Writer of Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Horror and Comedy

TALE 13

POTIONS AND PENANCE

            “I can’t believe you did that!” said Mickey for the thousandth time.

            “What?” asked Ethan as he drove his black 2004 Ford Ranger truck east down Edmonton St on a lovely, spring morning. The grass was green, the flowers were in bloom and the sky was a heavy gray that threatened rain, which somehow emphasized the beauty even more. “You think I got my oil change too early?”

            “You know damn well what I mean!” Mickey cried, stomping his talons on the armrest between the seats.

            “Oh, you mean ‘the dog,’” Ethan replied happily.

            “Yes, I mean ‘the dog!’” cried Mickey.

            Ethan laughed, reached over, and petted Paul the dog behind his ears. The black Labrador familiar had stuck his head out between Ethan and Mickey from the back, panting happily and grinning up at him. His human-level intelligent expression was much more obvious on a canine face than an avian one, giving him a greater range of emotional appearances.

            “You can’t have two familiars!” Mickey told him grumpily.

            Andy giggled from the passenger seat, enjoying the show.

            “I know,” Ethan said and went back to enjoying the spring as he drove. In Southern California, winter and spring were far too similar and caused little more change than wearing a jacket, but out in Connecticut, the difference was dramatic. It made him respect the seasons more.

            Ethan thought about Paul the dog as he drove. It was the weirdest thing.

            Mickey wasn’t wrong. A magician could only have one familiar, but all the same, Paul started popping up on Ethan’s property early that March as if he had bonded with him, wagging his tail and being desperate to get close to him. Jen Everson didn’t know what to make of that. She was worried he never bond with anyone else, saying that maybe Paul had bonded to someone else through him, which she claimed had happened before. Personally, Ethan had never heard of such a thing but he really liked dogs.

            “Jen gave me a good price.”

            “I don’t give a dumb dog’s dick!” Mickey told him grumpily and Andy burst out laughing. “It’s not funny!”

            “Come on,” Ethan told him. “Dogs are cute and this one cleans up his own mess.” He petted Paul again behind the ears and the dog panted happily and smiled.

            “I’m happy you’re my master,” the black Labrador told him.

            “Ah, he’s so sweet,” said Andy and petted him gently on the head.

            “I’m happy too, Meth Lab,” Ethan replied and his face darkened as he reached the turn to Bartlett Rd. He turned right and saw his family house appear in the south like a tomb rising up from a green-grassed graveyard.

            “Why are we going to visit these assholes anyway?” asked Mickey.

            “If I don’t visit them and talk eventually, they’ll ‘do something,’” Ethan replied. He said nothing more, his attention locked on the house as it grew larger in the gray, stormy sky.

            He parked the car at the front beside two other cars, a red 2005 Lexus and a black 2010 Mercedes, a brand of which the people of Bartlett Bay seemed to like. Neither of them belonged to the family who kept their vehicles in the nearby garage, and he wondered about that for a second as he stepped out of his truck.

            Thunder boomed in the distance, making him jump a bit, and he looked up at the house. The blooming many-colored flowers at its base did little to lighten up the gothic, dark wood structure that towered above him. Something felt off about the meeting and he already knew he was going to regret agreeing to it.

            As far as Ethan knew, this was not a formal or fancy get-together, so he had come dressed casually. For him, that meant jeans, his black work boots, a dark orange raglan shirt with black sleeves and collar and a lighter, black jacket than the one he wore during winter.

            “They think I had something to do with that asshole lawyer of theirs disappearing,” he told the others.

            Mickey flew up onto his shoulder as Paul slipped out of the door. “You’re not smart enough to get away with murder,” Mickey told him. Andy slipped out of the driver’s side door, too weak to open and close the passenger door without a lot of effort, and moved up behind him.

            As always, Andy looked impeccable. She wore a dress of black with white flowers on it, which she said went with her hair and eyes, and a matching black jacket with a high collar, white leggings and cute little shoes. To Ethan, she looked as if she was going to a beauty pageant or dance, but she said it was something “she just put together.”

            “Let’s just get this over with,” Ethan said and he shut the door, walked up to the large double doors, opened them wide and stepped back into his family house for the first time that year.

            He was the farthest from surprised to find no one there to greet him, despite being exactly on time at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. He went through the house, found the dining room, and there he discovered not just his family, the cousins he thought of as aunts and cousins near to his age he thought of cousins, but several others as well.

            Angela Anderson, the girl he had met by the church on Halloween last year and Cameron Carrier, who he recalled from his first, and most ill-fated, visit to the Anglecliff Country Club. She came with a woman he had never seen before but looked so much like her that she could have been a twin save only for being a couple of decades older.

            Twin is right, Ethan thought. Cameron Carrier looked so much like her companion that she genuinely looked like her clone.

            They all sat in the fancy, brown and gold living room, bathed in gray light from the windows with beige curtains pulled apart, looking very casual and being very quiet. At the sound of his entrance, they all turned and stared at him.

            Each group had a different expression on their faces. His family mostly frowned and looked suspicious, Angela looked determined and uncomfortable, and the Carriers looked nervous. His family dressed as casual as he did but the Carriers were dressed nicely, the elder in an expensive suit, the younger in a pretty, purple dress, seemingly as if they wanted to impress him.

            He was somewhat surprised to find Margaret looked hopeful and was shocked to find Agnes surprisingly well dressed. She wore makeup, her hair had cut to her shoulders in an attractive style around her chin, and her face had cleared up. She wore a white blouse tucked into a plaid blue skirt, nylon and tall black boots. The glasses, instead of making her look nerdy, actually made her somewhat sexy.

            She’s prettier than I thought, he said in his mind. It struck him as “very odd” and he watched her sit there for a moment, reading an expression of curiosity in her eyes, before turning back to the rest of the family.

            “You’ve come back,” said Margaret with relief. “I’m glad.”

            “And just why the hell did you bring your pets and that girl?” asked his cousin gorgeous cousin Lucy, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail behind her head.

            “I didn’t feel like coming alone,” said Mickey.

            Andy laughed but no one else did.

            “Oh, my pets are awesome and the girl just wanted to get out of the house,” Ethan said simply. Andy was a very social person and being stuck in a house too long alone was starting to drive her insane.

            Paul sat down on his bottom and said, “I’ll be—” they all jumped at the sound of his human male’s voice “—good.” He finished. “I’m a familiar but I’m not Ethan’s familiar yet.”

            “Yet?” cried Mickey incredulously from Ethan’s shoulder, his feet gripping onto Ethan’s shoulder tightly enough to make Ethan gasp. “There’s no yet, you shaggy, flea motel!”

            Andy laughed again and Lucy said, “You’re so weird. Is there anything normal at all about you?”

            “No,” Ethan replied simply and stepped forward. “Okay, Margaret, evil aunts, rest of the asshole family—” Ethan shrugged “—what the hell do you want?”

            Angela immediately said, “We have something—”

            “You can start by telling me what the hell you did with our lawyer?” asked his aunt Anne in a hard, cold voice, and an almost full glass of red wine in her right hand.

            Ethan groaned tiredly. “I don’t know what happened to your prick lawyer!” he told her for the millionth time. “I was in New York City when you told me that he was gone!”

            “He lives in New York City!” she hissed. “You could have done anything to him there!”

            “My entire weekend has been scrutinized by the police and the day he disappeared I had an alibi for virtually every minute. The police don’t believe he ever reentered New York City and even if he did, how the hell would I do anything to him in a city that large that I know nothing about with a witness by my side the entire time?”

            Anne’s frown said she did not believe him.

            Ethan genuinely knew nothing about it. All he knew was that Reginald Stanley James went to Bartlett Bay to consult with the family and then disappeared, car and all, on his way back to New York City. That was it. Ethan never heard anything more about him but it was admittedly convenient. Without Stanley, he easily beat his case and got back the money that his grandfather had left him.

            “You stole from family,” Anne told him coldly.

            “You’re drunk,” Ethan replied, “And your father stole from family too. He stole millions from his own brother.” He had just about enough of this. “You know I don’t know a damn thing about—”

            “We know no such thing!” Anne hissed.

            “Whatever,” Ethan replied and then he looked over at the Carriers and Angela. “And why are you here? Usually, emotional abuse is a family affair.”

            Angela put her hands on her hips and gave him a sexy half-smile that could have meant anything. Her curly light brown hair was tied behind her back in a ponytail, implying she was being casual, but she was wearing a tight, deep green dress designed with low-cut a tube top and ended at her thighs. Her legs were covered nylon and she had tall, black boots on her feet.

            “Well, aren’t you a charmer,” said Cameron Carrier before she could speak. She was gorgeous and she reminded him of Daredevil from the Marvel comics with those large, black sunglasses over her eyes.

            Both Carriers, aside from one of them being blind, were an almost physically perfect specimen of female. They had high cheekbones, model-like features, full pouting lips and straight, dark hair hanging down their backs and the one without sunglasses had vibrant, sultry bright blue eyes. They had the slender, shapeless kind of beauty found in actresses like Kiera Knightly and Kate Hudson, and as he looked closer at them, their similarity was so close it was actually disturbing.

            Ethan’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen those eyes somewhere be—”

            “My name is Beatrice Carrier,” said the older one. “We are—partnered with the Andersons.”

            “Okay, let me ask again,” Ethan said in an irritated voice. “What—do—you—want?”

            Angela stepped forward but before she got within ten feet from him, Cameron’s cane shot out and blocked her. “He’s more ours than yours,” Cameron told her without looking.

            “I don’t even belong to the Bartletts, so just how exactly do I belong to you?” asked Ethan.

            Cameron frowned at him without turning her face in his direction and then lowered her cane.

            “Ethan,” said Angela Anderson, “The Bartletts had created a problem in the past and now you are required to fix it.”

            “Oh wow, there’s the surprise of the century!” Ethan cried with a mocking shrug. “Let me guess. Julian?”

            Angela’s face darkened and said, “His legacy is definitely a problem of yours but no.” Her face shifted to one of controlled blankness and he saw her hands were shaking. “You’ve been in the east wing, right?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Well—”
“You actually went in there?” Margaret gasped in utter shock horror.

            “Yeah, I wandered around for a few hours. Didn’t see shit. Why are you looking at me like I walked into the ninth circle of hell?”

            “It’s—” she didn’t seem to have words and then, suddenly, noticed something about Andy and changed the subject. “Come here.” Andy did, looking up at her nervously as Margaret took her chin in her hand and looked down at her with a strange, scrutinizing glance. “I feel like I know your face from somewhere,” she told her.

            Andy shrugged and pulled her jaw from her.

            “Listen, Ethan,” began Angela. “I—”

            “I seriously can’t believe you know how to dress a girl that well,” said his aunt Jane. She was the youngest and the prettiest of his aunts, her light brownish-gold hair pulled straight back over her head and her blouse unbuttoned at the tops of her breasts.

            Why she dressed like that for him, he could not say but he imagined it wasn’t good.

            “I’m just full of surprises,” Ethan told her. “Why are none of you telling me what you want? Like, you bother me until I come for like months, now I’m here, and you won’t say a thing.”

            “You sound upset,” said Cameron.

            “I remember you,” Ethan replied. “You’re that girl from the club. Why are you here?”

            “Anglecliff,” she told him with a smile. “That sure was an interesting day.”

            “Yeah, I got in a fight with a giant blue man, stabbed in the street, and then fired from the sweetest job I ever knew. Yeah, that day was a blast.”

            “You still angry about getting stabbed in the street?” asked Cameron.

            “Uh, yeah. Why would I stop being angry about that?”

            “It’s toxic, for one,” she replied and then her lips curled up into a small smile. “Still in love with Claire Winters? I could hear how you spoke to her that day.”

            “I’m over that one,” he replied bitterly and made a gesture for tossing even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “I tossed her away like a used cup.”

            “Because she’s screwing Bryce Cunningham?” asked Cameron with a half-smile.

