The Darkest Midnight: Chapter Two

Eclectica, Granite Springs
18 December

With the man no longer in view outside, Thia returned her attention to his purchase. It really was a lovely piece, with the body made of finely wrought silver and more holding the amazingly thin glass segments of its patterned wings. Carefully, she removed the price.

“Who was that?” Abby asked as she brought a customer up to the counter. Her tone was casual, but Thia had come to know her well enough to know there was more to the question than that.

“Someone new to town,” she replied as they smoothly exchanged places behind the register. “Connor Michaels. He bought a gift for his sister.”

“Oh, that’s gorgeous,” the customer said, eyeing the butterfly. Thia held it out for her to examine. “So delicate. And unusual.”

“Isn’t it?” Abby agreed and began to ring up the woman’s items. “Made locally. The artist has been working in stained glass for years, but only recently shifted from panels to standing figures. This is our last butterfly, but there are a few other examples in the case over there if you’d like to see.”

“Some other time,” the woman said with a longing glance at The Tower. “I’m supposed to meet my partner at her work to sort out our gift lists. This should take care of a good bit of what’s left on them. I hope.” She indicated the three snow globes she’d selected. “There are boxes for them, right? They need to be shipped.”

Before either Thia or Abby could answer, Lynette arrived with the butterfly’s box. She quickly spotted the globes. “I’ll get them for you,” she volunteered, and left again.

Thia moved to an adjacent counter to pack up the butterfly. She only half-listened as Abby and her customer chatted. The box was nice, she thought, but very basic…and it was a gift. An expensive one. She went over to the for-purchase papers. If memory served, there was one that—

There. She pulled out a sheet of soft cream patterned with richly colored butterflies and flowers. On another whim, she grabbed a spool of coordinating satin ribbon.

Back at the counter, she laid it out, began sizing it to the box.

“Mr. Michaels bought all that, too?” Abby had finished her transaction.

“No. But it goes with the butterfly.” She took up a pair of scissors, sliced. No going back now. “Plus it’s an expensive item, and since he’s a first time customer, we might as well be nice.”

“Thia.”

She stopped mid-tape, found Abby watching her with concern. Probably because Thia’s cheeks were red. “What?”

“Did you feel it?”

Impossibly, she felt her blush increase. She must look like a tomato. “Attraction?”

Abby’s violet eyes widened. “Goodness, no—wait. Are you saying you—”

“What feeling did you mean, then?” Thia put in quickly. Cleared her throat. “What did I miss?”

“Power. He was cloaking it, but it leaked through a few times. And there was something else, something…foreign.” Abby frowned, shook her head. “You were attracted to him?”

“He had power?” Thia thought back, tried to feel now what she hadn’t noticed in the moment. Tried not to feel discouraged when she couldn’t.

Finished with the tape, she pulled out a length of ribbon, wound it around the box. “Maybe I mistook it. Maybe that’s why he reminded me of Cormac.”

Abby’s profanity was no less shocking for being quiet. Luckily, it was Stefanie’s day off, or else they’d be in for a smudging.

Reminded, I said.” Thia’s hands stilled on the box, the ribbon half-tied. “His eyes were brown. Cormac can’t change his eyes.”

Abby rolled hers. “For crying out loud, Thia. He can wear colored contact lenses the same as anyone.”

“He had glasses on. Connor—Mr. Michaels, I mean.”

“Sure. The lenses would make it harder to tell. When is he supposed to come back? I don’t want you to deal with him by yourself.”

“He didn’t say.” She finished tying the ribbon, the satin smooth and cool. Calming, or at least it should have been. She pulled her hands away. “But even if he is Cormac—and it would be crazy to think that—he’s not a danger to me. He wouldn’t hurt me.”

“He broke your heart,” her friend said gently.

“No.”

“Thia, come on. I know how you—”

“No,” she repeated, cutting off the argument. On the other side of the window, a small group of pedestrians pointed at something inside before moving on.

She sighed, admitting, “I did that to myself.”

