The first grain - Welcome, we're open
The train swept through picturesque countryside. Rays of bright, untainted sunshine rippled and illuminated the glens and the valleys that Scotland was famed for. Snow glistened as it caught the light, becoming reflective, deepening the crisp colour of the cloudless sky. The further south one went the less rugged the land became, going from craggy mountain peaks coloured grey, to the luscious pastures of smooth hills and valleys. The world changed from different shades of autumn pastel to a sharp, distinct spring palette.
She remembered the last time she had made the long journey. At the time she had not been as placated by the scenery as she was now - teenagers would continue to be oblivious to the true beauty around them, too busy with gossiping and caring what everyone else thinks of the. She had been that age once, and shuddered whenever she reminisced. To get to where she was going she had to spend a lot of time on many different trains as she wound her way down the country to a small city that some of her extended family had taken a great interest in. They were the reason she travelled the hundreds of miles down.
Alighting from the train at the bustling, noisy station she took a moment to acknowledge the change from her local town, and her family’s country home. It was a different world in a city, one where kindness hid in the shadows in fear of its grotesque cousins, greed and selfishness. She had always found city folk to be very self-absorbed, always in a hurry to be nowhere, incapable of basic manners, and lacking the ability to apologise. Why her family had allowed some of its branches to set their own roots within one was a small mystery. The noise of the station was overwhelming, as was the smell that permeated the air so thickly she felt she could reach out and touch it. It was different in the city than it was to home, and it wasn’t only pollution that poisoned the atmosphere. The relentless ambition, the loose morals, and the desperation all mingled together to create a fog visible only to outsiders. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t comfortable. Everything was harsh, fast-paced, and abrupt, yet there was no pretence, no falsehoods meant to lure and deceive. Everything that was true about the city, and its people, was clear to see. This wasn’t a metropolis of fashion, culture or art, it was a city with hundreds of thousands of people clawing away at their lives to make something of it that was worthwhile telling.
The bus was considerably quieter, the passengers more inclined to keep to themselves, looking out the window, or at the other vehicles on the road. Some buildings had changed, shops had disappeared to be replaced by equally obscure ones, and the same family businesses were still clinging onto their leases on a rapidly growing commercial street. After recognising a park, and a pub, she pressed the button and alighted the bus. It was surprisingly quiet but had an air of secret allure, a nucleus of fashion and modernity. Independent businesses still managed to survive here, on the outskirts of the city, where the national chains dared not go. Eccentric cafés, shops packed full of vintage clothing, and quaint, enchanting bistros and restaurants made up the modest metropolis.
Everything faded back, receded to the nooks of her mind as she felt her skin, her blood, and her bones resonate with the petite shop front a few doors down from the bus stop. It sang to her like a siren to a ship, enticing her to draw nearer, but it wasn’t death that awaited her, only familiarity and a home away from home.
Closing the distance she paused in front of the window, casting her gaze over the real, and equally fake, relics that lay behind the spotless glass. Some sparkled, yet that did not mean they were valuable, and an odd piece lay gathering dust and the companionship of spiders, but it had the ability to protect its owner from anything this world, or the other ones, had to throw at them. The display had no order, jewellery mixed with helpful gems and stones, or an antique bracelet hanging onto a sprig of dried lavender sprouting like grass from a bed of mint leaves. It was a shop of many things, an antique jewellers, an unofficial therapist, and a local herbalists. It had been passed down through many of her ancestors’ hands over the centuries, always in the same spot despite the marching of time and the coming of modernity, but it still stood, as it no doubt always would. The blue of the façade was the same shade her family favoured, the emerald green under layer visible when the rays of sunshine settled upon it. The frames, and the door, had been painted many times through the generations, but only ever back and forth between scarlet, beryl and lapis. She had been told that once it had been all three colours simultaneously.
Taking her eyes from the chaotic display she edged further towards the door, reading the sign that said it was closed with a wry half-smile. As soon as she came within touching distance she heard the barrels of the lock click and clunk until the door swung open silently, welcoming her in. Allowing the faint grin to rest on her face she crossed the threshold and revelled in the scent of gentle lavender mingled with sharp, sweet mint, of mellow lemongrass and pungent bergamot. There was an undertone of ginger, holding hands with a very faint juvenile garlic. All were fighting for dominance in the air, swirling their way around the shop and resting on everything they could, including the fibres of her clothes.
The first room was full of glass cabinets packed with old cigarette boxes, postcards that had never been written from various towns and seaside resorts across the country, combs and enamel brushes, and strings of pearls, both false and real, snaking around other various odd pieces of jewellery. One wall held shelves that supported glass jars filled with the herbs she smelled, and many that she didn’t, whilst there were paintings and sketches on the others with price tags as their companions. The walls were coated with a deep grape emulsion, whilst the floor was made of uneven, creaking mahogany. There was an archway leading through to the next room and she passed through it to the nostalgic green room, filled with herbs, ointments, and special earth talismans. So called the green room due to the faded emerald paint that adorned the walls. It was the nucleus of the entire shop, and the most frequented by customers looking for a natural remedy for their ills, whatever they may be.