            “Okay, is there any particular reason you’re being such a bitch and balls deep in my business, and as a bonus question of the day, why the hell are you even here? Margaret told me this was a family together.”

            “It is,” Margaret replied, still looking over Andy and trying to figure out where it was that she recognized her.

            “How are the Andersons or Carriers family to us?” Nobody answered with Margaret looking especially uncomfortable. “Somebody tell me what you want or I am going to leave.”

            Angela put her hands behind her back, made herself look cute, and said, “What we need—”

            “We don’t like you,” said her cousin Gina.

            “Oh my god,” said Angela tiredly.

            “You called me all the way over to tell me that?” Ethan told Gina. “Why didn’t you just text me or better yet, do nothing, since I already knew that from the countless times you either implied that and or told it to me straight to my face.”

            Angela sighed. “We want—”

            Lucy began with, “Why don’t you—”

            “Stop speaking over me!” hissed Angela suddenly.

            “How did you even know he’d be here?” Lucy asked. “He’s been asked a hundred times yet you knew exactly which time he would come!”

            Angela groaned. “I—”

            “What is your problem, anyway?” Dina asked Ethan. Her prettier fraternal twin Gina echoed the statement afterward.

            “Where the hell is our goddamn lawyer?” cried Anne.

            Suddenly they were all screaming at him, yelling about this and that, and he sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

            “Ethan!” Margaret cried suddenly and everyone stopped talking looked at her. “We need you! Now!”

            “Just because sex with cousins is legal does not mean I’m into it,” he replied with a toothy grin.

            Lucy walked up to him and slapped him across the face. “Not fucking funny, boy!” she hissed.

            “Jesus,” he said as he turned his head back. “It was just a joke, Lucy, and I’m older than you.”

            “You don’t—”

            “Don’t you ever hit me again, you fucking bitch!” His face had turned extremely dark. “I’ll throw you across my knee and spank you like the spoiled little bitch you are—”

            “Don’t you talk to my daughter like that, you little bastard!” said his aunt Bernadette in a hard voice filled with warning.

            “The bitch slapped me across—”

            “I don’t care if you sliced your testicles off,” she retorted. “You ever talk to my daughter like that again and—”

            “I’ll do worse to you, you fucking cunt, if you ever get between me and disciplining your daughter!” he snarled and everyone hushed at the sound of the “c” word.  “You’re the reason she is such a bitch and in this town having that kind of attitude doesn’t pay off! Believe me! Get your fucking shit together, Bernadette, before you get your daughter killed!”

            “Is that a threat?” she asked softly, her green eyes narrowing coldly.

            “It’s a warning, Einstein. This is Bartlett Bay.”

            “He’s got a point there,” said Cameron with a smile.

            “Nobody asked you, freak!” retorted Bernadette coldly.

            “You’re a piece of shit!” hissed Jane. “I hope you fucking die!”

            “My God,” said Beatrice, “You are all so incredibly mean to him. No wonder he doesn’t want anything to do with you.”

            “This doesn’t concern you, Carrier,” said Anne.

            “Alright, that’s it, fuck it, I’m out,” said Ethan and he started to turn around.

            Angela suddenly slipped forward, slid her arm through his, and led him out to the back. He was half-tempted to fight her but because she was incredibly sexy so he decided on impulse to just along.

            She took him out into the back garden down the cement path toward a metal fence that was close to the cliff that overlooked the ocean. There was a statue of an angel in the center of it, modeled after one of the early Bartlett matriarchs back in the early 18th century, looking forlorn with her wings hanging downward near to her ankles. He recalled that statue had been in the smaller, western garden during Thomas’s day.

            “Spring is here,” Ethan said as they walked between the rainbow flowers, planted in rows of blue, yellow, red, purple and pink. They seemed almost blindingly colorful in their early bloom.

            They stopped at the metal fence meant to imitate a wooden picket fence and Ethan looked down at the waves rolling across the waters toward the rock face below. Mickey flew onto the rail and looked down casually beside him, curious to see if there was anything interesting down there.
“Are you okay?” asked Ethan as he turned to her. “You’re shaking—”

            “I’m a little cold,” Angela said quickly and then, with a strange smile, added, “I heard you went back to California.”

            “Yeah, for a bit,” Ethan replied. “My mother’s asshole family took control of my late grandfather’s house and put my grandmother in a home. When I decided to help out, I accidentally gave her a mansion.”

            “You did what?” she asked with a confused expression.

            “When I helped Grace O’Brien, I got a “house in Venice Beach,” as part of the reward package but as it turned out it was freaking huge.” Ethan shrugged. “She was the only member of my family who was kind to me so I figured if I’m paying for it, someone might as well live there.”

            Mickey chuckled from the fence beside him. “‘No backsies!’” he quoted in a shockingly good imitation of his grandmother’s voice.

            When they had arrived at the address, Ethan had stared stupidly at the three-story house along the beach with the keys in his hands, and then she quickly told him “no backsies,” kissed him in the cheek, took the keys and went inside.

            Mickey had burst out laughing.

            “I’m taking some room, somewhere, for when I visit,” he had told her. He did end up with a nice little room, which was bigger than the room he had been growing up in, so he was happy. It had been a surprise, yes, but he regretted nothing.

            “It is one hell of a house,” Ethan told Angela, still impressed with it.

            “That’s very sweet of you,” Angela said. She took his hand, holding it tightly, and he could feel her shivering. He would have offered her his jacket but then saw that she sweating a bit. “I was wondering—I—” she sighed “—we need your help. I need you to collect something from a friend of my family’s.”

            “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” he asked with a smile.

            “I tried to tell you earlier but your family can be—exhausting.”

            “Yeah,” Ethan replied and pulled his hand away. “They can.”

            Mickey was suddenly excited, flapping his wings, and bouncing up and down. “What is it? Adventure? Monsters? A magic spell? Something? Anything?”

            “Mickey doesn’t have a head for business,” Ethan told her. He had been going crazy during the busier times in March when Ethan had been working long hours with Argyle Coughlan on the cannery and drudgery of hiring of employees. The cannery was moving along pretty well and the fisheries were going even better, which took much of his remaining free time. The many boats Ethan owned from his deal with the O’Briens were all getting repaired, and there were more than enough fishermen to sail them, but there were tons of tiny, minute things here and there that he had to go through that Mickey found tedious.

            “I’m bored as shit is what I am,” Mickey told Angela. “This sounds interesting already.”

            “Did you see the monster creeping around in the east wing of this house?” asked Angela.

            Monster? Ethan thought. “I did not,” he told her.

            He did see something, though. He had thought he saw a shape skulking in the darkness, but he wasn’t sure and when he went looking for it, he found only dead ends, old furniture covered in sheets, and no sign anything had been there for decades. In the west wing, he thought he heard a woman crying, but that could have been just an echo from somewhere else in the house.

            “She must like you. She’d come at you if she didn’t. Well, if she thought she could get you.”

            “She?”

            “Her name is Adelaide,” she told him. “She was a Carrier, one of those who looked ‘different’ but her father was one of us. An Anderson. She has what we call the ‘Andreadis gift.’”

            “Look different?”

            “Every now and then one does,” Angela replied with a shrug.

            Ethan didn’t believe that was remotely close to the full story. “There’s something—”

            “Ask Nicole Le Sueur,” she said instantly.

            “Johnny’s mom? Really?”

            “Yeah, she was one of the ones that look different.”

            Clearly, the subject made Angela uncomfortable and Ethan decided to change subjects. “What is the ‘Andreadis gift?’” he asked. Something about that made the hairs on his neck stand on end but he had no idea why.

            “It’s—” she hesitated “—kind of like being double-jointed or having eyes of two different colors except it’s only in our family and it’s only in the women. Sons of such women can give it to their daughters sometimes, as was the case of Adelaide’s father, but if sons have no daughters with the gift, it’s gone forever from that line. It can probably follow a direct female line forever.”

            “Do the other Anderson girls from the other branch have it?”

            “If you mean Teri and Andrea, no, they do not have the gift. They’re cousins. Their grandfather was a sibling to my grandmother but he only had sons. They managed to get the family fortune but have no more of the gift than you.”

            “That’s really weird.”

            “There’s something weird about every family,” she replied with another shrug.

            “Say, have you ever heard of a woman named Mary Courtenay—”

            “Who the fuck mentioned her?” Angela hissed with sudden terror. Instead of just her hands, her whole body was suddenly shaking and he thought he saw goosebumps on her arms.

            Ethan shrugged and said, “I heard it around somewhere. What does it mean to you?”

            “Nothing!” she said too quickly and then calmed herself. “She’s a boogeyman character spread by this bitch named Davenport who married my other granduncle. She’s not real.”

            Well, not anymore, Ethan thought with a smile he kept off his face. “How will I be doing this exactly?”

            She handed him a black flask with a collapsible steel shot glass in its side from her matching green purse. He took it, shook the liquid around a little, and looked at her with a question on his face. “You’ll need this. You and whoever goes with you will need to drink at least one gulp.”

            “What is this?”

            “I can’t tell you much,” said Angela and then she moved close enough that her breasts touched his chest, “But I’ll make it worth your while if you do me this favor.”

            I’ve done crazy shit for ass before, he thought indifferently. “If I do this, I’m going to need more information.”

            She nodded, stepped back and said, “You’ve been into the Engelstad from at least the south, I know that.”

            “South, east and west.”

            “Well, if you head in from the north, around where there is an old shed on the south side of the interstate, you’ll see something different.” That was also hardly a surprise of the century and people saying things like that to him constantly over the months he was in Bartlett Bay had somewhat degraded their impact on him. “Walk south into the forest until you reach a large body of water connected to a desolate beach. It will seem like an ocean, perhaps because it’s saltwater. On the beach, drink this, one gulp for you and each of your companions at least, and wait for her.”

            “Her?”

            “The friend of our family. She doesn’t come around often and she can be—picky. However, I think you might be someone she likes, and if she does, she can help with Adelaide.” Before he asked, she added, “She does not serve us, you understand. We can get her help, but it only goes so far. She may give us the tools but the work required to use them is up to us.”

            “And why am I involved exactly?”

            “An ancestor of yours named Alfred Bartlett experimented magically on Adelaide for decades. She’s a monster now, terrible to behold, terribly hurt, and terribly afraid.” Her eyes darkened. “And she is in the east wing of your house.”

            Alfred was one of Thomas Bartlett’s grandnephews. He didn’t know from his memories but he had researched his family in the Bay City Library. He was either Nathan’s or John’s grandson but he wasn’t sure which one. He definitely wasn’t Thomas’s whose record seemed to have been purged from the Bartletts’ family history. “Magical experiments?”

            “Many and more,” she said. “You remember the church we partied at.”

            “I’ll remember that place if I live to be a thousand,” he told her. “In all my future lives as well, evidently.”

            “Well, a priest once worked there who started those experiments in the late nineteenth century. His name was Christopher Edwards—” she saw his expression and her face tightened “—what does that look mean?”

            “Nothing. I just recognize the name. Minister Christopher Edwards.” He remembered his face too, pale, handsome in an angular, hard kind of way, with those light blue eyes and jet black hair combed straight back. Thomas Bartlett had always suspected there was something sinister about the man and apparently, he was right. He could easily tell Angela wasn’t about to tell him some story about how Edwards was a saint.

            “He tortured Adelaide Carrier for years, using spells to figure out our gift, causing deformities that made her more than simply monstrous. He wanted our gift for himself and to utilize it for his magic.”

            “Your Andreadis gift?”

            “Yes,” she said coldly. “But a gift no man can have.” Her face darkened to an outright sneer. “That monster turned that sweet-natured, beautiful girl into a freak, and years later, your ancestor caught her, and made it even worse. After they built the new house, he locked her in the east wing to continue his experiments. She’s still there.

            “Since your ancestor played such a great part in this great wrong, I’m calling on you to make this gesture of reparations to my family.”

