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Blood On My Name (Avert Thy Mortal Eyes)

Chapter Text

 


 

 

Louisiana

            Screaming: high pitched and echoing in the stiff black night of the Louisiana bayou. A serrated knife cut through flesh like it was a raw steak. The trees shivered as the young girl’s throes pierced the humidity lingering in the air. It was echoing in her ears: the sound of her flesh being ripped and forced into, torn open so the offensive air could burrow its way inside to make a new home.

            “There’s p’wer in the blood.” Their voice was deep, wet sounding. They drug the knife into her soft brown flesh again and again, twisting it through the sinews of corded muscle. Her small hand spasmed against the bloody earth until it went still. “The offering is made.”

            Her brown eyes stared open and unseeing at a starless sky, tears still slowly leaking from the corners: the bayou will take them like it will take her. A crow cried and fluttered from a broken branch of a Bald Cypress tree. They looked up, eyes watching the black wings slice through the moon. Their nostrils flared, taking in the scent of nutrient-rich dirt made sweet with blood and the rot of the bayou water. White eyes turned back to the body on the ground. Long crooked fingers lifted a smear of blood from her warm cheek. They rose to them to their forehead and fingers drew a sigil long forgotten until that night.

            “The Beast is ready.”

 

Chapter 1

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

             Aurea flung her body up right, her hand searching for the gun she kept under her pillow. The scream passed through the walls again. Cold metal stung her hand as she wrapped her long fingers around the flesh of the gun. Her bare legs swung themselves from the bed and carried her swiftly down the hall towards her sister’s room. She held the gun parallel to the floor, keeping it aimed in front of her as she gripped the doorknob. Her skin was tight like drum waiting to be hit, and the anticipation made it ache. She waited a breath.

            Silence.

            Aurea swung the door open, letting it smack softly against the wall as she scanned the room. Nox was already sitting up on the bed, long black hair hanging like a shroud around her pale face.

            “Nox?” It was whispered, tentative. Slowly, the gun lowered till it was pointing at the floor, finger still firmly pressed against the trigger. The windows were open, stirring the white curtains like ghosts in the thick of night.

            “There’s p’wer in the blood.” Her voice was strangely deep, thick like mud.

            “What?”

            “The Beast is ready.” Nox’s head lifted, hair parting like the Red Sea. Her eyes were unfocused, catching the moonlight and reflecting it in a way they shouldn’t.

            Three seconds to late, Aurea registered a small creak on the stairs. Hairs in the kitchen of her neck stood like thousands of hands preforming the sieg heil. She turned, feeling hot and sticky breath slither its way over her neck and shoulders. She kept her gun aimed high and scanned the room and what she could see of the hall for a person she logically understood to not be there. The darkness crept from the corners of the room and shadows reached like fingers towards Aurea. It was colder than she remembered and her bones ached with it. As if in a fire, all the oxygen was sucked from the room and it left her gasping.

            “Are we?” Softer now, sharp and painful like a child ready to cry.

            The blonde turned and watched her sister fall softly to the bed. The room grew brighter, the shadows retreating to their rightful places, the smothering North Carolina heat invading the small room again.

            “Nox?”

            A sleepy sigh flittered into the air as Nox rolled onto her left side. After a few moments Aurea left the room carefully and shut the door. It would do neither of them any good to wake her. In the bright light of the full moon, she checked the time on her watch. Menacingly, it ticked by.

            3:27 am.

            She sighed and went to put her gun away. There was no point in going back to sleep. Thanks to the antics of her twin, she was wide awake. “There’s power in the blood…What the hell does that even mean?”

            She entered her room without turning on a light. The gun slipped silently beneath the right pillow, and Aurea grabbed a white silk-tulle robe from the floor and slipped it over her bare arms. Coffee was in order. Lots of black coffee. Hell, maybe I can sneak a cigarette before she wakes up completely.

            Still, Aurea couldn’t shake the feeling that something was in that room with them. Ever since she was a child, her instincts were always right. Never once did they lead her astray in anything that she did.

           Don’t be fucking ridiculous. Nox has had nightmares before. And hell, look where you just broke her out of. She’s going to be a little creepy for a while.

           Softly, her feet walked her down the stairs, avoiding the places she knew would creak under her weight. They were old stairs, softening in some places, the varnish and stain wearing off in spots. When she hit carpet, Aurea was less careful.  They would have to leave the house soon. The family, a Mr. and Mrs. Austin Kitch (the names she got from the mail piled on the inside of the door), would probably be back from vacation soon. Besides, sitting in one place for so long could only end badly. No one would suspect them if they saw them in public; thanks to the news nearly everyone believed the sisters were dead. Killed while trying to escape Templar custody. The Templars were still searching for them, even if no one else was.

            She poured in ten tablespoons of grounds and snapped the lid shut. The coffee pot hissed and sputtered to life, offended at the early hour as much as Aurea was. Silently, she hoped onto the counter and let her legs dangle off the edge. A package of kreteks was pulled from the underside of a cabinet. At the rate my life is going, I might as well smoke two at a time. The lighter flared to life in her hands and for a moment, just past the orange and blue glow of the butane flame, Aurea thought she saw a figure. She closed the lid and drew a deep puff from the cigarette. Whatever, or whoever had been there, was gone now. She felt strange: she knew the figure was not there, not really, but somehow, it was.

            The nicotine did little to sooth her nerves. Nails clicked on the Tuscan tile of the kitchen floor and Aurea blew smoke out of her mouth.

            “And just where have you been?” she asked slowly.

            Hadar sniffed the air and huffed.

            “I don’t need a lecture about cigarettes from a dog.” She patted the counter beside her and watched as the mabari lumbered his way up. “Go see that pretty poodle down the way? A little pretentious for you, don’t you think?”

            Hadar wuffed and laid his head on Aurea’s thick thigh. She placed a hand on the back of his head and pet him softly.

            “I’ll make you a deal, Hadar. You don’t tell Nox I’m still smoking and I won’t tell her that you’re the one that ate her pickled eggs.” She scratched under his chin and he licked her fingers softly. “Good boy.”

***

            “I can’t believe your sister likes pickled eggs.” Alistair wrinkled his nose in disgust.

            “I know. She and dad both. It’s like they’re trying to be disgusting. Mom gets so mad because dad always tries to kiss her after he eats them and she can’t even stand the smell of them. He chases her around with his lips all puckered up.”

            Aurea swished her ankles. Alistair had yet to remove her legs from his lap. She laid back with her head in the grass, arms relaxed at her sides. The grass tickled the back of her ankles and the tips of her ears.

            “You have a bug in your hair.”

            “Is it a spider?”

            “No.”

            “Then I’m fine,” she said with a nod. “You sure you don’t want any of this?” She raised her hand from the grass and presented the joint to him. When he shook his head she shrugged and took another drag. The clouds moved slowly over the light blue sky as the breezed moved over the friends.

            Alistair’s warm hands rested lightly over her thighs. She could feel them shake slightly. He was cute. Shy and dorky, but cute. She smiled lazily and rolled her head to the side. Hadar leapt up from the tall weeds and wild flowers every now and again to let them know where he was.

            “One of these days, Alistair Theirin, I’m going to leave this place. And I’m not gonna look back.”

***

            The coffee had stopped brewing some time ago. Aurea shook her head to clear the memories, or perhaps will them away, and grabbed a cup from above her head. She did leave that place, just not how she thought she would. The sound of the coffee pouring into the mug was a comforting sound. The smell that mingled with the scent of cloves and vanilla was pleasant and reminded her of home.

            “We need to leave here, boy.”

            The coffee burnt her tongue, but she kept drinking. The urge to call her cousins welled up again. It was tempting, however, Templars would have tapped their phone, they would expect Aurea or Nox to call. The urge was resisted.

            “I thought you told momma you were going to quit?” Nox asked quietly from the doorway.

            So today is a bad day. “Are you going to tell on me?” Aurea looked up, but continued to inhale the smoke.

            “I can’t if she’s dead, Aurea.”

            Good day it is then. “Sorry. I just didn’t know if you…”

            “Remembered that I got blamed for killing our family? I remember.”

Chapter Text

           


 

           

            “And what if I don’t want to leave here, Aurea?” Nox stirred the stew in the pot slowly, watching the contents swirl around.

            “Nox, this isn’t our house. Eventually, these people are going to come home.” Aurea crossed her ankles and swung them back and forth, heels hitting the cabinets lightly.

            “I know that. I mean here, in this town. I like being able to see the ocean.”

            Aurea rubbed her forehead. “Nox. They’re still looking for us. We’ll be safe in Parish. You know dad had that place locked down tighter than a Chantry Sister’s cun–”

            “I just...” Nox pushed the stew around the pot again. She could feel Aurea’s gold eyes on her. After a moment of silence, her sister’s arms wrapped around her waist, and her chin rested on her shoulder.

            “I know.” Aurea sighed and moved to lay her cheek down on Nox’s shoulder. “But what choice do we have? It’s the last thing we have of them, Nox. It’s home.”

            Nox shrugged the shoulder that Aurea’s chin rested on and turned the stove off. “It’s not home, Aurea. Home died with them. We don’t have a home anymore.”

            “We have each other.”

            “You can’t make homes out of people, Aurea. They can burn down too.”

            They left the house two days later. Neither one of them mentioning the dream before they left. The 1986 Grand Cherokee carried them smoothly through the mountains just outside of Gatlinburg. Nox slept soundly in the passenger seat, her hand curled under her cheek against the window. They had been driving for about ten hours; construction adding time onto their journey. Aurea was starting to grow weary, her eyes struggled to stay focused and clear. They couldn’t afford a cabin, but a hotel room would be cheap.

            Her stomach made an ungodly rumbling noise and she heard Nox giggle.

            “Dad, you better pull over and get Aurea something to eat,” Nox said through a yawn.

            Aurea kept her face neutral despite the pang in her chest. “Mom and dad are already at Parish, remember? We drove down separate because we wanted to give them a few days alone.”

            “Did we?” The mage sat up, pushing her thick hair out of her face.

            “Yeah. We’re going to stop soon though, I’m exhausted. There’s a Days Inn up here somewhere. We can stay there. Hopefully, they allow dogs.”

            Hadar grumbled in the backseat and flopped down onto his belly.

            The hotel was nice enough. Not too expensive: about sixty bucks for the night. It was sixty bucks they didn’t really have, but short of sleeping in the car, there wasn’t another choice. Nox took the first shower, giving Aurea a chance to check the news outlets, seeing if anyone had caught sight of them and reported seeing two supposedly dead girls traveling. It was a futile effort. Of course, they wouldn’t report on it. It’s not like the Templars are going to say, ‘Oh, hey, yeah. Remember those girls we said were dead? Not so much dead as escaped’.

            The mabari grumbled from the second bed and then let out a long whine.

            “I know you’re hungry. I am too. Let’s see if we can find some cheap pizza or something, huh?”

            As she got up to retrieve her computer from the bags, she took a moment to survey the room more completely. There was a window at the back of the room, giving them a view of the forest behind the hotel. One set of windows lined the left side of the door looking out onto the parking lot. Aurea would take the bed closest to the door in case anyone found them and broke in during the night. There was only one light switch and it was beside the bed, behind the coral colored lamp. She grabbed the computer and sat down cross-legged on the bed.

            “Oh all the money that ‘er I spent, I spent it in good company.” Nox’s voice floated out into the main room.

            Aurea hadn’t heard the song sung since they lost their parents. Their father, Mathias, used to sing it to them when they were little, or when he had come home from the bar. His thick voice would rumble in his chest and if you happened to be laying against it, you could feel it. Many nights, when Aurea couldn’t sleep, she would sit in their living room with Hadar and watch the New York city neon lights flicker and blaze against the black of night. Her father would eventually come out and gather her up in his arms and sit with her against his chest. The pair would rest in silence until he would sing to her.

            “And all the harm that ‘er I’ve done, alas it was to none but me.” Aurea joined her sister in song. Her voice was a lower pitch than Nox’s, who sounded most like their mother.

            “And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall. So fill to me the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.” Their voices blended together, Hadar’s howling punctuating a few of the words.  “But since it falls unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not. I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call. Goodnight and joy be with you all.”

            Hadar echoed them with one last resounding howl. Aurea smiled and kissed the top of his head.

            “Beautiful, Hadar! You should be an opera singer,” Nox called out from the bathroom.

            Aurea shook her head. “I think you’re dreaming a little too big for him, Nox. He was flat on a couple of notes.”

            Hadar huffed and dramatically fell off the bed and onto the floor.

            “And he’s a bad actor.”

            The pizza was disgusting, but that didn’t stop them from devouring it. Hadar ate three pieces. Aurea had four. Nox only ate one. Since Knickerbockers, she hadn’t had much of an appetite. Aurea was worried about her: she had lost maybe fifty pounds since she last saw her. Her twin had always been skinny, but she had grown sickly looking.

            Before she let herself fall into bed, Aurea decided to take a shower. She smelled like the road: sweat, cheap fast food, leather, and dirty hair. When Hadar tried to follow her into the bathroom, she stopped him.

            Kneeling down to his level, she whispered, “No, boy. Stay out here and keep an eye on Nox, okay?”

            Hadar whined but went back to the bed and sat beside Nox, his eyes wide in a pout.

            She shut the bathroom door quietly and left it unlocked, just in case. There was a window in the shower, up high enough that no one could see you showering, but low enough that if she had to, she could push Hadar and Nox out of it. She dropped her dirty clothes to the floor in a pile, determined to break the order that was forced into her at Haven. She caught her reflection in the mirror and wrinkled her nose.

            Her hair was fading from the red color she dyed it: now it was a strawberry blonde shade that she had mixed feelings about. Her gold eyes were bloodshot and tired looking, and there were deep circles under them that looked like her mascara had run and then smudged. She was getting crows feet. A twenty-four-year-old with crow’s feet. The scar on her forehead that cut through her eyebrow was finally starting to lighten. The one on her jaw was a pale, silvery line now. The line going through her lip was starting to turn silver, leaving the angry red bits behind. The scar going from her left shoulder, over her breast, and down to her right hip was still as angry as the day she got it. The day her parents died; the day she should have died. She reached her fingers up to touch her chest and then stopped.

            She took a longer shower than she probably should have. But once she got under the hot downpour, she couldn’t make herself get out. Her muscles ached, her scalp itched from lack of washing. After she pulled herself from the womb of the tub, she braided her hair sloppily, pieces falling out around her face. I need to moisturize… maybe that’s why I have wrinkles already. A luxury that would have to wait she decided as she stepped out into the chilly hotel room air.

            Nox was on her side, Hadar laying across her hip and chest. She had a hand curled under her cheek, lips open in a peaceful sleep. Aurea envied her like that. She knew it was terrible for her when she actually did remember, but to not remember…Aurea would have given anything to go back. To be able to still believe that their family was alive. That their mother, their father, their sister, their nieces and their nephew, were all still alive and waiting for them in Parish. Aurea laid down on the bed and kept her eyes trained on the shadows outside the window.

***

            They were hunting them. The streets of New Orleans were crawling with the wicked, the damned, the disillusioned, the blasphemers. Each one would make a fine sacrifice. But they didn’t need fine. They needed perfect. The wretches walked around them on the street, their ancient instincts telling them to stay away, not to make eye contact with them.

            The needle pierces the skin.

            They turned their head, white hair swishing around their shoulders. Filth. Thin lips curled up in a snarl. The young man drops his head to the brick of the building behind him. Disgusting. Their footsteps crunched on the gritty pavement of Magazine street. They could smell the wickedness seep off of the boy like death on a body. He would not make a good sacrifice.

            The blade glinted a rainbow of colors in the neon lights.  No one saw it pierce the filth’s chest. He didn’t matter. No one would notice his absence. They stooped, wiping the tainted blood on the man’s coat before walking on.

            Their nose wrinkled in disgust: music flooded out of every open door he walked past. Vile. Filth. They should slaughter them all. Open up their mouth and devour them whole and screaming into the night. They would be no loss. The Beast would be thankful for their riddance.

            Now was not the time. Now was the time for the second.

            They stopped, catching a reflection beside theirs in a blasphemer’s window. There, in the midst of the comical shrunken heads, the dead chickens, rosary beads strung up like candy, was a girl. The same from before. The damaged one. She was looking at them. Looking as if she had the right to lay her lewd mage eyes upon their sacred flesh. They snarled at her, white teeth gnashing at the night. Still, she looked. They pulled the knife back out, it’s simple silver handle giving them comfort.

            They would teach her.

             Their hand shot out, grabbing a whore that dared to walk in front of him. They pulled her back to their chest, the whore’s skin shivering to get away from them. The reflection screamed, mouth opened and hands reaching out trying to break through the glass. The whore’s blood sprayed the window and then her body dropped to the sidewalk. They smiled at the mage with black hair. The damaged one. This is what happens when you watch.

            They held up two fingers before continuing their march.

***

            Nox sat up gasping. Frantically she wiped at her face and her chest, still feeling the sticky warmth of the woman’s blood on her body. She pulled her hands away, expecting them to be smeared with her blood, but they came away clean. She rested her head in her hands, taking deep breaths to calm her heart. Her head remained there for a few moments, trying to piece together what exactly had happened.

            She wanted her mother.

            When Nox turned to check on Aurea, she found her still asleep. Good. She needs the sleep. Hadar, however, was wide awake and watching her with sad brown eyes. She gave him a weak smile and smoothed her long fingers over his snout. The dream had felt real, everything about it. The only strange part of it was that she was following them by way of reflections: glass, puddles, windows. At first, they couldn’t see her, they went on about their business. So why suddenly did it change?

            Her stomach churned the longer she thought about it. As quiet as she could, she got out of bed and made her way to the bathroom. The fluorescent lights flickered on with a torturous humming nose. She shielded her eyes and shut the door before she turned the faucet on. Her skin was clammy, but she was hot–  sweat was dripping down her back. It felt like she had swallowed battery acid. She caught ice cold water in her cupped hand and brought it to her lips. It did little to alleviate the burning in her throat or the pounding in her head. She could take another shower, let the cold water wash over her to see if that would help.

            What was it Momma used to– Blood on their kitchen floor. It streaked over the tiles and settled into oddly patterned pools. Her father, face down in the red, his head turned towards their mother, his eyes open and unyielding to the light. A blade still clenched tightly in his hand. The smell of blood and burning flesh pierced her nose. Aurea and their mother fighting off four Templars in the living room. Metal on metal. Metal on bone. Zi’s cold hand reaching out towards her child’s body: Maric.

            Nox’s hands clenched the sides of the sink sharply, turning her knuckles an even paler white. They died. They died and I couldn’t save them. Chok–

            “Hey.”

            Nox jumped at the sound of her twin’s voice.

            “Where’d you go?” Aurea leaned against the door frame, her arms crossed loosely over her chest.

            “Where I always go.” Nox shut the water off. The hum of the fluorescents was starting to give her a headache.

            “Nox,” Aurea stepped forward, looking for the words to say, “it wasn’t your fault. None of it. What happened wasn’t our fault.”

            “If I wasn’t a mage– “

            “Then I would have been. Or Zi. Or someone else. Being a mage doesn’t mean that you automatically deserve bad things, or that you’ll do bad things, or that you’ll make bad things happen. That is Chantry bullshit. It’s perpetuated by weak men and women who are afraid of what they don’t have, can’t have. They’re afraid because they know you can step up and stop them from hurting people. And that scares them.”

            Aurea cupped Nox’s pale face gently between her hands. “You are not a mistake. You are not a bad person. You are not at fault. Do you hear me?”

            Blue eyes searched the face of her twin. “You believe that.”

            “Every word.”

            They left before dawn began to break across the sky. Aurea was beginning to resent the jeep that had become their home. The leaves were dull grays against the blue light of the early morning. By eight, they would be sparkling in shades of burgundy, yellow, orange, and red. Before they departed the hotel, Aurea had filled the small cooler in the backseat with ice, courtesy of the ice machine, and filled two-gallon jugs with water. Just outside of the city she stopped at a gas station and picked up a loaf of bread and bologna out of the cooler. She paused a moment: Nox is a vegetarian. With a sigh, she walked her way back and put the bologna up. She picked up the peanut butter with distaste and eyed a jar of suspicious jelly.

            Five dollars for a jar of shady looking jelly.

            Muttering to herself, she picked up the jar and made her way back to the counter. Her gaze shifted towards an older man that walked in, his hands hidden in the pockets of his jackets: his left hand grabbing ahold of something. Could be his wallet or phone. Still, she watched. Could be a Templar. Could be. Could be anything really. She kept an eye on him in the mirrors strewn about the store. The man didn’t watch her, not like a Templar would. She paid quickly, snatching the bag from the hands of the girl behind the counter.

            The man followed.

            The last thing Aurea wanted was to cause a scene in daytime next to a busy highway. When she reached the driver’s side door she turned around, her hand gripping a blade she had in the back of her jeans.

            “Easy darlin’! You dropped this in the store.” The man held out her silver lighter in a shaky hand. “Don’t want no trouble. I got enough of that.”

            Her face softened. The man was a lyrium addict. Or a recovering addict. From his shaking hands, sunken cheeks, yellow eyes, and constricted pupils, he was in withdraws. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” She withdrew her hand from her blade and took the lighter from his fingers. “Thank you.”

