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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 7/9/18. Camp NaNoWriMo, July 2018 edition.


Warning(s): sexual content (mild); traumatizing content; violent content.

[Antonio]
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.

—William Shakespeare,
The Merchant of Venice, Act I: Scene 1


1


While the Red and White Queens continued their summoning curse at the corner of the hallway, Auna took up her position behind the partition around the next corner away from them, just out of their line of sight. She crouched to the floor and dug a hand into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two rosaries and kissed the crosses on each, then pulled down her socks and wrapped each rosary above her ankles, then lifted up each sock.

She rose to her feet and manifested a semiautomatic pistol in her hand, took out a full magazine from her other pocket and loaded the gun, then said under her breath, “Saint Sebastian, look on me and have mercy. Speed my feet from the path of the wicked, from the snares of the sinful, and from my own sins, that I may fly the jaws of death. Amen.”

She made the sign of the cross, then pulled back the slide of her gun, chambering a round, and leaned against the wail with both hands gripping her gun and her heart beating in her chest—

And waited.


2


When the trio reached the patio of the house, Cooley opened the double doors into the dining area of the mansion and let Mara and Nico inside, then looked up at the churning clouds in the sky. Katherine was an emotional young woman, even when she didn’t show it, and Cooley saw it all in the skies. Under sunny skies, Cooley knew she was happy; under cloudy skies, she was upset; under rainy skies, she was probably crying; and under storming and thundering skies, she was angry. Yet the churning clouds Cooley saw now—not yet a downpour of sadness, nor yet a single angry thunderclap—harbored an unfamiliar emotion, somewhat akin to worry but deeper and more urgent and stretched super tight like violin strings.

And something else.

Something else she found difficult to tease out, as though the silence of this cloudy day hid a threat she couldn’t see.

She pushed these thoughts aside and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.

Mara and Nico were already taking off their damp clothes in the dining area, and Mara was pulling off her shirt over her shoulders when she saw Cooley and paused.

“Excuse me, Ms. . . .” Mara said.

“Cooley,” the woman said, “just Cooley.”

“Cooley,” Mara said, “can you look away for a little bit. Nico and I are still changing.”

“Geez, you don’t have to make a big fuss over it,” Nico said, pulling off her shirt over her shoulders and then pulling her skirt down her legs and walking out of them. ”She’s another woman, so don’t worry about it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mara said, then remembered the Hearn sisters walking in on them inside Katherine’s private boudoir. “And I don’t appreciate you undressing me like in front of people, either!”

“So you’re shy, are you?” Cooley said.

Mara blushed and looked away, but Nico shook her head and said, “Do you have a washer and dryer we could use?”

“Yes, we do,” Cooley said. “It’s—” She covered her mouth.

“Wait a minute,” Mara said. “What do you mean by ’we’?”

Nico added, “Is someone else living here?”

Now it was Cooley’s turn to get tongue-tied, as she thought of other calamities on the verge of happening, along with a solution to fix the unfixable.

One of which called out from outside the double doors, saying, “Cooleeeeeey, why are you taking so long? The spa’s ready to go. Do I have to drag you to the spa?” Then came footfalls rushing to the patio entrance, and someone pulled the double doors open, revealing a Madison look-alike in short shorts and a bikini top.

Now all was silent.

The Madison look-alike paused before the threshold, looking at the two undressed girls looking back at her in shock, then at Cooley, and then back at the girls.

“Cooley,” the Madison look-alike said.

“Um, y-yes,” she said, gulping. ”What is it?”

“Who are those two?” And the Madison clone pointed at Mara and Nico. “I don’t remember inviting them into our spa.” Then she gave Cooley a maniacal glare, saying, “Are you cheating on me?”

“No! It’s not like that! I can explain!”

So she crossed her arms over her ample bosom and said, “Then explain, or I’ll roast them in three . . .”

“Blaze, come on!” Cooley said, walking over to her. “I’m not—”

“Two . . .”

“Those two . . . Uh!” And Cooley lost her train of thought, so she grabbed her shoulders, saying, “Geez, calm down, will you?”

“One . . .”

Then, just before she roasted anything, just before Cooley said another word, and just before Mara unleashed her psychokinesis, Nico said, smiling, “Wow, you sound a lot like Maddy.”

“What? WHAT?” And the Madison look-alike gave Nico a murderous glare and flooded the patio and dining room with growing heat, turning the air around them arid and hot, making Cooley take her hands off her shoulders to shake away the blistering heat. “How dare you compare me to that bitch!”

“Wait,” Mara added, “does that mean you know her?”

“I sure as fuck wish I didn’t!”

“And why’s that?” Nico said, giving this woman a glare of her own. “Did something weird happen between you and Maddy? Or did you decide to just up and leave?”

At any other moment, this Madison look-alike would have exploded and burned everything around her within a fifty-foot radius, but Cooley had had enough. So she slapped her across the face and said, “Blaze, get a grip on yourself! You don’t even know who those girls are, and you’re already judging them!”

“So what?” she said. “I have a right to pass judgement, don’t I?”

“Not till you know what they’ve been through,” Cooley said, then turned to the girls, both of them undressed (save for bras and panties) and holding their wet clothes folded in their arms. She pointed out Nico, saying, “Take a good look at her, and tell me what you see.” It was not a request, but an order.

So Blaze came up to Nico, who dropped her clothes and clung to Mara’s waist, and the closer she got to this Nico person, the more she realized what she did not see before.

“Where’s your life force?” Blaze said, reaching out her hand and pausing it just before her chest. “There’s no heartbeat.” Then she looked into Nico’s eyes, peering deep into those windows, wherein she gleaned the truth, and said, “No way! No fucking way! Are you actually—”

She paused, because that’s when Nico began to cry, letting all her strength and courage and stress flow through her tears, and clung to Mara as though she was clinging to the only thing keeping her from disintegrating into nothing.

So Mara dropped her own clothes and wrapped an arm around her sister’s bare waist, and with her other hand, she grabbed Nico’s hand and pressed it to her chest, where her heart beat warm and strong against her palm, beating for the both of them. And she whispered pretty nothings to her sister, saying, “It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

Blaze turned to Cooley. “What happened to her?”

Cooley merely motioned her hand back to Mara and Nico.

“What happened?”

“She died,” Mara said, and her eyes clouded with images of that horrible moment on Rancaster’s stage. “I watched her die. And I know who killed her.” So for the next few minutes, she told them everything.


3


When Celia and Madison appeared in the summoning circle, forcing the Red and White Queens to evade, both sisters began stamping away at the glowing circle, trying to smudge it out and break the spell, yet the summoning seal remained intact. The magic circle still glowed on the carpet beneath their feet, still connected to Auna’s blood summoning spell, still pulsing to the heartbeat of that girl leaning against the wail out of sight on the other side of the hallway, waiting and waiting and biding her chance as she gripped her gun tighter.

Celia glared at the White Queen and Madison at the Red Queen, as both queens took up new positions some paces away, side by side, one white and one red.

Eyeing the White Queen and the Red Queen in turn, Celia said, “Can you handle these two on your own?”

“Leave them to me,” Madison said and turned up the heat, and waves of it flooded around herself and Celia in a blistering sphere, expanding it outward and backing both queens further away from their original position over the summoning seal. ”Go find the other one and break the seal.”

So Celia crouched to the floor and lowered her palm on top of the summoning seal, feeling Auna’s spell surge through her arm and into her mind’s eye, and when her eyes flashed upon Auna’s location around the next corner, she said, “I found her,” and threw another seal below her feet and blinked out of sight.

“Now then,” Madison said, sending her own seals along the floor of the hallway between herself and her foes, ready to explode them the moment they moved forward, “which one of you bitches wants to go first?”

Both queens traded glances before looking back and smiling at her, then stretched out their hands and manifested a knife there and took up positions close to the walls.

The Red Queen said, “Don’t get cocky now—”

“Or we’ll make you regret it,” the White Queen added.

And before Madison exploded her seals, before she could even curse, she saw both doppelgängers running up onto the sides of the walls and charging at her in a blur, ready to slice at her with their knives. So Madison focused all of her fiery energy into her fist and slammed it on the floor like a meteorite crashing into the earth, shaking the hallway on impact and blinking out the ceiling lights and caving in the floor and the surrounding walls in a spreading explosion of hellfire, blowing the Red and White Queens off the walls and sending them some paces away.

When the lights came back on, Madison saw both queens already getting to their feet, cursing at her and saying that she played dirty. Yet Madison always played dirty when she could, remembering her seals on that part of the floor. So she exploded them like land mines, rupturing the floorboards under both queens in a mass of detonations going off at once, shaking the hallway again and filling it with a cloud of debris spreading towards Madison’s position at the end of the hall before dissipating.

As the cloud fully dispersed, she stood up with her ears ringing from the mass detonation, but she saw no sign of either of the queens there, nor any sign of gore on the walls. Only long splinters and pieces of floorboard lay scattered and broken over the tattered remains of singed carpeting. Much of the paneling of the walls on either side of the mass detonation had been jarred loose from their recesses and lay on the floor or pockmarked into more splinters, and even a few of those splinters had been lodged into the ceiling above.

