The Occultists of Moytura Hall

I’m through to the final round of YeahWrite Super Challenge #6! To celebrate, I’m finally getting around to posting my Round 1 story, which had to feature a sword-fighting librarian, a phone call in which the caller hangs up without speaking, and the emotion joy.

“Mother, this is exhausting.” Angelica pushed up her face mask, feeling tendrils of hair stick to her sweaty face. Why they had to have a roaring fire during fencing training was beyond her. “I don’t see how swords can help us against demons when the last war was fought with machine guns and gas.”

Mrs. Burke removed her own mask and signaled for a break. Maria, Angelica’s sister and Mother’s assistant librarian, came forward offering towels for their faces.

“Swords have sufficed since the arrow,” Mother said. She wasn’t even breathing heavily; she patted her face lightly with the towel and handed it back to Maria. “Perhaps Lord Carlisle will succeed where others have failed and bespell projectiles to be fatal to the arcane, but until then, you will learn the sword.”

“But I know the sword!” Angelica dropped her soaked towel on the floor and gestured to the bookshelves surrounding them. “I’ve read all four volumes of Shieldmaiden Shoji and both translations of Galica’s Gladii et daemonorium!”

Mother swept her blade in an elegant circle as she took up her stance. “All these books are dear to me, but all the knowledge they offer is only part of a demonslayer’s arsenal.”

“‘Book and blade shall dispel darkness,’” Maria added, parroting the Carlisle family motto written all over Moytura Hall: wrought in iron along the gates, carved above the front door, gilded over the library’s fireplace. Angelica rolled her eyes. Lord and Lady Carlisle, Occultists to the Crown, employed Mrs. Burke to keep their library of grimoires and defend Moytura Hall from demons. One day, Maria might take a position at the Royal Arcane Library, and Angelica could serve as a ladies’ maid and private demonslayer at court—however, she had no particular interest in anything arcane.

She glanced longingly at the telephone hanging by the door. The only thing that would dispel her darkness was a call from her beau, Edward. Her arms ached, and her brain felt feeble from all the facts and stratagems Mother made her recall during training sessions. Demonslaying might offer better prospects than being a governess like their cousin, but it was quite a bit more work.

The telephone rang.

“Ah!” Mother held up one hand and Angelica halted.

“But I’m expecting a call from Edward!”

“You know the rules—no social calls until we’re finished.” She gestured to Maria. “Dear, would you please?”

Angelica stifled a groan as her sister answered the telephone. Maria was too far to hear clearly, but it didn’t sound like she was talking to Edward. Perhaps she hadn’t missed him after all.

Mother pulled her mask back into place. “Again!”

Angelica lunged. Mother parried easily, but Angelica caught her in a feint and pressed her attack. Through the padding of her mask, she heard the faint chime of the telephone receiver and felt renewed hope: the sooner they finished sparring, the sooner she’d be free to return to her social obligations.

Mother’s next attack came low; Angelica parried, catching the blade and twisting—

And for the first time ever, Angelica disarmed Mrs. Burke. Her mother’s blade clattered against the bookshelves. They stared at each other, stunned. Angelica slowly removed her mask. She’d surely be lectured for humiliating her mother like this.

Instead, Mother burst out laughing. “Marvelous, Angie!” she cried, tossing aside her mask and seizing her daughter in an embrace. “Truly excellent!”

“Thank you, Mother.” Angelica wriggled free, trying to hide her smile. Maria, who’d been tidying shelves, grinned at her over a stack of books. “Can we be finished now?”

“Oh, no.” Mother waggled a finger at her, but she was still beaming. “You would quit when you’ve achieved such success? You must learn to replicate it!”

The telephone rang again. Angelica looked up hopefully. “Please, Mother, may I answer?”

Mother nodded, still smiling. “Oh, very well. Just be quick.”

Anxious to take advantage of her mother’s good mood, Angelica ran to the telephone and lifted the receiver. “Miss Angelica Burke speaking.”

No one responded. There seemed to be no one on the other end—only silence.

“Angie? Who is it, dear?”

But Angelica couldn’t answer—she was frozen, unable to even breathe. Cold seeped through the receiver into her hand, her ear.

“Angelica?”

Trembling took over her muscles. She felt her sight go dim—“Even the breath of the demon is fatal,” she thought distantly. Watson’s “Arcanology,” page nine—

Her blade fell from her twitching fingers; it must have clanged against the floor, but Angelica couldn’t hear it. All she could hear was silence.

Then the receiver was wrenched from her ear. Angelica gasped for air. She could hear again, everything from her own racing heartbeat to the crackle of the fire. Closest and loudest, though, were her mother’s terrified sobs. Her family’s faces swam into view.