            “Whatever happened to Edwards?” Alfred Bartlett committed suicide by shotgun, or so Ethan had read, but what about the first man involved? After his vision of Nathan’s wedding, he went looking for Edwards but found nothing about him in the public records. Nothing beyond his birth and appointment to the church.

            Christopher Edwards’s fate was a complete mystery.

            Angela’s face became very hard and Ethan realized that although her bubbly, cute, sexual personality wasn’t false, she had the kind of force of will that allowed her to push that personality down and become hard and disciplined should it be required of her.

            He found he rather liked that.

            “How are the Carriers involved?” asked Ethan when she didn’t answer him.

            “The Carriers gave Adelaide to Edwards.”

            “Oh, that is bad.”

            “Yes,” she said in a cold, hard voice. “Yes, it is.” She put her hands behind her back. “Will you do this?”

            “What do you expect me to do exactly?”

            “I expect you to go to that shore, drink that potion, give some to the bird and or dog if they come along, speak to our friend, and then, if she likes you, she’ll give you something to cure Adelaide. If she does, you can come back, give the cure to Adelaide and free her from her misery. Simple.”

            “She has been here for, what, a century?”

            “Too fucking long!” Angela hissed in a sudden anger that was not directed at him. “Damn it, I’m calling on you, Ethan Bartlett, to fix what your ancestor fucked! I want you to do your duty and free my cousin! Do this and you can be assured the Anderson won’t balance the scales to your children or grandchildren in the future!”

            “That’s incredibly dark and I doubt you can do that but, fuck it, I’m in. How about you, bird?”

            “I’m totally down,” said Mickey.

            “So what is she anyway?” asked Ethan. “Some kind of troll?”

            “Words cannot describe her but I see doubt in your eyes.” Angela took a deep breath and then her face became intense and even a little frightened. “Trust me, Ethan, when I tell you there is nothing our friend cannot cure. Nothing. And trust me again when I say you will need that cure.” He opened his mouth to ask how that was possible when she added, “When this is over, if you’re very unlucky you’ll understand why.”

            “That sounds characteristically terrifying.”

            “You taking the dog?”

            “No, Paul is not adventurer material.”

            Paul the Labrador was an amazing dog but he wasn’t any sort of a fighter. He had a very similar personality to the other sweet-natured and loving familiars that Jen Everson raised. He was hardly someone who could fight off goblins or trolls should one appear.

            “Thank you, Ethan,” she told him. “I will give you more than forgiveness if this succeeds.” When she did that, her cuter personality remerged and she kissed him deeply.

            “Well, aren’t bipedal monkey people cute,” said Mickey with a smile.

 

*          *          *

 

            Ethan parked on Went Dr parallel to the freeway on its north side. It was an almost completely empty street where he could have parked anywhere, so he chose a spot along the picket fence that separated the road and the farmlands north closest to the shed that Angela had mentioned. From there, he ducked down through a tunnel designed for rainwater and emerged on the south side of the freeway next to the shed.

            It had once been red, now faded to brown, built on that location before the freeway possibly back when all the land north was still owned by the Gurneys. Some era later, the Fullers had become prominent farmers and landowners, which was quite a feat for late nineteenth-century African-Americans, especially for those whose neighbors were violently racist.

            As the Fullers became less land-oriented and more political and business-minded, the Merricks had inherited most of their land through marriage. Sal Merrick was the owner of the land in the modern-day, taking most of what was east of the Gurneys and in addition to the crops he sold, also ran a small, private airfield.

            As Ethan moved on into the Engelstad on the north side for the first time, Mickey decided to casually rest on his shoulder instead of his usually flying around.

            The trees were different on the north side, slenderer and taller, and alien in some way that had the effect of making Ethan feel very much like he was in a different country. He looked up at their tops swaying gently in the breeze under the gray sky, feeling as uncomfortable as he always did in the Engelstad, and then heard the boom of thunder in the distance.

            He jerked at the sound, which was odd for him, but he shrugged it off and lowered his eyes downward. He saw something in the distance, some great body of water, and then heard the sounds of birds. He looked over and saw a flock of beautiful birds with blue, yellow and red coloring flying off into the sky.

            “Those birds are weird,” said Mickey. “This forest is always weird but there is something especially weird about this part of it.”

            Ethan said nothing, continuing his walk toward the body of water. He felt strangely quiet, numb even, as he walked the few miles of slowly descending land before emerging from the trees onto the beach of some great lake.

            The instant he stepped foot there, he sensed its oddity.

            It wasn’t an ocean because he could see bluish-tinted mountains distantly on every side but the one he stood on but it felt and smelled like an ocean. He had never been to a great lake before to have a comparison but he suspected that in some fundamental way they were different from an ocean, despite appearing very much like one.

            It was also very empty. No person or animal seemed to come to this lake and the sounds of the water splashing against the shore seemed extraordinarily louder than the ones hitting the Long Island Sound.

            “No seagulls, no crabs, no nothing,” said Mickey.

            “Desolate, Angela called it,” Ethan said as he stepped over to the water, knelt down, and cupped the water in his hand. He tasted it and it was just as salty as any ocean.

            Then he shook the water out of his hand, stepped back, and looked left and right. What he saw in either direction appeared to be miles of empty sand and nothing more.

            “Is someone or something supposed to be here?” asked Mickey. “I can’t see anyone or anything anywhere.”

            “I don’t know,” Ethan said but then, when he looked out at the ocean, the thunder hit again. He jerked the way he had before, that time very badly, but for the first time, he suddenly understand exactly why. He felt horror overwhelm him and he suddenly felt like shrieking.

            Cannons! He saw cannons firing at him across the field!

            He stumbled backward, arms splaying about, and Mickey flew off his shoulder as he fell onto the sand. He landed on his bottom and he dug his hands into the sand in an attempt to feel it and remind himself where and when he was, but then he saw the sea and almost screamed again.

            It was filled with blood from the bodies of countless blue and gray soldiers. They floated with the waves, many of them in pieces, and all of them dead. They weren’t all dead instantly, oh no. Those pour souls grew desperate for water and when they drank, they had died in process, their heads and shoulders buried in the muddy pool.

            He remembered it all! He remembered the cries, the screams but most especially, he remembered—

 

*          *          *

 

            —the sound of thunder and the flashes of lightning that followed. He would never forget what he saw in those instances of light.

            That Sunday of April 6th, 1862, was the worst of Thomas Bartlett’s second life by far and quite possibly of the first as well.
General Buell had been late and the rebels attacked in the morning. The Union men created a line that was three miles long to stop the Confederate invasion but from there all semblance to a proper war dissolved into some kind of bloody, disheveled nightmare.

            Everything that could go wrong, went wrong, and incredibly so, incredibly fast. Everyone was making mistakes on both sides, soldiers doing insane things and taking insane risks, and the rebels took forever to stop charging despite how many were killed, hooting their high-pitched cries all the way to the afterlife.

            Thomas was close to the center when it began. The Bartlett Blues, the nickname given to his brother Nathan’s 7th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, was shattered. It wasn’t destroyed, it was just that everyone was sent in every possible direction of flight when Nathan’s ill-fated charge killed a giant chunk of the soldiers and broke their line like a hammer on brittle wood.

            It was spring, the sun bright in the morning, the flowers fragrant and beautiful, and the grass was green with new vegetation. When Thomas’s horse was shot out from under him after that charge, he stumbled into the beautiful, pink peach orchard, threw himself onto his chest with his brother’s men and fired into endless Southern men while soft pink flowers drifted down upon their backs like gentle rain.

            Thomas felt as though he killed more men in that one part of the battle than he had in Walter Kent’s entire military career. The rebels just never stopped coming and it was astoundingly bloody and savage. Had he not witnessed it, he would never have believed it possible.

            Later, he would learn thousands of the Union men fled to the Tennessee River, most of them completely untried and unprepared, and many of the officers had joined them. One might quite possibly have been Colonel Nathan Bartlett himself.

            God, that charge was bad. Thomas had sensed it but, as a captain, he had no other option but to obey his commanding officer, although he did aggressively argue against it. It cost the Bartlett Blues many of their men and Thomas’s favorite horse, Sir Francis Bryan, a wild, troublemaking colt that used to kick his trainers.

            When the orchard had become too dangerous, Thomas didn’t flee the battlefield, but he did flee from that spot, moving west right into the outskirts of the centerline they would later call the Hornet’s Nest. There, with what was left of his brother’s men, he fell under the command of Benjamin Prentis. The others were mostly farmers’ sons from Illinois and Iowa and if Thomas had any preconceptions of such men being more cowardly than gentlemen, he lost them fast.

            There, it was even worse. The enemy defied their earlier record of charging, seemingly never-ending that time, yet the Hornet Nest refused to yield.

            The unstoppable force had just met the immovable object.

            While most generals had fled or been broken, Brigadier General Benjamin Prentis did not, and he held the Hornet’s Nest for hours, repelling the enemy at all costs. The Confederates must have only charged ten or more times in truth, trying to break through their lines, but somehow Prentis kept his men from fleeing and held the line.

            The Confederate’s greatest field commander, Albert Sidney Johnston led the last charge personally.

            Thomas saw him clearly, a man with his gray hair in a widow’s peak pulled back, a full mustache, and a pristine gray Confederate officer’s uniform. He was no coward that was for sure.

            The man on Thomas’s left took a bullet straight into the forehead, a second shot slashed across Thomas’s right shoulder, but he remained where he was. He fired at the commander with the others but he didn’t think he hit him. He felt great disappointment as he watched Johnston ride back, the soles of one of his boots flapping about.

            The Union line in the center bent but it did not break. Grant had said to hold the line and Prentis had damn well intended to do so.

            Sometime later, cannons emerged from the brush like snakes out of holes. “Oh dear God!” cried Thomas in horror and they all let out cries of shock and horror as the half a hundred cannons fired upon them.
Trees and men exploded as if they were packed with gunpowder. By pure chance, Thomas wasn’t hit by anything but he stumbled, fell over, and landed on his back. It seemed that time suddenly slowed down for an instant and, vividly, he saw a flood of blood, flesh and wood fly between himself and the cloudy gray sky.

            It all splashed onto him and salty, hot blood filled with wood chips filled his mouth and made him gag.

            Thomas scrambled to his feet, raised his rifle, screamed as he fired. He reloaded fast, fired again, and then things got blurry. He got one of the men out by the cannons, hit the cannon of the other and scraped another man’s face from the bullet’s ricochet. He could hear himself screaming but only distantly. It was as if he was Walter Kent again, dreaming of Thomas instead of the other way around.

            He lost all sense of time. It could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, but suddenly Prentis was surrounded and surrendering. Before Thomas could agree, disagree, or even blink, one of the Bartlett Blues impulsive raised his rifle and fired, and then suddenly surrendering for those out on the far outskirts of the Hornet’s Nest was no longer possible.

            Thomas fled with his men, gunshots firing at their backs, and when they got to what closest place resembled safety the fifty-plus of them that had charged with him had been reduced to fourteen, including himself.

            Thomas got to cover, reloaded his gun, aimed, and then saw to his relief the rebels were retreating. The fight was over for the day.

            Great tiredness like a weight came over him and he leaned up against a tree and watched them leave.

            That was the longest day of his life, feeling like a week when it was merely hours, and he felt so exhausted that he could barely stay standing. He remained there, however, ready, and waiting. He thanked God waiting was all he had to do.

            Between the rebel lines on the south and the federal line on the north, there was a field of hellish nightmares. The men who died were dead and beyond worry, but those that weren’t were crying out. He saw them ruffling through their clothes, looking for the wounds that would mean their death and when they found them, they screamed in horror, fully knowing they were already dead. Amidst their cries of pain, many started to call out in miserable, begging voices. They called out for water, for help, a quick death and some for their mothers. Many were barely more than children and they were going to die.

            “Jesus!” gasped Thomas with wide, horror-filled eyes.

