Chapter 01   Chapter 02   Chapter 03   Chapter 04   Chapter 05   Chapter 06

Chapter 07   Chapter 08   Chapter 09   Chapter 10   Chapter 11   Chapter 12

Chapter 13   Chapter 14   Chapter 15   Chapter 16   Chapter 17   Chapter 18

Chapter 19   Chapter 20   Chapter 21   Chapter 22   Chapter 23   Chapter 24

Chapter 25   Chapter 26

A Webstory by Izzie Porter


y name is Camilla Ashworth, and I'm a witch. That probably wouldn't be the best first impression to give your date whom you've only just met. But that wasn't a problem for me; I didn't go on dates. What normal person would want to date someone who wasn't entirely normal? But despite a lifetime of confliction and loneliness, I had never truly been alone. Earth was home to a number of magically gifted folk like me, and countless other supernatural beings living their day-to-day lives in secrecy. One might cause a ruckus now again, but the supernatural bigwigs had an excruciatingly organized method for dealing with such mishaps. Believe it or not, there was an entire political underground with elections and everything. Even monsters needed a constitution, I guess.
As for me, I tried to get by being as ordinary as I possibly could. Well, sort of. With long and wavy ash brown hair, pale as death complexion, and a fondness for eyeliner, one might have assumed I was a supernatural with a love for anything warm and red that tasted like pennies. However, my clothing that often depicted whimsical autumn colors---and not a vampire's typical dark attire---usually put any suspicious mind to rest. And the fact that I was only just five-and-a-half feet tall was another indication I wasn't a bloodsucker; I'd never met a vampire less than six feet tall.
In my early twenties I was lucky enough to have found a few other supernaturals who wanted to be just as ordinary as me. Or, at least, try to be. Glory Milburn---the first of my small group of outcasts---was a werewolf. She had a tendency of being headstrong and even a little aggressive at times. I'm not sure if that was the result of the wolf, or just who she was as a person. Regardless, Glory was totally awesome and I wouldn't hesitate even for a second about putting my life in her paws, so to speak.
Darien McAllister was the second supernatural misfit to join our pack. He was likely the biggest misfit of us all. Not only was Mac a smoking hot vampire who made us all look average in comparison, but he was the most obsessive compulsive person I'd ever met. I'm not sure if it was some kind of self-control method to keep himself from chewing someone's larynx out, or if he was merely born that way. He also had no sense of decorum, and socializing was totally out of the question. When Mac spoke, it was usually sarcasm or some obscure OCD utterance. But all unusual behaviors aside, I knew Mac cared deeply for us all, and would give his own life to save any one of us; well, maybe not Hoyt.
Hoyt Prescott was the youngest member of our group; he died and became a zombie. And despite being a literal walking corpse, Hoyt was the biggest hypochondriac I had ever known. Whatever horrible disease was being highlighted in the media, Hoyt was sure to have contracted it. Never mind the fact that he fantasized about consuming human flesh daily, Hoyt's greatest concern was the mosquito bite behind his left kneecap that would undoubtedly lead to West Nile. I'm more concerned about what happened to the unfortunate mosquito after sucking Hoyt's rotten zombie blood; not even Mac would drink that shit during his worst blood withdrawal frenzies.
And those were my friends in a nutshell: a badass, an obsessive compulsive, and a hypochondriac. We were not unlike a lot of humans, apart from the whole monster thing. Another thing we had in common with the non-supernaturals was the mentally painful inability to decide where to eat for dinner. After the inevitable stalemate, the local steakhouse was where we ended up eating; mainly due to the fact we all loved the onion blossom appetizer. And Glory had a hankering for red meat most days.
"I'm so hungry I could eat a whole fucking bovine," declared Glory, sliding into the rounded booth after Hoyt. "I've actually done that before; wouldn't recommend it," she added, smiling stupidly while pulling a menu out of the centerpiece rack. Glory was relatively tall and strong for a woman, with rough bronze skin, large brown eyes, and a disheveled pixie haircut. She had an affinity for all things plaid, tattered jeans, and fold over combat boots. A tribal tattoo decorated her upper left arm, and a couple of small silver rings were pierced through her right brow. The silver was in a small enough dose that it barely irritated her skin; a subtle reminder to herself of what she was. And it was Glory's badass werewolf way of giving silver the middle finger.
"I could go for a platter of brains," said Hoyt very casually, reaching for his own menu. Hoyt wasn't the most attractive thing in the world, but that was mostly due to his various zombie rot spots underneath layers of concealer. And his intoxicating cologne was almost worse than the smell of his own rotting flesh. Minus the whole zombie infliction, Hoyt was a charming dweeb. He could recite various episodes from any science fiction series, and he once cosplayed as a ridiculous looking extraterrestrial at a sci-fi convention. Hoyt was just an inch taller than Glory, but thin as a rail. He had a thick head of tousled blond hair, uncomfortably clammy pale skin, and a heart as deep as the Pacific. Hoyt's usual attire consisted of jeans and a logoed t-shirt depicting a superhero's emblem, or the title of one of his favorite television series.
Mac slid into the booth beside me, his silence quieter than death itself. He acquired a menu of his own and opened it, pretending to take great interest in the entrées listed. Being a vampire, obviously Mac was the most handsome person I knew. He was over six feet tall with thick dark brown hair that he always took time to style. His brown eyes were just as dark, and alluring enough to make any woman's heart flutter. His voice was soft and deep, like thunder on a warm summer day. Mac's attire was always predictable; black jeans and a slew of shirts ranging from dark colors to slightly less dark colors. I'm really not certain whether his dull and repetitive dark style was due to being a vampire, or his obsessive compulsive personality. And even though Mac was not the oldest living vampire, he was born almost sixty years before the American Civil War even began. So, in my book, that was still as old as shit.
Suddenly---and quite disgustingly so---Hoyt let loose with an explosive sneeze before saying, "Bless me." Bits of something landed all across his menu and onto the table surface in front of him.
"I will do no such thing," Mac grumbled a response just before he began to gag.
"Eww, Hoyt! Cover your damn mouth when you do that!" insisted Glory, thoroughly disgusted as she gazed upon the unidentified zombie mess splattered on the tabletop.
Gesturing to the gelatinous pile, Hoyt replied, "Some concern wouldn't be too much for you people to muster, would it? I just spewed up chunks of my lung."
Mac's gagging became increasingly worse. He even placed a hand over his mouth in case he began doing some spewing of his own. It wasn't long before he left the booth and darted off toward the restroom. I shook my head and rolled my eyes in response to the absurd situation; just one of many that we had under our belts. We truly were a ridiculous bunch.
Watching Mac leave, Hoyt said, "The man used to drink human blood, and partially decayed lung bits grosses him out?" He flicked open his snot-covered menu and began perusing the entrées, oblivious to mine and Glory's looks of disgust as we watched zombie bits rocket through the air. "Couldn't they at least serve pig's brain? Is that really too much to ask?" Hoyt thought aloud as he continued looking through the menu. "I think I need to have a serious discussion with the cook one of these days."
After dinner, Glory insisted that we stop by the woods because there was something interesting there that she wanted to show us. So we all piled inside my Toyota Yaris and started toward the destination. We were barely out of the parking lot when Hoyt made some inane remark, which resulted in an argument between himself and Mac. Glory was in the passenger seat threatening to climb into the back and beat one of them with the other one's unconscious body. While keeping my eyes fixed on the road ahead, I felt a smile tug at the corners of my mouth. My friends undoubtedly belonged in an asylum, but I wouldn't trade them for anyone else in the world. Not now. Not ever.

Chapter 01

fter some baffled silence and a few blinks, I asked, "So... are we making a pit stop?" I watched Glory approach an oddly placed outhouse that was nestled amidst foliage deep in the woods. Mac and Hoyt stood beside me; the three of us exchanged our silent perplexities by the raising of our brows. We were all silently questioning why Glory guided us through the woods to an isolated porta potty. And we were also secretly questioning the very sanity of the she-wolf; something rarely done because, well, we already knew how insane we all were. But Glory was definitely taking the cake at the moment.
"Behold!" said Glory, her tone heavily exaggerated. She stood beside the privy with an outstretched arm, concluding, "The fucking portal potty." A nervous lopsided grin was upon Glory's face as she alternated her gaze between the three of us, waiting for someone to respond. Rolling her eyes and sighing, she kicked at the partially opened door. The door swung open and crashed against the outer wall, shaking the entire outhouse for only a moment. Glory smiled obnoxiously as our attention was directed toward the dark wavering nebula-looking-thing inside the privy.
With arms folded over his chest, Mac calmly asked, "Is that its official name?" He approached the outhouse with hesitance, never straying his eyes from the anomaly inside.
"Oh my god!" said Hoyt with surprise, also staring at the oddity inside the privy. "What sort of creature do you suppose crapped that thing out?" he genuinely asked as his curiosity drew him closer to the outhouse. "Cam?" he started. "You know a lot about, everything, really; any idea what's capable of crapping out cosmic dust?"
"The fact that you know what cosmic dust is, is more bewildering to me than this," said Mac, gesturing to the wavering anomaly.
"Ha. Fucking. Ha," Hoyt responded, sarcasm dripping from each word. "Your hair seems a bit sloppy today; might want to find a mirror and straighten it out... Oh wait!" Hoyt alluded to Mac's vampirism with a ridiculously large and self-satisfied grin on his face.
His fingers briefly touching his forehead---mimicking a headache---Mac responded, "How exactly do you think I see to style it now?" He watched---as we all did---Hoyt's left zombie arm suddenly detach from his body and plump onto the ground. Mac's Adam's apple shifted up and down as he fought back the urge to vomit.
"Never mind that!" Hoyt nervously declared, acquiring his fallen appendage from the ground. Clearing his throat, he quickly changed the subject by saying to Glory, "So about this portal potty."
With an exaggerated look on her face, Glory replied, "Oh am I still in the story? I thought it was just about you two nimrods and your bromancing." She quickly shushed the two before they had a chance to reply. "There is a portal in our midst, fuckwits... I say we go through it."
"Oh we're the fuckwits?" Hoyt said rhetorically. Gesturing to the anomaly, he elucidated, "You don't even know what this portal leads to! It could be Satan's toilet for all we know." A sneeze escaped him once again, resulting in an eyeball shooting out of his socket like a missile. "Dammit!" Hoyt shouted as he began rummaging through the fallen leaves to retrieve his missing eye, still grasping onto his detached left arm.
"On this rare occasion, I agree with the zombie," said Mac, his arms tightly crossed as he contemplated further. "Someone obviously went to the trouble of hiding it out here in the middle of the woods where no one would find it... presumably," he explained, trying to quell his gagging while holding a fist to his mouth. Mac momentarily observed Hoyt continue his search for his missing eye. Gesturing a hand to Hoyt---who was a few feet away with his back turned---Mac quietly said, "Why do we even bring him along? He's like an old car with parts that keeping breaking down."
With furrowed brows, I said, "The same could be said about you, Mr. Glasshouse." I watched as Mac looked at me with genuine befuddlement. "Really?" I asked rhetorically, surprised by his ignorance. "Let's talk about your sobriety." I felt a twinge of guilt as his eyes widened with embarrassment; despite what the others believed, I could always tell when Mac was on and off the wagon. "Judging by your lack of tremors, I'd say you fed recently," I concluded, hammering the nail in further.
"Fuck this shit, I'm going to Narnia," Glory sighed, stepping through the wavering anomaly as if it were merely an archway leading into a living room.
"FOOOUND IIIT!" Hoyt's voice echoed from the location where he discovered his missing eyeball.
"GLORY!" I shouted dramatically, as if that would somehow bring her back. I started toward the portal before my brain even realized that my feet were moving. And then I was stopped once Mac stepped over and tightly wrapped his arms around me, pulling me away from the anomaly. "Let me go!" I insisted, pointlessly trying to free myself from his burly vampire strength.
"Cam, settle down," urged Mac, is voice strained as he tried to subdue me. "Camilla!" he said with more annoyance in his tone. He released me from his arms when I finally stopped fidgeting. "We have no idea where this thing even sent Glory," he began, his voice much calmer than before. "And there's no way of knowing whether this thing is a two-way street or not; she may be trapped."
With disbelief strong in my voice, I said, "So we just abandon our friend to some unknown dimension?"
"I didn't say that," Mac defensively replied. He approached the portal, staring at it reluctantly. "I'll go through... alone," he stated, eyeing me firmly. "If I can, I'll bring Glory home."
"Fuck that!" declared Hoyt, racing into the portal before Mac and I had a chance to react.
In a very indifferent tone while watching Hoyt vanish through the anomaly, Mac said, "But there's no guarantee that I can bring him home." Tilting his head while strongly observing my expression, he rhetorically asked, "You're not going to stay here, are you?" He smiled when I quietly shook my head, wearing a smile of my own. Extending an arm and offering his hand for me to take, Mac sighed, "Well all right then, c'mon."
Traveling through the portal was an unusually tranquil experience. Within the sixty seconds it took to leave Earth and arrive at the unknown dimension, my entire being felt as if it had been cleansed inside of a pool of absolute stillness. Every anxious thought or feeling had been completely washed away, leaving me feeling like I was walking on air. Unfortunately those feelings rushed back to me once I arrived on the other side of the portal.
I emerged from the alternate portal potty to find myself standing in the middle of a wooded area. It was similar to the one I had left behind in the simple New England town where the four of us dwelled. The differences were: it was nighttime, and the chill of approaching winter was in the air. The leaves had already fallen, which made it easier to see the firefly-like lights of a nearby town through the barren tree branches. Although it was nighttime, the world was still very much lit by the moon's pale light. A familiar howling in the distance confirmed that the moon was in fact full.
Something heavy slapped against my shoulder just before I shrieked, "HOLY SHIT!" into the still night air. I spun around and saw Hoyt standing there with a wide doltish grin on his face; he had just tossed his detached zombie arm at me. "Hilarious," I said with apathy. Glancing all around us, I asked, "Where's Mac?" I watched as Hoyt only shrugged his shoulder. "He and I came through the portal together, he should be here."
"Maybe he got sucked into a black hole," casually suggested Hoyt, acquiring his arm from beside my feet.
"Wouldn't I have gotten sucked in as well?" I asked, my adrenaline racing as I prepared myself for a possible werewolf ambush.
Using his left arm as a pointer, Hoyt obnoxiously replied, "Maybe it's a black hole that only sucks up douche bags." Noticing that I had begun vigorously rubbing my frozen arms, Hoyt genuinely asked, "Oh is it cold out here?" Being a walking corpse, obviously Hoyt was impervious to chilly temperatures. "Maybe you should go back," he suggested, nodding to the portal potty. "I'll stay here and look for Mac and Glory." He quickly turned his head toward the sound of distant howling.
"If we wait here long enough, Glory might find us," I said through chattering teeth. "C'mon, we need to find her before she hurts someone," I insisted, blowing into my cupped hands.
In a very deadpan-like manner, Hoyt asked, "For the record... when you've almost frozen to death, I get to eat you, right?"

Chapter 02

y heart pounded fiercely inside of my chest as I raced through the frosty woods, a decoy in Glory's wild hunt. I could hear Hoyt uttering a variety of unusual noises with the intention of attracting Glory's wolf. The plan was to lure her to the portal potty, with Hoyt going through the anomaly first. If all went according to that plan, Glory would follow suit back to Earth and revert to her human form. But any plan that involved tricking a werewolf into doing anything was probably doomed to go awry. I just hoped Hoyt's undead ass was the one to experience the repercussion, and not my mortal keister.
Realizing that I had become hopelessly lost in the unfamiliar woods, I decided to double back to the portal. Unfortunately it was that moment when I was struck over the head by something with enough force that it knocked me to the ground. Before drifting into unconsciousness, the last thing I saw was a pair of distressed Renaissance boots possibly worn by a trapper. So I was probably being kidnapped by a shady recluse, and they always ended up being cannibals. Always.
I awoke with a throbbing headache, and the overwhelming fight-or-flight sensation certainly was not helping matters any. When my vision was no longer blurred, I could see that I was inside of a shabby old hut, and I was lying on a rickety bed with a frame undoubtedly made from the bones of the cannibal's victims. A feathered mattress was beneath me, and a pile of animal pelts covered me from the nightly chill; I guess the hermit was thawing me out first before he cooked me. Looking across the one-roomed hut---lit only by candles and a crackling fireplace---I saw the unexpectedly feeble-looking hermit hunched in front of the fire tending the embers with a poker. He was dressed in layers of moth-eaten cloth, with an Asian-like conical hat upon his head. The hermit had a long white braid running down his back, with a thin beard and mustache nearly as long.
"You awake now," said the man with a thick Japanese-like accent. He continued poking the fire, never once turning to see if his statement truly was correct. A cast iron pot was suspended over the fire, to which the hermit leaned forward and ladled the contents into a small clay bowl. The old man rose from his wooden stool, cupping the bowl with both hands as he approached the bedside. "Nourishment," he said, handing the bowl to me. After I accepted the bowl, the man placed both hands on his chest and introduced himself as Takeshi. He waited patiently for me to reciprocate.
"Camilla," I answered, half paying attention as I focused on the bowl of vegetable broth he had handed to me. I held the bowl up to my lips and took a sip, almost spitting out the unexpectedly bitter stock. Instead I forced it down my gullet as I consciously made an effort to not have a disgusted look on my face; the warmth of the broth was more important to me than taste. I knew that my effort was in vain when the hermit began to rumble with laughter.
"You come through portal?" asked Takeshi, straight to the point. He watched me nod my head as I continued to drink the warm stock. With a gentle smile, he said, "Kotodama is strong in you." Takeshi's smile widened when he noticed the look of utter bewilderment on my face. "I teach you how to master kotodama one day. You use it for destiny."
With a nervous chuckle, I said, "You might as well just speak to me in Japanese, because I don't know what you're talking about, anyway. What is kotodama?" I took another sip from the bowl, wincing when the broth touched my tongue. "I'm pretty sure that whatever it is, I don't have it." Just as I was about to drink more of the stock, Takeshi gently clunked me over the head with a bamboo walking stick he had acquired from the floor beside the bed. "Ouch!" I uttered. "You keep doing that, and I'll end up with pudding for brains."
"You have pudding brains now!" he declared matter-of-factly. "You learn ways of kotodama, and you have brains strong like bamboo," he explained, shaking his walking stick. Takeshi looked intensely at one of the many lit candles inside the hut. He muttered something in Japanese---or the equivalent of it---which then influenced the candle's tiny flame to separate from the wick and float over to Takeshi. The flame hovered over his opened palm and began bobbing up and down like a firefly. "Kotodama," he said, smiling as he watched the dancing flame. Gently he blew on the flame, magically transforming it into a small fiery fox. The metamorphosed flame darted all throughout the room, across the floor and into the air, leaving behind a vanishing trail of tiny embers. I would have made some pun about the fire fox, but I had the feeling that Takeshi was not internet savvy; he probably didn't even know what a computer was.
Returning the empty bowl to Takeshi, I calmly said, "Ah, kotodama is magic. Y'know, if you really wanted to impress somebody, you probably shouldn't have abducted a witch." I tossed off the pelts and slowly climbed out of the bed. I braced my hand against the feathered mattress, as I was still a bit unsteady from the first blow to my head. In a heavily sarcastic tone, I said, "Well as much as I enjoy being a piñata and drinking bitter broth with deranged recluses, I really should get back to my friends now." With my hand still braced against the bed, I had no time to react when Takeshi effortlessly swung the bamboo stick around and slapped the top of my hand with it. "What the fuck?!" I bellowed, cupping my throbbing hand inside of my other hand.
"That is for cynicism!" he firmly insisted. "Takeshi return you to portal; your friends wait for you on other side," Takeshi added, behaving as if it were perfectly normal to go around beating people with bamboo sticks. He reached inside of a pocket that was beneath layers of ragged cloth, removing a green orthoclase feldspar. He held out the stone to me, instructing, "When you ready to learn kotodama, hold stone and whisper name: Takeshi." With an unsettlingly wide grin, he concluded, "Takeshi find you, and bring you back to Heart."
After Takeshi guided me back to the portal potty, I stepped through it and returned to Earth. I stood a moment in the familiar woods of my New England homeland, watching as the sun had only just begun to set. Not far from the portal I spotted Mac, his back propped against the trunk of a fallen tree; he appeared to be sleeping. Unfortunately Hoyt and Glory were still nowhere to be seen.
"So you backed out at the last minute, huh?" I said loudly, plumping down beside Mac. I smiled, watching as he was startled to full consciousness.
"Cam!" he said with surprise, sitting up straighter against the fallen tree. "You made it back," he added, looking at me with a crooked smile. "Glory will be pleased to know that."
"Did Glory make it back safely?" I asked, unable to contain my enthusiasm.
Nodding his head, Mac responded, "Glory did, but the same can't be said for Hoyt. Apparently her wolf mauled him on their way back through the portal. He's in quite a state right now. Glory's working on stitching him up, but she told me to wait here for you."
"What happened to you, Mac?" I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. "Why didn't you make it through the portal?"
Scratching the back of his head, he replied, "I did... but apparently it didn't drop me in the same location where it dropped you three. I'm not even sure that it was the same world. It was daylight where I was sent; early summer, possibly. I was in the middle of a war; soldiers were retreating into the woods. My ribs were even grazed by a crystal bullet; strangest ammunition I've ever seen."
"Well that's odd," I said, very confused. "Why would the portal just send you to another world?" I continued thinking aloud, not really expecting an answer. I suddenly remembered Takeshi's feldspar stone inside my pants pocket, and wondered if that coot might have an explanation. "Well I suppose there's no sense in watching the grass grow; let's go home."

