If there was one thing that could be said to be true about Charlie Madison, it was that she genuinely did not want to be out on the side of the road that Friday night. If she had had her way, she would have been just about anywhere else. Her own bed for preference, if we’re going to get down to it. But instead, she was walking on the roadside well past the sunset and well into the shadows. She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she stopped to study the highway. It wasn’t much of one, really, just an old 2 lane that fancied itself to be an interstate. She reached for the cell phone stuck in her back pocket and stared at it in confusion. Why was the screen cracked? When had that happened? She wasn’t sure. Shaking her head to try and clear the cobwebs, she tried to turn her phone on anyway. Maybe someone could come pick her up? She stopped, looking around. Something was wrong. Where was her car? The more she tried to think, the more it was like trying to think through television snow. Nothing but static and noise and the idea that maybe somewhere behind all of it was a picture that made sense. Lights surged around the corner and Charlie looked up, shielding her eyes with her arm. It was a car but she couldn’t make out what kind. Something on the smaller side. A four-door or maybe a hatchback? Certainly not a truck. She couldn’t make out the silhouette, just the lights and the general idea of ‘car’. With a silent prayer, Charlie stepped out and tried to flag the car down. Maybe she could get help, maybe she could go home. But there was no going home for Charlie Madison. The car shot through her and she screamed. For a moment, the world went white and then she was standing by the side of the road once more, just as lost and disoriented as she’d been before.
Jack took a breath and looked the human teenager over. He was hugging a book to his chest and staring at her through his too-large glasses with a respectable mix of fear and awe. That was a problem. He could see her. That definitely was not supposed to happen. The Reaper took another breath and lowered her scythe.
“Okay, you’re problem two on my list for today. But I need to go catch the first one before I can deal with you.”
He pulled himself to his feet and adjusted his glasses.
“The…the shadow, right? That’s what you need to catch?”
Jack scrubbed at her face.
“Of course, you can see that too. Of course. Okay, what’s your name, human? Clearly, I’m going to have to drag you with me until I catch my jailbird.”
He took a moment, shoving the book into a backpack.
“I’m Travis. Jailbird? Was that thing a prisoner?”
Jack didn’t answer. She was looking at the ground near the gate. There were indentations there, almost claw marks. That didn’t bode well for the human population near here. That meant this particular denizen of the afterlife had managed to regain a corporeal state already. Anything that could pull it off this quickly was going to manage quite a few other exceedingly more dangerous tricks, and fast.
“Yeah. And I’m the one that got the bounty. So, come on, nerd boy. You’re going to help me make sure it comes home with me and not too many humans have to die in the process.”
She was drumming on the wheel of her big old pickup truck while she waited for the light to change to green. Just another block and she’d be home and all of this would be over. She tapped her pistol with one hand, reassuring herself that it was there. Then the light changed and she was off like a shot. Turn the corner here and park in front of the old house, just like always. The old truck lurched as she climbed out of it and put both boots on the sidewalk. By the time she was a few feet away, it had faded from sight. Soon, she and it would be reunited as they always were. The door was so close, so very close. She pounded on the door with her fist, her other hand closing on the pistol and flicking the safety off. The door opened and a shot rang out, leaving the young boy who had opened the door startled and scared. He looked out at the empty stoop and turned around to run back inside.
“Mama! It happened again!”
“Hey Photon, catch!”
Crusader grinned brightly behind the faceplate of her helmet and chucked the mugger upwards with all her considerable strength. Photon grabbed the petty criminal around the waist and laughed.
“Got ‘im, hun. I’ll go drop this one off at the precinct. Meet you in a flash.”
Crusader rolled her eyes as her husband and crime-fighting partner raced off across the sky in a blur of light. Then she glanced at the time in her HUD. It was almost time to go get Jessica from school and go through a few rounds of training. Spark was almost ready to take to the streets as a new hero and Crusader wanted to be absolutely sure her daughter would be ready. This life could be tough, as the many scars crisscrossing her body could attest. Well, either way, she had some time to finish their patrol and check in with the Sanctum.
Patrol done, Crusader dropped her armor off at the Sanctum and had a quick chat with Maria at the desk.
“Yeah, it was a quiet enough day. Photon should be in soon. I’m headed out.”
“See you tomorrow!”