            The men who could crawl were so desperate for water that they had found a muddy pool and tried to drink from it. The blood from their bodies had poured into it, turning it crimson, but they still drank right up until they were dead.

            When it began to rain later that night, Thomas thought it a blessing for at least they had water. When it got dark, he was so shaken he couldn’t sleep, so he watched for any Confederate movements. During that time, he heard something moving out there in the darkness, imagining it to originating it from some scavenger thing, like goblins, rooting their clothes looking for something. He had stared at the field, trying to pierce the darkness, not quite able to make out what it was.

            Thunder came and went, followed by lightning with their flashes of light. Every time he saw that flash, the fields lit up and he got a glimpse within. The third or so time, he finally saw what it was and the horror of it made him want to vomit. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

            From somewhere, some pigs had escaped their confines and were now in the field eating the dead. He could hear them chomping away, ripping the flesh from their bones, smacking their lips and snorting their low, pig grunts. The sound of them feasting on his friends, companions and enemies would haunt him until the day he died and beyond.

            The next morning, to the intense relief of all Union men, Buell’s reinforcements had finally arrived. At dawn, they rode out and drove the rebels back. The rebels made assaults upon their forces in order to secure their retreat but nothing came remotely close to the day before.

            All that went through Thomas’s mind as he led his regrouped men against their assaults when he saw a lone Confederate officer suddenly appear among the men. They were trying to get him off his horse and take him prisoner but he was making it difficult by slashing at them with his sword.

            “Just shoot him!” cried someone.

            “Take him off his horse!” cried another.

            “Oh for Christ’s sake!” cried Thomas and he stepped forward and raised his rifle. The Confederate officer, a man with a dark circle beard and hair streaked with blond, seemed to notice him without looking and the instant before Thomas fired, he jerked and the bullet missed.

            The man had seen him out of the corner of his eyes and dodged him on instinct even as he fought off other men trying to drag him off his horse.

            Someone did shoot him then, the bullet shoving him off his saddle but not his horse, and he cried out in a snarl of rage more than pain. He slashed violently around him, slicing one man across the face, then somehow got himself back onto his saddle, turned his horse around, and his horse threw its feet back and sent a man flying away with a broken chest.

            Thomas whipped out his pistol but before he could fire, the rebel grabbed a soldier he had just violently slashed, yanked him over the rump of the horse and started to ride. Thomas aimed, very carefully, but with his fellow soldier there, he couldn’t get a good shot without risking him. He lowered his pistol, fired at the horse, but missed as the man disappeared among the trees.

            “Son of a bitch!” he cried and looked at the men all around him.

            “Sir?” one replied awkwardly. They were mostly privates and other lower-ranked men, his rank of captain the highest rank there.

            “How the fuck did that just happen?” cried Thomas incredulously. “One man surrounded by half the Union Army and he just rode out of here like goddamned King Arthur of Camelot!”

            “I shot him,” said one man.

            “He’s probably dead,” said another.

            “He didn’t look dead!” said Thomas with false incredulity and then groaned. “Whatever, just back to it, men!”

            He quickly rallied them back into force but it was the end. That was the last shot fired in the Battle of Shiloh, at that random officer who made a fool of the Bartlett Blues and everyone else who was there.

            After that, the field was theirs. All it took was for both sides to be sent through a human abattoir. Now, it would surely be months again before a battle just as it had been after Bull Run when George B. McClellan sat around and did nothing. That had even gotten to the point where he frustrated Thomas and Nathan’s father so badly that he used his connections to get them where he believed the action was.

            Had Nathan Sr. known what was waiting for them at Shiloh however, he might not have been so eager for it.

            For Thomas’s part, he was deeply disturbed as the savagery of what he had experienced was well went beyond what he could have imagined. He had no idea how either side could keep up such a war for long but he knew they would.

            When Grant eventually called the pursuit off and they all started to drift exhaustedly back toward camp, Thomas’s rage toward his brother remerged. Nathan’s idiot charge had cost them a lot of men. It was not just the death of men who served under them, which was well bad enough, but they knew these men intimately. Some of the officers were good friends from West Point and among the common soldiers of the regiment were the children of longtime family retainers and workers whom they had grown up together in Bartlett Bay.

            Thomas was not sure how he could face their mothers and tell them how their sons died. He would have to lie through his teeth when they asked if they died for a good reason. God knew Nathan wouldn’t do it.

            “I’ll fucking kill him!” Thomas snarled.

            His was mind unable to stop showing him Martin Anderson’s head exploding. Just ahead of Thomas, a cannonball had hit him right in the face and made his entire skull, brains and all, explode like a melon. It made him think of how the Headless Horsemen from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow had died.

            Thomas threw open his brother’s tent, tossed his guns down onto the table, and approached his brother who was sitting in a chair facing the tent wall with his back to the entrance flap.

            “George, Martin, Gregory, Peter, Woodburn, Frank—they’re gone. None of them made it, Nathan. Not even Boon.” Boon Wellington, who they all thought was invincible. He was the strongest man they knew, able to beat anyone in a fight and everyone’s hero. His corpse was somewhere out there in that field, presently being eaten by some hog. “Turn around and look at me.”

            Nathan didn’t move. Thomas wanted to let him know how stupid he was, how that charge was complete idiocy and just how many men his arrogance had murdered. He wanted to say all that but he hesitated. He couldn’t have said why.

            “Nathan?” asked Thomas as he approached. Slowly, he put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and when he did that, Nathan turned around and Thomas felt the world shift around.

            Nathan was weeping miserably, reeling from the horror so badly that his hands were shaking. When he had sensed the flap opening, he had tried his best to hide it.

            “I’m sorry,” said Thomas. He had never expected that reaction but, now that he saw it, he understood.

            Their father was a cutthroat businessman and Nathan was his true son. Businessmen weren’t always built to be soldiers though. Their battlefield was the arena of business and courts, where there were rules that made sense, and if a man did lose everything, he still had his life and a chance to start over. Nathan was not really built for the arena of uncivilized brutality that was war. Not in any place where an honest and simple mistake could create a savagery that devastated him to his core.

            He suspected George B. McClellan was of a similar temperament.

            Thomas held out his arm and Nathan threw his arms around him. They held each other there for several moments before one of them spoke.

            “I got them killed!” Nathan whimpered. “I just did what I was trained to do and I got them all killed!”

            Something had changed in warfare that West Point hadn’t understood. Thomas didn’t understand it either but it was a major problem. The Southern generals, many of them West Pointers as well, were all making the same mistakes.

            “They’re not all dead and no one was trained for this.” If there was one thing that battle had told Thomas, it was that, but there was more to it.

            It had also told him that was going to be one bloody war. He knew that before, he remembered getting that idea from the Man on the Hill and Bull Run, but he had not understood just exactly how bloody. Shiloh was something beyond what he could have imagined. They had lost more men in that battle than all the previous battles of that war combined and to Thomas, it seemed as though it was only going to get worse.

            Nathan backed up and wiped his tears. “Don’t tell Father I cried.”

            “I won’t,” Thomas told him and he meant it.

            Nathan stood up straighter, trying to regain his composure. “How the hell do I face my men after this?”

            “You just do,” Thomas told him. “It’s war. People die. We have to accept that, move on, and learn.” What he had just said was the exact opposite of what he came in to say but it felt right. There was no point in driving home a point he already understood.

            Nathan nodded, wiped his eyes and said, “Father was wrong about you. You’re a lot stronger than he ever gave you credit for.”

            “You’re still his favorite and even if he was here to see all this, you’d still be but that doesn’t matter now. We’ve got a war to fight and no more time to worry about our family squabbles.”

            Nathan nodded.

            “I’m going to see the injured,” he told them. “See if I can heal them.”

            “Will that even work?”

            “It’s something but I doubt it will help much,” Thomas replied and then left.

            He went to the many injured, tried to cast the healing spells he had learned on them, but, as expected, he wasn’t good enough for almost any kind of wound that they had. His talent in healing was hardly better than healing a scratch although he could stop the bleeding, which could make all the difference.

            After exhausting himself, and doing almost nothing for the men dying, he wandered to the edge of their camp, leaned up against a tree, and stared out into the distance. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath, tried to calm himself, and then opened his eyes again.

            His composure broke and, alone, beyond the battle with nothing to keep his attention, he began to scream.

 

*          *          *

 

            Ethan stared off into the blue ocean with a horrified expression plastered across his face.

            Mickey’s upside-down head appeared in front of him right between his eyes. “You alright?” he asked and pecked him on the forehead a few times.

            “Don’t peck me, you bastard,” he said and tried to shake him off the top of his head.

            “My beak is for ripping and tearing, not pecking, so you’re fine—” he pecked him on the forehead painlessly a few times to emphasize his point, “And also, why do you look insane?”

            Ethan reached up, picked Mickey up and placed him on the sand beside him. “Uh, I, uh—” Flashes of death filled his eyes, the deaths of his friends and companions, and he felt sick. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

            “I’m going to need more than that to understand,” said Mickey with some degree of worry.

            Ethan squeezed his eyes shut tightly and a tear slipped out of each eye and slid down his cheeks. He blinked his eyes clear, opened them, and said, “Shiloh.”

            “Who’s Shiloh?”

            “Shiloh was a—” how would he describe it “—a very fucked up battle in Tennessee. We met the Confederates west of the Tennessee River on the days of April sixth and April seventh, eighteen-sixty-two and turned that lovely little piece of Tennessee into a human meat grinder.

            “God, I need a drink.”

            Ethan pulled out the flask Angela gave him, pulled out and expanded the collapsed shot glass from the side, and placed it down on the sand beside Mickey. He poured the liquid into the flask, which was clear like water.

            “I can’t stop thinking about those hogs.”

            “Hogs?”

            “I can still hear them munching away on the dead men in the field past the Hornet’s Nest, making those snorting pig sounds all the while.”

            He turned to Mickey and held up the flask.

            “To my brothers in Shiloh, gone but never forgotten,” he said and then he gently clacked the flask with the shot glass and the two drank.

            “Tastes like water,” said Mickey.

            “Yeah, that’s super disappointing,” Ethan told him and stretched out his legs on the sand. “I guess that’s it, then. We wait.”

            Mickey finished off the water, even picking it up with his funny little arms and it pouring down his throat, while Ethan drank the rest from the flask. Both had more than one gulp, strangely compelled to drink something that was, in all ways, indistinguishable from water. “You alright?”

            “I’ve been better,” Ethan said seriously. “Oh my fucking god, that war is just going to get worse. Thomas survived the war and served all five years.” He swallowed. “I’m going to experience all of it.”

            As he reached down and began to pet Mickey, his vision started to blur.

            “You feeling weird?”

            “A little bit, yeah,” said Mickey as he moved into his hand. “That’s the stuff. Pet the cute bird. Makes everyone feel better.” Mickey blinked and looked up at Ethan’s still arm. “Hey, less talking, more petting, monkey man.”

            Ethan stared straight ahead at the lake before him, his head tilted slightly. “Correct me if I’m wrong but I could have sworn there was not an island out there a moment ago?”

            Mickey turned toward the lake and tilted his own head. “You are correct,” he said in a soft, shocked voice. “I do not think there was an island out there.”

            Everything began to blur much more but there was very clearly an island out there. “Okay, this is really good shit, whatever it is.”

            “Uh… are we high?”

            “Oh yeah, definitely,” Ethan replied. He stood up shakily and Mickey flew awkwardly onto his shoulder. He almost fell off and was forced to grip down with his talons painfully in order to compensate. “Ow, you evil bastard.”

            “Sorry,” said Mickey as he adjusted himself onto Ethan’s left shoulder.

            Ethan looked at the island some thousands of feet away and then cast a spell to look through Mickey’s eyes. All Mickey saw was the beach and the forest line with just as much blurriness as Ethan.

            “I’m going to just stay on your shoulder, Ethan. Do not fall.”