Chapter 03

few weeks had passed since the exciting journey through the portal potty to another world. Glory admitted that stepping through the anomaly was very juvenile of her, and she vowed never to do it again. But I think the guilt about what happened to Hoyt was what influenced her admission. One day she would come to her senses and realize that none of us ever learn from our mistakes, and therefore another trip through the portal was one-hundred percent necessary. Until that day, my own ordinary days would be spent as they had always been: a salesclerk at the local hobby shop. At least Mac was there to keep me entertained by reorganizing the decoration displays at least twice a day.
"Good afternoon!" said an elderly woman in a chipper tone. She sat a basket full of autumn decorations onto the counter before reaching into a ratty old cloth purse and removing her wallet. "Gorgeous fall day, isn't it?" she continued with the small talk.
"Sure is!" I replied with a phony smile as I totaled her purchases. There were few things I hated more than chitchat; it always made me feel like a habitual liar. I felt an obligation to stand up straight, have a fixed smile on my face, and raise the tone of my voice to match that of an optimistic pixie. I hated dealing with the public; I hated it with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns.
"You're better than this, child," said the old woman, catching me by surprise.
"Well that's what I keep telling myself, but here I am!" I responded, assuming that she was referring to the fact that I was almost 30 years old and working a teenager's job.
Smiling, the old woman said, "I'm talking about those you've chosen to associate with." She glanced over her shoulder as if to ensure no one was eavesdropping on our conversation. "You're a witch. You're better than them," said the old woman with confidence. She reached inside of her purse and removed a business card, saying, "When you finally realize how special you are, give me a call."
"Sure thing," I sarcastically replied, tucking the card inside my pocket after I sacked the old woman's purchases. Handing her the sacks, I concluded, "Y'never know when I might wake up one day and decide that I'm a bigot." I smiled when the old woman snatched the bags from my hands and stormed off in a huff. "Have a lovely day, ma'am!" I yelled to her.
"I know that disingenuous tone," said Mac, approaching an autumn display closest to the checkout counter. He was holding onto a porcelain pumpkin that had somehow found its way to the opposite end of the store. Mac returned the pumpkin to its rightful place, rotating it a few times until it was angled well enough to satisfy his OCD. "So what did the sweet old lady do to offend you?" he asked, wiping away sweat from his brow. Although Mac's obsessive behavior was far more obvious during his withdrawals, it was infinitely preferable to him feeding on someone like a leech.
"Ha!" I replied, amused by the notion that the woman was a sweet old lady. I reached into my back pocket, removing her business card and handing it to Mac. "That 'sweet old lady' was another witch trying to recruit me into her coven of holier-than-thous." Standing beside the seasonal display next to Mac, I pretended to browse through the decorations, but really I was just moving things about merely to mess with his obsessive behavior.
"Maybe you should give her a call," Mac suggested, casually straightening out the items I had moved. "She might be able to help you better control your powers."
"I can control my powers!" I fired back defensively, eyeing the storefront windows as another customer approached the shop. A ball of anxiety exploded inside of my stomach when I heard the tinkling of the antique shopkeeper's bell mounted above the entrance. It was nigh time to plaster a phony smile on my face again, and speak like an overly enthusiastic fairy creature.
In a somewhat pompous tone, Mac responded, "Then explain to me that time you were menstruating and the iced coffee I was holding magically became the polar opposite of ice."
"Wait. What? How did you know I was menstruating?" I asked, mortified and curious at the same time. I watched Mac imply his answer in the form of a tedious look. Catching on to his silent allusion, I said, "Oh that's gross!" Inquisitiveness getting the better of me, I had to ask, "So every time a woman is having her period, your vampy senses get all tingly?" A horrified look spread over my face as I watched Mac nod his response. "You do realize a hobby shop is probably the worst place for you to work then, right? Over fifty percent of the customers are female. Unless..." I paused a moment, staring at Mac with utter disgust on my face. "Oh my god. You're like a fat person standing outside of a bakery; smell it but don't eat it?" With feigned worry in my eyes, I concluded, "I'm just one giant fucking pie to you." Watching our only customer draw closer to our location, I whispered to Mac, "So what type of pie am I?"
"Chocolate peanut butter," he answered faster than I had anticipated.
Smiling stupidly, I said, "That sounds really good." I watched as Mac nodded his head, exhibiting a stupid grin of his own. So, basically, I learned that one of my best friends wanted to eat me dead. I suppose it should have been a little more unsettling, but I was too busy thinking about chocolate peanut butter pie to really care.
After removing his vibrating smart-phone from his back pocket, Mac read his text and said to me, "Hoyt wants to get together for game night this weekend." He peered at me over his phone, adding, "Castles & Wyverns. You game?" He returned a text to Hoyt after I nodded my head.
"As long as I don't have to be the Castle Lord again," I said with a sigh.
With a lopsided smile, Mac replied, "But you're the raconteur."

Chapter 04

t was a cool autumn's evening when I looked out the window to see Hoyt and Mac standing on the porch of mine and Glory's refurbished bungalow. With a near minimum wage job, obviously I could only afford an apartment with foundation made entirely from cockroach droppings. Glory worked at her father's carpentry business, earning about three times my annual salary. After we had gotten to know one another, she kindly offered to be housemates. Luckily I never had to shake any cockroaches out of my belongings, as my parents had generously put up with me until I finally moved in with Glory. Desperate to see their almost 30 year old daughter find someone and start a life, my parents both assumed that Glory and I were lesbians; my mother was already planning the wedding. I never really said anything to them one way or the other because I didn't want to shatter their genuine excitement. In all actuality, I was doomed to spend my days as a crazy cat lady, because I could think of no one in the entire universe who would want me.
"Chocolate peanut butter pie," said Mac, handing me a trademarked box from the local bakery as I opened the door and welcomed him inside the bungalow. "Numbnuts brought nachos and soda," he added, nodding to Hoyt, who followed him inside. "You ready for some old-fashioned tabletop rpg?" asked Mac, removing his shoes just after Hoyt darted off to the kitchen.
"Yeah..." I replied, half paying attention as I focused more on Mac's paler than usual skin and obvious clamminess. "Have you called Gillian yet?" I asked, concern strong in my voice.
"That blind date you wanted to set me up with?" he answered rhetorically. "No I haven't," he added, growing more uncomfortable. "Do you really believe she would be interested in a vampire who consorts with a zombie, a witch, and a werewolf?" inquired Mac, using a belittling tone. As Mac tried to step around me and join Hoyt in the kitchen, I quickly moved in front of him and stopped him.
"Trust me, she's very open-minded," I assured. "And she's, like, a hundred years older than you are," I said, making it sound like a good thing. I smiled when Mac's eyes widened with disbelief. "Meaning," I began, trying to explain myself. "She's been at this a lot longer than you have, and she's been completely sober for over a century," I concluded.
With a skeptical grin, Mac said, "Oh did she tell you that?" Strongly gesturing a hand, he asked rhetorically, "Do you have any idea how good a vampire is at lying?"
"I dunno, maybe you should enlighten me, Mac," I replied, slightly miffed. I watched an awkward smile creep across his face when he caught on to my implication. Returning to the matter at hand, I explained sincerely, "Glory, Hoyt, and I will always be your friends. We'll always be there for you... But what you need is someone who has actually been where you are now; someone who can guide you through the rough patches."
With calmness in his voice, Mac said, "I appreciate your concern, but I've done this many times on my own before. I'll be fine."
"Your statement only proves that you need help, Mac," I said, chuckling with disbelief. "Wouldn't you like to stop having to experience withdrawals, permanently?"
Towering over me with a soulless look in his eyes, Mac replied, "You would have to put a stake through my heart for that to happen."
"Always so dramatic, you vampires are," I mumbled, stepping aside and allowing Mac to pass.
Everyone gathered inside the small dining room off the kitchen; the two separated by a tiny curved archway. The room was dimly lit by a faux candle chandelier with lights that even mimicked the flickering of a candle's flame. Around the corner was an old rustic table surrounded by expertly carved wooden chairs. Every room inside Glory's bungalow had a pleasantly warm woodsy feel, and the various pine-scented candles certainly added to the ambiance.
The tabletop was covered by game books and character sheets, marbled polyhedral dice, and the elaborately painted four-panel Castle Lord's Screen used to conceal all the lordly activity from the other players. Additional clutter included the contents of a trick-or-treat bucket sprawled across the table surface like a dragon's treasure den. Also upon the table was every flavor of nacho, an irrelevant veggie tray, and four resin goblets featuring a badass dragon encompassed by intricate detailing. It was like the godliest of all nerd slumber parties, and there wasn't even a parent to supervise us; we could all snuff Pixy Stix to our hearts' content.
After the pouring of the cola, everyone joined their goblets in cheer before taking a seat in their designated gaming chairs. It truly was the dweebiest of sights to behold, but one that Hoyt insisted on having each game night. Our Castles & Wyverns gathering, after all, was Hoyt's invention. Mac still hadn't fully comprehended the logistics of the game, so each of us took turns poking fun at him; none of us would ever let him live down the time he wanted his dwarven warrior to conjure a fire spell in order to mow down an ambush of forest trolls. His warrior was slain, right alongside his dignity.
As everyone got settled in for a merry evening of dungeon-venturing and dragon-slaying, I reached inside my pants pocket and clutched the green orthoclase feldspar that Takeshi had given to me weeks ago. After much contemplation, I decided that it was time to come clean about my own experience in the other world we had all traveled to only a few moons ago. I had never mentioned my abduction to my friends; instead I told them that I had merely gotten lost in the woods. Attention had diverted to Hoyt at that time, and Glory's excruciating guilt from having savagely torn him apart while in her wolf form. I thought it best to keep secret my enthusiasm about returning to the mysterious portal potty realm. Well, until now.
"There's something I need to tell you guys," I said, my timid voice almost lost amidst their own conversing voices. "I lied!" I yelled, silencing everyone in the room. Eyes focused on me as if my forehead had suddenly sprouted demon horns. "Those weeks ago when we went through the portal potty... I wasn't lost in the woods all that time." I could tell that everyone was waiting with restrained eagerness for me to continue. "I was abducted by the love child of Radagast the Brown, and Yoda." I paused only for a moment to observe the amused and confused expressions being hurled at me. Removing the feldspar stone from my pocket, I explained, "He should appear after I've whispered his name into this stone."
Stunned silence filled the room for a moment before Glory addressed Mac and Hoyt, asking, "What in fuck's name did you boys put in the cola?"
"I know how crazy it sounds," I concurred. "But I can prove it," I insisted, holding the stone close to my lips. I whispered Takeshi's name, but nothing happened. Again I tried it, and the result was the same. I began to feel anxious, as I truly was beginning to look like I'd lost my marbles. I watched Hoyt sigh before excusing himself to the kitchen to fill his goblet with more soda. Just as my horribly embarrassed self was about to melt away into a pile of slosh and disappear under my chair, Hoyt returned with reassuring news.
In an unusually unfazed tone, Hoyt said, "There seems to be a Japanese vagrant standing in the kitchen eating our pizza. Should we do something about this, or just ignore it?"

Chapter 05

lengthy conversation ensued on that most dweeby night when I summoned Takeshi from the portal potty realm; Heart, he preferred to call it. Dumbfounded gazes were upon him as he explained rather important things, all the while his mouth occupied with veggie pizza. Apparently, on Heart, there was a prophecy about a magically gifted individual who arrived from another world. The individual was said to possess tremendous power capable of quelling unspeakable darkness, whatever the hell that meant. By the time Takeshi finished explaining the story, it was obvious to everyone who that individual was. He stressed that it was of the utmost importance I return to Heart and begin my training. But, obviously, I wasn't about to leave my friends behind.
It took much convincing for everyone to agree to return to Heart, as well as for Takeshi to agree to take everyone along. But before any action was taken, we had to find out the explanation to Mac's mysterious solo trip through the portal. We all listened quite intently as Takeshi confirmed that it was in fact Heart Mac had been sent to, it was merely a different time period. The portal had somehow detected that Mac was over 200 years old, and so it teleported him to Heart's equivalent of the era in which he lived as a mortal man; overcorrection, in other words. So not only was the portal potty capable of sending someone to another world, it also had the ability of sending one through time itself. A fascinating bit of filler, that was.
So after we all joined hands like a witch's coven combining powers to cast an epic spell, Takeshi used his mojo to transport all of us to the realm of Heart. It was quite a feat for Takeshi, and one that significantly drained his powers. The serene feeling that overcame me was not unlike the one I experienced during my initial trip through the portal itself. If ever a glitch were to occur during teleportation, I certainly would not complain about being trapped inside that tranquil place between worlds.
Very different terrain awaited us on Heart, compared to the relatively flat-grounded woodlands that we explored during our first visit. There were breathtaking snowcapped mountains, valleys, and countless trees that had all but shed their every autumn leaf. Nestled in the mountains was the most beautiful Japanese-like monastery I had ever laid eyes on; well, to be honest, it was the only monastery I had ever laid eyes on. A number of curved eave roofs dotted the mountainside, with affluent gardens snuggled between and around them all. At the furthest end was an intricately decorated pagoda stretching nearly as high as the tallest waterfall. Weaving through the entire cluster of gorgeous Japanese-like architecture was a beautiful stone garden path. I could think of no better place to live out my inevitable final days.
Takeshi guided us down the stone path, using the aid of his bamboo walking stick that I very much suspected he didn't actually need, despite his seemingly frail demeanor. We were greeted by a few young kimono-wearing passersby, each one clearly from different ethnic backgrounds. The monastery, or what I had perceived to be as such, was beginning to look more like an isolated Zen university for youngsters from all walks of life. The amount of acne wandering passed me caused an anxious bubble to swell deep inside of my belly, one I had not felt since my high school days.
"The Veil," Takeshi finally spoke, gesturing all around us by the pointing of his walking stick. "Not seen to us is heavy mist that shrouds The Veil; only outsiders can see it." With a confident smile, he assured, "No safer place on Heart than The Veil." Looking upon me and my bewildered companions, Takeshi explained, "Many years ago, this unclaimed mountainside was discovered by a most powerful sorcerer: Denji. He created The Veil in just six days."
With a cynical grin, I asked, "And did he rest on the seventh day?"
"In a manner of speaking," Takeshi responded, his tone very solemn. "Denji died. A grand fountain stands south end of The Veil; it is said that if you speak to fountain, Denji will listen."
"Why would Denji create this magnificence..." Glory began, pausing a moment to admire the surroundings some more. "Knowing that it would kill him?" she concluded.
Smiling, Takeshi answered, "Denji's flesh and blood perished, yes..." He glanced around The Veil, adding, "But he exists all around us now; trees, sky, even in ourselves."
Suddenly Hoyt erupted with a monstrous belch, and then said matter-of-factly, "Wasn't me, it was Denji." Unfortunately the bass from such a burp rattled loose his bottom jaw, causing it to detach itself with a loud snap. The skin around his bottom jaw tore, which caused his jaw to drop to the ground. "Well shit," Hoyt attempted to say, but his unconfined tongue merely flopped around like a fish out of water, unable to form any kind of comprehensible speech.
"What manner of creature?" Takeshi began, hobbling over to Hoyt and examining him with a deeply curious stare. He became distracted when Hoyt's tongue finally dropped onto his distressed trapper's boots. "Such a state," Takeshi said, shaking his head with disgust before returning to the path ahead. "Come! Takeshi show you to your quarters."
My room was quite something to behold, just like much of The Veil. Despite the bed's thin mattress, and the fact it was low enough for a Smurf to climb into with ease, it was unexpectedly the comfiest thing I had ever laid on. A sliding screen door depicting the branches of a cherry blossom tree led out to a balcony with a breathtaking view overlooking the trees below, and the snowcapped mountains afar. The Veil was undoubtedly the closest thing to Heaven, it had to be.
After a warm bath, I slipped into a soft floral kimono and stood on the balcony to admire the sunset. A familiar friend joined me on the balcony, sporting a kimono of her own. Glory leaned against the rough wooden rails, one arm crossed over the other. We both stood a moment speechless, gazing at the divine beauty all around us.
"So you're destined to save everyone from darkness, huh?" Glory rhetorically stated, keeping her gaze on the distant mountains. "And the knuckleheads and I are just a third wheel," she sighed.
"That isn't true," I said firmly, facing Glory. "Do you honestly believe I can do this alone?"
"Well you'll have Takeaseat to help you along the way," replied Glory, hesitating as she failed to remember Takeshi's true name. "I can only protect you once a month; Mac spends all of his time having tremors and puking, and Hoyt's just... well, no one's ever known what the fuck Hoyt's good for."
Gently placing my hand over Glory's arm, I calmly said, "Takeshi's training will help strengthen my mind, but I can't have a strong mind without a strong heart."

Chapter 06

nd so it was the initial day of my training. The Veil was even more breathtaking at first light, albeit a bit chilly. I was by no means a morning person, but having the weight of another world dropped upon my shoulders was certainly a strong motivator. And catching glimpse of an adorable dwarf flying squirrel slipping into a tree hole made my early morning all worthwhile, at least until my weary brain remembered that it wasn't even six o'clock yet. I would have killed for a cup of coffee, but I very much suspected that green would instead be the color of my morning beverage.
Making my way down the stone garden path, I came upon Hoyt, who was stretched across a wooden bench and watching the clouds drift through the early morning sky. Apart from the obvious stitches running along his cheeks and jaw line, Hoyt's mouth seemed to be working just fine again as he munched on sushi rolls that he'd bummed off of the chef. Despite Takeshi waiting for me inside the pagoda, I decided to stop for a brief good morning chat with my zombie friend.
"You're up early," I greeted, standing beside the bench. I watched as Hoyt sat up, shrugging his shoulders before tossing in another sushi roll. It was obvious to me that he was in a damper mood, which was unusual for Hoyt. Briefly I glanced toward the pagoda, and the many stone steps leading up to its entrance. My tongue clicking against my teeth as I debated whether or not to stay or leave, I took a seat beside my discouraged friend. "So what's bothering you?" I asked, taking one more apprehensive look at all those steps.
In a very sarcastic manner, Hoyt replied, "Oh let's see... Could it have something to do with the fact that my entire body breaks down on a weekly basis? I'm practically held together by duct tape and superglue at this point." Finishing his final sushi roll, Hoyt rhetorically added, "You have this kickass superpower-destiny-thing, and what have I got?" There was hardly a pause before he answered, "Well, I suppose I can tear my own arm off and use it as a fucking boomerang."
"That is actually a pretty impressive ability, if you think about it," I said, my tone so pathetically desperate to please. "I bet there aren't many people who can do that," I added, my attention wandering to the innumerable steps leading to the pagoda. I looked back at Hoyt, noticing him slump dishearteningly further into the bench. Gently touching my palm to his left breast, I said more genuinely, "You have the greatest power of all, and it's right here. You're an undead, and somehow your heart continues to beat warmer and harder than anyone's I know. You're a good person, Hoyt; not even death could take that away from you." I stood up and started toward the stairs, concluding over my shoulder to Hoyt, "And never let it."
After a tiring climb up the steps, I finally made it inside the pagoda. The room was large, and the furniture sparse. The floors were covered entirely by straw matting called tatami, and there were walls that depicted scenes of red-crowned cranes flying over wetlands, some just taking flight after quenching their thirst. The back wall was made up entirely of shoji sliding windows and doors that led out to a large wooden balcony. The balcony overlooked the distant snowcapped mountains that were often draped in mist; a gorgeous place to begin the day with a warm cup of green tea. And from the looks of things, that was precisely what Takeshi was doing.
"You late," reprimanded Takeshi as I quietly slid shut the shoji doors behind me. He kept his back to me while taking another sip from his handless tea cup. No longer was Takeshi dressed in his moth-eaten garments, but instead an authoritative black-and-gray kimono. Some of his soft white hair had been done up into a traditional Japanese topknot called a chonmage, while the rest of his hair draped loosely down his chest and back. I wasn't entirely certain why he had to snazzy himself up for some meditative exercises, but then again, I was never certain why Takeshi did any of the things that he did. Eventually he turned and glared at me from under his bushy white brows.
"My friend was having a moment," I replied in my defense, gesturing behind me. "I wanted to lift his spirits was all." I watched as Takeshi took another sip from his tea. "It's your fault, y'know!" I blurted out, uncomfortable from the silent judgment I felt from Takeshi. "Your prophecy about how I'm supposed to save the world has made my friends feel very insecure about themselves... Truth is, I'd be nothing right now if it weren't for them."
"These friends," Takeshi began, pausing to drink his tea. "They are honorable?"
Nervously chewing my lip, I faintly replied, "For the most part." Clearing my throat, I added more confidently, "Mac really does strive to be better, but he's not always strong enough. He needs someone to help guide him away from that dark path he's always so tempted by."
"You speak of the dracunespire?" said Takeshi.
My brows heavily angled with confusion, I asked, "The what now?"
Smiling, Takeshi replied, "Dracunespire feed off living; said to transform into winged creatures. They lurk in shadows of night stalking unsuspecting prey." He placed the back of his hand against his mouth, outstretching his bony middle and index fingers, saying, "Pointy teeth."
"Ah, that's your world's term for a vampire," I said, grinning. "That's actually kind of badass; I'll have to tell Mac that he's a dracunespire."
With a grave look on his face, Takeshi explained, "Most dracunespire are devious folk, never to be trusted. You have chosen to befriend one so untrustworthy?"
Smiling, self-assured, I replied, "Mac isn't most dracunespire. I would trust him with my life."
"I see..." Takeshi took another sip from his tea cup. "Maybe one day Takeshi can train this... Mac how to control dracunespire in him? Maybe Takeshi can help all your friends, and maybe they not feel so insecure?"
With a ridiculous grin on my face, I said, "I like that idea, particularly the part where they all have to get up at the ass crack of dawn like me."

