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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 2/4/19. Winter Season, February 2019 edition.

Friend, face me so and raise
Unto my face thy face,
Unto mine eyes thy gaze,
Unto my soul its grace.

—Sappho,
“Friend”


1


Nico’s kiss was like the kiss Kendra herself had given to Roy Dolan before going to sleep. It was a warm and familial kiss, a kiss of sisterly affection and trust. In the world of kisses, there were three kinds (the family kiss, the loving kiss, and the kiss of death), and Nico’s was like a breath of mountain air or of water from a spring. It was a kiss that fed Kendra’s soul and stilled her quaking heartbeats into serenity.

Before Kendra could speak, Nico kissed her eyes, as well, then took one of Kendra’s hands and pressed it onto the center of her chest, making Kendra gape.

At this, a knowing smile pursed Nico's lips.

Kendra said, “W-what are you doing?”

“My eyes are now your eyes,” Nico said, “so what I see, you will also see."

“But why?” she said.

“Because I trust you,” Nico said, and Kendra’s mind flashed onto those same words Kendra said to Roy Dolan before going to sleep in his bed. “I need your help to find my sister, and another pair of eyes will cover more ground. You think you can keep up?”

“I’ll try my best,” Kendra said, “but where are we looking?”

So Nico led Kendra by the hand down the steps—


2


Into another dream sequence and another set of stairs, a spiral staircase descending into God knows where. In her other hand, Nico carried a lamp lighting the way in the darkness.

Kendra reached and ran her fingers on the stucco as she followed her guide, then leaned over the railing and looked up at the dwindling oculus of light from the skylight, then peered down through the darkness at the flickering glow of another light at the base of the stairs, where it emanated from an open doorway.

At these details, Kendra knew this was another dream sequence, different from her own and one she had never visited before.

She turned to Nico and said, “Where are we?”

“Underground,” Nico said. “Mara and I used to come down here when we were children, though it’s been years since we last visited this place.”

Kendra rolled Nico’s words through her mind and said, “How do you know she’s here?” And she felt Nico’s grip tightening around her knuckles. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“It’s okay,” Nico said. “I feel her presence somewhere around here, is all.”

“Do you know where, exactly?”

Nico shook her head. “Like I said, it’s been years since I’ve been down here. My memory’s hazy.”

They continued on in silence after that, reaching the base of the stairs and passing through the open doorway into an underground of intersecting tunnels constructed of masonry and mortar, overlaid in stucco and lighted with wall sconces overlooking a series of doors.

Passing by each door, Kendra noticed a sign hung above each lintel, each one with the name of various towns and street addresses she had never heard of, each giving off a strange aura as though they opened into other worlds beyond. And each time they passed a tunnel intersecting the one along which they walked, Kendra noticed yet more sets of doors along more sets of tunnels bisecting more sets of tunnels with more sets of doors. The place was a grid-like maze, and she cringed at the thought of getting lost here.

After a time, Kendra was about to ask where Nico was going when Nico stopped at a door with a rusted yellow sign overhead and hung the lamp on a hook over the door that shimmered in its glow. In the flicker of the wall sconce and lamp, it said,

1900 Yellow-Brick Boulevard, Larkington, NV,

which manifested vague impressions of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

“I’ve never heard of that street before,” Kendra said.

“Guess where that street’s in,” Nico said, but when Kendra blanked out, added, “I’ll give you a hint. It starts with an R and ends with an R.”

There was only one place in the city of Larkington that had two Rs in its name, so Kendra said, “You’re kidding me, right?”

“I’m not kidding.”

“Rancaster district?” Kendra said.

Nico paused, then said, “Yes and no,” and smiled, giving Kendra the impression that she was holding back on something, as she reached for the door knob and opened the door into another world beyond Kendra’s expectations—


3


And pulled Kendra past the threshold across a century of space-time between 2018 and 1913.

Kendra stopped, and Nico looked back at her. “What’s wrong?”

Kendra remained silent, looking around and wondering where Nico had taken her. From her memories of the 1939 technicolor adaptation and the book she read on her tenth birthday, Kendra expected little Munchkins and a bright road of yellow brick against a backdrop of bucolic countryside and sunny blue sky, not this . . . wherever this was.

The world she entered was a far cry from the children’s fantasy portrayed on screen and on the page. The street seemed of a different era, with Queen Anne-style homes squeezed together in close regiments along narrow sidewalks, a wide yellow-brick boulevard intersecting smaller yellow-brick streets, and Edwardian street lamps dotting the sidewalks and casting a flickering glow against a lugubrious night sky. And at the corners of her eyes, she kept seeing shadows of various humanoid shapes flitting by her, though she couldn’t view them when she faced their direction.

Kendra keping looking around, but no one besides Nico and herself were walking the streets here.

“What is this place?” Kendra said.