She then surveyed the epicenter of the shallow crater she had created, its carpeting burned away, revealing a circular depression of ash and smoldering embers in the center, long charred splinters on the edges of the depression, and burnt floorboard pieces scattered from the origin of the blast. The recessed paneling had been depressed into smoldering splinters where the brute impact of the explosion had created two circular depressions in the intersecting walls of one corner and depressed the adjacent corner into a smoldering black edifice. And the ceiling above the explosion, which had shorted out the ceiling lights before they came back on, had a blackened corona of charring above her head.

Yet in the middle of this destruction, Madison noticed the glowing circle of light—the summoning circle—floating just inches off of the caved-in depression she was standing in. She crouched down and passed her hand through the glowing circle that seemed to defy reality, now blinking to a peculiar rhythm that reminded her of heartbeats, before it dipped itself out of sight into the floor.

“That’s weird,” Madison said, but when shots fired to her left around the next corner, she took off sprinting towards the source of the sound. “Celia! CELIA! Fuck, fuck, fuck, you better be okay! God damn it, you better be okay!”


4


Moments before the explosions, Celia appeared around the corner and got right in Auna’s face, grabbing her gun and trying to wrest it out of her hands, while keeping the muzzle away from her legs, away from her stomach, away from her face, shoving Auna back against the wall and raising the gun towards the ceiling. Yet even as she was controlling the gun, she felt herself tiring as if she were wrestling with Kendra, struggling to keep the gun up against Auna’s strength and the force of gravity.

“Let go!” Celia yelled, straining just to keep the muzzle of the gun raised far enough, so she wouldn’t get shot in the face. “Let go, you fuck!”

“Sure,” Auna said, and to Celia’s surprise, she let go of the gun and let her have it, backing away a few steps with her hands up and her palms empty. “There. Are you happy now?”

Celia just stood there, winded with the effort she had expelled just to wrestle Auna for the gun, and she had given it up without further contest. Then she noticed the weight of the gun in her hand, which felt cumbersome and uneven in her grasp, and it was all she could do to hold it steady in her hand. Judging from first impressions, Celia guessed this girl was around her own height and weight and build, but she had a grip strength rivaling Kendra’s and might even be able to stand up to her in a fight.

Then the hallway shook with an impact that sounded like a meteor hitting the earth, blinking out the ceiling lights overhead before coming back on, and moments later, the hallway shook again that sounded like a mass of detonations going off at once.

“Maddy!” Celia said, doubling back past the corner and noticing a cloud of debris coming towards her before dissipating, but when she looked back and saw Auna turning tail and running down the hall, Celia ran after her, yelling, “Where are you going?”

“You tell me,” she yelled back. “I’m new to this place!”

And the girl ran and ran without stopping, seeming to run on a full tank that never emptied, while Celia was feeling the burn in her legs as she tried to keep up. And with the gun still gripped in her hand, she felt like she was running with a dumbbell, throwing her strides off kilter enough to slow her down. That’s when Celia realized the girl’s tactic all along. She hadn’t been trying to shoot her face off, nor was she running away out of cowardice: she was trying to tire her out.

Celia slowed to a halt and raised the gun in both hands, trying to keep it steady, and said, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”

Auna slowed to a halt at the end of the hallway and faced her, a mere twenty feet away, and said, “Then why don’t you?”

“I’ll shoot if you force me to,” she said, struggling to keep her aim true, even as muscle fatigue burned in her arms. Hell, if Kendra was here, she’d be screaming at her to keep her wrists locked and her eyes on the target.

“You have the gun,” Auna said, raising her hands up with her palms forwards. “Why don’t you use it?”

That’s when Celia realized her own mistake: she had been suckered into fighting by Auna’s rules, so she discarded the gun, letting it thud onto the floor, and said, “I’m through messing around,” and she blinked out of sight—

And got up in Auna’s face with a swing at her jaw, but she missed, throwing herself off balance and into Auna’s hip toss. And before Celia knew it, she found herself flying head over heels and landing on her back and crumpling up in agony. As Celia scrambled to her feet, she caught sight of Auna manifesting her gun and aiming it at point-blank range.

Just as shots fired, Celia blinked out of sight—

And appeared behind Auna, clipping her waist from behind and locking her hands together on her stomach, trying to prepare her for a suplex from hell, but Celia’s reserves were now running on empty. All of Auna’s tactics have drained Celia’s strength before the tussle began, so she found herself checkmated in two moves: the first was a WWE hip toss; the second was MMA ground and pound.

All of her efforts blew up in her face, because Celia had underestimated her opponent the moment she played Auna’s game, because Celia’s arsenal was nowhere near that of Auna’s or Kendra’s, because all Celia had were her teleportation seals and her grandmother’s blood spells.

Thus, she had no contingency plans for when those strengths became her weaknesses, nothing to fall back on when Auna broke her hold and wheeled around behind her and pulled her to the ground and rained blows on her head. Thus, Celia couldn’t help but cover up her face, nor could she help herself as Auna gained a full mount on top of her, straddling her stomach and manifesting a gun aimed at her head. But for all of her shortcomings in close quarters combat and her terrible decisions leading up to this point, Celia knew what danger looked like.

Celia grabbed at the gun, even as Auna had her pinned to the ground beneath her. She kept the muzzle of the gun away from her face, even as she was losing her grip with Auna leveraging her weight and shifting and wrenching and pressing the muzzle closer and closer to the side of her face.

Celia kept trying, even as Auna said, “Die, you bitch!”

And even as the gun went off close to Celia’s ear, buzzing her head full of static, filling her nostrils with the fume of gunpowder and stinging her eyes with it, she held on, tenacious and desperate, straining against Auna’s leveraging strength, squinting her eyes full of tears against the inevitable if she didn’t do something.

Anything! she thought, flooding her mind with a flurry of interiors inside Katherine’s mansion, then summoning her seal through the mental clutter and releasing her spell and taking Auna with her to God knows where.


5


After the Cairns twins gave the short version, Cooley and Blaze were thunderstruck, but both took it differently. Cooley was horrified, placing a hand over her gaping mouth, but Blaze was fuming, gritting her teeth and clenching her hands into knuckle-white fists. Cooley looked at her fuming friend and the two Cairns twins in turn, then came over and picked up their damp clothes and said, “Blaze will dry these up for you, so don’t worry about them.”

“What am I, a house maid?” Blaze said.

Cooley then gave them to her friend, saying, “Come on, hop to it!” But when Blaze folded her arms over her ample bosom and glared at her, she said, “When you’re done, come to the sauna,” and she walked through the double doors leading Mara and Nico outside.

Blaze just stood there, sighing in irritation, and took out her frustrations out on their damp clothes but tried not to roast them.

Meanwhile, Cooley led Mara and Nico along the colonnaded patio walkway, leading to the entrance of a recessed shed attached to the house, sliding the door open and inviting them inside and showing them where the cubby holes were, so they could retrieve their clothes afterwards. She then scampered back up the walkway and stripped off her clothes, till she found Blaze still fuming as she took the twins’ clothes with her.

Cooley said, “Please don’t tell me you burned their clothes!”

“I will if you keep pestering me!”

“Give them to me,” Cooley said and took the twins’ clothes in her other hand, while Blaze pulled down her short shorts and walked out of them. Afterwards, both women proceeded to the sauna, where they stuffed the twins’ clothes as well as their own into the cubby holes just by the sauna entrance.

They slid the door shut and found Nico lying on one of the benches, resting her head atop Mara’s lap.

Mara and Nico looked at the two older girls and just sat there, Mara saying, “Uh . . .”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” Cooley said, sitting on the opposite bench. “Blaze and I do that all the time.”

Blaze smiled at Cooley’s words as she was checking the furnace, using the bellows to blow more cool air into burning cinders of pinewood, filling the sauna with a pine-scented fragrance. As a new wave of warmth and fragrance filled the sauna, Blaze joined Cooley on the bench facing the Cairns twins and said, “Cooley and I take it to another level at night.”

“Blaze,” Cooley said, deadpanning, “don’t corrupt them.”

Nico raised herself from Mara’s lap and smiled, saying, “Oh, we’re wayyyyy past corrupted!”

“Nico!” Mara said.

Cooley whistled, saying, “Ooooh, what a naughty girl you are.”

“And coy, too,” Blaze said.

Mara deadpanned, while Nico added with a grin, “And she takes the lead, too.”

“Ugh, please stop!” Mara said and tried to change the subject: “Cooley, can you check on Kathy’s private room?”

“Wow, you really are forward, aren’t you?” Cooley said.

So Blaze leaned forward and said, almost in a conspiratorial way, “Hey, just between you and me, Cooley likes assertive partners.”

“Ugh,” Mara said, getting up from the bench, “stop trolling me, or I’m leaving!”

“Okay, okayyyy,” Cooley said. “We’ll stop.”

“For now,” Blaze said.

“STOP!”

“Okay, okayyyy! We’ll stop,” Cooley said and summoned a body-length mirror that reached to the corner of the floor on the sidewall between them, then placed a finger on the reflection and peered into it as it shimmered to life. “Kathy’s got a lot of private rooms, though, so you need to be more specific.”

“It’s the one that has her one-way mirror,” Nico said, “not the one with all the dildos and smut and stuff.”

Mara blushed.

“I’ll take you there later if you want,” Blaze said.

Mara glared.

“All right, I’ll stop,” Blaze said.