There was a door near the back that led to the private room, and upstairs was a branch of the family archive. She had always thought of it more as just a storage space for items that weren’t in need of as much protecting as the ones at home, but as she felt the power surround her like a security blanket to a child she began to think twice.
Her family had spent generations nurturing the shop to be a safe haven, a cocoon of protection against those who had unnatural abilities to hurt the innocent, which accumulated to more than one would think. In reality the shop was more powerful than some of the artefacts her family kept in their home, and one that was much overlooked, none more so than her.
She didn’t have time to linger and admire a beauty she had not seen before in her youthful ignorance because she had somewhere else to be of equal importance. Opening the door to the private rooms she left her suitcase standing mundanely amongst enchantments and objects of wonder whilst she made her way outside, back onto the swarm filled street, keeping a modest smile on her lips as she heard the satisfying clunk of the door locking behind her.
In the north hospitals were modest. The biggest one was in a city, the only large city really so far up. Everything else was conducted in local clinics that had been passed down from one pair of hands to another like a precious family heirloom. She had been born at home, the hospital being too far away and difficult to get to. They were something else entirely in the city.
Large edifices dedicated to health, like the temples in Rome or Athens, holding a strange kind of beauty, a fragility that reflected those stuck inside. As it was beautiful it was also garish, large and sprawling, it took up many acres of land, a colony of many buildings housing departments she couldn’t pronounce, much like a high security prison with separate wards depending on inmate behaviour. Also, like a prison, some people went in for months, even years, and some never left alive at all.
No matter where, how large, or how many falsely cheery nurses prowled the hallways with their hollow smiles and practised manners, all hospitals smelled the same, of bleach and cleanliness, as if it were trying so hard not to have a smell that it created an entirely new breed. The walls were painted in a narrow array of colours, never white though - that was deemed garish. Any pastel colour, usually of the mint variety, was smeared across the walls to elicit reassurance and solidity, although depending on the ward depended on the colour.
The one she wanted was baby blue, but not due to the inhabitants. It held different names in different hospitals, and no doubt had many unsavoury nicknames from staff, but it was the floor, or the wing, where people who weren’t coming out were kept. A hospice of kinds, or a precursor to a graveyard, very few people were awake. The doors opened for her and she passed through them into silence.
There was a low hum in a hospital, either of loved ones talking, reassuring each other, an underlying buzz of boredom and waiting, staff members running corridors they could navigate in their sleep, and the clunk, whine, and clatter of machinery. As soon as the doors closed behind her with a deep exhale, all of it remained on the other side, in the land of the fully living. She received a glance and nod of acknowledgement from the nurse at the station, hiding a questioning look, she moved past quietly, giving him a well-mannered smile. Walking silently so as not to disturb the atmosphere of the ward she glanced at the room numbers, searching for the one she wanted.
It was on the corner, flanked by two other rooms, one empty, the other occupied by an elderly man who needed a machine to help him breathe. He was surrounded by family who had fully grey hair, and others who looked as though they were not far behind. The room she wanted was empty except for the person she had come to see.
There were no monitors, no rhythmic electronic beep to signify a pump of the heart, if possible the room was more silent than the ward itself. Lying on the bed, far too young to be condemned to more than a few days there, was a man. He had light auburn hair, spread wildly on the pillow beneath his head like an unkempt array of flowers and weeds. A peaceful crease glanced across his face, and for a brief moment it felt like she could reach out to graze her finger along his skin and he would wake.
The moment passed fleetingly.
The silence around her elicited memories she had long forgotten, left to be buried in a mind full of experiences and lessons, gathering dust as a discarded child’s toy. Despite the flurry and flashes of the past she couldn’t remember when she’d last seen him, or even what words had been exchanged. All she knew for certain was that it had been a few years, if not more. She didn’t know how long it would be before he awoke.
The peace was disturbed momentarily by a pair of rubber shoes squeaking on the polished floor. Briefly turning around to acknowledge the new entrance, she could smell the cleanliness before she saw the navy blue uniform and simple name-tag. A female nurse shuffled in dazedly until she set her eyes upon the unusual visitor. Immediately a practised smile slid onto her face, the eyes surrendered the glimpses of hopelessness and dissatisfaction that lingered beneath.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think he had family,” the nurse began.
“Everyone has family,” she reasoned, “it just depends how close they are.”
The nurse hid her disapproval well, clinging to the friendly façade that kept her job. She came further into the room, bent down beside the bed and began to rustle the thick plastic of the catheter.
“I can go and find the Doctor,” the nurse offered when she had finished.
“I’d prefer if you tell me.”
She looked taken aback, feeling exposed now that she had been placed on a spot of knowledge. Nurses were notoriously overlooked, and often they knew information far more valuable than that of the doctors. Every day, perhaps more than once, they visited the patients in the ward, spoke with them, asked questions, kept their spirits up, and if it were genuine or not hardly mattered.
“He’s in a coma,” she announced gingerly, “but we can’t find the cause.”
They never would. Despite the bounds of progress science had made, there were still gaps in the widely accepted knowledge, areas of grey that they could never fully explain.
“He collapsed in the street a few weeks ago and he’s been like this ever since. We contacted you then,” the nurse continued, a careless piece of disapprobation colliding with her tone.
