Charlotte struggled to retain her composure when Daphne Palin strolled through the door.
Two things contributed to her distress. The first was the apparent ease with which her friends and colleagues were visiting her supposedly occulted establishment. The second was how Daph was dressed.
She was wearing superhero-style spandex, whose revealing nature Charlotte’s sense of decorum always found questionable. Over that, she wore her varsity jacket, and a thick pair of high-laced boots protected her feet. Like many supers, she’d adopted a symbol. Her particular choice was an equals sign.
“Dig the new duds?” she asked with a smile.
“I daresay you will not find yourself out of place in the company of any superheroes worth the name,” Charlotte said, struggling for a compliment.
“Just say you hate it,” Daph chided with a weak smile. “I’m not a huge fan, but dressing the part makes things easier. Did you know official HCPD regs specifically call out ‘people in attention-getting and unique attire’? It means fire & rescue and the fuzz won’t automatically assume I’m a civilian. They’ll at least give me a few seconds to establish myself rather than turning me away from a scene.”
“I was not aware of that.”
Daph nodded, satisfied that the explanation had worked. She took in the unfinished coffee shop and smiled. “I also wanted to come by and see this place.”
“I suppose Summer informed you?” Charlotte asked, already knowing the answer.
“Alycia, actually. But I assume Summer told her.”
Charlotte let out the smallest of sighs. “Of course. Well, I cannot offer service at this time, but perhaps–”
“There’s another reason I’m here.”
Daph took a seat at one of the tables, and Charlotte sat opposite.
“See, Palomino and I have kind of a working relationship now. I’m still not incredibly thrilled about a partnership, but I figure, maybe it’s like one of those buddy cop things, where two people don’t get along but they have to work together to break the case? Anyway, tangenting there. Point is, he’s keeping in my good graces by working in boundaries I’m setting, and I’m running down the bad guys. One of the things he’s got for me is kind of a danger sense. People being wronged seek revenge. That’s in his wheelhouse, so he can sense it. For my purposes, it’s like a beacon, pointing me toward people in need of immediate help.”
Charlotte ahhs. “A remarkably useful tool for a superhero, I would say.”
Daph grinned. “Quite. We’re still fine-tuning it. I don’t want to have the city’s woes laid on me all the time - that’s a guilt trip I’m not taking any time soon - so I’m keeping him busy tuning into just the stuff nearby, or anything big enough to justify investigation.”
“A sensible limitation.”
Daph pointed toward the back, where Bodark and Vermillion were at work. “Which brings me to those two guys.”
Charlotte looked over her shoulder reflexively. “Are they fighting again?”
“Were they? I dunno. But your boys have some serious mojo cooking around them,” Daph explained. “I came by to see if there’s anything I can do to help out. Or maybe just to hear the deets, so this buzzing in my head has a story attached to it.”
“They have yet to tell me,” Charlotte admitted. “Perhaps it’s past time that they do.”
She summoned the pair, and introduced Daph. After they exchanged greetings, she put down her ultimatum. “I think it’s time that I hear more about your situation. As we agreed.”
The two looked at each other uncertainly. Bodark finally nodded.
“I will tell what I can,” he said.
Already Charlotte could hear the improvement in his English. That had to come from the tutoring.
They are listening to me after all. And they are cooperating.
There had been war in the Russian Federation. It hadn’t been official. Doctor Achilles Chin had disappeared, leaving his scattered empire to his lieutenants the way Alexander the Great’s conquests had been divided among his generals. And like Alexander, the successors soon fell to fighting. One of their battlefields was the vastness of rural Russia.
Charlotte was confident Alycia could fill in the details at a high level. What she had never heard before was what it felt like on the ground, for the ordinary folk. What she heard was familiar indeed.
The Chin regime had taken advantage of Russia’s harsh nature and the historical brutality of its governments to win converts from the peasant villages. They’d cached weapons, built laboratories and factories, and recruited workers, buying silence with money for today and hope for tomorrow. The successors raided these caches and turned these loyalists into foot soldiers. Some intended to war on each other. Others, it was thought, would march on Moscow.
Russia’s leaders sought conscripts of their own to help retain control. They sent spies and special agents into the villages, to ferret out the caches. And so they had come to Bodark’s home.
None of this sounded particularly mysterious or dangerous, Charlotte thought. But then Bodark explained more.
