under his hands, skin was beginning to knit back together. Bone fused. The process continued until Henry lost sensation in the arm altogether, and it limply fell away from Clint’s body. Their connection was severed.

The world was quiet and still. Nothing moved. Then after a moment, Clint sat up. His bare chest was still a mess of blood, but it was drying against healed skin. “What the fuck was that?”

Henry didn’t answer. He sat, exhausted, and stripped his shirt off. The black rot around his wound had run in streaks down the length of his arm, purple and pale like watery grape jelly. He could not move it at all.

The old man grumbled a few more incoherent words, then lapsed once more into unconsciousness. His breathing was stable, but strained. Henry stood and loped for the exit, before remembering that it had been lost in the rubble. Instead he wandered through the rubble into the street, and found himself in the middle of a tense scene.

Sheriff Leia Thao stood where she had before, her gun held aloft in her hand. Her eyes were wild. Her arms shook. At her side stood one of her deputies, his own gun leveled at Emmaline Cass. The woman (corpse? skeleton?) stood on a smooth island between two long lines of broken pavement.

Somebody was talking. It took Henry a moment to tell where the voice was coming from, but eventually he zeroed in on the form of Sofia Bramble. The girl stood on the other side of the rubble. Her clothes were stained red. Fresh gore dripped down her arms. “Don’t shoot,” she was saying. “Whatever you do, don’t antagonize her.”

“As long as she doesn’t move,” Leia said.

“Even if she does. Please, don’t shoot again.”

Henry limped down the street toward the confusion. Pain like needles shot through his leg with every step. By contrast, the numbness in his arm was paradise.

“What do you want?” Leia called.

“I don’t think she can hear us,” Sofia said. “My mother will be on her way. She’ll know what to do.”

“We don’t need a doctor, kid, we need -” the sheriff stopped mid-sentence when she saw Henry step out into the intersection. “Did you just come out of there? Is everyone okay inside?”

He meant to tell her that everything was fine. Clint was asleep. Jamal had run. Diane wasn’t inside. She was staying with her sister. When he opened his mouth, Emmaline turned on the spot. She rotated like a ballerina, pivoting on the spot to land in his direction. There was a moment of silence, and then she raised her hand. A single, bony finger singled him out.

Emmaline started walking. “Hold your fire!” Leia barked. Henry thought it was more for herself than the deputy. “Move away. Walk away. Henry, can you hear me? Stay away from her.”

There was nothing threatening about the approaching figure. Emmaline acted like Mathas had, blindly following him down the street. Her shambling gait was slow. Her face was mostly skull, but he thought it smiled. A familiar voice from overhead snapped him out of his stupor.

“Look what I found!” Clair swept through the air, moving in kicks and strokes like a swimmer. She came to a mid-air stand-still, and let Emmaline’s locket fall from her open hand.

Henry caught it with his good arm. His brain restarted, and he took a few uncertain steps backward. Emmaline was close, and still advancing. “I thought you weren’t coming back,” he said, holding the locket close to his chest.

“What can I say? I saw a skeleton marching through the woods, and my curiosity got the better of me.”

 “What do I do?”

“The park!” Clair said. “Lead her back to the park, and let her rest. Just like last time. But hurry, alright? The folks I stole that from aren’t too happy about it.” She kicked herself further into the sky. “Yeah, not happy at all. They’re coming.”

Henry looked around, but saw nothing. Then he backed up into an intersection, and was afforded a clear view of the street leading down toward the forest. A pack of wolves raced toward him. It took a second for the sight to sink in: twenty shaggy wolves, in colors ranging from mottled grey to dark brown. He wanted to scream. Someone else beat him to it.

Bystanders scattered, running either into surrounding buildings or down the street away from the incoming pack. There was more screaming. Distant gunshots. Then, Henry’s feet left the ground. Clair held him up by his armpits, struggling wildly against open air to lift them skyward. 

“Stay there,” she rasped, setting him atop the closest building, and was gone. One by one, she began pulling everyone in the area onto the safety of the rooftops.

Down below, the wolves had fanned out around Emmaline Cass. The biggest of their number, a light grey male with a jagged scar across his nose, stared her down. A low growl rose in his throat. She raised her hand, and he lunged. The rest of the pack followed. 

The ensuing combat moved too fast for Henry to track. Emmaline’s arms moved like sticks on marionette strings, pulsing energy which cracked the street and threw back her attackers. The wolves landed hard, but bounded up and lunged again to start the cycle anew. He could not guess who was going to tire first.

A warning shout drew Henry’s gaze away from the frenzied action. Leia and her deputy were running, not toward the scene, but in opposite directions down the street. There were two mobs of people closing in on the area. One came with shotguns and rifles, headed up by a man Henry faintly recognized from the bar. The other came empty-handed, but many of those empty hands glowed with an unnatural light. Taylor led them.

Henry had a mind to watch how these confrontations were going to go, but something else caught his attention. Sofia Bramble stood on the roof of the building across the way, waving her arms above her head. Her mouth was open. “I can’t hear you!” he said.

She shook her head, and pointed. There, past the edge of the village and the tops of the surrounding trees, the tip of Emmaline Cass’ headstone glowed like a beacon. “Clair!” He shouted. “Clair, where are you?”

The woman zipped to his side, landing on her knees. “I’m here. What is it?”

“Change of plans. Go find Teresa, and bring her to the old graveyard. As fast as you can.”

“What? Why?”

“No time! Just go!”