“Angie,” Maria cried. “Say something!”

“I’m all right,” she managed. Her own voice sounded harsh, her breath coming in heaving gasps, but they felt all the more precious for having almost been lost forever. Mother pulled her close.

“Maria,” she said, “please inform Lord Carlisle that a demon has infiltrated the telephone exchange, and the connection to Moytura Hall is no longer secure.” Angelica heard her swift footsteps leave the room.

“How do you feel?” Mother asked, touching Angelica’s face. “Is there any lingering cold? Any trembling?”

“I’m fine—it’s passed.” She stood straighter and took a shaky breath. She welcomed the stifling heat of the fire, the way it warmed her face, the way the light glinted on the gold lettering of the books’ spines.

“Perhaps you’d like to call on Edward in person today,” Mother offered, “since the telephone is no longer safe. Mr. Donne could drive you—“

“No, thank you.” Angelica picked up her sword. “I think I ought to keep practicing—if that’s all right with you.”

Mother smiled—an odd smile, sad yet proud, loving yet grim—and saluted Angelica with her blade. “It would be an honor.”

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Costume Courage

Alexis enters the living room and my tea stops halfway to my lips. “What exactly is your costume?”

She’s wearing an artfully shredded polka-dot jumpsuit and a long, scarlet wig. Her face is plastered with red and white clown makeup and the whole ensemble is smeared with fake blood.

She spreads her arms. “I’m sexy Pennywise!”

“Sexy…okay.” I take several swallows of tea. “There is a lot to unpack here. Give me a minute.”

“Hey, at least I have a costume.”

“I told you, I’m sick. I’m not going to the party.”

“You don’t look sick.”

“Well then, I must be okay.”

“Sarah!”

“It’s fine!” I rearrange my blanket over my lap. “This way someone can stay and give out candy.”

Alexis pouts – or at least that’s the expression I assume she’s making under the clown makeup. She’s right: I’m not really sick, but it’s the only excuse Alexis and our roommates will accept for skipping a party. I was sick, though, which is part of the reason I don’t have a costume. The other part is that I just didn’t plan one. Nothing sounded right, and everything in the stores was just too: too sexy, too gory, too predictable, too gauche.

“Well, if you feel better, you can still borrow my cat ears.” Alexis says. Our other roommates meet her by the front door. Mel is in witch’s robes, complete with impressive Victorian boots; Kate is in 90s grunge gear.

“I’ll be fine.” I toast them with my glass. “Take pics for me?”

Alexis gives me a bloody thumbs-up and they whisk out the door. I settle in on the couch. Even the cat costume didn’t feel right, though I never could articulate why: it would give me an excuse to wear my favorite little black dress, the one that’s just a little too short, and flats with cat faces on them, shoes that my workplace doesn’t tolerate.

Still, a night in with tea and a classic Halloween flick just sounded easier.

The first trick-or-treaters arrive not too long after. It’s a horde of boys in assorted ninja, military, and vampire costumes. They grab candy from the bucket and hurtle away without saying thank-you. I roll my eyes and prepare for it to be that kind of Halloween.

I curl back up in my blanket. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Hocus Pocus. I know it by heart, but that just means I don’t mind being interrupted.

It also means I’m a tiny bit bored.

The doorbell rings again. I answer it and find a trio of middle-school girls: a Jedi, a Ghostbuster, and a Tinkerbell.

Fourth grade. Mom is fitting white shoulder pads over my red turtleneck. My brother watches in horror. “You can’t be the Red Ranger!” he says. “He’s a boy!”

“Trick or treat!” They hold out pillowcases. The Ghostbuster wields a handmade proton pack; the Tinkerbell has glittery green eyeshadow that would impress RuPaul. They’re all beaming.

Seventh grade. My friend Derek helped me build my proton pack. Our jumpsuits look so believable, I’m ready to go downtown and fight Gozer. Mom is confused. “A Ghostbuster? Don’t you want to wear something more…flattering? I thought you wanted to be a Spice Girl!”

“Wow, you all look great!” I drop candy into their pillowcases. “Did you make your costumes yourselves?”

“I did,” the Ghostbuster says shyly.

“I did my own makeup!” Tinkerbell blinks rapidly at me, shedding green glitter.

Eighth grade. My friends are going as the Spice Girls. I’ve finally convinced my parents to let me go as Ginger Spice, but Mom frowns through our group pictures. “All that makeup is going to give people the wrong idea.”

“You look great! Have fun!”