            The man nodded and started to walk away from her. She had two seconds of doubt before she called out to him. When he turned around, Aurea handed him a ten dollar bill from her back pocket. “Here.”

            He seemed skeptical to take it from her, his eyes watching hers for a few moments before he skittishly took it from her. “Thank you.”

            She nodded. She wouldn’t tell him to get something to eat. He could do with it what he wanted. If he wanted a fix, he could get a fix. She watched him leave, pocketing the cash she handed him. It wasn’t much, but it was all she could reasonably spare.

~

            Eight hours later the soft sounds of the radio were broken.

            “Aurea, I’m tired.” Nox’s voice was a small whine. Her entire body felt like one giant bruise, muscles stiff and twitchy. “Aurea, where’s mommy? I don’t feel well.”

            The blonde twin turned her head slightly to look at her sister. The raven-haired girl was tucked into herself tightly, her brow dotted with small beads of sweat. Her hands were clenched tightly by her face, nails digging into her soft palms.

            “Okay, Nox. Mom’s at the hotel. We’ll be there soon.”

            They couldn’t afford a hotel, but Aurea could not in good conscious keep driving with Nox the way that she was. She pulled the jeep off at the nearest exit. The sun was low in the sky, two hours from setting behind the large pines that littered the horizon. At the bottom of the exit Aurea looked in both directions. There were no signs telling her if there were towns near. She could turn on her phone, use GPS, but the Templars were no doubt tracing it. Her eyes closed for a moment, trying to make her intuition louder than the whimpers of her sister and the whines of the worried dog in the backseat.

            Left. She turned the jeep and hoped she was right. The road was narrow and faded to a soft gray, the lines in the middle patchy and dull.

            Silent 24 ml —>

            Silent, Alabama, huh?

            She turned the car towards the right, praying Silent had a hotel. The road was gravel and her tires churned up a swell of dust that made the air pregnant with tan particles. Cotton grew high on either side of the road. It had been a long time since Aurea had seen cotton before it could be harvested. A large run-down billboard loomed over them in the distance.

            The Maker is Coming.

            “Hold on, Nox.”

Chapter Text

           


 

           Silent, Alabama lived up to it’s name. The streets were empty of people, a few cars strewn about the faded roads. A couple were parked in front of a laundromat with a neon pink sign that lit up half of the dusky street. The rest appeared to be gathered at what was the only restaurant in town. Ahead, just on the other side of the small metropolis, was a dingy green motel sign with a flashing red vacancy sign. The street light beside the Jeep flickered menacingly before shutting off completely.

           “We’re almost there, Nox.”

           The motel manager barely looked up from his tv long enough to get a good look at Aurea’s tired face. All that mattered was that she paid with cash. It was a chore to try to get Nox out of the car. In the end, Aurea carried her like a bride into the hotel room. Hadar followed behind, Aurea’s bag clenched between his powerful jaws. She sat Nox on the bed and went into the bathroom to run bathwater. She made sure the water was lukewarm before she walked back out into the yellow main room.

           “Come on, Nox. You’ll feel better after a bath.” She looped Nox’s arm around her shoulders and stood her up slowly.

           “Aurea, where’s momma? Where’s daddy? Aurea I want to go home. Why can’t I go home?”

           “We’re heading home, Nox. We just stopped for the night.”

           Nox’s head lolled back, her neck bared to the ceiling. “Aurea, there’s so much blood. Why is there so much blood?”

           “There’s no blood, Nox.”

           Nox’s frail body went limp in her twin’s arms. Her legs shook and ached like a muscle cramp. A throbbing began to take up residence behind her eyes, at the back of her skull, against her forehead. There was so much blood.

           Aurea sat Nox down on the toilet and began to undress her carefully. She watched her sister’s pale face in the bright florescent lights of the bathroom. She was crying: fat tears that rolled down her cheeks swiftly to smack on the hands she held weakly in her lap. Nox’s shirt was tossed out into the main room where it landed in front of the bed. The black bra she wore followed shortly after. It took some maneuvering to get her pants and underwear off.

           Hadar sat outside the bathroom door, his eyes drooped with concern.

           “Hadar, go shut the car door, okay?” Aurea watched as he huffed, but otherwise did as he was told.

           She slid Nox heavily down into the bathwater, reaching up to shut it off when she was seated. Aurea washed her gently, massaging cramped muscles as she went. Her gaze flittered over scars that marred Nox’s pale flesh. Silvery, flitting sections of small flesh that weaved their way in and out of freckles.

            “Where’s Zizi, Aurea?”

            “She’s with mom and dad, Nox. Remember? We’re meeting them in Parish. Dad wanted to take us on vacation. You’re alright. Let’s get you bathed and then in bed, yeah? You’ll feel better after you sleep. We both just need sleep.”

            It wasn’t exactly a lie: they both did need sleep very much. Even though sleep was all Nox did on the trip down. Not that it was a restful sleep. Aurea eased Nox’s hair out of a braid.

            “Tilt your head back for me. That’s it.” She reached up and grabbed a small plastic cup from the sink.

            “Stone cold broke in the middle of the winter. Oh, like a poor man’s son,” she sang quietly, but it still echoed in the acoustics of the small pale green bathroom.

            The cup rose and fell, rose and fell, dumping water gently over Nox’s thick black hair. “Hadar? Could you bring me my bag?”

            When she turned around, Hadar already had it between his teeth. She patted his soft head before digging out small bottles of shampoo and conditioner. She picked the tune of the song back up softly and gently cradled Nox’s head as she poured a small amount of shampoo on her scalp. When it was sufficiently soaked, Aurea soaped up her long fingers before she set them to Nox’s scalp. She felt the warmth of Hardar’s flank press against her thigh and was grateful for the small show of support. Her nails ran over Nox’s scalp, massaging gently and lathering up her hair. The nape of her twin’s neck rested heavily on her scarred forearm. 

            She looks so vulnerable. Aurea could feel her mouth pulling into a prominent frown.

            “Momma?” Nox turned her head towards her sister, her eyes closed to the harsh light.

            Aurea remained silent.

            That night, Aurea stayed awake watching the painting on the wall turn a light red with the flashing of the vacancy sign. The hum from the lights was enough to drive anyone mad if they listened long enough. Her sister laid beside her on the bed, curled tightly on her side with her back to Aurea. Hadar was stretched out at the bottom of the bed, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. She let her head fall slowly back against the wall and finally closed her eyes.

 

~

            She was back in their Georgia home. The deep brown wood of their kitchen floor rose up beneath her bare feet. A woman stood in front of the white counters, her back to Aurea. Her blonde hair was tied up in an intricate braid around her head. She was small, her frame short and lithe. Her hands were chopping something: the sound was almost soothing. The air even smelled like it used to.

            “There you are, darling.”

            Her throat tightened at the sound of her mother’s voice.

            “Momma?”

            Esmé turned around and smiled warmly at one of her youngest daughters. “Hello, doudou.”

            Her breath caught in her throat. Without hesitation, Aurea ran to her mother and wrapped her arms around her tightly, her hands fisting in the upper back of her shirt. Esmé’s hands soothed over Aurea’s blonde hair. She smelled like green herbs, lotus and water lilies. She smelled like home.

            “Shhh, shhh. Easy, my darling. It’s alright now. Momma’s here.” She pressed her lips to her daughter’s temple. “You’ve been so brave, my doudou. So strong and so brave. Hasn’t she Mathias?”

            Her father’s loud voice boomed from behind her. “Of course she has. She is ours after all.”

            Aurea let go of her mother at the sound and turned to look at her father. His black bearded was thick and well kept, but the hair on top of his head was messy and full of cowlicks. He was as tall as she remembered, but he was bigger across. His shoulders were broader, stronger than she remembered.

“Daddy?”

His face broke into a large smile and he held his arms open for her. She ran to him, leaping against him when she finally reached him. His arms wrapped around her upper back tightly, keeping her to his chest as her feet lifted from the ground.

            Esmé walked to join them, her delicately deadly hands rubbing Aurea’s back. Then she smoothed one of them over Aurea’s hair again.

            Aurea cried into her father’s neck, her arms clinging tighter and tighter around him. He smelled the same: cloves, tobacco, black dirt, sweat, apples.

            “My brave pup. We’ve missed you.”

            She nodded against him, her throat tight. I’ve missed you too.

            Her mother’s voice was soft behind her. “You must listen to us, doudou. There’s a storm coming. Do you hear me? They’re strong this storm. They want blood. You must go to Parish, go home, Aurea. It will protect you. The power protects its own.”

            “Remember what we’ve taught you, pup. There’s power in the blood.  The beast is ready.”

            Aurea pulled back to look at her father. “What are you,” she stopped. A scream lodged in her throat.

            Mathias was bleeding, his eyes white, his veins turning black under his skin. Aurea pushed away from him, turning to look at her mother. Esmé was on the floor, blood pooling around her, creeping towards Aurea’s bare feet. Her mother’s green eyes were open and unseeing. The white cabinets were splattered with blood. It dripped from the counters, from the knobs, from the blades clenched in Esmé’s hands just like the night she died.

            The blood reached her feet, surrounding them like molasses. She backed up, watching the red liquid follow.

            “You’ve got blood on your name, Aurea.”

            Her gaze snapped up from the bloody lake on the floor. It was a person. Or used to be a person. Now it was grotesque. Its eyes were white, spider-webbed with grey veins. Its hair was long and a pale silver. She watched as blood dripped, slow motion, from long crooked fingers.

            Fear.

            She couldn’t breath the air was so thick with it. Aurea didn’t know what it was, but she knew, somewhere in her being, that it was ancient and that it should be feared.

            “The Beast will have you.”

            ~

           She opened her eyes with a start. Her clothes clung to her body from sweat. She quickly wiped tears from her face before turning to look at her sister. Nox still slept, her hands curled by her cheek. Aurea turned her face back towards the end of the bed and rubbed her eyes with the tips of her fingers. A large wet tongue slid across her chin.

           “Hello, Hadar.” She ran her hands over his snout before kissing his nose. “Sit with her?”

           Outside was chilly for the south, but it felt good against her bare flesh. There was a gas station one block down on a corner. She needed cigarettes. Badly. She looked at the door to their hotel room for a few moments, debating on if she should risk it and if she could live without her nicotine, before she turned on her heel and started walking. Hadar could protect Nox for the few minutes it would take her to leave. And if anything did happen to go down while she was gone, she was sure she could hear Hadar howl from four miles away.

           The door to the gas station opened for her with a quiet ding.

           “There’s a storm comin’.”

           The blonde stopped in her tracks. “What did you say?”

           The scrawny boy behind the counter looked confused. “There’s a storm comin’ in? It’s about ten minutes out.” For clarity he pointed to a radar on a small tv on a shelf.

           “Oh. Right.” She looked at her choices of cigarettes and sighed. They were supposed to be saving money. “Can I get two packs of Hothouse cloves?” While pulling her wallet out of her back pocket, Aurea spied a selection of prepaid phones hanging above the cigars. “How much is the cheapest prepaid you have?”

           The kid sat the cigarettes down on the dingy pink counter and looked over his shoulder at them. “Ten bucks. Comes with a sixty minute card.”

           “I’ll take that one then.”

           Back outside, she could tell the storm was moving in: the wind had started to pick up, the air still had the sharp chill to it, and it was quiet. It took her a few moments to get the phone set up. She dialed without even having to think about it.

           “This had better be good.”

           “Lark?”

           There was silence on the end of the line for a few moments. “Aurea?”

           “Hey.”

           “Where the flying fuck have you been!”

           “You know I can’t tell you that. We’re safe. We’re...safe. That’s all that matters.”

           “How are you calling? Your number came up blocked.”

           “I blocked it. It’s a burner phone. I can’t talk long, I just...I wanted to hear your voice.”

            There was a sigh, a long one filled with sadness. “Aurea, just...tell me where you are.”

            “I can’t, Lark. Did you get my letter? I have Hadar. How is everyone? Garrett, Carver, Aunt Leandra? How are they?”

            “They’re worried about you two, Aurea. This is the first time we’ve heard from you in months.”

            “It’s not like I can give you a map to my location, Lark. I...Shit, I have to go.”

            “Aurea, don’t. Wait, please. If Mom could just hear—”

            “I can’t. I love you. Nox loves you. I’ll… I’ll be in touch when I can.”

            She hung up quickly, a sob stuck in her throat. It hurt more than she thought it would. There was one more number she wanted to call. She didn’t even know if it was still in service, but she dialed all the same.

            It rang four times before it was answered.

            “Time ‘s’t?”

            She took a breath in, ready to say his name and then stopped.

            “Hello? Who is this?”

            “Alistair. It’s—”

            “Aurea. Oh Maker, Aurea.” He said her name in a breathless way that made her heart ache.

            She could feel her throat tightening again. “H-hey.”

            “Where are you? Are you hurt? Are you okay? They said you were dead. What happened? Where’s Nox? Maker, your cousins.”

            “Alistair, slow down. It’s okay. We’re fine. Everyone is fine. I just talked to Lark.”

            The clouds above her head were churning a pale orange above the street lights. A fat drop of rain landed on her nose.

            There was sounds of blankets shuffling on the other end of the line. Silence took place between them for several moments. Aurea starting and stopping whenever she tried to say something to him. He came to visit her once in Haven Correctional.

 

~

            Aurea sat at the white table, in a white chair, starting at a white wall. Everything was so clean and polished. It made her want to drive her head into the nearest wall. They told her she had a visitor. She suspected it was her aunt.

            “Aurea?” Alistair’s voice cut through the monotony.

           Her head snapped up. A few strands of blonde hair swung in front of her face.

           “Alistair?” She stood up when he got closer. He was taller than she remembered, bigger too.

           He grabbed her in a hug, ignoring the protesting cough from the guard behind them. She hugged him back, slowly at first and then she leaned into him. Her face buried in his neck and she stayed there. He smelled so much better than the air around her. It always smelled like pledge, bleach and pine sol. Alistair. . . Alistair smelled like oranges, leather, shaving cream, and some kind of fabric softener.

           “I’ve been worried about you. Are they treating you okay?”

           Aurea choked back a laugh.

           “Right. Sorry. We’re trying to get you out of here. I’ve talked to Dad.”

           “Just. Shut up for a minute and stand here like this.”

           Alistair did as she asked, keeping his arms wrapped tight around her. He rested his chin on top of her head, eventually turning to rest his cheek there.

           He felt like home.

~

           “I dreamed about them,” she finally said after ten minutes of silence.

           “You dreamed about who?” He sounded more awake then.

           Aurea began the walk back to their hotel room. “Mom and Dad. Only…”

           “Only what, Aurea?” He was answered by the sound of wind. “You can tell me, Aurea. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

           “I don’t think it was a dream. I mean… I know it was a dream, obviously, but there was something different about it. Alistair I felt them, I smelled them.” She ran her hand through her hair. Thunder clapped loud overhead.

           “Aurea…”

           “Don’t give me that. Don’t say my name like that, not you. It was real, Alistair. They told me a storm was coming, and wouldn’t you know it, I woke up and there’s a storm blowing in. But there was something else. Something that wasn’t right. There was a person or demon. I’m not sure. It had white eyes and white hair. It told me that I had blood on my name. That ‘the beast’ would have me.”

           “Aurea where are you?”

           She wanted to tell him. It was on the tip of her tongue. Silent, Alabama. Come get me. Please come and take me home.

           “I can’t tell you that. But I’m safe. She’s safe.” Lightning flashed across the sky.

           “You’re dreaming about demons, Aurea. That isn’t safe. Just… tell me where you are. They haven’t tapped my phone; I can come to-”

           The line went dead.

           Aurea stood in the street, staring at the useless burner phone in her hand. She started walking again, quicker than before, trying to make it back to the hotel before the rain started. She could hear it coming up behind her, sweeping over the sleepy town. The first few drops that hit her back were like ice. By the time she reached their hotel room, she was drenched clean to the bone. She unlocked the door with shaky hands and pushed her way inside, latching it securely again once she was in. Hadar was still on the bed, just like she left him. Nox had turned in her sleep and slung an arm over him.

           A soft light washed over the room when Aurea turned on one of the nightlights. As quietly as she could, she began pulling clothes off, hanging them on the chair to dry before daylight. Just as she was about to turn the light off, something on the floor caught her eye. She paused and straightened herself up. On the floor, on her side of the bed, were two bloody footprints that led over towards the door.

Chapter Text


The day seemed to drag on. Aurea stuck to the back roads on the way to Parish. The phone calls she made the night before made her especially paranoid. She knew there was no way they could find them. Templars would no doubt be looking for them on highways. Even though they had no idea what type of car they were driving. The back roads felt safer, more secure. Less people meant less Templars. It would take them longer to get to Parish, but in the end, it would be worth it.

She hoped.

The longer they drove, the further and further they pushed into darker territory of backwoods. The roads turned from asphalt to gravel that was as dry as bone, sending up a cloud so thick someone could choke on it. They passed through several small towns. Each one had more churches than it did schools. Some of the towns so run down and decrepit, they looked like ghost towns. They drove by a river where a preacher was baptizing members of his flock. The water they were in was a shade of muddy green. Several dozen people stood around the two in the water, their hands outstretched and raised high above their heads.

Aurea envied them. She envied those that could cling blindly to something that no one knew even existed. People that had not felt loss so great that they lost all faith, hope, religion, love for a creator. Love for a creator that abandoned his people, that could inflict such pain and despair. Hatred was all she felt for the Maker and his religion. For the Chantry. Especially for the Chantry. Every member of that cult could burn for all she cared. She would start the fire if she had to.

The Chantry was to blame for this. They called them monsters. They encouraged tranquility for those that were too strong to be controlled, too strong to be kept quiet and subdued. Those that caused too much trouble. The Chantry bred hate. Of course, it was a source of hope for some, of love, but for others, it was a reason to hate what they did not, could not, understand. Mages were put on a list when their powers were developed. They were bound to the circles, tracked with their own blood so if they tried to escape, tried to go home, they could be dragged back where they were made tranquil. They were kept in prison, all because they were considered as monsters, weapons, and not people.

She stretched her fingers out from the steering wheel. It had escaped her attention that her knuckles had turned white from how hard she was gripping the wheel. Her gaze traveled to Nox in the passenger seat. She was still asleep, her brow knitted and her lips pulled into a harsh frown. She had put on a little weight. When Aurea got to her, she was nothing more than bones covered with skin. Her hair was still dull, but it was no longer as bad as it was. She turned her gaze back to the road and lost herself.

~

The door opened and closed with a loud and determined smack that echoed under the cement awning connected to the hospital. Aurea’s shoulders pulled back, her spine straightened into a stiff rod, one hand held her briefcase loosely at her right side, while her left relaxed against her skirt. The Uber pulled away slowly, the tires grinding against the black pavement. Two Templars were posted by the door, each one carefully eyeing the redhead in front of them. She pretended she didn’t feel their gaze on her.

Not a moment was spared before she stalked into the lobby, bypassing the Templars like she owned the place. The floor of the lobby was a giant Templar insignia: the point of the sword started at the doors and the pommel ended in front of the information desk. Deep red furniture was situated in a way that each person was always visible to the various Templars stationed around the room. Large Roman columns sat two by two on each side of the white marble of the information desk. Their floor to ceiling frames blocked Aurea’s view to both sets of stairs.

“Charlotte Lulane, I am here to check up on my client,” Aurea started before she even reached the desk fully. She checked the watch on her wrist with a sigh.

“And your patient is…” The man behind the counter raised perfectly trimmed eyebrows at her.

“Is it honestly my job to tell you that? You should have had her file up the moment I waltzed into this place. Honestly. With the lax security and nonchalance of this… facility, I’m surprised you have not had more breakouts. Get me Knight-Commander Meredith. Now.”

Aurea watched with disgust in the form of a raised eyebrow as the man opened and closed this mouth like a salmon pulled from the river.

“Oh, for Maker’s sake. Nox Amell. She is to be made tranquil and I need to discuss this with her one last time before it is done.” A polished nail picked a stray piece of lint from her suit and let it fall to the floor. “Even mages have rights, unfortunately. And we must abide by them until someone wises up and takes them from them.”

She looked up into the man’s face. Dark circles under blue eyes, no sleep. Bifocals perched on the edge of his nose. Make sure you hold the badge away from his face. Thick arms, not from working out. No physical strength. Clearly a pencil pusher behind a desk. Has no direct connection to anyone of significance.

“Now, I need you to get me to my client within the next five minutes, or I will miss my two o’clock with Frederico at Visage. He costs five hundred a minute. And if I am late, he still charges. So, let’s get those computers moving.”

Her smile held a bite to it: a rattlesnake hidden in dragonthorn. Several Templars guarding the elevators turned their heads to watch the force of nature that just walked into their domain. Aurea ignored them all, treating them like inanimate objects.

“Y-yes, Ma’am. She is on floor six room seven.”

“I’ll take the stairs, thank you.” She spun on her heal quickly and with determination. She started to round the last column when the voice behind her stopped its stuttering and called out to her.

“Ma’am!” his voiced called loudly, alerting more Templars from their places.