She never said anything in reply but simply looked over at the face that had once been so familiar, like a brother. Still, she couldn’t recall their last meeting, or their last conversation, and she began to feel the building of regret squirming at the back of her mind like a kettle about to boil.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she stated politely before she left the room.
There was no point in lingering for there was nothing she could do to help him. A visit was all that had been permitted, a minute or two confirming what had happened to him before she was to leave. He served as a reminder, or a warning, of what happened when orders weren’t obeyed. It made her uneasy the longer she looked at him, knowing that there was no mercy to blood who strayed too far away from the intended path.
Unfortunately, the easiest part of her task was complete, however discomforting it had been now the real work began.
Upon her return to the shop she found a middle-aged woman lingering outside, pretending to peer at the display when her eyes were trying to see behind it into the shop itself. By the way she was slowly moving from one side to the other, conspicuously trying to peer through the glass panel of the door, she was in need of something within.
Before she could arrive the stranger had wandered off, deciding that she had hovered outside long enough only to be disappointed. Despite knowing she should call the woman back she went inside and shut the door, reminding herself she wasn’t here for that purpose. Moving through the shop she let its power, its siren song, lap against her skin like fresh water in a bath, engulfing her from toe to shoulder; she didn’t wish to be immersed in it just yet. There was a missing piece, something that caused the tones and chimes to falter, to sound discordant, an orchestra without a musician, or a quartet without a quarter. It was what her family had been wary of, and had hoped they were wrong about.
When a fresh, cooling breeze came through the door, followed by the gentle clatter of the door closing, she looked around briefly, prepared for whatever face appeared under the archway. She wasn’t surprised that it was the same woman she had seen lingering outside upon her return from the hospital.
“I’m sorry, we’re closed,” she announced clearly.
The older woman stopped mid-step and furrowed her eyebrows, gaze flicking down to the ground as she recalled the last thirty seconds of her life, what she had seen, and why she had dared to cross the threshold when she had been reserved before.
“The sign said ye were open,” she pointed out with a hint of uncertainty, as if her desire to be inside had caused her to see things that weren’t there.
Briefly her own gaze focused over the woman’s shoulder to the sign, with the closed side facing the shop. She hadn’t moved it on her way in. The shop’s talent was shadowed by her mild frustration that she hadn’t been the one to make the decision.
“I suppose we are,” she answered, a light smile grazing her features, “is there anything I can help ye with?”
“I was a regular customer of Duncan’s, and Isobel’s before that. I have trouble sleeping and they gave me a herbal concoction that’s worked wonders,” she babbled cheerfully.
“How long have ye been a customer?”
“Och, years, I’ve ne’er been an easy sleeper. I met Isobel in the bookshop down the road one day and she said she could help cure my insomnia. She was good to her word.”
“Since you’re a loyal customer I’m sure it’s been written down somewhere. I’ll find it for ye and have it made up. Come back tomorrow and it should be ready.”
The woman paused and subtly eyed her up, “oh, are ye taking over this shop then? It’s been family run for as long as I can remember. Duncan did say he had some family up north.”
“I’m taking care of some family matters,” was the only reply she got, followed by a forced smile.
A strange silence extended, filled with mild tension and a battle of wills - who was going to be the first to back down, to either leave or share some personal knowledge? The older woman may have been determined, but the younger was a born and bred expert on keeping information close to her chest. Eventually, disliking the rippling atmosphere, the older woman backed down, but not without one last attempt.
“I’ll leave ye to it then,” she announced, beginning to float backwards towards the door, “but I didn’t catch your name.”
She allowed a hint of a genuine smile to grace her lips, “Iona.”
“I’m Barbara, it was very nice to meet ye.”
Iona watched as Barbara exited the shop, not without a few investigative glances around at the herbs and gems lying strategically, some to gain attention, and others for genuine protection. If everyone was as nosy as she was in the city then the days when Iona could head back up north couldn’t come quickly enough.
It didn’t take long to make Barbara’s herbal concoction that invoked sleep in a restless mind, and it appeared from Isobel’s records that she had been slowly weaning the woman off such remedies. Duncan had not been so diligent in his writing, and there were intermittent entries since his arrival a few years previously.
Brewing the concoction didn’t take her mind from the discordant note that resonated through the shop, amplified by the crystals and gems that lingered fatefully. It had been a great fear of her family’s and once they even suspected something was missing they had put her on the first train away to investigate. Now that their suspicions had been confirmed she had to find a solution before she could return home. A quick phone call the next morning and she had permission to find what had gone missing, and where it had gone missing to.
Deciding that identifying the object was the most helpful. She checked to see if the independent sign on the door had taken it upon itself to decide if she were serving customers or not, and then began her search through the relics and wonders held humbly within the shop, taking an inventory of sorts. It had been many years since one had been done, Duncan was haphazard and careless when it came to the family rules and traditions, shirking them at every corner, and the running of the shop was no exception to his whims. There were many additions, and just as many items missing, or sold, but that would be another job in itself.
