The doors to Soricelle Apothecary open at sunrise, long before any other doors on the main strip. It is a gorgeous Saturday morning, the sky hinting at a bright and vivid blue, the breeze crisp and salty. Everyone is in high spirits as they wait for the first customers of the season, which come an hour after opening. Gwen greets them personally, for it is tradition that she serves the first customers, since she was the one to initially open the apothecary. After the pair of older ladies have their little paper bags and continue off down to the pier Iris excuses herself to walk to the bakery.
“L.A. was wonderful, and I’m excited to expand, but I just have no interest in working any kind of shop there,” Iris tells her daughter, whose arm is looped through her own. “I can’t explain it but there’s something to this tradition I absolutely live for.”
By “this tradition” she means walking to Maggie’s bakery to get croissants and danishes and iced, fruity teas for breakfast.
“Do you think this guy is really a threat to us?” Rose asks. “This priest guy?”
“I don’t know,” Iris answers honestly. “But our family has been safe in this town for as long as anyone can remember. And hopefully we still are.” She squeezes her daughter’s arm, distracted by something. “Go ahead without me. I’ll meet you there. I’m sure there’s a line anyway.”
“Looking to do a little reading?” Rose raises a brow.
“Hoping someone will do it for me,” Iris smiles.
She slips into the library while her daughter continues on.
She knows where he’ll be. He’ll be past the desks with the computers and little green lamps, past the children’s section, and up the stairs where the original charm of the library still exists. He’ll be all the way in the back, behind rows and rows of tall shelves, in a section through a gorgeous archway, sitting at an enormous desk, guarding the rare books.
“Iris,” he says, looking up from the open book before him.
His eyes are a mossy green, his hair dark, and a five o’ clock shadow filling in his sharp jaw.
“Adam. Long time.”
“Not long enough.” He smiles coldly.
“Ouch,” she winces.
He doesn’t flinch. “What can I do for you?”
She knows they’re alone in this section so she leans on the desk and speaks freely. “I know this isn’t the most opportune time, but I have a favor to ask.”
“Nope. No more favors. No more magick.” He stands up and stretches. “I have organizing to do.”
“No you don’t. This library is organized immaculately and we both know it.”
They stare at each other for a long moment, then she continues.
“It’s probably something you already know. Probably an answer you have tucked in your pocket… waiting for me to fish it out.” She smiles, flirtatiously, but he shakes his head.
“I’m not interested in helping you anymore.”
“It’s about the man staying at The St. of The Sea. The Priest staying there.”
He’s already turned away and is taking a handful of books with him into the labyrinth of shelves. She follows.
“Aren’t you supposed to be opening your shop today, Iris?”
“He is immune to our magick. Even a combined spell didn’t touch him. Do you know where he came from? Or when he arrived at least? I think he deals in a different kind of magick… something darker - older - than what we have.”
“Wait, no, the shop is already opened, isn’t it. Now you’re supposed to be on your way to Maggie’s. As is tradition,” he offers, cooly, sliding a book into a gap on the shelf and turning a corner.
“Someone hired someone to watch us. Mother has the pawn in her possession at the moment, but this man is still powerful if he’s behind it. He also cursed an amulet…”
He sighs, exasperated. “You know how I feel about The Natural Order, and you tell me you’re holding a hostage?”
“Everything turns out okay in the end, doesn’t it?”
“With many reversals and erases, i.e. fucking with people’s heads.” He slides a book into another empty slot.
“The amulet choked Esme in her sleep. In her bed. In our house. Where we are supposed to be safe.”
Adam stops walking and sighs, turning to face Iris. “His name is Mortimer. But that’s all I can tell you. Because it’s all I know.”
“Help me find out more?”
“Greedy.” He places the other books in his hands in another empty slot and walks with Iris to the very back of the room, where he points through the glass wall to a small chamber.
The little room remains locked except for when he uses the code only he knows to allow a select number of people in, under close supervision of course. It stays temperature and humidity controlled and the books within are only to be touched with gloved hands, and never, under any circumstances, to be removed. If the whole library were to burn down this room would appear untouched.
Adam points to a corner. “Fourth row, in the corner there. Gold etched spine. That might tell us more.” He points to the pad of numbers on the handle now. “If you really are in danger from this person, I will let you in there. But you’re a big girl, Iris. I believe in you. Solve your own problems.” He begins to walk away, the epitome of nonchalance.
Again, she winces. “Was I really so terrible to you that we can no longer be friends?”
“I mean… you did give the ring back…” he shrugs. “Congratulations on opening today. May it be a bountiful season.” His words are thick and sweet and swollen.
Iris leaves with her tail tucked between her legs, as she probably should do. But now she has something she didn’t have this morning - a name; and a name is the strongest magick there is.