Cooley concentrated on Katherine’s position in her dream mansion and said, “Okay, I think I know which room you’re talking about,” and she brought up the image onto the reflection showing an unconscious Katherine Hearn lying face down on the floor. “Oh my God!”

“What happened?” Blaze said, standing up from the bench.

Nico and Mara were speechless looking on in horror.

“You two stay here,” Cooley said to the twins and walked through the reflection, warping the image during her passage, and Blaze followed after her through the reflection, warping the image again before it settled back onto the interior of Katherine’s private boudoir.

Nico and Mara got up and peered at the moving image before them, looking in on the scene of Cooley and Blaze crouching, of Blaze turning Katherine over onto her back, of Cooley putting her head down over Katherine’s mouth and placing her hand over her bosom (checking her breathing and her heartbeats) and giving instructions to Blaze on what she should do next. Then Blaze looked at the body-length mirror beside the vanity table and walked over to it and touched it, then jerked her hand away and said something to Cooley.

“What are they talking about?” Nico said.

“I don’t know,” Mara said. “Do you think it’s serious?”

“I hope not,” she said.

“Me, too,” Mara said.

The scene in the mirror continued with Cooley getting up and walking over to the body-length mirror and putting her hand on the surface, then pulling away and saying something else to Blaze. Then Cooley walked over and began lifting Katherine up by her armpits, and Blaze lifted her up by her legs, and both girls carried the unconscious woman towards the mirror, warping the image as they carried Katherine into the sauna.

“Make way, please,” Cooley said.

So Nico and Mara made room for their passage, getting out of their way as Cooley and Blaze carried the unconscious young woman past the sauna benches towards the entrance and laid her onto the wooden floorboards. As Cooley checked on her patient again, Blaze came up to Nico and Mara standing near the sauna entrance, saying, “Get dressed,” and reached for her cubby hole and pulled out her short shorts and a blouse she had placed there beforehand and got dressed.

So Mara and Nico got themselves dressed.

Nico said, “What’s going on?”

“Katherine’s mansion has been compromised,” Blaze said.

“WHAT?” said Nico and Mara.

“She’s been put under a sleeper curse,” Cooley said.

“You can’t be serious?” Nico said.

“Oh, I’m damn serious,” Cooley said as she was checking Katherine's vital signs, repeating the same process of placing her ear near Katherine’s mouth to check for her breathing and placing her hand on her chest to check for her heartbeat and sighed. “She’s not in any immediate danger, but if she doesn’t wake up from this curse by dawn, she might stay this way. That’s why it’s called a sleeper curse.”

Nico gulped and said, “What about Maddy and Celia?”

“I checked Kathy’s mirror myself,” Cooley said. “Someone’s been tampering with it, so I can’t detect her sisters’ locations anywhere in the mansion at all. Mara, Nico,” she added, pointing to the mirror against the side wall between the sauna benches, “I need you to take Kathy to the basement and stay with her.”

No sooner had she issued those instructions when the reflection of Katherine’s private boudoir in the mirror changed to that of an underground vault beneath Cooley’s own dream mansion. So Nico and Mara got to work and lifted and carried Katherine off the floor, Nico carrying her by her armpits and Mara carrying her by her legs, and entered the mirror.

“Look after her, you two,” Blaze said.

“We will,” Mara said and entered the mirror, carrying Katherine’s body through it.

While Nico added, “Be careful out there,” and entered the mirror, warping the reflection.

For a time, Cooley just stood there in silence, steadying her breathing as she clenched and unclenched her hands, till Blaze came over to her and placed her hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes, saying, “Kathy’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry.”

But Cooley shook her head and dropped her show of strength from her face as tears welled up in her eyes. She said, “It’s all my fault.”

So Blaze hugged her close to her, letting her cry over her shoulder, and said, “Hey, don’t think that way, because it’s not. When we find out whoever did this to Kathy—”

But Cooley regained herself, pushing Blaze away and wiping her tears, and said, “That’ll have to wait,” and she stretched out her hand and summoned another mirror and placed her palm against it, concentrating on the locations of Madison and Celia in the hallways of Katherine’s mansion. “We need to find Maddy and Celia first, so they can bring Kathy back to their place. . . . Wait a minute.”

“What is it?” Blaze said.

“I sense five— . . . No, three— . . . What?” she said, concentrating on what was going on in her mind’s eye over the sudden change of movements. “I’ve lost track of Celia and whoever was with her.”

“You’re kidding,” Blaze said.

“I’m not,” she said. “I can’t sense them anymore, but I’ve locked onto Maddy’s location, along with two others.”

“Two others?” Blaze said.

“Yeah,” Cooley said, “but they’re fast. It’s hard keeping track of them from this distance. We need to get closer.”


6


Madison halted at the corner and peered down the hallway where she heard the gunfire, but she saw no sign of her younger sister there. She then crouched down and placed her hand flat against the carpet and closed her eyes, flooding the space with her mind’s eye and her intuition for a few moments, and sensed movement down the hallway. So she sprinted down the corridor towards the end of the hall just before it ended in a two-way corridor and slowed to a halt when she smelled gunpowder and propellant in the air.

She again crouched to the floor and put her palm flat against the carpet and closed her eyes, repeating the psychometric process in her mind, and sensed a one-sided struggle just a few feet ahead of her. She gulped down her fears, hoping that Celia wasn’t on the losing end of that struggle, and walked towards the spot where it took place.

She stopped when she saw the bullet hole and smelled the pungent odor of gunpowder and propellant, but there were no bloodstains anywhere. So she crouched once again and placed her palm flat over the carpet next to the bullet hole and sensed her sister’s struggle in her mind. Madison felt dazed, and her head felt sore, as if someone had been hammering blows on her (Celia’s) head, before she felt a ringing static in her ears, as if a gunshot went off at point-blank range, but Celia herself was nowhere to be seen.

“Fuck!” Madison said, fuming over Celia’s disappearing act as she got to her feet. “Where are you? You better be okay, or else I’ll roast you, damn it!”

But just as she got back up, she saw something metallic flash across her vision and rolled out of the way just in time. When she got back up, she faced the Red Queen and said, “You bitch!”

“You’re quicker than I thought,” the Red Queen said, holding her knife like a toy. “Since we have nothing better to do, why don’t we play a game of tag?”

“And why should I?” Madison said.

“No you don’t. You can’t back out of this game,” the Red Queen said and pointed her knife at Madison’s face. “I’ve already tagged you.”

That’s when Madison noticed a slight stinging sensation on her left cheek, and when she raised her hand to it, she winced and glared, saying, “I’m gonna kill you!”

“No killing now,” the Red Queen said and tossed Madison her knife, which Madison caught.

She looked at the knife, then back at the Red Queen and said, “You’re disarming yourself?”

“It’s a part of the game of tag,” the Red Queen said. “Draw first blood, and the other person is it. Those are the rules,” and she turned tail down to the end of the hall (“Hey, get back here!”) and turned left around the corner into the corridor, and Madison ran after her with her knife in hand.

But just as Madison turned the corner, she felt another blade grazing the top of her shoulder, halting her off her balance as a sharp burning sensation flooded down her arm. Gripping her hand to her shoulder and gritting her teeth against the pain, she looked back as the White Queen ran up and threw a roundhouse kick to her stomach, bowling Madison over onto the floor, feeling like she was about to throw up her lunch.

When she looked up, she saw the White Queen picking up her knife, then getting up and looking back at Madison with a smile, and said, “Now that I’ve tagged you, you can chase after me, too,” and threw her knife to the floor, sticking it into the carpet in front of Madison.

“Why did you kick me?” Madison spat.

“To get you back for playing dirty earlier,” she said, then winked at her. “Only pussies use long range attacks,” and she raced down the hall, while Madison scrambled to her feet and was about to run after her—

When someone else called after her, saying, “Maddy, don’t go!”

Madison turned back, recognizing Blaze’s voice, and saw Blaze and Cooley running up the hallway to meet her. She said, “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t go after those two,” Cooley said.

“But I have to—”

“Listen to me,” Cooley said. “Don’t go yet.”

And before Madison was about to speak, Blaze put her hand on Madison’s shoulder, making her wince, and said, “You can’t go after them when you’re hurt!”

“And God knows what you’ll run into if you do,” Cooley said and summoned two mirrors before her and placed her hands on both reflections in deep concentration. “If you play their game, it’ll be one against two. You’ll tire yourself out while one of them remains fresh.”

“I see,” Madison said. “What about Celia?”

“I can’t find her,” Cooley said, still concentrating on the movements of the two queens. Then, when the reflections of both mirrors shimmered and blurred out of focus, she said, “I’m getting close,” till the blurry reflections of both mirrors began to warp and change. “I’m getting closer. God, when will you two stop moving?”

As Cooley went on tracking the queens’ movements through her mirrors, Madison and Blaze watched the blurry reflections taking shape and crystallizing into focus for a moment before blurring out of focus, then warping again into blurry unrecognizable shapes for a time, till they began to crystalize—

“Found them,” Cooley said.

—into the Red Queen in the right mirror and the White Queen in the left mirror. The White Queen was in the center of a hallway, while the Red Queen was waiting along the intersecting hallway around a corner.

That’s when Madison realized what their tactic had been from the start, saying, “Damn those two! That’s how they ambushed me the first time!”

“See?” Cooley said. “If you’d have played their game, you’d be totally exhausted chasing after one, while the other was waiting for you. Now hold still,” and she grabbed a hold of Madison’s sleeve and tore it off.