A knock resonated around the shop, reaching her ears with polite clarity but making her sigh with exasperation. Barbara was early, and no doubt just as eager to sniff around the new arrival. Leaving the inventory notebook on a glass counter she went to unlock the door and allow the persistent woman entry, only to find that it wasn’t the avid insomniac. An older man stood in loose shirt and years old trousers, the piercing, inquisitive stare directed straight at her as she opened the door.
“Can I help ye?” she asked coldly.
Where she had tolerated Barbara she would extend no such courtesy to the man before her. It wasn’t preferential treatment, or her being sexist, but out of the knowledge that he wasn’t, nor would ever be, a customer. He had the stench of something she despised and her top priority was to rid the threshold of his presence.
“Duncan said this place wouldn’t be vacant long,” the older man commented as he motioned to the shop front.
A wave of exasperated irritation jolted through her, and in a wave of residual spite she was satisfied that Duncan had got what he deserved. It was a short effect. Patiently, but not without a hidden attitude, she gazed expectantly at the older man hoping he would soon get to his point.
“The Mistress would like to extend you an invitation, she has a desire to meet you,” he explained, handing her a white card with blood orange writing printed front and back.
“Who?” she queried with raised eyebrows and unimpressed tone.
“The Mistress of the spiritualists of this city. She is our leader. We are all in grave danger and she has promised to protect us from our enemies, and on that vein she is interested in making your acquaintance.”
It was a polite way of saying she wished to broker an alliance. Enemies, danger, and a desire for protection was all a very dramatic way of saying that the spiritualists were not alone in their city where they had been before, and wished to be so again. Her family ensured they kept abreast of changes to the secret structure of the world, the one behind the schedule of commuting and council budgets, but they rarely bothered to get involved. It appeared that others had a different idea.
On the card was a place and time for a meeting and Iona gazed at it with a mixture of fizzing, irritable emotions.
“Thank you for the courtesy. If I wished to learn more about the spiritualists where could I find you?” she asked with insipid manners.
“There’s a bar, the Cemetery Bell, a few streets over, and that’s where we all meet. You’re very welcome to join us before your meeting,” he offered eagerly.
“I’m sure,” she replied, smiling thinly.
After accepting his gratitude and encouragement she closed the door to hear it lock, crumpling the card in her palm, crushing it with immense satisfaction before allowing it to fall from her hand to a ball of crumpling fiery ash on the floor.
Her meeting with the spiritualist zealot had darkened her mood, and it further plunged to bitterness when she found what object was missing from the shop. Duncan had managed to find one of a handful of extremely precious and dangerous objects in the possession of their family and given it to someone, and she had a very good idea who. The spiritualist’s mention of her predecessor had given her as many clues as she needed to paint a very condemning picture. After another tense phone call home she was given very firm commands, ones she had become eager to obey.
Despite burning the small invitation card she remembered, or sensed, the location that had been printed on it. Spiritualism, once tapped into, was like a faulty, leaking gas pipe filled with carbon monoxide, invisible but deadly to those surrounding it. Unlike the deadly gas, this type of magic left a trace, a tang in the air, a pulse through the ground, providing a subtle tint to the world, a shimmer like heat from tarmac on a hot day. No one else save her could sense it, or feel it thicken the air. It would only grow stronger if left unrestrained, and it did not look as though completing that task was high on anyone’s list.
After making her way to the bar she stood outside of it and tried not to wrinkle her nose. It was like a bad smell, or an overpowering taste, whatever was oozing from the building made her feel nauseous. Her previous passion and eagerness fettered out against the incessant battering on her skin and the back of her throat. Clenching her fists she centred her mind and placed a wall to block out the overpowering stench.
It was the middle of the day but unlike every other bar in the city this one had customers who were not middle aged men with nothing to do. Her eyes flickered around the darkened room, no doubt for ambience when the sun went down and the daylight hid away. Some were lounging around comfortable chairs, whilst others were writing profusely in battered notebooks. There were those who noticed her entrance, perhaps weren’t so obtuse that they didn’t feel her power, but they were few, and the majority ignored her arrival. The man who had come to see her earlier was hovering near the bar, chatting to whoever was serving behind it. When he felt the cool breeze that she had brought in with her, his gaze shifted to the door and his eyes brightened eagerly. Dropping his conversation with the bartender he hurried over and took her hand like a compassionate family friend at a funeral for a loved one.
“I’m so glad you came, the mistress will be very pleased.”
He spoke of the mysterious woman, if a woman she was, with such reverence it bordered on pathetic. The familiar sense of irritation washed over her, momentarily blocking out the magic that coiled like a dragon ready to breathe fire and burn the place to ash, her included.
“Please, come this way,” he ushered to a door that no doubt led to a private room.
Iona’s body stiffened and she became as immovable as a stubborn mule. She was not going to be summoned by one of them, she was not here because of some thinly veiled summons, and she certainly was not going to be at the beck and call of these parlour magicians.
“If she wants to speak to me then she can descend from her throne to do so,” Iona muttered through gritted teeth.
Something about the tone of her voice, the rigidity that her body held, or the burning, barely restrained wrath that lingered beneath her eyes caused the older man to recoil, his grip loosening on her hand. A brief flicker of courage quickly fluttered away, and after returning her hand he disappeared behind the door. Her outburst, or the anger crawling beneath her skin, had caused ripples to shimmer through the bar, and by the second more and more people were paying attention to her presence.