Then she was Angelica Morrow once more and headed off to go pick up her daughter, Jessica, from school. Her subcompact was in the employee lot for the Sanctum, where her papers said she worked in a medical capacity. Which was, of course, technically true. She just also happened to be a hero. Pulling out of the lot, she waved farewell to the young man in the security booth. He waved her through with a smile.
“Have a nice evening, Doctor Morrow.”
She was a block away from the school headed through a four-way intersection. Her hands were both on the wheel, her phone away. That didn’t do a thing to stop the truck that came careening through the intersection and slammed into her car, knocking it into a telephone pole.
They had to say it on the news. Even though she had died out of uniform, even though it was Malcolm Morrow and his daughter, Jessica, who stood at the funeral. They had to say that Doctor Angelica Morrow was Crusader. They had to say what this had truly been. Because the city had lost one of its heroes that day and they deserved to know. She deserved to be remembered. And if anyone noticed that Malcolm and Jessica disappeared just before Photon and Spark arrived to pay their respects, well, no one said a word.
“I will arrive by week’s end, my love. Wait for me at the White Star Dock and together we will have the someday I have promised you for so long.”
Those had been the words Harry had written Clara in the last letter before he took to sea. Now, she held that letter before her as she stitched shirt sleeves with the other young women chatting around her.
“News from home, Clarrie?”
She smiled up at the older woman. Erin was a kindly grandmother of a woman with curly hair that had once been as red as Clara’s was blonde.
“From my fiancé. Harry’s coming over on a ship this very week.”
There was a chorus of excitement all about the factory, one which was quickly silenced as they heard the door from the offices opening. It wouldn’t do to be seen lazing. Even if they were doing no such thing. Clara’s sewing needle darted in and out of the cloth she was stitching as she imagined seeing Harry again for the first time in nearly a year. They could finally marry, finally start a family and finally have the life they’d been dreaming about for so long.
As Clara tidied up her station, Erin waited patiently. It was a custom of theirs for Clara to walk the older woman to her lodgings before headed home herself.
“So, tell me, Miss Clara. Is he coming on that fine ship of dreams everyone’s been talking about in the papers?”
Clara absolutely beamed, her smile threatening to split her cheeks.
“He is! I’m just so excited, Erin.”
Placing her hat on her head, Clara turned that smile on Erin.
“Any day now.”
Erin offered her young friend a smile of her own, then concern flickered onto her face.
“Will you be leaving us?”
As they walked to the door, Clara waved that concern off.
“Not right away. Someday, certainly, when we’ve a mind to start a family. But we’ll need the money I make until Harry’s all settled in.”
The sound that woke Harry O’Dell was like nothing he’d ever heard before. It was metal shearing metal, like the very walls of the ship were being rent by some giant with a knife. He leapt out of his narrow cot and was in the hallway in naught but trousers in a moment. There were others there as well, women holding crying children, even some of the ship’s crew looking just as lost as the rest of them.
“What’s going on?” He grabbed one of the crewmen as he passed. “What happened?”
The man looked at Harry, taking in his red hair and freckled face before shaking him off.
“Nothing. It was nothing. Go back to bed.”
The man continued on down the corridor, moving briskly and leaving Harry in his dust. Resigned, Harry turned back to his room to help the young mother bunked in with him calm her two young children.
When the water began to enter the compartment, Harry knew they had been lied to. Whatever had happened was far from nothing.
“Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Titanic sinks! Massive loss of life!”
Clara stopped dead in her tracks, slowly turning to look at the young newsie standing on the side of the road.
“Wh-what did you just say?”
“The ship, Ma’am, it sunk. Hit a big old iceberg, it did.”
She was shaking as she held her hand out.
“How much for the paper?”
“A penny, Ma’am.”
He held out his hand and she gave him one of her precious pennies, taking the paper. Slumped against a nearby building, she began to read. In the dark hours long before dawn. A great loss of life. Mainly women and children among the survivors. Harry, oh Harry.
Hot, silent tears streamed from her eyes and Clara’s grip on the too fragile newsprint tightening until it tore. She stared for a long moment at the shredded yellow paper in her hands. It didn’t matter now. It didn’t matter how much they had both saved and scrimped and scanted. There was no future for Clara and Harry, no future in which she was Mrs. O’Dell. All the happy dreams of a home together and a little crop of children under foot were as sunk as the vessel that had called itself the Ship of Dreams.