Clair shot him a disgruntled look, but took off regardless in the direction of the Bramble’s home. Henry stepped to the edge of the roof, and looked down upon the complicated tangle of fur, snarls, and bones beneath him. 

These wolves are not regular animals.

Let this charm rest against your skin, and it will protect you.

He took a deep breath, and jumped. 

2.27: Consequences, part 1

The day of the Golden Goose Festival dawned cold and grey. Henry walked, as though dreaming, out of the mustering dew of the park to the front door of the Hell on a Shell Bar. He knocked, waited a beat, and then rapidly knocked fifteen more times for good measure. That building sensation of electric anticipation still roiled around in his gut. He felt like a lightbulb whose drawcord had been grabbed, but not yet pulled. And he was still wide awake, though he had not slept a wink through the night.

Jamal, sleepy-eyed and wearing disheveled clothes, opened the door. “You have to stop doing this to me.”

“It’s a special day,” Henry said, sidling around the man into the bar. Like last time, he thought the room was empty until he sat on one of the stools. Then he saw the form of Clint slumped over at the end of the bar. Slumped, but still awake. “Long night?”

The old man adjusted the ancient flannel he had been using for a pillow. “This time of month always gets me,” he said. His words were quiet, but not slurred by drink. “I can never sleep.”

“Why’s that?”

Clint lifted his head. “I was hired on a festival day. Someone didn’t show up for their shift, and I did. That was thirty years ago, down at the docks. Same docks I work at every day. Same job. Same life. Same fish. Barkeep, fetch me something cold.”

Jamal wasn’t behind the bar. He had joined them in front. “You know I don’t serve booze before noon. Let alone before the sun is up.”

“Who said booze?”

“You want a glass of water?”

“Yeah, with just a shot or two of vodka.”

Jamal ignored the old man. “What makes today so special, Henry?”

“I’m glad you asked,” he said, with a flourish. “I have failed to do everything that I set out to do. Today, I get to reap the consequences.”

“And there isn’t anywhere else you’re supposed to be?”

“Of course there is. But the day doesn’t start until I go, so I plan to sit for a while.”

With a groan the barkeep bustled behind the bar, retrieved a sweaty bottle of pale ale from beneath the counter, and set it in front of Henry. “If today hasn’t started, then I guess you’re still in last night.”

He laughed, and took a deep drink. Clint watched closely. A line of drool connected his mouth to his flannel. “I haven’t slept either!”

Jamal gave the man a blank look. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

So the three of them passed time. Henry sipped in the corner. Clint lay on the bartop with his eyes open. Jamal sat with his chin on his chest, appearing time and again to nod off before shaking his head and surveying his bar.

When the first ray of sunlight pierced the window, Henry figured it was time to report to Teresa. He did not relish the conversation he might find there. He liked even less the prospect that he might have to bring it up himself. Up I get, he thought to himself, but stayed where he was seated. Over and over he told himself to move, but his butt stayed fastened fast to the uncomfortable stool. 

Then the building shook. 

At once the three men were on their feet, looking wildly around at one another. The building shook again, with a mighty reverberating bhruum. Henry and Jamal dashed to the window. Clint took a single step after them, but then collapsed sideways back onto his stool.

The shops of Main Street were dark. The sidewalks were empty. Everything looked much the same as it ever might, with the exception of the pile of rags and bones walking confidently down the center line, upsetting the world like an earthquake with every footfall. Emmaline Cass was leaving fissures in the asphalt as she walked.

Jamal rubbed his eyes. “This one of the consequences you were talking about?”

“I suppose so.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know.”

She made slow progress, dragging her bones down the street. Bhruum bhruum bhruum. Curtains were drawn in surrounding houses. Brave figures stepped out of their doors, saw what was happening, and then retreated back inside. Emmaline, bleach-white skull blinding in the sunlight, approached the intersection.

A siren sounded. From down the way a patrol car came speeding, dodging Tortus Bay’s massive new potholes, and screeched to a stop. Emmaline continued unperturbed, even after Leia leapt out of the car and began shouting in her direction.

Henry couldn’t hear a word, but he could see the sheriff’s face. Her eyes were wide and white. Her nostrils flared. She was dressed in a white cotton t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants.

“Should we go out there?” Jamal asked, but Henry was already gone. He watched Leia unravel, in the few short seconds it took him to reach the door. Sweat dripped down her brow. Her arm was quaking, even before she drew her gun. By the time she brought it to bear, it vibrated like a wind-up toy in her hand. She continued to shout indistinguishable words. More desperate for every passing moment. Emmaline did not turn around. Bhruum. Bhruum. Bhruu—Leia Thao fired her pistol.

The shots cracked off like a backfiring car. Despite her convulsions, the sheriff’s aim proved true. Three bullets struck Emmaline in the abdomen and right shoulder, sending forth a spray of dirty cloth and bone fragments. Emmaline stumbled, crouched, and stilled. 

Leia shouted again—words that Henry could now hear, standing in the open doorway of the bar. “Please stop! Right there! I don’t want to hurt you!”

Emmaline righted herself. She did not turn. She did not step forward. Her skeletal arms hung limp at her side. Her jaw hung disconnected from her skull. She leaned her head back, looked up at the rising sun, and then raised her arms.

Henry saw the concussive waves only an instant after the sheriff. Leia dove to the side, and was spared the fate of her patrol car. The metal was split in twain, and thrown aside in two messy halves. What was left of that blast shot down the street toward the park. On Emmaline’s opposite side, an equally destructive blast arched straight into the Tortoise Shell Inn.