When the door opened Iona’s narrowed eyes found the young girl who appeared from behind it. Iona didn’t claim to be an expert on guessing people’s age, but the so styled mistress looked no older than eighteen, barely mature enough to be in a bar let alone in one during a school day. Attempting to ignore the wall of prejudice that was being piled high in her mind she watched as the young woman approached with languid grace, the arrogant pout of her lips doing nothing to help Iona’s worsening opinion.
“You came,” the girl observed.
“I did,” Iona confirmed politely.
“Sit down with me, we have much to talk about.”
Once more Iona refused to move, to be silently commanded by a juvenile young woman who thought she could summon a Tulloch witch like a dog.
“I simply came here to ask ye to return one of my family’s relics. I believe Duncan lent it to ye.”
“He said we could keep it as long as we need it.”
“Circumstances have changed,” Iona retorted icily.
“Not for us,” the girl corrected.
They spent a moment gauging one another. It was a one sided conversation. Iona had nothing to gain by staying, and she wanted nothing more than to walk out of the door and put as much distance between the building and her as was possible just to get some fresh, untainted air. The mistress, on the other hand, seemed all too eager to have her stay. Her haughtiness vanished, replaced by an eager, bright eyed teenager who thought she could have anything she wanted just by being determined enough. Iona had never been like that in her youth, but her upbringing had been different, almost unrecognisable to this young woman who now sought to woo her with words and doe eyes.
“You surely know about the infestation our city has suffered from these last few years?” the mistress queried.
She wasn’t going to make their conversation easier just because she was the older, and supposedly wiser, one of the two. Her spite had been commented on by many members of the family, none complimentary.
“We have been trying to regain our city, to banish them to the abyss where they crawled from, but we are not strong enough, and our numbers are frightened. We need a powerful relic like the one Duncan loaned us. He understood our need and offered to help us. Won’t you do the same? We are all witches, we should work together to rid our home of those abominations.”
Iona was sure it would have been a compelling argument to Duncan, the black sheep of the family, but for her it only served to fan the flames of irritation and chagrin. She had many curt retorts for the mistress, but she had been raised not to lose her temper so easily. It was hard, but it was necessary. Arrogance made enemies, and frequent outbursts of anger and spite ensured there was always a steady stream of new ones.
“Any dealings you had with Duncan was made independent of our family. Therefore any alliance you brokered with him, and any advantages you reaped because of such an alliance, is void. My family wish no part in this petty war you have with the immortals of this city.”
“It’s no petty war!” the older man exclaimed desperately.
“My family wish for the return of the relic that was given to ye by Duncan. It’s dangerous if used.”
“That’s precisely why we wished for it.”
“Too dangerous to be used in squabbles over a city,” Iona reiterated curtly.
Despite her short, somewhat impolite way of speaking, she could sense their situation had come to an impasse. The relic wouldn’t be returned, not when they knew its value, and when they thought it could give their city back to them. It would be easy to force their hand now, but her family abhorred the use of brute force tactics when nothing else had been tried, and unfortunately for the ruffled Iona this was her first encounter with the spiritualists, and she shivered to think of the punishment reserved for her if she disobeyed the Clan code.
“We could be allies,” the mistress attempted again, a lulling hint to her voice like soft lavender, “like Duncan was.”
“There’s no benefit to us to have an alliance with ye,” Iona replied brutally, “and we wish no further exchanges. Return the relic and I’ll be gone.”
“I can’t give away my people’s only hope,” the young girl reasoned.
She fought the urge to clench her fists, but her teeth received most of the brunt of her frustration. Her trip into the city was meant to be brief - visit Duncan in the hospital, take an inventory of the shop, and then return with a report. Naively when she had left she thought it wouldn’t take more than a week, and it would be more like a holiday. Her hope was slowly crumbling, and had been since her arrival. From the determined insomniac in the shop to the haughty teenager who now stood before her, all seemed determined to trap her, to ensnare her for their purposes. A steady stream of air made its way into her lungs, and she expelled it evenly, taking a brief few moments to gather herself, and take control of her boiling anger.
“If ye don’t return my family’s relic, I will turn your cemeteries to dust,” Iona stated simply.
There was a flash of genuine fear on the mistress’s face before it was engulfed by the haughty curve of her lip. The girl may be young, but she was in possession of good leadership qualities, bar the stubbornness and stupidity she had displayed thus far. The older man, to the contrary, seemed to know better than his youthful counterpart, and his anxiety remained in the grooves of his face.
“You have until the end of tomorrow,” she stated before spinning on her heel.
Before she could reach the door, another scent mingled with the spiritualist magic, one that was not as foreign to her as she would have liked. Pungent, and tasting as strong as it smelled, the unmistakable waft of blood that jumped down the back of her throat was almost enough to make her wretch. A quick glance in either direction revealed the source of the stench to be the enemy the spiritualists were holding her family’s relic hostage in order to defeat. The immortals. Spelled to a chair, the drips of blood congealed together on the floor emanating the sickening smell. Pursing her lips, she ignored it and closed the door behind her.
