306 - The Dueling Duo

Blintzkrieg, Summer’s last place of employment, was going out of business.

Chaima, the manager and holder of the secret blintz recipe that gave the place both its name and its fame, could read the writing on the wall earlier than most. “Tyran’s New Tomorrow. It is not new. It will not become safe for people like me, and soon not for anyone,” she had declared to her staff. And so before Summer could reveal her secret to her coworkers, she and everyone else was let go.

Oh, there would still be a coffee shop there, at least for awhile. Someone with a lot of money would buy the lease and the equipment, slap another name on the building, and keep things humming along until a more profitable avenue appeared. But it wouldn’t be Blintzkrieg. And nobody who had worked at Blintzkrieg wanted to stick around.

So it was that when Charlotte approached Summer about a new business proposition, she was quite available.

“I want to open a coffee shop,” Charlotte had said. “It’ll serve the living, as well as the dead.”

Charlotte would bring the literal magic, and Summer could bring the practical magic.

Half & Half, as the new business would be known, was going to be a subtle effort at resistance toward the new regime. Charlotte had developed a sorcery that would let the storefront overlap something else, blending into businesses around it, and move as needed. The exact physical address of the store would change, but people in the know would be able to locate it.

Once inside, though, there were mundane considerations. Where would people order? Who would take that order, and how would they move about? Once people received their order, where would they sit? What of those who wanted to be with friends, versus those who preferred to be alone, perhaps with a laptop or book?

For that matter, could people charge their electronics? Was there Wi-Fi? How would the place be lit? What practical and aesthetic considerations would influence the positions of the lights?

If someone needed the restroom, where would it be? How did water flow into, and out of, an establishment whose location was mystically in flux? What about refrigeration? Reheating?

The two girls finally admitted defeat, and went to Jason. They didn’t want money, they said. They wanted to hire an interior designer. Jason needed no persuasion, and in a month’s time the pair had a thoroughly detailed plan.

The bulk of the shop was built into the Twilight Grove. Charlotte had a good grasp of its magics by then, and was satisfied that its bounty could be turned to her purposes, as long as her intent remained pure. That took care of some of the supply chain considerations.

It would take a week to enact the subtle sorcery binding the half-constructed shop to a façade in town. Summer used that time to get the basics ready: coffee makers, espresso machines, a good supply of cups, a point-of-sale system, and the numerous accessories a barista would need to do business. The equipment would be powered via Casimir fractal, fed through Leo’s graphene battery design. Wi-Fi was a problem that would have to wait for another time.

What would living visitors receive? Coffee, snacks, and seating.

What would the dead receive? Charlotte tried to explain.

“I don’t want them to drink coffee. I want them to share the experience of having drunk coffee. I want the mortal pleasures to awaken in their hearts. To partake of a moment now lost to them.”

“I get it!” Summer exclaimed. “I remember this. Souls are packaged memories that death has set adrift. You’re creating an environment to anchor them. Like possessing a person, only instead of a person it’s more like a place. You’ve given them a pleasant atmosphere. Rather than haunting a house to bring their sorrow or anger back to life, you’re having the house haunt them with its cheer and companionship.”

Charlotte smiled amiably. “I think that adequately describes the idea.”

One evening, two individuals came through the front door of Half & Half.

“That’s not supposed to be possible,” Charlotte frowned. She gestured to attract Summer’s attention to the newcomers.

One was stocky, built wide, and dressed like a hard traveler. His jeans were torn, but not in that fashionable way teenagers damage their clothing. These were smaller rips, indicative of hard living. His heavy boots bore the same marks - caked mud, scratches, and discoloration. Above the waist, he wore a t-shirt celebrating the Spartak Moscow football club, under a leather touring jacket, the sort worn by serious bikers. His salt-and-pepper hair and narrowed eyes gave him the look of someone in his 30s or 40s. His most curious feature were his yellow eyes. Both girls were sure of their perception on this point.

His companion was the opposite in many respects. Tall, slim, with long black hair allowed to flow freely, he was as elegant as the other man was rough-hewn. He wore a vest and slacks, complete with necktie, all wrapped in a red trench coat. His boots were knee-high, elegant things, not the sort of thing to wear during hard labor, and certainly without a speck of mud. Charlotte thought of them as horse-riding boots. Like the other man, his eyes were unusual. They were red, with slitted, cat-like irises. He looked young, even youthful, but for the air of self-assurance that hung around him. Charlotte had only seen such looks on men accustomed to wielding power, never on boys who only dreamed of it.