“This was the Rancaster district before the War,” Nico said, and on seeing Kendra start, she added, “What’s wrong?”

And again, thoughts fluttered through Kendra’s mind with superstitious dread, for she had listened to the stories that veteran cops like Officer Todd Curvan sometimes told on certain nights when a chill blew out of the Sharps Valley Sand Dunes and condensed into a spectral fog over Larkington and lingered over the old Rancaster district. They shared stories of various portals into other dimensions and even an ‘underground city’ full of otherworldly cryptids, and Kendra always thought they were just stories meant to tingle her spine on spooky nights, but here she was in just such a place.

Still grasping Kendra’s hand, Nico said, “Don’t be afraid. You have nothing to fear here. You only need to open your eyes.”

“What do you mean?” Kendra said. “I can’t see anyone else here.”

Nico kissed her eyes again, then took one of Kendra’s hands and pressed it on the center of her chest, then said, “Concentrate on my heart beating. Let your heart sync up with mine, and you’ll see what I see.”

So Kendra closed her eyes this time, shutting the empty street out of sight, and focused her attention on the warmth of Nico’s chest, on Nico’s heartbeats thumping against her palm, on the sound of its rhythm beating in Kendra’s ears, and on the essence of Nico’s life force seeping through Kendra’s hand and up her arm and into her own beating heart. And with each heartbeat beating like a drum in her ears and heart, Kendra felt the veil lifting from her eyes as if the sluggish weight of slumber relinquished its host.

When Kendra opened her eyes again, she found herself in the same street teeming with pedestrians: men in fedoras and bowler hats and vests and ties and long coat jackets and loafers, women in wide-brimmed hat and long hobble skirts and tailored jackets and fur coats and gloves and muffs, and boys in berets and sailor shirts and overcoats and knickerbockers or sailor pants, and girls in large hats and overcoats and knee-length skirts.

Everywhere Kendra looked were men and women going about town, boys and girls following their parents to nearby destinations, and everybody else having somewhere to go, while Kendra herself had no idea where Nico was taking her.

“Do you see now?” Nico said.

Kendra, speechless, only nodded, then noticed Nico in her own wide-brimmed hat and long skirt and jacket. “You can’t be serious.”

“Speak for yourself,” Nico said. “You’re the one sticking out, not me.”

Kendra looked down on herself and saw the torn Mandarin dress that she'd worn back in her collective dream dive with Celia and Colbie last night, without a hat or a jacket to protect her from the cold nighttime air. It was enough of a difference that many of the other passersby glanced at Kendra, and some took second glances at her, and a brave few took third and fourth glances or just stared at the underdressed stranger in their midst, who was now the observed of the observers.

“What’s going on?” Kendra said.

“We’re in a pocket dimension,” Nico said. “We’re the outsiders.”

“Sounds like a teen movie to me.”

Nico shook her head, took Kendra’s hand again, and started pacing down the sidewalk paralleling the yellow-brick avenue, ignoring the glances of curious passersby, then turned away from the avenue into a narrow lane away from prying eyes.

“Where are you taking me?” Kendra said.

“Somewhere less conspicuous, so we can get our bearings,” Nico said, cutting through yet another hidden thoroughfare that bisected a row of old Italianate buildings and led into a quieter street where she stopped and faced Kendra. “This seems as good as any around here.”

“Good,” Kendra said, crossing her arms over her chest and staring hard at her wayward guide into this whacked-out Wonderland of an acid trip, “because I have no idea where you’re taking me, or any idea what’s going on. Explain yourself!”

Nico seemed to waver a bit under Kendra’s glare, then heaved a sigh and said, “I’m trying to jog my memory, okay? I haven’t been here for years.”

“Then how do you know Mara’s here?”

“I can’t be certain, if that’s what you mean,” Nico said, “but I feel her presence somewhere around here. I just need to get used to this place again, so I can pinpoint where Mara is, that’s all.”

At this, Kendra wished Celia was around to pinpoint Mara’s location the way she did for Mara and Nico’s body over the Rancaster district from her dorm room. Even though Celia was a pain in her ass at times, Kendra needed her help, but help was not forthcoming.

So Kendra said, “Can we at least get out of the cold? I’m freezing!”


4


“Wait,” Colbie said to Nico, sensing a synchronicity that was just on the edge of her comprehension, “how did you and Mara get into this underground in the first place?”

“It was through our dreams,” Nico said. “Mara and I often share collective dreamscapes when we sleep together.”

Mara blushed and said, “Nico, geez!”

“I’m just being honest, okay?” Nico said.

Mara sighed. Colbie and Kendra traded quizzical glances, as though each had some hentai-esque idea of what these sisters were talking about and smiled at Mara and Nico, but Mara and Nico glared at Colbie and Kendra as if to say, ‘Don’t go there.’