            “No promises,” Ethan replied. Then he blinked and pointed toward the spot where the waves hit the sand. “That wasn’t there before either, was it?” Ahead of them was a little boat with a matching, archaic-looking oar. It looked new but ancient in design, like ancient Greek or Roman, although in the end, it was still just a wooden canoe.

            “This is getting weird,” said Mickey.

            “Weird than normal,” Ethan replied. He stumbled over to the boat, got onto it awkwardly and sat down before he could fall. As he grabbed the oar, Mickey flew to the front of the boat and settled himself on its nose. Ethan pushed the oar into the sand and pushed the boat out onto the water, feeling it lift him up over the small waves.

            “It’s so calm all of a sudden,” said Mickey as he looked around in the dumbstruck way of someone who had never been high in his life before.

            “It is weird,” said Ethan as he paddled the boat toward the island. “I’m thinking—” he did think for a moment “—cider?”

            “Cider?” asked Mickey with a look back.

            “Apple cider.”

            “I know what cider is. I’m wondering you randomly brought it up.”

            “It just came to me. The Gurneys stole this recipe from one of their slaves and made a lot of money on it but I seem to recall they screwed it up somewhere before the war. If the slaves’ family has descendants still in Bartlett Bay and still has the ingredients, I might be able to collaborate with them, grow the apples on my land, which I’m not using right now and sell cider. Bartlett Bay only had a thriving cider industry before the Civil War so I don’t think the Gurneys have a modern-day copyright on them.”

            “It’s weird how you can remember your past lives,” said Mickey.

            “You’re telling me, Not-So-Big Bird,” Ethan replied. The boat pushed into the sand of the island all of a sudden. “That’s odd.” Ethan looked over his shoulder, saw the shoreline several miles behind him and then turned back. “How long was I rowing? It doesn’t feel that long.”

            “Like, uh—few minutes.” Mickey looked confused. “I turned my head from the front for a second and suddenly we were here.”

            “This is getting weird,” Ethan replied.

            “Getting weird?”

            “Weird shit happens a lot to me,” Ethan replied. “I’m kind of getting used to it.”

            He stood up, blinked his blurry eyes through the forest line of the island, and stepped out into the sand. He felt his feet dig into it, nearly sending him forward by overbalancing him, and then found his footing.

            Mickey flew into his back in a failed attempt to fly onto his shoulder but, instead of falling, he gripped Ethan’s back with is talons and little arms, and climbed up.

            “That hurt, you little black bastard!” Ethan gasped as the bird settled on his shoulder.

            “Stop your whining, Sissy Joe Old,” Mickey replied. “You had a jacket on.”

            “Yeah but it didn’t come with asshole bird talon protection,” Ethan replied and then started walking.           

            Facing west, he looked across the lake and saw a gap in the mountains reaching all the way down to the lake floor, providing the one and only spot where the lake went beyond those mountains. For reasons unknown, that gap absolutely terrified him and he had to turn away from it after just a moment.

            “Drugs are bad, mkay,” he thought in his mind.

            “It’s so quiet here,” said Mickey. “Where are the other animals?”

            “I have no idea,” Ethan replied as he stepped around a tree and suddenly found a house seemingly hidden from sight although that shouldn’t have been possible being that it was on the side of the beach that had been facing them. “How did we miss this?” Ethan asked as he walked toward it.

            He felt the world begin to spin as if he was walking into a spinning tunnel in a carnival. Somehow, he didn’t fall or become nauseous though.

            Like the boat, the house was also ancient Greek or Roman, in the form of a two-story structure in a square design that wrapped around an open-air entryway on three sides. The entryway also sported a fantastic garden of countless colors, beautiful ivy growing up the walls all around it, and countless, vibrant colored flowers. He did not know how he recognized it as ancient Greek or Roman, thinking that he supposed it just struck him that way and that he just went with it.

            As he walked into the garden, he soon realized he wasn’t alone.

            On either side were lions, tigers, wolves, various large birds, a bear, a giraffe, and one hippo. At first, Ethan thought they were stuffed or fake, but then he saw the bear tilt its head and let out a strange, lonely, roar sound.

            They must have been very well trained indeed to stand so still and so close without making any loud noises at the two strangers walking among them.

            “They’re familiars,” Mickey said softly.

            Ethan only then noticed the intelligence in their eyes and wondered about that. They looked curious, intrigued, desperate, lonely—

            He bumped into a pole that held up the second-story walkway ahead and felt pain go through his right shoulder. “Well, I’m not dreaming,” he told Mickey painfully.

            “Watch where you’re going, you damn, dirty ape,” said Mickey. Ethan turned his head slowly and looked at him. “I almost fell off,” he added with a shrug.

            They burst out laughing.

            “Are we okay?” asked Mickey.

            “I don’t think so. I think we’re as high as a kite and I don’t know what is in this house.” Ethan was grinning all the same. “Is this even real? I mean, does it look real?” He threw a thumb in the general direction of the bear. “That’s not normal bear behavior. Even Yogi’s not that chill.”

            “And the cats out there are resisting this yummy, yummy bird meat so, uh, yeah. It’s weird.” Mickey looked at him contemplatively. “You sir, are an asshole, but you’re my asshole.”

            “And you, my winged friend, are a bastard but you are my bastard.”

            “Why are you still leaning against this pole?” asked Mickey.

            “Don’t know. It’s kind of comfortable.” He looked ahead, saw one of the doors leading into the building was open, and in the shadowed entryway, he saw the silhouette of a gorgeous woman. “Hello, beautiful.”

            The figure gestured for him to approach and Ethan did, moving around the pole, and walking like a drunkard toward the door.

            “Forgetting how to walk, Kong the Not-So-Mighty?” asked Mickey.

            “Sure am,” Ethan replied and he found himself in some dark, but wonderful, ancient room that he did not recall fully entering. It wasn’t connected to the door he just entered, he was sure of that somehow but had no memory of wandering through the building to get to that inner room.

            There, he found himself surrounded by various smaller animals such as rabbits, squirrels, small dogs, more birds and one kangaroo, and all of them stared at him with obvious intelligence.

            “What’s going on here?” he asked. “I’m very confused.”

            The rooms spun around him, his eyes growing wide, and he saw a bed where he found a gorgeous naked man lying down and rubbing himself against it. He was utterly flawless, a man in about the age of nineteen with sculpted muscle, lean and fully tanned, with a sculpted jaw, long, dark hair combed straight back and dark eyes. Aside from the various necklaces and jewelry he wore, he was naked.

            “Tell me you see a porn star with his dong swinging around?” asked Ethan.

            “I sure do,” said Mickey. “The question is, ‘Why?’” He looked around, flapped his wings, and landed awkwardly on a shelf by some other birds. He failed to stop himself properly and stumbled face-first into the wall. “Shit pants, I say,” he said with a groan.

            Ethan chuckled at that.

            Mickey turned around, faced the bird next to him, a rainbow-colored scarlet macaw. “What’s up, Rainbow?” he asked.

            The bird turned to him and squawked at him as if it was trying to speak.

            “I am so fucking high,” Ethan said and then watched the sexy, muscular man walk up to him. He seemed like a child with a weird, gentle innocence about him, and when he came up to Ethan, he suddenly rubbed his head against Ethan’s chest as if he wanted to be petted. “Okay, that’s fucking weird.” He gently took a hold of the man, his muscle as hard as stone, and he gently pushed him back.

            There was a sound, the snapping of fingers, and the man turned and obediently walked into a different room just as a woman walked into that one.

            “Good fucking God,” Ethan said in wide-eyed awe.

            “Sometimes,” the woman replied with a smile.

            The woman who stood before him was hands down the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in all three of his lives. Claire Winters and even Katherine of Aragon looked like withered crones by comparison. So did Scarlett Johannsson and Salma Hayek, who he considered to be among the most beautiful women alive in the modern-day.

            That woman looked like she was photoshopped into reality, each part of her perfect in every possible way. She literally had no flaw that he could see and he could not begin to describe what he was seeing except to say that she was a “supermodel-type perfection” and “the greatest one ever born.” Color wise, she had light skin, just short of pale, with dark hair and deep brown eyes, on a slender, petite body. If these things were “ordinary” in other women, they were extraordinary in her. He was drawn to every inch of her like a moth to a flame, more aroused than he could ever recall being.

            She wore a sleeveless lilac dress-robe with no sleeves that clasped at the shoulders, the fabric tightened under her breasts and then hung down to her ankles where he saw sandaled feet. Due to her ludicrous level of beauty, he barely noticed it.

            “Hello Ethan,” she told him.

            Ethan blinked, reached up and touched her face. He felt her skin and she was real, but he couldn’t believe it. His brain felt like it was shutting down and he couldn’t seem to think.

            She took off his jacket, tossed it down, and felt his chest. His arousal was physically painful at that point.

            “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen,” he told her.

            She smiled but it wasn’t a strong smile. “Men tell me that often. Tell me something men rarely tell me.”

            “I think you’re very dangerous and I should be extremely frightened of you.” He had no idea what made him say that but she reacted well to it.

            It made her smile brightly and she said, “That, my friend, is something men rarely tell me despite even the most foolish believing it in their hearts. They all sense it but in their manly pride, they refuse to admit it.” She looked into his eyes. “You’re different. You’ve met dangerous women before.”

            “Yeah,” he agreed but all the blood was heading away from his brain to his groin and he couldn’t think of who.

            “Thrice-lived man,” she said and she kissed him. He became even more painfully aroused if such a thing was possible and he felt his head going numb. If she touched his crotch, he felt like he would explode in his pants.

            “Am I dreaming this?” he asked her as she broke away.

            “Maybe,” she told him. “Do women like me exist in your dreams?”

            “I’m pretty sure that’s the only place they exist.” She laughed aloud and kissed him more passionately than before. His mind was warning him to be careful, a feeling of deep caution overcoming him, and when she broke away, he simply asked the first thing that came out of his mouth. “What’s with that sexy guy with his schlong hanging out?”

            “Oh, he’s just a cat,” she told him offhandedly. “Sometimes, when I’m bored, I turn one into a man and have my way with him.”

            Ethan laughed for a second and then said, “I don’t get it.”

            “I know,” she said and pressed her body against his, looking up at him from a shorter height that seemed as perfect as every other part of her. “I agree with my children, Ethan. It is time Adelaide was freed.” She wrapped herself into him and he felt like he was floating backward into a cloud of ecstasy. He was afraid to touch her, not sure why, so all he did was act like a statue.

            He was on the ground suddenly, although he didn’t remember getting down there and he was naked too with the woman naked on top of him. He felt tired, spent, and, above all, confused. He had a sense that he was utterly under this woman’s control and she was only stopping to tell him something.

            Ethan looked over to his left and saw a man making love to a woman beside him. Ethan had never laid eyes on the man before but he looked very familiar all the same, his hair and eyes both black and his body lean and slender. He could not place him in the second he glanced at him. The woman that man was with was just a woman, gorgeous as the man on the couch but not remotely impressive next to the unnaturally beautiful woman that Ethan was under.

            The woman above took his face, turned it toward hers and said, “Angela was right about my feelings toward you. I do enjoy young men like you. So much fun. So many delights and all for the first time.”

            “Thanks?” he replied in confusion.

            She smiled sweetly at him but there was something deadly in that smile. “I will give you what you need to help Adelaide,” she told him. “She is of my blood and her pain is felt by her kind.”

            “Who are you?” he asked.

            “I’m just a woman who lives on an island with animals,” she said strangely, her face illuminated by firelight from somewhere. It wasn’t dark but it was a dark room and she had a lit fire in it somewhere.

            “That does not help.”

            “Adelaide requires an end to her pain, Ethan,” she told him. He felt her body on him and he felt very young despite the fact that whoever was on him couldn’t be physically older than eighteen. “She won’t submit easily, however, as Alfred had thought to escape his consequences by using potions in his experiments.”

            “Potions?” Ethan asked.

            She held a new flask above him, one of solid gold and silver depiction a beautiful woman with pigs and lions around her in traditional ancient Greek style. It looked like it belonged on the sides of one of those ancient urns.