“What?” It was a growl, with a sharp snap on the t. A dragon circling a cow.

Pencil pusher’s eyes widened. He stammered for a few moments before he cleared his throat. “We no longer allow the stairs to be used. You must take the elevator.”

Aurea started off towards the nearest elevator and was stopped once again.

“You need a security card.”

Her jaw cinched together and she turned slowly on her heels. “Then get me one.” Each word was punctuated by a forceful step.

“I-I am not legally allowed to- “

Aurea licked her lips slowly. This was not what she needed. This was a kink in her plan. If she could not use the stairs her entire plan was ruined. I’m going to have to wing it.

“Legally, I can sue you six ways from Sunday.” A complete and total lie.

“Let us not be so hasty.”

She recognized the voice before she saw the face. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, her body ran cold, her face felt hot, and her hand clenched on the handle of her briefcase. Ryan Castland.

~

“I said kill him.” Black boots paced in front of Aurea’s slightly opened eyes.

“Ser, he’s only a child. He’s not seen any of us to know our faces- “

“Kill him. Put a bolt through his heart. Quick. He’s her nephew. She would make it quick. Mage or not. This has to be believable. Everyone dies.”

Aurea could feel the blood slowly slipping out of her chest. She needed to move. She needed to get up and stop this. He was her nephew. He was only six. Nox was just feet from her, body just as broken and bruised as Aurea was.

“But Ser- “

“Perhaps she takes out one more Templar. Hm? How about that? Maybe this one,” a steeled-toe boot connected with Aurea’s sternum, “slits your throat while you’re distracted? Or maybe, maybe the mage burns you alive.”

It took everything Aurea had not to gasp when the boot connected. Her vision was slipping, her ears filling with cotton and her slowing heartbeat.

“Kill him.”

~

“Mr. Castland, how nice to see you again.” Aurea swallowed the bile in her throat and smiled with all her teeth.

Castland tilted his head to the side slightly and narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Have we met before, Mrs. . .”

Aurea feigned hurt with her left hand placed over her heart. “Why Mr. Castland. I’m hurt you don’t remember me. It’s Miss Lulane.” She smiled and extended her hand for him to kiss. She tried not to let her skin ripple with disgust. “And of course you’ve not met me before. I was simply hoping that you would pretend like you know me. And we could skip all the awkward introductions. I am quite a fan of yours.”

His smiled oozed with radiance. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Miss Lulane.” His hand still held fast to hers. “Let us get you to your client. Though, I’m not sure what you expect to get out of her.”

“Whatever I can.”

She allowed herself to be lead over to her elevators, maintaining polite conversation.

“You’ve made it just in time, haven’t you? She is to be made Tranquil tomorrow morning.” He linked his arm through hers as they walked.

Control yourself. “You give me too much credit for doing my job, Mr. Castland.”

“Ryan, please.”

Id scanned. Level five clearance. Password 78651. 78651. 78651. 78651. “Ryan it is then. Tell me, how can you stand to work in a place surrounded by these monsters? I get to go home at the end of my day. And yet here you remain.”

The inside of the elevator was dark wood panels, and the Templar insignia was on the floor yet again. Two security cameras: back left corner, front right corner. A soft ding accompanied the elevator doors as they began to close. Breathe.

“Someone has to do it. It would be easier if they were all Tranquil though. More use for them then. Did you know we are currently working on isolating the gene that holds magic? Then we can weed it out much easier. Fetuses that are found to hold the gene may be aborted.” He kept his eyes on Aurea’s face as he spoke with hope and astonishment.

Aurea turned to him and smiled before looking at the elevator doors once again. “That sounds truly fascinating. And very useful. Think of how many less monstrosities we would have.”

One.

Two.

Three.

“Yes, quite. Especially for nobility that have magic in their bloodlines. Though, none of them would admit it.” His chuckle was deep.

Four.

“Of course they would never admit it! It would only prove something is very wrong with them.”

Five.

Six.

Aurea calmly exited the elevator as the doors slid open. “Thank you for your help, Ryan. If you have not taken…certain vows, please give me a call sometime? I would love to get to know you so much better.” She turned and smiled, flashing white, sharp teeth.

Ryan’s smile grew to match hers, only much more dangerous. “Of course. My vows are not quite as restrictive as some. As I hope you will find out. It was a pleasure.”

Mercifully the doors closed on their interaction. Aurea took a breath and turned to the right. Nox’s room would be at the end of the hall. She ignored the Templars in the hall and continued her walk.

“I will need one of you to unlock door seven.” Not one of them made a move. “Now. Or should I go and fetch Mr. Castland again? I would hate to drag him out of his important day.”

Clanging of metal on marble signaled at least one was following her. She walked languidly, rolling her neck and her hips. Better they were to look at my ass than at my face. The hallway was eerily quiet. She would have expected there to be screams or at least crying. Maybe moaning. The doors were thick metal, probably a mix of dragon bone and everite. It would be impossible to break them down if it was needed. There were no windows on the doors, no weak spot that could be seen. Which means they would have to be opened and closed to get medicine or food.

Aurea waited in front of her sister’s door patiently, expertly hiding her anxiousness and nerves. “Has she been properly drugged?”

“No, Ma’am. We were not made aware of your visit.”

“That was not my fault. I had sent word ahead of me. How will I know she will not attack me?” Aurea watched him unlock several of the runed locks on the door.

There was a soft snort next to her. “This one stopped putting up a fight months ago. She’s a bit touched. She’s been in solitary since she’s been here. We try not to encourage socialization with ones that are violent.”

“Then how does she receive her food? Someone must hand it to her.” Open the damn door, man.

His metal booted foot kicked the bottom part of the door, and a small portion of metal slid into the door before sliding back into place.

“Clever. I’ll speak to her alone, thank you.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Knock four times when you’re done.” With that, he turned on his heel and marched back down the hallway.

Her hand shook as she reached for the knob of the door. With a deep breath in, she twisted the knob and opened the door. She expected it to creak or groan while it swung open, but it made no sound. The room was black as pitch and completely silent. The sound of her heartbeat thundered in her ears. The door slipped from her fingers and she let it close.

“Nox?” her voice was quiet, a soft quiver slicing its way into her words. There was no response but a quiet noise from the corner

A light kicked on above Aurea’s head. The black room was filled with a near blinding light. The walls were black and probably soundproof; the floor was black cement.

Aurea turned her head and placed her fingers over her mouth. “Oh, Nox.”

The shadow of her sister flinched in the far corner of the small room, her bruises and skeletal body curled into itself protectively. Her skin was paler than it had ever been. Her hair was matted into black clumps. There was a smell in the room: a kind of rancid, bloody, filth that stung your nose and filled your mouth.

“Oh, Nox.” Aurea walked as quietly as she could towards her sister. No matter how quiet, with each step Nox flinched and curled tighter. Gently, Aurea knelt down and put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Pup? Nox, look at me.” Her hands carefully turned Nox’s face towards her own. There were deep circles, or perhaps bruises, under her eyes. “Nox, I need you to look at me. It’s Aurea, Nox.”

A blue-green gaze slowly began its rise. The normally white sclera were a light pink. It was hard to distinguish an emotion in her eyes. They were dull, almost lifeless.

“Hi.” It was a dumb thing to say. “You and I are going to get out of here, okay? But I’m going to need your help. I need you to stand up. Can you do that? Just stand up?”

Chapter Text


Parish was a small town an hour outside of New Orleans. It had a small mom and pop grocery store with a crawdad as a mascot. There were three churches, two of which were decrepit and decaying. The other lost more than half of its congregation. Only three people continued to be in attendance, the rest were fallen. There was a small post office, and a diner called Gertrude’s.

Aurea wrinkled her nose at the large rusty metal crawdad hanging from the small iron bridge leading into town. It appeared to be the only way in and out of town on the north side. The Jeep rumbled as it went over the iron slats, shaking the bridge.

“Well that’s sturdy, isn’t it?” Aurea drummed her fingers against the steering wheel.

“We could have stayed where we were.”

Aurea let the argument drop before it started. We are tired, we are hungry, we smell, and she’s a little angry with me.

“We could stop and get lunch at the diner coming up? The house might not have food.”

“Aurea, we smell like dog and sweat.”

Aurea nodded and sat in silence for a few moments. The house might not even have running water. But we at least have those gallon jugs of water in the back. Sponge baths anyone?

“Okay. I can drop you off at the house and come back in later for groceries.”

Nox said nothing and continued to look out of the window. The town was small, that was certain. Small meant they would be easily noticed. But it could also mean that no one here knew what was happening outside their tiny radius. It could go either way for them. Nox prayed it was the later and that they wouldn’t be noticed here. If they caught them now, they would both be killed. There would be no tranquility option for her. Not that she would take it if it were an option. I would rather die than be made tranquil. No emotions, no me. Death is preferable.

They passed through town slowly, both taking their time to observe this first glimpse into their surroundings. Their new home. There was no one on the main street, a few cars were parked in front of Gertrude’s. The diner seemed to be the busiest place in the town at that moment. There was a small sheriff’s station, that also happened to be city hall, two blocks from the diner. Parked outside was a newer sports car, definitely the baby of whoever it belonged too.

The house lay just ten minutes outside of Parish. The small overgrown driveway was hard to see from the road. Add one more thing to our advantage, Aurea thought. There were large trees on either side, covered with some kind of strong looking ivy. Every few feet, some of the old gravel of the drive poked through the grass and weeds. Hadar started to perk up the closer to the house they got, pacing in the backseat and chuffing. It was about a two-minute drive down the twisty, curvy road before the house came into view.

It was larger than the sisters remembered. Two stories, three in the middle, white stone with dozens of windows. There were large columns that ran from the base of the porch up to the third floor. The second story had a wrap around porch that mirrored the bottom, with a wrought iron railing that was rusting in some spots. The front door had two long and narrow panels of stained glass on the side, and three long and wide ones at the top. The panes of glass were blue and green, the Amell crest in the top middle pane.

Aurea stopped the car in the middle of the turn at the crest of the driveway. As soon as the sisters opened their door, Hadar was out of the car and began running all over the driveway and the yard. Aurea clasped her hands over her head and pulled her body taught into a stretch. The air smelled thick with swamp, dirt, and trees. It was a nice change from the stale car air. She watched Nox walking slowly up the porch, her legs shaking with the effort. Hadar ran up to walk beside her, his shoulders pressing against her calf.

“Stop. I’ll go fist. We don’t know what’s inside…”

“There’s magic here,” Nox said flatly. “A protection sigil. It’s one of Dad’s.” She traced her long fingers over the door. “It feels like him… I almost forgot what he felt like.”

Aurea clenched her jaw. There was a pain in her throat and chest. Jealousy?

Nox let herself smile for the first time in years. It was like there was a lingering feeling of him, almost as if he was just there.

The gold-haired sister put her hand on the door, but she felt nothing. “Can you break it? Or get us in?”

Black hair shifted when her head shook. “I don’t know if I can break it. It’s strong.”

There’s power in the blood.

“Blood magic. Do you think Dad…”

“Maybe? He was always studying. He could have. Sigils are more powerful when written in blood.” Her fingers traced over the seam of the door. There was no sure way to know if the door would open to a trap. Protection spells could be tricky. “Here, see? There carved into the wood.”

There, on the right side of the door frame, and mirrored on the left, was a series of interconnecting lines and circles.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Now we just need to…”

Aurea pulled a pocket knife out of her pocket and drew it across her finger. Blood welled up almost immediately: a tiny flood coming to the surface. She pressed it to the mark on the door frame for a few seconds before she turned and did the same to the other side. “Like that?”

“Aurea!” Nox picked up her sister’s hand and looked at her sister’s finger. “Yes, like that, but that’s– You’re going to need stitches.”

“My finger will be fine. How do we know if it worked?” Aurea stuck her finger in her mouth and sucked at it.

“We open the door.”

Oh sure. That sounds like a solid plan.

Before waiting for her sister’s approval, Nox opened the door with a twist of her wrist on the handle. There was a feeling, a cracking in the air, and then nothing. “It worked.”

Nox entered the house before her sister. The heavy curtains blocked out most of the light from the floor to ceiling windows. The doorway opened up into a large hallway that stretched the length of the house from the front to the back. To the right was a living room, white sheets covering all the furniture. There was a fireplace on the front wall and a large silver mirror hanging over it. To the left and a few feet away from the door, was an entrance to a library. On the right side of the hallway were a set of stairs that led up to the second floor. There was a door on the left-hand side that led to a small bathroom. A kitchen settled at the back of the house and a dining room. There was a short hallway to the right that led to a greenhouse and one that led to a pool. Behind the kitchen was a small spell working room.

Aurea went upstairs and left Nox to the spell room. There were five bedrooms upstairs, each with their own bathroom. A few linen closets in the hall. Two sets of doors led out to the balcony. She entered into the first room, letting the door swing open to reveal sapphire walls decorated with gold trim. The furniture was covered with white sheets. Across from the bed was a white marble fireplace. There was a vase on the edge of the mantel that had dead flowers in it. They looked to be old roses.

The silence was interrupted by the loud rumbling of her stomach. She could investigate rooms later. We need groceries. She made her way back down the stairs, their creaking punctuating the thick silence.

“Nox?”

Hadar barked beside her and walked towards the back of the house. Aurea followed behind him, looking inside rooms as she passed. They found Nox still in the spell room, pouring herself over books.

“I’m heading out to get groceries. Can you see if you can find the water, gas, and power and turn them on? If you can’t find them, I can when I get back. The power is the main concern though. We have to find a way to keep the food cold or frozen.”

“Here.” Nox handed Aurea a wad of cash. “Found it in one of the books. There’s probably more strewn about the house. You know how Dad was.”

Aurea nodded and pocketed the money. There looked to be about five hundred. It would be enough to get them started. In the meantime, she would need to find a job. She motioned for Hadar to stay and left the house.

~

The grocery store was bigger than she expected. A few of the ones they stopped at on the way down, the ones that were mom and pop places, were small. There was one cashier, a man at the meat counter, someone working produce and… that was it. The cashier looked up at her from his phone, studied her for five minutes, and then went back to it. She pulled a cart from the queue and began her mission. She had no idea what all they needed at the house.

Do we even have dishes?

She grabbed paper plates and plastic silverware until she knew for sure. She went up and down each aisle twice. Picking things up and depositing them in the cart. She grabbed anything that struck her fancy. She didn’t know how to cook, but Nox did. Since Nox was a child, she could cook anything you threw at her. Nox was a master of cooking things when it appeared there was nothing to cook, nothing that went together.

For a moment, Aurea felt normal. For a moment, she felt like nothing in the world had ever happened to them. Everyone outside of herself was gone. She was just a woman in a grocery store buying cherry wine. And vodka. Lots of vodka. She was lost to everyone and herself: it was a pleasant feeling. She didn’t belong to anyone, she had no responsibilities. She forgot.

By the time she left the store, she had purchased three cartloads of groceries. She was also fairly certain that the clerk hated her for it. She apologized, explaining they just moved in and needed several things. The young man nodded with raised eyebrows, disinterested. She pushed the carts out, dragging one of them behind her, and began to load bags into the car.

“Need help with those?”

“No thank you, I have them.”

“Aurea?”

She spun around quickly, hand reaching for the knife she had in her pocket. Cullen Rutherford. The ex-Templar stood in front of her in a sheriff’s uniform. His face was that of shock. Her muscles locked, blood ran cold. She grabbed him by the throat, spun them both around so he was pinned against the door of the jeep. He held his hands up and met the fire in her eyes.

“Easy, Aurea. Easy.”

“I’ll kill you, Rutherford. Before you take her, I will kill you.”

Cullen raised his eyebrows in question. “Who? Aurea, take who?”

She tightened her grip on his throat and jostled his head into the glass. “Don’t play stupid, Rutherford.”

“Nox? Nox is alive?”

Gold eyes watched his face for a few seconds. He doesn’t know. How could he not know? “You’re a Templar, Rutherford. You know she is.”

He looked… relieved. “Thank the Maker.”

“What?”

“Aurea, I knew Nox. Did you really believe that I would think she did what they said she did? For Maker’s sake, she isn’t a monster.”

“It wasn’t so long ago that you thought she was.”

“Aurea, that was different and you know it.”

Somewhere in her mind, she did know it. Cullen Stanton Rutherford had his reasons for not liking mages. And they were valid reasons.

“Sorry.” Still, she did not release her hold on his throat. His eyes were soft and held pity like a newborn babe. She hated him for it.

“I won’t turn you in.”

“I can’t know that.”

He placed his hand around her wrist. He exerted no pressure, didn’t try to pull her hand from his neck, just held her. They stood like that for a few moments, the people inside the store finally starting to take notice. She slowly released her hold on him, stepping back onto the sidewalk and crossing her arms.

“What are you doing here?”

Aurea remained silent, tracing the scar on his lip with her eyes.

“My ice cream is going to melt.”

She turned her back on him and started to load the groceries up once again. She ignored his presence behind her, watching her pick up bags and put them orderly into the car.

~

Everything was white. The walls, floors, ceilings, furniture, clothes. It was stark, blinding even, cold. It felt sterile and void of all emotion. They pushed her in a white and chrome wheelchair. Her wounds still hurt, ached like the day she got them. The red seeping through her bandages was the only sign of color. It was quiet, eerily so. Not even her wheelchair made a sound as the orderly pushed her down the long hallway.

She learned very quickly to keep her room in an orderly fashion. The first time her bed had a wrinkle in it, she was cut down to one meal a day. It was a bowl of rice and a glass of lukewarm water. The journal she was required to write in every day, had to be perfectly centered on her desk. The chair had to be pushed in and in the middle of the desk. The pen they gave her to write with had to be laid in a diagonal line across the journal. The lamp on the desk had to sit on the left, turned just so towards the right.

Each time she pushed the unspoken rule, the worse the punishments were. Solitary for two weeks, no food for three days, no water for two days, running until she passed out, ice baths. It was the ice baths that Aurea hated the most. They would force her in: grab her by the arms and legs, restrain her in the tub so she couldn’t move or get out. Before her muscles went numb, they would ache like someone was slamming a sledgehammer into them. After a few moments, she couldn’t move even if she wanted to. They would leave her there, for a few hours. They would take her out, dry her off, put clothes on her, and dump her on her bed with a thin blanket. Someone would stop in every few hours to make sure she was still breathing.

She hated to be cold.

 

~

 

“Aurea?”

Her hands were clenched tightly around one of the plastic bags.

“Aurea, can you hear me?” Cullen didn’t touch her. He knew better than to touch her. “Aurea, can you hear me?”

~

“Aurea, can you hear me?”

She shivered on top of her bed. When they dumped her there she was too tired to pull the blankets up around her, too tired to care. The room itself was cold, the bed colder. The guard shut the door to her room. For a moment, she thought he had left her alone. She closed her eyes to the world and let the shivering take over.

“Here.” He ran his hands up her body. They burned.

Stop. This is wrong. Stop him. Aurea, get up.

His hands moved slowly over her legs, over her stomach, over her chest. She wanted to move to fight him, to scream, to bite, to hit, to kick. She was frozen. He rolled her on to her back, pulled her arms and legs so they were on the bed and away from her body. Her eyes stayed focused on the ceiling.

He was pulling her pants off and her underwear down. His hands were fire against her thighs.

“Easy now. Be a good girl.”

Bile rose sharp and burning in her throat.

“Be a good girl.”

He was unzipping his pants, taking himself in hand. She wanted to cry. Wanted to, but couldn’t. Hadn’t since her family was murdered. He moved himself on top of her. He wasn’t an ugly man, wasn’t a gorgeous man either. He had a freckle on the corner of his eye by his nose. He had pretty eyes. They were blue. Or maybe they were green. Did it matter?

One of his hands was stroking her face.

What day was it?

He settled between her legs.

There was a brown spot on her ceiling. Or was it really brown? Maybe it just looked brown compared to the rest of the ceiling.

She cried out when he entered her and his hand clamped over her mouth for a moment.

~

“Aurea, listen to me. It’s Cullen. Can you hear me?”

She raised her eyes to meet his. Rutherford.

His hands were held in front of him, a peaceful gesture. “You’re safe, Aurea. You’re safe here. Aurea, name me five things that you can see.”

She opened her mouth.

“Come on, Aurea.”

“Louisiana license plate. Crawdad mascot.” She looked around again, blinking slowly in the bright sun. “Shopping carts. An orange cat. Yellow flowers.”

“Good, that’s good. What do you hear?”

“You. A car. There’s a dog barking.”

Cullen nodded, but still didn’t touch the blonde in front of him. “Are you okay to drive?”

She nodded slowly. “I’ll drive slow.”

Cullen frowned but didn’t argue. He couldn’t push her. If he pushed her and she wasn’t ready, she would never trust him. “I’m going to give you my card, okay? It has the station number, and my cell is on the back. Call me, Aurea.”

He held the card out to her with outstretched fingers. She slowly took it from him, eyeing fine silver lines across his hands. Her gold eyes tracked him as he walked back to the station across the street. He had the air of being a tad more relaxed than he used to be.