She also knows the exact book to steal from Adam.
Aimee comes into the shop around lunchtime, stepping over the threshold as if uncertain she’s actually allowed in the shop. Esme turns around and lights up at seeing the girl. They aren’t sure how to embrace, so they don’t, but Esme slips her apron off and leaves with Aimee. They walk up and down the boulevard, window-shopping and talking about everything and nothing. They sit on a bench and watch the waves, but when Esme reaches for Aimee’s hand she feels her cringe and pull away, glancing around them.
“I’m just… not ready,” Aimee says.
“Really?” Esme poses, gently. “Even after…?”
“I just… I don’t know.”
“You feel guilty? Ashamed? I don’t. I’m proud to be with you.”
“You aren’t with me.” Her words sting both of them. “Not really. Not yet.”
The girls sit in silence for a long moment, then Esme stands.
“I should get back to the shop.”
“Esme!” Aimee stands too. “This just isn’t easy for me. You know I’ve been on and off with Shayne forever and it’s just so different and thinking about what people will say - ”
“My family’s dealing with some stuff right now. Plus we have the shop and… a houseguest. Let me know when you make up your mind,” Esme tells her, backing away. “I’ll see you around, Aimee.”
Aimee calls to her again, and not turning around is the hardest thing Esme’s ever had to do. She feels a hot tear slip from the corner of her eye as she retreats. Why? Why can’t she just have this one little thing? No. She’s the unluckiest witch the whole damn family. She doesn’t even have parents - or photographs of parents. Not anymore.
The day flies by, and when they close up everyone is exhausted. Champagne is served by Oliver and gradually the family migrates back to the house after restocking. Dean waits for them on the back porch, asking Rose and only Rose how everything went, how she’s feeling, whether she’s working tomorrow.
“I’ve got to get to bed, Dean,” Rose tells him, agitated at his eagerness.
“You have a guest, actually. I let him in.”
Iris pauses at the front door, which she’s just swung upon using magick. “A guest?”
“Yes,” Dean smiles.
But it is only Ben in the kitchen, waiting for the women with a cake that reads “Congratulations!” And thankfully, he didn’t notice no one’s hand touched the door when it opened.
“I know you girls like to celebrate,” he says, lighting a candle.
Iris blows it out. And she does attempt to celebrate, but now not only is she preoccupied with the idea that there’s a dark priest out there hunting them, but that Dean can invite people into their home without their knowledge. She supposes that makes sense though, what with him being their charge.
“Why is Dean here?” Ben asks Rose as they sit in the living room together and devour the cake. “Rose, the cops are looking for him. He broke into the school. The whole town’s talking about it. He broke into some lockers or something.”
Rose swallows hard. “He’s… he’s staying here. For awhile.”
“He’s… staying here?” Ben asks. “Like… here, here? With… you?” His voice is turning cold as marble.
“No! He isn’t my guest and he doesn’t sleep in the house. He’s in the guest house. He’s working for my grandmother and… he needs to stay here.”
Ben shakes his head. “I’ve kept a lot of secrets for your family over the years but I don’t get this one. He’s a criminal, Rose. He’s into some dark shit. Like, occult shit. Or that was the rumor.”
Occult shit. And a creepy dark priest chose Dean to infiltrate their family… Rose is squinting into the aether, wondering if there’s a connection. She has to pull herself back to reality.
“Please, Ben. Just trust us on this one. All the other weird secrets have turned out okay, haven’t they?” She smiles that smile he cannot resist.
He shakes his head and sighs, and thinks about kissing her on the beach again. “Sometimes I feel like you’re putting a spell on me.”
“A spell? No. What? That’s ridiculous. What are you talking about?” She laughs nervously. “Eat more cake.” She stuffs a forkful into his mouth, and his eyebrows raise.
After Ben leaves Rose enlists her now sulking cousin to help her find out more about Dean.
“Another Truth Serum?” Esme groans.
“Nope. Just some good old fashioned internet stalking.”
“Oh, well that I can do.” Esme’s hopeful it will take her mind off Aimee.
“Can I help?” Sasha asks, surprising the girls from the shadows, her dark hair causing her to blend in with the room, her big eyes gazing out like a little owlet.
“Sure,” Rose laughs, opening her arms to her baby cousin.
“Girls?” Iris pokes her head into the room. “Selene and Camilla and I are leaving you all with Grandma Gwen. We have something to take care of. Oliver’s passed out on the sofa in the sunroom. Too much to drink… again.”
“Of course he is,” Esme says. “Be careful.”
“You girls be careful too,” Iris warns.
And with that the house falls quiet.