The stocky man was smoking a cigarette.

“There’s no smoking in this establishment,” Charlotte called.

The man didn’t respond until his willowy companion murmured something. “Ah,” he mumbled, and extinguished the lit cigarette against his own bare skin before pocketing it.

Interesting, Charlotte thought.

“You gentlemen should know that we are not open for business at this time. I shall have to ask you to leave.”

“We’re not exactly customers, are we,” the man in red announced with a smirk. “Perhaps I should introduce myself? There are those who call me Vermillion, although Stanislav Kosygin will do if you wish. My companion could be called Bodark. I expect he will be as forthcoming about his other names to you as he was with me.”

“My name is Charlotte Palmer,” Charlotte said in return, offering a polite nod. “My business associate, Summer. If you two gentlemen are resolved to stay here despite my request, perhaps you will at least be good enough to explain yourselves?”

The stocky man - Bodark - asked something of his companion in Russian.

“Perhaps she wishes to know why we’re here,” Vermillion explained.

More Russian. “Well I certainly don’t know,” Vermillion countered.

Bodark posed what sounded like an impatient question. His friend shrugged eloquently. “Why not just ask them yourself?”

The Russian speaker made a spitting noise and waved both hands in dismissal at the suggestion. He fished out a pack of cigarettes, glanced at Charlotte, and sheepishly put them away again.

“My friend finds himself lacking linguistically,” Vermillion said. “Something about his pride, I shouldn’t wonder. But very well! The means by which we entered this establishment should be clear. We are as supernatural as yourself, if I understand your reputation aright, Ms. Palmer.”

He gestured toward Bodark. “The wawkalak is cursed by the Devil to be a werewolf. The bodark chooses. Or in my friend’s case, I think him a curse laid upon the Devil.”

Laying a hand on his own chest, he went on. “I would prefer blood to coffee myself, were I ordering from an establishment like this, but I’m sure I can rely on neither of you ladies to provide. The upyr or ‘vampire’ is known in my country as a killer of kin and a cause of great suffering.”

In a lower voice, almost to himself, he added, “were I writing the tales, I should have reversed these clauses.”

Charlotte took all of this in stride. With great aplomb she went on as though nothing unusual had been said. “Well I am grateful for the introduction and explanation you gentlemen have offered. Now, as I said, we are closed and I must regretfully ask you to leave my establishment.”

“Ah, but we are being hunted by mysterious forces,” Vermillion volunteered.


“And you are reputed to be superheroes as well as businesspeople,” he said.


Bodark added something in Russian, and Vermillion nodded wholeheartedly in endorsement.

“I cannot say I understood, my dear sir, but nevertheless we are closed to all comers.”

“Our unique talents could no doubt be of assistance to you?” Vermillion offered.

“In which case I shall approach you once I see a need,” Charlotte said firmly.

Bodark finally spoke in a thickly accented English. “Ve haf no oddair place to go,” he said, sadly.

Charlotte felt Summer’s hand on her shoulder, and without even looking knew what the robot girl would suggest.

“I cannot say that I know how to aid you,” Charlotte said.

Vermillion smiled, revealing sharp fangs. “I have impeccable interpersonal skills and I have every confidence I could make your customers feel at ease. My companion is as skilled with his hands as he is with his tongue, and he–”

Bodark slapped the vampire on the arm, hard, with a meaty hand.

“I meant to say that he is sturdy, dependable, and doubtlessly can serve as a handyman or gofer should you need such tasks undertaken. Placing considerable faith in his hygiene might even qualify him for dishwashing.”

Charlotte hummed. “I am willing to help all those in need. I have yet to be convinced of your need, but I am willing to listen. However, you gentlemen understand that I have concerns about a self-proclaimed vampire and werewolf in my establishment, with customers whose safety I must ensure?”

Vermillion smirked. “I can say two things, perhaps. The first is that I will solemnly vow never to injure any of your customers while serving under the banner of this establishment. As for the second…”

He produced a card from a pocket, and presented it. Charlotte read what was written there.