She got into the jeep on shaking legs, using her arms to pull herself into the seat. The car idled for a few minutes and she stared at small flecks on the windshield. Slowly, she put it in drive and began her snail pace back to the house.

Chapter Text

Nox busied herself after Aurea left. She turned the electric on first and a quiet hum filled the background. Gas was the second to be turned on. It was a little harder to find in the old house, but she was successful. The water was another story. She went through each floor twice before she found it hidden behind a bucket under the kitchen sink. A wrench was needed to pry the valve open.

 She found an old record player in the living room and put on her father’s copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, one of his favorite albums. Their house, as far back as she could remember, was always filled with music.

            The living room was first on her list: she pulled the curtains open, dust flying to the four corners as they were jostled. Light flooded the dark room in an instant. Hadar sneezed several times beside her, then rubbed his snout into the area rug beneath him. Nox smiled and patted his head. The white sheets covering the furniture were next. Those she rolled up together in a ball and placed next to the archway to be washed later. Hopefully Aurea got detergent and bleach.

            She made her way through each room, cleaning and humming along with the music. Hadar followed behind her, watching her carefully. In each room she cleaned, she found something belonging to her parents. When was the last time they were at the house? She picked up a picture in a silver and gold frame. It was her parents in their early twenties, perhaps the same age as Nox. They were in a woods or a swamp. Spanish moss hung low behind them and the sun shone brightly in their faces. Both of them wore a large toothy smile on their faces. Her fingertips traced their visages delicately. Hadar whined from beside her so she put the frame back and moved on.

She cleaned for three hours, replacing the record when it needed to be. Hadar followed her from room to room, watching her with curious eyes. She found a broom in one of the hall closets and began sweeping cobwebs from the ceiling and stair railing. It was a few moments later, when she had the broom held high above her head, that she began to notice how exhausted she was. Her muscles were starting to ache and shake with the effort she was exerting.

The young mage sat the broom down against the stairs and made her way to a small loveseat in the living room. Half way through sitting her legs gave out and she dropped heavily to the blue fabric.

“I’m okay, Hadar.” She patted his head when he dropped it to her knee. “I’m just going to sleep for a little bit.”

~

            When Aurea arrived back at the house, Nox was asleep on the loveseat. She whistled lowly at Hadar and nodded with her head towards the car. He sighed but got up from beside Nox and followed Aurea out to the car. She watched him grab a few bags between his teeth and carry them into the house. She grabbed as many bags as she could and followed him into the kitchen. In all it took them four trips to get all the bags into the house.

            Aurea put them away quietly, not wanting to wake Nox. She needed the recovery time. She was pleased to find the refrigerator already cold when she opened it. In all, the house appeared to be in good shape. She would be lying if she said she didn’t expect the place to be falling back into the swamp. It had been sitting empty since she was sixteen. The year her parents were murdered, her mother had the house remodeled. She told their father it reminded her too much of an old plantation. Which it was, but she felt it didn’t need to look that way.

            “She wanted to wipe the memory clean, but you can’t do that with these old houses.”

Aurea grabbed a knife from the counter and spun around quickly. An old woman was standing in the archway between the kitchen and the main hall.

“Still lingers in the air.” Delicate fingers waved in the air as if she could touch the memories.

She had curly white hair piled on top of her head with a few tendrils hanging around her face. Behind circular shaped glasses, her blue eyes were focused sharply on Aurea, a smirk placed gently on thin lips. 

            “Didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Gerdy, I own the diner in town. I was a friend to your parents.”

            “How did you get in here?” Aurea didn’t put the knife down.

            “I have a key.”

             “You have a key?”

            “Mhm. Your daddy left me a key before they died. He left this estate to me until you two turned eighteen. But since you were unable to take it then, I kept care of it.”

            “So that’s why it’s in good shape.”

            “Yes, darlin. I come out here once a week and make sure nothin is fallin down. Replaced the roof last year. Shame your parents never got to see it finished.”

            The younger woman’s jaw clenched. She knew the old woman probably meant no harm, but Aurea didn’t care. “And you’re here now because?”

            Gerdy patted Hadar on the head and stepped further into the kitchen. “Well it’s my job to keep this place standing and unharmed. So when I heard two girls came into town and headed out this way, I decided to come check on the place. Make sure you were supposed to be here.”

            She adjusted her glasses and started to put things away and set some aside to be put in the pantry.  

            “Honey, you aren’t gonna use that on me. Put that down and help me put this icebox stuff away before it melts all over these counters.” Gerdy held out a package of chicken to Aurea and waited.

            Hadar barked softly and padded over to his blonde human. He nudged her hand gently, licking her fingers. She looked down at him as if any moment he would open his mouth and speak to her. Don’t be an idiot, he’d say, She’s an old lady who is here to help. I trust her, so should you.

Aurea took the chicken from the old woman as if it were a bomb. When the chicken was out of her hands, Gerdy turned and started to unload the rest of the freezer food. She hummed loudly to the whole house. Some old blues song that plays on scratched records. The longer and louder she hummed, the more her humming turned to words. Aurea recognized the song as “House of the Rising Sun” by Lead Belly. Her father owned the record. Had owned. The dead couldn’t own anything.

            “Why did my father give you a key?”

            “You really don’t remember me.” She opened the pantry doors and set a few things in. “I basically raised your daddy after his momma died. Terrible accident that one.”

            Aurea paused. Her grandmother was something that was never talked about when she was a girl. For the longest time, she thought her father didn’t have a mother. That he was conceived out of the stars, or grown out of the dirt like some kind of garden vegetable. Which he encouraged, of course. Then when she was ten, she found a picture of a woman in her father’s study. It was taken sometime in the thirties. She was standing in a parking lot, an old Rolls-Royce Phantom was parked in the background. The woman was tall, probably so even without the heels she was wearing. There was some kind of fur scarf draped over her shoulder. Aurea thought the woman looked so beautiful and statuesque. They had the same nose and lips.

            When she took the photo to her father and asked him about it, he was livid. For two days he refused to speak to her. She went back to look at the picture again after that, but found it missing from the house. Aurea let the subject drop after that.

            “You knew my grandmother?”

            “Oh, yes. She and I raised babies together.”

            “Babies? My father was an only child.”

            “She had a son before your father. A sweet boy by the name of Michael. He was killed when he was ten. Your father would have been around three at the time.”

            Aurea stopped putting groceries away at that point and instead focused her sole attention on Gerdy. “How was he killed? How was she killed? Why didn’t they tell my father about Michael? Is my grandfather still alive?”

            Gerdy chuckled and started to load things into the refrigerator. “Well you can tell how much your father told you. Michael was murdered. Bless his little soul. Never caught who did it. Your grandmother was heartbroken. And then after that she was filled with a sort of quiet rage. Spent years trying to track down who did it. But you know during those years it was easy to get away with things.”

            “Your grandparents decided not to tell Mathias about his brother. I thought they should, he deserved to know. It’s hard enough to lose a child, but to erase them from your life?” Gerdy shook her head. “Your grandmother was killed while on one of her walks in the bayou. They suspect it was a heart attack, but I never bought it. Your grandmother was as fit as a fiddle.”

            “And my grandfather?” Aurea struggled to speak around the lump in her throat. She felt like throwing up.

            “He died when your father was eighteen. Just after your grandmother died. Maric had a drinking problem. I suppose it was because he was ashamed of having a mage as a son, and then the loss of his wife.” Gerdy filled a teapot with water and placed it on the stove.

            “What was her name? My grandmother.”

            “Eleanor. Eleanor Aurea Ellis Amell. You were named after her. And it’s fitting since you have her personality. She was fiery. When your father first displayed his gift, your grandfather– his name was Doyle by the way– wanted to send him to a circle. But your grandmomma. Ooooh did she put up a fight. She told Doyle that if he tried to send her baby away that she’d feed his sorry butt to the gators.”

            Aurea sank down into a chair next to the island. Can no one in my family be happy? Can no one just survive?

            Gerdy stopped her work and looked at the blonde with sympathy. “You come from a strong family, Aurea.”

            The blonde sneered quietly and shook her head, looking off to the side out of the kitchen window. A mild breeze stirred the moss hanging from the trees. A strong family she says. Broken. I come from a broken family. A dead family.

            “Who’s this?”

            Aurea’s head turned back at the sound of her sister’s voice. Nox stood in the doorway, arms wrapped around her chest. “This is Gerdy, Nox. She’s a… family friend.”

            Nox nodded, watching the old woman move around the kitchen and putting things away. “It’s nice to meet you.”

            “You too, darlin’. Are you two hungry? I can whip up something real quick. I imagine it’s been a while since you’ve had real home cooked food.”

            Nox let herself nod before she looked at her twin. Aurea had gone back to looking out of one of the windows. The mage could feel the exhaustion seeping off of Aurea like an oil spill making its way through water. She was running down. They both were. “That would be nice, thank you. So you knew our parents?”

            Aurea stood up and left the room, Hadar following at her heels.

            “I did.”

            “Aurea doesn’t like to talk about them.”

            Gerdy didn’t say a word, her tongue holding still. “What are you in the mood for, dear? I can make some chicken–”

            Nox smiled apologetically. “I’m a vegetarian.”

            “In the south? Oh dumplin. Okay then. I think I can work with that. You go take a nap and I’ll get this started.”

            The mage smiled and stood up, excusing herself from the kitchen. She found herself in the backyard, the humid air sticking to her skin. The sun was high in the sky, shining brightly through the trees and low-hanging Spanish moss. The yard was overgrown with shrubs and flowers, a few were invasive plants that would need to be taken out. She could use her magic to help some of the dying plants, to clear out the invasive plants that choked the life from everything.

She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to use magic, if she even could anymore. It could be felt, just underneath her pale skin. It would be nothing to just reach below the surface, grab ahold. Did she even want to? She hadn’t used magic since she was sixteen. Once, in Knickerbocker’s, she had tried to use magic. A simple healing spell for a large gash the Templars had given her on her leg. The silence they had placed on her had been so strong she couldn’t breathe without consciously thinking about it for days. She left the garden.  

~

         Aurea climbed the stairs after she left Gertrude and Nox alone in the kitchen. Exhaustion was very rapidly creeping in and settling in her joints and muscles. The stairs proved difficult as her body was slowly refusing to climb them. Hadar followed closely behind her, whining his concern the whole way. She found a room for herself, rather quickly, at the front of the house. The walls were painted a light gray, the wood rim around the room painted an off white, crown molding decorated the ceiling. There was a carved marble fireplace with a section of square, antique mirrors leading up to the ceiling, and a brown fur rug lay heavily on the floor in front of it. The king sized bed sat directly across from fireplace. Piles of pillows in velvets, furs, silks in shades of gold, white, and browns adorned the plush mattress.

            The rest of the room was a blur as Aurea let herself fall onto the mattress. Her muscles ached with relief, like she had held body so stiff for so long and she was finally able to release it. For the first time in a long time she felt safe.  She thought she felt Hadar sit on the end of her bed, thought it weird that she didn’t hear his claws click on the wood floor. Her mouth opened as she tried to say something to him, but her mind went blank and fell into the deep black of sleep.

~

            The city lights couldn’t be seen through the dense trees in the murky swamp. There, nestled deep in the pregnant bayou, was a long forgotten plantation. Once it was called Le Sang du Bayou. The Blood of the Bayou. And oh, it was. It was one of the largest plantations in Louisiana, as well as one with the most vicious past.

            That once breathtaking plantation saw the highest rate of slave mortality in the entire country. Women, children, no one was spared once the beast decided to take them. Its hunger was completely insatiable. No one survived the plantation unless the beast wanted them to and it rarely did. And when the North turned against the South, it welcomed that too.

            With an open mouth, it devoured.

            Even after the war it thrived. The beast was never hungry. It recovered quickly, unlike the rest of the south. Even without its hearty slave population to work, it rose up and grew higher and fatter than it had been before. Rumors of mysterious disappearances and deaths soon began to find their way across the swampy water of the bayou and into the cities. It became lean instead of fat. No longer could it gorge itself on the blood of the many.

            It dwindled.

            By the sixties, it was decrepit. The swamp slowly started to take back the land that belonged to it, and the house went with it. The bayou water surrounded it like a mote, trees grew up around it, blocking out any light from the sky or from the city that thrived and pulsed just miles from it. it called out to any that would listen, weakly, softly like someone left a radio on in the next room.

            Something heard it.

Chapter Text


           Nox woke up slowly. She was still dreaming in the fade when she heard something in the distance. It was soft and crooning to her sweetly.

           Wake up, Nox. Open your eyes and wake up.

           She struggled to do so, was pulling herself closer and closer to the waking world when something stopped her. It was a strange sound: like muffled screaming and things clawing their way out of the dirt. The young mage started to panic. It was impossible not to listen. Underneath the sweetness was screaming. It wanted her. She wanted to decipher it, to better understand it, to lean into it like a mother’s touch. No matter how hard she tried, it evaded her and settled back further into the fade. She could follow it.

           Wake up.

           Ivory eyelids finally opened to dim blue light of her bedroom. For a moment she didn’t recognize the room she was in, wasn’t used to waking up in a room that wasn’t dark. She curled into the blankets further. A bird called outside and Nox found herself smiling. It was the first time in a long time she felt safe somewhere, comfortable enough to laze in bed. The wards must have reset overnight.

           Or did I reset them before bed? I can’t remember. What did I dream about?

           Frustrated after failing to remember, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the ceiling. The thought of a shower was short lived. With a great sigh, Nox sat herself up in bed. Her muscles felt relaxed and loose. Except for a knot in her lower back. She passed that off to being cramped into a car for the last week and a half. She turned and dropped her legs over the side of the bed and to the floor. It was surprisingly warm under her feet.

            Standing, she slipped easily into sun salutation. Lithe limbs and sinewy muscles stretched easily into positions long ago visited. She felt good. Maybe Aurea was right. Thoughts slipped from her sister to the length of her inhales and exhales. The sound of Hadar’s clicking claws filled the silent room. She glided into hand to foot pose, folding her body double. Her braid slipped over the top of her head and dragged the floor. Her mind focused on the pattern in the wood under her black hair. A wet tongue licked the side of her cheek.

            “Good morning,” she whispered.

~

            “Good morning, pup!” Mathias bent over at the waist to look at his daughter who, at that moment, was in a handstand.

            “Morning, daddy.” Nox smiled and watched him watch her for a few moments. “Want to join me? It’s good for your joints.”

            Mathias scoffed and feigned offence. “My joints? Are you callin’ me old, pup?”

            Nox laughed and slowly went into wheel pose. “No. It’s just one of the benefits. It can also help improve your focus, which is good for mages. Come on. I’ll take it easy on you.”

            “You’ll have to, Nox. He’s as brittle as day old toast,” Aurea remarked from the breakfast table. Last nights clothes clinging to her.
            “I’ll show you brittle. Come on, pup. Let’s do this.”

            Nox exited out of wheel pose and stood up. “Okay. Let’s do sun salutation.”

            Mathias turned towards the windows and saluted the sun. “See, I’m a pro.”

            Aurea made a noise of disgust. “You’re a dad joke incarnate is what you are.” She grabbed a pancake and rolled a sausage up in it.

            Mathias let his mage daughter position him. “You keep talking, pup.” He watched his own smile slide across Aurea’s features. “Nox, am I supposed to just stand here?”

            “No. You’re supposed to breathe, concentrate.”

            The blonde twin snorted and took a bite of her pancake burrito.

            “Well you get over here and do it.”

            “I’m busy. Stuffing my face is hard work. It too takes a lot of concentration.”

            Nox worked through sun salutation with him slowly, taking longer than normal so he could have time to concentrate. Eventually Aurea left, unable to stay in one place for more than twenty minutes. Nox continued to guide her father into the poses with calm instruction. He followed through with her, pose for pose.

            “You do this every day?” he asked when they were done. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

            She nodded, brushing back stray hairs from her face. “Every morning and night. Usually an hour. It helps me relax and control my emotions.”

            Mathias watched his youngest twin. She took after him the most. She was a mage as well as he and just as strong. She was careful and calculating. The last she got from her mother, though Mathias would never admit it. Most of all she was kind and thoughtful.

            “I’m proud of you, pup.”

            She raised her head and met her father’s warm amber eyes. “You are?”

            Mathias nodded and smiled, running a hand through his messy black hair. “Yeah. I couldn’t be more proud. You’re a powerful mage, Nox. And what’s more, you’re a good person. One of the best people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.” He pulled his daughter against his side and kissed the top of her head. “You’re gonna do great things, Nox.”

~

            Nox exited the sun salutation and sighed. The ache she felt since her parents died made its reappearance in her chest. She picked up a brown cardigan that Aurea bought for her, and slipped it on over her black sports bra. Hadar nudged her hand and chuffed quietly.

            “I’m hungry too. Let’s go get food. If you won’t tell, I’ll give you some of that bacon Aurea bought.”

            The mage smiled when her mabari barked softly and took off out of her room. Quietly, she toed across the wide hall to her sister’s door and opened it. Aurea was still face down on her bed, back moving up and down with long deep breaths. She shut the door back softly and turned to go downstairs.

            A gasp tore itself from her throat.

            There was a woman, a girl, at the end of the hall. She had beautiful black skin, sharp cheekbones, full lips, almond shaped eyes, and a wide nose. A pattern of scars settled on her cheeks like constellations. Her garb was a simple long sleeved dress with dirt and mud caking the hem. Hadar stood still in front of her, growling lowly at the stranger at the top of the stares.

            “Who are you? What are you doing here?” A cold chill ran over her whole body, starting at the top of her head.

            The woman slowly raised a bloody hand from her side and pointed towards Nox. Her blue eyes searched the the face of the woman standing in front of her. A strange smell started to fill the hallway, like rotting meat and blood on a hot day. Hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention, the tiny bodies pulling her skin taut around themselves. There was something behind her. She could feel it like an indescribable shadow one sees at night in the trees. She slid her gaze to her left side, and turned her head as slowly as she could manage. Before she turned completely around, she saw it was person-shaped, but nothing about it felt human.

            It was further from her than she expected, had placed itself in front of the windows. The creature had arms so long its clawed hands reached its knees. Knees that were backwards, like a birds. It was hunched over slightly, its shoulders drawn up, ready to pounce. Whatever it was wore no clothes, its flesh a deep red color like all its skin had been filleted. Her eyes grew wider, focusing on the long rows of sharp teeth that protruded from it’s mouth. It had no nose, no ears, just smooth skin over the areas. Black almond shaped eyes stalked her every breath, looking for a moment to attack.

            In the seconds it took for Nox to turn around fully, the beast lunged, claws out-stretched and mouth open. Before she could even consider throwing up a barrier, it had its hands wrapped around her arms and knocked her to the floor. She turned her head away from the face that was lowering to hers. The mage kicked her legs, twisted herself in its grasp, but the beast held firm. The sound of Hadar barking seemed so far away from where she was. It was getting closer, hot breath fanning her face, spit dripping onto her cheek. Its hands burned her where they gripped her.

            Move!

            She turned her hands up and sent a bolt of electricity towards it. The smell of singed flesh was enough to make her gag.

            The creature screamed, recoiling away from the mage.

            “Nox!” It was her sister’s voice.

            There were a series of five gun shots and a loud shrieking noise followed by breaking glass. A pair of strong hands pulled her back up from the floor and into a wide chest. Nox’s blue eyes glanced at Aurea. Her face was pale, gold eyes narrowed, and hands gripping a gun at her side.

            “Go after it. I have her.” The voice came from the one holding her.

            Nox watched her twin head through the broken windows and onto the porch.

            “Easy, Nox.”

            The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. It belonged to a man, but that was as much as she knew. “Where’s Hadar!”

            “He went downstairs. I’m assuming to follow your sister. Come on. Come on, stand up.”

***

            Aurea launched herself off the balcony and into the large elm tree on the left side of the house, where the beast had leapt over the edge. She climbed down the tree swiftly, ignoring the bark scraping her exposed skin. As soon as her bare feet hit the ground, she took off at a run, Hadar close at her heels. She saw a flash of red in the trees ahead of her. Mud squelched up between her toes as she made her way towards the thick line of trees. It was a different world as soon as she crossed the threshold into the swamp. Sounds of the bayou were all around her: birds calling out to the rising sun, something stirring the water to her right, moss dragging against the limbs it hung from.

            Aurea careened around trees, leapt over stumps and fallen limbs. She followed the bleeding creature through the swamp, neither gaining ground or losing it between them. Her lungs were starting to ache with the force she was using them: it had been too long since she got any real exercise. The monster slammed into the water, sloshing through it quicker than anyone logically should have been able to. She splashed into the shallow water shortly after with Hadar in the lead. The water came up to his throat, green bits of moss catching on his mouth. He could no doubt smell the beast better than she could. The rogue caught a glimpse of the creature after it climbed the bank, darting through trees, heading straight. She stopped. Hadar continued to push forward and was seconds from lumbering up the bank. Quickly, she turned towards the left and started running towards the bank. The road was straight ahead through those trees, it would avoid that and Hadar could chase it to her.

            Adrenaline pounded through her veins like a bass line. The silt oozed up between her toes and she hoped nothing buried in it would leap out to bite her. She leapt over the raised bank and back into the trees. The ground was finally hard beneath her feet and she could gain speed.