So Colbie and Kendra left the idea hanging there.

Kendra turned to Nico and said, “Are you sure you want me to take the lead on this one? You know more about this crazy place than I do.”

For a time, Nico seemed to consider Kendra’s offer, perhaps still on the fence on whether or not ‘to take the lead,’ perhaps thinking of something else, for she remained silent in her thoughts. She turned to Mara and said, “After you stabbed Colbie, do you remember what happened next?”

Mara looked at Kendra and said, “I remember you rushing at me and knocking me out. I don’t remember the impact, though.”

“I was angry that time,” Kendra said. “A lot of shit happens when I get angry.”

Mara nodded, feeling Nico’s gaze linger on her, then had a brainwave on the edge of her thoughts. “Wait, I think I remember something else.” Then she blushed.

“What is it?” Nico said.

“I . . . At some point, I thought I was kissing you, Nico,” Mara said, “but it turned out to be Colbie. I don’t know why that happened, though. It kind of surprised me.” Which was an understatement, for Mara blushed yet again.

“I think you should take the lead on this one, Nico,” Kendra said. “You were the one who did it, not me.”

“Did what?” Mara said, looking at Nico and then at Colbie. “What did you do to me?”

“Do you want the short answer,” Nico said, “or the long answer?”

“Both.”

“Come on,” Kendra said. “Let her have it.”

So Nico let her sister have it. She went up to Mara and kissed her and said, “That’s what I did to you. That’s the short answer.” She then paused for a bit, organizing her thoughts. “This is the long answer, but bear with me, okay? This was weird, even for me.”

Mara acquiesced, finding more reasons to blush in one awkward meeting with her sister in Colbie’s presence, and let Nico collect her thoughts.

Nico seemed to notice and glanced at Colbie, then said, “We reached an inn on a nearby street and ordered something to eat. Kendra filled me in on what happened in the old Rancaster district, and everything leading up to that, but something didn’t add up. We . . .”


5


The air in the inn smelled more like that of a saloon than an actual inn, filled with the scent of burning cigarettes and booze, both cheap and expensive, and charged with the moisture of ozone just before a storm. It was an inn catering to the dregs of the old Rancaster district: the drunks, ruined whores, and flat-broke gamblers. Kendra kept complaining about the stench, saying that Nico should have chosen a better establishment, but Nico said that there was a storm coming, and getting caught out in the rain in winter was the last thing they’d want to do.

As for Nico, she was almost at her wit’s end trying to explain how she knew her sister’s location in this part of the Phantom Realms to her stalwart companion, Kendra.

Kendra just wasn’t the type of girl to accept things at face value, being the daughter of one cop and the stepdaughter of another cop. She said, “Look, I’m not saying it didn’t happen that way. Maybe it did, or maybe you experienced it that way, but it still doesn’t make sense.”

“But these are dreams I’m talking about,” Nico said, “not reality. Dreams don’t always have to make logical sense.”

“True,” Kendra said, “but glitches in the matrix don’t make sense, either.”

“Because they’re anomalies?”

“Yep,” Kendra said. “They still have to make some kind of sense, though, even if we can’t understand them yet.”

“I guess you’re right about that,” Nico said. “There’s a lot about dreams I don’t understand.”

“Then let’s investigate.”

“How do we do that?”

“Well, duh,” Kendra said. “By gathering intelligence.” When Nico blanked out on what she meant, Kendra said, “You know, interviewing the locals around here, writing down rumors and gossip, looking into any patterns that don’t fit into the norm. You know, that kind of thing.”

Nico looked at the wannabe gumshoe, wondering if she was a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, or any of the movie adaptations based on it. “What are you, Sherlock Holmes?”

Kendra deadpanned. “I have connections to the police, you know.”

“And you think that makes you a detective?”

Kendra slammed her hands on the table and stood up, turning heads her way and glaring down at the doubting neophyte before her. “Listen, Nico. I’m the closest thing to Sherlock Holmes you’ve got, and you’re my bumbling Watson. If I seem to act like a know-it-all all the time, then I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to deal with it.”

Nico smiled at her words, for it was Kendra’s fiery determination that allowed her to pass Nico’s test. If this Kendra Tellerman could help her find anything on the whereabouts of her sister, Nico could endure stroking her ego for a bit. Besides, it was fun putting the razz on Kendra, once in a while.

“Well, if you promise to be the best Sherlock Holmes you can be,” Nico said, rising from her seat and stretching out her hand to Kendra over the table, “I’ll make sure to be your most devoted and loving Watson. Deal?”

At this, Kendra blushed and said, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re the one who raised the whole Sherlock shtick!”

“Do we have a deal?”

At this, Kendra looked around on hearing sniggers and come-ons from the rowdy patrons of the inn. Some of them were egging her on, and some even whistled.