“No vampire can ever tell the unvarnished truth.”

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When Maury Jones got wind of Charlotte’s plans, two things happened. First, Charlotte chastised Summer for telling the Ponies about Half & Half before it was open. Second, the Heroes Are Magic vlogger showed up in person to interview Charlotte and her staff.

“The Ponies always used Blintzkrieg as a staging point,” Maury argued. “It’s natural we’d want to visit its spiritual successor.”

“I see your perspective, my dear, but isn’t it premature to talk about a business that won’t be receiving customers for weeks or perhaps months?” Charlotte had pleaded.

“No way! Hype is vital for any business to get started.”

Charlotte sighed, and with a glance at her two new hires, finally came clean in front of Maury and Summer. “Alright. The truth is that I wished to convey a sense of mystery to this place, in keeping with its declared purpose of uniting this world and the next. A shroud of secrecy would create the atmosphere which I sought.”

She propped her chin up with both hands, elbows on a table. “I don’t want this place to become ordinary. People will need a place to raise their spirits, so to speak. But people are just… strolling through the door now.”

Maury’s smile was gentle and reassuring. “Ms. Palmer, this place will never be ordinary with you in charge. Have faith in your customers to find the mood you’re creating, and play along with it. I promise you we’ll pick up the vibes you’re putting down.”

Further conversation yielded the nature of Charlotte’s new hires, and soon Vermillion and Bodark were summoned to attend Maury.

M: Okay, this is a recorded transcript.

M: The hell do you mean, it won’t pick you up? I hear you talking. My mic is better than my ears.

M: Okay, so vampires can’t be recorded?

M: Well god dammit, that’s inconvenient. Alright, how about we talk to Mr. Bodark here?

M: So he doesn’t like talking. Great. But he can talk, right?

M: Russian? Okay, we can make this work.

ASIST Auto-Translation Services Engaged. User: MLP_HAM, Session ID 9492635. Bidirectional Russian to English, Idiomatic Conversation. You May Begin Speaking.

M: Okay, the idea is you talk into this guy here, and I’ll hear it in English, and I’ll talk into this guy and you’ll hear Russian. Sound good?

B: I hear Russian. I speak Russian now. Do you understand?

M: Yes! Alright. First, can you tell us your names, and something about yourself?

B: I’m a werewolf. This one is a vampire. Call me werewolf.

M: That’s very interesting. Can you talk about how you became these things?

B: He sinned against God and is being punished. I am too.

M: You are both being punished by God?

B: He is my punishment.

M: Okay, okay. So how about you?

B: The soldiers came for my village. The new czar intends to attack his enemies. He wants more soldiers. They come to conscript the young. We have a fight. There is much fighting. Nobody wishes to die for the new czar. So the village is burned.

M: I’m so sorry to hear that. What happened then?

B: I feel the call of the Devil. It offers me power. I can fight the soldiers. I embrace it. I become the beast. I transform. They flee before me. But they will bring back stronger forces. I must leave my village. My family. I say goodbye and leave.

M: Did you ever look them up? Call, email? To find out if they’re okay?

B: Such things did not reach the village.

M: Okay, I guess not. That must have been a long time ago.

B: I am 23 years old.

M: There is no way you are 23.

B: It is the truth.

M: Okay. Forgive me, your appearance makes you seem older.

B: My fate has been carved into my face.

M: Indeed. And can I ask how you met Vermillion?

B: He is the son of the aristocrats. The oligarchs. He tells me many lies. Everything he says is lies.

M: I see. And so you met… how?

B: I travel. I find a barn for shelter. It is raining heavily. I find him in the rafters. At first, I think we are going to fight. I feel evil from him. A great sin is hanging from him. I smell it. But he laughs and says we should be friends.

M: Are you friends?

B: Make him leave the room.

M: Okay, go ahead.

B: He is my closest friend. All of the people I have ever met while traveling. He is the only one who is never afraid of me. He is the only one who smiles with his eyes. Everyone else fears me. That is why I say I am a werewolf now. So people know why they feel afraid. Even you.

M: I apologize. You are the first werewolf I have met. I might feel fear, but I am also excited to get to know you. Both of you.

B: That is very kind. I do not think it will last if you see me change. But your words are kind.