The collision threw Henry back inside. He hit the ground hard. A column of pain raced up and down his spine. Black spots danced in front of his eyes, then expanded to cover his entire field of vision.

***

Henry blinked. He wondered why, even with his eyes open, he could see nothing. He blinked again. Slowly and blearily the sight of the world returned to him. From where he was laying, he could see the clear blue of the sky—and blankets of dust settling all around him.

The Tortoise Shell Inn had been destroyed. Nothing at all remained of the second story. Half of the barroom still stood, groaning under the additional burden. Everything else was splinters of lumber and the debris of pulverized furniture. Henry lay in the protective cradle of the door-frame. Jamal had been thrown into the corner by the window, but was already shakily rising to his feet.

Clint, who had the misfortune of remaining on the other side of the bar, laid beneath a length of collapsed beam. Only his head and one of his arms was visible. His eyes lolled. Blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth. 

2.26: Goodbye, Mathas Bernard

Henry’s stunt on the front page of the first Tortus Bay Examiner proved successful, if measured solely in response rate. If measured by any other metric, it was somewhat less sterling. The people of the village called incessantly—to reminisce about Mathas Bernard, talk about editorials they would like to see in future issues of the paper, and vaguely describe pieces of jewelry that they had once owned and which, according to them, could have been the original property of Emmaline Cass.

Reports of real sightings went up as well, but so clogged was their sole telephone line that those messages were generally relayed to Henry long after the man had left the scene. He was left to play a cold game of cat and mouse, wherein he spent the majority of his time trying to calm over-anxious people while he himself couldn’t find a way to relax. 

He tried to tell himself that it was going to be okay. Nobody knew how magic worked in the village, least of all him. Maybe there are no rules. What happened last month won’t necessarily happen again.

“There is every indication that it will,” Teresa said, late one evening. Her daughters had just come back from a trip out to the store, and she was in the process of preparing dinner. “If Emmaline—or whoever is acting on her behalf—is still exerting power over Tortus Bay, it is unlikely to have subsided over the course of thirty days. And its priorities are equally unlikely to have changed.”

“How can you know that?”

“There are no rules, Henry. You couldn’t be more correct about that. This isn’t science, and there’s no way to predict exactly what will happen. But there are patterns. There are eddies and currents in the flow of magic—can’t you feel it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Even if I didn’t have a calendar I would still know the festival is tomorrow. I haven’t been able to sleep in… a while.”

“You’ll get used to it. Eventually. I would be happy to show you some breathing exercises that I have found to be helpful.” Henry held his head in his hands. Teresa snapped an unholy portion of spaghetti in her hands, dumped it in a pot of well-salted water, and called out to her daughters: “nine minutes!”

“What about Mathas?” he asked. 

She leaned against the counter, and frowned. “I haven’t been able to find anything more about that. There’s nothing in any of the books I’ve ever read that indicates that anyone has come back like that before. But after what you told me about Clair’s tattoo…”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know. I never had the inclination before that the Gauthes knew the first thing about magic, but if there’s something more there—well, then getting a look at it might help.”

Footsteps came raining down the stairs. “What would I need to get some alone time in the Gauthe estate?”

“I’m afraid you’re getting the wrong impression,” Teresa said. “These things come and go. This is not The End Of All Things, Henry. What you need before tomorrow is sleep. Are you staying for dinner?”

“No, thank you.” He stood as the Bramble daughters filed into the kitchen. “Enjoy your night. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

She waved a wooden spoon at his retreating back. “Bright and early! If there’s going to be trouble, you might as well head into it with a mended shoulder.”

***

The problem was that he could not sleep. He wandered through the streets of the village, hoping eventually exhaustion would creep from his legs into his brain, but it did not work. With every step an electricity coursed through him—an excitement that he could never remember experiencing before. It was like the manic anxiety before a disaster, or else it was his body finally reacting to the budding magic of Tortus Bay.

He called Kara, and talked to her as he walked, but he couldn’t focus on what she was saying. Besides, she had a lot of preparations left to make. “Will you need my help?” he asked. Memories of her, drained, barely able to stand, resurfaced in his head.

“I’m better off alone. Trust me, I’ve tried it before. Nobody needs to sit around and watch me sweat it out.”

“You’re going to be able to sleep?”

It took her a long moment to respond. “It gets easier. You need to try to rest.”

There was one person who would not tell him to try to sleep. He called Niles next, and they talked about nothing. Favorite foods, childhood fables, and the weather. Henry couldn’t exactly focus on the words, but it did not matter. Niles kept up a stream of dialogue mostly by himself. But eventually the night grew late, and they ran out of inconsequential things to say. “Thank you for calling. I was worried about you.”

“It was nice to hear your voice.”

Alone, Henry found himself circling the park. A yellow ribbon of police tape still circled the area, blocking the unearthed grave from casual access. He looped around the perimeter—once, twice, three times—willing himself to finally feel tired. Then he heard it.

Of course that was when he heard it. What else would Mathas Bernard be doing, but the exact same thing as he? Henry jogged down the street, rounded the corner, and through the dim light spotted the unmistakable figure of the recently deceased man removing the lid of a garbage can and sticking his head into the trash therein. Even from that distance, the man looked worse for wear. Most of his burial suit had been torn away, revealing patches of ashen skin and caked mud. 

“Found you,” Henry said, loudly. Mathas looked up slowly. His right eye remained closed, the lid occasionally twitching. “Anything good in there? You like food, don’t you? You like your old house. Maybe you even like your wife.” The man turned, and began hobbling off. “I think I might know what you like more than any of that.”