“All right,” Kendra said, taking Nico’s hand. “Deal.”

Nico shook hands with her, then raised Kendra’s hand to her mouth and blew on her knuckles and kissed them like a suitor, eliciting more whistles and come-ons from the patrons in attendance.

Kendra pulled away. “What the hell?”

Nico smiled and winked at her. “Help me find Mara, and I’ll be anything you want me to be.”

“Stop it already, geez!”


6


After Kendra got dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and long skirt and jacket in a backroom, Nico and Kendra began their first leg of the investigation by interviewing the patrons of the inn, asking whether or not they heard or noticed anything strange going on in the district tonight or the night before.

Most of what they got was useless. Most of the patrons didn't notice anything, because they were too drunk, too depressed, or just plain too mixed up with their own pitiful selves to notice a Goddamn thing. One was at least a little helpful, though still useless, overall. One hoary patron, who was getting more tipsy with every shot glass he threw down his gullet, said that he noticed the air "shivering" (his word) last night, but that it could have been the wind chill. When asked where he was when that happened, he said he was heading to a consultation on Richet Square on the next street over.

Yet when asked what time the 'shivering' happened, he looked from side to side as if watching out for spies, leaned over the table, and said, "The bottom of the Devil's hour. Now don't tell anyone I told you that! He's got spies everywhere."

"Who's 'he'?" Kendra said.

"Nope," he said. "You won't get any more from me, thank you."

But Nico had an idea who this someone was, and going against her better judgement, she said, "Is this man named Aaron Rancaster, by any chance?"

The levity of the inn fell silent, and all heads turned towards Nico and the flighty patron she was talking to.

He said, "He has spies everywhere, even amongst an establishment such as this, so be careful mentioning him. He's a dangerous man."

All eyes were on both girls now.

"Sorry," Nico said. "I didn't know."

"Now you do," he said. "By the way, what's your name, miss?"

Nico was about to speak, but Kendra placed her hand on her shoulder and whispered, "I think we should leave."

That's when Nico realized that she had fucked up, big time. "Sorry about that. It won't happen again."

The patron nodded, and Kendra led Nico out of the inn, while the eyes of the other patrons followed them out of the door and into the nighttime air, thick with ozone and the threat of rain—


7


When both girls sprinted down the sidewalk and cut through an alleyway into a square on the other side. When they stopped to rest, both girls were bowled over, clamping their hands over the knees and taking massive gulps of air. It took several moments for Nico to realize that they had entered Richet Square the next street over from Yellow-Brick Avenue.

“Who was that guy?” Nico said.

“I don’t know,” Kendra said, looking around for said spies amongst the crowd, “but you might have tipped him off.”

Nico stood up and looked at Kendra hard in the face and said, “What do you mean?”

“Did you notice how he talked?” Kendra said. “For someone who’s supposed to be drunk, he sure didn’t act like it, especially when you asked him about this Rancaster dude.”

Nico cursed, garnering reproachful looks from a mother guiding her son and daughter by their hands and leading them away, saying to her children to grow up to be like those two hussies.

“Hey, who’re you calling hussy, you bitch?” Kendra yelled, but Nico grabbed her arm.

“Stop!”

“But she—”

“Just forget about it!” Nico said. “You’re causing a scene!”

Kendra looked around the street and saw several passersby looking at her, but avoiding her gaze when she looked at them. She wasn’t having it that way, though, and was about to justify herself when a streak of lightning flashed through the sky, followed by the booming of a thunderclap.

“God, damn it!” Kendra said.

Nico decided not to add to Kendra’s anger, so she grabbed her hand and said, “Just follow me,” and pulled her across Richet Square past pedestrians and waiting Model-Ts towards the other side of the square, then waited beneath the awning of a storefront under a street lamp. “Come on, it’s not the end of the world.”

“I know, but assholes piss me off,” Kendra said, then paused when she saw the storefront. “Wait a minute . . .” She looked at the storefront window and walked towards the entrance door, but Nico pulled her back. ”Hey, what gives?”

“Please, don’t make things worse,” Nico said.

Then, as if responding to Nico’s sour mood, another bolt of lightning streaked through the sky and a thunderclap shocked the air, shaking Nico and Kendra, as well.

“But this place,” Kendra said.

“What about it?”

“This place looks familiar.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Kendra said, looking into the window at the various items on the display shelves, from pendants and coins to voodoo dolls and occult tomes on a row of shelves on the back wall of the cashier. “I remember coming here with Colbie and Celia.”

“What were you doing here?” Nico said.

“Looking for you and Mara,” she said. “Do you feel anything different about this place?”

For a moment, Nico paused, then felt a familiar presence to Mara’s, like a kindred spirit of her sister in another form, and said, “I do.”

“Come on, then. Let’s see what’s inside,” and Kendra led Mara inside the specialty pawnshop, pushing through the door and tripping a bell ringer.