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Charlotte quickly discovered something about the vampire and werewolf taking shelter under her roof: they were eternally on the edge of a fight.

One evening, it did break out.

Neither used their powers. Vermillion had said something snide, as usual, and Bodark had shrugged it off, as usual. But the vampire made another crack, still in Russian, and the stocky man had come across a half-assembled table at him. Fists flew. Bodark had the advantage of strength and weight, but Vermillion was fast and nimble.

“Outside!” Charlotte shouted.

The pair looked up, and nodded their heads in assent. Instead of stopping the fight, as she’d thought would happen, the two made for the back door.

It was then she discovered something else. The magic of the Twilight Grove violently rejected both of these creatures of the night.

Their mutual yowls of pain came from the back. Charlotte rushed to see what had caused it, and found the both of them slightly singed and smoldering.

“Out front?” Vermillion had offered. Bodark had nodded.

Charlotte was not interested in watching two men engage in a fist-fight. She was content to see that, twenty minutes later, they were at least cooperating when they came back through the front door.

After another week of altercation, one damaged table, and one broken chair (shattered across Bodark’s face), she sat the two of them down and had a conversation.

“I appreciate the work the both of you have done for me thus far. However, I cannot countenance any further fighting in this establishment. Your choices are as follows. Abide by my rules, or leave.”

“But we are pursued by mysterious forces–” Vermillion began.

“–Which you have told me nothing about,” Charlotte countered. “You have, however, told me that you do not tell the truth, which means you cannot be trusted.”

“We are in danger at every moment,” pleaded Vermillion.

“You will be in danger from me if you test my patience,” Charlotte replied frostily.

“Vat are your rules?” Bodark asked.

This was better.

“First. The two of you will settle any and all disputes in private, with your words. If you cannot bring yourselves to do that, take yourselves off site and return once you have it out of your systems. Second. Please speak English in my presence. I don’t mean to offend and I think your language is lovely, but I cannot hear when an altercation is brewing in Russian. I must have a way to know what is on your minds. Third. You will tell me the truth about the danger you do, or do not, face.”

The two men looked at each other, then back to Charlotte.

“I can perhaps abide by your terms,” Vermillion conceded.

“No English,” Bodark said firmly.

Charlotte tilted her head. “May I ask why not?”

“I am bad at it.”

“I will not hold that against you, sir.”

Bodark jerked a thumb in Vermillion’s direction. “He vill mock me.”

“I will see that he does not,” Charlotte announced firmly, with a glance at the vampire. For his part, Vermillion shrugged eloquently and innocently.

“Still am bad at it,” Bodark insisted.

“Then I will help you improve,” Charlotte offered.

Bodark sighed. “He has been teaching me,” he said, again glancing at Vermillion. “He mocks me, but I haf learned.”

“Why do you mock him?” Charlotte said, turning to Vermillion.

“Is it not the manner that my father used?” Vermillion asked, without looking back at her. “Shall I not teach as I was taught?”

Charlotte sighed, and composed herself against the wash of feelings. “Sometimes, our families make mistakes. Our families can mistreat us. That does not excuse us from doing our utmost. I would appreciate it, good sir, if you would show better manners to your companion than you have been shown.”

The vampire made a conciliatory gesture with his hand, as though holding an invisible wine glass in his palm.

The promised revelation about “mysterious forces” was slow in coming. Charlotte didn’t care to listen to Vermillion, because literally everything he said was somehow a lie or evasion. Only the werewolf could answer her questions. But he continually begged off, saying he didn’t know all the words yet.

Finally she had enough. The pair had been in the back quite awhile, as they often were. She didn’t hear threats or arguments, which was good but suspicious. Perhaps catching them off guard would help get the answers she wanted.

She found Bodark, shirt open, sitting atop some crates, head lolling to one side, eyes rolled into his head. Vermillion had buried fangs in the other man’s neck and was drinking his blood.

“Stop!” she shouted, and lunged forward. Bodark’s suddenly outstretched hand stopped her.

His eyes focused, and found her, even as Vermillion hastily withdrew and began wiping his mouth.

“I vill explain,” the werewolf said quietly. His free hand went into a pocket and came out with a bloodstained handkerchief, which he placed with easy familiarity over the puncture wounds.