“Bullshit. He led you to believe he had feelings for you. That’s—”

“It doesn’t matter now.” She appreciated the anger on her behalf, but it didn’t help. Nothing helped. “It’s over. Once burned, twice shy and all that. When Mr. Michaels comes to pick this up, I’ll try to see if he’s wearing contacts.”

She put the box beneath the counter and began cleaning up. There was still plenty of ribbon on the spool, so she set it aside to go back out.

What would she do if he was wearing contacts—ask him if he were the two-centuries-and-then-some half-Sidhe she’d met on a flight to London and, despite herself, had subsequently fallen for?

Refusing to put a more specific term to the emotion, she dropped the scraps of paper into the wastebasket and put the scissors and tape back beneath the counter. Wisely, Abby returned to the sales floor.

Thia had been told that Cormac had murdered Lettie. She had believed him to be responsible for an attack on her in a London alley, as well as a later one on the Brigantium that had killed many and left one man in a coma. And still she’d had to fight with herself over her feelings. Had she been in—rather, had she fallen even then? Or had it come later, at the Ring when he’d nearly sacrificed himself for her?

Could Connor Michaels be Cormac?

She took the spool of ribbon back to the display, heard the jingle of the bells on the door.

Did she want him to be?

The bells jingled again only to be drowned out by the high-pitched voices of several toddlers. To

Thia’s relief, she counted an accompanying adult for every child, making for a group total of six. Lynette had found something to do along their browsing trajectory, making herself available without being intrusive. Abby was back at the counter, handling another sale, and Thia considered whether this would be a good time to check online orders.

Why would Cormac be in disguise? It was ridiculous to think that he would be…or even that he would be here at all. What would he want?

Are you happy?

An incredible, shelf-rattling rumble started up outside, causing everyone to stop in their tracks and look to the window. Thia and Abby came together near the door just as the unmistakeable belch of a Harley Davidson sounded from somewhere up the block.

Not just one Harley, Thia realized, as the low rumble built to a mechanized roar. One rider after another zoomed down Main Street. Glossy paint, gleaming chrome, scuffed black leather—and more scruffy beards than she’d seen at one time since she’d left L. A.

Maybe they were just passing through.

Exhaust seeped past the door and she grimaced, covered her nose and mouth with her hand.

Gradually, the gang moved out of earshot. People who had stopped outside to watch the impromptu parade went on about their business. Thia turned away and was surprised to find the group with children gathered on the far side of the staircase, putting it between them and the door—or perhaps more specifically, the street. The two women each held a child in their arms while the man cradled the back of a little girl’s head while she clung to his leg. There was more here than noise upset. There was fear.

“I was hoping they wouldn’t be back,” Abby said, still watching out the window.

“They’ve been before?”

Her friend nodded. “Every winter. You’d think the snow would be a problem, but it never seems to be. They hole up near Soda Mountain. Southeast of town,” she explained off of Thia’s frown. “There’s a roadhouse. Used to be nice, a place for local bikers—motorized and pedal—to go during a weekend ride. Then, about five years ago, those guys showed up. The Rekkrs. They’re good at it.”

“What do they do?” Thia noted that the group with the kids was browsing again, looking more relaxed.

“In town, nothing much—just noise and an intimidating presence. Outside of town….” Abby shrugged. “It’s best not to spend time in that part of the mountain. Not till spring, anyway. Unless you’re the snow plow driver,” she added with an attempt at levity. It quickly failed. “Although I don’t think even they go up there.”

“How can they ride if the roads if—never mind.” Thia had better things to worry about. “If everything is under control here, I though I’d go take care of today’s shipments.”

They looked over at the sound of infectious, little-boy laughter. Brought on, Thia saw, by Lynette’s skilled use of a Jack Frost puppet.

“We’ll be fine,” Abby said. “Sometimes I think she could run the place by herself.”

“As could you,” Thia assured her, amused by the note of jealousy she’d detected.

“True.”

Her mood improved, Thia headed toward the office. If she remembered correctly, there were only a few things to—

“Thia.”

She stopped, turned back to Abby.

Who wasn’t smiling at all. “If he is not Cormac, that’s even more reason not to deal with him by yourself.”

Thia felt dread creep through her bones.

