After

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Chapter 2: Eye of the Storm

“Esmeralda,”

I could head a voice calling my name from somewhere in the distance. But my head had just gone quiet, the pain had just faded away. So you can understand why I was disinclined to answer the call. It’s not like it was a matter of life or death.

Death...

Pain.

Flash of light.

My death.

Witches.

Blood and spit.

My head shot up off the ground so fast the room spun. Rose jumped back in time to avoid us crashing our frontal lobes together. She looked anxiously down at me. Looking around the room I saw the Sisters still sitting at the table looking rather bored. Rose took my hand, “How are you feeling?”

“Like I just swallowed spit,” I croaked before turning onto my stomach and hurling.

Rose rubbed my back with one hand and gathered up my hair with the other. I was glad, as I’ve always been very proud of my waist length raven locks. She waited until I had shifted onto my back again before asking, “Did you remember anything?”

I began to shake my head, but the splitting pain stopped me, “No. Just a noise. A laugh and a scream. They blurred together so I couldn’t tell who they came from.” I ran a hand over my face, “How long was I out?”

Rose frowned, “All night.”

“All night?” I repeated.

She nodded, “It’s around nine in the morning, human time.” She wrapped an arm around my shoulders and helped me stand. “We need to get moving.”

I sighed, thank god.

Millie and Tillie regarded me with something close to disappointment, “Ah, well, dearie. Maybe come by some other time and we’ll try it again.” said Tillie.

Yeah, right.

And while they were at it, I’d pull my organs out through my nose.

Rose and I stumbled over to the steps, unaccompanied by the Sisters - they sat in the dark corner of their basement, dark eyes locked on our retreating forms. The door opened before we made it to the top, Chloe stood there, in the same dirty brown dress, her mad eyes focussed on us. I made sure to not make eye contact as we passed by her. She held up a small bottle of water and Rose took it, bowing her head to the child.

Chloe trailed after us to the front door to open it for us.

We’d only just gotten completely outside when the door slammed shut. The sound of locks being turned could be heard through the door. Suddenly, a loud ringing noise sounded; I recognized it as the bell Tillie had pulled earlier - to summon Chloe. Probably to clean up the mess I’d made. I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it - only that Chloe had to clean it up.

Rose assisted me to the boulder we’d passed on the way here. Leaning me against it, she twisted the bottle open and handed it to me. “Rinse your mouth.”

I obliged with all due haste. I hated the taste of bile.

Rose looked around on the ground for a minute before reaching down and ripping three small green leaves off of a stem. Handing it to me she said, “Mint.” That was all I needed. Shoving them into my mouth, I chomped on them and almost moaned in bliss when they freshened up my mouth. “Are you okay, Esmeralda? The truth, please.”

“I feel like shit,” I admitted, “But I’ll be fine.”

Rose paused only a second before asking, “Did you really not remember anything useful, or did you just say that because of who we were with?”

“I really didn’t remember anything useful.” Sighing I rolled my head on my neck. Rose bit her lip, trying to decide what to do next. Tilting my head to the right, I came up off the boulder at the sight of the Black Panther that stood half in, half out of the trees. “Rose...” I whispered, trying not to move a muscle.

“Hmm?” she mumbled, scratching her shoulder.

“Rose. Don’t freak out but there’s a ...panther right behind you.”

Rose met my eyes, “Does it have a scar going through its left eye?”

Trying not to meet its eyes, lest it take it as a challenge, I checked. “Yes.”

Rose smiled and turned sharply, “Should have known you’d follow me.”

I stared between the giant cat and Rose, “What... you... know it?”

The panther loped forward, its tongue hanging out the side of its mouth. Walking right up to Rose, it sat down like a well-trained house cat. Rose squatted down so she was eye level with it, “Where’s your other half?”

“What in hell is going on?” I stammered.

“He’s a familiar, Esmeralda.” Rose said over her shoulder, she stroked the panthers’ ears, making it purr loudly. “Don’t worry, Wren is harmless ... unless you try to hurt his other half.”

“His other half?” I swallowed, “Who is his other half?”

“I suspect Wren came to take us to him, so you’ll see soon enough.” When the cat snorted in what appeared to be agreement, Rose stood and patted Wren the Panther on one massive shoulder, she started walking towards the forest. Leaving me alone with a three-hundred pound jungle cat blinking up at me. I slowly slid off the boulder. Keeping my eyes on it, I took a few deep breaths. “Um... hello?”