“Hey!”

Cooley then summoned a first aid kit and a water bottle, saying, “I’ve got to patch you up, you know. You don’t want to get an infection.” Then she turned to Blaze, saying, “Go.”

“With pleasure,” Blaze said. “Maddy, I’ll get the red one for you.”

“No,” Madison said, as Cooley finished washing out the blood and reached for the ointment to put it on her wound. “You go for the white one, and I’ll go for the red one. I have a score to settle with— . . . Ow!”

“Just let Mamma Goose heal you up and enjoy the show,” Blaze said and ran down the hall, so she could get a good running speed.

“Please, stop with the name calling,” Cooley said as she finished dressing Madison’s wound on her shoulder, then did the same to the cut on her cheek, making Madison wince. After that, she added, “She’s still upset with you, Maddy.”

“About what?” Madison said.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she said.

“Seriously?” Madison said. “She won’t let it go?”

Cooley shook her head and said, “Won’t you make amends with her? I’m glad to have your avatar over at my house anytime, but she’s a massive glutton. She’s been eating up so much of my food that I’ve spent almost half of my earnings on her ravenous stomach since you’ve banished her from your house.”

“Binge eating?” Madison said.

Cooley nodded and said, “And now that I have to look after the Cairns twins, I’m starting to get worried. Please, make amends with her! Otherwise, I’ll be broke!”

“Okay, okay, I’ll try my best. Oh, and you’re a terrible influence on her, anyway,” Madison said and ran away, ignoring Cooley’s remark that she was being a massive hypocrite, till she caught up to Blaze. “Wait up. I need to talk to you.”

“About what?” Blaze said, facing her.

“About Cooley,” she said. “She says you’ve been eating her out of house and home.”

“Oh, that. Can you blame me? You threw me out, remember?” Blaze said. “But that doesn't matter anymore. You can have all the boyfriends you want, while I get all the food I want.”

“God, I’m tired of the boyfriend-angle,” Madison said. “I just want to have you back in my life.”

“You need to do better than that, Romeo,” she said, “because this Juliet is not having any more of your B.S.”

So Madison did something ‘better,’ grabbing her hand and yanking her back towards her, then kissed the avatar of her true self and said, “Really, I’m sorry for hurting you the way I did. I never meant to make you leave.”

Blaze pulled her hand away and gaped, saying, “You did not just do that! That’s, like, the most cliche thing anyone can do.”

“I’m just trying to make it up to you!” Madison said. “It’s just that you piss me off sometimes, because you’re . . .” She paused, not sure what word to say.

“What? Demanding? Overbearing? Possessive? Narcissistic? Bitchy?” Blaze said. “Or any other degrading adjective?”

“Oh God, please, don’t start this again,” Madison said. “Can’t we just let bygones be bygones? I’m tired of holding onto grudges.”

“Well, I’m not,” Blaze said. “Since you’re the one who started it, you need to prove yourself to me.”

“God, not this again!” Madison said. “Why do you keep going around in circles?”

“Because you keep going around in circles,” she said, shoving her finger at Madison’s bosom. “You’ve got no commitment whatsoever.”

“Damn it, I can’t spend every waking second of my life with you,” Madison said. “I’ve got a life to live outside of being with you, like school—”

“And getting boyfriends,” Blaze said, “and getting laid, and making babies—”

“Ah, Christ,” Madison said. “You see what I mean? I can’t even talk to you without fighting you!”

“Hey, love birds,” Cooley yelled down the hallway, “can you stop the lover’s quarrel and get going, already?”

Madison and Blaze traded glances and sighed, then yelled out as one, saying, “Okay, Mamma Goose!”

And both girls resumed their way to the end of the hallway.

While Cooley unleashed a tirade about being the spiritual avatar of Katherine Hearn and not the butt of their bad humor, Blaze said to Madison, “I’ll think about it, okay? Now are you ready?”

“That’s all I’m asking,” Madison said. “And I’m ready when you are, but I’m taking the red one. You go for the white one.”

“Fine,” she said. “Have it your way.”

When both girls reached the end of the hallway, Madison said, “Last one there is an oyster,” and she sprinted down the hallway towards the right mirror at the top of her speed with Blaze close behind, and she focused her fiery energy in her fists and dashed towards the Red Queen on the other side of the reflection—


7


And flew through Cooley’s mirror, taking the Red Queen by surprise and landing a solid right hook on her jaw and sending her through the opposite wall, smashing the panels and wooden studs into splinters with a concussive shockwave of fire bursting out like a warhead and burning it all into smoldering embers and shaking the floor. And a split second later followed another shockwave in the intersecting hallway ahead of her, shaking the floor once again and blinking out the lights for a moment.

When the lights came back on, Madison was clutching at her knees and catching her breath. She then stood up and beheld the giant hole in the wall with smoldering splinters and broken furniture in one of the rooms, and lying amid the rubble was a motionless Red Queen.

“Got you, bitch,” Madison said and ventured through the smashed and burnt debris that used to be a dining table and chairs and a shattered china cabinet, her steps cracking over the smoldering splinters and broken chair pieces and china, and placed her hand over the Red Queen’s chest and felt rapid heartbeats there. “Still alive, eh? Then let’s just call it even and leave it at that,” she said, then noticed in the rubble a red twine connected to the small of the girl’s back. “Why is her lifeline red? Blaze, did you get yours?”

“I did,” Blaze said. “Come over. I need to show you something.”

Madison stepped through the debris and out of the hole she had created, then rounded the corner into the hallway to where Blaze stood beside her own handiwork of destruction. “What do you want me to see?”

“Come over, and I’ll show you,” Blaze said and waved Madison into the room as she herself ventured back in, so Madison followed her into the destroyed remains of a storage room, splinters and broken storage cabinetry everywhere, and saw the White Queen lying motionless.

“She’s not dead, is she?” Madison said.

Blaze shook her head and crouched down beside the girl, saying, “Her heart’s beating way too fast for someone who’s just been knocked out cold. Was yours the same?”

“Yeah.”

“Then look for her lifeline,” Blaze said. “Do you see it?”

Madison combed through the rubble and found the glowing white cord connected to the small of the girl’s back. “It’s white. Mine had a red lifeline. Aren’t lifelines silver?”

“Yeah,” Blaze said, “but these are doppelgängers. And you can’t really kill a doppelgänger, unless you kill the original. Maddy, before all of this happened, was there anything that you talked about with Kathy or Celia? Anything pertaining to these girls?”

That’s when she remembered back in Katherine’s boudoir Celia and Katherine mentioning something about doubles and said, “We were talking about body doubles or vessels for a summoning ritual, like the way a medium would act as a vessel for a spirit to enter during a seance. Celia seemed to think the vessel was that ‘bambina’ chick, but Kathy couldn’t find her through her mirror.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Blaze said. “If someone was being used as a vessel to summon something else, wouldn’t that vessel have to be a part of the summoning ritual?”

“That’s what I said,” Madison said and stood up, wondering at the apparent inconsistency in that train of thinking, because a summoning circle requires the direct contact of a body double or a vessel to invoke a spirit into any location: it was Introduction to Practical Magic and Sorcery and Witchcraft 101. “I’m drawing a blank here. What are you thinking?”

“There’s a way to invoke a spirit that doesn’t require the direct participation of a vessel,” Blaze said, getting up from her crouch and looking into her eyes.

“Wait a minute,” Madison said as it now began to dawn on her, “do you mean a . . . body sacrifice?”

Blaze nodded. “Or a living sacrifice.”

The word, ‘living,’ brought Madison’s thoughts back to Celia, since she had gone after the bambina alone and seemed to have struggled with her, so she said, “Fuck! Where’s Cooley? We need to find Celia right now!”

“Follow me,” Blaze said and led the way out of the rubble and through the hole towards the opposite wall and reached out and touched the paneling, where the invisible mirror manifested itself. After Blaze passed through the reflection, Madison—


8


Followed close behind, only to see Cooley before a large mirror, her hand pressed to a reflection that showed no definite shapes forming in the blurry image. Madison ran up to her, saying, “Please, tell me you’ve found Celia.”

“I’m really sorry, Maddy,” Cooley said, taking her hand off of the reflection and turning the image back into that of the opposite wall reflected in it. “I’ve been looking for her this whole time, but I can’t detect her location below this floor. Somebody’s blocking me.”

“Christ, why did I let her go?” Madison said.

“Hey, don’t worry,” Blaze said.

“Don’t worry? Are you fucking kidding me?” Madison said, leveling a glare at her spiritual avatar. “I’m her big sister: it’s my job to worry! If anything’s happened to her, Kathy’s gonna kill me!” Then she grabbed Cooley’s hands, rubbing her thumbs across her knuckles, and looked into her eyes and said, “Cooley, please, I’m begging you! Is there anything you can do to find Celia? Anything at all?”

Cooley put her hand on Madison’s cheek and frowned, but said, “There is, but I have two questions.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Who’s behind all this?” Cooley said.

“Some guy named Rancaster,” Madison said, balling her hands into knuckle-white fists and raising the temperature by ten degrees within a five foot radius of her spite, “who’s an overdressed lying son of a fucker, if ever I’ve seen one! He’s a Goddamn liar and a creep!”