●○●

Landmark Hotel, Granite Springs

Cormac pushed open the main door and stepped into the bright warmth of the hotel lobby. It was an old building by American standards, but tastefully modernized. Art deco lines and furnishings, and a background palette of neutral, light colors. Beneath the proliferation of seasonal trappings were some quality oil paintings. Landscapes mostly, and probably local.

And done by the same artist, he decided after giving them more attention from one of the cozy seating areas. He had chosen the one set up left of the door (and therefore the desk as well). Of all the ones that had been configured in the large, high-ceilinged space, it afforded the best view of the interior and had only one occupant. The others, set nearer the windows or fireplace, respectively, were more populated. Guests conversed over cups of coffee or on their mobiles. A few, like the lone gentleman across from Cormac on a matching overstuffed sofa, read newspapers.

A cup of tea would be nice, caffeine be damned, Cormac decided and prepared to flag down one of the staff.

Before he could, Murphy appeared.

That hadn’t taken long.

He forced himself to relax—or at least to appear so. Reminded himself that it wasn’t for lack of trying that he hadn’t been able to uphold his end of the bargain.

Murphy had an intimidating presence: Tall and broad-shouldered, he topped Cormac’s natural height by a good half foot. In terms of power, he cloaked whatever he had so well that Cormac could only guess whether they were well matched there or not. Better to assume they were, or to credit Murphy with more to be on the safe side. In Cormac’s experience, only people with a lot of power tried to hide it, and only those with great skill succeeded.

On approach, Murphy made the small, sweeping gesture of an elementary coercion spell. The crossword-puzzle man promptly stood and took himself to an armchair in one of the crowded areas.

“Wondered when you’d get around to stopping by.” Murphy sank into the vacated seat. His words carried a worn trace of Ireland. “Nice disguise you’ve got going there. Fool anyone with it?”

Cormac shrugged. “Well enough.”

“Really.” Murphy leaned back, laid his arms along the top of the couch in a casual pose belied by the glint of power within the dark of his eyes. “So. Where is it, then?”

“I don’t have it.” Cormac braced for an explosion…of temper, of power—a literal explosion. Anything, really, on the scale of furious reactions. So he was unprepared when the other man merely nodded.

“I figured as much,” Murphy said, “what with the deadline but two weeks away.”

A bargain made according to the Old Ways, upon pain of death.

Murphy had come through with his part; he had not interfered when Cormac first pursued Thia in Granite Springs. If only Cormac had thought to renegotiate on Samhain when Murphy and his mercenary forces had come to the rescue on Brodgar. Given the man’s history with Idris, he had doubtless relished the opportunity to help take him down. Since Cormac had been the one to invite Murphy’s aid, he should have made that the fulfillment of their deal in place of the Achill Bell.

But Cormac hadn’t been thinking clearly at the time. Idris and his people had taken over the Ring and surrounded it in Druid Fog, and Thia was being brought right to them. The Brigantium wouldn’t listen to reason and accept that it had been betrayed. There had been no one else to whom Cormac could turn. Beyond stopping his father, he hadn’t considered how else to make use of the situation.

A staff member walked by to refill someone’s coffee, and Cormac regretted not getting that tea. His throat was dry.

“I was hoping”—how he did loathe that word—“that we might adjust our deal.”

Murphy’s grin flashed. “I figured as much there as well.” He flicked a hand, no spell, a gesture only. “Let’s hear it, then. Not excuses, mind. Explanations.”

Fair enough. “I went to the stronghold after I—after I left Brodgar. Someone got there first and cleared out everything of value.”

“Anything you could trace?”

“Cleansed. Thoroughly.”

“That takes more than a passing skill.”

“It does.” Cormac leaned forward, set his arms on his knees. “Fortunately, I’ve encountered the like before.” And could almost guarantee who had been behind it.

Unfortunately,  too, considering who that person was.

“The most recent was a few months back, when I was tracking the Stone.”

Murphy’s expression hardened. “Name.”

“Cassandra.” His recently-discovered half-sister, bent on revenge. If she was behind the clearing out of Fiend’s Fell, it meant she had every piece of Idris’s extensive arsenal. Every relic collected, every weapon, every spell.