Chapter 07

few months had passed since Takeshi began training my friends and me. Not surprisingly, Mac had already convinced himself that he was a lost soul and there was no amount of discipline in the entire world capable of saving him from himself. His stubborn pessimism never ceased to amaze me. But regardless of his own dour beliefs, we all saw the positive impact from Takeshi's training. Despite his obsessive behavior occasionally rearing its ugly head, Mac's overall frame of mind had improved considerably. Glory experienced her own breakthrough as one of Takeshi's pupils; she learned how to tap into her wolf and control it, for the most part. It was still a work in progress, but Glory was learning how to metamorphose into the wolf at will, and still be in control of her actions. Hoyt, on the other hand, never elaborated what his training entailed, but it was obvious that he enjoyed it very much.
Despite The Veil being a kind of dreamland, we all still had our Earthly responsibilities to tend to. So to make intergalactic travel a more convenient experience---one that would not send Mac back in time 200 some years during his return to Heart---Takeshi had a medallion forged. The medallion was imbued with the magic from Takeshi's feldspar stone, as well as a drop of blood from myself and my three friends. After the medallion had cooled, Takeshi carefully broke it into four equal parts and fused a metal loop to each piece. He slid chains through each loop before gifting the medallion piece necklaces to me and my friends. It was then explained to us that, once united with its broken parts, the medallion would send its possessors to Earth and back to Heart again. The blood droplets were to ensure that only the four of us could wield the medallion's power. The only setback was the fact we had to travel simultaneously in order for the medallion to work; one for all, and all for one.
It was early morning, surprise-surprise, when Takeshi requested all four of us gather inside the pagoda where he wished to discuss pressing matters. Mac was hunkered down on the floor with his back braced against the wall, his arms draped lazily over his bent knees. Glory was seated peacefully on the floor in a meditative pose with her eyes closed, while Hoyt paced the room trying to occupy his short attention span. I slid down on the floor beside Mac, dishearteningly dropping my head back against the wall. Briefly he looked at me while I exhaled a sigh.
"So how are things at the hobby shop?" I asked. "Do I still have a job?" I added, wincing as I assumed what his answer might be.
With a lopsided grin, Mac replied, "Apparently it's frowned upon when an employee accumulates a suspicious number of sick days." He slipped an arm around my shoulder when I groaned and buried my head in my knees. "It's also frowned upon when that employee's friend tries to defend them, and ultimately tells the manager to go fuck herself when an agreement cannot be reached regarding that employee's occupational status."
"You actually said that to Dianne?" I said with disbelief, not realizing I was smiling. "I'm surprised flames didn't shoot out of her eyeballs and incinerate you on the spot." Laying my head against his chest, I said, "Now I feel bad that you've lost your job because of me." With a sigh, I added, "I know it's no excuse, but I've been super exhausted, and I selfishly use my time back on Earth to sleep and be totally lazy."
"I wouldn't say it's selfish," Mac replied, his eyes following Hoyt as he restlessly roamed around the room. "Your training is a lot more intense than ours. How could any of us forget the time you lifted 2-ton statues into the air with your mind?" His tone more pretentious, Mac added, "But to be perfectly honest, I thought you were going to drop the fuckers for a second."
Playfully punching his arm, I replied, "I should have dropped them on you!" With a stupid grin, I added, "And I don't think Takeshi's shisas were quite that heavy."
"Together they probably were," responded Mac, distracted as he watched Takeshi enter the room. Quickly he rose from the ground, brushing off the seat of his pants before joining everyone in the center of the large tatami-floored room.
We all stood in total silence while Takeshi alternated his gaze among the four of us, grunting as he clearly debated something in his mind. He made additional thinking noises while he ran a hand through his long and thin white beard. Just as Hoyt was about to say something, Takeshi rose his hand to silence him.
"Darkness come upon Heart faster than Takeshi anticipate," said Takeshi with morose in his voice. "News comes from a place far from The Veil. A man-demon known as Black-Eyed Buccaneer has threatened town of Fairwynn Port. Pure evil, he is." Takeshi paused and focused only on me. "You think you ready to take on Black-Eyed Buccaneer?"
Baffled, I hastily replied, "Are you shitting me?"
His tone once again full of morose, Takeshi said, "It said he once kill baby kitties; make them into stew."
With more confidence in my voice than I had ever possessed in all my life, I affirmed, "He's fucking dead. Which way to Fairwynn Port?"
Later that day, after we had changed back into our Earthly garments, Takeshi guided us all to a secret chamber located beneath the pagoda. I wasn't an expert on the multistory shrines, but I suspected they normally did not possess secret chambers. Nevertheless, Takeshi's very small chamber appeared to lead us directly to a broom closet. Why it was necessary to keep his cleaning implements stashed so far away was completely beyond me. It didn't come as a total surprise though, because, well, Takeshi.
Mac, Glory, and I all watched with both fascination and confusion as Takeshi ran his bamboo walking stick across the closet door's surface. A mystical illuminating blue line appeared from his sketching which eventually he formed into a large glowing Japanese symbol. The sound of an unlatching lock echoed throughout the underground chamber, and the door magically opened on its own. The broom closet revealed a familiar dark and wavering nebula-looking-thing we had all come to know quite well. Inside the closet was a portal, but not a portal to another world. Instead, the closet portal led to a secret airport located on some other part of the planet. An unusual Atlantean-like aircraft was stored inside that port.
"Well obviously a secret broom closet would lead to some bizarre spaceship," Mac said with more sarcasm in his voice than I'd ever heard before as he gestured to the somehow ancient and yet futuristic-looking aircraft. It looked to be large enough to fit three comfortably inside, but four was still doable. "Is this how we're going to travel to Fairwynn Port?" he asked, watching Takeshi slowly nod with a smile. "Who's the pilot?"
In a very pompous demeanor, Hoyt approached the craft and announced, "That'd be yours truly. Takeshi's been training me how to fly this thing during those months you guys were meditating and slapping each other with sticks."
"They're called bō staves," I corrected Hoyt.
With a tedious breath, Hoyt replied, "Whatever." In his next breath, he went on to say, "You bitches might be muscle and magic, but I'm the fucking aviator."
Worry in his eyes, Mac said, "Suddenly I'm having flashbacks to my time spent aboard the Titanic."

Chapter 08

e were aboard the Heartling aircraft, preparing to leave for Fairwynn Port. The cockpit control panel was oddly composed of familiar digital screens, dials, and buttons with runic symbols etched into the surface. An illuminating blue liquid seemed to flow through parallel tubing that ran throughout the craft's interior walls. The strange liquid was some kind of energy commonly used all throughout the world. Heart seemed to defy science, but I suppose a world influenced more by magic would tend to do that. My abilities on Earth were mere parlor tricks in comparison to the things I was capable of doing on Heart. Influencing the temperature of liquids once seemed like a great feat, until Takeshi taught me how to lift two weighty shisa statues using my mind. With enough practice, I might be able to reverse Hoyt's lamentable zombie mess, maybe even cure Glory's metamorphosis entirely, or grant Mac's wish of becoming mortal again.
"We're on a planet that we know almost nothing about," began Glory, fastening herself into the copilot's chair. Intently focused on Hoyt, she added, "How exactly do you intend to get us to Fairwynn Port when you have no geographical knowledge of this world?"
Grinning pompously, Hoyt responded, "Who says I have no geographical knowledge? These past months I've studied more maps than you lot combined." After pressing a few of the runic buttons located overhead, he lazily dropped his arms over the control wheel and announced to me and Mac, "You ladies better buckle up back there; takeoff can be pretty intense." Glancing over his shoulder, Hoyt noticed I had an opened book in my hands. "What's that you're reading now, bookworm?"
"The story of the Black-Eyed Buccaneer; thought it might help us defeat him," I answered. "It says here that he was conjured by Bastet, Lady of the Underlands." The name seemed so familiar to me, and so I contemplated a moment before it finally dawned on me. "In our world, Bastet was the daughter of the sun god, Ra; she even protected him from the evil serpent, Apep. She was also the protector of Lower Egypt, and later became known as the goddess of cats."
"What was Egypt's deal with cats?" Hoyt interjected with disgust. "I hate cats; selfish furry bastards that demand everything from you, and then stare at you with judgment in their evil little eyeballs." He paused a moment to take a breath. "Anyone who likes cats is a halfwit."
Smiling, amused, I said, "You do realize I'm a witch, right?"
"What possible significance is that?" demanded Hoyt, sincerely confounded.
Exchanging a smile with Mac, who sat beside me, I said, "No significance at all. Take us away, aviator."
After concealing the small aircraft in a forested area on the outskirts of Fairwynn Port, the four of us traveled by foot to the bustling seaside town. The streets were paved in cobblestone with either side lined with wattle and daub Tudor buildings, very much like a prosperous town from the late Middle Ages. One building in particular caught my eye as we passed. On the first story of the building was a shop window with a stained diamond-etched pattern running along the top. The shelves behind the glass were lined with empty bottles. A wooden sign that read, "For Lease," leaned against the bottom window. I was overcome by jubilance as I envisioned myself being a shopkeeper there, selling potions, ingredients for spells, and all manner of magical items.
Passersby eyed us all with question in their eyes. We were undoubtedly a motley crew, and our Earthly garments made us stand out even more. Although Heart's fashion was not that different from modern Earth's, pants didn't seem to catch on for women. While the Heartling females all wore flouncy skirts and dresses, Glory and I were clothed in skinny jeans for easy maneuverability. And, well, Glory wouldn't be caught dead wearing something frilly, anyway. Occasionally I donned something profoundly feminine if the mood struck, but at the moment it was strictly jeans and a teal long-sleeved chiffon blouse with suede ankle boots. Glory rarely experimented beyond her plaid shirts, tattered jeans, and fold over combat boots.
"A tavern would seem the most logical place to find a buccaneer," said Mac, standing beside the rest of us as we all glanced around the gorgeous town in awe. He was dressed in his typical black jeans, a dark gray shirt, and an ebony leather jacket that let everyone know he was a brooding vampire.
"What are you going to do if he's sexier than you are?" Hoyt teased Mac while slipping his hands into the pockets of an unzipped navy blue track jacket. Beneath the jacket he wore a superhero emblem t-shirt, and his legs were dressed in a pair of dark tan cargo pants. "He was conjured by some cat-loving chick, after all; probably spends her time sniveling over romance novels and eating ice cream by the quarts."
With a disgusted snort, Glory demanded, "Could you be any more insulting?"
"I could!" Hoyt fired back matter-of-factly.
Stepping between Hoyt and Glory, I said in a stern motherly voice, "Put a lid on it." Giving Hoyt a tedious look, I added, "And what you're describing is the Egyptian Bastet from our world; we have no clue what this Lady of the Underlands is like. She may be some equivalent to Hades, or Lucifer."
"You speak gibberish, woman!" declared Hoyt.
With a baffled expression, I said, "Do not tell me you've never heard of Hades and Lucifer?" A breath of disbelief escaped my lips before I elucidated, "God of the Underworld, Satan, the Devil; any of those ringing a bell yet?"
"He hasn't got a bell to ring," Glory quipped.
Suddenly the sound of a nearby window shattering distracted us all from our public display of stupidity. All four of us watched as a handsome and strapping young man went rolling across the cobblestone in front of what was obviously the Fairwynn Port tavern. He stopped a few inches shy of my boot tips before standing up. Dare I say his attractiveness was indeed equal to Mac's? The stranger was dressed entirely in dark leathery clothing befitting that of a thief's. He looked at me with a roguish smile and outstretched his hand to introduce himself.
"So you're the Black-Eyed Buccaneer?" said Mac with doubt in his voice, stepping between me and the mysterious brigand-looking fellow.
Deep and unsettling laughter erupted from the other side of the tavern's broken window. The laughter belonged to a highly intimidating character who stood well over six feet tall. His face was scarred, and a black patch covered what one would assume to be a missing eyeball. His visible eye was solid black: an obvious indication that he was the infamous Black-Eyed Buccaneer. The silence was deafening as we all observed the monstrosity climb his way over the broken window frame and slowly approach us, shattered glass pieces crunching beneath his heavy boots.
Looking up at the buccaneer towering over him, Mac calmly said, "Ah, you must be the Black-Eyed Buccaneer."
A growl emitted from somewhere beneath the buccaneer's heavily bearded face as he effortlessly lifted Mac off of the ground. The Black-Eyed Buccaneer glared into Mac's eyes before winding up as if to throw a discus, except he was throwing my friend instead. Mac went soaring over the docks and off into the ocean where he disappeared into the water with a loud splash.
Alluding to my friend's metamorphosing ability, I said, "Well then. It looks like we're going to need a bigger boat, Glory."

Chapter 09

ith a quavering outstretched arm, I shouted over my other shoulder, "I don't know how much longer I can hold him!" I returned my attention to the Black-Eyed Buccaneer, whom I had suspended in the air using every ounce of mojo I could muster. I focused as hard as I could, narrowing my eyes and clenching my teeth to do so. The buccaneer tried to free himself, flailing and snarling as I kept my magical hold on him. Lifting two heavy statues into the air seemed like an easier feat, because the statues didn't fight back. The plundering titan let loose with a monstrous roar, his face reddening just before his single black eye ignited. Glancing down a dark alley where Glory had concealed herself from the spectacle, I yelled, "I'm pretty sure I just pissed him off!"
"Give me a minute!" Glory shouted back, disrobing in the shadows of the alley. She inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly. Glory's knees buckled and she fell into a crouched position as the transformation began. She cried out when her body broke and mutated into something more powerful than her human self. Glory's wolf charged out of the alley on all fours before leaping into the air after the buccaneer. She seized him just as my magic was beginning to fail. They landed harshly against the cobblestone, and Glory's wolf wasted no time gnawing into the titan's flesh.
The buccaneer howled with anger before scorching Glory's side with a red-hot fist, causing a yelp to escape from her blood-covered mouth. Glory admirably soldiered on, despite the Black-Eyed Buccaneer's escalating body temperature. Watching as the titan slowly gained the upper hand, I tried conjuring my mojo from a vastly depleted supply. My poor attempt only irritated the buccaneer, which caused him to direct his attention on me once more. I watched as Glory licked her wounds and again charged after the wildly furious behemoth. What no one anticipated was the charming ruffian to step inside the ring and lunge an intricately decorated golden sword into the distracted titan. The Black-Eyed Buccaneer fell to the ground with a heavy thud; it almost felt as if all of Heart shook from the impact. The mysterious brigand-looking fellow removed his sword from the titan's heart, wiping away the dark crimson blood from the blade before sheathing it inside a scabbard he kept fastened around his waist. Again he looked at me, smiling mischievously, as he held out a greeting hand.
"Osiris," he introduced himself, resting one hand over the hilt of his sword as he grasped my reciprocating hand with his other hand. His accent was somewhat North African-like; possibly fading due to his vagabond lifestyle. Fastened around the opposite hip from his sword was a leather holster. Inside the holster was a flintlock pistol, upgraded to more modern times. "That was an impressive display of power," he complimented, referring to my magical hold over the Black-Eyed Buccaneer. Glancing around, he added, "You have an interesting group of comrades."
Watching Glory again disappear into the shadows of the alley, I replied with a smile, "Sure do." I looked off toward the docks and saw a tremendously saturated Mac being aided back to dry surface by Hoyt's hand; it was only a matter of time before a zombie arm would be pulled from the joint. "I'm Cam, by the way," I said with a nervous smile. Gesturing to the sword at his side, I affirmed, "That's a handy thing to have. I would have thought something mightier than a sword would be used to quell the giant; probably not a pen, though." I smiled at my own cleverness, but soon realized Osiris had no clue that I was referencing an Earthly idiom.
Osiris lifted a dark and incredibly thick brow in response to my reference, but quickly went on to say, "The Blade of Bastet can take down any foe summoned by the Lady of the Underlands." Gently he tapped his sheath, implying that the weapon contained inside was in fact the very blade of which he spoke. "It was forged in the Underlands by Bastet herself, and subsequently placed under lock and key where it was guarded by two jackal-headed demons." With a sly grin, he added, "Well, until I defeated those two demons and took the blade as my reward."
"And how did you gain access to the Underlands?" I asked, my eyes narrowed with skepticism. "Doesn't one typically have to, y'know, die?" I watched Osiris anxiously grind his teeth when he realized I wasn't buying his bogus story.
"It looks like your comrades have returned," he said, deflecting my question. Osiris watched as Mac and Hoyt approached our location; Hoyt's appendages surprisingly intact. "Well it was a pleasure meeting you, Cam. Perhaps we might meet again over drinks?" he suggested, nodding toward the tavern he had exploded from not that long ago. "Adieu!" he concluded, turning on his heel and disappearing into the crowd of bystanders who had gathered to watch the fight.
"I don't like him," Mac mumbled, looking very much like a drowned rat.
Smiling, I asked, "Is there anyone you do like?"
He hesitated for a moment before responding, "Good point."