Mathas stopped, as though struck, at the faint tickling of metal on metal. Henry stood in the halo of a streetlight, holding aloft the charm of power. “Do you recognize that?” he asked. Mathas loped forward, then started shuffling toward him with surprising speed. “I thought you might! You were really getting into this magic stuff, weren’t you? And with your connections, I bet you had access to all kinds of secrets. Did the Brihtes know as much as the Gauthes?”

Mathas broke into a run, and the race was on. Henry burst through the police tape encircling the park, pursuer hot on his heels, and dodged around trees as he tried his best to keep his footing. Sprinting over uneven ground in the dark was challenging enough, without being chased by a dead man. A dead man who, as it turned out, was much lighter on his feet. Henry skidded into the center of the park just as Mathas reached out to grab the back of his shirt—but then he jumped, and Mathas didn’t.

Gasping for breath, he slid down the side of the gnarled old oak. The tallest tree in the park. Mathas had fallen into the deep hole at its base. He scratched at the dirt and groaned. “Wasn’t exactly dug for you,” Henry called down, “but it should keep you until I get the sheriff to take a look herself.” Mathas scrabbled helplessly against the hard-packed earth of his new confines, raining additional dirt down onto his thin body. “Which I should probably do before anything freaky starts happening around here.”

“Well done,” a voice said.

Henry thought his heart stopped. Exultation twisted into dread in his gut. Then, belatedly, he recognized the voice. Two people stepped out of the trees toward him. One was tall, and the other was very short. “What are you -”

Sofia Bramble, the elder of Teresa’s daughters, smiled grimly at him. She held a baseball bat loose in her right hand, dragging through the dirt. “You know, he runs from us no matter the bait we offer. But not from you. He never knew you, when he was alive. It was a good thing you stopped by the house today—you’re easy to follow when you’re distracted.”

The younger daughter, Lola, had no smile to offer. She stared at the grave between them, red anger burning away in her eyes.

“How long have you been hunting him?”

“Only a little longer than you have,” Sofia said. “He moves pretty fast, doesn’t he? When he wants to.”

“Mathas died two months ago, on the night of a festival. You two were with him, weren’t you?”

“How long have you known?”

“Not long now.”

“And you didn’t tell our mother.”

“No,” Henry said, softly, “but you have to.”

Sofia’s eyes hardened. “Do you have any idea what it means to teach someone to use magic? The trust? The vulnerability? It is a constant back and forth of control.”

“Don’t!” Lola said.

“He already knows!” she snapped, and then continued. “Do you have any idea what happens, when a man like Mathas gets the upper hand? When he’s drunk on the feeling of power, and thinks he’s immortal?”

Henry nodded. “I think I do.”

“Then leave us alone.”

He looked at the girls over the grave for a long moment, and then turned to leave. They waited until he was back out on the street, before getting to work.

2.25: Treetop Confessional

“I’m not a wolf,” Henry said, “I promise.” He was looking up at Clair’s face, hidden amidst a great mass of branches and leaves in the canopy overhead. It was tough to distinguish details, but he thought she was still scowling at him.

“If that’s true,” she said, “then tell me something to prove it. Tell me something that a wolf would never know.”

He scratched the back of his neck. “The safe internal temperature for chicken is one hundred and sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit.”

“One of these wolves could know that.”

“Then I’m afraid they’re as smart as me. What are you doing up there?”

She definitely scowled, now. “Staying away from tricksters.”

“I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“Have you? Okay, come on up then.” Her face disappeared.

He considered the tree standing before him. “I don’t know if I can. I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a kid. Not to mention the bum shoulder.”

Clair’s face reappeared. “That’s exactly what a wolf would say!”

“A wolf would tell you that it can’t climb because it has a bad shoulder?”

“It would tell me whatever I needed to hear, to make me come down to the ground,” she said, and was gone again.

Henry called to her several times, to no avail. Finally he sized himself up against the trunk. It was a gnarled old thing. Thick strips of bark peeled away like strips of cloth from a sweater. He set his feet against them. If he could climb a lighthouse in his condition, then he could certainly climb a tree.

It was a slow and painstaking process. He pushed himself up with his legs, using his good arm to keep balance. Five feet off the ground one of his holds fell away, the bark sloughing from the tree like blistered skin, and he swung like a rock climber—but wrapped his thighs around the trunk to stabilize himself, preventing a fall. Once he reached the branches it became easier. He had only to hoist himself from one seat to another, steadily rising into the sky. It smelled like cold, fresh air, and the coming of a placid night.

Clair watched him the entire way, the expression on her face gradually transforming from disbelief to skepticism to wonder. When finally he hauled himself onto the wide branch upon which she sat, she wrapped him in a tight hug. Her smell was overwhelming. It was like an expired egg-salad sandwich which had been dunked in a vat of hair grease and left in the sun for a week. He held his breath, and narrowly managed not to gag. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” she said. “I can’t believe you found me. I can’t believe it was you who found me. How did you find me?”

She released him, and he drew the leather swatch from his pocket. It was inert, now, for having been joined with its pair. She marveled at the symbol burned onto its face. “How did you know?”

“Kara.”

“Of course. That was supposed to be a secret.”

“She didn’t tell me who gave you the tattoo. Nobody knows.”

Clair smiled at him. With her suspicions gone, a warmness emanated from the woman that sat at odds with the rough state of her body. Her clothes were torn and dirited. Shallow cuts and bruises ran up and down the length of her arms and legs. Her hair was a matted bunch, and she had clearly lost a great deal of weight. That was nowhere more apparent than in the tendons straining against her emaciated neck. “The secret doesn’t matter anymore. Marjorie Gauthe gave me the tattoo.”