Wren blinked slowly at me. He was amused. The damn panther was enjoying this.

“So your... tame?” I hedged.

He flicked his tail.

“I’m going to take that as a yes.” I announced.

He just stared at me.

“Could you not do that?”

Wren let out a small trill before turning and slowly walking towards the forest where Rose had disappeared. He got about half way and then realized that I wasn’t following. He turned, sat patiently, and stared at me.

“Alright, alright. I’m coming,” I stomped towards him. His sharp look made me rethink the pressure I used to walk.

This time Wren stayed where he was, watching me over his shoulder as I pushed my way past branched and leaves.

“What took you so long?” Rose asked, leaning against a tree.

“Damn panther,” I muttered moving towards her.

“He’s a hoot,” she smiled.

“He’s something,” I heard the branches rustle behind me and knew he was looking at my back from the way my hair stood on end. “So, where are we going?”

“Depends on where Wren’s master is today,” Rose stood back to Wren could pass by her, “Lead on, sir.”

It became apparent to me that Wren could understand exactly what we were saying. About twenty minutes into our hike, I asked Rose if she thought Wren knew where we were going and he’d sent me a cold look over his shoulder. I shut up after that.

Mostly.

My feet were hurting, my stomach was clenching and releasing - sending shooting pain through me abdomen. And I was bored. So I complained every ten minutes ... okay, every five ... fine! It was every two and can you blame me? Imagine this; you just died. You just vomited up the most disgusting concoction of spit and blood. And you were following around a panther through a forest that was inhabited by who knows what. Oh, and your bleeding through the giant hole in your stomach. See?

Rose looked over her shoulder and smiled, “We’re almost there, Esmeralda.”

I sighed in bliss, “Finally.”

Wren snorted.

“Oh, shut up you over grown house cat.” I snapped.

Wren paused with one foot hovering over a fallen tree. Looking over his shoulder at me he met my eyes. I struggled not to lower my own, not wanting to admit that he was more dominant that me.

“Knock it off Wren,” a voice said to our left.

I didn’t look away from Wren, nor he from me.

A male sigh sounded. I could hear the owner of the voice jumping down from a tree and walking towards us. Hmm, this Lost walked on the ground?

“Hello, Rose.” The Lost stuck his hand over Wren’s eyes - proving him to be very smart or very stupid. When Wren’s shoulder slumped and he lopped over to the tree the Lost had just vacated I finally looked up at the newest stranger.

“Johnny,” Rose smiled warmly.

The first thing that came to mind was that he really lived up to the expectations his last name presented. His beach bum blond hair fell around his face haphazardly, covering his left eye, and leaving one gray eye seizing me up in return; reminding me of a brewing storm. Roses’ voice flitted into my head, “advantageous friend, dangerous enemy.” I could see that. He wore a bright blue t-shirt under a dark brown leather jacket and worn jeans. He looked like he spend his days laying on a beach and his nights charming women.

He nodded his head towards Wren, “Sorry about that. He’s, shall we say, temperamental.” Full lips parted to reveal straight white teeth when he talked. His quick grin was like lightning.

Rose smiled, “Spoiled, Johnny. Wren is spoiled.”

Johnny shrugged in agreement, “Probably true. But as long as I keep him happy, he won’t eat me.”

At my look he grinned again, “Kidding.” Turning to Rose he asked, “Why were you at the Sisters?”

“What business is that of yours?” she bristled.

“Come on Rose. You know their bad news.” Johnny rubbed one large, tan hand over his eye, under his hair, “I thought you were done with you memories.” he said gently.

Rose shook her head, “Why does everybody seem to think I can’t get over my death?” She pointed to where I stood watching them curiously, “I was there with Esmeralda. We went to see if they could get her memories back. Not mine.”

Johnny flicked his gray eye to me before moving back to Rose, “You know they’re quacks.”

Rose shrugged, “Just because they couldn’t get through my brain doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing.”

I begged to differ.

“They’re bad news, Rose.” Johnny nodded my arm, where the blood from the knife-wound had seeped through. I hadn’t been aware that he’d noticed it. “Blood magic is never good.” He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a small medical kit. Walking over to Rose he handed it to her.

Rose nodded and then said, “It was the quickest solution. It was almost day time - you know we can’t be seen.”

Johnny nodded and leaned against Wren’s tree while Rose lead me to two large rocks, “How much did they take this time?”