Chapter 10

s day melted away into dusk, I found myself amidst the jolly atmosphere of The Dodgy Lodge. It was everything one would imagine a medieval tavern to be; splinter infested walls, wooden chandeliers lit by a circle of candles, and a barman's counter with kegs stacked one on top of the other. Round and rectangular wooden tables were spaced evenly throughout the stone-floored room, and a small stage was even set for musicians.
The musicians had begun to play, filling the room with the enthusiastic sounds of tabor drums, mandolins, and fiddles. People began clapping loudly and shouting in cheer, and some even attempted a jig. It was like a Renaissance fair without the unauthentic garb. It seemed that Heart embraced the future and its complexities, while still enjoying the past and all its simplicities. It was as if there was no specific time period taking place, instead it was all of them at once.
My friends and I had gathered in the furthest corner of the tavern where a rectangular table sat next to a cold diamond glass Tudor window. We had ordered dinner using silver coins that Takeshi had allotted us. The coins were Heart's currency referred to as: dolkas.
"Is it just me, or does this whole bloody planet seem like one major plot hole?" said Glory, observing all the inebriated tavern folk. "First of all, a portal inside of a fucking outhouse? Need I say more? Next we have this omniscient sensei take us in like we're orphans." Pointing a hand my direction, Glory continued with, "Then he tells you you're supposed to save the world from darkness. Next thing we know, we're fighting some giant evil fuck summoned by an underworld broad. And then he's defeated by a mysterious Egyptian with a magical sword? What is this nonsense?"
Suddenly a brawl erupted between two highly intoxicated individuals who could barely stand. Dopey insults were exchanged before fists began to flail, none of which seemed to hit their intended target. Despite the chaos spreading as quickly as the spilled drinks, the musicians continued to play as if it were just another day at the office. Amidst all of the commotion, I spotted Osiris meander into the tavern and make his way to the bar. He ordered a flagon of mead and began guzzling.
"It is bizarre," Hoyt agreed with Glory's statement. Taking a drink of his frothy ale, he went on to say, "Sometimes I feel like we're characters in a story, and the author has no fucking clue what they're doing. Shit happens for no rhyme or reason, and we just accept that. Why? Because our minds are being controlled. We're puppets, guys. We're fucking puppets." He shoveled in a massive forkful of his rump roast dinner, like a chipmunk gathering nuts for the winter. "What?" he asked, his mouth stuffed to the brim as he observed our tedious expressions with an adorably puzzled look on his face. "I say it's time for a revolt!" he insisted, hammering his fist against the table. Not surprisingly his zombie wrist snapped, leaving his hand dangling by a thread. "Well shit."
Looking to Hoyt with an inquisitive brow, I sarcastically asked, "What if all of this is merely the creation of your own mind? Or Glory's? Or Mac's? Or maybe even mine? Perhaps I created you." I leaned back in my chair, eyes wide, and made a hand explosion mind-blown gesture, sound effects and all. Slapping my hands against the table, I changed the subject by saying, "Well I'll leave you three to ponder that while I go and interrogate our shady friend." I narrowed my eyes with suspicion as I turned my attention toward Osiris.
"I'll join you," insisted Mac, standing so quickly from his chair that it nearly toppled over.
"I've got this," I assured with smile, standing more carefully from my own chair.
"I don't like him," Mac said firmly, as if it had some kind of relevancy.
Nodding, I replied, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure we all got that sentiment the first time you said it." Watching as the rumpus finally began to simmer down, I remarked, "I think one tavern brawl is plenty for one night, don't you agree?" With a casual wink, I started off toward the bar.
After squeezing my way around the dying quarrel, I approached the bar and nonchalantly stood beside Osiris. Noticing my arrival, the rogue greeted me with a nod and a crooked grin before indulging in the last of his mead. He signaled the bartender, requesting two ales. Briefly I looked over my shoulder to see my friends in the far corner, each of them shamelessly staring at me.
"When I suggested meeting again for drinks, I wasn't expecting it to be this very night," said Osiris, his ale to his lips. Setting the drink down, he turned and leaned his left elbow against the counter, amusedly observing me force down my own bitter ale. "You're an eager lass," he said, his signature cocky grin on his face. Osiris again turned toward the counter, taking another drink from his ale.
Smiling, I said, "Just eager to know the truth about you and that sword of yours." I winced, realizing the statement's obvious connotation only after it had left my mouth.
"Easy!" insisted Osiris, holding his hand up defensively. "You haven't even finished your drink yet," he added, taking another swig of ale. Noticing my annoyed expression, he said, "Oh fine. What is it that you want to know?"
"Who are you, and how did you really come to acquire that blade?" I asked, nodding to the weapon inside his sheath. I glanced again at my friends, noticing their eyes were still on me like a hawk tracking a small rodent. I chuckled quietly before returning my attention to Osiris.
With genuine seriousness in his coffee-colored eyes, Osiris answered, "Well my name is Osiris, and this blade belongs to me... sort of. I may have taken it." He glanced quickly around, as if to ensure there were no eavesdroppers in our midst. "Bastet is my mother." His hand wandering over to the sword's hilt, he added in a solemn tone, "She and I don't exactly see eye to eye." With a sigh, he explained, "She's taken up alliance with a powerful warlock; he calls himself Demise. He's convinced my mother to summon monsters and demons from the Underlands, and then set them loose on the world." Clearing his throat, he concluded, "I've been trying to eliminate as many of her creatures as I can, and this blade is the only thing capable of doing that. Bastet created the sword as a fail-safe in case disobedience should ever arise among her creations." Taking one last drink of ale, Osiris roughly asked, "So have I answered all of your questions yet?"
"So if you're the son of Bastet, does that make you a god as well?" I asked.
Smiling, Osiris answered, "My mother is a god, yes, but my father was mortal. And before you ask, yes I do bleed, grow old, and die like every other mortal."
With curious brows, I inquired, "Do you have any special abilities?"
An extremely pompous grin on his face, Osiris replied, "Does being roguishly handsome count?"
In an apathetic tone, I responded, "Ah, so arrogance is your superpower?"

Chapter 11

siris made it quite clear that he worked alone, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if our paths crossed again, what with his mother busy conjuring all manner of creatures and setting them loose into the world. Our conversation that night at the tavern strayed to far less exciting topics involving small businesses and rent cost. I explained to him the vacant building that caught my eye, and my interest in renovating and setting up shop for spell ingredients, potions, and many other magical materials. And that's when I learned the vacant building was once a shop of the very sort, until the owner packed up most of his wares, leaving a few books and empty bottles scattered all over the store. The shopkeeper fled Fairwynn Port without any explanation, and he had never been seen since.
My friends and I had only just been back at The Veil for a week when Takeshi launched into our next assignment. The mission didn't sound anywhere near as exciting as the Black-Eyed Buccaneer, as it entailed us venturing to a place called the Forest of Everlasting Bloom in search of a rare herb known as jadeweed. Takeshi's reason for the herb's use was never explained to us, and so I could only assume it was an ingredient for some powerful spell he was concocting.
After parking the aircraft---dubbed the Hoytwings---the four of us climbed out and took in the breathtakingly abundant nature all around us. Despite winter having engulfed much of the land, the Forest of Everlasting Bloom certainly lived up to its name. Obviously some kind of magic kept the forest as lively as spring all year round.
"Does anyone know where Hoyt went?" I asked, noticing his absence after a few minutes of aimless wandering. I looked at Mac, watching him apathetically shrug his shoulders. Turning my attention to Glory, I observed her as she investigated every tree and shrub like a kid in a candy store. "You're not going to... y'know... pee on anything, are you?" I smiled when she glanced at me with annoyance in her eyes. A few moments later Hoyt returned, his mouth covered in blood and his hand clutching the half-eaten carcass of a rabbit. "Well of course you're eating a fucking bunny," I said very sarcastically, trying not to vomit at the disgusting sight.
"How did you catch a rabbit?" Mac inquired, thoroughly surprised.
Wiping away the blood from his mouth using the back of his hand, Hoyt replied, "It was already dead." Holding up the rabbit---intestines dangling from its belly like tentacles---Hoyt added, "Must have died pretty recently, because it hasn't even decayed that much."
"And now I have no desire to eat anything ever again," I mumbled, my stomach doing somersaults inside of my body. "Didn't Chef give you some sushi rolls to help with your raw meat cravings?"
With angled brows and a gesture to Mac, Hoyt replied, "That's like giving Douche a vial of blood and saying, 'there's your allotment for the month'; y'know, when he was still drinking and all," he said, his voice trailing off. Hoyt took another bite from the rabbit and changed the subject with, "This side quest sucks. Why does Takeshi have us out here looking for weeds?"
"Filler, I'd imagine," Glory answered, half paying attention as she continued searching for jadeweed. She knelt down by a gathering of undergrowth, plucking what appeared to be Takeshi's desired herb. "How many of these does he need?" Glory inquired, holding up the jadeweed.
"As many as we can find," I answered, taking the herb from Glory and tucking it into a cloth satchel I had draped over my shoulder. I concentrated a moment while holding out an empty hand, and then suddenly a duplicate of that satchel materialized in my flattened palm. "Sweet," I said with a grin, congratulating my magical feat. "We'll cover more ground if we split up. Why don't you and Hoyt head south, and Mac and I will take north. We'll meet back at the clearing in an hour," I said, handing the conjured satchel to Glory.
Mac and I walked side-by-side as we started north, with only the sounds of the forest creatures to fill in the gaps of awkward silence. His mind was clearly elsewhere as we continued searching for the jadeweed, and I couldn't really blame him; herb-gathering was obviously the duller side of alchemy. A few tedious sighs escaped his lips before he spotted a jadeweed.
"So I'm betting you were happy to part ways with Osiris," I finally said, even though I still didn't quite understand Mac's strong dislike of the demigod. "I get that he's arrogant, but at least it's an amusing sort of arrogance," I added with a smile, plucking a jadeweed from the foliage. "You seem to hate the guy even more than you hate Hoyt," I added, strong disbelief in my voice.
Nervously scratching the back of his head, Mac replied, "I don't hate Hoyt." Tilting his head back and forth as he silently debated that statement, he added, "Granted he's an annoying son of a bitch on his good days." While approaching another jadeweed, Mac said, "Anyway, you clearly fancy Osiris, and it's really none of my business who your boyfriends are."
"What in the sincerest fuck are you talking about?" I asked, completely taken by surprise. "Boyfriend?!" I repeated, disbelief never seeming to leave my tone. "Have you gone completely crackers?" Rubbing my fingers briefly over my brow, I explained, "First of all, I interacted with Osiris for merely one day, and much of that time was spent discussing a shop that I'd like to open someday. And finally, Casanovas aren't my type, anyway."
Casually picking another jadeweed from the ground, Mac hesitantly asked, "What is your type?"
"Oh this conversation just keeps getting weirder and weirder," I said with a voice strained from awkwardness. "I think we should just focus on picking weeds for now." There was brief silence between us before I finally gave in and answered, "Someone I can be ridiculous with, even when we're both old and gray, because laughter is the best medicine. That's my type."

Chapter 12

fter the mind-numbing hunt for jadeweed in the Forest of Everlasting Bloom, it was business as usual again at The Veil. Takeshi and I were to continue training inside the all too familiar matted floor room within the beautifully decorated pagoda. But first we met at a small tea house highly secluded from the other structures. A small wooden table sat close to the tatami floor inside the house, with a silk green cushion on every side of the square table. The tabletop was set with a cast iron tea kettle and matching handless cups. Takeshi was seated cross-legged on the cushion opposite the entrance, gracefully filling two cups with hot herbal tea. He was wearing a dark navy blue kimono, and his soft white hair laid freely over his shoulders and down his back.
"Good morning," I greeted with a smile, inviting myself to the cushion opposite Takeshi's. I graciously took the teacup offered to me, using both hands to hold it while I blew away the steam rising up from the piping hot beverage. "If you don't mind my asking, what exactly is your intention with all that jadeweed we gathered from the forest?" I inquired, my curiosity getting the better of me, as it often did. I closely watched as Takeshi only responded with a smile and a gesture toward the tea kettle. Thorough disbelief on my face, I said, "Wait. Are you saying you sent us out to gather herbs for your tea?!"
"Tea very delicious, no?" said Takeshi, his eyes smiling at my reaction. "Jadeweed very fragrant; give tea much enjoyable taste." He quietly watched as I took a sip, smiling when my nodding indicated that I agreed with his statement. "Although jadeweed very important to Takeshi, it not main reason you sent on errand," he added, always weirdly referring to himself in the third person. After taking a ridiculously long sip from his tea, Takeshi asked, "What you learn during trip?"
"What did I learn?" I repeated, not entirely certain of his meaning. I observed Takeshi excitably nod his head. "Well I learned that Chef's sushi rolls haven't helped stave off Hoyt's raw meat cravings." Takeshi only smiled and rolled his eyes at me, insinuating that my response was incorrect. "Well why don't you tell me what I learned then?" I said, an annoyance in my tone that annoyed even myself when I spoke.
"Takeshi would need your heart to know answer," he responded in an obscure riddle. "Close eyes, and think back to Forest of Everlasting Bloom," he instructed, setting down his tea. "Disregard thoughts, and focus only on feelings. What did you feel?"
I shut my eyes, puffed my cheeks, and with boredom I released the air through my slapping lips before answering, "Well I felt like barfing after watching Hoyt eat a dead rabbit." The sound of Takeshi's sighing signified that I was wrong once again, somehow. Opening my eyes, I groused, "What the fuck do you want me to say?!"
Takeshi looked at me for the longest time in silence before asking, "Why must you continue to deny what has been inside you all along? Will embracing that truth really be so difficult?"
"Um, I think it's pretty obvious I embraced my magic, otherwise my story would have ended a few chapters ago," I replied before sipping my tea. Again I watched as disappointment befell Takeshi's face. "Look, if you want this charade to end, you might as well just tell me what I apparently already know." Waving my hand carelessly while taking another sip of tea, I grumbled into my cast iron cup, "Or, y'know, just keep barfing out cryptic bullshit like you always do."
Calmly Takeshi said, "Each time I ask about your day, you always happy to tell me about the wolvenkin and the smelly one. Never you mention the dracunespire." Taking another sip of tea, he added with a smile, "What we care for most is often what we hide from most."
"So what you're saying is, I care less about Hoyt and Glory than I do Mac?" I demanded, offended by his implication. "They're my friends, and I certainly don't favor one over the other." I watched as a smile crept across Takeshi's face, but I didn't understand how it was an appropriate response. Realization overcoming me, I insisted, "Did Mac put you up to this? He's been behaving very strangely ever since Fairwynn Port. Oh that reminds me; could I have a loan to open up a potion shop? I am saving the world and all, like you asked me to."
With angled brows, Takeshi fiercely replied, "A true hero needs no compensation for their selfless deeds."
"Y'know they always say that, but how would the hero continue fighting evil and saving good without a full stomach and a place to sleep? Not to mention hygiene products and a change of clothes. If one wants to keep saving the world, they're going to have to depend on the generosity of others," I replied. With obvious hesitation in my voice, I added, "And sometimes that generosity includes a loan for a potion shop?"
Running his hand through his thin white beard, Takeshi asked, "How will you maintain shop, when you out fighting evil and saving good?"
With a wry smile, I answered, "Oh I'm sure one of the four of us could work during those weed-picking days."

Chapter 13

e had been trekking amidst a mountainous range that looked very similar to the Himalayas. Glory and I had bundled ourselves up with layers of warm clothing to protect us from the bitter cold nipping at our exposed noses and cheeks. Hoyt was wearing his typical cargo pants, t-shirt, and a track jacket while Mac had on a faux fur hooded winter coat over his usual attire. Unlike the utterly defunct body of a zombie, a vampire could still be affected by extreme weather conditions. And considering Mac no longer had the nutrients he needed via blood, his undead body was at higher risk of becoming comatose. He would not die, but rather slip away into indefinite slumber until his weakened system was replenished with enough human blood.
The reason Takeshi sent us on such an arduous quest was to locate and defeat what the locals referred to as a snow monster, which was basically some sort of yeti creature. However, it wasn't just a run of the mill type of yeti, no, this abominable snowman was said to beguile children and lure them to its wintery den like a giant and excessively hairy pedophile. Supposedly the yeti used a magical guise that appeared only to children as a friendly bearded fat man who ensnared them with the promise of gifts. There was speculation that inside the creature's den was an enormous cauldron where he cooked children into stew. How anyone besides an abducted child knew these things was beyond me. And so the four of us boarded the Hoytwings and flew out to the place known as the Mohana Mountains to investigate the supposed snow monster.
"Did anyone else happen to notice how fucking cold it is out here?" Glory complained, rubbing together her gloved hands. "I might have to wolf just so I can warm my ass up," she added, the snow crunching beneath her boots as she continued onward. Glancing over her shoulder at me, Glory asked, "Can't you do some kind of a locator spell for the beast's lair?"
"Oh sure," I replied with a vague hint of sarcasm in my tone. "Let me just grab my Elder Wand out of my pack first," I concluded with a quip.
With genuine awe, Hoyt said, "You have a wand?!" And with one simple misstep, Hoyt's dead frozen legs simultaneously snapped in half and sent him tumbling face first into the snow. "Son of a bitch!" he cried out, his voice somewhat muffled by the snow.
"We'll have to go on without him," said Mac, completely unfazed.
His face still deep in the snow, Hoyt fired back, "The hell you will! Get over here you damn douche bag and pick me up! You're the only one not carrying a hiking pack, so just toss me over your shoulders and carry me like one. And don't forget my fucking legs!"
"I will do no such thing," Mac replied coolly.
With a growl, Hoyt said, "Mac, if you weren't already an undead bastard, I'd eat the shit out of you!" There was narrowly a pause before Hoyt timidly added, "Uh, I will admit that was not the greatest choice of words, but you get my gist." Noticing his words were met only by silence, and his face still buried in the snow, Hoyt shouted, "HEY! Are you guys still here?!"
"Relax," Mac assured, hefting Hoyt up off the ground and sliding him around his shoulders. Hoyt locked his arms and rode piggyback, as Mac reluctantly carried a detached zombie leg in each hand while he tried to keep himself from vomiting. "This is so disgusting," he grumbled. His perfectly styled hair being petted by Hoyt, Mac calmly warned, "I will lop off your goddamn head."
"It's just so soft, I couldn't resist," Hoyt said with a stupid grin. Slapping his leg nubs against Mac's sides, Hoyt childishly bellowed, "Giddy up horsey! To the yeti cave!"
After another hour's worth of trekking, we finally came upon a large opening at the foot of the mountain. I looked over at Mac and I could tell that he was trying his hardest to hide the fact that the frigid air, carrying Hoyt, and lack of blood was getting to him. I removed my hiking pack and propped it against the icy den entrance. Gently I helped Hoyt down from Mac's shoulders and carefully leaned him against my discarded pack.
"Maybe you two should rest while Glory and I explore the cave," I suggested.
In a very lethargic voice, Mac responded, "Maybe you should kiss my ass." He turned and started his way into the cave, oblivious to my smiling and head shaking.
"Well someone will have to stay here with Hoyt," I reminded. Looking at my broken zombie friend, I added, "We can't have him getting hauled off by a snow leopard, or something even worse." I looked over at Glory and asked, "Think you can handle guard duty?" I smiled when she only scowled at me in response. In a very grave manner, I stepped closer to Glory and whispered, "I'll need you to save your strength, because you might have to carry Mac back to the Hoytwings."
Inside the cave the icy walls and ceiling glistened, and the rocks and floor sparkled with a thin layer of snow. Thick icicles hung overhead, dripping from the heat of the sun shining through the entrance. The slightest noise was greatly emphasized as it echoed throughout the cave's chambers. I could hear the tapping sound of Mac's boots striking the cave floor as he made his way down the entrance tunnel. I quickened my pace in order to catch up with him.
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" I asked, genuinely concerned about Mac's heavy breathing. Quietly I watched as he nodded his head. Light from the entrance soon vanished as we made a left down another chamber. "Because I really don't want you to eat me," I added timorously, a great big clump of anxiety bursting inside of my belly as darkness shrouded us. I heard the sound of Mac's chuckling, and I couldn't help feeling unsettled by it.
For the longest time I concentrated on my opened palm until an illuminating ball of fire materialized just above my skin, bobbing up and down. With the flick of my wrist, the fireball shot up to the ceiling of the chamber and exploded into thousands of tiny flames, each one twinkling like the synchronous fireflies of the Great Smoky Mountains. At first the light was very dim, but one-by-one each flame particle intensified and flooded the chamber with a warm and divine glow to light the way.
"Well that certainly won't deter our sneak attack," said Mac, every word sodden with sarcasm. Suddenly he dropped to his knees, bracing one hand against the cave floor in an attempt to keep his weakened body from collapsing further.
"Oh for shit's sake," I muttered, hastily removing my heavy coat and rolling up the sleeve to my woolen cable knit sweater. "Here!" I insisted, shoving my wrist under Mac's nose. Every muscle in my body became tense as I anxiously stood there waiting for Mac's fangs to sink into my flesh. Instead he shoved my wrist away and tried to regain his balance. "Quit being a stubborn jackass and just drink!" I urged. Watching Mac continue to refuse my offering, I said, "I really don't want you to eat me either, but it's the only thing that will keep you from slipping into a vampire coma." With deep sincerity in my voice, I said, "I can't lose you, Darien." Frozen with terror, I watched Mac's brown irises fade into gleaming silver as his fangs emerged.
"If I can't stop, you be sure to use this," Mac commanded, removing a stake he'd kept concealed in the back of his pants. He focused on me with a stern look in his bright silver eyes as he handed me the wooden weapon.
With utter disbelief, I said, "Do you always keep a stake in the back of your jeans?"
"Only when I think I'll need it," he answered, taking my exposed wrist into his hands. He looked at me with obvious guilt all over his face. Only after I nodded my consent, Mac broke my flesh with his razor-sharp fangs and began to drink. As he disappeared into a frenzy while quenching his thirst, a creature's thunderous roar reverberated from further down the icy chamber. I suspected that things were about to get really hairy.