Charlotte looked questioningly at Vermillion, but he looked so thoroughly mortified that she abandoned any thought of talking to him. Her attention went back to Bodark.

“He cannot feed on anyvon else,” the werewolf said.

“Cannot? Or will not?” she asked.

“I do not understand ze difference.”

“He is able to feed on other people, or he is not. He is willing to feed on other people, or he is not.”

“Not villing,” Bodark said at last. “He fears horting them. But I heal. My blood becomes fresh fast.”

“Is he hurting you?” Charlotte asked, eyes narrowed. This was the only question that really mattered.

“Ven I find him, in barn, he vas…” Bodark sighed. “He vas… like a corpse dot talks. I ask, vat does he need. He say, blood, breath. Ze stuff off life. I share. Now he depend on me. Bot he is ashamed off it.”

The werewolf looked at his vampire companion. “He vill die before he hort someone else. Zat is kindness. He need me. Or he die. I vill not let that happen to a kind person.”

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.”

Charlotte blinked.

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.

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The man who came through Charlotte’s front door was Black, and bald. He did not visibly carry a sword like the night sky, but Charlotte knew with dread that he had one.

“We’re not open, good sir,” she announced, mustering her courage.

The visitor introduced himself with a polite nod. “My name is Azlan de Borja y Velasco.”

“I am Charlotte Palmer. And I must reiterate that this establishment is closed.”

The visitor clapped his gloved hands together. “I am not here to patronize your establishment. I am here because I am looking for two men.”

“I see.” Charlotte stayed noncommittal, as she thought through her options.

“Will you please bring them to me?”

“There is nobody else here.” That was true, at least. The vampire and werewolf were off somewhere, investigating something-or-other they hadn’t bothered to tell her about. Summer was doing her best to live a normal life in spite of everything, which meant not being at a coffee shop 24/7. It was just Charlotte and her visitor.

“Very well. I will not intrude any further. Thank you for your time, and I wish your business endeavor every success. Good day.”

With another polite nod, the man turned and left.

Charlotte turned, as she had increasingly done so of late, to Lucius.

The old swordsman had been living upstairs of his own coffee shop, Has Beans, for quite a long time. As she arrived, she saw signs of transitions on the ground floor. Some of the old pictures had been taken down. Bits of memorabilia were missing. Nothing had been violently removed, and much remained intact.

It wasn’t vandalized. It’s being cleared out. He’s closing up shop.

Lucius welcomed her politely enough in his upstairs office.

“You and Blintzkrieg are both closing your doors?” she asked.

Lucius nodded sadly. “There’s a legal dispute about the property ownership. It’s that Tyran Enterprises! They’re doing this.”

He stamped his cane against the ground. “That’s how they’re taking over the city. But it takes money to fight it in court, and we haven’t got it. We’re just a small business, we don’t have that kind of cash laying around. What’s Jaycee going to do now…?”

Charlotte smiled gently. “It is a time of transitions. I know you’ll stay active somehow. And so will she.”

“Hmph. Well at least I know where I can sell some of my equipment, when the time comes.”

Charlotte nodded. “I’ll do my best to purchase from you, though my own funds are quite limited. But perhaps you’ll indulge me some questions about an unrelated matter?”

With Lucius’ permission, she began relating the tale of Vermillion and Bodark. When she got as far as describing the swordsman, Lucius became agitated.

“Do not say his name,” he warned. “Not now. Not ever. Whatever you do, his name is taboo.”

Charlotte tilted her head. But the story continued.

At the end of it, Lucius nodded knowingly. “We know him as ‘the Dread Moor’. He is centuries old. A former wielder of Excalibur. Since his fall from grace, he has had one overriding desire. He wishes to wield the sword of power again.”

“And how can slaying supernatural beings assist with that?” Charlotte asked.

“I don’t know.” Lucius stood up with considerable aid from his cane. “I don’t know…”

“What should be done about him?”

Lucius turned to stare at her in surprise. “Done about him? You stay out of his way. Once, he was the best and brightest of our order. But those nearest Heaven have the furthest to fall. Since then he has not scrupled in his pursuit of power. Be mindful, and be polite. That is all you can do when a tiger comes prowling at your door.”

She warned Bodark and Vermillion that the Dread Moor had come calling.