A girl’s voice yelled from the backroom, “Give me a minute!”

Nico and Kendra traded glances and waited at the cashier’s reception display case.

A moment later, a bespectacled Gibson girl came out of a backroom, carrying a stack of books in her arms, and dropped them on the display case and readjusted her spectacles over her eyes. She was sweating, so she wiped a stray forelock from her face and wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her jacket, then took off her jacket and slung it over a coat stand.

“Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m just reorganizing some books. How can I help you?”

“We’re looking for someone,” Kendra said.

“Oh?” she said. “Who is this ‘someone’?”

“My sister,” Nico said, “Mara Cairns.”

“Is she alive or dead?”

“Alive.”

“I see,” the girl said, then: “Do you know what happened to her, or what led up to her disappearance?”

Again Nico and Kendra traded glances, pausing for some moments, with Nico wondering if she should let this stranger (helpful as she was) in on something as personal and tragic as her own death. As for Kendra, she had no idea what she was thinking, but she figured it was on similar lines with the death of her friend Colbie.

“Don’t you trust me?” the girl said, and readjusted her spectacles. “You two aren’t from around here, are you?”

“Wait,” Nico said, “how did you—”

“What makes you say that?” Kendra said.

“I can tell, because of your dispositions,” she said. “The way you carry yourselves is a little awkward, as if those clothes aren’t what you’re used to wearing. And people never enter this shop, unless they are lost or looking for something.”

Both girls were spooked and were edging away from the display, away from this creepy girl, with Nico saying, “Sorry for intruding,” and following Kendra towards the door, but the door would not open, no matter how much Kendra and Nico pushed and pulled on the handle.

“What the hell,” Kendra yelled. “Why won’t it open?”

Nico turned back to the strange girl, keeping eye contact with her should she do anything sudden. “Who are you?”

The girl paused, as if wondering if she should reveal her name to them, then said, “I’m an outsider just like you, so don’t go mentioning my name to anyone outside of this shop.”

At her words, Kendra stopped struggling with the door, and both girls looked at this ‘outsider’ before them.

“Who the hell are you?” Kendra said.

“I am Amelia Hearn of the Hearn baronetcy,” she said, and both Nico and Kendra gaped at the mention of such a famous witch, gaped at the realization that they could be standing before such a presence as hers. “You seem shocked. I hope I haven’t offended you two. If I did, I never meant it.”

“You’re the Blood Rose Witch,” Kendra said, with reverence in her voice. “Celia talked about you at one time.”

“The ‘Blood Rose Witch’?” Amelia said. “I’ve never heard of such a moniker in my life. It sounds like a stage name. And who’s this Celia person?”

Kendra was about to go on, but Nico grabbed her shoulder and shook her head, then whispered into her ear, “We still don’t know for sure if she’s really Amelia Hearn.” Nico turned to Amelia and said, “I’m Nico Cairns, and my friend here is Kendra Tellerman. Sorry for earlier. We didn’t know it was you.”

“You still seem unsure, but that’s okay. That’s to be expected, actually.” Amelia then eyed Nico and said, “Cairns. I’ve heard of your surname before, but without the ’s’ at the end. Have you ever heard of the name Robert Cairn?”

“No, I haven’t,” Nico said.

“What about Dr. Bruce Cairn?”

“Haven’t heard of him, either.”

“Ah, well. Anyway,” Amelia said, “back to business. Explain to me your situation, and I’ll try my best to help you, if I can.”

Once again, Nico and Kendra traded glances.

Nico started and related what had happened to her: the abduction of her parents, the abduction of herself and Mara to a stage in the old Rancaster district, the game of Russian roulette and the sisters’ struggle against Rancaster’s control, then her own death from a self-inflicted gunshot to her head, the deaths of her parents, Mara’s escape from the stage, the labyrinth of streets, the wolves, Mara’s encounter with Rancaster in the old square, her own fight with Rancaster in said square, and her encounter with the mysterious gun-toting ‘bambina’ girl.

Kendra, for her part, related her collective dream dive with Celia and Colbie: their tryst in Little China, their hijinks in their dream mansion, Mara’s arrival and awakening and raging, the fight that left herself and Celia buffeted and shaken and left Colbie dead, stabbed through the stomach with Mara’s kodachi, her encounter with Nico Cairns’s ghost, and a miracle of miracles.

All throughout the telling, Amelia’s eyes were getting wider, her hands were cupped to her mouth, and her breathing was audible beneath her hands. When they finished, Amelia said, “My God, I’m so sorry for my conduct, earlier. I didn’t mean to . . . Well, I didn’t know, but—”

“It’s okay,” Nico said, “but we need your help.”