Chapter 14

t felt like a week had passed since I offered to reawaken Mac's once repressed blood dependence. Of course my decision to do so did not come lightly, but I much preferred him conscious to comatose. I stood over Mac, watching him as he voraciously continued draining my wrist. So greedily he consumed my blood that he hadn't even noticed some of it go to waste, flowing down his chin and onto the frozen cave floor. I was beginning to feel lightheaded, but with the other hand I still kept a soft grip on the wooden stake Mac had given to me. I sincerely hoped that I did not need to use it.
Again I heard the echoing of the snow creature's roar, only closer now. Finally I dropped the stake and outstretched my arm toward the illuminated ceiling, concentrating on the tiny flames I had earlier cast. One-by-one each twinkling fire particle began to rotate until they all gathered together inside of a fiery maelstrom. The vortex of flames finally extended downward into my opened palm, like the tail end of a tornado to the earth. In one fell swoop the chamber was again engulfed in darkness, hopefully enough to conceal our location from the monster. But considering the creature lived inside of a dark cave, its night vision would undoubtedly detect us.
"Mac," I said, my voice faint and sluggish. I knelt down on the floor beside him, listening as he continued drinking from my wrist with an insatiable hunger. "I don't feel very well, Mac," I stated with more insistence, but he didn't hear a word of it. Extending my arm, I felt all over the floor for the stake I had dropped; it must have bounced and skidded off just out of reach. "Darien!" I sternly whispered, keeping my voice quiet enough so that the yeti wouldn't hear. Mac's feasting was taking a toll, as I could feel what little warmth I had, beginning to leave my body. My eyelids were becoming heavy as I used every ounce of strength to stay conscious. Assuming that I was nearing the end, gently I touched my hand to Mac's cheek and smiled. "Take care of them," I said, nearly breathless. At that moment I watched Mac's shining silver irises fade back to their original brown color; his lust for blood seeming to vanish as well.
"Oh god!" he exclaimed, releasing my wrist and pushing himself across the floor away from me. I could feel Mac's eyes on me, watching me collapse into a powerless heap on the icy cave floor. "Why didn't you use the fucking stake?!" he said in a bitter voice fueled by guilt. There was little time to argue before the yeti finally arrived inside of our chamber, breathing heavily like a fighting bull ready to charge. The creature lunged at Mac, but he defensively outstretched his arms to protect himself from the monster's impact. Most unexpectedly, a burst of flames expelled from Mac's palms and caught the yeti's long mussed hair on fire. "Holy shit," he muttered, completely stunned.
Mac rose from the frozen floor, extending his left arm with fierce concentration burning in his eyes. Another forceful stream of fire spilled out of his palm and collided against the relentless snow creature. I watched as Mac's hand began to quaver, fissures forming on his flesh and oozing some of the blood I had only just rejuvenated him with. The yeti howled in agony as Mac mercilessly burned away its flesh until it was nothing but a pile of charred remains. Mac again fell to his knees after his victory, breathing heavily from the immense effort he put forth to vanquish the snow monster. He held the fissured hand inside of his other hand, groaning from the pain it caused him.
"Are you all right?" Mac asked, offering his unwounded hand to help me stand. He acquired the heavy coat I had discarded on the floor, holding it for me while I slid my arms through the sleeves. "We need to get you someplace warm," he instructed, beginning to remove his own coat for me to wear. "You need it more than I do," he insisted after I declined his charitable offering. Using his thumb, Mac wiped away a bit of dirt from my cheek. "I'm so sorry, Cam," he said with a heartfelt look in his eyes. His thumb lingered on my cheek a while, even after it had been wiped clean of schmutz. "Although that doesn't even begin to make up for what I did."
"I'd do it again," I replied, smiling while I reached up and tenderly held my hand over his. "So there's nothing you need apologize for." Dropping my hand to my side, I changed the subject by saying, "Well it looked like you managed to conjure that fire spell after all." I smiled when he finally realized my reference to his warrior character from Castles & Wyverns.
Taking a step back while scratching the top of his head, Mac responded, "Yeah I guess so... I must have temporarily absorbed your power when I..." A profound look of shame befell him. Holding up his torn and bleeding hand, Mac asked, "Does this happen to you every time you cast?"
"No," I answered. "But I'm not a wuss," I quipped, soon coughing incessantly as the bitter cold air tickled my throat. "As I was saying," I added when the hacking ceased, grinning stupidly. My attention drawn toward the barbequed yeti creature, I said, "We should probably continue searching the cave for the missing children."
Firmly, Mac replied, "You are in no condition." Glancing around the cave chamber, he nonchalantly added, "They're probably dead, anyway." Mac was genuinely surprised when I slapped his face. "You're already half dead yourself!" he erupted, hoping that would discourage me from my quest to recover the abducted children. Gesturing to the dead yeti creature, Mac explained, "Our job was to locate and kill that giant son of a bitch. We didn't come here for a rescue mission."
"It was implied, you soulless bastard!" I exclaimed, sending an echo all through the chamber. "I'm sorry, that may have been a little harsh," I quietly apologized after my profanity concluded dancing off of the cave walls. All the exertion I put into yelling at Mac wasn't helping my iron deficiency any, nor was it helping my general exhaustion from trekking through the icy cold mountains. The world was spinning, and at any moment I felt as though I would lose consciousness. "We're going to find those kids," I urged, my body completely unsteady as I spoke. "If I have to drag myself across the damn floor, so be it!" I proclaimed, stumbling into the safety of Mac's arms.
Flinging me over his shoulder, Mac groused, "So which chamber are we headed down first; straight ahead, or off to the left?"

Chapter 15

ac and I had successfully located what turned out to be seven abducted children. Deep inside the yeti's icy abode was a heart-rending scene of each child wrapped inside of a woolen-like cocoon suspended from the cave ceiling. I felt an overwhelming urge to vomit, as it all seemed to resemble a slaughterhouse at first look. On further examination, Mac and I realized the children were merely in some kind of magical stasis, and the woolen-like cocoons seemed to be producing heat. The yeti's intentions were unclear to us, but it appeared to have ensnared and cocooned the children like a spider with its prey. Hopefully the seven children were the creature's grand total of abductions.
Very carefully we opened one cocoon and awoke the child inside; he seemed a little groggy at first, but eventually he gained his footing. Mac tightly wrapped the boy up in his heavy winter coat and carried him outside of the cave. We all knew how painstaking the rescue was going to be, and so I reached inside my pocket for Takeshi's feldspar stone. I whispered his name into the stone and waited for him to manifest. I expected a dramatic whirlwind of an entrance, but instead Takeshi quietly appeared as if he'd been standing beside me the whole time. He was dressed in nothing more than a white bath towel, and sweating immensely as if he'd just come from the sauna.
"AH!" Hoyt squealed with horror, hastily shielding his eyes from the sight of a half-naked Takeshi. "Tell me when it's gone!" he urged, his palms fixed over his eyes.
"Shit, Cam!" exclaimed Glory, a touch of accusation in her voice. "You summoned him out here, and now he's going to freeze to death!"
Trying to hide the guilt in my own voice, I replied, "Well how was I supposed to know he was in the bath?!" I apologetically looked at Takeshi and said, "I'm sorry for bringing you here at a bad time, but the four of us don't have the strength to complete this quest without your help." I went on to tell him about the abducted children, and watched as Takeshi made comprehensive grumbles and head nods. And with utter stupefaction on my face, I stared at Takeshi as he started into the cave, presumably headed to the chamber where the children were kept. "You might need something a little warmer than a towel to wear!" I shouted to Takeshi. And with a casual wave of his arm, I watched as Takeshi's body became enveloped by twinkling lavender-colored smoke. The smoke dispersed, revealing a fully clothed Takeshi bundled up heavily like an Eskimo. Deeply impressed, I mumbled, "Well, that'll do it."
Using his magical abilities, Takeshi freed every child from their imprisoning cocoon and teleported them all back to the village where they had been abducted from. He returned to us one final time, curing Hoyt of his broken zombie legs, and then Takeshi vanished back to The Veil. I was beginning to question why I was the chosen one to defeat darkness, as Takeshi's magical powers clearly surpassed my own by an impressive degree. I also wondered why he abandoned the four of us at the cave entrance, instead of teleporting us back to the Hoytwings. I suspected that he wasn't willing to see helpless children perish, but he also wasn't about to make things too easy for us.
Albeit half-frozen and on the verge of death, the four of us successfully made it back to the Hoytwings and returned to The Veil. We all spent the better part of three days resting and regaining our strength. By the fourth day, Takeshi imparted very unexpected and exciting news to me; he had signed the contract to the shop I had been ogling at Fairwynn Port. The landlord was a spindly man of few words, but Takeshi said that the gentleman seemed genuinely surprised that someone was actually interested in renting the building. Obviously the mystery of that statement intrigued me, and made me want to know more about the building's history.
I smiled when I heard the tinkling of the shopkeeper's bell as I stepped inside of The Shady Nook, the name I had given to my shop of potions and all manner of magical items. Several weeks had passed since our trip to the Mohana Mountains to slay the yeti, and much of that time was spent sweeping the building free of spider webs and dust and stocking the shelves. I had a box of freshly brewed potions in my arms that I sat down on the vintage retail counter located near the display window. Alchemy was something I had studied back on Earth when I first learned that I was a witch, and so gathering herbs and preparing potions was not unfamiliar to me.
"Good morning," I said to Mac, who was already reaching into the box of potions and preparing to stock the shelves. Things were beginning to feel reminiscent of Earth where Mac and I were employees of a local hobby shop; the major difference being that I managed the store now. I greeted Glory when she stepped in from the backroom sucking on a cherry-flavored lollipop.
"I could make you a new counter, y'know," said Glory, offering me her carpentry skills. She took a seat on the far end of the retail counter, using her fingertips to rotate the candy stick, twirling the cherry lollipop over her tongue. "New shelves, too," she added, glancing around the shop. "I could really get this place looking fresh; might even be able to get rid of some of that must."
Looking around the shop with a pleasant smile on my face, I replied, "I kinda like it; gives it an old and cozy atmosphere." Amused, I watched Glory merely shrug her shoulders in response. "We're going to have to find some seasonal decorations to put up as well!" I said excitedly, smiling again as Glory rolled her eyes and snorted. "There has to be some kind of Halloween and Christmas equivalent on Heart. That'll be my homework; read up on the holidays here."
"Oh I imagine Takeshi has kept you far too busy with his own homework," said a mysterious customer who walked out from behind a shelf. The man was tall and haunting, and carried himself in a gentlemanly fashion. He wore a pair of dark slacks, an intricately patterned green-and-black vest, shiny black loafers, and a long ebony 18th century frock coat. Despite his appearance being no older than forty-five in age, his long hair was white like freshly fallen snow. The man's hair hung loosely down his back, stopping just beyond his shoulders.
With furrowed brows, I asked, "Do we know each other?"
Grimacing, the man responded in an ominous tone, "Oh I'm quite familiar with you already, and you will surely come to know me in the days ahead." Smiling wickedly, he watched Mac approach him in a threatening manner. Noticing a potion bottle in Mac's hand, the mysterious gentleman said, "You should be careful with that; wouldn't want it to break." He held up his index and middle fingers and tilted his wrist slightly, magically causing the bottle to drop from Mac's grip and crack open on the wooden floor. The gentleman then snapped his fingers and vanished in a cloud of black smoke.
The three of us watched as a stream of silver liquid emerged from the broken bottle and slithered across the floor like a snake, searching for something. The liquid settled at my feet just before vanishing as if it never existed; not even a wet trail was left behind. My eyes grew wide when I realized which potion Mac had dropped; a potion that guided one to that which they desired most.

Chapter 16

ith Takeshi's various quests---some of them monotonous---my work was beginning to fall behind at The Shady Nook. Over the course of a week, an alchemist's laboratory table had been assembled in the backroom. The table was a convenient addition for producing potions directly from the shop, instead of concocting them at The Veil and transporting them via the Hoytwings. Two of the room's four walls were solid bookshelves, stuffed to the brim from ceiling-to-floor. A simple staircase led to the small gable-roofed second story where there was just enough room for an unadorned chest of drawers and a twin bed; a convenient place to spend the night after working overtime concocting enough potions to reach the quota. And, finally, there was a door that led to a small bathroom with questionable plumbing, but so far so good.
After closing up shop for the evening, I insisted my friends return to The Veil and I would stay behind to work on production and inventory. A minor, and yet uncomfortable, disagreement ensued between Mac and me. It was his insistence on staying as well that made me feel so uneasy. The incident involving Mac's uncontrolled butterfingers---influenced by the magic of a mysterious gentleman visiting the shop---was something I simply could not discard from my mind. Mac remained oblivious to the purpose of the potion he had dropped, and for that I was eternally grateful; only I would be doomed to experience the heavy weight of awkwardness whilst in his presence. Certainly I was flattered by Mac's admiration, but having our friendship become something even deeper was utterly terrifying to me. I'd rather face a legion of manitcores before exploring that notion. Yes, manticores were a thing on Heart.
At last I was able to convince Mac that I was perfectly capable of being alone for the night, and plenty competent handling myself if things should get hairy. Understandably he was concerned about the mysterious gentleman returning, as the magician certainly had a sinister aura about him. I put Mac's mind at ease when I reminded him that I still carried Takeshi's feldspar stone, and would undoubtedly use it if I felt my life truly was in danger.
With a number of lit oil lanterns and a calm fire crackling in the main room while I took inventory, I listened to the rumbling of a late winter's thunderstorm. Raindrops pattered steadily against the slated roof, and lightning struck like the world's blood vessels illuminating the night sky. Occasionally I watched the storm through the Tudor window adjacent to the retail counter. Outside, the cobblestone glistened with freshly fallen rain as fog began to accumulate. Light from the wrought iron street lamps could barely be seen amidst the amassing mist. Just as I returned to my work, I heard the sound of faint movement upstairs.
Assuming a rat had somehow sneaked inside to escape the storm, I grasped an oil lantern and climbed the steps. I searched all over the tiny room, and even moved the bed and chest to be thorough. When nothing was discovered, I surmised that the rat had been under one furniture piece whilst I was moving the other. By the time I was ready to move the second piece of furniture, the rat had undoubtedly scurried out of the room during the time I was occupied moving the first. I returned the bed and chest of drawers to their original positions, took the lantern in hand, and returned downstairs to continue my search.
When no rodent of any kind was discovered during my inspection, I blamed the noise on nearby thunder rattling the furniture legs against the rickety wooden floor. And so I returned to my tedious task of recording all the remaining materials, and those needing restocked. A few minutes went by before I was startled by the unmistakable sound of the shopkeeper's bell jangling violently, as if someone had struck it with a pebble. I dropped my pen and clipboard from the sheer surprise of it all. My blood was racing with adrenaline as I reluctantly turned my attention toward the front door. No one was there. I tried to convince myself that the clapper had broken free and struck the bell on the way down, but I knew that wasn't enough force to produce the clanging I heard.
"Hello?" I said, my voice rough with emotion. I nearly leapt into the air at the particularly loud pop from a piece of firewood splitting in the hearth. Inevitably my reaction faded into nervous laughter when I realized at that point any noise was going to send me into a tizzy, now that my fight-or-flight response was in full gear. "If there's a poltergeist in here, sweeping the floor and dusting the shelves would scare the living shit out of me," I implied, using humor to calm myself down. "So you should definitely not do those things, because, well, it'd totally freak me out," I added, using reverse psychology on what I perceived to be a poltergeist. Yep, I was undeniably a crazy person.
I resumed working, or at least pretended to be fully engrossed in jotting down materials. My senses were still very much alert to every minor creak, crackle, and crash of thunder. A few more minutes past and nothing extraordinary happened. Just as my nerves were beginning to settle down, I heard the sound of an obscured voice filtering out from the backroom. My heart pounding, I slowly approached the room. The voice became more distinct the closer I got. As I stepped inside the backroom, the voice immediately stopped as if no one was ever there producing it. The room lay completely still, except for a few candles I hadn't recalled lighting.
"Is there someone here?" I spoke into the silence of the room. A harsh crack of thunder sent chills down my spine, but still no one answered my query. Out of desperation, I closed my eyes and concentrated on an extraordinarily difficult spell; a spell that would make unseen things be seen. Still expecting nothing to have manifested when I again opened my eyes, I was instead very surprised to be greeted by a genuinely flummoxed curly-haired redhead. She was dressed in a plain 15th century olive-colored tunic gown and a cream-colored shift. The tunic was slit nearly to the waist and tied together with leather string.
"Wha' the bloody devil?" said the curly-haired lass, her English-like accent bordering on Cockney. "How did ya, y'know... make me corporeal like tha'?" The woman examined her hands as if it were her very first time seeing them. Tears welled in her eyes as she said, "I's been almos' 500 years since I saw the sigh' of me own limbs!" Overcome by joy, the woman lunged forward and wrapped me in her arms. Stepping back from the hug, she instructed, "Quick now, punch me in the face, lass. I's been too long since I fel' anyfing." She stared at me, anticipation burning inside her bright blue eyes. "Go on!"
Stammering, I inquired, "W-who are you?"
"Where are me manners?" said the woman, a wide and gentle smile on her face. "The name's Brynn," she introduced herself, holding out a hand for me to shake. "You mus' be one migh'y powerful witch, love," she added after I reciprocated the introduction. "I certainly couldn' pull off a stunt like tha' even if I crossed me fingers, eyeballs, and arse."
"And how does one cross their arse?" I had to ask.
With a suspicious glance, Brynn answered, "I' isn' easy, I'll tell ya tha' for nofing." She began walking around the shop, examining all the potions and other additions I had made. "Seems like ya know wha' you're doing here," she complimented. "Firs' time in years since a genuine witch owned vis place," added Brynn, nodding her approval. "You're wise no' to partner wif anyone," she said sternly. "Tha' was my mistake... Me and me love opened vis place long ago, selling fings not unlike vis," she began, holding a potion bottle in her hand for the first time in centuries. "He became greedy, wanting all the profi' for himself. So, late one nigh' he slipped some poison into me soup and off I wen'. He buried me beneaf tha' very floor," explained Brynn, pointing to the backroom. "Instead of the hereafter as one migh' expec', I go' stuck here on Heart as a disembodied fing causing all kinds of ruckus whenever I tried to communicate wif people," she added. "Once money could no longer satisfy him, me love moved onto bigger fings; apparently immortality being one of vem fings. Tha' unpleasant gentleman who visited your shop sometime ago, tha' was me love. His name is Clyde, bu' I'm sure he goes by somefing far more powerful from the looks of him now. Lord Pompousface seems suitable."
Suddenly remembering back to a few chapters ago when Osiris mentioned a powerful warlock, I asked, "What about Demise?"