The paper fell from Clara’s fingers as she walked towards Pier 54 where the ship would have come in. There was already a crowd when she arrived, but she paid them no attention. She stood nearby, as close as she could get, and stared out at the water. It wasn’t the ocean, not here, not really. But she wondered, as she stared into the water, if God would bring her to Harry if she jumped in anyway. The thought nearly slapped her in the face when she realized why she had come here, what she was contemplating. Then she thought of the life ahead of her, so far from the land of her birth and her family and now without her Harry O’Dell. There were tears in her eyes as she stepped off into the air.
The morning was still dark with the pre-dawn haze as Marcy sat up. She wasn’t overly surprised to see that the spiders were there, not really. She was surprised when the woman strode into the room. She was clad in an odd white garment that Marcy was hesitant to call a dress. Certainly, it bore a remarkable resemblance to one, but at the same time there was something much more ancient about it. With dark brown, nearly black hair, and olive skin, she was a wonder to behold. But the part that made it the oddest was that the door she’d come in through was very much closed.
“Who-“ but the question died on Marcy’s lips as the woman sat on the foot of the bed and the spiders went to her.
“Dear child, dear sweet child, you who have protected so many of my children. I am here to meet you. In answer to the question you did not finish, I am Arachne, the mother of spiders.”
Pulling her knees up to her chest, Marcy watched this woman for a moment and then smiled.
“I’ve heard stories about you. And not just the human ones, either.”
“Good, my little ones followed my instructions. Dear girl, you who have risked so much for my young ones, you have not let me down once. Even in meeting you, you are everything my children have described and more. And for that, I would give you something.”
She stood again then, beckoning for Marcy to come to her. Marcy obeyed, but still she argued.
“Its the right thing to do, I don’t need a reward for doing the right thing. And anyway, they saved me.”
But Arachne was having none of it. She touched a hand to Marcy’s forehead.
“Already you could hear my children and speak with them, but now you will also be able to work thread as we work our silk.”
Marcy blanched and pulled back a little.
The woman laughed cheerfully.
“Don’t worry, my dear girl, you won’t have spinnerets. Merely the ability to work thread by means of magic.”
“Oh! Oh wow. Magic? Magic is…is real?”
“You who talk to spiders question if magic is real?” Arachne laughed again and tousled Marcy’s hair. “Dear Marcy, yes, magic is real, as are the gods of old. But, you will learn.”
I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.
Marcy chanted the words in her mind as she ran, heels click-clacking loudly on the stone floor of the courthouse. She cradled the heavy leather briefcase in her arms and ran into the prosecution counsel’s office.
“Sir, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I had to grab these and…the traffic…and…”
Jared, one of the senior partners, stood near the window and didn’t even turn to look at her. Pausing, she looked him over, noting that his shirt was rumpled…and the same one from the day before. His tie was sitting on the table beside a half-empty glass of what looked rather like bad scotch.
“Its alright, Marcy. We don’t have a case any more.”
She blinked a few times.
“Our key witness…he’s dead. Without him, we’ve got nothing. This guy’s going to walk.”
She blanched and set the briefcase on the table.
“Maybe there’s another angle, Sir? Something we haven’t tried?”
Jared turned and grabbed his glass, not even looking at her as he downed the rest of it.
“Marcy, we already tried everything. Even DNA is circumstantial with this guy…Dammit, I know it was him. And now the bastard’s gonna walk.” With a long sigh, he slid the case over to him. “Well, I’m going to work out the best defense I can manage…but…you might as well not suffer too. Take the rest of the day off, go relax or something.”
“I mean it, go on. I’ll make sure you get paid for the day. Go have fun.”
She was reluctant to leave him alone like this, but well…he was the boss.
Once she was out of his sight, she leaned against a wall and wondered what she could do. Then she had an idea. A crazy, stupid, possibly suicidal idea.
I’m either gonna get in so much trouble, or this is going to be awesome. Now I just need to find the Little Ones.