           What am I even chasing?

            Her hair started to slip from its binding, swinging in her face. The gun was clenched so tightly in her hand her knuckles were starting to pale. A white Egret flew out of the tree beside her and her raised her gun instinctively. Quickly, she lowered it and kept running. Hadar’s loud barking to her right broke through and she stopped, waiting. They were crashing through the brush in front of her. She raised her gun, unlocked the safety, pulled back the hammer and waited. Hadar burst forth from the trees in front of her, snarling loudly. Aurea kept her gun raised and looked all around her for the creature. Hadar instantly quieted and took position between Aurea’s calves. She heard nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat and heavy breathing.

            “Good boy, Hadar,” she whispered to him. “Do you smell it?”

            The mabari shoved his nose in the air and sniffed for a few long moments before whining.

            “Damn,” she hissed. Whatever the creature was, it was gone now.

***

            “Why are you here, Cullen?” Nox sat calmly on a kitchen chair, Cullen’s knees between her legs while he sat going through their fist aid kit.

            Cullen swallowed at the question and pulled out gauze and Silvadene. “This was the furthest place I could get from my family and New York at the same time. It seemed like a good idea. New Orleans is too crazy for me.” He gently took her arm in his hand and pulled it towards him. “I like the quiet.”

            “That isn’t what I meant. I mean here at the house. How did you even know we were here?”

            “Oh. Gerdy called me. She said she hadn’t heard from you in a few days.” Gently, he turned her arm to see how far the burn went around.

            “Okay, but how did you get in? There are wards on the house. Not to mention the door was locked.”

            Cullen raised an eyebrow and gave a shrug of his head. “The door was open upon my arrival. I thought something might have happened so I came in. I called out, but no one answered. When I heard Hadar growling upstairs I followed.” He started to apply a thin layer of the burn cream to her arm.

            “Did you see a woman?”

            “A woman? No. The only women I saw were you and your sister. Do you think she’s alright?”

            “Aurea? Cullen this is the girl who got in a fight with a Qunari boy three times her size in high school because he insulted dad. She’ll be fine.” Nox winced when he brushed over a particularly painful patch and tried not to pull her arm from his grasp.

            Cullen worked in silence for a few moments before he finally spoke up. “Your sister didn’t tell you I was here, did she?”

            “No. She’s been trying to protect me as much as possible. She might not have known what she was coming home to. My memory…slips sometimes.”

            “I’m sorry.” He said it quietly, tasting the long avoided apology on his tongue like metal.

            Nox tilted her head in question. “What for, Cullen?”

            “Everything that has happened to you. You were a good friend, Nox, and to see them treat you that way. What they did to your family, blaming you, it–” he stopped.

            The mage waited patiently for him to continue and when he didn’t, she softly spoke. “I hope I still am a friend, Cullen.”

            He looked up then, his amber eyes full of confusion and shame. “After how I treated you?”

            “Cullen Stanton Rutherford, you did nothing to me.”

            “That isn’t true. I was cruel, needlessly so and I–”

            “You were tortured for days, Cullen. Before anyone could get to you, you saw friends slaughtered. You have reason to be the way that you are.”

“I knew you did not do the things they said you did, and yet still I said nothing.”

            “And if you had we both know you would have been killed. Or had an “accidental” overdose on lyrium… Cullen are you still on it?”

            He said nothing, and turned to the other hand-shaped burn.

            Nox let it go. She wondered briefly how he got the scar on his lip. His life to her was a mystery after Knickerbockers. If she were being honest, she didn’t blame him for what happened. Why he left. She remembered when they found him, bloody and broken. His armor had been taken off while the demon tortured him. The mage that set it loose was killed on sight. The entire building stunk of burning and rotted flesh. The rumor was that ten Templars were trapped on the eighth floor in the library. It was days before anyone could clear the seventh floor enough to make it up to the eighth. Cullen was especially paranoid after that, and yes, cruel even. He left a month after the incident.

            “You are a good man, Cullen.”

            He snorted softly and finished putting tape on the gauze. “You would not be saying that if you knew what I did.”

            “I would.”

            Hadar came into the kitchen first, covered in mud and green moss. Aurea followed shortly after, her calves bloody from scratches, legs covered in mud. Her feet were practically black from it.

            “We lost it somewhere in the swamp,” Aurea said, setting the gun on the counter.

            “Easy to do.” Cullen nodded and scooted away from Nox.

            Aurea scoffed. “Rutherford, it was between us. Hadar was chasing it from behind and I was waiting in front. Hadar came out, it didn’t.”

            “There are a lot of places to hide in the swamp, Aurea. You’re bleeding.”

            “I’m fine, Rutherford.”

            Cullen stood up and crossed the distance to stand in front of her. “You can sit on the counter so I can look at your wounds, or I can set you there myself.”

            Aurea surveyed his face for a few moments, trying to decide if he would seriously pick her up. “Nox, are you okay?”

            “Don’t change the subject. I’m fine. Cullen can patch you up, I can go give Hadar a bath and sweep the glass upstairs.” She stood, patting the side of her thigh for Hadar to follow and started up the stairs. The mabari followed shortly after he growled a warning to Cullen.

            “Why are you here?”

            “Gerdy hadn’t heard from you in a few days. The front door was open.” Cullen held his hand out by her arm when she hopped up onto the counter. “I heard Hadar growling and went to see.”

            Aurea nodded and turned so her feet and lower legs were in the deep farm sink. She turned the water on, ignoring Cullen’s gaze on her. “Did you tell Nox?”

            “About?” Cullen retreated back to the table to grab some salve and bandages.

            “What you did after you left Knickerbockers.”

            He was silent for a few moments until he was back standing in front of her. “No, I did not.”

            “Good.” She hissed when she finally turned the water on her legs, the heat stinging the scratches back open.

            Cullen removed the head of the facet and brought it closer over her legs. His calloused hand gently ran over them, helping to brush the dirt off. She watched his hands, studying the size of them. He always had good hands, even when they were teenagers before he left for training when he was seventeen. Aurea was sixteen at the time and wanted to go with him back to the city. She used to make fun of him for having a crush on Nox, even after he found out she was an apostate.

           “Rutherford?” At his answering ‘hm’ she continued, “Why didn’t you tell anyone when you first found out Nox was a mage? Was it because you didn’t get the chance, or?”

           He clenched his jaw briefly. “Aurea, you don’t have to be cruel. I didn’t tell because your sister was a friend. I know her. I knew your father. They weren’t a danger to–”

           “Oh, but all other apostates are? That seems a little hypocritical, don’t you think? She is gay, Rutherford, so flattering her won’t get you in her pants.”

           Cullen stopped and turned to Aurea, daggers in his eyes. “You are one of the crassest women I have ever encountered in my life. I am aware your sister could never love me, but that does not stop me from loving her as a person. What happened to you?”

           She laughed. It was the first time in a long time she laughed. Even if it was full of bitterness. It shocked Cullen for a few moments, his hand stilling on her legs.

           “What happened to me?” Aurea repeated the question, savoring the taste of it on her tongue. “That’s a good question, Rutherford. What happened to me. The same that happened to you. Give me my leg back.”

           “No.” He turned his attention back to her legs and heard her huff heavily. He picked up one of her feet and gently started washing the bottom, careful of cuts.

            Aurea put her chin on her knees and watched the dirty water swirl down the drain under her legs. “What did happen to me?” She didn’t expect him to answer, she didn’t expect him or anyone else to have the answer.

            Cullen picked up her other foot and began the same process. “You survived.”

            “Did I?”

Chapter Text


 

            “Rutherford, you shot it five times, it threw itself over a balcony, and it was still able to out run Hadar and I. Normal weapons aren’t going to kill this thing.” Aurea took a sip of her black coffee and resisted the itch for a cigarette.

            Nox busied herself making pancakes for the three of them, chopping fruit while they were cooking. “You forgot that I electrocuted it. I agree with Aurea, Cullen. Guns aren’t going to kill it.”

            Sherriff Rutherford sighed and rubbed his temple with the hand that wasn’t gripping his coffee cup like a lifeline. “So then what do you suggest?” He tried not to sound annoyed, but failed.

            Aurea sat quiet for a few moments and listened to the sounds of the house. Whatever it was had managed to break down barriers and it was very clearly not human. “Have you ever seen a demon like that?”

            “No, I haven’t.” Cullen checked his watch and sighed. “I should get going.”

            “It’s only six. You can’t leave until you’ve had breakfast.” Nox turned the bacon and wrinkled her nose at it. “Aurea why can’t you cook your own bacon?”

            “I said I would. I wanted to shower first.” The blonde paused the drumming of her fingers against the wood table.

            Cullen looked up, narrowing his eyes slightly. “What?”

            “Guns won’t kill it, but what about swords? Or arrows.”

            “Aurea, no one has used those in decades.”

            Aurea rolled her eyes. “I’m aware of that, Sherriff. Mom had some, she insisted on training me with them. The same with Zi.”

            Nox nodded and put pancakes and bacon on a plate for Cullen. “It couldn’t hurt to try.”

            “You two aren’t seriously thinking of going after it are you? There are dozens of places to hide in the bayou. Just last month Tom Rapier went missing and we searched that bayou over six times. And then eight days later someone found him while they were out fishing.”

            Nox sat the plate in front of him and frowned. “Was he dead?”

            Cullen nodded and picked at his food. “Yes. It appeared he was drowned. The M.E. suggested it was an alligator, but I didn’t buy it. There were no wounds consistent with an alligator anywhere on him.”

            Aurea took her plate from Nox and sat it down in front of her. “How many before him went missing?”

            “Since I’ve been here? From the town at least three. I tried to get people to come in and help investigate, but they insisted that people from small towns leave all the time. The strangest one we had was,” he struggled to remember her name, “Margret Addison. She was missing two weeks. We searched everywhere. Dragged as much of the river as we could, had search dogs in the swamp.”

            Nox sat down across from him with pancakes piled high with fruit and powdered sugar. “Did you find her?”

            Cullen sighed and took a sip of coffee. “In a manner of speaking. I picked her up wandering the highway that runs buy here. She was covered in mud and had blood streaked on her arms. Her hair was matted and cut to the scalp in places. When I got out of the car she tried to attack me. I managed to get her in handcuffs and into my squad car.”

            “Is she how you got that scar?” Aurea wrapped a pancake around a piece of bacon before dipping it in a pool of syrup.

            “No. She was delusional. She kept going on about a beast in the bayou and how it was hungry.” He trailed off, thinking maybe she had been telling the truth. He could tell the other two women at the table thought the same thing.

            Aurea swallowed her large bite and fed a piece to Hadar. “Did she describe it?”

            Cullen shook his head and managed a bite of plain pancake. “No. The paramedics had to sedate her. I wasn’t allowed to question her after that. The family fought court order after order. They still won’t let me anywhere near her.”

            “Where are places out here someone could hide?” Nox drank a sip of tea and watched him carefully.

            “Everywhere. There are a few abandoned homes, shacks. There were rumors of a plantation falling back into the swamp, but no one has been able to find it surprisingly enough.” He snuck a pancake to Hadar. “It could have fallen down.”

            It has to be hiding somewhere where Hadar and I lost it. It couldn’t have just vanished into nothingness. We need a way to kill it first.

            Cullen broke her thoughts. “Aurea, no.” He leaned his elbow onto the table. “No, you are not to go after that.”

            “Are you going to stop me? Rutherford, we both know that I can kick your ass. What if it comes back?”

            “So you’re going to go after it, completely unprepared?”

            “I won’t be unprepared. I will figure out a way to kill it.”

            “Aurea, I can’t allow that.”

            Nox disrupted the fight before it could get worse. “Cullen, can you get to our parents belongings?”

            Aurea and Cullen both turned to look at the raven-haired mage sitting at the table with them.

            “Aunt Leandra has them.”

            “Not the weapons, Aurea.”

            “She’s right, Aurea. Those are in Templar evidence. I could ask a favor I’m owed. It will take a week or two to get everything if you don’t want them traced back here. I can have them sent to a trustworthy friend in New Orleans.” He hated to use the one favor he had, but if Nox thought it would help, he would trust her judgment. And who was he to keep them from their property? “In the mean time, stay away from it, Aurea.” He stood up, thanking them for the food and coffee.

            “Tell Gerdy we’re fine and thank her for sending you. Thank you, Cullen.” Nox smiled kindly at him.

            Cullen nodded and walked out with the two sisters watching him. The air outside was already warm and muggy, threatening him with a headache later in the day. He stopped just off of the porch, hand on his keys before he turned to look back up at the balcony where the creature escaped. There, standing in the window was a young black woman in a dress. He blinked, reaching for his gun and she was gone.

            Did you see a woman?

            He shook his head, blaming the vision on his mind and got into his car.

***

            A few hours later, Nox was still seated at the kitchen table, books open upon books open around her.

            “Where did you get those?” Aurea had her arms full of dusty sheets from the rooms upstairs.

            Nox leaned straight-backed in her chair. “Our library. I thought I would try and find out what we’re dealing with.”

            Aurea sat the sheets down in the archway and took a seat next to her sister. “We have a library?”

            Her twin chuckled. “Yes, we have a library. It’s at the back of the house.”

            “I didn’t see it on the walkthrough.”

            “Because it’s in a secret room.”

            The eldest twin, by ten minutes thank you, blinked slowly. “Where was it?”

            “Behind a wall in the spell room. I pulled out a vile of lavender because it clearly did not belong on the shelf next to the elfroot, and when I did, a door opened on the back wall.” The longer she talked the more excited she got. “There are a large amount of old texts and first editions. Dad was very organized.”

            “Have you found anything?”

            Nox sighed and traced a sigil with her fingers on the page open in front of her. “No. Not one single thing. Not even something that could be stretched to fit its description.”

            “Well that isn’t comforting in the slightest.”

            “I haven’t gone through all the books yet.” Nox drug a finger over a stiff page. “Why didn’t you tell me Cullen was here in town?”

            Aurea shrugged and flipped idly through a book. “I wasn’t sure how it would affect you. And then we were asleep off and on for the last two days.”

            “You don’t have to protect me all the time, Aurea.”

            The blonde stopped, her fingers stilled on the page in front of her. “Yes, I do.”

            Nox narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms across her chest. “I am not a child, Aurea.”

            Aurea stood up from the table, refusing to argue, and picked the sheets back up from the floor. She let the laundry room door swing behind her with a thwap and started to shove the white sheets into the washer. There were quiet footsteps in the hall and then the swinging door pushed open. She stood in front of the washer still, reaching up to grab the bleach off the shelf. Her sister’s chin rested on her shoulder as her arms wrapped around her.

            “I’m sorry for snapping at you. But I’m not sorry I said you didn’t have to protect me.”

            Aurea sighed and poured the bleach into the dispenser. “I know you aren’t. I made a promise to dad, Nox. And…Sometimes you are a child. Sometimes you’re sixteen again.”

            Nox tried not to let that bother her. It wasn’t a lie or an exaggeration. “I know. And on those days you have my full permission to protect me from myself. But when I’m not? Don’t hide things from me.”

            The blonde shut the washer lid and turned the water on. “Okay. But you know that won’t be easy. I’m going to slip up.”

            “You have done nothing wrong in your life ever and I love you for that.”

            “You are ridiculous.” Aurea chuckled and Nox let her go. “Are you okay?”

            The mage tilted her head and drew her brows together. “What do you mean?”

            “You used magic.”

            “Oh.” Nox took a few moments. How did she feel? “It was strange. I haven’t used magic since I was sixteen. As silly as it sounds, I didn’t think I still could.” She hopped up to sit on the washer, Aurea moving to sit on the dryer. “It felt… Good though. Like I got the use of a limb back or something.”

            Aurea nodded and swung her legs. “Think you’ll use it again?”

            “Well I’m going to try. I still feel like I shouldn’t though. It’ll be hard to get out of that mindset.” She leaned back on her hands and swung her legs beside her sister’s. “I thought I’d work on the garden first? Or reset the wards. If you’re comfortable with it I could use blood like dad did…”

            “Are you comfortable with it? I’m not a naïve Andrastian, Nox. I know blood magic isn’t inherently evil. I trust you. If you think it isn’t dangerous, then I say okay. Especially if it will keep that thing at bay until we can figure out how to kill it.”

            Aurea never understood why blood magic was feared. Her father used it on rare occasions. A few of her friends. It was more powerful, but less predictable. Which just meant you should attempt big spells with it unless you were strong enough or had enough experience. Demons were drawn to those who used blood magic because they knew they were powerful enough to bring them from the fade. Nox, by all means, had always been strong enough to fight them. She still was somewhere in there. And one small warding spell would not draw demons.

            “I’m just resetting wards. It’ll be fine. Dad did it all the time.”

            The pair sat in silence for a few moments.

            “I called Lark.”

            Nox turned her head to look at her sister. “You did?”

            “Yeah. In Silence. I woke up from a nightmare and went to the gas station. I left you with Hadar. I didn’t want to wake you. I bought a burner phone and called her. I didn’t stay on long enough for anyone to trace it. I didn’t tell her where we were, just that we were okay and we loved her.”

            Aurea waited for Nox to lecture her. Nox was always the practical one, the cautious one. But it didn’t come. Gold eyes switched their gaze from the floor to the body on the washer. Nox was looking at the wall, her eyes unreadable.

            “How did she sound?”

            “Good. Worried. Also very angry.” Aurea chuckled.

            “I miss them.”

            “Me too.”

New York, New York

            He had been watching her for a few days. The woman was beautiful, probably the most beautiful specimen he had seen. She was of blue blood, a family with a name, with importance. He wanted her. No, he needed her. He followed her through New York. Memorized her grocery list. Meat, potatoes, peppers, bread, fish, flour, eggs, cheese, no processed food, no canned foods. Tampons: not something a woman her age usually buys. For her daughter no doubt. The man followed her to the flower market, watching her make her way through the open buckets of brightly colored petals.

            He paused right behind her as she bent over to pick up a bouquet of lilies. When she stood and turned around, she ran directly into him, smashing the delicate petals of the white flowers.

            “Oh I am so sorry! I didn’t see you there.” She fused over him, wiping water droplets from his shirt.

            “My lady, it is entirely my fault!” He smiled warmly at her, stilling her hand with his. “I simply got to close to you. I’m afraid I ruined your poor flowers.” His thick southern accent was a surefire way to charm women. His good looks didn’t hurt his ability either. He ran a hand over his jet black hair, smoothing pieces of it back.

            She smiled, stepping away from him slightly to give him space. “It’s quite all right.”

            “Let me buy better ones, please.”

            “Oh, you don’t have to go through all the trouble. I can make do with these.”

            He noted the blush on her cheek. “Nonsense! It would be my pleasure.” He leaned past her, catching the smell of her perfume, and picked up a fresh bouquet out of the bucket. He took hers from her arms, letting his fingers brush over the exposed skin he found there. She followed him up to the register, insisting the whole way that he did not have to buy those flowers for her.

            He paid for the flowers and handed the bouquet of good ones to her. “There we are. Again I do apologize for ruining them.” He took her hand and kissed the back of it. “My name is Carter Montgomery.”

            She smiled at him with bright blue eyes catching the last bits of the dying sun. “Leandra. Leandra Hawke.”

            He smiled, his teeth bright white and canines sharp. His brown, droopy eyes crinkled up at the corners. His smooth hand closed around her fingers, keeping her close to him for as long as he could.

 “It is so nice to meet you, Leandra.”

Chapter Text


 

            Nox was in the Fade. There was no breeze, no sound, no smell, nothing but stark silence that could drive a person crazy. She could shape her dream, but that always drew the attention of demons. And given the recent attack, it was not worth the risk. She walked for a bit, the sound of her bare feet slapping against the dirt the only audible noise.

            “It’s a dismal night, isn’t it?”

            She jumped, turning to face the voice that came from beside her. There was a spirit there, blue and misty like a wisp. She could barely make out facial features on it. The ground beneath it was left a pale blue after it left the previous place.

            “How can you tell? The Fade doesn’t have days or nights.” Nox eyed it suspiciously, but sensed no malice from it.

            “Well if you’re here then it must be night. Why else would you be here?”

            “A nap maybe?” She stepped over a questionable patch of sludge.

            “You must be careful treading here. So close to it.”

            Nox stopped, turning her body full to face the spirit. “So close to what?”

            “The blood. There’s a storm coming, young one.” It raised an arm and pointed to the distance.

            Nox followed the line of its arm and saw a flickering scene of the bayou in front of them. Large Cyprus and Tupelo Gum trees rose out of muddy waters. Spanish moss hung low from the branches, stagnate in the still air. Black clouds rolled violently and swiftly in the foreground, quickly overtaking the top of the tree line. Lightening flashed across the sky, but no clap followed. The water reflected the rolling clouds and distorted them so it looked like bodies were floating under the water, waiting to grab onto any life that went by.

            She turned to ask the spirit a question and found it gone. The trail of blue it had been leaving was evaporating to nothingness. When she looked back towards the swamp, a person appeared in front of her. Nox careened backwards, holding her hands out in front of her. They were bleeding from their temple and their eyes which were a yellowed white. More people started to appear in front of her: some with ripped away limbs, open abdomens and chests, a fetus dragging between a mother’s legs by a black umbilical cord. Their mouths were moving, but she couldn’t hear them.