“I’ve heard of that name. It’s one of the original baronetcies, I hear,” Cooley said and reached out and touched her mirror, wherein an old 1890s ferrotype double portrait of an old lawman and a younger lawman appeared in the reflection. “Recognize either of these?”

“No,” she said. “Who are they?”

“The one on the left is Ezra Rancaster,” Cooley said, “while the one on the right is Tobias Rancaster, his son. They’re the first two heads of the Phantom Office. Now,” and the mirror changed to an early 1910s talbotype portrait of a young lawman wearing a white suit and trilby and leaning against a cane, “what about this?”

“That’s the one!” she said.

“Ah, I see,” Cooley said. “This is Aaron Rancaster, the 4th head of the Phantom Office, whose actions cut short his tenure there and instigated the Baronetcy War. He went missing around 1918, officially presumed dead, but I’ve heard from the Borderlands that he lives incognito. You won’t believe some of the wild rumors I’ve heard about this man. Now,” she added, “is there a reason why all of the mirrors in this mansion are broken?”

“Kathy asked me to break all of them,” Madison said. “I didn’t want to, but we had to.”

“I understand,” Cooley said and placed her hand flat against one of the empty recessed panels on the wall, summoning a mirror there. “This spell will take a lot of effort, more than I can muster on my own, so I need both of you to place your hands with mine on this mirror and keep them there for the duration of the spell, got it?”

Madison and Blaze nodded their heads and placed their hands flat on the mirror sheen of Cooley’s spell.

“Perfect,” she said. “We’ll all feel a little woozy after this, so I hope you’re ready for that.”

Madison said, “I’m ready when you are—”

“Mamma Goose,” Blaze added.

Cooley glared at the two but commenced with her spell, nonetheless, saying, “As your walls hide the truth, let my mind be your mirror; as my mind seeks the truth, may your strength make it clearer; as your walls block the truth, let my words be your river; as my voice seeks the truth, may your voice never waver; as your walls speak the truth, let my guidance take over; as my heart yearns for truth, may your silence be over; as your walls know the truth, let my strength be your savior, and let my guidance take over, and let my words be you river, and let my mind be your mirror!”

At the completion of Cooley’s incantation, Madison felt her energy flowing through her arm and out through her hand into the whirling watery depths of the mirror before her, as a myriad of shapes and colors blurred in and out of focus and Katherine’s dreams and nightmares flooded through her mind like a river of confessions muddled in the tempests of guilt with thunderclaps of anger and lightning flashes of sorrow and chance glimpses of something momentous that Katherine had never disclosed to her or Celia.


9


The next thing she knew, Celia found herself at the top landing of the double grand staircase, still underneath Auna’s full mount, her ears still ringing from the gunshot beside her head, and her mind still buzzing with static. Through it all, she kept Auna’s hands struggling for the gun and leveraging her weight against Celia’s grasp of it as Celia became aware of the proximity of the stairs nearby and the wall close to her head. Celia pushed through the buzzing in her head and noticed the strain of Auna’s body doubled over against Celia’s hands, struggling to maintain her leverage as she leaned her weight against Celia’s grasp of the gun with stiff arms, and struggling to maintain her leveraging effort on her knees.

So Celia planted her feet flat on the ground and bucked her hips and threw Auna head first into the wall, thumping her head with a crack against the paneling. Auna’s grip on the gun faltered, and her body collapsed over Celia’s, and she pried the gun from Auna’s fingers and threw it out of reach across the hall.

A wheezing Celia rolled Auna onto her back and was about to get off of her, yet her troubles continued. Before she knew it, Celia found herself caught in Auna’s full guard, her head and arm caught between her thighs in a triangle choke as Auna rained more blows on top of her head. Celia gritted her teeth and shut her eyes against the blows, seeing stars every time Auna hit her, pushing her legs with her free hand just enough to breathe and getting a mouth full of her thigh with every breath. She had to break Auna’s hold somehow, so she did the only thing she knew in this predicament.

She took a deep breath and bit down as hard as she could, biting like a pit bull on the soft inner flesh of Auna’s thigh.

Auna’s scream filled the foyer below her.

Auna’s hold on her gun faltered.

Auna screamed, “You fucking bitch!”

And Celia freed her gasping and wheezing self from her opponent’s legs long enough for her to realize her next mistake, staring at her in the face: Auna’s gun at point blank range.

Celia blinked out of sight—

As the gun went off and bit a chunk of paneling from the wall where Celia’s head had been.

She reappeared with a dive for the gun, this time with Celia on top of her and grabbing for the muzzle as Auna pulled her legs in and cupped her feet against Celia’s stomach. When the gun fired another round, biting a chunk from one of the mezzotints on the sidewall of the staircase, Celia yanked and pulled at Auna’s superhuman grip on the gun, saying, “Let go, you fuck!”

Then the gun disappeared in Celia’s grasp, and she found herself flying back against the wall, banging her head against the paneling, dazing her for just a moment.

Just long enough for Auna to grab Celia and yank her into a belly toss, and Celia found herself tumbling over the stairs, till she blinked out of sight—

And fell back on top of Auna and locked her arms around her opponent’s neck, yet Celia’s second wind had now blown itself out. By this time, Celia’s head pounded like a hammer striking an anvil, and her arms and legs burned like acid. She was now just a rag doll holding onto Auna’s neck like a cowboy riding bareback on a wild bronco.

And once again, Celia’s efforts blew up in her face, and she had nothing left when Auna hooked her arms under Celia’s knees. Celia found herself getting picked up piggyback and slammed against the wall, smacking her head against the paneling, closing her eyes and seeing stars, breaking her hold over her opponent’s neck.

And the next thing Celia knew, she found herself launched by Auna’s shoulder toss over the stairs, till she blinked out of sight—

And crashed into Auna’s back, sending herself and Auna past the edge of the landing and over the stairs. She tumbled with Auna down the stairs, rolling over and under her on the steps when something snapped and a blood-curdling scream filled Celia’s ears while coming to a stop at the bottom landing.

Celia wasn’t sure who had screamed or what had happened, sprawled as she was over Auna’s legs like a discarded doll, her limbs splayed over the landing like a butterfly’s wings, her face over Auna’s heaving and hitching stomach. Auna was crying, and when Celia propped herself on her elbows, she found Auna writhing beneath her in agony. When her vision refocused, Celia raised herself on hands and knees and saw Auna’s left leg dislocated at a horrific angle. Her face was a grimacing portrait of suffering, complete with tears running down a face that was wincing and grimacing at unimaginable pain.

Celia said, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my Goooood!” And she placed her palm over Auna’s injury.

“Don’t!” Auna yelled, wincing in agony, and manifested a gun in her hand and aimed it at Celia, yet the gun fell from her grasp, falling with a crack on the landing like the crack of a gun against the head of a lame horse. “Take the gun—”

So Celia grabbed the gun and was about to chuck it away.

“—and end it.”

Celia paused, still holding the gun by her side, and said, “What are you saying? Are you crazy?”

“End it,” she said, tears trailing her wincing face. “Please, let me die!”

“Don’t say that!” Celia yelled, tears now trailing down her cheeks as her opponent looked up at her with the first traces of her humanity emerging through her agony. “I don’t want you to die! Don’t you ever ever say that! Nobody deserves to die, not you or anyone!” She could’ve said more, but the ceiling lights blinked out, casting everything in darkness.

When the lights came back on, a voice said, “It can’t be helped, darling,” and when Celia raised her gaze, she saw Rancaster standing on the steps above her and Auna. “Her part in this play is over, and she’s accepted her fate with grace and courage.”

“You’re wrong!” Celia yelled and struggled to her feet and raised the gun at Rancaster’s face with her finger on the trigger. “When my sister gets here, we’ll take her to the hospital and kick your ass later!”

“There is no ‘later,’” he said and raised his hand and fisted it in a tight grip, and all at once, Celia felt an invisible force take control of her hand with the gun, lowering it down Rancaster’s body and away from his feet.

“Stoooop!” Celia screamed, yet even as she yanked and wrenched on her grip of the gun, she felt her arms giving out against the strain of Rancaster’s invisible hold as her aim lowered down the steps towards Auna’s head. “Stop it, please! I don’t want to do this!”

“Oh, but you must, darling,” he said. “It was your decision to go after her in the first place, and—”

“Stoooooop!” she screamed, even as the gun shifted onto the center of Auna’s chest.

“—it was your decision to take her here,” he said, “where her role must come to an end. Look into her eyes, darling, and tell me what you see in her.”

So Celia looked at Auna’s tear-drenched eyes and saw mischief there, hinting at something coming to the surface from unfathomable depths. Something was stirring inside of Auna’s eyes, sending chills down Celia’s spine at the thought of what lurked there, yet just before Celia pulled the trigger, she saw Auna manifesting another gun and aiming at Rancaster.

And both girls pulled their triggers.


10


In the wreckage of both holes in the walls, where Madison and Blaze laid out the Red and White Queens amidst the rubble, blood spurted out from the bosoms of both queens, staining the bodices of their dresses with blood and pooling into the rubble. Then both queens’ astral bodies glowed white before dissipating into nothing like extinguished memories.


11


Meanwhile, Auna found herself falling for a time down through the rabbit hole of unconscious sleep, down through the slow-wave madness of repressed emotions flooding up her soul with sensations of horror dancing on the edges of her thoughts over the horrific injury she had sustained in her fight with Celia. Yet as the pain of her leg began to fade, she came to rest between the Red and White Queens telling her to wake up.