Rose turned her face away, suddenly very interested in my sweater. She was silent as she pulled it up and began to clean the blood from my arm. Johnny said nothing. It was making Rose squirm and I had to admit, it was fun to see the usual calm and collected Lost wiggle around. She cracked as she was wrapping gauze around my arm. “About a year.”

Johnny’s only reaction was a tick in his hard jaw. Apparently ‘a year’ was not good.

“Dammit, Rose. I can’t believe you let me agree to going to them. I knew it was a bad idea.” I groaned.

Rose packed everything back up into the medical kit and walked over to Johnny. “It’s not safe for you here. It was a shot, we took it. Now we’ll figure something else out.” She met Johnny’s eye, “Could you ...?”

“You should have come to me first, Rose.” Johnny turned to me, “Esmeralda, right?”

I nodded.

“Bit of a mouthful,” he said to Wren, “Look, Essie. Forcing your memories to return is painful. You could force your brain into a coma. It would be better to let your memories resurface on their own - but Rose is right, this place is dangerous. A mockery of the oasis it used to be.” He scuffed one large boot against a rock, “If the Guardian finds you here he will never let you leave.” Johnny’s gray eye glowed- with a remembrance?

“Why not? What’s his deal?” I sighed.

“He likes control,” Johnny said, leading Rose back over to me with a hand at her back. “I can try to help you remember. It doesn’t involve spit or blood, but it will hurt. Not by something that I’ll do, but regaining your memory will hurt.”

I nodded, “Yesterday, I got a flash of something - it felt like my head would explode.”

Johnny’s lips formed a smile, “Regaining all of your memory will be worse than that. I’m sorry, but it’s the way it is.”

I sucked in a deep breath. Grow a pair, I ordered myself. “Okay.”

Rose moved to stand behind me, her cold hand brushed through my hair before resting on my shoulder. “I’ll be here the whole time.”

I forced a small nod, “Let’s do this.”

Crouching down in front of me, Johnny reached out and took both my hands. “Keep your eyes on me, Essie. Focus completely on me.” His thumbs moved across my palms, much like Rose had done. “Block everything else out. Focus on my eyes,” Releasing one of my hands he brushed his hair from his left eye. I felt my breath lock in my throat. I’d never seen anything like it. The color of the brightest blue ocean, it regarded me steadily, unshakably. “Focus, Essie. Focus...”

The world around me fell away.

“That’s the way,” I heard a male voice praise me, “That’s a good girl.”

At first there was only fog. Then an image began to form; I saw myself, walking across a parking lot. A bag was slung over my shoulder, a couple of books in my arms. I was ... annoyed? But why? I tried to focus my eyes, to see the images around me, but I couldn’t. But wait, there was a noise behind me...footsteps? A pain laced through me, stunning in its power.

A vicious curse brought me back into consciousness. The voice didn’t belong to me.

I held onto the echo of it, using it to pull myself up out of the darkness.

I blinked open my eyes to find myself, once again, passed out on the ground in an unfamiliar place. Rose’s lavender eyes peered at me before moving to regard something on the other side of me. A whine behind me had me rolling to my back to investigate.

I had a moment’s panic when I saw a large panther sitting beside an unconscious man, before I remembered that it was Wren - Johnny’s familiar.

Johnny!

Sitting up I ran anxious eyes over his still form.

“He’s okay,” Rose said quietly, “Just sleeping now.”

“What happened?” I croaked.

“Apparently your mind really doesn’t want to remember.” She brushed twigs from my back, “When it shocked you, it also went through the connection Johnny had formed and zapped him too.”

“Oh, no.” I whispered.

Rose patted my shoulder, “Don’t fret. He’s fine. He swore a lot, then passed out.”

It had been him, I mused. “How long have we been out?”

“Not long enough,” A groggy voice said from beside me.

Johnny stared up at us sleepily, his blue eye shut tight.

“I’m so sorry,” I began only to shut up when he raised a hand.

“Don’t worry about it.” Pushing himself into a sitting position, he rearranged his hair back over his left eye. “We won’t be doing that again, though.” He sighed. “It wouldn’t do any good.”

I nodded, “It’s okay. You tried your best.”

He smiled a bit, “Don’t give up hope, Essie. We’re not out of options.” Bussing his nose against Wrens shoulder, he hopped to his feet and stretched so big I heard his spine pop.

Rose helped me to my feet, her eyes on Johnny, “You can’t be thinking what I think you’re thinking.”