Chapter 17

o last week was a pretty enlightening chapter for me. I'd learned that my shop, The Shady Nook, was haunted by a 15th century spirit, which might explain why the previous owner fled so quickly, leaving the shop vacant for a time. Truly creepy as a poltergeist, Brynn was surprisingly fun and not at all bitter in her manifested form. Although my magic made it easy for Brynn to finally interact with the living as she did countless years ago as a mortal, unfortunately she was still a ghost. And every ghost was tethered to the location where they died. The moment Brynn stepped outside, her manifested form dispersed into a cloud of dust and immediately returned inside the shop. Again I would have to cast the spell to make her corporeal. Although she was unable to leave The Shady Nook, Brynn seemed satisfied enough being able to communicate with customers and even maintain the shop during my absence. It was a win-win situation.
I also learned that Brynn's former lover, Clyde, was in fact the warlock Demise who had teamed up with Bastet, Lady of the Underlands. Demise made a few more vainglorious appearances to gloat about his scheme to conquer the world, and how there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. A whole stereotypical villainous monologue ensued, I yawned a few times, and then he unknowingly gave away his plan. Just before vanishing in a cloud of smoke, Demise declared to us all: The dead will rise. Takeshi was quick to surmise that the evil warlock was planning to form a legion that would aid him in his conquest, and that legion would be comprised of the dead. Demise's alliance with Bastet was merely an attempt to keep us all distracted battling her creatures, while he searched for an ancient book known as the Necromancer's Tome. Luckily Takeshi knew just where to find it.
And so we all piled inside the Hoytwings and embarked to the Temple of Alejandra, an ancient site located amidst a dense rainforest. Not only would we endure the unbearable climate of the forest and encounters with the various mammals and reptiles that dwelled there, Alejandra was essentially a giant puzzle rich with booby traps that we would have to overcome. Deep inside the temple was where the potent Necromancer's Tome had been concealed from the world, and it was up to us to retrieve and transport it to The Veil where Demise could not enter. Why the tome hadn't been safely stored away at The Veil to begin with was beyond me. And why the book could not simply be destroyed also eluded me; makes my story more exciting, I suppose.
"How anyone can produce this much sweat is beyond me," I said with disgust, trekking closely with my friends through the thick rainforest of Alejandra. Using my thumb and index finger, I peeled the soft green tank top away from my sticky skin, jiggling the shirt a few times with the intention of cooling myself off a bit. "If it gets any hotter, I fear I will have to become naked."
"I'm not opposed to that," Mac mumbled to me as he walked passed. He flashed me a sideways grin when he noticed me briefly pause and shudder from the awkwardness of his statement. "So this Necromancer's Tome is going to help Demise return the dead to life?" he asked loudly enough for everyone to hear, hacking his way through vegetation using one of Takeshi's machetes. "As powerful as this fuckwit wants us to believe he is, he certainly requires a lot of help from others."
Hoyt was a ways ahead chopping his own foliage when he hollered back, "Well let's see you take over the world by yourself, numbnuts!" It wasn't long after he concluded that statement when he stepped into a netted pitfall disguised by leaves. The net dropped, sending Hoyt plummeting into a deep hole in the ground. "Goddammit!" he hollered on his way down, dropping his machete. We all heard the impact and a painful crunch just before Hoyt shouted up, "Just shoot me in the fucking gourd and end it now!" Hearing our shuffling as we gathered at the site, Hoyt said, "I exploded like a goddamn watermelon, guys!" With a frustrated grumble, he added, "I'm all Dumpty Fuckety down here."
"I'm fairly certain the egg's name was Humpty Dumpty," Glory corrected, peering down at her broken zombie friend. "We'll find a way to get you out of there, Hoyt!" she assured. Glory looked at me and asked, "Do you still have Takeshi's stone?" Noticing my uncomfortable expression, she said, "I know you don't like calling on him unless it's absolutely necessary." Gesturing her hand down toward Hoyt, Glory insisted, "But look at him! He's a pile of chop suey down there!" Alternating her glance amongst the three of us, she added, "There is no possible way we can rescue him without causing further damage. We need Takeshi."
The sounds of crunching twigs and foliage came from behind us just before an annoyingly familiar voice quipped, "Oh I'm sure he wouldn't want to be interrupted from his afternoon meditation." Demise chuckled, watching the three of us swiftly climb to our feet and face him. "I assume it's not by coincidence that we've encountered one another out here, deep in the rainforest?" he said, a wily grin on his thin pale face. "I expected Takeshi would figure things out, but I must admit that I'm slightly disappointed it took this long. He must be getting slow in his old age." With a tiresome gesture, Demise went on to say, "But never mind that." Looking intently at me, the warlock explained, "Since we're both searching for the same thing, you are going to help me find it."
"Like hell!" Mac said sternly, protectively stepping in front of me. "She'll never help you."
Grinning fiendishly, Demise replied, "Well not without the proper motivation, no." Within an eye's blink, the warlock vanished and reappeared behind Mac, effortlessly acquiring the wooden stake Mac kept tucked in the back of his jeans during our most trying quests. "Properly motivated, however," added Demise, his voice strained as he held Mac firmly in place with one arm. Using his free hand, the warlock drove the wooden stake deep into Mac's heart.
"DARIEN!" I bellowed all dramatic-like, as if that would somehow undo what had been done. I ran to Mac, catching him in my arms as Demise carelessly let him drop from his grip.
In a very cool and emotionless tone, the warlock said, "When you're ready to resurrect your beloved using the Necromancer's Tome, I'll be waiting for you at the temple's entrance." Snapping his fingers, Demise engulfed himself inside of a thick smoke cloud and was gone.
"That utter piece of shit," growled Glory, clenching both of her fists in a silent rage. She looked down at Mac, and then to me with deep sympathy in her eyes. Realizing that I was on the verge of becoming a blubbering buffoon, Glory said, "I'll go check on Hoyt." Gently Glory placed a hand over Mac's shoulder, and with tears welling in her own eyes, she insisted, "You better not plan on checking out anytime soon; wouldn't want to disappoint your bromance pal down there." Glory nodded her head toward the pitfall. Briefly she smiled when Mac tried to laugh, but he soon winced when it became too painful for him. "Hang in there," she said, gently slapping his shoulder before climbing down into the pit with Hoyt.
"You can't leave us," I pleaded through tears, sitting cross-legged on the ground with Mac's upper body draped over my lap. "I won't allow it," I added sternly, a tear rolling down the tip of my nose and dropping onto Mac's forehead.
"No good can come from a necromancer's magic, you know that," Mac said insistently, looking up into my tearful eyes. "You stop him from getting that book, and then you take it to Takeshi." Trying his hardest to sit up, Mac pleaded, "You promise me you won't do anything foolish." Exhausted from the effort of sitting up, Mac fell back into my lap. "I've already lived more lifetimes than I should have lived. You have to let me go, Camilla."
Sniffling, I replied, "I can't." Before I knew it, my hand slid inside Mac's hand, and he was smiling up at me. "You're my best friend. And even more than that... I love you."
"Seriously? You waited until I was dead to say that?" Mac said with a stupid grin, although I could clearly see his eyes shining brightly with elation. With tears streaming down my face, I watched as Mac's gleeful expression faded to a frigid gaze. His body gradually transformed into a withered old man before trickling away into a pile of ashes. Mac was gone.

Chapter 18

t felt like I was trapped inside of a time loop, doomed to relive the excruciating moment my best friend was taken from me. My swollen eyes ached from the many tears they had shed, and it felt as though there was no air left inside my chest. The world around me sounded like it had been immersed under water; even the chirping of the birds seemed muffled to my ears. Acceptance of the entire situation had not yet settled into my mind, notwithstanding the fact my lap and the ground I sat upon were covered by Mac's ashes. It wasn't the first time I experienced loss, but it was certainly the first time it had numbed me to my very core. It was impossible to say goodbye.
Like winter's frost melting away into spring, life finally resumed all around me. Knowing what I had to do, I reached for the canvas duffel bag I had brought with me; a bag originally intended to carry the tome in during our return to The Veil. Instead I scooped up my friend's powdery remains---shaking many of them out of the garments he'd left behind, of course---and gently poured handfuls into the duffel bag. Not surprisingly some dirt and a few leaves were mixed up in the heap. Finally, I shoved Mac's clothes inside before zipping shut the bag and draping the single strap over my shoulder. After standing up, I reached inside my pants pocket and grasped Takeshi's feldspar stone. I gave Glory a quick heads up before tossing the stone down to her.
Effortlessly catching the stone with a single hand, Glory called up to me, "Cam, are you about to do something really stupid?" She smiled when I only answered her with an impassive look. Wiping away sweat from her forehead, using the hand still grasping the stone, Glory said, "I get that you're pissed. I'm pissed. But think about how pissed Mac would be, knowing you brought him back and risked the wellbeing of the whole planet in the process. Demise is using you to resurrect an army that will infect the world with chaos, Cam. Is it worth it?"
Scarcely had I expressed hesitance before answering in a calm and unwavering tone, "Yes." I looked down at Glory, watching as disappointment washed over her. "Just whisper Takeshi's name into that stone, and he'll come and help Hoyt," I instructed. Glancing at the trees ahead of me, I explained, "I'm going to the temple to meet Demise." Looking back down at Glory with an impish smile, I concluded, "And a true friend would give me a considerable head start before telling Takeshi what I'm up to." I departed quickly, giving Glory very little time to respond. My grin widened when I heard the sound of her frustrated vulgarity echo up from the pitfall.
My solo trip through the rainforest was somewhat unsettling. High up in the trees I heard the sounds of distressed spider monkeys calling out, like enthusiastic puppies at a pound trying to win someone's affection. I suspected they caught sight of the ravenous jaguar that had quietly been pursuing me shortly after I'd left Hoyt and Glory at the pit. Compared to the terrifying creatures I had already faced, however, the jaguar didn't seem so bad. Eventually the big cat lost interest, which offended me a little bit; was I no longer appealing enough to be eaten?
Finally I reached the clearing, pausing a moment to deeply admire the ancient ruins of Alejandra. The crumbling temple was very similar to the Mayan pyramids, complete with stepped terraces and the seemingly endless stairs leading up to the entrance. Upon those very steps sat the despicable warlock, beaming with grandiose. Quietly I snorted my discontent before approaching him.
"I knew you wouldn't disappoint me!" declared Demise, rising from the step he sat upon. "That's what love does; it makes one weak," he added with a snarl. Shaking his head, the warlock went on with, "Such power churns inside of you, and yet you keep it shackled. So easily you could end Takeshi, and yet you remain loyal to him like a dog." Gently cupping my chin with his cold bony fingers, Demise looked into my eyes and coolly said, "I could help you discover your full potential. And one day your power may even rival my own."
Jerking my head away from his touch, I replied, "Well since you're all great and powerful and whatnot, why do you need my help to retrieve the tome?" Gesturing to the temple's entrance, I added, "Can't you just pop in there and get the book yourself?"
"I would," sighed Demise. Crossing his hands behind his back in a gentlemanly fashion, he glanced at the temple and elaborated with, "Except the temple has been magically warded against, well, me, thanks to Denji, the creator of your precious Veil. The tome can only be used by me, or an equal as dark and powerful." With a humored look in his eyes, Demise added, "And since I rather doubt that Takeshi has trained you in the ways of necromancy, you won't be able to use that book to resurrect your lover without my help." Smiling wickedly, he added, "You help me, I help you."
With a raised brow, I asked, "So using me was your plan all along?"
"Certainly not," replied Demise, smiling. "It was merely a stroke of luck that I ensnared you into my web." He glanced off at a cluster of vegetation in the distance, adding, "I already had my initial leverage to obtain the tome, albeit a questionable one." Demise outstretched his arm, bending his fingers slightly in a beckoning gesture. "Go on and reveal yourself!" he called to the bushes. "You, my dear, have insured my success, and therefore have been promoted to my Plan A."
I kept my eyes fixed on the shaking bushes, waiting with impatience to see who else Demise had blackmailed into doing his dirty work. Much to my surprise, Osiris the demigod, emerged from hiding and slowly approached Demise and me, the golden Blade of Bastet sheathed at his waist. He was reluctant to look at me; conspicuous shame shone in his eyes.
"Once again, love generates weakness," Demise began. "Osiris's love for his mother, albeit wavering, provided me with leverage." With a fiendish grin, he explained, "I've trapped Bastet in the Centerworld; a dark and lonely place between worlds. She's neither present here in the mortal world, nor amongst her fellow immortals. She is nothing and no one; a god's worst nightmare." Still smiling, Demise added, "Given their unsteady relationship, I wasn't entirely certain Osiris would follow through with my plan; I suspected he might deceive me and simply destroy the book and sacrifice his mother to the Centerworld forever. Only a god is powerful enough to destroy the Necromancer's Tome, and with Osiris being half god, you can understand my concern." After a breath, Demise continued to say, "But now that you're here, dear, all my worries can be laid to rest." He turned his attention toward the temple's entrance, concluding, "And now that the verbiage has been taken care of, I believe it is due time we get on with it."

Chapter 19

siris and I ascended the steps to the Temple of Alejandra, both of us averse to the entire situation we found ourselves in the midst of. Demise insisted that two heads were always better than one when it came to solving ancient puzzles and sidestepping booby traps; in case one head should find itself rolling quite literally so, the second would still be able to complete the task. I was beginning to question whether Mac was worth all of the danger I was thrusting myself into, especially considering that he wouldn't even appreciate it. I would undoubtedly receive an earful from him once he was revived and well enough to speak again.
We reached the top of the pyramid, walking inside to a room made of stone. There were identical face-depicted statues with cylindrical bases, one for each corner of the room. Nothing else was there to indicate a tome was stored inside. Osiris and I exchanged bewildered gazes before closely inspecting each wall. I slid my hands over the cool rough surface of the stone, hoping to find a loose brick that might be concealing the book, or at least the lever to a hidden chamber. Nothing. I focused again on the statues, noticing that each seemed to be facing random directions. Approaching one of the four sculptures, I grasped the cylindrical base and tried rotating it. Noticing my struggle, Osiris was quick to my aid.
"I don't think it's going to fit into your duffel bag, love," Osiris teased, a dashing smile on his face. "That is to say if your intention was to steal it." Wearing a sleeveless black cloth shirt, it wasn't difficult to notice the muscles in Osiris's bared arms tightening from his strenuous effort to move the statue. I was almost hypnotized by the display of strength, but quickly I returned my focus on the matter at hand. With one final turn, the sculpture dropped down into the floor, like a key slipping into a latch. A heavy clacking sound indicated that the statue had been fitted into its proper position. "Very clever," said Osiris, nearly out of breath. "You'd make a great thief," he complimented with a sly grin.
Watching as Osiris proceeded to rotate the remaining statues, I suggested, "I would guess that they're supposed to be facing one another." I smiled, listening to Osiris grunting and swearing as he turned each of the weighty sculptures until their faces met. More clacking sounds were heard as Osiris rotated the statues into position. Each sculpture fixed on its diagonal partner just before the room began to shake. The center of the floor suddenly retreated, revealing a stone staircase leading down into the pyramid.
"Careful!" Osiris fretted, grasping me quickly and preventing me from taking a tumble backwards down the steps. Unfortunately the duffel bag slipped off of my shoulder and proceeded down the stairs without me. "That could have been a nasty fall," he said while bracing me against his chest. "You alright, love?" Osiris asked very concernedly. "Hope there wasn't anything too valuable in that bag of yours," he added, watching the duffel bag slip over the side of a step and free fall down to the pyramid's floor below. It was a long while before we heard the impact.
"MAC!" I bellowed, freeing myself from Osiris's embrace. I started down the stairs, hearing the tapping of Osiris's boots as he followed suit.
"I realize that you've the gift of magic and all, but how pray tell did you fit a grown man into a duffel bag?" demanded Osiris, his voice echoing throughout the chamber.
"It's his ashes!" I hollered over my shoulder. "Mac's a dracunespire!" I added quickly.
"Dracunespire?!" Osiris erupted with surprise, taking a moment to pause on the steps. "Why would you want to bring back a dracunespire?" he asked, following me down the stairs once more. "They're devious and spiteful creatures." Reaching the ground floor, Osiris stood beside me in the darkness, deducing aloud, "He must have you under his thrall."
Casting the same fire spell I used to light the icy cavern deep in the Mohana Mountains, I insisted, "I'm not under anyone's thrall." I looked up into Osiris's deeply concerned eyes, adding, "Mac isn't like other dracunespires; he's good. So good, in fact, he'd be totally pissed off that I'm risking so much to bring him back right now." I left Osiris and began my search for the fallen duffel bag.
"He sounds like a sensible man," Osiris replied faintly, his attention soon diverted toward the mounds of treasure scattered all over the chamber. "I would have brought a bag or twelve of my own, had someone mentioned the stockpile of treasure down here." He reached into a heap of golden coins, examining them briefly before letting them slide from his hand and back into the pile. "Surely ashes can't take up too much space in a duffel bag," he began, pausing to flash me a sportive grin.
Finally acquiring the duffel bag, I returned to Osiris and proclaimed to him, "You are not covering my friend with your greed!" Glancing around the chamber, I said, "Now help me find that tome; it has to be around here somewhere." I spotted a plain wooden chest across the room, silently wondering whether acquiring the book would truly be that easy. As I approached the chest, I noticed the wall behind it had a mural carved into stone. The mural looked to have been applied to the wall in tiles, each piece depicting part of the scene. As I looked closer, I noticed many of the mural pieces were out of place, making the scene appear jumbled. In the lower left-hand corner, a square section was absent of a tile. Grinning, I said, "It's an ancient sliding tile puzzle."
Approaching me while hugging a decorative golden urn like a teddy bear, Osiris asked, "And you know how to solve it, right?" Looking up at the breathtaking mural, he disclosed to me, "I never was very good with puzzles. Locks, on the other hand; there isn't a single one I can't pick." Holding out the urn, Osiris inquired, "Think your friend will fit in here for the nonce?"
"What? No. Stop it!" I insisted, slapping away Osiris's hand as he reached for the duffel bag strap around my shoulder. "You can do your looting after we have found the book, and Mac is back safe and sound." For just a fleeting moment I thought I caught a look of remorse befall Osiris, but perhaps he was just sulking. I continued sliding the tile pieces, watching as the elaborate scene began coming together. Some time had passed before I assured with a smile, "I think I've just about got it."
His body splayed across a treasure heap, Osiris obnoxiously responded, "And I'm probably due for a shave by this point." After sliding down from the glistening pile of gold, he walked over to me and observed me slide the final tile piece into its designated wall slot. A familiar clacking sound ensued before the wall separated like an elevator door. Once my light spell flooded the room, it revealed a place nearly barren except for a stone pedestal. Resting on top of the pedestal was the ominous looking book with an intricately embossed cover design. "Wait!" warned Osiris, stopping me from walking into the tome's chamber. Swiftly he removed the duffel bag strap from my shoulder, saying, "Need to use this real quick." He hurled the bag across the floor toward the pedestal, activating poisonous darts hidden inside the adjoining walls.
"Idiot!" I cried, slapping the back of Osiris's head. "Those could have punctured the bag!"
Calmly he walked passed me, saying, "Better that than your flesh." Osiris paused, looking back at me with an arrogant grin, and adding, "You're welcome, by the way." Cautiously Osiris held his hands over the book, anticipating another booby trap to go off. Nothing happened. He snatched the tome from the pedestal surface while I carefully inspected my duffel bag for holes. "Well that warlock's suspicion was correct," Osiris began, holding the book in one hand while unsheathing his golden sword with the other hand. Skillfully he turned the hilt in his hand, facing the blade downward. Osiris dropped the tome to the chamber floor, elaborating, "To save the world... I am going to sacrifice my mother." He drove the blade deep into the sinister tome. The book responded unexpectedly, first oozing some kind of tarry substance before setting itself ablaze.
"You son of a bitch!" I howled with fury, racing frantically toward the burning tome.
Grabbing me and pulling me away from the book, Osiris said in the sincerest tone I had ever heard him use, "I'm sorry." He tightened his hold on me as I began to flail my arms to try and free myself. "Your friend would not have wanted to risk this much, you said it yourself," he calmly reminded. As I began to settle down, Osiris's hold felt less like a harness and more like a consoling embrace. Quietly he just held me while I bawled into his chest. "There is still a way," he finally admitted. "Maybe." He looked down at me as my eyes shone with hope. "Before a soul can officially cross over into the Underlands, they must first be assessed by the Lady herself, my mother. Since Bastet is currently trapped in the Centerworld, there may be a chance we can reclaim Mac before he's crossed into the Underlands forever." Pointing a finger up toward the entrance of the temple, Osiris said cynically, "Of course we still have to deal with Buffoonface up there first." Hesitating, he added, "Or right outside, or wherever he is; this place has got me all disoriented."
My emotions running wild at the thought of still getting Mac back, I placed my palms on Osiris's cheeks and laid an overjoyed kiss on his lips. Not at all taken aback by my reaction, he instead attempted to canoodle as if I were just one of his many lovers. I pushed myself away from Osiris, but not before slapping the back of his head again.
"Apologies, love," he said with an impish grin. "I thought we were having a moment."

Chapter 20

nd so we returned outside the temple, Osiris and I. Demise was waiting for us still, his eyes ablaze with excitement. The demigod and I exchanged self-amused looks before returning our attention to the partially grinning, and mildly confused, warlock. Desperately Demise looked at our unoccupied hands before lunging after my duffel bag, presuming the tome was inside. I stepped back quickly, gripping onto the strap of the bag with a tight fist.
"Where is it?!" the warlock demanded, like a desperate addict seeking heroin. "What have you done?" he insisted, his voice quavering with dread. With detest burning in his eyes, Demise said to me, "If you've destroyed the book, you have also destroyed the only chance of saving your friend."
A feigned look of grief on my face, I replied, "At least countless innocent lives have been saved this way, and I'm fairly certain Mac would have preferred that." I didn't want Demise knowing that Osiris had offered an alternative way to save Mac, as I'm sure the warlock would dedicate much effort into stopping us. Very uncomfortably I watched Demise stare deep into my eyes, trying to decipher whether or not I was being truthful with my words.
The warlock turned away from me, outstretching his hand toward the peak of the temple where a frieze depicted an intimidating two-headed serpent creature. Dust began to trickle down from the stone as the serpent carving began to stir to life. Osiris and I watched in stunned silence as the architectural ornament broke free from the temple it had been carved into. The stone surface of the serpent began to transform into actual scales, like a chameleon's color slowly bleeding into another. Eventually the entire carving came to life, gliding through the air like an eel in water.
Returning his hand to his side and facing me, Demise said with a smirk, "Perhaps it would have been wise of me to send only one head into that temple, after all." Looking back at the swaying two-headed serpent waiting patiently for a command, the warlock concluded, "But in this case, I'm certain two heads are better than one." Demise snapped his fingers, vanishing inside of a cloud of smoke. At that exact moment, the hovering serpent menacingly dove down from the temple's peak.
With a hero's instinct, Osiris ran in front of me and deflected the serpent's initial attack with the swipe of his golden sword near both of its opened mouths. The creature recoiled only for a moment before attempting its second strike. While Osiris dodged one of the serpent's heads, the second managed to latch onto the demigod's arm, sinking its fangs deep into his flesh. Osiris briefly cried out in pain before taking his sword-wielding hand, crossing it under his captive arm, and driving the blade into the serpent's lower jaw and upwards until it pierced its brain. The creature released Osiris's arm before falling limp, the Blade of Bastet still plunged into its cranium.
The demigod performed a quick roll across the ground in order to dodge the head of the first serpent, seizing the hilt of his blade from the second head just before performing his evasion. Osiris held his wounded arm close to his chest while tightening his grip on the sword's hilt with his other hand. I could tell that his heavy perspiration was not due just to the fight and the mugginess of the rainforest, but also to the serpent's venom beginning to course through his body. I watched Osiris briefly close his eyes and shake his head, as if trying to brush away what he knew to be a hallucination; the poison was obviously having an effect on him.
Quickly I ran to Osiris, defending him just as he did for me. Extending both arms, I opened my palms and unleashed a relentless river of frost onto the advancing serpent. Once the creature became incased inside solid ice, I ceased my spell and watched the serpent drop from the air and strike the ground, shattering into hundreds of tiny frozen pieces. With no time to rejoice in my victory, I ran to the demigod just as his legs buckled and he fell to his knees. I knelt down beside Osiris, draping his uninjured arm over my shoulder.
"I'm getting tired of men dying in my arms," I said, mildly frustrated and immensely worried.
Detecting the concern in my voice, Osiris said with a cocky smile, "Remember, I'm no ordinary man." In a strained voice, the demigod went on to say, "Although this serpent's poison is really twisting my tits right now." Osiris laughed when I pulled up his shirt in order to examine his chest. "It was an expression, love," he said. "Not that I mind an attractive woman trying to remove my clothing." He glanced over at the serpent's scattered remains, saying, "You did quite a number on that thing." Osiris looked at me with deep concern in his eyes, asking, "Every time you use your magic, do you feel any different?" An apologetic look coming over him, the demigod explained, "I hate to be prejudice, but magic as powerful as yours always seems to come with a price." Strenuously standing from the ground, with my aid of course, Osiris added, "And I'd hate to see someone as beautiful as you pay that price. And I'm not referring only to exterior beauty."
Grinning, I assured, "I won't become Demise, if that's what you're afraid of."
"No, I don't think you will," responded Osiris, looking at me with a gentle smile I had not seen before on his face. "Well then, I think this poison has about run its course," he said, standing firmly on his own as if he had never been infected in the first place. "The upside of being half god is a certain degree of immunity to inflictions brought on by magic," explained Osiris, examining his rapidly healing wound where the serpent had bitten him. "The irony of being a demigod, unfortunately, is being defeated by the venom from an ordinary snake that slithers through this rainforest."
"Well that sucks," I responded, watching Osiris nod in agreement.
An awkward gap of silence came between us before the demigod changed the subject with, "I suppose we'll have another chance to defeat the warlock, but right now you have a friend needing saved from the Underlands." Osiris sheathed his golden blade before removing a plain looking dagger he'd kept tucked in his boots. He held the dagger over his opened palm, sliding the blade across his flesh deep enough to draw blood. "You might want to stand back, love," he warned before turning over his hand and allowing the blood to drip into the grass at his feet. The demigod soon heeded his own advice, taking a step back from his deposit.
The ground gradually opened up with a baleful-looking dark whirlwind where Osiris's blood once was. It soon became obvious to me that it was a swirling portal to the Underlands. The demigod looked over at me with a wry grin, extending a hand for me to take.
"So a portal opens up every time your blood touches the ground?" I had to ask. "Seems unsafe."
Chuckling, Osiris explained, "Only when I cut myself with this." The demigod briefly lifted his leg, tapping against the boot where he had returned the dagger. His attention was soon drawn to three very familiar people approaching us from the distance: Glory, a restored Hoyt, and a displeased-looking Takeshi. "Would you prefer to stay and speak with your friends first?"
With overwhelming fear in me, I observed the insanely furious expression upon Takeshi's face before answering, "Hell no." Tightly I grasped onto Osiris's hand, forcing us both to leap down into the portal that lead to the Underlands.