With a glance into her bag to make sure everyone was still alright, Marcy got off the subway. It wasn’t until she got to the neighborhood where the perp lived that she realized she probably shouldn’t let herself be recognized. Ducking into an alley, she sat and called on her new powers. Slowly, she reshaped fabric of her clothing into an entirely new outfit. But…she needed a bit more to make a mask. With a sigh, she took the whole thing in, tightening the weave until it hugged her figure. Then she pulled on her new mask and held her hand out to her Little Ones.
She’d promised them a meal, and a good one. They climbed all over her, taking up a perch wherever they could as she climbed up the side of the building. Again, the blessing of Arachne benefitted her. Her fingers clung to the tiny cracks between bricks as she climbed, pulling herself up with an ease she never could have imagined. She swung herself up onto the roof and stretched, bouncing idly.
“That was fun. Everyone still alright?”
“We are fine, Protector.”
“Great! Then, off we go.”
She was glad she’d swapped over for her old Skechers, even if it meant her shoes were hot pink. They were a lot more comfortable as she ran over rooftops. Part of her was surprised how easy it was to fall back into the old pace, but then, she had been a runner for most of her life. Periodically, she glanced down into the streets to make sure she was going the right way, making her way to the house. Finally there, she grinned wickedly and climbed down. Happily for her purposes, a window was open. She climbed inside and started to look around for the man. She found him quickly enough, sitting at a table laughing and playing cards with his buddies.
“Hello, Mister Richardson.”
“What the fuck?! How the hell did you get into my house, you costumed freak?”
“You killed your daughter, Mister Richardson. And then you killed her boyfriend so he could testify against you.”
The other men were starting to stand now, moving towards Marcy, but she held her ground. Then she grinned wickedly.
“I’m here to make sure you never hurt anyone again.”
The spiders all moved at once. And not just the ones Marcy had brought with her. All of the ones in his home too. She flicked her hand and his clothing started to stitch itself together. The others were screaming, but she did nothing to stop them from leaving. Stepping out of their way, she moved closer to him.
“You’re a psychotic bitch!”
“Now, now. You really should get caught up with the times, we don’t call people that anymore.”
And the spiders began their real work. Marcy didn’t watch. She just thanked them and made her way back out. Pausing for a moment on the roof, she wondered what people would say when they only found his bones the next morning. Then she just sat down to wait for her spiders to return so they could all go home together.
I held the bag tight against my chest and moved through the forest in silence. Drawing attention to myself at this point would be worse than suicidal. I could hear the movement further out in the darkness, just beyond the light of the path. Most Fae avoided the paths. Paths are bad, dangerous, mortal. As a Changeling, the paths are safety for me…except against one thing. The Red Eyes hunt the paths. I can almost feel them watching me as I move. Lords and Ladies, I hope I get home soon. There were rules for this, of course. Not that the Red Eyes follow rules, but instead Faerie Land would enforce the rules for me. If I didn’t think I could get back to our holding, I could take the next turn and hide in the standing stones. No one could harm another in there. Mistress had said they were dangerous for other reasons though, only to hide there if I had no other choice. Whirling around at the sound of footsteps, I nearly dropped the bag, which would have been a mistake unto itself. A younger Changeling I knew was barreling towards me like a bat out of hell. His eyes were huge and wild and his tail coursed behind him like a pennant in a wind. He was one of the ones who had changed their shape as soon as they could, becoming far more a raccoon than a human.
“Mouse! Run! Hunters!”
He didn’t have to say it twice. I grabbed his arm as he would have gone past the stones and pulled him down that path instead. As soon as we were a few feet down that path, I moved to let go, confident he would follow. He grabbed at my arm, clinging fiercely. Poor guy must be terrified. I thought, just as I passed through the stones and came to a sudden jerky stop. Turning, I was surprised to see that Coop still held my arm and was on the outside of the stones.
“Come on! What are you waiting for?”
“I can’t. It must be the old magic. Come on, let’s keep running. There must be somewhere else that’s safe.”
I tried to shake off his grip, suddenly wary.
“Coop, come on, don’t be silly. As long as you’re not going to hurt anyone, you can come in here.”
Listening for a moment, I realized I couldn’t hear any other footsteps. Just the sound of our heavy breathing. Then I felt his fingers tighten even more on my arm. That’s when it hit me.