Dropping his arm around Rose’s shoulders he raised a brow, “What might that be, darlin’.” He drawled.

“You cannot be stupid enough to call on him.” she accused.

“Him?” I parroted, only to be ignored.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Johnny assured Rose with an entirely too innocent smile.

“You are.” Rose concluded.

“Him?” I asked again.

“He’s the best - after me, of course.” Johnny grabbed both of us by the hands and began totting us through the forest.

“He’s unstable and rude and ... mean!” Rose protested.

“Him?” I said, though I knew I’d get no answer.

“He’s harmless ... sorta.” Johnny winked at her, annoying her.

“Johnny, honestly - this isn’t a good idea.”

“Oh, relax. He’s a friend of mine.”

“He’s no one’s friend. He doesn’t like anyone or thing.” Rose corrected.

Wren came up beside me, his big brown eyes accusing.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, honest.” I defended myself.

He tilted his head to the side and regarded me as we walked, finally he gave a small nod and sped up. Stopping in front of us he let out a small growl.

It caught Johnny’s attention. His head snapped up and he took in our surroundings faster than I could ever hope to. When he realized that there was no threat he frowned at Wren. “What was that for?”

Wren looked over at me, then back to Johnny.

Johnny looked over at me, then back to Wren.

“What?” Johnny asked.

Wren narrowed his eyes and looked at me again.

Rose spoke up, “I think he wants us to tell her what we’re bickering about.”

Wren snorted.

“Why didn’t you just say so?” Johnny sighed dramatically.

Wren wasn’t amused.

“Alright, alright, keep your hair on.” Johnny turned to me, “We’re talking about Grim.”

I took a minute to let it sink in.

It didn’t.

“Beg pardon?” I said.

“What do they teach in human schools these days?” he muttered to himself, “Grim. You know, Grim Reaper - harbinger of death and all that.”

“He’s real?” I gaped.

“Honestly, for a ghost you’re really closed-minded.”

Rose sighed, “Yes, he’s real.”

“I thought that was a legend.”

“All legends have stemmed from some truth.” Johnny said in a mock deep voice.

“Yeah, but ... the Grim Reaper? He’s something that parents tell children around a camp-fire. A scary story. Next you’re going to tell me the tooth-fairy is real.”

“She is.” Johnny smiled.

I felt my jaw drop, “You’re kidding.”

“Nope. She’s a piece of work, that one.” Johnny’s smile widened.

Rose reached out and smacked Johnny’s stomach, “That’s mean.” she turned to me, “There is no tooth-fairy, but Grim is very much real.”

“This isn’t possible,” My brain tried to rebel the thought, but at the same time, a small part of it knew it was the truth. That little part nagged and nagged until I had no choice but to believe. “Shit.”

“Don’t worry, he’s not as bad as Rose likes to think.” Johnny began walking through the woods again.

Rose and I followed.

She linked her hand with mine, gave it a squeeze. “Maybe he’s calmed down since I saw him last.”

“When was that, exactly?” I said quietly.

“About fifty years ago. We butted heads, so I’ve stayed away.” she shrugged, “I’m probably biased,” she admitted.

“You are.” Johnny said over his shoulder. “He’s really not that bad. Just don’t piss him off.”

I nodded, “Right.”

It probably was a good forty minute walk - but I was too wrapped up in being terrified that it seemed only about a minute long. I ground to a halt when I noticed Johnny and Rose had stopped, good thing too or else I would have fallen off a cliff.

You know when you’re sleeping and in the dream you fall? That second when you wake up disoriented, thinking you’re still falling and it feels like your heart is trying to jump out of your chest? Apparently I could still feel that, even wide awake and even though I was dead. I thought something shimmered near the ground, but I moved back and didn’t really care to take a closer look. Pressing a hand to my racing heart I turned to Johnny and Rose. “Why are we standing at the edge of a cliff?”

“We’re here.” Johnny put his hands on his hips, studying the vastness that opened up before us.

I didn’t ask any more questions. I knew I wouldn’t understand the answers and it would just annoy me. Wren sat down next to me with a small sigh.

Rose tilted her head to the side as she, too, contemplated the open air, a frown marring her porcelain features. I made faces at their backs, not because it did any good, but because it made me feel better. Sort of.

“That’s childish, Essie.” Johnny said, his eyes still on the air.

As I was sputtering, trying to come up with a retort, he straightened and a small smile appeared on his face. “Genius,” he proclaimed, “Absolutely, genius.” He whipped around, meeting my eyes, “Are you afraid of heights?”