“Wake up, Auna,” the Red Queen said.

“Akami?” Auna said, rousing from her slow-wave slumber and looking on the blurry shape with the familiar voice.

“Please, open your eyes,” the White Queen said.

“Shiromi?” Auna said as her vision came into focus on the queen to her left. “Is that you?”

She felt her hands cupped inside the hands of both queens kneeling on either side of her, the Red Queen to her right and the White Queen to her left. She looked down on her legs and found her dislocated leg intact, feeling no pain there, and looked up at her childhood companions.

She raised her hands to the sides of their clammy cheeks, wet with tears, and Auna felt their warmth fading away as they themselves dissipated from view.

“Wait,” she said, “don’t go!”

“Remember our names, Auna,” the Red Queen said.

And the White Queen repeated, “Remember our . . .”

And their words and voices drifted away into the void of forgotten memories, forgotten to all except Auna and Celia and Madison and Blaze and God, the Keeper of dreams from now till the end of all dreams.


12


Celia’s hand shook at the recoil of the gun, and she dropped it to her feet with a thud like the thud of a casket lid over the dearly departed. She dropped to her knees before the girl and grasped onto her shoulders, trying to shake Auna back into opening her eyes, saying, “Wake up, wake up, I’m begging youuuu!” Yet try as she might, Celia’s efforts proved fruitless as more tears streamed down her face and soaked into Auna’s bloodstained school uniform, tears shed for the newly dead. Auna’s blood pooled over the bottom steps onto the landing, creating a spreading halo of blood there beneath her and Celia.

So Celia hugged Auna’s body close to herself, tight as death’s embrace, as memories of holding onto Colbie’s mortally wounded astral form flooded her mind like a rerun of last night’s nightmare.

“She’s gone, darling,” Rancaster said.

Celia glared at the man in the white suit, who had his hand pressed against the center of his chest, where dark blood had blossomed over his white vest and dripped down the sleeve of his jacket and down his trousers.

“How can you do this to her?” Celia yelled, fisting her hands till they were knuckle-white.

“Me?” he said, taking his hand away from his wound and manifesting a cane in his hand, and pointed it at her face. “You’re the one who pulled the trigger! And if I’m not mistaken, weren’t you the one who raised a gun at her in the first place?”

So Celia blinked out of sight—

And appeared in Rancaster’s face with a swing at his jaw, yet her reserves tanked as the man swept her legs with his cane and clamped it across Celia’s diaphragm, wedging it beneath her breasts and lifting her feet off the steps and squeezing the air out of her. She flailed her arms and legs, but her efforts were wasted against the man’s inhuman strength.

“Let go of me!” Celia said through gasping mouthfuls of air, trying to breath against Rancaster’s hold.

“She’s gone, darling,” the man continued, “but not for long. Look down and see for yourself.”

So she looked down at Auna’s motionless astral body, her leg bent sideways along the tread of one of the stair steps, her blood turning dark over the center of her chest and on the bottom steps and into the spreading pool on the landing. She waited and waited, till a glowing circle of light emerged from the bottom landing and onto the steps, inscribing Auna’s body in its circumference like a hologram, now blinking to a peculiar rhythm that reminded Celia of heartbeats.

The whole space around her, from the stairs to the foyer, began to beat to the throbs of another heartbeat. Then the girl lying prone with her leg slanted askew at a horrible angle, she opened her eyes as Celia yelled, “Thank God, you’re alive!”

Yet the girl who looked back at Celia, the girl with a wound beating more blood out of her chest, was not Auna.

“Who are you?” this new girl said.

“Don’t mind this one, Bambina,” Rancaster said, letting Celia’s feet come to rest on the step, till she grasped onto the railing to keep her from falling. “She’s but a spectator on your debut,” he added, then to Celia: “You’re the first spectator to behold her, so count yourself lucky.”

Yet Celia blinked out of sight—

And appeared by the girl’s side, grasping her hand and hoisting her onto her good leg, saying, “Be careful! Don’t put any weight on your leg! Maddy and I will get you to the hospital and—”

“Hospital?” the girl said, raising her injured leg and shaking it like it was unbroken. “I’m good as new, love, but thank you for the concern. What’s your name?”

“Celia Hearn,” she said.

Yet the good cheer dropped from this girl’s face, and she leveled a basilisk glare at Celia and swung at her face as Celia blinked out of sight—

And appeared on the foyer at the entrance to the library, saying, “What’s going on?” Then someone else came from behind and wrapped arms around her, so she struggled with whatever strength she had left, saying, “Let go! LET GO OF ME!”

“Celia, control yourself!” Madison said in front of Cooley’s mirror on the back wall. And along with her came the dynamic duo of Blaze and Cooley, emerging from the mirror and getting in between the Hearn sisters and Rancaster and this new Auna look-alike that glared back at them.

Celia turned and hugged her older sister, burying her face into Madison’s bosom as she cried into her shirt, till she cried herself out of her tears and turned back on the girl wearing Auna’s face, but was someone else entirely. She saw Rancaster keeping this Auna look-alike still on the landing with an arm around her waist and holding the girl’s hand, now clutching a knife around her fingers. So Celia put her hand to her cheek and winced, feeling the burning sting of a cut there.

“If this is my debut,” the Auna look-alike said, “then why are you holding me back?”

“It’s best not to get carried away, Bambina,” he said, then looked up at the quartet of girls before him, eyeing Celia in particular. “You’ve played your part well, darling.”

Celia turned away, and Madison said, “Don’t talk to my sister!”

“If you touch her,” Blaze said, “I’ll fucking roast you!”

“Don’t provoke him!” Cooley said.

“Why not?” they said.

“Cool it, you two! Let’s get out of here before anything else happens,” she said and grabbed Madison and Blaze’s hands and pulled them away with her back through the reflection of her mirror, followed by Blaze and Celia in tow.

Yet Madison pulled away from the reflection and looked back at Rancaster, saying, “Was it true what you said?”

“About what, darling?” he said.

“What you said about our mom,” she said and squeezed her hands into fists. “Was it true? Did she . . . kill our Grandma?”

The man merely smiled and said, “It is, but why not ask your mother about it? She knows more than I do.”

Madison gritted her teeth and glared at the man in the white suit, then turned and passed through the mirror’s reflection—


13


And entered the hallway where Celia had her first tussle with Auna and found Cooley fussing over Celia’s cut on her cheek as if she were her mother treating her child. She looked around for Blaze close by in the hallway somewhere, but when she found her nowhere in sight, she said, “Where’s Blaze?”

“She went to check up on the two Queens,” Cooley said, then back to her patient: “This is gonna sting a bit,” and she applied an alcohol-soaked cotton swab over Celia’s cut.

“Ow!” Celia said, wincing every time she wiped the swab over the cut. “Cut it out! It’s nothing serious!”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Cooley said. “Now stay still,” and she applied ointment to her face.

Celia winced but bore with it as Cooley put a bandage over her cheek, covering the cut.

Then Blaze emerged from another of Cooley’s mirrors appearing beside the wall and said, “They’re gone!”

“Who’s gone?” Madison said.

“The two Queens,” Blaze said. “I checked in the rooms, but they’re not there.”

“You’re shitting me,” Madison said.

“I’m not,” Blaze said, “and I also found blood where we left them in the rubble. They must’ve disappeared when that ‘bambina’ chick got resurrected.”

“Damn it, I hate being right!” Madison said.

Celia looked at Madison and Blaze, saying, “You saw all that?”

“And Blaze and I had to restrain her from running in,” Cooley said, “and blowing up the whole foyer.”

“What about Kathy?” Celia said.

“Way ahead of you,” Cooley said and manifested another mirror. “Just stay calm.”

“Why?” she said. “Is she okay?”

“What happened to her?” Madison added.

“Follow me,” Cooley said, and both sisters followed her and Blaze through the reflection—


14


Into an underground vault beneath Cooley’s mansion, where the Cairns twins looked up from Katherine’s alcove bedside in the back of the vault, and both twins came up and hugged Celia at once (“Ow!”) before letting go.

“Sorry about that,” Mara said.

“Are you okay?” Nico added.

“I’m fine,” Celia said, “just really sore.”

Both twins traded looks, and Nico said, “I bet. We saw what happened on the stairs.”

“Wait, how much did you see?” Celia said, looking from Nico to Mara and then to Madison and Cooley and Blaze, wondering if they all saw Auna’s horrific accident and the forced execution of a . . . She pulled herself from these thoughts and said, “How much did you all see?”

“Everything from the gunshots onward,” Cooley said, “including the death of that girl.”

“Why didn’t you come sooner?” Celia yelled.

“We couldn’t,” Cooley said. “Something or someone was blocking us from getting in, till someone else disrupted the spell.”

That’s when Celia’s mind flashed on the injured Auna manifesting her gun in her hand, aiming it and firing at Rancaster just as Celia was about to fire her shot into Auna’s chest. And before she knew it, Celia found herself breathing hard as tears began trailing her cheeks again. So Madison hugged Celia close to her, saying that it wasn’t her fault, because someone else (Rancaster) forced her to do it, yet Celia pulled away and approached Katherine’s bedside in the alcove and kneeled and cried.