Her inventory continued into the next day. No further customers entered the shop, to her sense of momentary respite. The minutes ticked by unchecked and with no one arriving to return the relic she had requested. It had been many centuries since anyone had witnessed the power the Tulloch witches yielded. Mortals had become less accepting of the supernatural and for their survival of magic it had to be kept hidden. Over the generations the Tullochs had receded into the background, allowing the world to carry on without them, standing stationary and simply observing, collecting, and chronicling what came to pass. It was only rarely they interfered in anything.
Duncan had taken it upon himself to change the families’ mantra by loaning out belongings that weren’t his to give. It had all accumulated in Iona being sent down to fetch it, mingling with parlour magicians and their petty tricks. Their power was inferior, but if they wielded the relic now in their possession the effects were filled with devastation, not just for their special enemies.
Time went by and no visitors came.
When she heard the door open and close she was pulled from her subconscious time keeping and into the present when Barbara’s footsteps floated through the archway and into her ears. The passive aggressive friendliness bloomed in the smile the older woman gave as she appeared in front of the desk. It was near the end of the day, about time for the shop to close and her real task to begin.
“Is it good news?” Barbara queried hopefully.
“It was written down,” Iona confirmed, handing over the glass bottle with the ready-made placebo liquid sloshing around inside.
Duncan hadn’t written anything down about Barbara and her requirements, but from what Iona could fathom from Isobel’s meticulous recording the entire prescription was a fake. Some ailments could be solved with herbs, others were cured by belief, and it was important to tell the difference.
“Excellent,” Barbara beamed as she took the bottle and slipped it into her handbag, “will ye be here long?”
If all went well later that day then she wouldn’t, however, that would mean the shop’s closure, and by its decision to open once a Tulloch was inside she thought it may have other ideas about another lengthy time in solitary.
“I couldn’t say,” she replied vaguely.
The older woman hid her disappointment well. Repeating her gratitude, she left and the door locked behind her, the sign flipped to the closed side. There would be no further visitors that day.
Iona briefly glanced at her watch before walking out, trying to ignore the excitement that had begun to bubble through her veins like tiny speckles of air through water that’s coming to the boil. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been free, uninhibited by constraints placed on her by her family. They had finally given her permission to use whatever amount of force she saw fit, and Tullochs weren’t ones to leave their threats incomplete.
Her warning to the spiritualists had been more than clear, yet they had refused to cooperate. Iona would need to remind them what the price was for ignoring a Tulloch request.
Spiritualism, Wicca, herbalism, tarot readings and divination were all small, but equally flimsy, branches of a tree that spanned the entirety of human history. Where there were humans and nature there had always been power ebbing and flowing between the two. Some lucky ones had been able to harness the full power for themselves, but they were rare, almost unique. For those who wished to feel special in a world that was edging towards globalisation there were the twigs and branches that diverged away from the trunk, there were weaker alternatives that gave them a taste of power. Spiritualism was one.
Its focus point was not on the ground beneath their feet, the proud trees who breathed new life into the world, or the rushing of water and streams, but those who had been buried beneath the dirt. Ancestor worship was not new, but drawing power from the dead and calling it magic was a relatively novel idea. With a history spanning little over two hundred years it was the infant cousin of the Tullochs ancient gift.
They drew on the power the lingering dead gave to the places where their bodies were interred, and only a select few were spread across the city. Outside of the city boundaries it would be nigh on useless, but within the invisible walls it was more concentrated. If one was destroyed, however, it would release the spirits and allow them to move on, effectively removing a large piece of the spiritualist’s source of power. By refusing to return the Tulloch family relic they showed that they were in desperate need of power, a boost to their own, and hence would not be pleased if she were to destroy a piece of it.
Her journey from the shop ended outside a cemetery that dated back to the 18th century. She had chosen it purposefully because it was the one that gave her the worst feeling. Most of the pollution the city emanated was from this metropolis of the dead. She may not be able to see them but they made their presence felt by stifling the air everyone breathed. Ordinary mortals walked past it on their daily routine and didn’t think twice, it was one of many in the city, but not all were special. Most of the original spiritualists were buried within, and hence why Iona had chosen it first.
She crossed the threshold and felt the air change, taste the rejection on the tip of her tongue. The dead knew the intentions of the living, could feel the power coursing through her veins like an electric current, and knew they were all in danger of being forced to let go of their mortal memories. Without their graves, without a constant stream of offerings, prayers and visitors they would cease to be a part of the world, and their grip would loosen until it was gone.
They had very little power themselves to do anything about her presence in their cemetery, and she was glad for it. One of the more ancient ones, the graves were much more than just marble slabs with gold writing scrawled on the surface. The land was made up of intricately designed mausoleums, statues of crying angels, carvings of Roman vases and oddly eerie birds. Some names were faded, others still as bright as if they had been painted yesterday. If one were to fall over it would crush the unlucky soul beneath it.
Iona bent down to the ground beside one of the graves and rubbed her fingers over it, feeling the sacred power sparking against her own like two pieces of metal. The cemetery stones and dedicational plaques may hold the power of the spiritualists, but the soil, the trees and their deep roots, were a conduit for hers. She pushed her fingers in deeper to the soil until they were completely immersed, the gritty moist flakes clinging to her skin and digging under her nails until they were an extra part of her.