Alex Lopez sits on the back porch of his little rented house on Sidney Ave, listening to his neighbor play guitar. He drinks a beer clumsily (thanks to the empty cans piling up beside him) and stares into the night as if waiting for something to appear from the darkness. And why shouldn’t it? They lost that jaguar from the impound lot and no one seems to care. They lost three women from an upper story room of a bed and breakfast and people simply… forgot? And he still can’t bring himself to go back to The Soricelle House and ask what the hell happened. Even before the beers he was dizzy just thinking about that property. He can barely recall where it was. He’s actually beginning to think he’s lost his mind, but his captain doesn’t seem concerned with the school break-in, or the disappearing jaguar that had caused that accident in town. In fact, the drivers of those cars in the fender bender don’t seem terribly inconvenienced either. Is he the only one that sees something is terribly wrong with this picture?
No. He isn’t. That librarian knows something is going on. When Alex had entered the library behind Iris, and approached Adam after Iris returned to the apothecary, Adam was quick to tell Alex to “stay away from those women”. He didn’t offer much more of an explanation, but he hinted that this sometimes happened; they left chaos and confusion in their wake.
Isn’t it Alex’s job to keep the peace? To protect the town from said chaos and confusion? Shouldn’t he be at that Soricelle House right now questioning everyone there? No. He can’t go back there because something happened. He can’t quite recall what, but he saw snippets of Iris’s beautiful, moonlit body, so milky white and soft and sweet. He shakes his head. No, he can’t be sure if it’s a dream or not. It’s all so cloudy. But he can’t shake the thought that those women ended up in the room of the strange man he’d had his eye on in the B&B. Surely that was not a coincidence.
A few lamps have been left on in the library, creating the sensation there were other patrons quietly enjoying the books just around the corner or a shelf over, despite the ‘closed’ sign on the door.
“I still don’t understand how none of us got mother’s astral projection abilities,” Selene complains, rubbing her shoulder and standing from the floor where she’s landed.
The women crawled through a ground floor window, freezing all the security cameras beforehand so no one would witness their clumsy arrival.
“I think Rose has it,” Camilla says.
“What?” Iris asks.
Camilla shrugs. “I just have a feeling.”
And Camilla’s feelings are rarely off.
“I’m not surprised you just have a feeling. I’m surprised she didn’t mention it to me… After all, I’m her mother.”
“But have you really gotten a chance to catch up?” Camilla asks. “Seems like she’s had her hands full with dead gardeners lately.”
“And I’ve been opening the shop.”
“And fighting evil,” Selene offers.
“I just feel like we don’t talk much these days,” Iris sighs. “I need to limit my business trips. She’ll be living across the world before I know it and I should take advantage of this time.”
“But if you’re lucky, you’ll both live forever, and have all the time in the world,” Selene offers.
“Katerina wasn’t lucky,” Camilla mutters. “And you know, mother never limited her hours and we still adore her. She just let us be free.”
As the women talk they climbed the nearest staircase to the second story, where they skirt the balcony to reach the restricted room and glass encased rare books.
“And you’re sure no one’s here?” Selene asks. “I feel… so much energy around us.” She is glancing into the darkness between the rows.
“You’re probably just sensing all the energy in the books.” Iris tells her, examining the lock. “These books have passed through so many hands… You know the real reason people are meant to be quiet in libraries, don’t you? It’s so the spirits can roam free.”
“Is that true?” Selene whispers to Camilla behind her older sister’s back.
Camilla shrugs, eyes wide.
“What would Adam put as his pin code?” Iris muses. His dog’s birthday? His birthday? Her birthday? No. She couldn’t be so arrogant.
Iris twists her expression into one of great focus. Then she closes her eyes and feels for the warmest buttons on the keypad. There is a 2, a 1, and an 8. Easy enough, but hard enough, for there are four slots for numbers and only three keys have recently been pressed. She thinks long and hard then shakes her head.
“So if it’s a year, it’s probably eighteen… twelve… the year the library was founded.” She presses enter and the door unlocks. “Too easy,” she mutters, suspicious.
Of course. Adam’s only true love these days is this place.
The girls file into the room. It’s one of the only truly dark corners of the library, so they all use illuminating spells to draw light into the palms of their hands.
“It’s that one,” Iris points to the corner. “Wait a minute… it was just here!”
“Looking for this?” A voice says.
The Dark Priest stands in the doorway to the glass room, holding the gold etched copy in his hand. Did they unlock the door for him? Or did he already have the book? Before any of them can so much as blink he is shutting the door, and running his palm over the frame. Camilla stamps forward and tried to shove the door with great force, but it only vibrates a little.
“He’s sealed us in,” she realizes. “Son of a bitch!”
The man - Mortimer, Iris remembers - just sneers at them, his eyes appearing white in the darkness, and his skin the color of the shadows themselves.