            The mage kept her hands out in front of her. It’s a dream, nothing can hurt you in a dream. It’s only a dream. Her feet kept propelling her slowly backwards as the horde approached her. A few were reaching for her, grasping at the air to pull her into them. She was falling. The ground fell out from her feet and she was sent plummeting. A woman with blood pouring from her wrists flung herself after Nox. 

            Wake up, Nox. Wake up, darling.  

            The woman opened her mouth and screamed so loud it echoed in the vastness of the Fade. Her teeth were rotten and falling out into the air, blood dripping down her chin. Long twisted fingers grabbed Nox’s arms and pulled her to rotten flesh.

            Wake up, darling!

             “The beast will have you,” the corpse gasped out, drawing her face closer.

~

            Nox’s scream caught in her throat as she bolted up in bed. The room was shrouded in darkness, the light from the moon stopped abruptly by her curtains. Her heart thundered in her chest so hard she was afraid it would kill her. She ran her hands over her face and let the blanket fall further down to her hips. The dream didn’t make any sense, even for Fade dreams. Or maybe she wasn’t really in the Fade? It was all very confusing. With slow movements she got out of her bed. The short walk to her sister’s room felt much longer in the early witching hours.

            The youngest twin opened the door gently so as not to wake Aurea. Hadar’s head lifted from the foot of the bed and he whined quietly until Nox put a finger to her lips. The blonde on the bed rolled to her side and scrunched up her face until she got comfortable again. Gradually, Nox worked her way under the covers on the left side of the bed.

            “You never could sneak into my bed.”

            “Sorry.” She abandoned her slow movements and got the rest of the way beneath covers as quick as she could.

            Aurea yawned and searched for her sister’s hand under the blankets. “Bad dream?”

            Nox nodded and traced shadows on the ceiling. Ever since they were babies they often crawled in each other’s beds. Especially when one of them was sick or had a nightmare. Eventually their parents gave up when they were babies and just kept them in the same crib.

            “Want to talk about it?”

            “Go back to bed, Aurea.”

            It was only a few more minutes before she felt Aurea’s mind slip silently back into the Fade. Nox kept hold of her hand and struggled to drift back to sleep.

~

            Aurea was the first to wake, her hand still clenched tightly by Nox. The clock on the mantle read 9:16. Nox was curled against Aurea, her knees drawn up close to her chest. Aurea kissed her forehead and slowly withdrew her hand from her sister’s. She hated to leave her after a nightmare, but she needed to pee. Inch by inch she eased her way out of the bed. Hadar nosed his way under the covers and up towards the headboard so he could take Aurea’s warm spot. She smiled and kissed his snout before going into the bathroom.

            The blonde was still on edge from the attack Nox faced a few days prior. They were still unable to find out what exactly the creature was. The pair must have gone through dozens of books and still they were no closer to finding out what attacked Nox. Aurea had even gotten desperate enough to call Gertrude, who also didn’t know anything and then decided that she needed to come out and check on the girls. Aurea knew she meant well, but she wasn’t used to having someone care that much about what happened to her or to Nox. Even Cullen did research to try and help them and came up short. The entire situation did not bode well.

            The shower felt good. After so long on the road, Aurea didn’t think she would ever get clean. Her hair, after several washings, was still a shade of strawberry blonde and she wondered if it would ever go back to the shade it was. Dying it was a necessity at the time. Aurea was blonde, but Charlotte Lulane had to be anything but if she wanted to remain unrecognizable. That week she was planning her sisters rescue, she watched make up tutorials one after the other to figure out how to make herself look older. She missed her blonde hair.

            She ran her soapy hands over her scared body and wondered if anyone could ever touch her again as if she were whole, as if she weren’t scared and battered. A few months after Aurea got out of the “behavioral correction facility”, she stopped at a bar in a small town in upstate New York. There was a girl in the corner and the first thing Aurea noticed about her was her blue hair. She looked like those Hollywood manic pixie dream girls that boys like to find themselves in. The girl was pretty, thin nose, plump top lip, downturned eyes. When she came up and bought Aurea a drink, she noticed the freckles she had all over her tan skin. Her eyes were a brown that probably exploded into warmth when the sun hit them, but in the dark light of the bar they were deep like a cavern.

            Morgan was her name. She was a student at Berkley studying art history. Aurea wanted to tell her the blue hair  and bird tattoo she had on her wrist gave that away. So did the paint on her ripped jeans. They kissed in the backroom of the bar, Morgan initiating it first. She had been quick in her actions, slipping her hand down the front of Aurea’s leather shorts. When she pushed a hand under Aurea’s top and felt her scars, she froze and looked at Aurea with this… pity in her eyes. They had stopped after that. Aurea giving her a brief and awkward ‘thanks’ before bolting out of the backroom. In the car she had obsessed over why she had said thank you.

It wasn’t the first time Aurea had been with a girl. Her first was a Dalish girl named Sienna. She had the most beautiful black skin and the blonde liked how hers looked up against it. The rogue could spend hours tracing the scars of her vallaslin honoring June. Sienna was sweet and loud, brave too. She didn’t quiet herself for the world. Aurea loved that. Sienna’s kiss was strong, all nipping teeth. The Dalish took her time, but she was before Aurea was who she had become, when she was still whole.

            “Aurea?”

            Aurea sighed and removed her hand from between her thighs. “Yeah?”

            Nox’s confused voice called back, “Where’s mom and dad?”

            A dark seed took root in her stomach, climbing up her throat.

            “Aurea?”

            The bathroom door opened and Aurea struggled to find her voice. “They went to New Orleans for the week. Zi is visiting Aunt Leandra.”

            The sound of the toilet lid hitting the tank echoed with a high pitch. “So we have the place to ourselves? That’ll be nice. Some peace and quiet.”

            Aurea remained quiet and let the hot water pound on her shoulders. The air around her was nearly suffocating and she felt the bile rising in her throat. How am I going to keep her from finding out what happened? We look older, the house doesn’t look the same as the last time we were here, she’s going to want to go places, to watch tv, read a newspaper. Call mom and dad.

            “When did I get so old looking?”

            Aurea’s scared palm covered her mouth, marred fingers wrapping around her jaw. The whimper that threatened to escape successfully halted.

            “Are you okay?”

            No. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”

            “I’m going to go make breakfast.”

            The door shut with a hard click. Aurea sank to her knees in the shower, her hand clamped softly over her mouth again. There she was, naked, collapsed in the shower, still trying to grasp the unraveling strings of her life.

            She missed her mother.

~

            Nox scowled at the mess in front of her that used to be the garden. A mental note was made to scold her father about the state of it. Since when had it gotten to be this bad? I don’t remember it ever looking this bad. We were just here…At least I think we were just here. Nox raised her hands let her magic push and remove some of the ivy that was choking out the rest of the plant life. The water in the fountain and pond started to clear, the algae disappearing. The magic felt good rolling through her body. Her fingers twirled and glided gracefully through the thick bayou air.

            Pale blue dust of her magic glittered in the gentle breeze that stirred her white dress. For some inexplicable reason she felt rusty, like she had not used her magic in years. The morning sun finally broke completely over the threes, sending a blinding light cascading over the mage. A steady stream of water began to pour from the brightly tiled fountain, its moss clogged piping coming back to life. Slowly, the plants revived as did her magic.

            Once the garden was restored to the way it should have been when she woke up, Nox retreated back indoors to take the casserole out of the oven. She found Aurea at the head of the table, her head between two palms. She looked older than sixteen, more stressed than anyone should be. She had an odd scar on her jaw and on the left side of her lip that hadn’t been there before.

            “Where did you get those scars?”

            Aurea responded without looking up, “I’ve always had them.”

            “No you haven’t.”

            Her sister remained quiet and she huffed. The timer on the oven dinged in the silent room. Hadar bounced happily through the archway, his stub tail wagging excitedly at the prospect of dropped food. When the oven door opened, the smell of the bananas foster casserole surrounded them. She could feel the tension roll off of her twin in waves, surrounding the both of them like a red cloud.

            “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?” The pan made a muffled sound on the pot holders.

            “Nothing is wrong. I’m just tired.”

            Nox smiled and reached to get two dishes down. “Did dad catch you with Alistair?”

            Aurea was quiet.

            “He’s cute. And he likes you quite a bit. I know you’ve been sneaking off to see him.” The mage spooned two big helpings into the bowls and sat one in front of her sister. She glided into the chair across from the sullen blonde. “I know why you don’t like him. He’s too sweet and caring.”

            “Nox.” It was a subtle warning, no bite held to her name.

            Nox smiled and took a bite of food, content to leave the subject alone long enough to swallow. “He’s going to marry you, I just know it. I bet you he’ll even do it proper and ask Dad if he has permission to–”

            Aurea stood up abruptly from the table, pushing her body way from it so the chair scrapped loudly against the tile floor. Her twin fell silent, eyes wide with a question she didn’t know the answer to. The gold eyed twin walked out of the room softly. She couldn’t tell if she was angry or hurt. It could have been both for all she knew, but what she knew for certain was that the feeling was near overwhelming. Her stomach rolled with nausea, her body grew hot, her blood felt like sludge pumping through her body.

            I can’t be mad at Nox. Nox doesn’t know any better. I mean it’s not like. She can’t just remember shit off the top of her head. It’s not like she knows what the fuck is happening to her, Aurea. And you can’t fucking tell her because then that will destroy her and you will have to pick her back up again. But dude, how long can you keep this up? Eventually she’s going to figure it out. She isn’t dumb..

            She wanted to go back to bed, but she couldn’t leave Nox alone. Instead she went to the living room and turned on the tv, staying clear of the news channels.

            Maybe I should block them.

            At the same time, the rogue felt out of touch with the world. She had no idea what was happening nation wide outside of what the Parish Inquisitor reported. Which honestly was not much outside of who owned the car that was abandoned by Robert’s fish shack, or if the deli was serving expired meat. There was hardly anything to do with outside news unless it directly influenced the town in some way.

            Her mind kept traveling back to Alistair. He was sweet. And he was good. He deserved better than anything that he would get with Aurea. Especially now that we’re hiding from Templars. She found herself missing him and despised the feeling. The urge to call him was getting stronger again. They most likely weren’t tracking his movements. Their relationship wasn’t what most people would consider a strong one. Alistair only came to visit her once at the facility, the same with her cousins, though it wasn’t likely that the Templars would consider Alistair someone Aurea would turn to.

            She could call him.

            She could.

            “Aurea?”

            She sighed deeply. “Yes?”

            “Where exactly did I get these burns?”

            Well, shit. “Oh. I thought you would have noticed by now. A…thing showed up at the house yesterday. Dad and you fought it, but it burned you.” She could sense Nox’s disbelief. “It knocked you on the head pretty hard. That’s why the window upstairs is broken. Dad was trying to figure out what it was, but he had no luck.”

            “So he left us here alone after we were attacked?”

            “He put the wards up.”

            “No. That’s not his magic, that’s mine. His feels different.”

She remained silent. In all of her thinking, she had no idea how to get herself out of this. Her mouth was opened, ready to come up with another lie, some kind of excuse to keep her sister from finding out.

            And then he walked in.

            “Ah. There you two are. I spoke with my contact about getting your parent’s… Why are you looking at me like that?” Cullen tilted his head, observing the twins curiously.

             Nox blinked and stared at the man in front of her. He had aged drastically since the last she saw him. The scar on his lip was new. He was larger than she remembered, broader than the teenage boy that left for Templar training. “Cullen? Aurea what’s he doing here?” He looks so much older. Why does he look so much older? Why do we? “What’s he doing here, Aurea?”

            The blonde stood up, her hands held up and reaching for her sister. “Nox, it’s okay. He’s a friend.”

            “He’s still a Templar Aurea, and I am an apostate! So is Dad. And how did he get in if the wards were set?” Did he break the wards? Can he do that? They were coming at her like she was a wild animal.  

            “Well that’s true, but also rude.”

            “Save your vanity, please.” Aurea kept her eyes on her sister.

            Nox could feel her emotions start to slip out of her control. She was scared  and there was something gnawing at the back of her mind. “Aurea, tell me what’s going on.”

            “Nothing, everything is fine.” She took a step closer.

            The mage took a step back and flickered her eyes between the two. All she could sense in Cullen was confusion and hesitance. Aurea was drowning in feelings of guilt and fear. Fear of what? Fear of me? “You’re lying. Aurea, tell me the truth.”

            She stuttered out ‘I’ softly three times before she kept her mouth open in silence.

            Cullen’s face fell and his heart hurt behind his ribcage. She didn’t remember. “My memory slips sometimes.” That has to be why Aurea was so protective of her. He knew better than to try and talk to her. It was better to let her sister, someone who had a personal connection with her, to try and calm her.

            “Tell me what happened. Where are Mom and Dad?” The minute Aurea’s gold eyes shifted their gaze to her blue, she knew. They’re dead. Her magic was rising, pushing against her skin and expanding her veins with each pump of her heart. “No. No! What happened?”

            “Nox, please calm down.” Aurea stopped moving towards her.

            Cullen got a tingle at the base of his spine, alerting him to the rise of magic in the room. He stayed back. Hadar joined him at his side in a few seconds, his whine alerting the three to his presence. If– No. Nox felt threatened by him, and moving towards her would only make that worse.

             “Do not tell me to calm down. Tell me what happened!” She couldn’t breathe, there was a weight pressing down in the center of her chest. She felt the air around for a remnant of her father’s magic, of her mother’s spirit: it was stale and cold.

            “They died, Nox.” Aurea tried not to choke on the words. I can still spare her. “It was an accident, Nox. It was no one’s fault.”

            Cullen kept his face passive, though he did not support the decision to lie to her. Nox was not his sister, she was not his anyone.

            “You’re still lying!” Her magic strained against her control.

            “I am not lying. It was not your fault. But they died, Nox. And you had a lot of trauma. You don’t… You don’t always remember what happened.”

             “Cullen.”

            He looked at Nox with surprised fear, like a child called on by the teacher when they didn’t know the answer.

            “Tell me what happened.” She was pleading with him.

            He hesitated for a few moments contemplating his options. The ex-Templar turned to Aurea, waiting for her to answer, giving her a chance to tell her herself.

            The blonde hesitated again, torn between the urge to protect her twin and telling her the truth.

            “Aurea, please.” Nox’s voice broke on the last syllable. She clasped her hands in front of her and her knees threatened to buckle.

            Eyelids closed over gold eyes and a sigh blew past partially opened lips. “They were murdered, Nox. It happened when we were sixteen. Templars broke into the house and they,” she couldn’t bring herself to finish her sentence. “I was supposed to die with them. And you… you took the fall.”

            Nox stopped breathing, her chest constricted like it was bound by a too tight corset. She backed up, stumbling away from her sister. Cullen held his hand out to her. He was saying something to her, his mouth moved slowly, but the only sound she could hear was her own breathing and the rush of blood in her ears. Each inhale got harder and harder. Aurea was moving towards her, golden eyes filled with pain and guilt. Her head spun and her magic flared.

            Cullen caught Nox as she fell, his arms barely exerting any effort to hold her lithe frame. His chest hurt. He lifted her completely, turned to ask Aurea where he should put her, but stopped suddenly upon seeing her with an arm wrapped around her middle and a hand over her mouth. The Sherriff turned from her and made his way to the second floor with Nox curled against his chest.

            “Cullen,” Nox’s voice was small when she said his name on the stairs.

            He said nothing, didn’t know what to say to bring her comfort or to help her understand. His eyes remained forward even though he could feel her stare on him. She curled in closer to him and before he knew what he was doing, he leaned down and placed a kiss to the top of her head. Hadar followed at his heels, his nails clicking on the wood floor. Cullen found Nox’s room with ease. Gently, he placed her on her bed and covered her with blankets. She was crying quietly with one hand fisted in her hair and the other curled around her throat. He sat on the bed for a few moments and placed his hand on her arm.

            Helplessly, he watched her gasp and shudder with each sob that traveled through her. He comforted her as best he could, shushing her softly, rubbing her shoulder and arm, brushing hair out of her face. Seeing her like that, a woman he loved, was painful to say the least. She was a kind soul, a woman who used to go out of her way to help people. He understood completely Aurea’s need to protect Nox when she was like that. Cullen waited until she had calmed her gasping, her shuddering, until she fell into a, hopefully, peaceful sleep. So as not to disturb her, he gently rose from the bed and told Hadar to stay with a gesture of his palm.

            Downstairs Aurea sat in a fur covered wingback chair with her head in her hands. Her stomach churned and the acid boiled. Cullen’s footsteps were quiet on the bed, but she couldn’t move. A hurricane of emotions was running through her: rage, guilt, shame, grief, bitterness, wretchedness. She wanted to rip something apart, to completely and totally destroy it so it was unrecognizable.

            She wanted blood.

            “She’s asleep.” Cullen sat across from Aurea in a straight back chair. He placed his forearms on his knees and clasped his hands together. Aurea wasn’t looking at him, her gaze somewhere on the floor between her feet. “She told me that her memory sometimes slips. I had not realized the extent that she meant.”

            Aurea remained quiet, but raised her head to look at him.

            “Are you alright?”

            He was genuinely concerned about her, the idea was almost comical. “Yes.”

            Cullen smirked a little and rolled his neck. “You don’t have to lie.”

            “If you knew the answer to the question why did you ask?” She bit at him, showing the tips of her fangs.

            “I was giving you a chance to open up.”

            “When have you ever known me to do that?” Aurea sat back and looked up at the ceiling. “I am fine. I am always fine.”

            He watched her carefully, observing her every breath and facial twitch. She was unlikely to open up to him. It was possible the only people she would open up to is Lark or Nox. Still, he wanted her to understand that he was here for her, he would help her as best as he could.

            “Aurea–”

            She looked back at him and held her hand up. “Please spare me the bleeding heart, I’m here for you, speech. I don’t need it.”

            He nodded, understanding that Aurea was not a person that felt emotions easily. Emotions made her weak in her eyes. Considering everything that she had been through it was not surprising. It can’t have been easy to feel in a place like the correctional facility she was in. Cullen knew she had PTSD, he had witnessed it first hand. It wouldn’t be far fetched to assume that Nox had it too.

            He started to stand up.

            “Could you stay?” It was quiet, barely above a whisper.

            Cullen nodded and sat back down, keeping his eyes on hers. “As long as you need."

Chapter Text


 

            His large fist slammed down onto the table in front of him. It was riddled with maps and pages of documents holding information on the two sisters. Howe’s face was a violent shade of red. Templars from the Legionnaire division were poised stiffly in front of him.

            “They are two girls! How have we not found them yet? They cannot possibly just disappear into thin air!” Spittle flew from his mouth while he was screaming at them and none flinched.

            “With all due respect sir, we told the public the girls were killed while escaping. No one is on alert for them.”

            Howe glared at the templar that spoke up and sat back in his chair. “She called that cousin of hers. Lark Hawke.” He scoffed at the name and crossed his arms. “How did we not get a trace on that?”

            “She used a burner phone and–”

            “You act like I have any idea what that is.” Howe’s impatience was getting more and more visible.

            An older Legionnaire carefully explained what a burner phone was and how it was used. “The phone call was short and she blocked her number before she called. By the time we got permission from the phone company to retrieve the number–”

            Howe sat up straighter and narrowed his eyes. “Permission? We don’t need permission to do anything! You lie if you have to and you find me those Maker damned girls!”

            The templars left the room slowly and in single file. Howe glared at their backs as they left, wishing he could make them do their job faster. It was only a matter of time before Aurea Amell found a way to make his life more difficult than it already was. There had already been conspiracy theorists who suspected him of ordering the family of Mathias Amell murdered.

            Mathias had been a nuisance since the day he managed to leave the Circle. He preached about schools instead of the Circles, letting the abominations leave to visit family, revoking templar’s powers over the mages. The apostate had a large following of supporters, people who loved him. A few wanted him in charge of the Division of Mages. That position had always been held by a clerk of the Chantry and it would always be that way if Howe had anything to do with it.

            He needed those girls dead.

~

            Aurea swung her left opened hand at Cullen and clapped him gently on the side of his head.

            “Three- One.” She straightened and went back into a fighting pose, waiting for him to catch his breath.

            Cullen took a drink of water and rolled his shoulders. “How is it that you can be out of commission for four years– was it four?– and still be this quick?”

            “Pent up energy. Are we going again or not?” Aurea stretched her arms over her head and leaned to each side.

            The ex-templar sighed but took his stance, ready for whatever the rogue had to throw at him. She moved at him, throwing punches and kicks in quick succession and he blocked them without ease. The last time they had spared she had been fourteen and he was sixteen ready to leave for the templars. She wasn’t as quick then and he took her easily. Now he struggled to land his own hits.

            “Did you check on Nox?” He dogged a swing at his head.

            Aurea snarled and dipped below his arm and nailed him in the shoulder. “Yes. She’s still sleeping. Or she was pretending to be.”

            “There’s a storm coming,” the voice whispered in her ear. It was a woman’s voice, thick with a Creole accent.

