Here it is! Welcome to Inbetween, my second serial novel and my 2016 NaNoWriMo novel. I’m so excited to start sharing this with you. I hope this novel will be as well received as The Dreams.
With this chapter, like every chapter of The Dreams, I owe a huge thank you to my fantastic supporters. If you want to support my writing and help my creations go from first draft to maybe someday a real book you can hold in your hands, head over to my Patreon.
Even her footfalls on the marble floor did not make a sound. As long as she commanded it, no sound would come from her passage through these halls. Ciel’s mission was halfway done. The old Duke had been easy enough to kill. A whisper in the old man’s ear while he slept and it was all over. She had not even needed a whole song to do her deed.
Going after Duke Durya’s heir might give her the challenge she felt she so sorely needed at the moment. Yuri was a mystery. No one understood entirely why the Duke had picked someone with no standing at all to be his heir, but it was widely acknowledged that he was a talented young man. She hoped for a bit of a fight for the sake of her sense of honor but knew the job would be more expeditious without one.
Ciel wanted to keep the element of surprise on her side. No one saw her come or go from the scene of the crime. She cloaked as much of the palace as she dared in silence. No one would hear anything to cause alarm until after she was long gone. All she could do was get to him before anyone realized the duke was dead.
She stuck to the shadows. Not even her clothing caused a whisper of sound. Invisible and inaudible, she moved with stealthy confidence because she knew she could kill with just a word.
The second job would be another death in bed at this hour. She rounded the corner and prepared to slip behind the bedchamber door when she felt a pair of eyes on her. She melted into the shadows and cloaked herself in the sounds of a peaceful night.
Watching, waiting, not even daring to blink she poised to begin her song. Her mark hesitated and for a split second so did she. That second was an amateur mistake. After all of the deaths dealt out by the sound of her voice, she should not be hesitating now. Alone and in a dark hallway, these were the sort of conditions people in her profession liked to see.
This particular target was a bit different. Her typical target was old, corrupt and of a class that usually had servants to perform even the simplest of tasks for them. The only resistance in those cases was provided by those that were paid to be guards. They might put up a fight, but in the end, they were only doing their job and backed down when their life was on the line. Yuri was not a long time member of the idle rich. He knew how to survive and how to fight back. It was not often that Ciel had this sort of challenge.
His instincts were not dulled by age or excess. Her instincts said he could not see or hear anything, which should have been enough to make anyone feel secure. Not him. Yuri turned and ran.
Ciel chased after him. She could kill without touching, but her target needed to be near enough to hear her call for his death.
He was fast, but with all sounds being dampened around them, no one would have any reason to take notice to his race through the hall. Eventually, he would make a mistake. All she had to do until then was keep close enough not to lose him entirely. Even though she prepared by memorizing the layout of the palace, he still had the advantage of familiarity. There were still some variables outside of her control, but now that he was on the run she could manipulate some of those variables in her favor.
The distance between them was still too great for her to kill, but she was still close enough to send out rippling waves of sound to make him panic and doubt himself. She considered her effort a success when she spotted a brief hesitation before he turned the corner and ran down another hall.
It was a small chink in his defense, but it was something that she could exploit further. Each hesitation on his part gave her time to close the distance between them. Soon she would be close enough to deal the killing blow.
She rounded the corner a second after him and he was gone. A wave of magical energy washed over her and disappeared without a trace. Yuri was not in front of her. Yuri was not hiding. He was gone.
This magic had not belonged to Yuri or to anyone else in the palace. Ciel stopped, tilted her head and listened to the echoes of the magical wave as it bounced off the walls. This magic lacked a voice. Old magic belonged to the land and Ciel knew she could not stop it or follow after him.
Completing her mission would have to wait. Ciel swore under her breath as she turned and slipped out of the palace. Huge fissures blossomed along the walls of the hall and the ceiling began to sag.
November in Pennsylvania was always a bit unpredictable. There was always a chance, no matter how unlikely it seemed, of a few days of summer-like weather. Willow had no complaints about today being one of the freak returns to summertime. Being outside in short sleeves while enjoying the brilliant colors of autumn foliage almost made the road trip out to the middle of nowhere enjoyable.
She could even admit that she liked being out in the countryside when she ignored the fact that she had her arm twisted into missing a shift at work to come out here. She hated these family obligations, but her family’s skills with guilt were beyond anything she could ever hope to ignore. Even her aunt, Aspen, had mastered the art of guilt-tripping Willow into doing her bidding and she had not even had years of child rearing to harden her heart and ease the burden of manipulating Willow for her personal gain.
Like most of the times her family used their extraordinary guilt skills, this time Aspen dragged her along for an exorcism. They seemed to think paying her for her time would be enough to make Willow at least willing to cooperate, but nothing could keep her from resenting her near forced participation in the family business. She tried to leave it all behind before, but knowing that there were people out there that really did believe they needed their services and that her parents could not handle the workload at their age even with the help of Aspen kept her from running away forever. They needed her and that meant setting aside her personal beliefs about the family business.
Almost everyone around here believed in what they did. As long as people believed their homes were being invaded by demons and spirits they would need someone to protect them from these invisible, monstrous invaders.