A barking caw comes from high above and the women notice a raven bouncing on the top of a bookcase. The window near the ceiling is open to the outside world and it has begun to rain. In bounces another raven, tilting its head unsettlingly to stare at them. Another swoops down, coming to stand at the witches’ feet, pecking closer and closer, joined by another, and then some.
“Have you ever wondered why they call a group of ravens a murder?” Camilla laughs uneasily.
“I can’t influence them,” Selene says, trying to get a read on any of the creatures. “I can’t shut the window either!”
“These aren’t normal birds,” Iris says. She can see it in their eyes - in the way they move like marionettes rather than living things.
More and more ravens pour through the open window while the witches cluster together in a tight circle, their palms held out against the birds.
“What do we do?” Camilla shrieks as the floor and shelves become nothing but thick black feathers and shining, bead-like eyes.
“We can use the elements,” Selene suggests. “The window!”
“We’ll ruin the books!” Iris says. “I don’t think we can repair them after, what? Drowning the birds? That’ll drown us! Striking them with lightning?”
She’s right. Any harm they attempt to cause with hurt themselves as well as the creatures now swooping down upon them with their talons extended.
Selene presses her palms outward and down, shutting her eyes. The birds freeze in midair, then begin moving at the pace of molasses. “I can’t make them go away but I can slow them down,” she says. “We have to find a way out of here quickly! There’s too many of them!”
There’s a loud, guttural beep coming from all around. The women look towards the door to see the dark figure of the priest, just a silhouette now, as a cloudy gas begins raining down upon them. The women hold their breath and shut their eyes, shielding their faces as the room turns grey. The cawing and squawking was dying away… The burning or painful sensations they’d expect from such a mysterious fog do not come. The smoke begins to clear, being drawn out through the vents near the floor of the glass cage and the door swings opens.
“What the hell,” Camilla mutters, looking all around. Not a single squawking bird remains.
In walks Adam, his face livid.
“I can explain,” Iris tells him.
“A thousand ravens, which were moving in slow motion, just disappeared before my eyes, Iris. I don’t want to hear it. I’m sick of this bullshit. You girls are always causing trouble for everyone else, and think looking beautiful, and being mysterious, keeps you likable. Well, this town has had just about enough of your bullshit. Get away from my books!” His jaw is tight and sharp, his green eyes fiery behind his glasses. “Out. Out, now!”
“Adam, just hear me out,” Iris pleads, the last to leave the little room.
“You are the last person I want to speak to, Iris.”
“He took a book from you!”
Adam pauses. He raises a brow, which is twitching with rage. “He… did… what?”
“The book you pointed out to me,” Iris says sheepishly. “Mortimer took it.”
Adam nods, his mouth twisted into a disgusted grimace. “So he stole what you were about to steal? Is what you’re saying?”
Iris glances away. “Um… Yes that may be what I am saying exactly.” What is it about this man that makes her feel less like a scholar and business woman, and more like a scolded little girl?
Adam takes a deep belly breath and exhales so heavily it rustles Iris’s golden hair.
“So he’s some kind of mind reader then,” he says. “He knew which book you wanted. Not which book you needed. I didn’t point you in that direction because you’ve been playing too fast and too loose for too long. You’re bound to damage something or someone one of these days - damage them beyond repair.”
“So you have the book we actually need?” Iris presses, a flicker of hope warm in her stomach.
“Yes. But I’m trying to decide whether I should let you have it. It just occurs to me that you may have already opened a door we won’t be able to close any time soon, luring this priest to Crescent Hollow.”
“Excuse you,” Selene scoffs from near the desk where she stands with Camilla. “But nobody lured anybody here.”
“Shows how little you actually know about this man,” Adam shakes his head. “He came here from Colorado.”
Camilla connects the dots. “Wait, Rose just got back from college in Colorado…”
Adam shrugs. “He’s a part of an order of priests, or that’s what they call themselves. They seem to believe magick is the equivalent of god, and that only a few beings are meant to harness it. They don’t believe in daily use of magick and think witches are inferior. They only use spells and potions to do things like change reality, warp time, and reanimate the dead.”
“What a terrible way to use magick! That’s all so dangerous - to everyone on earth. Adam, you have to help us,” Iris begs. “We have no idea what we’re up against here.”
Adam shakes his head. “These are dangerous people, and you know I’m on the side of not fucking with the natural order.”
“I know you are,” Iris says.
“But I’ll give you the book and some other documents I have.”
He is heading towards his locked office, Iris close behind. “But you have to promise me you’ll try to get them out of Crescent Hollow as soon as possible. People I love are here, and I can’t… lose them.”
People he loves? Could he possibly mean Iris?
“I promise,” Iris says. “We will all do our best to get them as far away as possible, and leave as little damage as we can in our wake.”
He sighs deeply. “I’ve heard that before.”