“Gauthe,” he said, “as in…”

“As in, the daughter of the mayor. We were friends growing up. That was how I learned about magic. No, even those who grew up in the village don’t get told. Marjorie was just bad at keeping secrets. Back then, I was certain that it was the difference between what I was and what I wanted to be. Magic. The Gauthes and the Brihtes both knew about it. Used it. That had to be why they were the wealthy families.”

Henry dug out the last of his jerky while she talked. “Was it not?”

“No,” she said, gratefully accepting and then immediately gnawing on the dried meat. “But when we got older I made her promise to help me get some, or I would tell everyone how bad she was at keeping secrets. I don’t know where she learned the pattern. I guess you already know that Teresa and Kara don’t recognize it. Some hidden Gauthe family trick.”

“Did it work?”

“Was I not floating outside of your window last month?” She swallowed the last bite of the jerky. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. Secrets have weight in Tortus Bay. We all feel compelled to keep them—even if simply telling the truth would save someone a great deal of pain.”

Night fell rapidly around them, stealing the color out of the sky and the warmth out of the air. “There aren’t going to be any secrets much longer,” he said. “I’m starting a newspaper for the village. Everything is going to come out.”

Clair gave him a wild look. “Is that right?”

“The first issue went out the other day.”

She whistled. “Then I’m impressed. It must sound like madness to you, if you can’t feel it for yourself, but telling people certain truths about Tortus Bay is hard. The village wants to protect its secrets as much as any of its people do.”

“I’m sure you did what you could,” he said, “that first night we met. But I wish you could have done more. I wish I would have asked more, afterwards, but I thought—well, I thought you had something to do with Mathas Bernard’s death.”

“Oh.” She crossed her arms, balancing on the branch with only her legs. “I did.”

Wind whistled through the trees, trailed closely by the rustling of leaves. Henry shivered. “We should talk about this back in the village,” he said. “I came to bring you back.”

She shook her head. “I can’t go back. The wolves would never let me. They started acting strange, the moment I entered the forest. I was just going to camp out for a day or two. But then they were surrounding me, chasing me. At first I thought I was really lucky, to keep getting away unscathed. Then I realized they were shepherding me. I can’t go too deep in the woods. I can’t get too close to the village. I don’t know why they want me here, but here I am.”

“Clair, I don’t think they’re real. I think they’re like the ones we saw in the park. Don’t you remember?”

She continued shaking her head. “When they come in large groups, they are not real. Not entirely. But one or two? Real enough to sink a fang into your calf. And every day that passes, those teeth get sharper. How long until the festival now?”

“We have to try.”

“We don’t. And I will not. The wolves bring me food. They brought me blankets. And I’m safer out here than I would be in the village.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Aren’t you listening? The festival. The wolves are spreading out. They’re surrounding Tortus Bay. Something bad is about to happen.” Clair leaned back, making herself comfortable. “So I’m glad you found me. Believe me, talking to a real human being after a month is a real treat. Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll tell. No more secrets. But once we’re done, I feel like I’ll be safer out here than in there. If you’re smart, you would stay with me.”

Henry chewed on that. Clair was so stick thin and bruised that he thought he would have no trouble at all in throwing her over his shoulder, if he wanted to. But then agaa\in, he only had the one good shoulder. “You had something to do with Mathas’ death?”

“Yes,” she said, as matter-of-fact as if she were discussing the weather. “I wasn’t the one holding the knife, or anything like that. I wasn’t there, when it happened. I told you the truth about the lighthouse. I thought I was the only one who knew how to get in. Then one day, just before you showed up in the village, I went for a look around and found the scene.”

He nodded. “I’ve seen it.”

“Horrible, isn’t it? First thing I wanted to do was scream. Then I really saw it, and I knew that it had to be kept a secret. I’m pretty good at those, if you’re not following along.”

“I don’t understand. You let everyone think his death was an accident.”

“And everything would have been better that way. I never liked Mathas. Anybody who says they did let themselves be bought. He was a mean, nasty old man.”

“Did he do something?”

“Oh no, nothing specific. No, never anything specific. He was too careful for that. But whenever you left a room, you felt his eyes on you. We went to school together. That was years and years of lingering eyes and drool.” She sighed, gazing blankly out at the sky through the leafy canopy. “I hated the Gauthes because Marjorie left me. She used her family’s money to get herself out of Tortus Bay, and she never looked back. I hated the Brihtes because they let Mathas marry into their little club. That’s why I let everyone believe the murder was an accident.”

“Was he really bad enough to deserve that?”

“Someone from the community did it,” she said, “and I’m sure they had their reasons. I’m sure he deserved it. If you’re looking into the truth because you want to punish someone, then you’re going to do more harm than good.”

“I hear that he was taking magic lessons from the Bramble daughters.”

A dark look crossed Clair’s face, briefly making her beaten body look healthy by comparison. “If you want to punish someone,” she repeated, “you’re going to do more harm than good.”

Henry ran a hand through his hair. “I thought finding you was going to be the key to all of this. I don’t know, I guess I built it up in my head. Things aren’t good in the village. Emmaline’s body is missing again. Along with her locket. And Mathas Bernard, or his animated corpse, is up and wandering around. I’ve seen him myself.”

Clair listened intently, that dark look creeping back onto her face. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know.” 