“Thank you!” they chorus. Tinkerbell twirls as they make their exit, giggling.

When I return to the couch, a text is waiting for me: a photo of Alexis and the others making silly faces in the back of their Lyft. Therapy-provoking costume aside, she’s obviously having a great time.

I don’t even have to look at the TV to know what part of the movie I’ve reached. I mouth along as Thackery explains the witches to the kids. “How bad could it be?” Max says.

Alexis sends a second text: a cat emoji with heart eyes.

“Okay, fine,” I tell my phone, and turn off the TV. My cat costume – especially those shoes – is actually pretty cute. I might even send my mom a photo.

Grieving, Going

I close the albums. The variations of your smiling face, posing frozen, become painful afterimages. Blinded, I shelve the books by feel.

You recur unpredictably. Sometimes I wish you were a ghost. A haunt can be exorcised; memories can’t.

Done By Halves

How has your heart not split in half?
Lip service ceased being enough long
ago, but here’s one more given yet another pass.

Questions yawn between us like a pass,
the room made chill, divided into your half
and mine. The desolate gap is too long.

This is it, right? It won’t be long,
it can’t, until we can walk tall again, pass
through, no longer bent, as if against the wind, in half—

We’re long past giving that a pass, so stand tall: this half of sky is still ours.

(a tritina with words pulled from the fiction challenge prompt)

Alex Wigan

Mama Said

Julie hadn’t minded working late until autumn began. As long as she’d arrived home in the daylight, there was nothing to worry about in the walk from her car to the front door. Now that the sun was setting earlier, though, she arrived well after dark, and Mama always said to hustle inside on autumn nights after dark.

She’d never really believed it, just like she’d never really believed in the monster under the bed, but there were still nights when she had to get up during the witching hour and you can be sure she pulled her feet up into bed real quick, and pulled the covers over her head, too. Just in case.

Julie drove slowly down the driveway, ignoring what may or may not have been eyes gleaming from the fields. At the end of the drive, she gathered her bag and jacket, turned off the car, got her house key ready, and marched at a near jog to her front door. Something rustled in the grass, but she didn’t look. Mama always said not to look.

She closed and locked the door swiftly behind her. Inside, all was normal – in fact, better than normal: Todd had gotten the kids to bed and was washing dishes. A game show was on, and all the curtains were drawn.

“Hi, sweetie,” she called, hanging her jacket in the hallway.

“Hey,” he called back. “You just missed it – this guy only had one letter left and he blew it.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “What was the answer?”

“Eh, I forgot already.”

Julie did a double take at the contents of the sink. “Did they eat any of their vegetables?”

“Aiden did. Andrew threw a fit, though.”

One set of blinds in the living room had been left open. Julie tugged them closed, trying to avoid looking beyond the warm reflection of her living room into the dark Georgia night.

“The cat is in, right?”

“Oh, shoot – sorry, I was trying to get Andrew to bed –”

“Todd, it’s after dark!”

“I know, sweetie, I’m so sorry – I’ll go out and help you look –”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went to the pantry and pulled out Magnolia’s bag of treats. “She’ll come running for these – ain’t no need for anyone to go outside.”

Though she could practically hear Mama’s ghost yelling at her not to do it, Julie unlocked the back door and opened it just wide enough to stick her arm through and rattle the bag. She tried to ignore Todd standing just behind her – he was probably trying to be comforting, but having her escape route blocked just made her more nervous.

The fields whispered in the night breeze; the dark forest beyond was only a jagged line below which there were no stars. Aiden had seen the ghost of a soldier walking there last spring; Todd had chalked it up to too much TV, but Julie believed him. She believed, like her mama before her, that every Southerner had seen a ghost at least once, it was just a question of how willing they were to admit it.

“Here, Magnolia…” Her halfhearted cry could barely be heard beyond the porch. Luckily, Magnolia heard the rattle of her favorite treats: she leapt onto the porch railing, practically giving Julie a heart attack, and trotted inside, meowing.

Julie stepped back, already breathing a sigh of relief that the door would soon be closed and the night shut out, when she saw eyes in the grass.

She froze, locked between curiosity and dread, staring out at the glowing eyes.

“What is it?” Todd whispered. He was much taller than her; he could easily see what had caught her attention. “Coyote?”

“Sure.” Julie backed away slowly, edging Todd back with her. The eyes had drawn closer. Julie closed the door and threw the deadbolt.

“It was just a coyote, right?” Todd’s eyes kept shifting to the blinds, as if he wanted to look outside but knew better.

“Ain’t it always just a coyote?” Julie rubbed the back of her neck; her heart was still racing. “I’m going to call the Parks, make sure their cats aren’t out.”