“She’d have had to work fast,” Murphy said. “You got there how long after leaving Innse Orc?”

The Old Irish name for the Orkneys. The mercenary’s true roots were showing.

“A few hours.” Cormac grimaced. “I—well, it took me some time to get my head straight.”

The surprising hint of understanding in the other man’s gaze was quickly masked. “So, she had a bit of time, then, but not much. Not enough, I should think, for all that.”

That had been Cormac’s conclusion as well. An undertaking of that scope would have taken days, not hours. “Idris may have intended to clear out after the ritual. If so, he’d have already made preparations.”

“Or there could’ve been people left behind, able to assist when the claimsech arrived.”

An unflattering term, but there was no arguing that Cassandra Swinton wasn’t one.

“It’s been weeks,” Murphy went on. “Why not tell me straightaway?”

Because Cormac hadn’t been able to think clearly. He had been reeling, trying to come to terms with having killed Idris and of finally being free. All while missing Thia to the point of obsession.

“I’m telling you now,” he said.

Murphy’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t press.

Cormac leaned back against the couch cushions. “She swore revenge.”

“That she did.”

“Most of the primary players are here.”

“So she’s most likely to focus her efforts here. That didn’t escape me.” A flick of his hand called attention to the leather cuff at his wrist. “I’ve been at this even longer than you, remember.”

As if he could forget. Cormac’s stomach clenched. He had witnessed a lot of horrors over the centuries, but that night…Well. He’d been young, after all, and so naturally it had affected him more.

“As far as I can tell, she’s gone to ground,” Murphy said. “I’ve let it be known I’ve an interest in her activities. So far, nothing.”

Cormac nodded, grim. He’d not had any result on that front, either. But he had a gut feeling. “There is quite a lot of power here. More than when I visited before.”

“Sure, there’s been an upsurge, true enough.” Murphy shrugged. “This time of year, there’s nothing unusual in that. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that the area is a bit of a gathering place.”

And that would make it easy enough for anyone to slip in—not secretly, perhaps, but at least anonymously.

“If she is here,” Cormac said, taking an off-chance, “we can at least discuss a new time frame.”

Murphy laughed, causing a few heads to turn. He flicked a hand and they turned back. “If she took the Bell, her being here would be convenient, wouldn’t you say?”

“Goddamn it, I can’t protect—” Thia, he’d almost said. Not while tracking down the bell. “Goddamn it.”

“Language,” Murphy chided. “But ‘tis the season and all that, so I’m feeling kindly. Talk to me again before the two weeks are up. And maybe—maybe—we can sort something out.” He stood. “In the meantime, we’ve a few rooms open. Why don’t you get yourself one. We do a lovely breakfast.”

The glow of power in his eyes made it clear that he was not making a suggestion. He was making an order.

Cormac didn’t have to take those anymore. “I’ll think about it.”

But there was no need. He’d made a reservation days ago.

●○●

Elkhorn Park, Granite Springs

They walked the uphill path in silence. The latter wasn’t part of the compulsion spell she’d crafted. It would have been, but the fool hadn’t shown any inclination to speak. He was too busy fighting the spell.

She felt her mouth curve into a smile. Did he even realize where she was leading? He ought to appreciate it. The watcher she’d put on him had told her that, after the alley, it was his next most frequented place in town.

There was a particular bench where he would sit for hours, she’d been told. And she had ruined her shoes scoping it out yesterday.

“Wilderness trail with the occasional bench,” was a more apt description than “park” at that point. But it would do very well, offering the required privacy; and, she was betting, the relaxation within him that would allow her spell to take hold.

On her way past the rustic playground, she returned the bland smiles given by two women who were ostensibly watching a child in an enormously puffy jacket climb the wrong way up a slide. It would, as she’d learned over the past week, make her less memorable, not more. The people here remembered those who didn’t acknowledge one another.

Which meant they would forget her but not the man walking several feet behind.

Such a strange town.

And a powerful one. It would do well, she’d decided. Very well indeed.