“I’m sorry if you thought I was going to be able to help. Last I knew, Emmaline and her locket were safe and sound in the park, and Mathas was rotting in his grave.”

“I’m starting to think he never made it into that grave. Or if he did, he got bounced right back out.” He massaged his temples. It felt as though the cold was seeping into his skull. “You’re sure you won’t come back with me?”

“I am. Are you sure you won’t stay here with me?”

He smiled. “You said it yourself: In a few days, these wolves are going to be more than illusions in the dark.”

“And you’ve seen it yourself: In a few days, I’ll be more than helpless.”

Henry positioned himself for the start of a difficult journey back down the trunk of the tree. “Keep your eye out for that locket, will you? And Emmaline and Mathas, while you’re at it. At this rate I think we’re about to have another repeat of the park incident.”

“Then we’ll deal with it like we did back then.”

He started down, then stopped. “Clair?”

“Yes?”

“It was good to see you again.” 

“It was good to see you, too.”

2.24: News

The Tortus Bay Examiner

Issue One

Important! Missing items and personages of great value! Have you seen:

  1. Clair Knoss;
  2. Mathas Bernard (dead or alive or both); 
  3. A locket inscribed with the name of Emmaline Cass; or
  4. The skeletal remains of Emmaline Cass?

If so, please contact the staff of the Tortus Bay Examiner at the address listed below. All that is missing must be recovered before next week’s Golden Goose Fest! Why? Keep reading for details!

***

The front page of the Tortus Bay Examiner caused a ruckus when the first issue landed in the village. If Henry had thought that the initial wave of readers would be able to keep the paper under wraps, he had been mistaken. The street outside of the cafe once more exploded with people, a reformed A.M. Bazaar, and each and every one of them seemed somehow to have obtained a copy. They traded them back and forth, gossiped about who had said what, and lamented that every story got certain details just a little off.

Nobody needed to speculate at all about who the editor-in-chief might be. Everyone in the village knew that Henry had been collecting stories about Mathas, and this was the logical conclusion of that. Some of them were perturbed that no credit was given for their testimonies. Many more were relieved. In the back room of the Anderson warehouse, the editorial staff was already working on their next project.

“As long as we don’t slip up,” Aria said, “Leia won’t be able to track anything back here. It’s one thing to know who’s responsible; it’s another to be able to prove it.”

Kara smiled. “And our sheriff doesn’t have a good track record with finding evidence..”

“Is the printer ready to go with what we have for the next issue?” Henry asked. He held a half-drained coffee mug in his hand. The morning was young, yet, but the day was long ahead.

Aria frowned. “Yes. They’re waiting on the word. But are we really going forward with that?”

“Only if we don’t find anything today. People deserve to know what could happen on the festival day if we don’t find Emmaline or her locket.”

“And if you find what you need?”

 “Then they need to know what it was. We write a new article.”

You write a new article,” Aria corrected. “I will continue maintaining our front, so that our printers do not become aware that we are running a clandestine operation.”

***

Henry and Kara spent the entirety of what turned out to be an unseasonably sunny day out in the woods. He let her hold the leather strip with which they were trying to track Clair, on the basis that perhaps her connection to that type of magic would help their chances. They had run out of all other ideas. “There’s nothing more to do than walk,” he said. They went deeper into the trees than they ever had before, and were having a difficult time keeping track of what ground they had covered already.

“Walking I’m fine with,” Kara said. She held the strange, hopefully unique, symbol above her head as though it were a treat, and it was a lost dog they were seeking. “What I need is for us to talk about something less depressing than the impending destruction of my home while we do it. It’s still early. I’m not up to doom and gloom yet.”

“What did you have in mind?”

A wicked grin lit her face. “You went to visit Lucy Brihte with Niles the other night. So… you’re seeing Niles again.”

Dense vines and thorny bushes slowed their progress, compounding and multiplying the further they pushed into the woods. They were often thrown off course by ditches, muddy cricks, and the rotting trunks of fallen trees. Henry had a compass, so as not to get lost, but he wished with every step that they had someone along who knew even the first thing about what they were attempting to do. “I like working with Niles,” he said. “I like talking to him. I like seeing him.”

“Statements as true as they are short, and evasive.”

“He wants something casual. He’s not ready for a commitment.”

Kara yelped, yanking her foot free from a bush she’d just attempted to step through. “Thorns,” she said. “Stay away from that one. So what, you’re looking to marry?”

“I’m looking to date. I don’t need another relationship where I give one hundred and twenty percent effort, and my partner gives ten.”

“I see.” She fell back to walk beside him. Her pants were torn at the calf. “It’s smart, to examine old relationships and watch out for toxic patterns in the future. A lot of folk don’t do that.”

He eyed her. “Is there a ‘but’ to that statement?”

“No. Full stop,” she said. “You know, I’ve only ever dated one person in my time in Tortus Bay. Devin Yerie. He was tall, rugged, and a little too clever for my taste. Worked down in the orchard. Still does, as far as I know. He doesn’t come into the village very often, but you might have seen him once or twice.”

Henry shook his head. “I’ve never heard you talk about this before. I assumed you were…”

“I’m not uninterested. At least, I tell myself I’m not. But I suppose if you’re not interested enough to make time for it, then what’s the difference? I have a full life here. And when I first arrived, I’d just discovered that the lousy little craft projects I’d been doing my whole life suddenly held magical power. It was insane. It was all-consuming. Devin wanted a little piece of my time. He got upset when I forgot about our plans. I was certain that he was about to demand that I give up what I cared about to be with him. So I didn’t give him the chance. I ended it right then and there.”   