“Follow me, then,” Amelia said, leading both girls into the back room lit by two overhanging lamps, wherein she reached beneath the shade of a floor lamp and turned it on. The click of a latch resounded from the floor, and Amelia crouched and knocked on the floor three times, where the parallel hardwood design manifested the borders of a trapdoor. Here, she reached for a latch and opened the false floor door, letting it rest against the shelves of a back wall, picked up the hems of her dress and walked down the steps, turned on the wall sconce and beckoned Nico and Kendra down the steps to the basement below.

“Watch your step, now,” she added.

Nico and Kendra followed her down—


8


To a different part of the Phantom Realms, another pocket dimension blooming into view before their eyes. For when all three alighted from the staircase onto the ground, Amelia’s blood spell activated, opening into a colonnaded gazebo that overlooked a glassy sea, rippling against its water margin and stretching out towards an unseen horizon. The whole place was enshrouded in a darkness more than night, like the dark night of an unfortunate soul or the abysmal depth of a subconscious mind.

“Where are we?” Kendra said, looking around in awe.

“We’re inside my mind,” Amelia said, walking towards the water’s edge and beckoning both girls over. “Come on. We don’t have all day.” So Nico and Kendra approached, and she said to Nico, “Give me your hand.”

Nico gave her hand, but when Amelia pulled out a sewing needle from her jacket pocket, she pulled away, saying, “What’s that for?”

“I need a sample of your blood for this to work,” Amelia said.

Nico looked at Kendra, but Kendra said, “Go on.”

Nico gave her hand again, and Amelia took it and pinched the tip of her ring finger, then pricked it (“Ow!”), making Nico wince, and held her hand over the water’s edge, letting her blood drip over the water.

One drop.

Another drop.

Yet another drop.

Amelia then put her finger in her mouth (“W-what are you doing?”) and licked it clean (“Ewwww!”), before letting Nico pull away in disgust.

Nico said, making a face, “Let’s not do that again.”

“Ugh,” Kendra said, making a similar face, “why do you witches have to be so disgusting all the time?”

Amelia smiled and winked at them, saying, “You haven’t seen the worst of it, trust me.”

Nico and Kendra grimaced in disgust, but when Nico looked at her finger again, the pin prick was gone.

“It’s gone,” Nico.

“Of course it is,” Amelia said. “My spell is only temporary, so don’t worry too much about it.” She then pulled out another needle and pricked her index finger and crouched down and touched it against the mirror sheen, gritting her teeth in concentration, and said, "Blood on blood, blood to blood, the Life is in the blood. Help me find the living blood, help me find Mara Cairns."

And the mirror sheen rippled from her finger out into the watery expanse towards the unseen horizon and glowed from the depths, manifesting into the image of a dream mansion reflected upside down in the water.

“Wait,” Kendra said, “is that Kathy’s mansion?”

“I don’t know,” Amelia said. “Who is this Kathy?”

“She’s your—”

Nico grabbed Kendra’s hand and shook her head, then turned to Amelia, saying, “Are you certain Mara’s inside there?”

Amelia nodded her head and said, “Your sister’s heart beat is strong, so it’s easy to form a connection to her location, but . . .” Her words drifted off, as if she was unsure about something.

“But what?” Nico said.

For a moment, Amelia remained silent, then: “When I tasted your blood, I tasted someone else’s.”

“What do you mean,” Kendra said, “by ‘tasted someone else’s?’”

“There’s only one way to find out,” she said, and reached for Kendra’s hand. “I need to test yours, too.”

“Ew! No way!” Kendra said, backing away from her and manifesting a semiautomatic pistol in her hand. “Stay back, I mean it!”

“Kendra, geez!” Nico said. “She’s just trying to help!”

Kendra looked at her new-found companion, then at Amelia with her hands raised, before dissipating the gun from her hand and saying, “Sorry about that.”

“That’s quite all right,” Amelia said. “We can do this another way, if you want.”

“No, that’s all right,” Kendra said, and gave her her hand. “Just make it quick.”

So Amelia did and pricked Kendra’s ring finger, making her wince, then put it in her mouth and licked it clean (“Ugh, please don’t do that!”) before letting Kendra pull away.

Yet in that moment, Amelia’s eyes flashed with recognition. She looked at Kendra, then at Nico, then back at Kendra, and said, “Are you two blood-related or something?”

“No, we’re not,” Kendra said.

“She’s not my sister,” Nico said. “Mara is.”

“I see,” she said, then paused as if to think of something, though neither Kendra nor Nico had any clue what was running through her thoughts. “No matter. You two, come over to the water’s edge and hold my hands.”

The two girls traded glances and looked at her while balling their hands—the ones each woman gave to Amelia so that she could do her weird spell.

So Amelia said, “Come on. I won’t do any more weird things, I promise.” So they gave her their hands, Nico her left hand and Kendra her right, each girl standing by Amelia, who said, “Now walk with me, both of you.”