The vibrations were tremors at first, ones that someone wouldn’t feel unless they stopped and stood still, concentrating on the ground beneath their feet. Gradually they became bigger until the soil surrounding her hands quivered and bounced like grains of sand moved by the ocean. The tremors began to pound at the bases of the headstones, knock on the sides of the mausoleums, and shunt against the feet of the weeping angels until cracks grew like ivy up each one. Pieces of glistening black marble began chipping off, bigger chunks soon falling away, creating clouds of dust that floated into the air and swept out across the city as if a multi-storey building had been demolished too quickly. Iona’s will dismantled the graves of the spiritualists long dead, and she would see them destroyed. It released a concentrated earthquake within the boundaries of the necropolis.
When she was finished there was nothing but a large plume of dirt and dust in the air, pieces of marble, stone, and granite lying on the ground in fallen disarray. Despite being unable to see very far in front of her, due to the smog, the air felt cleaner and she breathed easier now that she had destroyed the spiritualists’ centre of worship.
A crowd had gathered outside of the cemetery, but she managed to slip out unnoticed by most. There was a handful who saw her, and recognised her for what she was. Where some saw a destroyer, others saw hope.
It wouldn’t take long for word of the destruction to reach the ears of the spiritualists of the city and their young Mistress. Wasting no time, Iona didn’t return to the shop but went directly to the source, to the place she had been summoned to like a dog to their master, and reiterate her reasonable demands of the return of her family’s property. She could hear the disgruntled buzz from the bar before she rounded the corner of the street it was situated on, and saw many strangely dressed people running in and out, muttering and conferring between themselves. When she entered everyone took notice, including the Mistress who had descended from her royal apartments and mingled with her subjects.
The door swung closed to a tense silence which crackled. Iona could feel power begin to tingle her fingertips, reacting with the growing fear of the patrons and the possible threat a room full of weakened, angry spiritualists could do.
“Do you know what you’ve done?” the Mistress was the first one to speak, panicked indignation lining her voice.
“You were warned of the consequences of not returning my family’s relic,” Iona stated plainly.
“We need it now more than ever!” the young girl protested as if her life depended on it.
The invisible war raging beneath the surface of the bustling city was beyond Iona’s knowledge, but she was well aware she had given the opposition a new advantage. She hadn’t meant to interfere, but inadvertently through her actions she had. Her instructions had been to use anything necessary to retrieve what belonged to their family before it was used, and in that moment as she stood surrounded by a gaggle of them she was tempted to destroy every cemetery in the city to render them powerless.
“Return the relic,” Iona reiterated, losing patience.
“Why are you so unsympathetic to your own kind?” the young woman implored, her eyebrows drawn together sadly.
Irritation surged through Iona and made the thought of destroying the cemeteries more tempting. Rather than eliciting sympathy it had caused grave insult to Iona’s buoyed pride.
“You’ve said that ye need the relic to win the war, yet you’ve had it for some time and never used it. Indecision is a sign of a weak leader, as is being unable to protect your people’s sacred places of worship. Why should these people follow you when you can’t protect them, or their inheritance? What power of your own do you have to lead them in this war you’ve waged on the immortals?” Iona put harshly.
“The immortals are older than us, they have power of their own and duplicitous natures, they manipulate their enemies into losing.”
“The weak are manipulated. The object ye stole from my family would give ye all the power you need to defeat them, but I think the reason ye haven’t wielded it is because ye know yourself not to be strong enough.”
“That’s not true!”
“You are a leader in name only” Iona continued viciously, “a figure head that people are quickly losing faith in. Ye can’t protect your cemeteries, your home, or your followers.”
In a burst of temper, Iona reached out to the older man who had come to see her just the day before, standing on the threshold to the shop scruffily dressed with a royal summons in his hands.
He had annoyed her then, and he was about to feel her wrath.
His blood began to solidify like water touched by winter frost, his muscles would harden until they were more like marble than flesh, and finally his skin would become like rough stone hewn from a quarry. Everyone looked on in awe as one of their companions was turned to finely chiselled granite, a perfect rendering that no mortal artist could have completed.
Iona could have left him as a statue, she should have for restraint was one of the only things that separated the Tullochs from others like them. However, restraint wasn’t high on her list of priorities and in another surge of ill-thought temper she crushed the stone statue until it crumbled to sand on the floor. The gasps, although inaudible, were filled with blood curdling fear.
“For every hour ye refuse to give me what I ask for one of your followers will be turned to the same ash that your cemetery lies in. What sort of leader will you be, Mistress?” she spat the word in the disgust she had felt when she had first heard it, “what use will triumph over the immortals be if you have no followers to share it with?”
Iona had seen many a crestfallen face, but none of them had pulled her out of her ill-advised temper quicker than the one that adorned the young woman’s face as she looked at the pool of sand on the ground. Control and restraint were the only things separating the Tulloch witches from the barbaric, extinct clans that had gone before them, and in her rage and blinding irked pride Iona had thrown that lesson away, allowed it to crumble like the loyal servant in a pile on the floor. She had wanted respect, even if it was through fear she needed to get it, but even she had sensed it had gone too far.