“Oh…oh no. Coop. No…no…no…no…You didn’t. No. There’s no way…”
He let go and flung himself at the space between the standing stones, falling to the ground in a pile of fur and snarls. There it was, on the back of his neck. The Red Eye. There were tears pouring down my face as I curled up in the middle of the circle. Mistress would find me later, I knew. But until then, I could wait here and mourn for my friend.
The fences around churchyards were iron for a reason. Time wore on, though, as it always does, and that reason was forgotten. People erected chain fences and used padlocks to keep other people out. They forgot about the things that needed to be kept in.
Jack stood by the gate with her hood up, watching the people as they moved about among the tombstones to visit ancestors and loved ones. With any luck, none of them would see her. It was rare but possible. After all, those who were close to needing her services were likely to have death on the mind. She glanced at the sky. The sun would be setting soon, and then it would be time to get to work. Once the living were gone, then she could look for that which they had set free.
A long, low moan echoed through the now empty burying ground and Jack winced. It was the sound of metal grinding somewhere. Probably a crypt door, if she knew anything about her line of work. Now came the first of many unpleasant parts of the evening: crossing the boundary line into the sanctified part of the grounds. Jack stretched and pulled her hood down as she walked towards the fence. Then she passed through it. That was never a fun time, but she had made it through. That meant it was hunting time. Extending her hand, she called her scythe forth and spun it idly as she walked.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
She singsonged her words as she scanned the area around her. There was the open crypt. Time to investigate. She stepped up to the door and stuck her head inside.
“Olly olly oxen free!”
But there was nothing undead in there. Nothing moving.
“Well, that’s bad. That means it’s out there somewhere.”
Turning, she scanned the horizon again. It would be here still, somewhere. Then she gritted her teeth. No, it had a way out, dammit.
“Stupid humans forgetting the rules!”
Scythe in hand, Jack sprinted for the main gate of the cemetery. Iron would have kept the thing in. Iron would have kept the humans safe. Iron would have made her job a world of easier. Instead, she found herself getting there just too slow as the undead creature wrenched the gates open and crossed the barrier. The land of the living had been breached. Jack swung her scythe up into an attack position. She still had time, before something else noticed what had happened. She could still reap this lost soul and keep the world in balance. Then something slammed into her from behind. When she stood again, her prey was gone and a human teenager sat on the ground behind her, blinking up with wide confused eyes from behind his too-large glasses.
“Well, shit. This day just keeps getting better and better…”
When the man walked in, Mira took a long look at the armor he wore and sighed slowly. There was no way that he, a soldier of the Imperial Guard, would fail to notice what she was doing, fail to notice that she didn’t belong here. She was the right age to fit in among the young princesses and their entourage, but she was wrong. Too skinny, too dirty, too uneducated. In short, a peasant. But Mira could hope that he wouldn’t notice. The princesses hadn’t, after all. Maybe she would be safe.
The other girls were giggling now, discussing a feast and dresses. All the while, Mira did her best to eat the light tea and cakes like one who wasn’t starving. She had expected the guard to say something by now, to cast her out of the palace. Instead, he had carefully made sure she had gotten slightly more food and a chance to clean up before sitting down at the table.
As the evening wore on, Mira waited for the other shoe to drop. It had to. Nice things like this didn’t happen for people like her. She would be fined, which she couldn’t pay. Or imprisoned. Or worse. The other girls were heading back to family estates and she would head back to her own street corner to sleep. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and look up into the face of that man, the Imperial Guard.
“Come on, Mira”
Mira tensed up, ready to run. Then he smiled.
“It was nice of you to wait while the other girls went home” He glanced around and gestured, showing that no one else was around. “But you should get cleaned up and ready for bed.”
As he led her through the back passages of the palace, he paused.
“Tell me the truth, Mira. You’re an orphan, yes?”
She nodded slowly.
“From the war or the plague?”
He nodded again.
“If anyone asks, you’re my daughter. They know I had…” He paused. “The plague. It was as bad here as it was in the city, I promise. And if you’re clever enough to sneak in here, then I think you deserve something for it. You’re also the same age my girl would have been… So, to my mind, the gods are giving us both something back. You a home, and me a child.”
She blinked, uncertain. Then she smiled.
“Will I always get to play with the other girls like that?”
“Until they’re young ladies. I’m afraid then they’ll get conceited and think they’re better than a mere soldier’s daughter.”
There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”