Both girls turned their heads to her, both gulping.

“Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you,” she said and proceeded (holding their hands) from the marble floor of the gazebo and over the water, where she stood a foot above the rippling surface. “See? Now you try.”

Nico saw Amelia’s feet seemingly standing on air, then looked at Kendra and wondered if she was having a hard time believing it herself, but Kendra seemed okay with it, so Nico felt better.

Kendra and Nico alighted from the gazebo and stepped onto the invisible platform and walked with Amelia, their footsteps rippling the waters against an invisible bridge. The further they walked, the more the bridge manifested under their feet, a bridge made of marble arches that stood on pillars across the water, now reflected upside down in the rippling mirror sheen along with the mansion ahead of them. And even as she walked, Nico thought she should see the outline of the mansion in the horizon, getting closer like a mirage in the mind’s eye, and wonder if she was hallucinating it. And in the mirror sheen, but absent from the night sky above their heads, was the moon tinged with blood casting Katherine’s dream mansion in the reflection under a red tint like an impressionist’s rendering of a nobleman’s gothic palace.

As they walked, hand in hand, side by side, they talked about many things to keep themselves occupied, about their families and friends, about school rivals and bullies and innocent crushes, about everything and anything, save for their current predicament. So for the next three hours, they walked and talked, until Nico felt a tingling on her lips and saw the image of Celia Hearn flashing across her mind. She stopped, making Kendra and Amelia stop with her along the bridge.

“What was that?” Nico said under her breath, pulling away from Amelia’s grasp and touching her lips with her fingers. It was the kind of kiss that she had given Kendra at the top of the staircase, but it felt different somehow, more urgent.

“What happened?” Amelia said, then to Kendra: “You have any idea what’s going on?”

“I’ve no idea,” Kendra said.

Nico stayed silent, though, trying to grasp at these errant thoughts, but they were too fleeting and too sudden for her to make sense of them.

Kendra and Amelia looked at her, and Amelia grabbed Nico’s hand again, saying, “Why did you let go?”

“I don’t know,” Nico said.

“What is it?” Kendra said.

“I thought I was kissing someone.”

“Who?” Amelia said.

“Celia Hearn,” Nico said.

At the surname, Amelia’s expression changed from puzzled to worried, so she said, “That’s the second time I’ve heard of that name. Who is this Celia, anyway?”

“She’s your granddaughter,” Kendra said. “And so is K—”

“Don’t say another word,” Amelia yelled, “and I’ll try to forget what you both just said.”

Nico said, “But she’s—”

“I said, not another word! Please,” Amelia said, avoiding the gazes of her new-found companions. “I’m sorry, but this is as far as I can take you under my power.” Even so, Amelia still held onto both of their hands, and looked at Nico in particular when she added, “Any further, and I might not be able to come back, at least, not as I am. I can’t risk any more temporal shifts.”

“And why’s that?” Nico said.

“Because I might not be able to remember who I am when I wake up,” she said. “Please understand, both of you.”

“But it’s so far away,” Kendra said, spying that outline of the mansion ahead of her, about the size of a gingerbread house, if she wasn’t hallucinating it. “We still have a long way to go!”

Nico deadpanned. “So close, and yet so far.”

Kendra glared at her.

Amelia then smiled at her companions and said, “It’s not miles away, only yards. You just need a new perspective on it.” And before Nico or Kendra could ask, she gripped their hands tight and said, “My mind is my mirror. Let them see what I now see, let them find what I have found. Reflect!”

And Nico’s world turned upside down, and her blood rushed to her head, till she felt light-headed and tipsy on her feet, turning right-side up and upside down over and over like broken a record, feeling about ready to fall on her head. And when she couldn’t handle it anymore, she squinted her eyes against the vertigo through over a century of space-time between 1913 and 2018—


9


When Nico found herself wobbly on her feet, still holding onto Amelia’s hand to keep herself from falling. Yet when she regained her balance, she looked up and found that it wasn’t Amelia’s hand she was holding.

It was Kendra’s.

“What just happened?” Kendra said, looking around.

Kendra seemed just as puzzled as Nico, and that comforted Nico. “I have no idea. Where are we?”

“You’re on the other side of my mirror,” Amelia said, and both girls turned back to their helper, whose shimmering self was standing on the bridge with them. “This is as far as I can go with you. You’ll have to go on without me.”

Kendra said, “But—”

“Look for yourselves,” Amelia said, pointing ahead of them towards the screen of trees and something else along the embankment. “You’re almost there, just beyond those trees.”

Both girls turned and saw a boarded walkway raised above the water margin and leading into the screen of trees, and beyond those trees, they heard the steady humdrum of voices.

“What the hell’s going on in there?” Kendra said.

“Maybe they’re having a party,” Nico said. “Amelia, do you have any idea what’s going on?”