            Aurea turned her head.

            His fist connected with the side of her jaw harder than he meant it to. The blonde was taken by surprise, made no move to dodge.

            The sensation of falling slowly took over her. Head trauma is a funny thing. She blinked her eyes, the movement slow and sluggish. Her feet were falling out from under her as she tumbled towards the floor. There was a woman. She wore a full blue and white vertically stripped skirt with a white petticoat peaking out from underneath. Her shirt was white, but the back of it was stained with crisscrossing bloody lines. The only part of her dark black skin visible was the back of her neck and her hands that dangled by her side. Before she turned the corner and disappeared from view completely, she turned and made eye contact with Aurea. Deep brown eyes had wrinkles around the corners. There were strange scarification patterns around her eyes and lips. Sharply pointed ears arced gracefully towards the ceiling. Wide and full slips smiled at the falling blonde.

            Aurea hit the floor hard, her head bouncing once before lolling to the side. She turned her head back and her eyes focused and unfocused on the ceiling, Cullen’s face looming over her. There was a loud ringing in her ears and she struggled to hear Cullen.

            “Amell, can you hear me? Shit, Aurea. I’m so sorry. Aurea?” He sat on his haunches and placed a hand on her shoulder.

            The girl blinked and focused on him. “There was a woman.”

            Cullen sat on the floor completely. “Aurea?”  

            She continued to lay there, tracing the crown molding with her eyes. A rather unpleasant ache was taking up residence in her jaw and it was only a matter of time before her head started to pound.

             “Stay down until I get back.”

            That he didn’t have to worry about, as Aurea was perfectly content to lay on the floor looking at the ceiling. She put the ball of her left hand to her left eye and pressed in gently. There was a woman, there had to have been, and Cullen didn’t see her. Was she losing her mind too? There were footsteps upstairs softly muffled by the ceiling above Aurea.  

            Why do they keep mentioning a storm?

            “Here,” Cullen sat down again and gently placed a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel on her face, “Keep that on.” He placed his feet on the floor and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. At least she wasn’t bleeding. “I told you this was a bad idea. You’re distracted and I really could have hurt you.”

            “How could you not have seen her?”

            He tilted his head, a few loose curls falling around his face. “See who?”

            Aurea moved the peas a little lower and sighed. “The woman. She walked right through there. Hell, Cullen she had to have been behind me, she whispered right in my ear.”

            “What did she say?” He flashed back to the woman he saw in the window.

            “She said there was a storm coming.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “But that isn’t the first time I’ve heard that.”

            The sheriff raised his brows. “What do you mean?”

            The blonde sighed and shifted her butt on the floor. “On our way down here we stopped in Silent, Alabama because Nox couldn’t handle the drive anymore. She was really out of it. When I fell asleep that night I had a dream about my parents. Only everything about it felt real. I mean I could smell them and feel them.” She paused, deciding how much she wanted to tell the ex-templar. “Before the dream ended, Momma said ‘there’s a storm coming.’ And then she told me to come here.”

            Cullen sat and listened in silence, knowing well that there was more to the dream than she was telling him, however he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to get it out of Aurea easily. “I did see a woman. When I was leaving the other day, after the attack. Nox had asked me in the kitchen if I saw a woman. I said no. And then as I was leaving, I looked back up to the second floor, where that beast escaped from, and there was a woman standing there.”

            The rogue’s head was starting to throb and her jaw ached. “So the place is fucking haunted. That’s just lovely. And exactly what I needed.”

            Cullen watched her for a few moments. Her gold eyes were still behind the lids. She had one hand placed lightly on her sternum, the other holding the bag to her jaw. Her right leg was drawn up with her foot flat against the floor close to her butt.

            “Why are you staring at me?” She turned her head slightly.

            He sighed and laid down next to her, looking up at the ceiling. “I didn’t know.”

            She waited for him to continue.

            After a few minutes he spoke again. “I didn’t know what they were doing to her. To the others. I…” He swallowed.

            “You couldn’t have saved her, Cullen.”

            “I could have tried.”

            “No, you couldn’t have. Cullen, do you really think she was the only mage there who was innocent?”

            He was silent.

            Aurea continued. “Cullen how many of those mages do you think stood up to the wrong templar? Or were too powerful like Dad? Or Nox? Do you think they would hesitate for one minute to put Lark or Garrett in there if they found out they were mages?”

            “I had hope–”

            “No you didn’t. Cullen you wanted to stay blind. And I don’t blame you. You idolized the Chantry and the Templar Order for everything they are supposed to stand for, but don’t. Not all templars, Cullen. But enough. And we both know that if you would have tried to say anything to stop what was happening you would have wound up dead.”

            The ex-templar ground the ball of his hand into his eye. “Maybe that would have been better.”

            The elbow to his ribs was unexpected and he gasped.

            “Cullen Stanton Rutherford if I ever hear you utter those words again, I will kill you myself.”

            He didn’t doubt it.

~

            Nox was still in bed, watching the sky turn dark outside the bedroom window, when Aurea opened the door for the fifth time. Instead of closing it and leaving like she did the times before, she walked into the room and got into the bed with her sister. The raven-haired twin kept her back to her sister, ignoring the feeling of gold eyes trying to make eye contact through the back of her head.

            “I thought it would be easier if you didn’t know.”

            “For who?”

            “You.” She sighed. “Me. Both of us really. I just didn’t want to hurt you again.”

            Nox stroked her hand over Hadar’s snout while he slept. “Tell me everything.”

            Aurea was still, her chest struggling to let air in. She didn’t want to go back there, to remember everything that had happened. Certain things are not meant to be relived. Was she ready to pull back the Band-Aid she had placed over the bomb wound?

            “It was six years ago on a Friday. We were at our home in Georgia, do you remember that? Dad was planning on moving us back to New York. I was going up early to stay with Aunt Leandra. You were mad at me because I was going to a concert with Lark.” Aurea swallowed and curled her hands under her head. “I called Lark after we got home from school. You were out of the room, talking to Dad I think. Zi was trying to get Malcom to settle.”

            In the dark of the bedroom, traveling back six years, she found herself wishing she could cut out her heart again. It was beating faster and harder in her chest like it was trying to help her get it out.

            Her skin hurt.

            “There was an explosion. It blew out the windows and knocked me into a wall. I. . . When I woke up,” she stopped. Her hands clenched into fists. No. “When I woke up I was in the hospital and you were gone. They were gone.” She kept her voice as even as she could.  

~

            Her face stings from the heat of the blast. A piece of glass has lodged itself in her upper arm. Fingers slick with her own blood wrap around the sharp serrated edges and pull the glass out. Her cry isn’t registered as her own as the glass tears through skin on her fingers and her arm. The smell of smoke and fire fills her nostrils and it’s so thick she almost can’t breathe through it.

            “Mathias! The girls!” Her mother’s voice filters over the ringing in her ears.

            Aurea struggles to get up, her limbs shaky with adrenaline and most likely a few broken bones. “Mom!”

~

             Aurea held her sister as she cried. Her hot tears stung like acid on Aurea’s skin. It was better that way, with only one of them truly remembering what happened until Nox remembered herself. An apology would never be given for trying to protect her sister from the worst of things. Scared hands soothed over the shaking form of her sister. There was a moment where she shared the pain with her sister, where she felt each cell of her heart dying.

            A soft whine floated up from the end of the bed and Aurea lowered her gaze to give a reassuring smile to Hadar. The dog had suffered just as much as the twins. He lost his person. Mathias Amell had had Hadar since he was no bigger than a hand. The twins were five when Mathias brought him home. For nights Mathias would remove Hadar from their bed until he finally resorted to his fate and let the dog sleep with them. The dog was getting old.

            No. That’s enough depressing thoughts for one day.

            The room was pitch black before Aurea could untangle herself from Nox. It was better if Nox slept, got her strength back. It was better if…

            The eldest didn’t bother turning the light on when she walked into her room. She stood in the center, searching for something she didn’t recognize. Hope. Serenity. Faith. Understanding. Acceptance. Love. Forgiveness. Life. Her feet were turning her in slow circles so she could take in her surroundings. The home her mother had designed for a life she would never have with them. Before Aurea knew what she was doing, she was walking down the hall to a room they had not been in since it was cleaned.

            The door opened with a quiet click and it swung open softly. Moonlight broke through the sheer curtains and casted long shadows from the tree outside across the room. Aurea entered slowly, closing door behind her.

~

            Her legs stumble her as she makes her way to the door of her room. It was blown off its hinges in the blast and lays awkwardly on the floor. She teeters across it, arms and hands held out to balance herself.

            “Dad!” Zi cries out from the living room.

            She can’t hear Malcom. Why can’t I hear Malcom?

            “Malcom!” Aurea calls out again and again for members of her family. “Nox! Zi! Dad!”

            Her arm hurts and throbs, and blood trickles down her arm like honey.

~

            There was nothing of them in the room. It was void of everything that made them them. She opened the walk-in closet, hoping that there would be some of their old clothes in hanging among the racks, but it was empty of everything. Closeness, that’s all she wanted to feel. Just one more moment of being held by them, of smelling them, of hearing them laugh, of feeling them, of talking with them, hearing their voices, being near them. It dawned on her that she would give anything to have them back. She walked further into the closet, hoping to find something that was forgotten, something of theirs.

            Hot painful tears welled up in her eyes. She clenched her jaw in anger. Her closed fist slammed into the mirror at the back of the walk-in, shattering it into dozens of pieces. A few pieces of glass lodged between her knuckles. She watched the red of her blood drip from her fists onto the carpet where it soaked in. Aurea turned on her heels and placed her back against the wall. Without pausing, she slid the small mirrored pieces out of her knuckles and tossed them on the floor with the rest.

            She closed her eyes to the room. For some reason it made riding her emotions easier. Aurea accepted the anger: anger was easier to feel, less hurtful, less disappointing. Less human. It was hard not to feel alone, however she still felt completely alone. Then she felt guilt for feeling alone, for wallowing when in the next room Nox was suffering just as much, if not more so than Aurea. She wasn’t alone, not all of her family died. She still had Nox. The want for the family she had lost was wrapping its roots around her heart so every time it pumped it killed her. It wasn’t something she could un-root.

            Her gold eyes opened and gazed up at the shelf above her head. She could go find Cullen. Or find a phone to call him. Her parents had to have burner phones located somewhere in the house. She looked down, ready to stand up and leave when she saw a black phone laying between her feet. It was an old cell, the kind that had that snake game on it. Hesitantly, she picked it up, unsure how it got there. She didn’t even know if it would still work. Her thumb held down the power button, torn between wanting it to turn on and wanting it to stay off. After a few moments of wavering on her stance, the phone’s screen glowed a bright green.

            Her fingers dialed between smacks of heavy tears. It rang three times before the other end picked up.

            “Hello? Aurea?”

            “Alistair,” she was sobbing before she started the second syllable of his name.

            “Are you alright? Are you hurt?” Concern laced his words until they cut at her.

            She couldn’t breathe. She was gasping for air. “I–I–”

            There was the sound of a door shutting on the other side. “Baby, breathe. Aurea, I need you to breathe. Take deep breaths. I’m right here.” He sounded pained, like he was trying to keep himself from crying for her, of feeling everything she couldn’t.

            She pressed her free hand into eyes and cried into the phone. He stayed on the line with her through her sobbing, her gasping. His name kept slipping from her lips in gasps and cries. Her knees raised to her chest and she rested an elbow on one, her hand covering her eyes and forehead.  

           “Aurea, I need you to tell me you’re okay. That you aren’t hurt. Push a button once if you’re okay.” He waited on edge until he heard a beep. “Okay. Okay, that’s good. That’s good you aren’t hurt.”

            She tried to force words out, but her throat kept constricting around them like a boa.

            “Oh, baby. Oh Maker, Aurea. I’m here. I’m right here. Just tell me where you are. Tell me where you are and I will be there.” A car started, and the radio was turned down quickly. “Cheddar, sit.”

            She took a deep breath, steadying her words. “I’m in Par–”

            The line went dead.

            She threw the phone against the wall, letting the pieces shatter across the empty space. Her feet let themselves slip across the floor so her legs laid flat against the carpet. She could have had him.

Chapter Text


They stood still in the shadows, waiting on the girl to come out from her obscene work place. She worshiped false gods, put them up on a pedestal reserved only for the Beast. She was a hypocrite. Entering the Chantry to turn and place offerings to her Voodoo gods. The priestess was as foolish as her ancestors and she would die the same as they did. They snarled quietly to themselves. The shop lights flickered off except those on the altar in the shop window.

To night was not her night to die.

They would watch her for a few more days, collecting her sins like pocket change. The time was not right for a sacrifice. They had to wait. But waiting was hard and their fingers itched to awaken their long lost friend, their master, their god. When the Beast awoke, they could take what they pleased from people. The sacrifices would not have to be so perfect, so needful of death.

Still, a gnawing rage and worry scratched at the back of their mind: the sisters. It had been quiet now from the mage. It was unlikely that she had died. Had she closed her mind off to them? It was a possibility and they would be thankful for the quiet. They needed the sister, her protector. But she would have to wait. It needed to be the perfect moment for what they had planned for the gold one. For now, they would watch.

~

“We have got to get out of this house, Nox. We have been cooped up for weeks. We need a bit of fun. I need a bit of fun.”

Aurea was laying on her back on the floor of the kitchen, tossing an apple into the air and then catching it. It had been a few days since she had punched the mirror, since Nox had slipped, since the phone call.

Nox sighed and fidgeted her hands. “You don’t think it’s too risky?”

Aurea took a bite from the apple and tossed it into the air again. “I think I’m willing to risk it. I mean no one is looking for us other than the templars. Everyone thinks those two girls that escaped are dead. And the news did us a huge favor by using pictures from high school. We’re white so they were at least flattering pictures.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I never said it was funny. But it is true. Nox we need to get out of here. I think it will do us both some good. And New Orleans is giant and there are always tons of people. No one will notice us.”

“What about money?”

“Dad has money hidden all over this house. We can go and you can get more stuff for…whatever.”

It was a good idea. The sisters had been on edge since they were sixteen. Nox couldn’t remember the last time she really had fun. And tensions were high between them after Nox’s memory had slipped a few days before. The dreams had mercifully stopped, she had healed her burns as much as she could. They were running low on a a few things they couldn’t get at the store here. And she missed the New Orleans from her youth. Their parents would take them there nearly every weekend when they lived in Georgia and at least three times a year the three years they lived in New York.

“Okay. Hadar can stay with Cullen? I think a dog would be good for him.”

Aurea nodded and Hadar whined. “You need a break too, baby. Cullen would love to have you.”

“You really think we can do this?”

“I think we have to try.”

New Orleans was loud and bustling when the twins arrived. Cullen had agreed enthusiastically to watch Hadar while they were gone, the dog was less enthused. The pair found a hotel for the night two blocks from Jackson square. It was a quiet hotel, only a few security cameras to avoid. They used fake names of course, paid in cash, Nox felt comfortable enough using a glamor on the both of them. Aurea’s hair was turned a shade of brown and Nox decided to go full blonde. It was a strange sight and Aurea giggled for fifteen minutes in the car before they could go in. They entered the hotel as Eleanor and Luna Trice.

The city was as any big city was: smelly, loud, dirty, too many people, and absolutely fantastic. No one casted them a second glance once they abandoned the glamour and took to the streets. They passed a few bars, jazz and rock softly floating out of the open doors and windows. There was a cat in an antique shop window who watched them curiously as they passed. Jewelry shops that held shimmery and shiny pieces of art. Street performers crowded the paths around Jackson Square. Three or four of them openly practicing magic in the form of illusions. It was the perfect place to blend in. Café du Monde was packed to the gills, but they knew it was worth the wait. It had been years since the two had come. The last time it was with their parents. Zi couldn’t get off work and Malcom had school. Mathias took them to all the best places he knew, snuck them two sips of alcohol until Estee found out. And then she snuck them one more.

“We should stop by and see Dad’s friend. Do you remember him?” Aurea picked up their coffees and Nox grabbed the two bags.

“Uncle Diata? What was his last name…Diata…” Nox struggled to grasp at the order of letters.

Aurea walked them across the street to a bench in Jackson Square. “I don’t think he ever actually gave us a last name. He was always just Uncle Dia.”

“Do you remember how to find him?” It felt strange being out in the open without being on edge or afraid.

“He had a shop at the back of a laundromat if I remember. Somewhere here in the quarter. I’ll know it if I see it.” She knew it was a long shot, but how many could there be in the French Quarter? It was a blue store front, mint green shutters, front wall made of glass windows. There had been a dog out front.

They ate in silence, enjoying the warm sun and the light breeze. All around them people walked by, barely sparing them a second glance. Telling the world they were dead was the nicest thing Howe could have done for them. It was a good day. Nox was smiling, her skin was brighter, her hair was healthier, she was gaining weight, she was starting to use magic again. Small spells like helping the garden, protection sigils, memory sigils (that had worked thus far), a headache tonic for Cullen that he said worked.

After breakfast the twins made their way up and down the streets. They kept their eyes open for the laundromat, but didn’t close them to shops they wanted to see. There were comical Voodoo shops offering hexes and love spells. The pair decided to visit Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. They looked around but bought nothing. There was a Voodoo doll that looked like Garrett that Aurea wanted to buy and send to him, but Nox insisted it was a bad idea and that it did not look like their cousin.

Even though it did.

After three hours of wandering the French Quarter, they came across the laundromat: Suds and Buckets. The sisters looked at each other before nodding and entering the quiet laundromat. A few people raised their heads to look at them, watching them curiously.

“Whatchu two wan?” An old lady sat in a bright yellow chair with a small hairless cat in her lap. She had rich brown skin and wore her gray hair in a voluminous afro.

“We’re looking for Diata.” Aurea spoke, trying to sound as nonthreatening as possible.

The old woman surveyed them for a few moments before she spoke. “He’s in tha back.”

 Aurea took Nox’s hand and the pair walked towards the back of the building. A metal beaded curtain separated the back section from the front, and a thick and heavy line of brick dust stretched from one side of the door to the other. Cautiously, they stepped over it and the beads parted and closed around them with loud clacking.

The air in back was thick with the smell of incense and spiced food. There were bookshelves scattered throughout the room stacked with old books, skulls, jars of unidentifiable substances, candles, incense. It was quiet except for the humming of an old blues song.

“What can we help you– girls? Aurea and Nox.”

Diata was a tall man with extremely black skin. It was beautiful to look at especially with thick swirling bands of tribal tattoos on his arms ending at his knuckles. He was broad in the shoulders with slim hips and legs as thick as trees. His eyes were large and downturned, a beautiful shade of deep brown that looked black under florescent light. There was a scar across the wide bridge of his nose that settled over one high cheekbone. His lips were thick and full, turning up at the corners slightly.

The pair stood their silently, unsure of what his reaction would be to them.

“Hey, Uncle Dia.” Aurea spoke first, testing the waters.

Dia marched towards them, his hands hanging loosely at his sides. He crossed the room in five long strides and wrapped the girls up in his arms, pressing them to his chest. Nox hugged him back with the arm that wasn’t pressed against her sister’s side in the embrace. Aurea, stayed still and stiff. It had been years since they had seen him, but before they were locked away, Dia was very much apart of their lives. He came to every birthday, every family gathering Mathias had. He wrote letters, called, video conferenced with them. He was in every way their uncle.

“I knew. I knew you would come to see me.” He let them go regrettably and cupped their cheeks with his hands. He smelled like spices and vanilla. “Come sit. Tell me everything.”

It took the twins several hours to recount their journey to their old family friend.

“There is something that we haven’t yet told you.” Nox spoke slowly, looking away from Dia’s heavy gaze.

“I know that.”

Aurea crossed her right leg over her left knee and toyed with the rips in her jeans.

“A few mornings ago, I was attacked by something. It…wasn’t any demon that I have ever seen. I’ve gone through all of Dad’s books, and I haven’t found anything. It was red, had solid black eyes, no nose or ears, and backwards knees– almost like a horse. And when it grabbed me,” she rolled up the sleeves of her sheer white cardigan, “it burned me. I used a healing poultice, but it didn’t help completely.”

Dia sat on the edge of his chair and took Nox’s pale hands in his own. He inspected her arm carefully, avoiding touching the still sensitive skin. The burns wrapped full around her arms, giving him a good idea of how large the hands were. He hummed and let her arm rest in her lap again. “There are a lot of strange things in the Bayou. Could be a spirit manifesting itself.”

“Wished Mom would have mentioned that.” Aurea grumbled from her seat. Sweat stuck pieces of her hair to the back of her neck. There was an unpleasant throbbing making its way through her skull.

“You dreamed of her.” Dia crossed his ankle of her knee and leaned back in his chair, dropping an arm over the back.

Aurea nodded. “Dad too.”

“You didn’t tell me that.” Nox tried not to be offended.

“You were…a little out of it.”

“Tell me about the dream.”

“We were back in the old apartment in Georgia. Mom was cooking something. She and Dad…They felt so real, ya know? I could feel them, their warmth, I could smell them. It felt so real. They told me,” she stopped. She didn’t want to se crazy. Dia waited patiently for her to continue. “She told me there was a storm coming. Only she said they’re strong. Which…seems to me like it’s a person. And then she said they wanted blood and that Parish would protect me. ‘The power protects its own.’ And then Dad said ‘there’s power in the blood. The beast is ready.’”