I raised a brow, “Uh, yeah.”

He nodded, “Good.”

Rose shook her head, “What are you thinking, Johnny?”

“Fear.” he said, mostly to himself as he began to pace. He passed behind me a couple of times, and I thought nothing of it. Until his footsteps stopped. An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of my stomach, I was about to turn around when he said, “Sorry.” and then he shoved me off the cliff.

I didn’t scream, I couldn’t. My throat closed off, suffocating me. The force of the fall had my hair whipping around me, my clothes rippling. As I plummeted to my (second) death, I wondered fleetingly what happened to Lost who were killed. But then I made the mistake of looking down and saw the ground rushing towards me and all coherent thoughts fled. Squeezing my eyes shut, I hoped for a painless death.

I was inches from the ground when the air before me shimmered and crystalized. Before I could blink I was sucked forward, as if something had hooked around my waist and pulled. Everything was dark, making my eyes useless and my other senses stronger. The smell of a bonfire wrapped around me, comforting even though I could feel myself hurtling through the air. Rushing winds screamed into my ears - and then, just as suddenly as suddenly as it started, I slammed into the ground.

Black spots danced around my vision, and my throat opened only to close violently again. As I lay on my stomach, my face pressed into the cold dirt beneath me, gasping for breath I heard two pairs of footsteps running towards me, led by thundering galloping.

A cold nose searched through my tangled hair to find my cheek. The shock of it brought me back around, and I focussed on it, using it to orient myself. My senses came back, one by one. First came smell - wood-smoke wafted around me, its familiar fragrance grounding. Slowly, I could feeling hands prodding at me, turning me over gently and moving my hair off my face. As my eyes refocused, I saw Rose leaning over me, her face eerily pale. Her lips were moving quickly, her large eyes scanning over my body, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying, the roaring in my ears was too insistent, too loud.

I moved my jaw, not really feeling the shooting pain. The taste of dirt made me cough and gag, Rose helped to turn my on my side - but nothing happened. I just coughed and heaved until I collapsed to the ground.

“Esmeralda! Can you hear me?” Rose’s voice sounded far away, like she was standing at one end of a tunnel and I was at the other. “Esmeralda!”

I tried to say “I hear you” but it came out sounding like “ere ew”. Nevertheless, a smile bloomed over her face, “Thank the Maker.”

A figure appeared over her shoulder but at first my eyes were still to blurry for me to make out who or what it was. Then it moved closer and I recognized the cocky smile and stormy gray eye. Before I could stop myself I lurched into a sitting position and grabbed for Johnny’s throat. My anger invigorated me, allowing me to shove my pain in the back of my mind and rush to my feet. Rose caught me by my shoulders and prevented me from strangling the lights right of that cocky, smarmy sonofa-

“Making friends still, I see.” An unfamiliar voice said from behind Rose and I.

I didn’t care who it belonged to, all I wanted to do was beat the crap out of the man before me.

“As always, Grim.” It wasn’t so much what Johnny said that brought me up short, so much as the name he tacked onto the end of it.

I stopped struggling against Rose, stopped trying to beat the ever livin’ out of Johnny. Rose let me go slowly, and we both turned around as Johnny and Wren stepped up beside us.

He wasn’t what I expected, and I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised.

My first thought was that he was huge - not fat, but tall and with broad shoulders. He was a sight in black, all the way from the glossy waves of his hair, to the broad lines of his leather coat and body hugging knit shirt, to his long leg, outfitted in black jeans. He looked like a cross between a biker and what I suspected the devil probably looked like. His eyes surprised me, navy blue and so thickly lashed, they seemed almost boyishly innocent.

I snorted inwardly, the Grim Reaper innocent? Right.

His raven hair reached down to just under his pectorals, reaching just under his shoulder blades in the back. Even though the cavern we were in had muted light that made even Rose look sallow, Grims’ skin was a healthy caramel color - would it be sickly looking in normal light? His facial features could have been chiselled from stone, they were so strong looking - but the image was ruined by scruff, like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. The over-all look was appealing.

I met his eyes and it suddenly hit me that I was standing five feet away from the Grim Reaper.

And based on the look in those navy eyes, he didn’t enjoy being sized up. Oops....

Johnny stepped forward, “Looking inviting as always, Grim.”

The edges of his wide, full lips twitched, like he was thinking about smiling, but he didn’t, “I’m not paid to be inviting,”

“You’re not paid at all,” Laughed Johnny.