“Yeah.” Todd still looked distracted. She wondered if he would try to go scare it off with the shotgun, or if his mama had told him, like Julie’s had told her, that these things were always better off left alone. “Maybe I should call the Wrights. Just in case.”

“Yeah – just in case.”

Neurotransmitting

They almost saw me during the reception. We were dancing. I smiled wrong; I couldn’t remember the right smile, so I displayed a fake, scrounged from clouded memories of expressions. I’m empty where emotions were, so I impersonate. Sometimes I even wish they would notice.

The Monster Hunters’ Daughter

Bee’s final memory of her parents was of them silhouetted in the cracked doorframe, Dad standing, Mom kneeling and holding Bee’s hands. In the dim room behind her waited the family Bee was going to live with: Aunt Val, Uncle Greg, and Grandma Margaret. None of them had greeted her – Uncle Greg was watching news and Aunt Val was knitting. At least Grandma Margaret smiled a little, though she didn’t seem to be smiling at anything in particular.

Mom whispered her last words to Bee: “Don’t trust them. We’ll come for you.”

Then Bee was alone, staring at the people who Mom had said were family but who stared back at her with haughtiness that didn’t feel like family. Besides, who could you trust if not family?

But she still trusted Mom, so Bee waited for the day her parents would come back for her, like they promised. Mom and Dad were treasure hunters, and no matter what Aunt Val and Uncle Greg said, Bee never doubted her parents’ love: she’d seen the kinds of dangerous artifacts they recovered. They refused to take her on their expeditions, though. “Not ’til you’re 16,” Mom always said, usually over the top of a sealed and warded crate she and Dad were hauling.

Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe Bee’s stories – they supposed Bee’s parents just wanted to travel the world without their child. This attitude did not result in them showing Bee anything resembling love, though.

So Bee turned 16 uneventfully. Her only card was from Grandma Margaret, who wrote “Happy Birthday Beatrice” in shaky cursive. Her parents didn’t send anything, not even a message in Mom’s mirror-journal. Her notations of their finds – “Tier-4 cryptid remains, CD ~250/260” – appeared in Bee’s copy of the journal. It told Bee they were still alive, and Bee could tell from the frequency of notes that they were not only alive, but they’d found something huge.

Huge enough to make them forget her birthday, apparently.

She stayed up late reading the journal, hoping for a last-minute birthday message. They’d found three more high-level cryptids and encountered a Remnant, which fled when it saw them. Bee hoped they’d find another, maybe speak to it.

Finally, more lines appeared. Her heart leapt, but the words were boring – just cataloging relics. Still, Bee watched, just to know Mom was there. Then:

2nd Con relic, steel-?? alloy, Abyssal? CD ~18

Bee waited for the rest to appear. The Second Conjunction had been over a thousand years ago and its artifacts were incredibly rare, usually grouped where the Conjunction had flared strongest: France’s northern coast. The magic in the artifacts soured and strengthened over time – was that why Mom stopped writing? Had the artifact hurt her somehow?

She waited: three breaths, four. The date remained incomplete. Something had definitely happened to them.

Bee didn’t hesitate. She stuffed her backpack with water bottles, her dig tools, and food from the kitchen. Only when turned to leave did she realize Grandma Margaret was sitting at the table, alone in the dark kitchen.

“Where you headin’, kiddo?”

Bee stood straighter. “I’m going to find my parents.”

“What for?”

“They’re in trouble! They didn’t wish me a happy birthday, which – fine, whatever – but Mom’s been writing about cryptids, big ones, and then her sentence ended half-finished and I have to go!

Margaret flicked on the lights. She was squinting up at Bee. “What tier cryptids?”

How did she know about the tiers? “Four and five. And they found some…old artifacts.”

“How old?”

“Second Conjunction.”

“Hmm. All this is in that journal of hers?”

Bee nodded, stupefied.

“Let me see.”

Bee hesitantly handed over the journal. Margaret flipped through the pages, frowning, occasionally muttering “reckless” and “fool girl.”

“Well,” she said finally, handing the journal back, “that’s a Wholenuther problem.”

Something about the inflection confused Bee. Margaret smirked at her expression. “I don’t recommend him often,” she said. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants your folks deal with. But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“He calls himself Wholenuther?”

“And his price is puzzles. Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.”

“How do you know – ”

“Who do you think gave your mom that journal?” Grandma tossed her her sweatshirt. “Now get movin’ – Wholenuther likes flowing water, so start at the creek.”

“And Bee,” she called as Bee reached for the doorknob, “happy birthday.”