            “Within this flask are three cures that will cure any vast supernatural monstrosity you might discover and, to keep their sanity, make their time as a monster remembered as nothing more than a dream. You will use one on Adelaide, the other two you will save. There will come a day when you will need both. You will know the kind of monster the liquid in this task is required for the instant you see one.”

            “Do I need this? How badly messed up is she?”

            “If you think your little Remove Spell potion can cure the kind of spell you’re looking at, you had best think again. No mortal can cure what roams in the dark east wing in your house.”

            “Okay,” he told her.

            “Okay,” she said, imitating his California accent, and then she kissed him deeply. He then got lost inside her, spinning around and away off into something that was like sleep but somehow wasn’t.

 

*          *          *

 

            Ethan jerked up to a sitting position, his hair sticking out everywhere, and stared around the beach from the exact spot where he drank from the flask around an hour or so past noon. It was as if he had just passed out on the beach, had a dream, and woke up. The only footprints toward the shore were the ones he left when he checked the water.

            There was no sign of the boat or the island.

            “What just happened?” asked Ethan.

            Mickey groaned from the ground beside him and Ethan looked over and saw him get to his feet, his feathers looking ruffled, and his mouth agape in shock and confusion. “I had a dream too,” he said in a strange voice. “I dreamed I was turned into a man and had sex with a parakeet who was turned into a woman. It was twisted and awesome and weird and I am thoroughly disturbed.”

            “I dreamed I banged the most beautiful woman on Earth,” Ethan said. “It was also awesome but weird. I think she drained the shit out of me.” It already seemed to be fading from his mind like a dream but not quite.

            “Was it a dream?” asked Mickey.

            Ethan looked down at his right hand on the opposite side of Mickey. “No, I don’t think so.”

            “What do you mean you ‘don’t think so?’” Mickey looked around. “There’s nothing here. No boat, no island, not even tracks except the ones we came in on.”

            “Why, you ask?” Ethan raised his right hand up and in it was the golden flask.

            Mickey let out a bird-shriek of surprise.

 

*          *          *

 

            “What happened to you?” asked Lucy.

            “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” Angela took him in his arm, pulled him back out to the garden, and then faced him with happy, eager eyes.

            “You saw her!” she whispered in awe. “You actually saw her!”

            “I saw something,” he replied.

            “Did she give you the cure?” Ethan reached into his jacket pocket and showed her the flask. “Oh my god, it’s so wonderful.” She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek in a blatantly sexual way. He felt her breasts touch his chest as she did so but he felt so drained sexually that it did absolutely nothing for him. “I can feel her touch on you,” she whispered into her ear.

            “What did she do to me?”

            “Just enjoyed you but I can still feel her presence.”

            “Okay, that’s weird.”

            She looked him over, touched his chest and felt the muscle there, and then smiled. “Off to the east wing then?”

            “I guess,” he replied with a shrug.

            “No weapons.”

            “No weapons? I’ve been told repeatedly she’s some kind of monster and you want me to go in unarmed?”

            “You’re not there to murder her,” she said sternly. “If she sees you come in there with guns and a sword, she’ll either hide from you forever or move to kill you as quickly as she can.”

            “Oh, this day is just getting—” he thought about and then shrugged again “—okay, it’s been a pretty good day so far.” Angela giggled and kissed him on the lips

            Mickey let out a tired “eh” sound from his place on the rail. “It’s pretty close quarters in there. Mind if I sit this one out?”

            “Probably for the best,” Ethan said and then realized something. “Hey, why am I doing this?”

            “What?” Angela’s face had the look of suspicion on it. “What do you mean?”

            “Don’t look at me like that,” he told her. “She’s one of you, right? If fighting is not required, wouldn’t it work a lot better if it was one of you walked up to her and give her the potion?”

            “For reasons that I don’t wish to get into, I can’t actually get close to her in her condition.”

            “Why?”

            She looked very uncomfortable and didn’t answer.

            “Great. More mysteries. Yippy.” Well, he had gone this far, might as well go all the way. He felt mostly sober by then too, and, although not perfect, felt ready enough. “I’ll be right back.”

            He went out to the truck, got his knapsack out from behind the seats, slipped the potion inside, and then went back in and walked over to the east wing. Angela followed him the whole way, saying nothing and seemingly just happy with being in close proximity to him.

            The keys to the east wing were waiting on a coffee table beside the door and he picked them up, opened the door into the darkness beyond and stepped inside. Before shutting the door, Ethan leaned against the frame for a few minutes. He could not vividly remember that island woman’s face but, like Anne Boleyn, he could still see her eyes.

            “Those damn eyes…” he murmured.

            “Bartletts sometimes make bad choices, Ethan,” Angela told him as he stood there. “Your great-grandfather chose Julian over your grandfather and Alfred chose to involve himself in something no man has a right to. You can’t fix the past but you can make amends.”

            “You seem really connected with this woman you’ve never met.”

            “You wouldn’t understand,” she replied. “It’s an Andreadis thing.”

            Ethan looked past her and noticed Julian’s legacy in his wife, children and grandchildren with the two Carrier women, all surprisingly quiet. He still didn’t know why those last two were there and the one that could see him, Beatrice, was staring at him with an intense but otherwise unreadable expression.

            “Whatever,” he said tiredly and he went into the darkness and shut the door behind him. He locked it with the key and stuck it in his pocket. Then he checked the lights and just like before they didn’t work. “Of course, they wouldn’t turn on the power,” he grumbled with a sigh.

            Since every single window was boarded up from the outside and there was no natural light save that of horizontal slivers that slipped out from between the boards. It was virtually pitch black.

            Ethan cast his Torch spell and a white bauble formed over his left shoulder and filled the hallway with light that stretched about thirty feet or so, showing him down the hallway built to connect to the main house.

            He took a deep breath and walked forward into the east wing.

            The east wing was just the first manor that had been built by Ethan’s ancestors after they arrived from England and made their money in the fisheries along modern-day Fisher St. Ethan knew that the first time he explored the place but he did not have the memories of growing up there as Thomas Bartlett when he did. It made the place far less spooky since he suddenly knew every nook and cranny.

            By the time Thomas was born, the main house was finished but the old house was still in use. The new section was fancier and larger, and, the west wing seemed to have been added to look like the old house so that it perfectly matched its opposite side. That technically made the Bartlett Mansion three houses. Why the west wing was locked as well was anyone’s guess, although Ethan suspected it was to help with the illusion of only the main house being in use.

            Ethan stopped first in the center of the old manor’s entryway where his bauble’s light was not quite able to reach the walls or ceiling and called out the name, “Adelaide,” in a firm, clear voice. He listened and heard nothing for several minutes.

            Somewhere, out in the dark, he did hear a soft creaking sound. It could have been the old wood in the house or it could be something else. It was impossible to know for sure.

            After waiting a few minutes for something to happen, he crept forward into the house and began to check every room including the basement. He checked every closet, opened the cupboards and even looked under the beds.

            “You never can tell. There just might be a gremlin in your house,” Ethan quoted in his mind.

            It took him about forty minutes and, as before, he found no evidence of anything living in the place. The east wing of the Bartlett Mansion was more a tomb than a house. On his way back to the entryway, he stopped in Thomas’s old room for the second time and stared at it for several minutes. It wasn’t Thomas’s bedroom. It was just an unused family bedroom that he sometimes went to in order to get away from his family for a spell.

            It was in that room where he first kissed Regan Kavanagh.

            He remembered how her lips felt, the beating of his heart and the smell of her flaming red hair. He also remembered the other times, the games he played, the books he read, and the times he spent staring out of the window when it was too rainy to leave and looking out at the fields drenched in rainwater.

            Ethan walked over to the window, looked out through a horizontal space between the boards and stared at the fields outside just as he had in that other life. It was so beautiful out there with its bright green grass, beautiful flowers, and trees swaying slightly under the gray sky.

            There was no visual evidence that it wasn’t still 1850.

            It was a day like this when Regan went tree climbing and damn near broke her neck, he thought. The tree was still on the property, although he could not see it from that spot. In his mind’s eye, he could easily recall the leaves swaying in the wind and her fancy, green dress flapping as she climbed.

            He still couldn’t remember what happened to Regan. Under Beechwood’s magic, he said he searched for her, so he supposed he had. Ethan had gotten curious and looked her up in the library just as he had with Christopher Edwards but he found even less about her. It was as if she had never even existed at all.

            He turned around and saw something jerk to the right down the hall. He rushed to the door, looked down the hall, and saw something just disappear out of sight in the direction of the entryway. That had happened before, he recalled, and, when he followed it again, what happened before, happened again.

            He ended up in the entryway seeing nothing. Last time, he hadn’t even been sure he saw anything, following more of a feeling than an actual sighting.

            He went down the stairs, checked underneath them, checked the closets, looked behind and around the covered-up furniture and found nothing. He moved into the center of the room, feeling frustrated, but then it suddenly came to him. He knew exactly what he had missed both times.

            There was only one direction he had not been looking in.

            Ethan moved into a corner so that his back and sides were against the wall and said, “Adelaide.” There was no answer. “Come down.” There was no answer to that either, so he took a deep breath, and then looked up.

            As he did so, he used his magic to make the Torch spell go higher, removing the darkness and—

            “Jesus!” he cried suddenly and jerked away from the wall in horror.

            Directly above him, crouched on the ceiling like a spider, was a thing. Ethan could not have described it if he tried and thought even H.P. Lovecraft would have had a time doing it. What his eyes told him at first could only be identified as simply a “mass” of some things. After a long moment of staring, he came to understand it to be something like that of a small, human torso with a dozen or so limb-like things sticking out randomly from its flesh.

            The torso might have been that of a young child but the limbs were not even remotely human. They were all somewhat slender about the width of his wrist, some reptilian with snake heads about the size of his fist, others equally long and snake-like in shape but covered in fur with similarly sized canine or feline heads. There were insect ones too ending in feet, which might explain why it could grip the ceiling so well, and sticking out of its rump was, clear as day, a lion’s tail.

            There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. Some stuck out from its belly, some from its back, one from its neck, and most from its sides, at least ten but possibly more. The human limbs were there, but its legs hung uselessly down behind it, dangling from the ceiling, and the human arms were almost as withered with fingers beaten down into claws.

            Upon seeing him, it started to crawl slowly down the wall headfirst. As it neared, going deeper into the light, he saw the things sticking out of it that were raw and infected, and in some places outright bleeding. They had erupted out the creature’s body like tumors, awkwardly ripping through the skin.

            The closer it got, the more could hear those tumor-heads. Some hissed, some growled, some purred, all very quiet, but all very distinctive.

            He backed away, almost falling over, and formed a Lightning Bolt in his right hand, filling the hall with additional orange light as the electricity moved throughout his fingers. When he did that, it stopped instantly on the wall across from him, raised its head and looked at him.

            Everything shifted away from fear in an instant.

            The monster’s face, Adelaide’s face, was still recognizable as a little girl’s face. It was mutilated and monstrous but it was impossible to deny. The right half had been growing one of those tumors, some kind of cat or dog, maybe, and was only partly out and deforming her jaw and teeth, but the other half belonged to a once pretty, auburn-haired girl of maybe six or possibly seven.

            He undid his Lightning Bolt spell and knelt on one knee in front of her.

            “I’m sorry, Adelaide,” he told her and he saw tears slipping down her eyes, the one on the left was normal and blue, the one on the right huge and yellow like a snake’s. It made a miserable girlish cry of desperation and lonesomeness intermixed with an animal’s whining, and she moved down onto the ground, supported by those tumor-limbs on her side and took a step toward him. Her human arms were reaching out in a child’s way for a desperate hug.

            She stopped quickly, however, when the snakes hissed at Ethan and bared their fangs. She used her withered little human arms to try and quiet them but it didn’t work. One of those wolves let out a soft, mournful howl and another growled at Ethan.