Amelia slipped away, leaving a note for them.

“Amelia?” Nico said.

Both girls turned around and found Amelia gone, only finding her letter before the feet on the bridge.

“Where did she go?” Kendra said.

Nico picked it up and read,

“Dear Nico and Kendra,

“I can’t stick around any longer, since it seems I’m intruding into a future I’m not meant to see. Just know that the journey you both took along with me on my bridge is more than just a pleasant stroll. I’ve only been with you for a few scant hours, but I must say that your lives are now intertwined in a way that even fate cannot break.

“My parting words are these: Love each other as you love yourselves. Just as those who love you can give you strength, those you love can give you courage.

“I wish both of you luck on your endeavor,

“AMELIA HEARN.”

Amelia’s letter then dissipated in Nico’s hand, but her parting words brought tears to Nico’s eyes.

Kendra said, “Hey, are you all right?”

Nico wiped her tears away, then ran up Amelia’s bridge along a large garden lake filled with lilies and lily pads hugging the edges of the bridge, and when she reached the boarded walkway of the embankment, she said, “Come on.”

Nico ran ahead, and Kendra followed her through the woods and into a garden, till both girls halted at the sight of a lugubrious procession of men and women wearing masks and the formal attire of tuxedos and dresses and fur coats, all of them heading up the steps to the patio entrance and into the double doors like a parade of ghosts. Even the lighted windows and entrance lights, casting the patio entrance with moving shades and shadows, flickered a crimson color under the moonlit sky. The spectacle was enough to give Nico the creeps, and one look at Kendra told her that she had similar feelings.

So they hid behind the foliage of the garden, keeping out of sight and keeping their voices down.

“Wait,” Kendra said, “you’re not gonna go in that, are you?”

“What?”

“Your shirt,” she said, pointing to the bloodstains on it just above the waistband of her dress skirt. “You’re all bloody and shit.”

Nico looked down on herself and saw the same blood-soaked clothes that Mara had worn when Kendra and her friends took her sister into their mansion. In fact, even if Nico hadn’t given a single thought to it throughout tonight or last night, she decided that it was a fitting look.

“All the better,” Nico said. “I’m gonna find Mara, even if I have to crash their party, and you’re gonna help me do just that.” She then turned back and smiled at Kendra. “You look really good in that, you know.”

This time, it was Kendra’s turn to look, and she blushed when she did. She was again wearing the same Mandarin dress that Celia had forced her to wear in their collective dive, complete with scuff marks and frayed seams and a long tear along the parting in her dress that revealed even more of her legs.

She looked up at Nico and said, “Don’t tell anyone about this, got that?”


10


To say that Kendra was mad was an understatement of infernal proportions, for she was fuming and glaring at Nico. “Damn it, I told you to leave that shit out!”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry, geez,” Nico said and raised her hands in a placating gesture. “I was just trying to lighten things up, that’s all. I didn’t know you’d be so prissy about it.”

“I’m not! It’s just . . . Ugh, you're missing the point,” Kendra said, balling her hands into fists and pacing about.

“Why are you so angry, then?” Colbie said.

“Is that why you two came in wearing those clothes?” Mara added, looking at the long dresses and broad-brimmed hats. “Those clothes make you stick out.”

“God, not you, too!” Kendra said. “That’s not the point,” and turning to Nico: “It’s not the clothes. It’s something else.”

“Like what?” Nico said.

“Wait a minute,” Colbie said, sensing yet another synchronicity that was just on the edge of her comprehension, “if this Rancaster and this Alice chick and those Queens have infiltrated Kathy’s mansion, how did you two manage to get into it?”

For the first time tonight, Kendra smiled and said, “You almost got it, but not quite.”

“What do you mean?” Colbie said.

That’s when Mara had her own brainwave, looking at Nico and finding another reason to blush, and said, “Nico, does it have anything to do with you kissing me?”

“Bingo,” Kendra said, smiling. “Colbie, you get one point for trying, but Mara gets three points for nailing it.”

And for once, Colbie and Nico were taken aback. Both girls seeing Kendra in a cheerful mood was a scary proposition, and both girls gulped.

Even Nico shared in their unease and said, “And it’s why Kendra wanted me to take the lead.”

“So hop to it, Nico,” Kendra said, winking at her to Nico’s chagrin. “And be sure to make it detailed and juicy!”

"Ugh, shut it!" Nico said and paused for several moments, then regained her composure and said, "It's nothing perverted, I swear! It's just . . ." Nico looked back at Kendra, then back at her sister, who was avoiding her gaze. "It happened this way, okay? When Kendra and I made our way in, we didn't follow the procession of masqueraders. We didn't know what to expect, so we decided to stay away from them and find a different route, which turned out to be entirely different. I mean, it's weird, but . . ."


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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