It was too late to recant, too late to cease with her forceful comments and bullying tactics. Her orders were to retrieve the relic, at whatever cost. Deciding to embrace the reputation she was carving for herself she swept her eyes around the room suggestively, making it appear like she was looking for her next pillar of salt.
It was barely a whisper, one that would have been missed if the room hadn’t been as deadly quiet as it was. The surrender came from the young Mistress, her face ashen as she continued to gaze at the pile of sand on the ground. Iona waited for her to speak again, to be sure that it was surrender lingering on her lips.
“I see we’ve been mistaken in thinking you were our ally. You are not Duncan. He was kind, he sympathised with us, and he was a better person than you will ever be,” the Mistress threw spitefully at Iona.
She was unaffected by the rebuke. The saintly version of Duncan the young Mistress had known was only one of his personas, one of his many faces for many clients. Perhaps Iona was being unkind, but she doubted he would have aided the spiritualists without some form of recompense, whatever that may have been.
The Mistress reached into her pocket and brought out a small midnight velvet covered jewellery box. Iona ignored the urge to grin. All of this trouble for such a small trinket seemed ridiculous, but it was always the smaller things that held the most power, so her grandmother said.
“Here, take it!” the Mistress spat.
Iona, for once, did as she was bid by the young girl. As her fingers enclosed around the box about to take it away the Mistress tightened her grip.
“We will beat the immortals, and then you’ll regret this interference.”
“I’m not your enemy.”
“If you’re not with us you’re against us.”
“The world isn’t always so clearly divided,” Iona warned.
The mistress loosened her grip on the box and let Iona take it. She didn’t linger to enjoy her ill-won victory. As the door closed behind her she could hear the sorrowful cries of the mistress mourning her follower, and the breeze blowing away the sandy remnants of his life.
Guilt. It was an emotion that she, above most people, was very well acquainted with. Should she feel bad for her actions in retrieving the relic? Was what she did wrong? Children are taught to tell the difference, and then given examples where there is a clear distinction, but in life that was rarely there. Killing the man was drastic, and not her best hour, but her point had to be made. Many more people would have been needlessly slaughtered if the mistress had indeed gathered the strength and courage to use the relic she had carelessly carried around in her pocket. It was all for the greater good. At one time she thought that saying was simply to make her family feel justified in the pain they caused others, it had passed with experience, but now it reared in her mind.
As she turned the corner onto the street the shop was on she felt a buoyancy in her soul at the thought of returning home a success. She had spent too long in the bustling, poisonous, unclean city and longed for the clean air and friendly atmosphere of the north.
Her soul quickly returned to guarded and mistrusting when she saw the small entourage gathered outside of the shop and the shiny, black limousines parked illegally outside. She could tell the small mob was well dressed from a distance, their personally tailored suits were obvious, as was the bespoke details adorning some of them.
To Iona it was obvious they weren’t mortal, and it appeared that the mistress of the spiritualists wasn’t the only one to think that people took sides so easily. As she was about to pass the small gaggle of followers one emerged from the crowd and stepped in front of her to block her path.
“Miss Tulloch, I presume?”
“It’s hardly presumptuous when you already know,” she retorted.
His smirk turned jagged at her sharp response. From the glint in his eye she could tell he wasn’t accustomed to being spoken to in such a way, and if she were any other being she would have felt intimidation at the way he was looking at her, as if in just one swipe he could end her.
“Not one for niceties, I see.”
She remained silent. The man before her was tall, at least a head more than she was. His hair was a strange marriage of red and gold, whilst his eyes were a warm, melting hazel that sparkled as he looked at her. Everything about him was neat, kempt, and high maintenance, which she supposed was to be expected when you’d lived a few hundred lifetimes.
“Then allow me to get straight to the point,” the smirk faded and he took a small step towards her, another bid to intimidate, “I’d be greatly honoured if you and I could find somewhere to talk. It seems we have much to discuss.”
Iona brushed quickly past him, heading for the shop door, “we have nothing to discuss.”
“That’s not what your actions have implied.”
She turned around, preferring the new distance between them, “I have no enmity with the spiritualists, which is what I know you’ve come here to talk about. My business with them is done.”
“You encompass a great deal in the term,” the smirk returned, “I don’t destroy anything when I do business.”
“I was making a point, but it doesn’t mean I’m their enemy or your ally. I will give you the same answer as I gave the spiritualists when they asked me for an alliance. I have no interest in your petty squabbling over this city, and neither does my family. Any arrangement ye had with my predecessor, if there was any, ceases with me. Am I clear?”
The smirk still adorned his face like the dark twinkle of his eye, but it was strained and certainly not as full of mirth as it had been. Through it she could see a myriad of emotions, one of them disappointed hope. He had seen the destruction of the cemetery and thought that the one weapon that could help him drive away the spiritualists for good had finally shown up on his doorstep. Now he knew that it hadn’t.
He turned sharply back to the limousine and got in, slamming the door closed. If she had made one enemy that day then she had made two.
She watched as the cars pulled away from the double yellow lines painted perfectly on the tarmac and was glad she was going home.