Henry chewed on that story, while they explored. It was a nicer thing to ponder by far than what he was currently doing, but it filled him with no less hopelessness. The sun crested above them. They stopped to eat a lunch of beef jerky and apples, and shortly continued walking. The sun began its slow decline. Their emblazoned leather strip remained a leather strip. “Damn it,” Kara said, after clearing a bug-infested stump. “Check the compass.”

“Why?”

“I think we went in a circle.”

And so they had. At some point they had turned themselves around, and come back around to the edge of the village. Henry eyed the horizon. “We can do another loop.”

“It’s no use doing this at night,” Kara said. “It’s dangerous.”

“It’ll be dangerous to let whatever is going to happen -” he fell silent. Suddenly the silent trees around them were filled with noise. Dozens of pairs of feet, running in dozens of different directions. Scattering. “What the hell is that?”

“One of them’s coming this way.”

He didn’t know whether to run or to hide. In the end, he didn’t get the chance to make the decision. Tod burst through the undergrowth, belly swinging and mustache bristling, and barrelled straight in their direcion. His face was red. His eyes were wide. “Wolves!” he cried, already streaking past them in a khaki blur. “Wolves! Run!”

All that happened next was a confused blur of motion and sound. Henry ran, trying to follow Kara, but that immediately proved fruitless. A good number of the TBHWAS had followed Tod, and were now streaming through the forest in the opposite direction, screaming about wolves or else screaming just to scream. He ricocheted off of them, bouncing between bodies and vines and trees, terribly aware that whatever had set them off wasn’t entirely hysteria.

There were thin yellow eyes in the forest again, now accompanied by slobbering maws and the low thrum of howls. The wolves panted. They circled. They ran alongside the fleeing mass. But they did not emerge from the darkness.

One of them darted behind him, keeping apace with bounding leaps and then sinking into the underbrush, threatening to pounce. Whenever he turned to follow a fleeing figure, the wolf was already there. Blocking the path with a snarl. Henry slowed to a jog, then stopped altogether. The instant he stopped moving, his pursuer vanished into the forest. 

A stitch cried out in his side, and his shoulder throbbed painfully from where he had knocked it against a tree. All was still and silent around him. In the distance he could still hear muffled footsteps, but he guessed that most of the club must have made it back to the village. They weren’t that far away to begin with.  

He stood there a moment, to catch his breath. Then he straightened. “Kara!” he bellowed. “Kara, where did you go?”

At the sound of his voice, the eyes in the trees reappeared. They fixed him a terrible glower. The wolf’s body tensed, and lowered – ready to strike.

“Kara! I’m here!” he continued. The wolf stared, unmoving. “Yeah, that’s what I figured.”

Nobody, human or animal, answered his call. And in the confusion, he had become lost again. So he took his eyes off the forest lurker to grab his compass, but as he did his fingers brushed against the leather strip beside it. It was warm.

The symbol gently pulsed against his skin, and let off mild heat. Henry gripped it in his hand, all thoughts of anything else temporarily forgotten, and took a step to the left. The pulsing stopped, and the leather grew colder. He stepped back, and went instead to the right. Again, nothing. When he moved forward, the heat intensified. It beat like a heart in his palm.

In that maddening fashion he walked like a blind man through the trees, until after many careful steps the leather boiled in his hand and vibrated so hard that he thought his whole arm might shake off. Still he saw nothing.

“Henry?” The voice came from up in the canopy. He craned his neck, but there was only green. Then, something rustled the leaves, and Clair’s face poked through. She looked down at him with some combination of relief and incredulity. “Is that really you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She frowned. “If you’re a wolf you have to tell me, okay? I swear if you’re a wolf under that skin I’m never going to come down again.” 

2.23: The Missing Link

Lucy Brihte looked the same as she ever did: pale and slight, in old faded clothes. Even caught in a moment of obvious rage, her eyes still seemed somehow detached from reality. They didn’t focus where they should have. Henry stood stock still, hand hovering above her bedside notebook. Neither of them spoke.

Niles, panting slightly, jogged down the hallway. “Ahh,” he said. “Henry, uh… she’s coming.”

Henry straightened up, retracted his hand, and bumped the drawer closed for good measure. “Thank you for the heads up.”

“She, uh, she went to the bathroom and must have…”

Lucy nodded. “Heard something from my bedroom. What are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for Mathas Bernard,” he said. “I need all of the information I can find.”

“And you think that makes it okay to break into somebody’s bedroom?” She spoke in her characteristically serene voice, but her cheeks flamed red and her hands balled into fists at her side. “Is this for that childish new project of yours? The newspaper?”

“You know…”

“Of course I know about the newspaper. And of course I know that you’re the one behind it. Who else? When I heard that you were looking for testimonials about Mathas, I chose not to participate.”

“Because you don’t know anything?”

She scoffed. “I know more than anyone who’s spoken with you yet. I can guarantee that. I didn’t come forward because of this. What is this? As incompetent as it is illegal. You can’t steal people’s notes. If you’re going to be a journalist, you have to act like a journalist.” Her fists relaxed. “That’s the problem with this village. A journalist who doesn’t know how to do an interview, and a sheriff who doesn’t believe what she sees in front of her own eyes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said.” The rest of the red drained out of her face. “Niles, at least, knows how to bake a cake. That’s why he’s a baker.”

Niles had slowly backed down the hallway. “That’s true,” he called.

Lucy glowered at Henry for a moment longer, but then seemed to tire at the effort of it. “I should throw you both out. I should call the police. 