“During our travels, we see… a man. Dark skin. Bald. He carries a sword like the night sky. He is invincible. He destroys tanks and aircraft with sorcery. He hunts us, and those like us. He wants to steal our souls.”
“How do you know this?” Charlotte asked.
Bodark lowers his voice, as though he will be overheard, even here. “We meet another. The leshy. A spirit of the forest. He also is a man at one time, before the Devil offered his bargain. He has met a pretty rusalka, a water spirit. The Devil has given them both power to keep their homes safe, like me. The man with the sword of night comes for him a day later. The rusalka, she knows we are camping nearby, perhaps he told her. She finds us. She has seen everything. The swordsman leaves behind a naked corpse. His life and his power were both taken.”
Charlotte glanced at Daph. “Does any of this sound familiar to you?”
“Not so far,” the other girl frowned. “Dude with the sword sounds like a tough customer though.”
Bodark went on. “The rusalka tells us she has heard of a place we can be safe. The Timeless Tower. She does not know where it is. What it is. She has only the name. We offer her a place with us. We will find it together. Or fight the hunter together.”
The werewolf hangs his head. “She went back to bury her lover. We find her corpse beside his. Stabbed the same way. Then we know. The man with the sword of night hunts all those who have made bargains with the Devil.”
“How do you know it was the Devil?” Daph asked curiously.
In answer, a harsh darkness began to emanate from the man called Bodark. It wasn’t a physical cloud of black. Rather, it was like the dimming of all light when one is losing consciousness. At the center, they could see a man’s face imperceptibly melding into that of a wolf.
Charlotte found herself feeling genuine fear. “Enough,” she said, perhaps more quickly and in a higher pitch than she wanted.
The darkness withdrew. “Who but the Devil would offer men such power?” Bodark asked.
Daph, who had been visibly struggling with her own fear, shrugged at that. “'I’m sold.”
Vermillion had been unaccountably quiet during the discussion. He chose then to speak up. “Perhaps you’d believe me, perhaps not, but that name may not be the only lead we have.”
He reached into a pocket and pulled out a card, presenting it for inspection. The card bore a hand-drawn symbol.
“This is?” asked Charlotte.
“I may have drawn it from memory, or may have stolen it. Who can say?” Vermillion answered insouciantly. “Whatever its origin, it can’t be completely irrelevant, can it?”
Charlotte found the turn of phrase curious. But she took a picture of the symbol with her phone’s camera, and nodded.
“So the vibe I’m getting from y’all is revenge for these supernatural friends of yours,” Daph concluded. “Lester and Silky.”
“They did not give their names,” Bodark replied.
“I’m giving them nicknames,” Daph admitted after a moment. “They were people. People should have names.”
Charlotte smiled. She had gotten closer to the answers she wanted, and it seemed as though her guests had developed more trust in her, and each other. She rose, and addressed her fellows.
“There’s still much to do before Half & Half is ready to open. My plan to use the Twilight Grove as food source fell through. It will not give people what they ask for, only what it thinks they need. So there’s still much work ahead of me. Daphne, it seems that I cannot stop my friends from visiting me before I am ready to open, so I will simply say that you are welcome to visit any time you wish.”
Charlotte turned to Bodark and Vermillion. “Gentlemen. I understand your feelings and your concerns, I think. In this country, I lived mere generations after our Revolutionary War. Children who’d been born in the British colonies were my living elders. More than twice that amount of time has passed between my era and today. Though I have many friends here, I too am a stranger in this time and place. I too have been hunted for my power, though not by the figure you describe. If there is a Timeless Tower, I will help you find it for your sakes, as well as my own curiosity. Until then, you continue to be welcome under my roof.”
Resister - now the Crown Prince of Vyortovia - had gifted Charlotte his supply of occult tomes. Now she was in the process of transferring and organizing them. She had decided Half & Half should include books. Perhaps not these books, but space had already been prepared, so why not keep them nearby?
While she idly perused their contents, using her enchanted spectacles in order for the Booklins in their home dimension to make copies of it all, a thought came to her. Why not start the investigation here?
“Is there a record of a place called the Timeless Tower?” she asked of them.
It would be hours before the reply came back. But it was baffling.
“It is quite definitely real,” the Booklins acknowledged. “But nothing is known about it.”
“If nothing is known, how can you be sure it’s real?” she queried.
“That perplexes us,” they admitted through the link. “We know only that previous magi were sure of it.”
“Keep looking, just in case,” she encouraged them, and that was that.