Chapter 21

he Underlands was dark and dreary, as one would expect such a place to be. Oddly, though, it did not at all resemble the tombs of Ancient Egypt as I had anticipated. Instead the Underlands mirrored the early 20th century slums of London. The cobblestone glistened with rain from an eternal night sky that loomed overhead. Many passersby wandered the alleyway with desolate looks in their eyes, some mumbling incoherently to themselves while others stared at me with deep curiosity. Considering the fact everyone else was as white as a sheet, dressed in rags, and covered in filth, Osiris and I undoubtedly stood out like sore thumbs. The Underlands had obviously fallen to neglect and was consumed by hopelessness without its Lady to watch over it.
Osiris and I roamed the forlorn streets calling out for Mac, only to be answered by hushed voices and occasional coughing. Without Bastet to guide them into the afterlife, the Underlands became a sort of limbo for souls. The demigod and I explored another alley, soon discovering a group of miscreants who seemed to be beating on someone lying helpless in the street. Osiris was quick to interrupt the fight, revealing a heavily battered Mac lying in the rain and street filth. I knelt down beside Mac, desperately wanting to help him back to his feet. Unfortunately he was merely a soul, and I was a living mortal; one could not physically interact with the other while in the Underlands.
"What is the meaning of this?" Osiris demanded, all authoritative-like as if he had suddenly become ruler of the Underlands. He glared at each of the offenders, waiting for someone to respond.
One of the scoundrels stepped into the casting light of a streetlamp, revealing his fangs and gleaming silver eyes as he answered, "Just trying to beat some sense into this disgrace to dracunespire kind." He looked to his posse of fellow dracunespires, grinning when they all nodded in agreement. Directing an index finger toward Mac, the miscreant went on to say, "It's scum like him that makes us look bad!"
"Oh I think you're talented at doing that all on your own," I uttered, feeling helpless because I couldn't be there for my friend. I could see detest burning inside the posse leader's eyes, eventually transforming into disappointment when he realized he could do no harm to me in the Underlands. A smile crept across my face when Mac slowly regained consciousness. I stared down at his gleaming silver eyes as they opened fully once again. "Hey there," I said softly, desiring to hold Mac, or in the very least stroke his cheek. Sadly I could do nothing but speak to him.
With a weary tone in his voice, Mac said, "Cam? What are you doing here?" His eyes growing wider when he became fully conscious, he added with profound concern, "Did something happen to you? Was it Demise?" Mac attempted to grasp my hands in his own, but quickly became confused when his incorporeal hands only slipped through me like a passing cold breeze chilling me to the bone. "You're not dead," he said softly before turning his attention toward Osiris. "Why did you bring her here?" Mac groused.
"Well it was either that, or she was going to have the warlock resurrect you. Which would have undoubtedly led to him forming his undead army, and then the entire world would have been in ruin right now," Osiris plainly answered as he idly fiddled with the hilt of his sword. Noticing Mac's expression forming into fury, the demigod was quick to say, "Take a moment to think about the situation. She was willing to sacrifice everything to have you back. Love like that doesn't usually exist, friend." With a cocky grin, Osiris added, "Trust me, I've had my fair share of lovers, and I can't think of a single one that I would sacrifice the entire planet for."
With a snort, the posse leader said, "Why doesn't it surprise me that this namby-pamby has himself a human whore?" The vile dracunespire spat at Mac's feet. With an ugly smirk, he alluded, "If I weren't trapped in this godforsaken shit-hole, I'd show this wench what it's like to bed a real dracunespire." Watching as Mac clenched his fists, the wretched leader continued prodding him with, "She'd leave your sorry-ass behind and come to me begging for more."
"You are quite full of yourself, aren't you?" I said to the posse leader, forming a dancing flame above the palm of my hand. "I'm not certain whether my magic will have any effect on you down here, but think of the fun we could have finding out," I added, my grin widening. I felt quite proud of myself when the vile dracunespire took a step back, intimidation in his eyes.
"You're a witch?!" declared the leader with genuine surprise. He returned his attention to Mac, saying with repugnance, "That's just nasty, mate." Soon he rounded up his lemmings and they all migrated to another alley in search of some other poor soul to bully.
His arms crossed, Osiris nonchalantly said, "Well okay then. Now that that's settled, are you two ready to skedaddle?" Bracing his feet firmly on the ground, he extended his arms and bent his fingers as if beckoning to begin a fight. "You're going to have to make a running start, but in theory it should work," he instructed Mac, who only looked upon the demigod with confusion. Sighing, Osiris pointed to Mac and explained, "You're dead, and your physical remains are ashes now, hence there's no putting you back into your own body. You're going to have to commandeer mine."
"What?!" Mac responded with strong disbelief in his tone. "That is an insane idea," he added, desperately looking to me to agree with his statement. "And disturbing," Mac went on, nearly gagging at the notion. "Living inside my own skin was bad enough, I can't imagine living in yours."
Returning to a relaxed posture, Osiris sarcastically replied, "That's just hurtful." He turned to me and sighed, "Well I tried, but apparently he'd prefer to remain down here in this godforsaken shit-hole, as it was so delightfully described to us by someone who will undoubtedly enjoy beating Mac senseless once again." Indicating straight ahead with a nod, the demigod concluded, "There's a chamber that way, accessible only by Bastet and myself; it's our way back to the surface."
His arms folded, Mac said through gritted teeth, "Wait." Looking to Osiris with tired eyes, Mac sighed, "If you're my only chance out of this place, I suppose I can endure it for now; surely Takeshi will find a way to separate us." With reluctance in his silver vampire eyes, Mac watched a pretentious grin spread across Osiris's comely face. With an abhorrent expression, Mac inquired, "So I just run at you, then?"
Nodding, Osiris answered, "Affirmative. Like I said, though, it's more a theory, as I've never---" The demigod's explanation was cut drastically short when Mac decided to full steam ahead and vanish inside Osiris's body. The demigod yelped with surprise before hunching over, drooping his head a bit as if he were about to hurl at any moment. Osiris belched into a closed fist, waving his other hand toward me as an indication that he was fine and needed no assistance. Standing up straight once more, he said to me, "Well that wasn't weird at all."
Smiling, I asked, "So who am I talking to right now?"
"It's me, Mac," he answered, although his body was still clearly that of Osiris's.
With a skeptical look, I said, "Well I suppose there's really only one way to know for sure." I walked over to him, gently taking his hands in my own. I stared up into the eyes of Osiris, trying to determine whether it truly was Mac looking back at me. With an insanely nervous and deep breath, I leaned in closer and tenderly locked my lips with his. My kiss was reciprocated without hesitation, eventually progressing into an oddly familiar canoodle. "Liar," I said, slapping the back of Osiris's head. Despite feeling as though I had been taken advantage of, I still couldn't help but smile at the demigod's deception. "You are such a scoundrel," I added, shaking my head.
"Well if it's any consolation," Osiris began, smiling mischievously. "He felt it, too."
With a horrified expression, I replied, "It isn't, really." I elucidated my response with, "Kissing two men simultaneously seems very disturbing to me." Brushing aside the entire uncomfortable situation, I changed the subject by saying, "So there's a chamber that will lead us back to the surface, you say?"

Chapter 22

o after the number of eventful days it took to obtain and destroy the Necromancer's Tome, life had returned to familiar monotony. I was back at The Shady Nook a few days after receiving an earful of Takeshi's ranting about the selfishness I had shown at the Temple of Alejandra. He wasn't exactly mistaken, but I much preferred Osiris's perspective to Takeshi's. What Osiris said was true, after all; not the best quality in a heroine who's fated to save the world, though. I needed to learn to distance myself a bit from the ones I loved; think less of the few and more of the many.
Unfortunately we had yet to discover an alternative method for returning Mac to his own flesh and bones, and so his essence continued carpooling inside of Osiris's quite corporeal form. It was a bit disturbing if one thought about it too much, or even a little. Despite his obvious urge to vamoose and continue his wayfaring lifestyle, the demigod said he would remain with us until a solution was found that would separate him from Mac without repercussions. Although Mac was indeed capable of leaving Osiris's body whenever he pleased, essentially Mac was a ghost, and a ghost was always tethered to the location where its mortal body perished. Hence, the moment Mac left Osiris, his essence would involuntarily return to the rainforest of Alejandra. But as long as a spirit stayed inside of a living being, they could see and interact with the world through that being. Basically, Osiris continued functioning as he always had, except now he could distinctly hear every one of Mac's thoughts inside of his own mind. And the demigod wasn't shy about responding for all to hear, making him appear as though he suffered from schizophrenia.
I was occupied in the backroom researching a solution to Mac's and Osiris's predicament when I heard Brynn---the amusingly candid ghost who was killed inside my shop almost 500 years ago---acquainting herself more with Osiris at the retail counter. I walked into the main room to investigate, preparing to roll my eyes, assuming the demigod was up to his usual charms. But then I noticed something in Osiris I had never before seen: nervousness and hesitance. Granted Brynn's straightforwardness had a tendency to incite such behaviors in most people, but seeing the demigod behave that same way was kind of endearing. I never imagined there was any woman capable of giving Osiris pause; perhaps it was the budding of a relationship unfamiliar to the demigod.
"And ven before ya knew i', vere I was, dead as a hog a' the king's feast," I overheard Brynn say to Osiris. "Apparently my use to tha' no-good barnacle had officially expired," she went on, referring of course to the one whom we all despised: the power-hungry warlock, Demise. "He hauled my carcass off to tha' backroom and disposed of me far beneaf the floorboards," Brynn explained, nodding to the location of which she spoke. "Oh hey, Cam," she greeted me, her eyes cheerful as ever.
Standing up straight from his casual lean against the retail counter, Osiris asked me, "So have your books been helpful yet?" The demigod awkwardly scratched the back of his head, watching Brynn with a perplexed smile as she wandered over to the shelves and began straightening out the potion bottles so their labels were visible once again. Returning his attention to me, Osiris added, "Mac is getting a bit restless in here, and I don't blame him." Resting his hand over the hilt of his golden blade, the demigod grinned and said, "The man has more thoughts rolling around in his head in a single minute than I have in ten. It's annoying."
"Yeah, Mac's always been more of a thinker than a talker," I replied, chuckling. With a sigh, I finally admitted, "The only revival spell I can find requires the body for the spirit to return to. Granted this is some slightly dark magic, but it isn't merely reanimating a corpse without its spirit like necromancy is capable of doing." I chewed my lip nervously, alternating my gaze between Brynn and Osiris to see their reactions to my potentially shady intentions.
Stepping away from the shelves and standing in front of me, Brynn asked, "Well, does i' have to be his own body? Or could i' be any random skeleton lying around? Cause I've go' a perfectly good skeleton lying under the floorboards." Following a quick pause, Brynn thought aloud, "Although if Mac's spirit reanimates a skeleton tha' is no' his own, the body may take i's original form, leaving Mac a very conflicted man." She stared at me, her eyes gleaming with befuddlement.
"You're not going to bequeath your own body for another's use," Osiris interrupted, stepping closer to Brynn. He desperately looked at me, waiting for me to object the notion as well.
Shrugging her shoulders, Brynn carelessly replied, "I'm no' using i'."
"If this spell actually works..." the demigod paused a moment, looking to Brynn with deep sincerity in his eyes. "You could return, and experience a world beyond this shop."
Pursing her lips, Brynn responded, "Eh, I'm fine righ' where I'm a'." She turned her gaze toward the Tudor window looking out at the cobblestoned streets of Fairwynn Port. "I'm sure the world has changed a lo' in almos' 500 years; no place for me ou' vere anymore." Exhaling a deep and cheerful breath, Brynn added, "Besides, I have everyfing I wan' righ' here."
"Staying in one place forever?" said Osiris with disbelief. Spending much of his life as a vagabond who had seen more of the world than most, it was understandable why Brynn's desire to remain a shut-in was such a conundrum to Osiris. "Locking yourself away from the world is no way to live."
With a waggish grin, Brynn replied, "Well, I'm no' alive now, am I?" Rubbing her hands together vigorously, she quickly changed the subject with, "Wha' say you, Cam? Shall we pry open the floor, grab a spade, and give vis whole crazy idea of mine a whirl?"

Chapter 23

fter some digging, I cleared the laboratory table and gently laid Brynn's remains atop the table's surface. I acquired some blankets from the chest of drawers located in the bedroom upstairs, draping them over her skeleton in order to provide some privacy in case she returned to the world in her birthday suit. Indeed, I was reviving Brynn, although she didn't know it yet. She had grown very much accustomed to existing in her disembodied form, but I wasn't about to prolong that state of existence in order to fulfill my own selfishness. I was coming to terms with the fact that Mac may very well have been a lost cause, and the healthy thing to do was just to let him go; return him to the Underlands and wait for Bastet to usher him into the afterlife. Takeshi had already transcended himself into the Centerworld to search for the lost Lady, so I imagined it wouldn't be long before Osiris's mother reclaimed her duties in the Underlands. So it was just another day at the office, basically.
I lit some candles and placed them all throughout the room, because one simply could not perform a complex resurrection spell without the proper amount of ambiance. Once everything was in order, I reacquired the spell book I had previously bookmarked. The pages I had marked involved the specific incantations I was to recite during the whole process. I gave Osiris a quick wink and nodded toward the oblivious Brynn, hoping the demigod would comprehend my silent indication that she was the one I was resurrecting. Osiris glanced at Brynn, and then smiled back at me. Nervously I held the opened book in one hand, mentally preparing myself a moment before beginning the incantations.
The words rolled off of my tongue more fluently than I had anticipated, as I was indeed almost in a state of panic while reciting them. I carried on with the incantations while watching strips of muscle appear on Brynn's remains, weaving all around her skeleton and settling into their proper places. The movement of the muscles mimicked that of creeping vines moving rapidly up the side of a neglected iron gate. Brynn's organs were undoubtedly manifesting while her skin began to grow back as well. Just moments before Brynn's body had completely regenerated, I outstretched my free hand toward her spirit standing in the doorway. Before Brynn could react to my magic, her ghostly form disintegrated down into dust. The particles of Brynn's spirit hovered in the air as I directed them into her nearly restored physical body. I remained at the ready, in case Brynn's ghost attempted to escape her body before the ritual completed.
After inhaling a deep breath, Brynn's fully revived body sat up quickly and bellowed, "Wha' the bloody devil have you done?!" The blankets I had laid over her nearly fell off and exposed her bosom, had Brynn not reacted quickly by crossing her arms and catching the soft fabric. I caught a glimpse of vague disappointment in Osiris's eyes in response to Brynn maintaining her modesty. "The spell was supposed to resurrect your friend!" she insisted.
"Well, it did," I replied with a warm smile. Setting the book down, I held out my arms to Brynn, aiding her in her attempt to climb down from the table and stand again with her own mortal feet for the first time in centuries. My smile widened when Brynn only glared at me in response. "Your life was stolen from you, Brynn; you deserve a chance to live it now." With the flick of my wrist, I cast a spell that enveloped her inside of a cloud of twinkling lavender-colored smoke. She was fully clothed in her usual attire after the smoke had dispersed. "You can thank me later when you finally realize I've done the right thing," I said with a cocky grin.
It wasn't long before Brynn felt the pangs of hunger, and so Osiris was quick to offer her lunch at the tavern. Having spent nearly five centuries confined to the shop, Brynn was petrified to venture too far beyond its threshold. She stood a moment just outside The Shady Nook, taking in a deep breath of the air coming in off the harbor. Just when Osiris and I thought Brynn had overcome her fear of the world, she slinked back inside and locked herself in the room upstairs.
"I guess I'll make that an order to go, then," Osiris sighed, his eyes still on the stairs where Brynn had ascended. "Mind if I borrow a few dolkas, love?" Smiling roguishly, he added, "I wouldn't be so short on currency right now, had your sensei not insisted that taking the gold from the temple was immoral." With crossed arms, the demigod turned and looked at me, asking, "What is the point of having heaps of gold that nobody can use?"
Opening the vintage cash register drawer, I replied, "Well, maybe it was an offering to the gods?" The drawer was made up of nine very thin rectangular slots, each three labeled for the different dolka amounts: copper, silver, and gold. The register's rectangular slots were designed to store the coins upright like a roll of pennies, nickels, and so forth. I reached inside and acquired a few silver pieces and handed them to Osiris, quickly updating my bookwork with the loss.
Taking the coins, Osiris replied with a wry smile, "Well I'm half god, so the gold could be a donation to me."
"I could be wrong, but I suspect the Alejandrans had their own gods they worshipped, none of them being you," I said with a smirk. I almost chuckled when Osiris only grunted his response before slipping the dolkas into his coin pouch and leaving the shop in a huff.