She tried not to openly complain about it anymore. It just made the work that much more miserable, but that did not stop her from grumbling about it to herself. She was starting to think that she needed to make a bit more of an effort to establish some boundaries. She could not be on call day and night now that she had her own place. It was not like when she lived at home. She had responsibilities now. Getting dragged away from home when she had work that day could end up costing her the life she was trying to carve out for herself. Her family needed to understand that.
Aspen tried so hard to be a cool aunt. If anyone in Willow’s family was even going to make an effort to understand things from her point of view it would be her aunt. At the same time, Aspen believed with all her heart in the exorcisms they performed. As much as she might want to relate to her niece, their perspectives on this topic could not be more different. Willow did not yet feel as though she should stop trying to be heard and to assert her own independence.
“You know I have a job, right?” she asked while trying not to be too grumpy.
“I know, but this is important too.”
She sighed. “I can’t keep missing work. I’ll get fired and if I get fired I’ll lose my apartment.”
“You could always move back in with your parents. They’d like that.”
“I wouldn’t. I haven’t been on my own for very long. If I’m going to screw it up and end up back home I want it to be because I couldn’t make it work for myself, not because my family tried to hold me back.”
“We’re not trying to hold you back.”
“Well, it feels that way.”
“Your skills are so far beyond me that I don’t think I could hold you back if I tried. I can deal with people, but I can’t make people feel safe in their own home again like you do.”
Willow shook her head. “I don’t do anything special.”
“You do exactly what you were taught, but when you do it something actually happens. I can’t do that. Your father can’t do that. The last person that could do that was your grandmother and she hasn’t worked in the field in almost twenty years. Your skills are vital to this area.”
None of this was new. Willow had been hearing some variation of the same story for years. Once upon a time it was a point a pride for her. As a teenager, she wanted nothing more than to believe she was special so hearing that she was able to do something that her parents and her aunt could not do boosted her fragile adolescent ego. Then as she matured and realized there was nothing going on in any of the homes she was exorcising she also realized she was not nearly as special as she had been led to believe. Now she knew they were mostly just selling a sort of theatrics that brought their customers some peace of mind.
It had been so long since she believed in what she was doing, and it had been at least as long since she last put on a show for any of their customers that she was not sure how much of a service she was providing for any of them anymore. She felt as though she could not stop the lie, but she could keep the lie as small as possible. Somehow her skepticism did not stop her so called talents from spreading peace of mind.
Her opinions on the business of exorcism caused a lot of tension within her family. Everyone else believed and they could not understand why she did not believe too. All they saw was her talent. She did not see how what she did helped anyone at all. She went somewhere, went through the motions of cleansing the space of dark energies, people felt better and then she left. She did not know how real it could be if she could do it without even believing in what she was doing.
They were silent for the rest of the trip. There was not much they could say. Usually, Willow got along with Aspen better than anyone else in her family. Aspen always did her best to be a cool aunt, which was easier since she did not have any kids of her own so she was always available while Willow was growing up to do the fun things that her parents did not have time to do. Whenever the topic of Willow’s lack of belief was brought up it created a rift between them. Aspen was a lot of fun except for when they got on this topic. She believed with every fiber of her being and the more she knew and the older she got, the less Willow was able to see any of it as true. Willow imagined there were plenty of families that got on just fine even though they did not share all the same ideologies, and she was sure that it would almost be a non-issue if she was not constantly being dragged back into their world and their way of seeing things by the family business. It was almost enough to make her consider running away to another state or maybe Canada, just somewhere they wouldn’t find her all that quickly. For the time being these conversations just led them both to sulk in uncomfortable silence.
Finally, they arrived and the awkward silence ended. This was the part that Aspen excelled at. She was the customer service master of the whole operation. She kept people from panicking and from interfering in Willow’s part of the job. The rest of the time Aspen was the face at the family shop. She might not be the greatest at actually warding off the evil spirits, but she could tell what people needed even if they did not have the words to explain it very well. There weren’t many people that knew what they wanted, let alone what they needed, and yet Aspen knew for them. Willow considered it an uncommon talent and one that was perfect for dealing with people day to day. Willow herself had no such ability. No matter what she did or how kind and sympathetic she tried to be she always walked away feeling as though she had only managed to make people feel slightly uneasy.
Fortunately for the people at this house, she was not the one talking to them. She hung back and kept her mouth shut while Aspen took care of their clients. Once everyone was feeling safe and secure she stepped up and did her thing. She did it by rote now without any thought about what she did. After some spells, some salt, and a couple blessings, the house was declared cleansed of any and all evil presences.
Willow went back to the car and let Aspen deal with the task of collecting payment. She did not feel right being present for it. She had done exactly what the people had wanted her to do, but they seemed like such a nice, older couple and taking their money for doing a bit of chanting around their house and tossing some salt around that they would have to clean up later felt wrong.
She sat in the car and sulked on her own for a while. If she got it out of her system now she figured she had a better chance of having a decent conversation with her aunt on the drive home. If she was lucky and Aspen managed to get out of there without having too much of a drawn out conversation with the customers, Willow might be able to salvage some of the day.