The paved path changed to bark chips and she felt her annoyance flare again. She hadn’t expected to need hiking boots in a bloody city park.

“Is it much farther?” came the voice behind her. She smiled at the strain in it. He’d wear himself out with  all that internal fighting, perhaps even before they got to the bench.

She whirled on him, sent more power into the spell, like pulling up on a choke chain. He cringed, dropped his gaze.

Good dog.

She pivoted away, walked on. “You should know. You go there often enough, I understand.”

Wood chips became half-frozen dirt and fallen leaves as the path wended its way closer to the stream. Creek, as it was called here. The sound of the rushing water drowned out any footfalls behind her, but she knew when he lost the battle and resumed following. The spell allowed her a vague awareness of his location and, if she strengthened her hold, his intent.

It did not, however, tell her much else about him. Who he was, for instance. She didn’t know. Didn’t particularly care to, at this point, either. Whoever he once was, whatever he’d once been, he was now broken.

He had power, but it was erratic. Weak more often than it was strong, sometimes altogether absent—which was why she had no doubt she could take him.

She rounded a bend, left the main path for a narrower one encroached upon by tall, dead grass and prickly shrubs. It ended at a small overlook with two benches. Bracketed by trees, they were utterly secluded.

She knew which of the two he always chose. When he arrived, she moved to stand in front of it. Pointed to the other.

“I prefer that one,” he said, and indicated the one she blocked. His gaze darted around hers. Held.

That was not how she intended their relationship to proceed. Calling power to her hands, she formed a ball of white energy: wanfýr.Her eyes as she did so, she knew, glowed amber.

The man paled. His gaze dropped to the ground.

Yet he persisted with a faint, “Please.”

She yanked the invisible leash. He gasped, stumbled a step closer, and she held out her hand, putting the fýr-ball only inches from his downturned face. At such a range, it could do as much damage as wælfýr.

“No. Please,” he said again. He trembled.

“Then sit.” She moved the fýr so he could. Vanished it when he did as told—on the bench she’d assigned him. And then she took the one he’d wanted.

“You said you’d tell me about her.”

Weak, he was, yet stubborn. She shrugged a shoulder. “So I did. And now that we’re in no danger of being overheard, so I will.” She sent a needling jab of energy his way. He flinched.

“Thia McDaniel,” she said. “She inherited that little store you’ve been…spending time behind. Employs that girl who has been leaving you treats.”

“She feels like—” He stopped, shuddered. “Her power feels like the Cailleach’s.”

“Because it is.” Cassandra smiled. “She stole it from my father. Right after she murdered my brother.”

He lifted his head, his blue eyes wide.

“Thought she was an innocent, did you?”

“She doesn’t use it.”

“The power?” Interesting. She increased the compulsion. “Doesn’t—or can’t?”

His eyes closed tight, his teeth gritting as he fought…and lost. “C-can’t. Can’t use it. She tries. Sometimes alone. Sometimes with others.”

“But she fails?”

The man started, looked toward the trail, as if he’d heard something.

She hadn’t. Nor did she sense anything, but she prepared to disguise herself, nevertheless. “Is someone coming?”

He was too agitated to answer.

The trouble with broken people, she decided, was that they were so much…trouble. “What the hell is it?”

He made a small noise and then rubbed his temple. “I can’t stay.”

“You can.” She pulled on the spell, forced him to sit when he attempted to rise. “You will.”

He almost made eye contact. “Please.”

Such a begging tone. Such need—and so strong and clear that she finally understood.

And knew just how to use it.

“It’s the power that has you in such a state, am I right? Her power?” She kept her voice soft. Caring. And fed him a lie. “You were doing better until she came back. Until Thia brought it back.”

He was breathing hard, pouring sweat. She could feel him not wanting to accept her suggestion, but he nodded.

She leaned in, compassion in her tone. Malice in her words.  “Wouldn’t you like to do better again? Look at yourself. A near mindless, sniveling mess. Taking scraps left out of charity by rubbish bins.”

He mumbled something.

“What’s that, wiel?

“N-n-not scraps,” he whispered, eyes squeezed tight as he revealed a new, deeper weakness. This one far better than any compulsion spell. “A gift. A kindness.”