            “Those things want to bite me, don’t they?”

            She looked at him miserably but gave no response.

            Ethan reached into his pack and took a hold of one of his blue Remove Spell potion. “So, Adelaide—” he cast Sense Magic spell on her to get a look at what he was seeing magically and promptly cried out as she seemed to glow like a little sun. He quickly undid it, blinked the tears out of his eyes, and shook his head. “What the fuck was that?” he cried.

            She was still there, looking at him with her head tilted and a face full of confusion.

            Ethan understood why Christopher Edwards and Alfred Bartlett wanted to experiment on her. She had that level of power just inside of her and those were the days before magic bounced back. He would never condone that let alone actually do what they did but he understood its appeal the same way an honest understands the appeal of stealing millions of dollars.

            He also understood that the woman on the island was most definitely correct. There was no way his simple Remove Spell potion from a basic-level book could possibly fix what he was looking at. He couldn’t read the magic very well, it was in fact so complex and powerful that he wasn’t entirely sure he even knew what he was looking at, but he understood the spells that made Adelaide that way were cast by much more complex magic than he had ever seen. He supposed they were intertwined with whatever the “Andreadis gift” was as well.

            Clearly, there was no way he was curing this girl with his own magic.

            He put the Remove Spell potion back without taking his hand out, then pulled out the flask he got from the woman on the island. Instantly, Adelaide stepped back in fear. “No!” he said quickly. “This is different! I guess—I guess you were injured by other potions?” She nodded at him. “All the same, I need you to drink this.” She shook her head. “What do you mean, ‘No?’”

            She shrugged at him and shook her head.

            “I went on a Hunter S. Thompson level trip out and got jump fucked by a strange woman who may not even be human to get this flask. You need to drink this thing.”

            She shook her head sternly.

            Ethan blinked at her incredulously. “You’re a goddamn Cronenberg nightmare covered in giant snakes and monster heads after being trapped in the east wing of a mansion for a century and I’m going to have to force you to drink the cure?”

            She nodded.

            “Oh for fuck’s sake!” Ethan cried. If she got away, he would never be able to get that close to her again without some kind of violence or trap or something drastic and complicated. “I am so going to regret this!” he said and then he moved the potion to his right hand and threw himself straight at her before something like “logic” could change his mind.

            Adelaide shrieked and jumped onto one of the walls and started to scramble out of reach. He caught one of the skinny human legs before she could and yanked her off with surprising ease. When she hit the ground, one of the dog necks shot back and bit him violently in the ankle to make him scream.

            It clamped down on his ankle like a little bear trap and he knew this was going to be even worse than he had feared.

            Ethan slammed his other foot down on the wolf’s neck, which made it yip, and then tackled Adelaide as she tried to flee. Snakes, cats, wolves and something else, bit into him as Adelaide went berserk and started charging full speed across the entryway. He barely managed to attach his Torch spell to the creature before they were out of range.

            “Adela—oh shit!” She threw herself through the door into the east wing’s kitchen, breaking it apart. He grabbed onto something of hers with his left hand, although he barely had to because so many things had their teeth in him that he probably couldn’t have escaped if he tried.

            The kitchen was luckily mostly empty but she hit something still there, he had no idea what, and suddenly pots and pans dropped onto his back like an avalanche of metal. He cried out in pain as she went through the nearest door, slamming into a closet wall, and then went running out into the nearest room.

            Adelaide threw herself into anything and everything in her panicked attempt to get him off. He cried out each time as he was slammed into wooden chairs, tables and even the stairs on her journey back to the entryway, hitting it sidewise, and breaking into the crawlspace underneath. She tried the walls too, sometimes the ground, rolled over in panic a few times as well, and each time she touched anything the creatures’ teeth and or fangs twisted in his flesh violently. Adelaide shrieked like a banshee the whole time, a sound like that of nails on a chalkboard, as she continued her blind panic run.

            Ethan gritted his teeth down tightly, pushing down the pain as best he could. Suddenly, he sensed something ahead and raised his head.

            “Oh shit!” he cried as she went flying into an old 19th century piano that Thomas’s mother had loved, broke one of its legs, and then half dropped down onto his back. “Oh God!” he cried in agony as Adelaide slipped out from underneath like a cockroach that narrowly missed someone’s foot and charged onward.

            If she had broken two legs of that piano instead of one, the whole weight of the instrument would have come down on him and broken his back.

 

*          *          *

 

            The hawk familiar named Mickey looked up at the sound of breaking in the distance. “Looks like it wasn’t as easy as just handing it to her,” said he.
“Was that the nineteenth-century piano?” asked Jane Hamilton after a few moments of crashing.

            “I don’t know,” said Margaret uncomfortably.

            “I thought I heard pans falling,” said Lucy.

            Angela was violently shaking, barely able to hold her composure. Everything poor Adelaide felt, she felt because that close, much of the girl’s pain and fear were Angela’s as well. Normally, back in Edwards Grove, Angela could barely feel a thing and, with some alcohol, nothing at all but the gift in Adelaide was on hyper drive. It was already enhanced enough considering to normally feel each other, such as that of between her grandmother Addison and herself, there was a requirement of deep concentration. After what Edwards and Alfred Bartlett had done to her, the gift had made her emotions and feelings like a fire and their effects like heat.

            Once, Addison had tried to approach Adelaide and comfort her. Unfortunately, she discovered a brand new level of forced empathy that came over her when she got within about ten feet. The pain she felt from that had dropped her to the ground and almost killed her. That was, of course, the reason Angela was terrified to go anywhere near her.

            It was reputedly even worse than what she was feeling at that moment. At that moment, the girl was scared and because she was scared, the fire that was her gift had become an inferno.

            She felt really bad for her grandmother. As one got older, the gift got stronger, which meant Addison could feel Adelaide pretty much anywhere in Connecticut. She once claimed the last matriarch, her mother, had died because the pain of the girl finally overwhelmed her while she retired all the way down in Florida.

            God, does she feel this way all the time? Angela whimpered in her mind. If so, she understood why Addison was so bitter toward the Carriers. This is killing me, she thought painfully.

            Beatrice Carrier tried to comfort her and she slapped her hand away.

            “Are you okay?” asked one of the twins, the pretty one named Gina.

            “I’m fine!” Angela lied and went over to a table to lean on it. She knew what went wrong. He had a potion and Adelaide did not like potions.

            Alfred Bartlett sought to avoid the consequences by not using his magic directly, i.e. through potions. Edwards had used spells directly and Alfred thought that was what caused his transformation. A direct line from victim to perpetrator that he imagined he could somehow circumvent via potions that were no longer attached to the caster.

            Angela wondered if Alfred had finished his transformation and was out there somewhere hiding from the world. It was perfectly believable that the Bartletts saw what he was becoming and, after a disappearance, conveniently came up with a story about suicide to keep away any nosy questions. He wouldn’t be the first Bartlett with an empty grave.

            She liked that idea. She liked the idea of Alfred suffering somewhere out there in the Engelstad, screaming in his agony and all alone as Adelaide had been.

            She liked it a lot.

            Angela took a deep breath through her teeth and then jerked at the sound of something like glass breaking. Glass deeply frightened Adelaide and her already heightened emotions leaped higher at the sound of breaking glass.

            “What the hell was that?” asked Anne.

            “Why don’t you go look and see, Anne,” said Jane.

            Margaret frowned at both of them. “Nobody is going through that door!” she hissed.

            Sweat poured down Angela’s body. “End this!” she gasped softly. “Just end this now!”

 

*          *          *

 

            Adelaide finally slammed into something hard enough to stop her, which, in that case, was the solid oak door into the old library. She crunched into it hard and then slumped over.

            “That’s right, Adelaide,” Ethan said in agony, covered in broken window glass and wood shards. All her limbs became slack and he grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled himself forward so that his chest was over her human head. “You’re getting cured whether you like it or not!” He grabbed her face, popped open the flask, and poured it in her throat.

            Bizarrely, only a specific amount poured out. It should have emptied more because he was far too hurt to coordinate it properly but only an exact amount, exactly one-third of the liquid, poured out before it simply stopped flowing.

            Ethan closed the top of the flask as the limbs went slack, felt the heads slip off his body, and then rolled off her onto the wooden floor back first. He tried to breathe and found his neck was starting to close up, likely from whatever poison those snakes had injected into him.

            He reached into his knapsack, pulled out his yellow Cure potion, drank it and instantly felt better. He distantly sensed something leaking from his legs, arms and back. He was pretty sure it was the poison, which there was a shockingly large amount of, being pushed out of his wounds by his potion’s effect.

            “You were venomous as hell,” he moaned and then he got that blue Remove Spell potion, drank it just in case he was enchanted, but he wasn’t and that was fine. He then grabbed a red Basic Heal potion, drank deep, and felt his wounds closed up. After that, he felt much better, albeit extraordinarily tired and sore. “That’s the stuff.”

            He rolled over to look at Adelaide and jerked suddenly.

            The body of the monster had already crumpled apart and he could see the girl within, covered in something like slime. What made him jump wasn’t any of that, however, but the fact that the girl was rapidly getting bigger and older. He knew exactly what was happening the instant he saw it.

            She was aging to her natural age and considering the period she was captured in, that was a death sentence.

            Ethan jerked his arm into his knapsack, found a youth potion, and pulled it out. The light of it filled the entire entryway like a powerful electric lantern as he moved over her.

            She was going to die within seconds. She was already elderly, already growing into her eighties or nineties at that very second. He rolled her over, flipped open the top and it poured it down her throat. He had managed to succeed about the point where she reached a hundred, her body jerking and convulsing as the potion battled natural time. For a moment, she stayed the same age and he earnestly thought she was going to die.

            For that moment, her getting older and younger were in conflict. It frightened him deeply to think it might not work and she would just end up a hag but then she had aged against the youth potion’s effect to whatever her true age would have been and then started to get younger.

            He felt intensive relief as she started to grow younger like the others had before her. When she stopped at age six which he feared she might not reach, he dropped down onto his back once more, groaned tiredly, and then stared up at the ceiling. It was still dark but it was a little lighter in the entryway then since Adelaide had knocked off several boards from the windows.

            The girl’s head suddenly appeared above him. She was filthy but she was otherwise just a little girl, her auburn hair hanging down around his head.

            “Did you get him?” she asked miserably.

            “Him?”

            “The man in black,” she told him softly.

            Ethan’s first thought was of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger and then he realized she had woken up as if from a dream and meant the first man who captured and experimented on her. She meant Christopher Edwards who, as a priest, always wore black.

            “Make their time as a monster remembered as nothing more than a dream…” the woman from the island’s voice said in his head. “Not yet,” he told her and his eyes darkened. “But I will.”

            She wrapped her arms around him, hugging him, and he realized that this time, unlike the other three, she was actually at to or close to her proper age. He smiled and looked at the destruction around him. “Well, we sure trashed the hell out of this—”

            A roar suddenly filled the air, Adelaide gripping him with sudden, terrified, intensity. It sounded somewhere between a lion and a shrieking baboon, shaking the house like an earthquake and making the little girl clutch him like a life preserver in the middle of the sea.

            Above, he saw the old chandelier reflecting the light of the Torch spell shook and several of the boards on the outside of the house dropped off the windows and filled the unused entryway with gray daylight. Cracks appeared in the ground and walls and several windows shattered.

 

*          *          *

 

            All of the other women screamed, Mickey the bird squawking and Paul the dog howling.

            Angela was the only one who was quiet and, for the first time since getting anywhere near that house, felt only her own emotions. Her lips curled up into a wide smile of bittersweet satisfaction because she knew what scream was and it did her heart good to hear it. It went on that east wing for several minutes, full of rage, pain and loathing.

            Somebody’s upset, she thought with that satisfied smile on her face. The curse was broken and Adelaide was freed. The girl that thing out there no doubt blamed for all its woes, even though it was itself the sole responsible party, was now free unlike itself. Looks like you get to suffer alone, she thought.