“Well, that’s that,” the vampire had said with a shrug. “Perhaps it’s time for us to move on.”

“Yes. He is here, so we must leave,” the werewolf conceded glumly.

Charlotte had wanted them gone, early on. Their bickering, and then outright fighting, had been stressful.

She thought about it.

She shook her head.

“No. I am not letting someone bully their way into my shop and attack my employees,” she declared.

The two men turned to look at her in surprise.

Charlotte pointed at each of them in turn. “Now. I would appreciate if the two of you would tell me what magics you used to enter my front door the first time. That will help me shore up its defenses.”

The two looked at each other. “We used no magics,” said Bodark at last. “It was there. We entered.”

Vermillion was beside him, nodding in agitated agreement.

Charlotte narrowed her eyes.

She returned to the front of the shop. For several minutes, she worked, occasionally calling for one of the two to bring her some of the tomes in the back for consultation.

“The Dread Moor employed goetic demons to gain access,” she concluded. “There was a powerful invocation. So why did you…?”

She knew, as she spoke the words. The Twilight Grove, source of the enchantment that kept the cafe’s front mobile and concealed, had let them in. It had deemed them as worthy of entry as her friends Summer, Maury, and Daphne.

“Very well. Gentlemen, we are behind schedule. Let’s get back to work!”

The grand opening of Half & Half was a subdued affair, as was intended. Summer and other members of the Menagerie were there, as were the Ponies and some of their friends. On the spectral side, Charlotte had invited several associates from the cemetery - ghosts of her own time, or a little later, for the most part.

One guest provoked considerable interest. This was Manny the Skull, a former pirate who’d claimed to sail under a “Captain Quill” in a nebulously-defined voyage around the world. Charlotte was privately sure that most of the stories were fabricated, and those that weren’t were borrowed, but she was glad to see that they were entertaining to her other guests regardless. As a floating skull wreathed in flames, Manny had no need for coffee, but somehow his energy level never wavered either.

Summer was happy running the register and performing coffee prep with her usual speed and cheerfulness. Vermillion was his charming, dangerous self in serving customers their orders. Bodark spent his time in the back, restocking things on the front line as necessary. For a first-time business, it was going quite smoothly. Admittedly, everyone here was a friendly sort, willing to overlook hiccups that a random and impatient customer might become surly about. But that was the point.

Once people had settled in, Charlotte took a moment to go from table to table. Person by person, she presented her guests with her solution to the problem of admission. Taking a cue from Summer, she was handing out one-use coupons.

“Give these to people you think will make the shop a better place,” she told each person. “If they come, they’ll be offered a loyalty card. These tokens of admission will open the door for them. If you lose your way in, you can contact me in other ways for a replacement.”

The living were enjoying their warm drinks. The dead were enjoying a warmth of their own. Companionship, coffee, and genteel conversation were all flowing. Yes, Charlotte told herself, this is what I really wanted.

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And that’s the opening to Half & Half, and to our Menagerie at Midnight book. How do we think Charlotte’s business endeavor will fare? And how will the mysteries that surround her play out?

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Fine, but it’s not as good a pun.

“You have a back door out of this place?”
“Well … yeah, but …”

Doomed to failure.

That is awesome. But the dead will still bitch about no WiFi, even if they don’t carry any devices.

No doubt pulling from the 5G outside.

“Spiritual successor.” I see what you did there.

I keep vacillating between seeing these two as deeply comedic, or as deeply tragic. Then I remember they are Russian, and it all makes sense.

Heeeheeheeeee …

Alycia could probably fill in some of those details, too. But she wouldn’t

Very Daph.

“Ma’am? I ordered a Triplespresso with extra whipped cream.”
“This is chicken broth. Low fat chicken broth.”


Though it didn’t want them coming into the TG proper and tussling.

Implication: the Dread Moor could also get into the TG.

Charlotte has quite the support network. I have no doubt there will be threats from both Tyran and from the Dread Moor, but I expect she will come through with flying colors.

I don’t recall if Charlotte’s spirit-wrangling powers (most manifest in the Sepiaverse) went away at some point, but I suspect they might play a role, too.

The Magus power package went away (in-universe because she used it to entrap a powerful demon, out-of-universe for IP law reasons), but everything else she can do is quite intact

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