“Less incentive to be friendly.” Grim still hadn’t taken his eyes off me and it was starting to make me squirm. But then I thought better of showing weakness in front of the Grim Reaper and straightened my spine. His lips twitched again and he held my eyes for a few more minutes before turning to Rose. “Run out of emotions yet?”

Rose took a mental breath before replying, “Still pretending you have none?”

Grim didn’t answer, instead he turned to Johnny, “How did you know how to get in?”

“You’ve always been dramatic,” Was Johnny’s reply, “I just told myself to think like you do.”

“You didn’t have to throw the girl off a cliff, you know.” Grim said in his velvety voice.

“What!” I lunged at Johnny again but Rose wrapped her arms around me and all I could to was wiggle menacingly.

“Thanks a lot, Grim, give her another reason to want to kill me.” Johnny shook his head like he was scolding a small child.

“Turnabout is fair play, because you almost did kill her.”

“I knew you would open the gate.”

“And if I hadn’t?”

“You did,” Rose snapped, “Now can we please stop talking about this? It’s upsetting Esmeralda.”

Both men turned to face me. Johnny with caution and Grim with amusement.

“Can we go somewhere, I’d rather not be caught by Guards,” Rose demanded.

“No Guards can enter this place unless I bring them here. Rest assured, I won’t.” Grim shrugged, “But we can go to the Reaper House anyways.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. But I soon found that I had no choice as Rose kept her arm firmly around my waist to pull me along. The scenery wasn’t anything to talk about; damp caverns that bled into one another, tight passages that made me feel suffocated. There was a faint blue glow that illuminated the whole place, but as hard as I looked I couldn’t find its source. Every now and then the sound of something shuffling along could be heard but the shadows were too dense to see more than a few feet away. It was unnerving, to say the least.

Wren was in front of our little group, leading the way. Obviously he’d been here before. Bully for him, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be there for the first time.

Reaper House, as Grim had called it, was actually a mansion - or more appropriately, a castle. Guess dealing in death paid well. It loomed ominously in the distance, getting bigger and bigger as we trekked closer to it. I found it slightly odd that I was set in the middle of what looked like a giant field of stone and sand, open to attack from any and all sides. There didn’t seem to be any protection for it at all. Then I remembered who owned the castle and shrugged. Suppose his reputation was enough to keep most away.

Black stone forged the shape, towers jutted out from its already skyscraper height. They leaned to one side, as if threatening to fall, yet they were still firmly attached to the main frame of the castle - like they didn’t want to let go. There was a smattering of windows strewn about, all dark except for one on what I judged to be the second floor. The closer we got, the more details of the castle came into light. The stone it was made of had a blue tint, probably from the weird glow I’d yet to place, and it was also very obviously crumbling apart. Parts of the castle were chipped away, like some great being had broken them off, not unlike a child and a gingerbread house.

Some stones lay littered about the field before us, some chunks the size of cars. I raised a silent brow at Rose as we walked around them, but she shook her head, her lips pressed firmly together.

I looked back up at the castle, my eyes drawn to the singularly lit room. There, haloed by the light behind it, stood a figure. It watched us move closer. Since Grim didn’t make a fuss over somebody being in his house -and I bet my Mustang that he’d noticed the figure too- I figured the figure was welcome.

Maybe it was his wife. I cocked my head to the side as I regarded the huge man before me. No, he didn’t seem like the time to settle into matrimony. I found myself making up elaborate stories about who the figure was, like I used to do as a child about strangers. Perhaps it was the groundskeeper, but I immediately shook that one away as we skirted more of the crumbling ruins. There was clearly no groundskeeper for this land. Maybe it was a captive, maybe Grim had captured some poor defenceless Lost and locked them away forevermore. But that didn’t make any sense either, they’d be locked away in a dungeon. Not in the second story room.

You don’t know that, my imagination said, maybe he’s a friendly kidnapper.

I snorted out a laugh, bringing Roses’ eyes back to me.

I shrugged in apology.

Looking back up at the window, I saw that the figure was gone. My imagination went into overdrive trying to come up with answers to its whereabouts when I realized that our little group had reached the giant door. Looking over my shoulder, I was slightly disappointed to see that there was no moat. Just then the oak doors flung open, as fast as twenty-foot doors could, and light spilled out onto us - and standing in between the doors, was a figure with its hands on its hips.

“Don’t tell me you wore that to great our guests.”


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