            As the screaming faded, so did her smile. The only joy she would get out of this was over.

            Yes, Adelaide was free now, that much was clear, but she would be a crone and about to die. Angela could tell she wasn’t dead, but the gift had returned to normal so she had no idea for sure what her true condition was. When Adelaide, a girl mentally of maybe six, learned of she was about to die of extreme old age, it would destroy her. The potion may have made her forget her time as a monster but her life was still going to have been used up as a monster.

            Adelaide deserved better than that and getting their patron’s gift back, while comforting, was really more about restoring balance than creating any kind of joy.

            Beatrice Carrier looked back at her worriedly, her lips tightly pressed together with the unasked question. Would her grandmother forgive them? It was a great feat, and Ethan was connected to them, but Angela wasn’t sure.

            She hadn’t needed them and Addison Anderson wasn’t likely to let them off for nothing or out of the kindness of her heart. She was many things but forgiving was not one of them.

 

*          *          *

 

            When the roar stopped, Ethan stood up.

            Adelaide wrapped her arms around her waist, saying nothing, and held him tightly with her face pressed against his side.

            “Well, I am done with this shit for today!” He said as he wiped off all the shards of glass and dirt from himself. Then he looked down at the girl. “And don’t say that word.” She smiled up at him. “Cute kid.”

            He looked around, found a white sheet that had been covering a table they had crashed through, took it off and wrapped it around Adelaide. As he did, she kissed him on the cheek.

            “I love you, sir,” she told him. “I will love you forever.”

            He smiled without a word, picked her up and carried her back to the door with her arms wrapped around his neck. He didn’t say much, feeling too numb to think, and unlocked the door and stepped back out into the light.

            All of their jaws dropped at the sight of him entering the door. Angela let out a surprised, happy shriek, her hands covering her mouth in shocked joy. Tears of happiness poured out of her eyes and she looked like she was about to faint from joy.

            “Where did that little girl come from?” asked Margaret incredulously.

            “Not sure,” Ethan replied. “My wildest theory leads me to believe in what scientists call a ‘womb’ to be the correct answer.”

            “That’s not funny!”

            “It’s hilarious!” Mickey said with a laugh.
He carried her over to Angela who stopped weeping and then put the girl down in front of her. Angela had somehow instantly known who Adelaide was.

            Angela said nothing. She simply leaned over, almost as if showing the girl the tops of her breasts, which was probably more habit than anything else, and looked into the girl’s eyes. Adelaide looked back into hers, saw something there that made her squeak happily, and then she threw her arms around her.

            “Sister!” Adelaide cried happily. Angela hugged her back tightly, continued to weep in solid joy.

            Ethan sensed nothing in their exchange, neither social nor magical. All he saw were the two of them looking into each other’s eyes.

            He shrugged it off, walked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, found himself a Modelo Especial beer, popped it open and started to drink deep.

            “You’re not old enough for that,” said Margaret.

            Ethan almost choked on his laughter as he walked past her back to the living room. As he moved toward the couch, Angela walked up to him, grabbed him and really kissed him. He kissed her back but he wasn’t into it.

            She whispered into his ear, “You can have anything you want from me. My body is yours if you want it.”

            “You’re going to have to give me a little bit of time for that.”

            Angela grinned. “She really did enjoy you, didn’t she?”

            “I—think?”

            Angela laughed.

            “What happened in there?” asked Anne.

            “Short answer is that I found a monster, tackled it so it couldn’t get away, and forced a couple of potions down its throat.” They just stared at him. “Magic stuff.”

            They continued to just stare at him.

            Ethan turned to Angela. “So, are we cool now or what?”

            “Yeah,” she told him with a smile. “You did alright by us, Ethan.”

            Beatrice moved beside Angela. “Can I talk to you?”

            “Sure,” said Angela. “Can you watch Adelaide for a minute, Ethan?”

            “Sure.” Ethan sat down on a chair. “Dog, I’m relegating this. Watch girl.”

            “Yes sir,” said Paul happily and he moved up beside Adelaide.

            Adelaide squeaked happily at the sight of a big, cute dog and cried, “Puppy,” and wrapped her arms around his neck. Paul grinned, licked her once, then regretted it deeply because he tasted whatever it was that she had been before and ended up gagging and spitting.

            Mickey laughed and then looked over at Ethan who made a motion to get his attention.

            As Adelaide and Beatrice walked away into the entryway away from their hearing, Ethan gestured with his head and Mickey quickly flew afterward, his wings shockingly quiet when he wanted them to be.

            Ethan casually cast a spell to see use Mickey’s senses, leaned back, and drank his beer. When one of the aunts tried to talk, he held up his finger for silence and listened as Mickey landed on a rail above Angela and Beatrice in the entryway.

            “This turned out better than we thought,” said Beatrice excitedly.

            “Yes, it did,” Angela admitted. “We’ve got her back and she’s actually a girl again. Another one of us. Grandmother will be very pleased.”

            “Are we done with you now?”

            “I don’t know,” Angela replied like a woman who genuinely did not know.

            “We came to you, did we not? We came to help.”

            “I know that but my grandmother will say the same thing I’m telling you now. We didn’t need you. His personal integrity, my tits and his natural adventurer’s personality were enough to get him to do this.”

            “Be reasonable,” Beatrice said. “It was a first-generation Carrier. That woman—”

            “I’ll tell my grandmother but—”

            “You are the future matriarch,” Beatrice said sternly. “When she dies, will you let it go?”

            “I honestly don’t know,” said Angela tiredly. “And anyway, you have decades before that. She’s in her seventies now and no gifted Andreadis woman, save for my great-grandmother has ever died of old age before her late nineties. Most of us live to be over a hundred.

            “And if she wants you to pay and doesn’t think I’ll do it, she’ll make sure it happens before she goes. Her own mother did and even if Addison was sympathetic as you imagine me to be, she wouldn’t have had the power to undo it until she was in her sixties or seventies. I’ll be in the same position.”

            “Ethan Bartlett is one of us,” Beatrice said sternly. “His victory is ours.”

            Ethan blinked at that, surprised and confused.

            “No, he is certainly not one of you,” said Angela coldly. “He’s no more one of you than the Anderson boy who was tricked by one of your little clones into fathering Adelaide.”

            “Okay, that’s weird,” said Ethan.

            “What’s weird?” asked Lucy.

            “I’ll tell you later,” Ethan lied and leaned forward.

            “Talk to your grandmother,” said Beatrice. “This must count for something! We cannot handle two curses!”

            “Sympathy is not a feeling my grandmother feels for you,” said Angela. “If you want Addison Anderson off your case, you will need to make some meaningful effort of your own. Nothing I can say will change her mind.”

            “How can we do that? You have the girl back. The problem is not only fixed, it’s undone.”

            “Undone?” Angela’s expression darkened. “I had nightmares of being violently transformed into a monster at least once a week at least since I was five. My grandmother hasn’t slept a full night’s sleep for decades and my great-grandmother died from this all the way down in Florida. She was so strong in the gift that it killed her there when she was still reasonably young. Addison feels that your family was the cause of her mother’s death so for her, it’s personal.”

            “Just tell us what we can do!” hissed Beatrice. “What is it that you people want from us?”

            “I genuinely don’t know!” Angela hissed. “Just figure it out!” She then softened and sighed after a moment. “I’ll talk to her but I can promise nothing. Addison Anderson is a hard woman.”

            “Addison Anderson is a beast!” hissed Beatrice bitterly. “She would ruin our lives over a thing that our ancestors did!”

            “Well maybe she would be more inclined toward mercy if you didn’t continue to do the same thing every single generation,” Angela retorted bitterly.

            “We stopped as you well know!”

            “With Nicole, yeah, because we called you out on it! If it wasn’t for us, you’d have sold her to fairies or maybe just dropped her down a well!” Without waiting for a response, Angela turned around and walked away.

            “Bitch,” said Beatrice when she was out of her hearing.

            Ethan broke off the spell, took what was left of his beer and downed it all at once.

            “Your girl is awkward and weird,” said Bernadette.

            Ethan looked over and saw that Adelaide had discovered the only other “little girl” in the room and moved on from the dog to her. She was trying to talk to her but Andy looked too uncomfortable to respond.

            “She is unique,” was all he said.

            Angela came back in, walked up to Ethan, and kissed him deeply and passionately. “Find me some time,” she whispered.

            “I will,” he told her and he damn well meant it. She then took Adelaide by the hand and then the two left without a word. Beatrice gave Ethan a strange, unreadable look before she took Cameron and followed them out.

            “I want to talk to you, Ethan,” said Margaret. “Come by for dinner tonight.”

            “I’ll think about it,” Ethan told her and then took a deep breath. “Okay, bird, dog, girl. I think it’s time to go.” He walked back out to the entryway, opening the door for Andy and the others, and felt Margaret’s hand on his shoulder.

            “Tonight. Please.”

            “I don’t know,” he told her. “I’m pretty damn exhausted.”

            “Try.”

            “I’ll think about it,” he said and then left the house, thunder booming the distance, and then opened the truck’s passenger door for Andy. She and the two familiars slipped into the vehicle.

            Near him, wandering around the red Lexus, Angela was talking excitedly on her cellphone “—and just get out some of my old clothes! We’ll find something! We’re going to go take her shopping and have a girl’s night! It’s going to be so much fun!” The back seat door was open and Adelaide was sitting calmly in the seat, as relaxed as ever.

            Beyond them, he saw Cameron Carrier getting into the black Mercedes’s passenger door. Beatrice was standing by the driver’s side and staring at him with the absolute strangest look on her face. It was part worry, part fear, part something else. Something predatory.

            “What?” he asked her. “What is it?”

            Beatrice turned away without a word and got into her car.

            “Fucking weirdos,” Ethan replied with a roll of his eyes. He shut the door, got into his truck and leaned back into his seat. Now that the adventure was over, he felt exhausted and the most drained that he had ever felt in his life, in more ways than one. If he was alone at home, he would have probably just dropped off into bed, but he wasn’t.

            He turned back to look at Andy.

            “I’m not a child,” Andy told him before he spoke. “I have the body of one but I’m not.” She sounded sad and lonely.

            “You know,” he said after a moment of thinking, “I think I know someone who you might be able to relate to.”

            “Who?”
“Grace O’Brien.”

            “Oh God, you’re right,” she said suddenly. “She was mentally in her twenties too, wasn’t she?”

            “Yeah,” he replied slowly and then, thoughtfully, added, “Tell me about the Andreadis gift?”

            “She mentioned that, did she?” Andy shrugged. “It’s something my grandaunt and Angela talk about all the time. They act as if it’s such a big deal, like the first time a girl grows breasts, but they’re just women like the rest of us. I’ve never seen anything that made me think it was anything more than make-believe.”

            “I guess,” he said softly, his eyes narrowing in thought. He didn’t believe she was lying but decided to let it go for the moment, pretty sure he was too tired to come up with a question that she could answer that might indirectly help him. “You hungry?”

            “Oh God, yes!” said Andy.

            “Alright,” Ethan said with a smile. He was also hungry and thirsty although tired enough to ignore both of them had he been alone. “Mandy’s Diner?”

            “Mandy’s Diner is perfect!” Andy told him.

            Ethan laughed and felt good. This was a productive day. He got stoned, had sex with a woman who was so beautiful it made Salma Hayek look ugly, not an easy feat by any means, saved the life of a young girl and apparently made up with the Andersons who evidently had a reason for hating his family.

            Now, all he had to do was make peace with the hundred other families his family had wronged and all would be perfect.

            “Mandy’s feels just right,” he told them. Now that the fisheries were back, Mandy’s was advertising a soon to return to crab feature, which he could not wait to try.

            Ethan suddenly felt great all of a sudden. It was as if some great weight he had not known had just dropped off his shoulders. That feeling was unexpected and weird but he went with it and it put him in a great mood for the rest of the day.

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