Chapter 24

fter granting Osiris passage into The Veil, to his eyes the magical mist dispersed and revealed the splendor I had laid my own eyes on so many moons ago. Clearly the demigod was astounded by everything he saw. Winter had finally melted into spring, and all around The Veil the breathtaking foliage was beginning to thrive. Animals were coming out of hibernation, and even a few winged insects were buzzing around. A cool breeze was in the air, still too chilly to remain outdoors for long, and so we all gathered inside the pagoda to meet Takeshi and the long-awaited Bastet.
The reunion between mother and son certainly was not what I had anticipated, as Osiris seemed to keep a sulking distance from Bastet. His behavior nearly imitated that of Mac's, which had me wondering just exactly who was in control at that moment. Or, understandably, the demigod had trouble overlooking the devastation that his mother had caused. And it seemed things were not about to improve anytime soon, considering the unfortunate tidings Bastet brought with her.
"My actions are inexcusable," began the Lady of the Underlands, briefly eyeing her brooding son. Bastet was tall and thin, and her demeanor was somehow elegant while at the same time masculine. She wore long black robes embroidered around the waist and the bottom of the gown with a design made from crimson thread. The sleeves were rolled up and bound at the shoulders much like an ancient Roman toga, baring her swarthy arms tattooed with shimmering golden ink. Bastet's dark frizzy hair rested over her shoulder in a loose braid entwined with smooth golden ribbon. "I see now that I was foolish to have allied with the sorcerer." Fixing her eyes on Osiris, Bastet added in a deeply sincere tone, "I don't ask for your forgiveness, but I do need your help bringing him down."
Sighing, Osiris finally approached his mother and said, "Basically, Demise betrayed you, and now you want my help to satisfy your own personal revenge?" Holding his arm out firmly, the demigod added, "Not interested." Again Osiris rested his hand over his blade hilt and started to walk away.
"It not just your help that is needed," Takeshi interrupted, stopping Osiris. "Demise's abilities grow stronger each passing day. He awaken terracotta army of the Kingdom of Yawen, laying waste to many villages already." He paused a moment to observe the looks of grand bewilderment upon our faces. "Demise lost Necromancer's Tome, yes, but he not just give up. He never give up." Takeshi focused very intently on me before turning his gaze to Hoyt and Glory. "I train each of you for this very moment." Approaching Glory, Takeshi went on to say, "Long have you been the guardian, always ready to sacrifice yourself without a moment's thought." He turned to Hoyt, placing his hands on the zombie's shoulders. It was obvious Takeshi's brain was about to explode as he strained to think of some encouraging words to say. "Quite," said Takeshi, smiling as if something truly magnificent had happened. He gave Hoyt a congratulatory pat on the shoulder before walking over to me. "You always been destined for greatness. You here to stop Demise before his evil reign can bleed further." Takeshi looked into my eyes with great sincerity in his own, concluding, "You will succeed." He then turned to Bastet, smiling as he said, "There is a fourth I wish to speak with as well, and I believe favor is still owed to me after saving you from Centerworld."
"Indeed," mumbled Bastet, effortlessly reaching into Osiris's chest and pulling out Mac's stupefied spirit. With her free hand, the goddess manifested Mac's ashes from the duffel bag I had previously stored them in. She guided the ashes over to Mac, uniting them with his transparent form. His ashes swirled around his spirit, engulfing him inside of a harmless sandstorm. Once the storm had dispersed, Mac was left standing in his physical form, clothed and everything. "I don't normally do this, so try not to get yourself killed again," the Lady said to Mac, somewhat of a mood about her.
Emotions getting the better of me, I ran into Mac's arms and embraced him so tightly I thought he might pop. I felt a chuckle rumbling inside of Mac's chest as he wrapped his arms around me, resting his chin gently against the top of my head. It wasn't long before I felt another pair of embracing arms, along with the familiar scent of too much cologne. Hoyt squeezed us both so tightly that I heard a quiet snap in his shoulder blade that he seemed to pay little attention to.
Once joyful embraces concluded, Mac stood with one arm still draped over my shoulders as he looked to Takeshi and said straight to the point, "You mentioned Demise awakening a terracotta army. What exactly does that mean?"
"Isn't terracotta, like, clay or something?" asked Glory, arms crossed.
Nodding, Takeshi replied, "Yes. Terracotta army comprised of harmless life-sized clay soldiers, but with powerful enchantment they come to life. Enchanter has full control over their actions. Only way to stop animated terracotta soldier is by beheading."
"Melee combat, great," said Glory in a sarcastic huff. "And how many of these soldiers were made?"
Takeshi looked at Glory, apathetically responding, "Roughly 8,000, maybe more."
"Oh is that all?" Glory replied, her arms still crossed.
Reminding everyone that she was a conjurer of demons and beasts, Bastet said with a playful grin, "Well that number should keep my creatures well fed for a while."

Chapter 25

he moment we all had been readying ourselves for, was growing nigh by each passing hour. The four of us spent one final calm night together at the Fairwynn Port tavern, The Dodgy Lodge. Joining us was Osiris and, quite unexpectedly, Brynn had managed to overcome her agoraphobia if only for one night. The thought of facing Demise and his army of enchanted terracotta soldiers made us all question our chance for victory. And the fact that every town had begun whispering about the great and powerful Demise and his unstoppable army certainly didn't help raise our confidence any. People were utterly terrified of Demise, and many wouldn't even speak his name aloud, which undoubtedly proved difficult at times due to the fact it was also a mere word and synonym of death---something everyone feared was nigh.
The atmosphere was unusually somber inside of The Dodgy Lodge, and even the musicians were strumming melancholic tunes evoking an overwhelming sense of helplessness. A beautiful maiden minstrel had joined them that evening, singing of loss in a soft and breathy voice. My friends and I huddled around our usual table in the furthest corner away from everyone else, each of us enjoying a rump roast with honey glazed carrots and a salt baked potato. No one seemed to have anything to say as we all consumed what would undoubtedly be our final hearty meal for some time to come. And then, suddenly, Hoyt erupted with a bubbly belch that nearly sickened us all.
"So I guess this is our last hurrah, then?" asked Hoyt, shoveling in a forkful of carrots.
Smiling, I replied, "Oh I reckon our story isn't quite finished yet." My expression becoming grim, I added, "Though it's still hard to believe that we've come so far already. It wasn't even a year ago when the four of us were back on Earth dining at Glory's favorite steakhouse, having no clue what our lives would soon become."
"I wish we could go back to that," Hoyt depressingly mumbled.
Leaning back and calmly resting his hand over his sword hilt, Osiris said, "Life only moves in one direction, friend." Rubbing his thumb over the decorated hilt, the demigod added, "There's nothing more unproductive than yearning for a life that no longer exists. One must always live now, and not then," said Osiris, eyeing Brynn with a subtle indication that his words were meant for her. Tossing a few coins down on the table while standing from his chair, the demigod concluded, "I think I'll turn in early for the night; rest up for the long journey ahead." He disappeared down a hallway that led to the inn rooms, with Brynn following suit only a few minutes later.
"Well then," said Hoyt, still eyeing the hall where the two had gone. "So Brynn's mortal. Osiris is half mortal. Is their baby's godliness going to be totally negated by those odds?" he asked, watching as the rest of us only rolled our eyes in response. "Oh come on! You guys were wondering the same thing, too." Hoyt looked over at Glory, saying, "You especially." Alternating an amused look between Mac and me, Hoyt explained, "Glory told me that your guys' baby would probably be Voldemort."
"What the fuck, Hoyt?!" erupted Glory, smacking the back of Hoyt's head. "I never said that," she was quick to say, timid with guilt. With a nervous chuckle, Glory added, "Well, y'know, Voldemort was a powerful wizard and... And, well, basically he looked like Nosferatu. But I was kidding!" She was quick to silence her mouth by filling it with pieces of roast.
Forcing a smile, Mac said, "Well I suppose it's a good thing vampires can't have children, then." Mac laid down a few coins of his own before heading down the hall to his own room for the night, slightly moodier than usual.
"Dammit, Hoyt! You hurt his feelings!" declared Glory, again slapping Hoyt's head.
"Me?! You're the one who said it!" Hoyt defensively fired back. "I merely relayed it."
Following everyone else, I chipped in for my own portion of the bill while flashing a motherly disapproval look to both Glory and Hoyt. I started down the hall to my own inn room after that, pausing as I came to Mac's closed door. I held out my hand to knock on the door, but then decided just to walk away. I was almost to my own room when I heard the rough creaking of Mac's door opening. Reluctantly I turned around, gazing at Mac while he stood with his arms braced lazily against the door frame. Neither one of us spoke a word. As if by some kind of instinct, I strolled over to Mac and slid my arms around him, like one who had given up on all hope and searched for solace in a simple embrace. I was consumed by fear, fear about what the future might entail for all of us. Fear that I would lose Mac all over again.
I felt Mac's arms slide around me, and we both just stood there in the doorway holding one another as if we'd met at the wake of a beloved friend. Finally I leaned back from the embrace just enough to tilt my head up and look into Mac's gentle brown eyes gazing down at me. It wasn't long before he leaned closer and joined his lips with mine. With a deep breath, I returned the kiss. With a stronger embrace, Mac pulled me further into the room. I smiled, using my heel to nudge the door shut behind me.

Chapter 26

nd so that inevitable day had finally come, the day we would all face Demise for the last time. It felt like fireworks setting off inside my belly as I second-guessed myself; was I truly strong enough to defeat the darkest and most powerful warlock who ever lived? It certainly didn't feel that way to me. But of course I never really had a knack for believing in myself, which had to make me the worst superhero of all time. Speaking of superheroes, Takeshi had many of his Veilians gathered inside of the armory at The Veil to suit up for the battle ahead. There was everything from cloth to plate armor, swords to magical staves, and bows to bizarre firearms with crystal ammunition.
Although a bright cloth robe with intricate embroidery would have better suited my magical class, instead I chose to slip into a pair of snug brown leather pants and a dry navy blue tunic. Over the tunic I had on dark leather corset armor with a pair of matching layered spaulders that looked like armadillos fastened around my shoulders. I had attached some matching gauntlets around my wrists as well, and slipped into a pair of knee-high leather boots with fancy buckles. My wavy ash brown hair was properly out of my face and tied into a loose braid down my back. So even if I didn't feel like I was ready to kick some ass, I certainly looked it. Glory wore loose-fitting robes, as she intended to wolf and maximize her strength. Hoyt was dressed in the earthy leather armor worn by an archer, as he would be fulfilling the role as such with a longbow he'd had some practice with prior. Osiris showed little interest in armor, and instead chose to wear his usual garments into the fight. Mac looked like a roguish knight in his leather armor with a fancy plate spaulders over his left shoulder.
Mac and I were browsing through the enormous supply of weapons in the armory when he uncharacteristically leaned over and whispered to me, "This armor gives me major creepedge in the under linen region." He looked at me a moment before lowering his eyes toward his privates, confirming the area in which he spoke. Mac smiled when I quietly snorted trying to stifle my laughter so others would not hear. "That's what I like to hear," he said, reaching over and briefly hugging me with a single arm. Towering over me, Mac's eyes easily wandered downward to my cleavage as if looking for something. "So where did you hide it?" he asked, freeing me from the casual embrace. As I passed him a bemused look, Mac elucidated, "My stake. I know you stole it last night when we..." His voice trailed off, and he eyed me with a playful smile on his face.
"Oh the innuendoes flying through my mind right now," I replied with an impish grin. "Nevertheless, you've carried that stake with you long enough." Touching my hand softly to his cheek, I added, "I know you don't need it; I believe in you, Mac." After lightly tapping his cheek with the tips of my fingers, I changed the subject by saying, "Now then, let's finish gearing up."
While Takeshi exhausted his powers teleporting platoons of Veilians to the Desolate Fields---a gloomy mountain range nearly barren of all forms of life---my friends and I took one final spin in the Hoytwings to get there. The Desolate Fields was indeed a fitting place for a battle, and likely the reason why Demise had selected it; he was a very dramatic individual.
After arriving at our destination, the four of us exited the Hoytwings and joined the Veilians on the battlefield. Amidst the masses of people ranging from teens to middle age, Osiris and his mother Bastet were standing guard at the front. Miles across the field, Demise had already assembled his terracotta army; on the right they were equipped for melee combat, while others stood on the opposite flank preparing their ranged weapons. It was no surprise that Demise seemed reluctant to stand at his own front and lead the fight. He was undoubtedly upon a safe high ground somewhere that he could magically oversee his enchanted soldiers.
Following a farewell embrace, Hoyt disappeared into our crowd of bowmen. Glory had previously found privacy behind the Hoytwings where she disrobed and changed into her wolf form before calmly joining the front, standing boldly on all fours. Mac bent his elbows, reaching behind himself to acquire two katana blades he kept crossed around his back. Effortlessly he twirled both hilts simultaneously in his hands, grinning at me pompously, before joining the front. I smiled and shook my head while holding onto my own weapon: a gnarled staff grasping onto a sky blue jewel. I, too, raced to the front and joined Mac, Glory, Osiris, and Bastet for the commencing showdown.
Like growling thunder on a stormy day, the sounds of thousands of marching boots and rattling armor disturbed the silence of the afternoon, stirring life into the Desolate Fields. My insides felt like they were constricting due to the sheer terror about to unfold. Holding out my staff, I dedicated full concentration on casting. I smiled when I spotted a glint in the staff's sky blue jewel. A beam of white light expelled from the jewel, knocking back the nearest approaching terracotta soldiers in a blinding explosion. Remembering that only beheading would destroy the soldiers, my smile faded as I watched the broken soldiers magically reassemble and stand again like nothing ever happened. Mac and Osiris burst into the enemy's lines, fighting and beheading as many enchanted soldiers as they could. Eventually I couldn't make heads or tails of what was happening anymore. Mac and Osiris were as leaves now, merged within a whirlwind of leaves. I caught sight of a fierce dragon manifest in the air high above me, and I smiled when I realized it was Bastet conjuring her loyal beasts to aid us in the fight.
A short distance ahead I saw Glory's raging wolf dive into the air, toppling over a terracotta soldier as she returned to the ground. Glory's wolf sat upon the soldier's body and violently thrust downward one of her massive paws. Her claws pierced deep into the pinned soldier's neck just before she turned her paw, slowly and agonizingly separating the enchanted soldier's head from its body. For just an instant Glory focused on me with her golden werewolf eyes ignited with fury. I gulped, frozen with fear by my friend's horrific violence. It wasn't long before Glory became distracted, pouncing upon her next victim.
Despite the fact rows of archers seemed futile in a fight against an enemy that could only be stopped by melee combat, I knew why Takeshi had enlisted them. The bowmen were mostly comprised of novices still in their teens; a majority of them scarcely trained for battle. They were there more as the last reinforcement, in case the skilled fighters should fall. So along with their bows, each novice was equipped with a katana they were instructed only to use when no other option remained.
I heard the whooshing sounds from the initial arrow release by Hoyt and the novices. The arrows soared high into the sky before gravity sent them back down into the opposing side. Although causing no fatal damage, the arrows did stall the terracotta soldiers long enough for our melee fighters to quickly behead as many as they could. A calm smile formed across my face when I realized that we just might have a winning chance. My smile soon vanished when I watched Demise manifest near the end of the archer line where Hoyt stood. Before I could even react, Demise had unsheathed a dao sword and almost effortlessly drove it through Hoyt's skull. With tears welling in my eyes, I watched as my friend's lifeless body dropped to the ground.
Demise vanished, only to reappear beside me, fiendishly saying, "I doubt Takeshi can cure that one." Looking up into the sky, the warlock added, "By the end of this day, you have my word that none of your friends will be coming back to you." With a nod, Demise directed my attention across the field to where Glory was defeating another one of his terracotta soldiers. Whilst she was occupied, another enchanted soldier approached her and sunk its sword deep into her back. The howl she gave off was bloodcurdling. Just as I started to race to Glory's aid, Demise stopped me with, "You're too late. You see, every one of my terracotta soldiers wields a blade made from silver."
"You son of a bitch!" I bellowed, trying not to burst into tears and become entirely hopeless. Angrily I extended my staff-wielding arm toward Demise, using every bit of strength I had to conjure everything I could. Just as I was preparing to cast, the warlock casually waved his hand and magically caused the jewel in my staff to shatter.
With a wicked smile, Demise said, "If you were relying on the power of that useless stick to aid you in this fight, then you lost even before you began." With a sneer, the warlock turned his back to me and concluded, "How can you expect to succeed, when you don't even believe in yourself?" And with a flick of his wrist, Demise vanished just as quickly as he had appeared.
I felt helpless, standing completely defenseless while chaos erupted all around me. Numbly I watched as Mac raced to Glory's aid, only to be taken down by what was presumably a projectile stake fired from a crossbow designed to specifically kill dracunespires. Again Mac crumbled into ashes before my eyes, except I didn't really feel the emotion as I had the first time. I didn't feel anything anymore. My friends were gone now, all of them. I had nothing left. Reaching into my pocket, I acquired Takeshi's feldspar stone. With one last attempt to save the remaining Veilians, I said Takeshi's name, hoping his powers had had enough time to replenish. Nothing happened. Again I said his name. Nothing. Giving up, I cursed and angrily hurled the stone far across the battlefield. I collapsed to my knees in despair, just waiting for one of Demise's soldiers to finish me off.
"Cam!" cried out a voice amidst the turmoil. "What are you doing? Taking a nap?" said Osiris, his voice clearer once he made his way through the chaos to me. The demigod was sweating heavily and bloodied from the fight, but still grasping tightly onto the bloodstained Blade of Bastet. Soon he put the blade to use when a couple of Demise's soldiers approached our location. Osiris was quick to knock the first soldier back while he quickly beheaded the second. Agilely the demigod turned back around, simultaneously swinging his blade to gain momentum as he plunged it into the first soldier's neck. With a heaving chest, Osiris said to me, "Planning on sitting there all day?"
"Demise doesn't think I can win," I forlornly admitted before I even realized that words were coming out of my mouth.
Standing beside me, keeping a wary eye on our surroundings, Osiris replied, "Well, is he right?"
"I dunno. Maybe," I answered with a shrug.
"Maybe you should try believing in yourself," he answered plainly, as if confidence was a simple thing attained with almost no effort at all. Gesturing his hand to the remaining terracotta soldiers battling Takeshi's admirably relentless Veilians, the demigod asked, "Are you really going to let some overdressed schmuck who can't even fight his own battles decide what you can and cannot do?" Somewhat frustrated, Osiris added, "Some people say Demise is fearless. Then why is he hiding behind an enchanted terracotta army? Why did he send a magical two-headed serpent after us back at the temple? Why doesn't he ever face his enemies head-on?" With a smirk, the demigod rhetorically answered, "Because he's afraid, that's why. Just because he's immortal, that doesn't mean he can't be stopped." Extending a helping hand, Osiris said to me, "So why don't you get up off your sorry-ass and stop him!"
Ignoring his hand, I mumbled, "It's not that easy."
"And why is that?" inquired the demigod, kneeling down beside me.
Whimpering, I answered, "My friends are gone."
"No they're not," he replied with a smile. Gently tapping the tips of his fingers against my chest, he added, "They're in here, where they've always been. The heart is a powerful thing, love. And Demise, well, he doesn't have one. So why don't you go prove to him what a heart can do?"
Wiping away my tears, I said with a sniffle and a chuckle, "Those are some pretty noble words coming from a thief."
"Well I'm half human, half god. I'm a complicated fella," Osiris replied with a sly grin. Glancing around at the continuing battle, he said, "How we've managed to have an uninterrupted long-winded conversation in the midst of all this madness is really quite remarkable, I must say."
I was about to respond to Osiris's remark when, suddenly, the world stilled as if I were trapped inside of a freeze frame. There was no movement at all, even Osiris was frozen in place. I seemed to be the only one not affected by the peculiarity. Slowly I rose to my feet and looked all over the field for some kind of movement, anything. There was nothing. And then there was that douche, Demise.
"I always did hate his perseverance," the warlock jeered, staring at Osiris. "Well here I am! Facing my enemy head-on," said Demise, a wicked smile on his face.
Looking at the frozen world around me, I replied, "So you made everything immobile, except for the girl with no courage who tried to defeat you with a useless stick?" A smile poked at the corners of my mouth when I noticed that I'd struck a nerve in Demise. "Looks like I may not be the only one lacking confidence here." Just as the warlock started to reply, I interrupted him, saying, "You have everything you ever wanted, except courage." Forming a fireball in the palm of my hand, I concluded, "I have nothing left now, except to find that courage." Aggressively I extended my arm, casting out the flaming spell and knocking Demise to the ground.
The warlock was quick to his feet, casting a fireball of his own. Clenching my teeth, I thrust out both of my arms, surprisingly catching Demise's spell between my opened palms. I smiled when I spotted an expression of utter disbelief on his face. I moved my arm, directing the fireball just above my hand. Using the other hand, I snapped my fingers, extinguishing the spell's flames. The smile broadened on my face when I realized I'd finally found my courage. Having no clue at all what I was doing, I again extended my arm toward Demise. In a steady stream, a very dark tar-like substance began to emerge from within the warlock and filter over into me. As more of the mysterious black goo seeped into me, my heart suddenly felt as though it caught fire. Ignoring the sensation, I continued draining the warlock of his power. Demise crumpled to the ground once I finished with him. Soon he transformed back into the mortal man known as Clyde.
Coldness overcame me once the darkness settled inside my body. My heart was the only part of me that remained warm, but it felt more like a flickering flame ready to go out at any moment. When Clyde realized what had happened, he climbed to his feet and bolted off into the distance. I held out my hand, squeezing it into a fist, magically causing every terracotta soldier to disintegrate into piles of dust. Next, I focused on undoing the freeze frame spell Demise had earlier cast on everyone. Osiris was quick to stand, his mouth agape as he tried to comprehend what was happening.
Closing my eyes, I stood completely still, while what light I had left in me battled the darkness I had stolen from Demise. Slowly I felt my heart regain its vigor as it finally extinguished every bit of darkness churning inside of me. When I finally opened my eyes, I was in complete shock to see Hoyt, Glory, and even Mac standing around me. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but they were certainly all as real as me. I embraced each of them for a ridiculously long time, crying and laughing simultaneously. Obviously Mac received the longest embrace of all, and that's when I finally sensed something very different about him; about all of them. They were human again.

The End

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