Madison kneeled alongside her and placed her arm over Celia’s shoulders, rubbing circles behind her shoulder blades, but stayed silent on everything that Celia caused in this total cluster-fuck of a night.

“Are they gonna be okay?” Nico said.

“Just give it time,” Cooley said.

After a time, Madison said to Celia, “We need to take Kathy home. Are you ready?”

Celia wiped away her tears and nodded her head, then helped Madison hoist Katherine into a fireman’s carry over her shoulders and threw her seal on the floor encompassing herself and Madison and blinked out of sight—


15


Only to get dropped back at the entrance of the round Chinese pavilion overlooking the wine-dark sea of Mara’s mind, because the spell couldn’t complete its circuit through the mirror inside Celia’s bedroom.

“Why are we back here?” Celia said.

“I don’t know,” Madison said, then: “Fuck, I hope it’s not what I think it is! Try again,” and while Madison repositioned Katherine’s body weight over to her other shoulder, Celia threw another seal below their feet and blinked out of sight—

And reappeared beneath the Chinese pavilion, because the spell couldn’t complete its circuit. She cursed, then placed Katherine gingerly on the ground and said, “Oh man, we’re fucked!”

“It’s all my fault,” Celia said. “If I didn’t drag you and Kathy into this, you wouldn’t—”

“It’s not your fault, okay?” Madison said, grabbing Celia by her shoulders and looking into her eyes, then hugged her close. “Please, stop saying that! It’s not your fault!”

“But it’s true,” she said.

And before Madison said anything else, Mara said behind them, “That’s not true, Celia.”

The Hearn sisters turned and saw Mara leaning against one of the pillars of the pavilion, which framed a backdrop of a clear white moon in the sky that shimmered on the mirror sheen of the sea below it.

”What are you doing here?” Celia said.

“Shouldn’t you be at Cooley’s place?” Madison added.

“I just came here to see you off,” Mara said and hugged Celia, gently this time. “You did all this for my sake, even after I stabbed your friend. You’re my hero, so don’t you forget it!” She then hugged Madison, saying, “Cooley told me about you and Blaze.”

“She WHAT?” Madison said. “How much did she tell you?”

“It’s not just me, either,” Mara said and smiled a Celia-like mischievous smile.

That’s when Nico stepped out from behind the same pillar and approached the Hearn sisters and hugged Madison and Celia, then gave Celia a kiss on her lips and said, “I may be dead, but I still have more waiting for you the next time I see you.”

Celia blushed in a deadpan manner, saying, “Do you have to make it that obvious?”

Nico nodded and smiled a Celia-like mischievous smile.

“Okay, spill it, you two,” Madison said, crossing her arms over her chest. “How much did Cooley say?”

“More than you want to know,” Cooley said behind Celia and Madison, and when the Hearn sisters turned, they saw Cooley smiling at them in front of another of her mirrors. “Trust me, they don’t look like it, but they’re as pushy as Blaze. You won’t believe how much information they pried out of me, but please don’t tell Blaze. She’s already jealous enough as it is. And they wouldn’t leave me alone without seeing you off first.”

“Something’s keeping me from getting back, though,” Celia said. “Can you get us through to my room?”

Cooley paused for a moment and said, “My powers only work in the Phantom Realms, so I can’t get you there directly. But,” she added, “I might be able to help. How did you get here?”

“We used one of Kathy’s bathroom mirrors,” Madison said, “but only its reflection. We can’t do it the way Kathy does it.”

“You mean,” Cooley said, “you used it against an entrance?”

“Yeah,” she said.

Cooley then summoned her own mirror and said, “Put your hands against my mirror,” and when both sisters did, Cooley placed her hands over theirs, and the mirror glowed as an image of Celia’s bedroom door fluttered through her mind and manifested into the reflection against a spider web of cracks. “It’s cracked.”

“Damn it!” Madison said.

“No wonder I can’t pass through,” Celia added.

“Don’t worry yourselves,” Cooley said. “I can fix cracks, as well. Just keep your hands steady over the mirror. Like that, yes,” and Cooley closed her eyes and imagined a smooth wash of water running down the mirrored surface, and the cracks in the mirror washed away in the reflection, and a moment later, an astral copy of the door to Celia’s room stood in the center of the pavilion. “There! Come on now,” she added, looking at Madison and Celia gaping at her feat, “stop gaping and get a move on.”

“How did you do that?” Celia said.

Cooley smiled and said, “I have my secrets. Come on, we don’t have all night, you two.”

“You’re a godsend,” Madison said. “No wonder Blaze came to you. Oh, and I’ll try to coax her back to my house one of these days. Catch you later,” and she hoisted Katherine’s body over her shoulders in a fireman’s carry and waited at the door for Celia as her sister hugged Cooley, as well.

“Thank you,” Celia said, “for everything.”

“I’m at your service if you need me,” Cooley said, then looked into her eyes. “And take care of Kathy for me.”

“I will,” she said and joined Madison’s side.

When Nico went over and opened the astral door into Celia’s bedroom, Madison (carrying Katherine) and Celia passed through—


16


Into the room, where Madison laid her eldest sister on Celia’s bed, still dozing in the slow-wave oblivion of dreamless sleep. Celia then pulled the door shut and came over to Katherine’s bathroom mirror and shifted it to the side, taking the reflection of the door with it.

“I’ll get the sleeping bags,” Madison said and opened Celia’s door and headed to a closet in the hallway to get them, then returned with two rolls under her arms and plopped them on the ground. “Come on, we need to sleep. We’ll deal with everything later.”

But Celia shook her head and kneeled beside Katherine’s bedside, refusing to look at her sister and reveal her tears.

That’s when Madison knew she was crying, so she came over and kneeled beside Celia and looked at Katherine’s peaceful expression in her sleep, till she noticed the rose Celia had placed in Katherine’s hands over her bosom when she went to get the sleeping bags. Madison looked at her sister and said, “What’s wrong?”

No answer. Only tears.

“Come on, Celia,” she said, “I’m your sister.”

Only then did Celia acknowledge her, saying, “I didn’t mean to do it . . . I didn’t mean to—”

“I promise you,” Madison said, placing her arm across her shoulders and rubbing circles between her shoulder blades, “I’m not angry at you, and neither is Kathy.”

But Celia didn’t seem to think so, saying, “If I didn’t do what I did, if I didn’t drag both of you into this, Kathy wouldn’t be . . .” And her words drifted from her lips.

Madison couldn’t find words to comfort her on that topic, since neither she nor Celia were there in Katherine’s private boudoir when it happened, but she found something better than words. She took Celia’s hand in her own and placed it on top of the rose Celia had placed in Katherine’s hands over her chest.

“What are you doing?” Celia said.

“Shhhhh,” she said. “Just watch.”

And while Katherine slept a dreamless sleep, they still felt her heartbeats under their palms, and the rose inside her hands began to glow and pulse with Katherine’s heartbeats animating its petals, becoming alive because Katherine herself was alive and well even when her mind was submerged in a comatose. They kept their hands over Katherine’s, watching the rose grow larger and brighter as they themselves grew sleepier amidst the spectacle. And so they watched and watched with dreamy eyes, then dreamed and dreamed with eyes of sleep, both sisters now fast asleep with their heads cradled in their other arms over the bedside, while their hands stayed connected with Katherine’s.


17


Since Katherine’s dream mansion matched her own from the first floor down into the underground vault and even to the arrangement of the maze of hallways on the second floor, Cooley had a better idea of Katherine’s floor plan of each story than Madison or Celia could hope for. Still, after doing another search of Katherine’s private boudoir and finding a program beneath the pillow of the bed and perusing the contents under the lights, she wondered about Katherine Hearn’s reasons for including an outsider into personal matters of such a momentous circumstance. Indeed, Katherine falling under a sleeper curse proved one such circumstance, but why include an outsider in on this?

She kept thinking about this question as she finished shepherding the Cairns twins back into the underground vault beneath her own mansion and telling them to stay put, adding, “Blaze and I need to talk for a bit.”

Yet the more she thought about it, rolling its implications through her mind, the more she felt lost in her thoughts when she passed through her mirror—


18


Into the underground vault of Katherine’s mansion, followed by Blaze stepping close behind her, and flipped a light switch on the wall, illuminating the space with a small lamp dangling over a table and chairs. Blaze went over to another light switch and flipped it, illuminating the rest of the space from the track lighting on the ceiling. To the west of the table and chairs was a twin bed tucked away in an alcove at the back of the vault with columns of shelves next to the alcove on either side of it stocked with canned food and dry goods on one wall and cleaning supplies on the other wall; to the north of the table and chairs were sliding double doors into a backroom stocked with more supplies; to the east of the table and chairs was a bulletin board with several to-do lists tacked on; and to the south of the table and chairs was a blank wall with Cooley’s mirror manifested against it, through which they had entered. It all matched Cooley’s underground vault just on the other side of Cooley’s mirror.

Cooley pulled the chair aside and sat in it, bidding Blaze to sit opposite her, and when she did, Cooley sat forward and buried her face in her arms over the table’s edge, so Blaze wouldn’t see tears or the anguish of overlooking something that had plunged Katherine into slow-wave unconscious sleep.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Blaze said, reaching over across the table and grasping one of Cooley’s arms and uncovering her tear-stained face. “Kathy will wake up, I promise.”