Cassie’s voice was equally soft as she leaned in, brought his head up with a finger beneath his chin. “Like her, do you? Your little muffin girl?”

He went absolutely still. His eyes opened.

She laughed, let her hand drop. “How delightful.”

●○●

He hated her, this smiling woman. But he hated them all, or at least it felt like he did. But it also felt all mixed up in his head.

He knew that, as if it came from far away. He knew but could not sort it out. And she was in there now, pushing her will into him, confusing him with thoughts and emotions that he didn’t want to make his own. If she had tried this next year, he might have been able to fight her, but he had not yet recovered from his caethiwed. He should never have come into town.

Why had he? Ah, right—for supplies. He had needed supplies so he could avoid town till Gwanwyn. And look how that had turned out.

Had it been a lure, the sudden presence of that familiar, terrible power? Had this woman been behind it? And what about that other one, the one who gave him food and coffee, made him think she cared…maybe not for him in particular but in general. Kind-hearted. A kind-hearted woman. Had that been a trick too?

He felt a mental jab.

This one, the one with seductive smiles and cold amber eyes wanted him to pay attention, as if he could not think and listen at the same time. He was not stupid. Thia McDaniel. He had heard her say she wanted his help to rid the town of the woman with the power he feared so much. He had heard her and that was why he figured the Cailleach’s power had not been a lure after all. If this one had not seen him behind the store and become curious, he would not be here with her now, fighting for control of his mind.

She had had him followed, she was telling him. Taunting him with his carelessness. And rightly so. His gaze flicked up as far as her lips. Red and cruel. Smirking. He went back to staring at his boots. Splatters of different colored paint made different patterns, depending on how he looked at them. A falcon formed out of green and a streak of yellow. He blinked, saw instead a cartoonish dog wearing a pointed hat, the kind people wore to look silly at parties. Did they still do that? Wear hats like that? He had not been to a party in a long time.

Sharp pain shot through his head again, another bite of the beast.

It would be perfect, she said, and it took him a moment to understand. Maybe he had been wrong and he could not think and listen at the same time.

Oh. His refuge. She was talking about how perfect it was for her, off the grid with high levels of protection already in place.

This wasn’t about him, but about the home he’d made for himself.

She had no idea who he was.

He wanted to laugh nearly as much as he wanted to rage at her insolence, her audacity. Wanted to tear her apart for her malice and paint the trees with her blood. But this was his own fault. He should never have come into town. He should not have taken so long to decide what to do about the woman with the Cailleach’s power.

Too slow. He had been too slow.

Slow to think, to decide. Slow to act.

Stupid. How many times had his half-brothers called him that? Yet he had always denied it, always fought back. But maybe they had been right after all.

Was that thought part of the compulsion spell? A side-effect of its beastly fangs digging deeper, ever deeper?

Or was it the godforsaken truth.

“Yes,” he heard himself say. She wanted to make him nod, but he resisted. It took nearly everything he had, but he resisted. He would not—

He nodded.

And wanted to die. Or kill her.

Both? Both could work. He searched his boot for the image of the dog in the birthday hat, but couldn’t bring it up. Had it been on the left or the right?

He cringed as the next words entered his mind, burned his throat on their way out his mouth. “You and yours are welcome in my home,” he said. It was little comfort that the lie sounded as forced as it was.

Even so, the woman beamed, the white of her teeth nearly blinding. Either she used a spell or she paid a fortune on maintenance.

“Excellent.”

In what he recognized as a practiced move, she uncrossed her long legs and rose gracefully to her feet. Her arm swept out, the manicured fingers of her hand unfolding like a fan as she directed him—not back towards town but ahead, where the park trail ended at Elkhorn Road.

“Shall we?”

He was aware that he stood. The actual sensations of it were delayed. Consciousness had been pushed to a cramped, far away place. He had become trapped, imprisoned in his own mind, just as before.

And just as before, he had his own carelessness—no, his own stupidity—to blame.

© R. A. Finley — All Rights Reserved No portion of this text may be reproduced or used without permission
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