“We’ll leave.”

“Tell you what: you can leave, and I won’t even call the sheriff, but first you have to tell me how you knew that I know anything worth stealing about Mathas. And why didn’t you just ask me? Unless…” Her eyes widened. “You think that I had something to do with it, don’t you?”

Niles peeked around the corner, waving his hands. “No, no, no, no, no.”

“Yes,” Henry said.

“Yeah,” Niles amended, “that’s right. I overheard you talking on the phone last month. You said that your sister was home on the night that Mathas died.”

“How long have we known one another?” Lucy shook her head. “You should have just asked me. I was talking to Leia. Truth be told, at the time I did think that my sister might have done it. I was scared. And a little proud. Come on, let’s talk about this somewhere other than my bedroom.” She turned and strode out of the room, leading them back through the upper kitchen and down the stairs while mumbling under her breath about Leia Thao. In the main kitchen she offered them chilled wine in thin stemware. “Whatever I might tell you will not be quoted to me directly. Are you at least competent enough to manage that?”

They arranged themselves around the corner of a table that could easily have sat twelve. It looked as though it had not been used in months. A thick film of dust had settled around the golden candelabras in the center, which apparently proved too difficult to clean. Henry knew that the estate was Lucy’s in everything but name. Nobody besides her stayed in the place for long. And yet she sat ill at ease, as though she was as much a guest there as them. “Nothing identifiable will be printed.”

She took a long drink. “I’m sure you realize you’re making targets of yourselves. Have you thought about the attention you’re going to throw on anyone who chooses to contribute?” 

“That will all be anonymous.”

Lucy sighed. “Good luck with that. Oh, I suppose there’s nothing to be done about it. When you have an incompetent sheriff, the people will inevitably start taking investigations into their own hands.”

“Are you speaking from experience?”

She refilled her wine, and then topped each of them off, though neither of them had taken more than a sip. “You must have been pursuing this for a while, if you know about the phone call. I understand why you didn’t approach me back then, if you thought I was close to the murder. What changed?”

“I’m running out of time,” Henry said. “The festival is happening in a few days.Mathas is up and walking around the village. I don’t care what happened to him. I’m trying to find out where he is.” 

Lucy leaned back in her high-backed table chair, and closed her eyes as she spoke. “I never liked Mathas. That was never a secret, except maybe to him. I’ve known him all my life. I couldn’t help it; we both grew up in the village. But he was always one of those low-level assholes you try your best to avoid. You know the type. He made an aggressive pass at my best friend while she was drunk at a party, and spent the rest of his high school career dedicated to convincing everyone that it hadn’t happened. Including her.

“He was the one who dragged me back here. I made it out, you know? Off to college, and then from there off to backpack through the Balkans. That was how I wanted to spend my life. Then I heard that my sister was marrying that same asshole from high school, and I decided I had to come back for the wedding. 

“I did my best to talk her out of it, of course, but she wasn’t having it. I assumed that he was after our family money, at first. But things had changed since I’d left. He had some fancy title at the bank, and more than enough cash for himself. Everyone was talking about the generous donations he made a habit of splashing around town. He saved the coffee shop from bankruptcy. He was halfway through a deal to secure the Anderson warehouse and donate it to a local art troupe. I was surprised. I almost understood the marriage.”

Niles brows knit together. “I’ve never heard that side of it.”

“You wouldn’t have,” she said. “That man’s reputation was as important to him as all of the money and power in the world.”

“Is that why you still didn’t approve of the marriage?” Henry asked.

Lucy bit her lip. “It’s hard to put into words. Once you’ve smelled someone’s bullshit, it sticks with you. And it gets easier to pick up in the future. I think he was – is – a power hungry man, no matter how talented he was at putting on an unimposing face. I did not approve of him marrying my sister, and I certainly did not approve of him trying to leverage what minuscule magical talents he might have had by employing the tutelage of the Bramble daughters.”

Henry choked on his wine. “He did what?”

“Oh. You didn’t know.” She bit her lip a little deeper. “It was a secret. Teresa refused to help him, as did everybody else with an ounce of intelligence.”

“How did you find out?”

“Like I said, people start doing their own investigations when they lose faith in the proper channels.”

“Where did they meet?”

She shrugged. “Not a clue. At his house, I assume. But that is all I have to tell you. Do something with it, okay? Caring is nice, but it’s not enough. We need somebody who can get things done.” 

Henry and Niles rose from their seats, but Lucy waved Niles back down. “I still intend,” she said, “to talk about the route tomorrow. And I think we should have a discussion about your security access, as well.”

Niles slowly slid back into his seat, his face frozen in a grimace.

***

It was the middle of the night when Henry left the Brihte Estate, to stumble by the light of the stars across their expansive lawn into the surrounding trees. His brain buzzed with what he’d just heard, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Didn’t know if there was anything to do. He didn’t want to bring an accusation to Teresa yet. He wasn’t ready.

All he knew was that he was no closer to finding Clair. He wandered out into the forest, moving slow, holding aloft the strip of leather which he had come to think of as a tracking device. In his mind, he imagined it would start beeping and emitting red lights if he got close. If it worked at all. The girl is alive, Teresa had said. And not too far away from the village.

How was that possible? Was she a secret naturalist? Or was she getting help? Who would help her? Why was she staying in the area? Henry walked that night like a man convinced that worry might be expressed through the soles of his shoes. He walked undisturbed until finally his exhaustion overwhelmed his anxiety, and then he headed home.