“I know,” Cooley said, yet the rest of her words drifted off into space as she thought of all the warning signs she had underestimated or misinterpreted or just plain overlooked: the darkening clouds over her own mansion, the emotional ruse, and the hidden sacrifice for the invocation, etc. “I know I’m better than this, but this whole mess has me beat. Even as an avatar and spiritual guide, I’m not qualified for stuff like this.”

“Come on,” Blaze said. “Everybody’s got a learning curve, even you and Kathy. Nobody’s perfect. It happens to everyone.”

“That’s exactly my point,” Cooley said. “We’re way out of our league here.”

“What are you saying?” Blaze said, leaning forward in her chair. “Are you saying we’re the Losers’ Club or something?”

“We are,” Cooley said, “because first impressions can only get us so far, and even that was under less than ideal conditions tonight. Without Kathy’s help and more information, we won’t last long against Rancaster and whoever that ‘bambina’ girl is, even if we knew what we were doing. Which we don’t!”

“Did you talk to Mara and Nico?” Blaze said.

“Yeah,” she said, “but I need another perspective. Preferably, one with more knowledge and experience, if that could be had. If not, then we need records and documents, something tangible to get some leads.”

“Leads?” Blaze said, leaning forward and resting her elbows over the table. “Are we detectives now?”

“We’re not,” she said, “but we need someone with expertise in that department.”

“As if we’re not,” Blaze said.

“I’m serious here!” Cooley said, glaring at Blaze’s blasé attempt at being funny during a pressing hour of need. “We need an insider’s perspective on this.”

“To balance out our lack of insider’s knowledge?” Blaze said.

“You’re getting it, yes,” she said. “We need to eliminate any biases we might have in our first impressions, because that’s what got Kathy in a sleeper curse right under our noses. You see what I’m saying here? We’ve got to cover our asses!”

Blaze winced at her use of foul lingo and said, “Okay, I get it. So, for this insider perspective, who do you have in mind?”

“Ronald Hamilton,” she said.

“Have you gone insane?” Blaze said, slamming her hands on the table and standing up from her chair.

“There are worse options, you know,” Cooley said.

“Yeah,” Blaze said, “but involving the Phantom Office is super risky, and that guy has connections to some of the most despicable bastards on either side of the Borderlands! And he’s perverted as hell, more so than Kathy even, and she’s got some twisted jollies, that girl!”

“But we need his connections,” she said, “especially with the Phantom Office.”

“Why?” Blaze said. “Did you find something?”

“I did,” she said and pulled out a program from the pocket of her cut-off slack and read the words on the cover, saying, “It reads, ’Masque of the Red Death.’ Weird title for a party program, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is,” Blaze said, coming around the table and looking at the program in Cooley’s hand. “Where did you get it?”

“From Kathy’s private boudoir,” Cooley said. “I did a second search just to be thorough, and lo and behold, I found this,” and she waved it in front of Blaze over the table. “Now don’t tell Kathy I found this, because it contains a hidden letter addressed to Colbie Amame.”

Blaze just gaped, saying, “Why’s it addressed to her?”

“How should I know?” Cooley said. “All I know is that Kathy might have written this letter before succumbing to the sleeper curse, meaning that she must’ve intended to have one of her sisters (Maddy or Celia) take this to Colbie but had to hide it in case Rancaster entered the room. Since Kathy couldn’t deliver it, I’ll do it for her.”

Blaze whistled at Cooley's take on a live drop mission, nodding her head, and said, “It makes sense, but how are you going to pull that off, Agent Cooley?”

“Incognito,” she said.

“Oh my God, really?” Blaze said, biting back a derisive giggle. “And where’s that gonna take place?”

“At the ‘Masque of the Red Death,’” she said and opened the program to the first page and read, “during the ’Debut Ball of Alice Pleasance Liddell’ on ‘December 3, 2018’ at ‘5:00 p.m.’”

“Okay,” Blaze said, pausing for a moment, then: “Where does this Ronald Hamilton guy fit in?”

“I’m not sure,” Cooley said, “but I’ll have a little chat with him while I’m at the masque, so there!”

Blaze whistled once again and smiled, then said, “At least you’re prepared.”

“I try to be,” she said.

“Okay, what about the outsider perspective?” Blaze said. “Who do you have in mind for that?”

“Leslie Amame,” she said.

Blaze gaped, saying, “You can’t be serious!”

“But I am,” Cooley said, but before Blaze had a chance to blurt out another protest, she added, “Look, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out, okay? You and I both know how much Kathy looks up to her. Hell, all three Hearn sisters look up to her. Next to their own mother, Leslie’s got the most experience.”

“Yeah, but isn’t she retired now?” Blaze said. “Last time she went dream diving, Kathy and Maddy were still in grade school and Celia was just a toddler!”

“I know, but—”

“And even if she were willing to help,” Blaze continued, “she’s probably rusty as hell and won’t be much good to us.”

“But I—”

“And even if she still had it in her, we still—”

“Damn it, Blaze, will you let me speak for once?” Cooley yelled, and then silence followed for a moment. “Will you hear me out?”

Blaze nodded her head and gestured for her to go on.

“Look, I know what you’re saying, and I get it,” Cooley said, “but Leslie Amame has something we lack.”

“And what’s that?”

“She’s got firsthand experience,” Cooley said, and Blaze paused on that word and gulped. “She’s been through this before, which might also be a reason why Kathy wants to give this program to Colbie,” and she waved it before Blaze over the table. “In any event, we need Leslie’s guidance, now more than ever, because it’s not just Kathy we’re worried about here. It’s Mara and Nico, too. Now do you understand?”

Blaze gulped and nodded her head.


19


Mara and Nico paused on Cooley’s words in the vault underneath Cooley’s dream mansion, both girls standing by Cooley’s mirror on the south wall and peering through the reflection and eavesdropping on her conversation with Blaze, both wondering if they should push their luck with Cooley and walk through her mirror to tell her about an anomalous find.

“I don’t see any initials,” Nico said, looking at the key before handing it back to Mara. “Do you really think it belongs to her, this ‘Leslie Amame’?”

“I’m not certain,” Mara said, grasping the key in her hand and feeling a familiar sensation in it, as if a residual presence of Colbie Amame lingered on it. Maybe this was Colbie’s key to her bedroom door, she wondered. If it was, Mara would steal into her room and turn on the light and see her sleeping in her bed, all peaceful and quiet and cute, then slip beneath those sheets wherein she would discover Colbie sleeping in the nude, and she would—

“What are you thinking?” Nico said.

“W-what do you mean?” Mara said, snapping out of her reveries, and walked to the alcove in the back of the vault and sat on the bunk bed. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Nico just kept staring at her and smiled. “You know why.”

“I wasn’t thinking of anything!” Mara said.

“Are you sure?” she said, walking towards the alcove and sitting with Mara, and wrapped her arm around Mara’s elbow and leaned into her. “Because you’re blushing, you know.”

That’s when Mara tried to get up, but Nico kept her in place and leaned further into her, till both girls teetered over and lay flat on the bed, Mara underneath and Nico on top and nuzzling her face between Mara’s breasts. Mara let Nico have her way, though, letting her fondle her breasts and feeling her lips touch and linger on hers, but when her eyes became one with Nico’s and flashed upon visions of kissing other girls (with Mara kissing Colbie and Nico kissing Kendra and Celia), she pushed Nico away.

Mara sat up and avoided Nico’s gaze, tongue-tied on what to say, too embarrassed to admit that she too had her own needs and desires beyond what her own sister could offer. She then broke the ice and kissed her sister once more, this time on her forehead, and said, “Remember what Mom said: we’re sisters, not lovers, okay?”

“But you were kissing another—”

Mara kissed her again, this time on her lips, and said, “Nico, nothing’s gonna change how I feel for you. You’ll always be my sister, and I will always love you. Believe me.”

Nico nodded, even as tears trailed her cheeks at the thought of her sister falling for other women, so Mara wiped her tears away and kissed her eyes, then hugged her close so Nico could feel her heart beating against her bosom like a drum, bosom to bosom, beating for the both of them.

Both girls then caught something in the corners of their eyes, and they turned towards Cooley’s mirror on the south wall.

Cooley and Blaze were peering at them through the reflection from the other side, smiles on their faces.

Cooley said, “Don’t worry.”

“We’ll keep it a secret,” Blaze added.

Cooley and Blaze winked at them and promised to keep their secret with their fingers raised to their lips before entering through the mirror, distorting the reflection in their passage.

“Don’t spy on us like that!” Mara said, then stole a glance at her shame-faced sister. “Nico’s embarrassed enough as it is.”

Nico hit her shoulder, saying, “Don’t make it worse!”

Then both girls looked at Cooley as she took a small booklet or pamphlet out of her pocket and placed her hand flat over it against the mirror’s surface.

Mara said, “What are you doing?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Cooley said in deep concentration over Colbie’s location in space-time, and in the mirror appeared a girl in a sky-blue Sunday dress wearing a red mask amid other groups of formally dressed masqueraders wearing black and white masks. “Just doing a little espionage. I’ll be back before you know it, so Blaze will look after you while I’m gone. Reflect!”

Then the mirror flashed, filling the underground vault with light for an instant.

When Mara’s vision returned to normal, she found Cooley gone and said to Blaze, “Where did she go?”

“On a mission,” Blaze said.


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!

Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.

Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!

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