“This storm came to you then.” Dia picked up a glass of thick blue liquid and took a drink.

She swallowed, uncomfortable with how much this man knew. Why did they come to see him again? What it a smart choice? Should they have left him alone? “I don’t know if it was the storm Momma was talking about. They were… they weren’t human, but they looked it. They had white hair and white eyes. They were tall and had long crooked fingers.”

Aurea remembered how the blood had dripped from them and how that same blood stained the carpet when she woke.

Nox kept her eyes surveying her sister. She was tense and uncomfortable. Unlike Nox, Aurea didn’t fidget when she was nervous. The person her twin had described matched the one she had been seeing in dreams. Are they dreams though? The youngest twin started to fidget.

Dia observed Nox thoughtfully. He could see the gears turning in her head, a thought she didn’t want to say out loud. A dream unspoken between sisters. Aurea was not the only one that had this. “Nox, what about your dreams.”

“They’re just dreams.” She lied.

Dia let her.

“It doesn’t help that the house is also haunted.” Aurea rubbed the back of her neck, wishing the dull ache away. Now was not the time for a headache.

“Are you sure?” Dia smiled and produced a picture from a table beside him. He handed it to the twins, waiting for them to look it over.

Aurea instantly recognized the woman. It was the one who told her a storm was coming. And then got her punched. She could tell from the subtle sharp inhale from her soul mate beside her that Nox recognized her too.

“She told me a storm was coming.” Aurea let go of the picture so Nox could look at it.

Nox traced the old frame with her ringed fingers. “Before the creature showed up, she was in the hallway. Hadar saw her too.”

“That,” Diata started, “is my ancestor. Her name is Kione. It means ‘someone who comes from nowhere.’ She was born on a plantation not far from here. Her mother was named Lisimba.”

“Was our house the plantation?” Nox felt horrified at the idea. She knew it was a probability that her father’s family had owned slaves, but had hoped desperately for it not to be true.

“No. She was born at a place called Le Sang de Bayou. The Blood of the Bayou. It was a violent place. Many people went missing there, many died. As for the haunting: no, she isn’t. When I heard you were killed, I prayed to my ancestors to help you, to search for you. Guide you. Kione was the one who answered.”

Nox handed the picture back to him, pleased and at the same time, rather sad. “How did she die? Sorry, was that rude?”

“Was she an elf?” The blonde had an idea of how the woman died.

“Old age, blessedly. And yes, she was. Two crimes committed before she was even born.” Diata kissed the picture and placed it back on the table.

“So you can just call on your ancestors like that?” Aurea humored the idea of seeing her mother and father again.

The black man nodded, sipping the liquid again. “Yes. There is a small ceremony if one can call it that, a simple offering. And you ask for what you need. If they can help you, if they want to help you, they will.”

A young man who looked a lot like Diata entered the room. His eyes were a lighter brown, and his afro was shaved on the sides and cropped close in a mohawk on the top. He wasn’t quite as tall, but still taller than the twins seated in front of him.

“Do you two remember my son? This is Addae.”

The girls nodded in unison, smiling a welcome to him.

“My other son Sekou is in New York at the moment. Now, Aurea if you would go with Addae he can help you get supplies.”

Aurea was hesitant to leave her sister, but knew Nox could defend herself. She followed Addae out of the room, eying a large tattoo on the back of his bicep. He had another on the back of his neck, small and discrete. They were beautifully done and mesmerizing to look at.

“Can I ask what they mean?”

He looked over his shoulder at her, a dazzling smirk tossed her way. “You can, but it doesn’t mean I’ll tell you.”

Aurea snickered despite herself. “Are you getting coy with me, Addae?”

He dropped his head back on his shoulders and laughed. It was deep and rich, caught between a chuckle and a full on laugh. “Coy? Nah. That’s one thing I ain’t. And you’ll have to be a bit more specific than that. I’ve got more than what you can see.”

“Is that an invitation?” She narrowed her eyes in a leer.

That smirk was given to her again and he turned his head back from looking over his shoulder. He said nothing else, and continued to lead her further from her sister.

The mage sat in her chair, suddenly nervous to be alone with Diata. He was watching her, his eyes holding secrets he would never tell anyone. It was known to her that he probably knew she was lying about her dreams, that she wasn’t saying everything. That she didn’t want to in front of Aurea. The blonde already worried enough, Nox had no need or desire to make it worse. She wanted to protect Aurea just as much as she wanted to protect Nox.

“You dreamed about that creature, didn’t you? The same that Aurea did.”

Nox was silent for a minute, focusing on the mana that flowed through her. It used to be a comforting feeling, but anymore it was awkward and painful. “Yes. A few times.” She crossed her arms over her chest and drew her thumb lazily back and forth across her lip. “The first they were murdering a girl in the swamp. They said... They said that there’s power in the blood. And that the beast is ready.”

The knife drug and into and twisted against brown flesh again and again. She was crying out, blood gurgling in her throat. Her hands were thrashing against the dirt, wet sounding where it  mixed with her blood.

“After they killed her, they said that the offering was made. And then I woke up in the morning. I thought Aurea had come in, but she didn’t say anything about it. Not that I think she would.” She twisted a loose string on her white skirt. “There was another time that really stuck out. It wasn’t like the first dream at all. It was like I was them in the first. The second, I was following them through reflections: windows, puddles, drinks. They were walking through New Orleans looking for something, or someone. They killed a boy on the street. I could feel their repulsion at him.” She shuddered and closed her eyes. “They stopped in front of a Voodoo shop where they saw me. They were furious. They grabbed a woman walking by and they killed her. Just because they could. And I woke up. I could feel her blood on my skin where it sprayed across the window.”

Diata was eerily silent while Nox recounted her dreams. There had been two bodies found in the street a while back. The police still had not caught who did it. A deep frown settled on his lips and between his brows. “Have you seen the beast?”

Nox shook her head. “There was another dream. It…makes more sense now.” She stood up from her chair fluidly and took a turn about the room, trailing her fingers over jars and bottles, observing their contents. “A few nights ago. I think Kione woke me from it. I was in the Fade. Not the dream Fade that everyone goes to. The actual Fade. We were close to Parish, I think. There was a spirit there with me. At first I thought it meant me harm, but I think it was wisdom or guidance.”

She picked up a bottle of dried elfroot and inspected it. “It told me to be careful. To be careful ‘treading here so close to it.’ When I asked what the spirit meant by it, it said the blood. And it said there was a storm coming.” She sighed and sat the bottle back down.

“I think you should start practicing magic again. You’re going to need to defend yourself. You’re connected to whatever that storm is. The both of you. I’ll give you some protection. Brick dust can help. No one who means you harm can cross it.” Dia stood up and started collecting bits and pieces and putting them into a bag for her.

“Can it stop a storm?”

~

 

“So Diata was…not really what I remembered,” Aurea confessed.

The twins sat cross-legged side by side on the bed. In front of them sat containers of takeout food: crawfish boil, po’ boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice. Things they hadn’t had since their parents died, things they missed.

Nox picked up a crawfish and broke off the head.

“Excuse you.”

“What?” Nox tilted her head.

“You’re a vegetarian. You don’t eat meat. Or are you joining my heathen ways?” Aurea sucked on the head of her dismembered crawfish and then tossed it in the pile with the other carcasses.

Nox chuckled and followed suit. “I’m a pescatarian, Aurea. I eat fish and shellfish.”

Aurea squinted at her sister eating the crawfish. “You’re killin’ me here.”

Her twin tossed the empty shell of the crawfish at her. It hit Aurea square in the chest and Nox smiled victoriously.

“That is extremely disrespectful to the crawfish. How dare you.” She tossed the remnants in the pile with the rest. “So the po boys are all mine then.”

Nox scoffed and picked hers up defensively. “Except the ones with seafood.”

“So, let me get the straight: you can eat fish and other fishy things, but you won’t eat bacon.”

The black haired girl nodded. “Yes. I need to get protein somehow and I hate tofu. Besides, crawfish are too good.”

Aurea picked up her own po boy and took a mouthful. “Bacon. Bacon is good. Ribs. Ribs are delicious.”

“I’ll take your word for it. But to answer your earlier statement: yes he was.” Nox took a small bite and swallowed before continuing. “I think what he gave us will help though. Even if he couldn’t help with my memory problem.”

It was hard to hide her disappointment. She was always afraid that one minute it would just shut off, that she wouldn’t remember anything again. That she would lose control of her magic, that they would win. She didn’t want to be a burden to her sister any longer.

“You are not a burden. Don’t give me that face, we’re twins. You aren’t a burden. You’re my sister and I love you and it’s my job to protect you, just like it’s your job to protect me.” She took a sip of her drink. “Besides that, you’re getting better. You’re not carrying around a baby doll anymore. Or that god awful taxidermy raccoon. The baby was creepy enough with its missing eye.”

Nox was silent.

The blonde winced subtly and put her food down. “Nox, I was just teasing. I’m sorry, it wasn’t funny. But you know how I am: I would rather joke than deal with my shit. My point is, you’re getting better. Trauma takes a long time to heal.”

“That wasn’t why I was quiet.” Nox brought her sandwich to her mouth. “I was quiet because I still have it.”

Aurea covered her face and groaned, falling back onto the bed. Her twin smiled and she chewed her bite of food. A knock at the door sent both of them into tense statues.

“Yeah?” Aurea called out as she reached into the bedside table for her gun.

“It’s Addae, can I come in?”

The both relaxed and let out a sigh of release.

“Yeah, one second.” The blonde started to rise from her place on the bed, but Nox raised a hand and flipped the latch with her magic. The rogue looked at her with a smile and a raised brow that she ignored.

“Come in!”

Addae opened the door and a smaller woman walked in behind him. “This is Elena. She’s a friend.”

Aurea eyed her suspiciously. She still didn’t fully trust Addae and was less likely to take his word that Elena was a good person.

Her twin on the other hand.

Nox smiled warmly, marveling at the woman in front of her. She was shorter than Addae, and she thought maybe shorter than herself. Her dark brown curly hair hung down to her shoulders and a few pieces fell around her face. Full lips were upturned at the corners, a perfect cupid’s bow, her nose was wide and looked like a button. Her big almond shaped eyes were upturned at the corners. They were a beautiful shade of dark brown and from where she was sitting, Nox could see the streaks of honey in them.

The observant twin turned her head to look at the smitten one. She smiled at little and looked back to Addae. “What can we help you with?”

Addae smiled and came into the room further. “Well we wanted to see if you wanted to get dinner, but I can see you two have that covered.”

The mage smiled and gestured to the food in front of them. “Want to join us? We have plenty.”

Elena smiled like a cat and sat on the bed in front of Nox. The way she looked at her sister made Aurea itch to go lock her in the bathroom. She then knew how Garrett felt when anyone looked at his baby sister and cousins.

“Thanks,” Elena picked up a crawfish and dug in. She had a soft Cajun drawl with a twinge of a Spanish accent. “Y’all get enough food?”

Addae sat across from Aurea and picked up a sandwich and licked some sauce off of his finger.

“We’ve been away for a while. Why dip a toe in when you can cannonball?” Aurea watched her warily. Elena was gorgeous, and she couldn’t blame Nox for seeing it. “Nox is a pescatarian so we have to get double of everything because I like meat.”

The man across from her smirked again. Aurea met his gaze and threw one right back at him. He was the type to get her in trouble and she would let him. If Mathias were alive, he would have been having conniptions as soon as Addae walked in the room.

Elena saw the look Addae gave the blonde and she slugged his arm. “You’re so fuckin’ dirty. Why does everythin’ have to be a innuendo with you?”

Nox laughed and grabbed the last corncob out of the styrofoam container. “Aurea’s the same way.”

“I make no apologies for that.” She leaned back against the headboard. “Elena, what do you do here?”

Elena tore her gaze away from Nox and looked at the blonde. “I work at one a those tourist trap Voodoo shops. The kind with shrunken heads all up in the window. Pays the bills. Sometimes I help Dia out with his shit. One a the only real Voodoo shops in the quarter.”

Addae snorted and elbowed his friend. “She sells herself short. She’s kind of one of our Voodoo queens here in the quarter. She’s good at what she does.”

“Why you always gotta lie? And what is a pescatatian?”

“Pescatarian,” Addae corrected before eating the meat from the tail.

“That’s what I said.”

~

After dinner, the four of them decided to go out dancing. Aurea was surprised Nox agreed: crowds and loud clubs weren’t really her thing. Or they didn’t used to be. But the fact of the matter was, the girls had spent six years away from each other. Could she still claim to know who her sister was, what she liked, what she didn’t? Did they still know each other?

The club was loud, but surprisingly not as crowded as most of those on Bourbon street. They played a mix of music from jazz and blues remixes, R&B, hip hop, that spanned across generations. All that mattered was that the bass was heavy and sent their bones rattling.  All four danced with each other, pressing bodies close, swaying hips, laughing. For that time, the twins felt normal. They were surrounded by people who didn’t recognize them, who didn’t care.

Aurea drank, and danced, and drank. Eventually, the group split off into pairs: Aurea draped herself over Addae, and Elena painted herself on Nox. It felt good to be that close to another person, to feel the heat of their skin, the sweat, the muscles move in a graceful manner. It had been six years since Nox had human contact of a nature other than abuse. And Elena gave it willingly.

Nox wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s waist and pulled her closer to her body. The feel of her hips swaying against her sent the mage’s head spinning. She hadn’t danced with anyone like this since she was sixteen, hadn’t kissed anyone since she was sixteen. Had never…

Elena grabbed the mage’s face gently in her hands. “Stay here with me.” She brought her lips close to Nox’s ear when she spoke, letting them graze the soft flesh there. A pleased hum drowned in the music when the taller girl nodded and blushed.

The Voodoo queen liked her. The magic in her blood hummed under her fingers. From the moment she saw her, Elena knew she was a mage and a powerful one at that. She had been beaten down, no doubt by templars who don’t understand. Nox was hiding things, keeping them locked up so that they could eat at her. Elena took the witch’s pale hands in her dark ones and raised them above their heads.

Aurea grabbed Addae by the shirt and drug him down to her level so she could teasingly nip at this lower lip. He nodded and let her leave the floor first, watching her wide hips sway. She stopped behind her sister first and whispered something in her ear. The two had a quiet conversation before Aurea kissed her cheek and made her way to the back hallway. Addae nodded to Elena and headed to the bar to get one last drink before going to find the blonde. The shot burned his throat, though he made no show of it.

After checking in with her sister, making sure Nox knew she wasn’t ditching her, she made her way to find a secluded spot in the club. The liquor made her body warm and relaxed, her thoughts not so fast and dangerous. She found an open storage room and waited with the door open just a crack. After a few moments, she could hear heavy footfalls in the hallway. When Addae passed in front of the door, she drew it open and yanked him in by the hand. She pinned him against the door after shutting it, pressing her lips against his.

She needed this.

Her hand wrapped around the back of his neck, pulling him closer to her. He tasted like Hennessy. His own hands were grabbing at her hips, at her thigh, dragging it up around his waist. Addae flipped their positions, forcing her back against the door. Teeth were biting at lips, tongues soothing the sting left behind. His body was large against hers, trapping her in a way that made her a little nervous. The alcohol numbed the feeling: let her take what she needed from him. She pressed her heels into the top of his ass, pushing him harder against her.

Addae moved his lips down to her neck and then her shoulder where he sucked a mark into her skin. His large hand pushed the white of her tank top up over her breasts. He groaned at the sight and any embarrassment she felt about the old white bra was forgotten. She drug her nails over his shoulders and down his arms. Her desire to feel his skin against hers was eclipsed by the need to be quick. Her breasts awkwardly fell out of the cups when he pulled them down under them.

She bit her bottom lip to keep from making noise as he took a nipple into his mouth and sucked roughly on it. Her hips rolled against him and she chuckled when he moaned around her. Tan hands reached between them to undo his jeans, fighting with the zipper in such close confines. When it was finally unzipped, Aurea slid her hand in and wrapped around his cock.

“Commando, hm? A man after my own heart.”

Addae took his mouth off of her and hissed, biting his lower lip. She pumped him fast, feeling her own desire rush her to finish. He reached his hand in his back pocket and pulled out a condom. It never hurt to be prepared for anything. Especially when you were going out. Aurea shoved him away from her so she could pull her shorts down and over her shoes. In a matter of seconds, she was pinned against the door again and Addae was sliding himself into her.

She whimpered at the stretch and tried to relax. Addae stopped, kissing her lips and her neck until she nodded at him to keep going. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders and she nipped the lobe of his ear before burying her face in his neck. He was thick and long, stretching her completely and in the best of ways. Aurea tossed her head back when he started thrusting into her. One of her legs supported her by her tiptoes on the floor, while she wrapped the other over his hip, supported by his hand behind her knee. He was gripping her so hard she knew he would leave bruises on her.

Finally, he moved his free hand between them, his thumb seeking out her clit. He found it with expert ease and began to roll and push it with his thumb. She whined as he worked her quickly, pushing her towards orgasm quicker than either of them would have liked under normal circumstances. He felt good. The heat from his body scalded her front and the door froze her back. He put his forehead against hers and made eye contact with her. When she gasped at a particularly hard thrust, his beautiful and infuriating smile made an appearance.

She was getting close, her toes curling in her shoes, her walls tightening around him. No matter how badly she wanted to, she couldn’t look away from his eyes. The only thing she could do was to hang onto his shoulders and let him take her. She ached in the best way possible. With one final roll of his thumb against her, she came. She kissed him hard, whimpering into his open mouth while he continued to work her. Her legs shook around him and her back arced away from the door, pressing her chest into him. It seemed like it was never going to end. She pushed at his hand, but he kept it where it was, keeping her on a plateau of a sharp orgasm. With a final growl, Addae stilled his hips against hers and spilled himself.

Aurea whimpered when he removed his thumb from between her legs. Carefully, he lowered her leg to the floor. His body stayed pressed against hers and she was thankful for it. Her knees were shaking and her head swam above her in the clouds. Gently, he slid himself out of her. The condom he tossed into the trashcan beside them. He wrapped his thick arms around her middle and kept them there. Aurea rested her head on his shoulder as they both gained their breath back.

“Is ‘thanks’ an inappropriate comment to make?” Addae’s deep voice finally broke the silence.

The blonde chuckled against him, leaning back to look at him. “Not at all. So thanks.”

He gave a short laugh before he let her go. Once he was confident she was steady on her feet, he stepped away from her completely. After he tucked himself back in his jeans and zipped them, he looked for her shorts. When he had them in his hand, he helped her slip them back over her shoes and up her legs. While he helped with her shorts, Aurea worked on getting her boobs back into her bra. She made a note to get better ones.

“Let’s go find the girls.”

~

Nox wasn’t sure who kissed who first. They went outside to cool off and get fresh air. She had turned to ask Elena a question and then they were kissing. The shorter girl’s lips were soft and gentle as they pressed against Nox’s. Small hands cupped her pale face gently like they had in the club. It had been years since Nox had been kissed. She missed the feeling. Her body froze when Elena’s hand slid up her top.

“Wait.” She pulled away from the kiss slowly. “Elena, wait.”

Elena stopped when she registered the request, pulling away from Nox enough that she could look at her. “You okay?”

Nox nodded and ran her hands over Elena’s arms. “It’s just…”

“You’ve never gone past second.”

The mage laughed and dropped her head against the brick wall behind her. “No. I was away at a place where I couldn’t. I was there for six years and I was sixteen when I left…I just never had a chance.”

Elena nodded and put her back against the wall beside Nox. “I get it.” She intertwined her fingers with paler ones. “First time shouldn’t be when you’re drunk anyways.”

They were quiet for a few moments, letting the New Orleans night air wash over them. A few pieces from Nox’s braid swirled around her face. She liked Elena. More than she reasonably should given who Nox was.

“Can I call you?”

“Yeah! Wait, no.” Nox sighed and rubbed her face. “I mean I would like that, but… We kind of don’t have phones. I would have to get a burner phone and–”

“What kind a trouble you in?”

“A lot.”

“Well it’s a good thing I like trouble.”

Chapter Text


 

The twins walked back to their hotel alone, Elena and Addae retreated further down the street towards their homes. They were quiet for a few blocks, dodging dunk people practically falling out of bars.

            “You liked her.” Aurea smiled and brushed her shoulder against her sister.

            Nox grinned and blushed, and tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “I did. Do. I’d like to get to know her better. She wants to call me.”

            Aurea laughed and leaned her head against her sister’s shoulder. “You’ve got a girllllllfriend.”

            “I do not.” The blush grew hotter on her cheeks.

            “You totally do!” Aurea took her sister’s hand and danced them around the street in a circle. “You are gonna fall head over heals in love with that girl. I can see it now,” she drew her hands in front of her face with her fingers stretched wide, “two witches living in a New Orleans shotgun house with flowers out front. Or maybe just outside the city and you’ll have like six cats and two mabari. And there will be plants everywhere and in the mornings you’ll great each other with a kiss and tell each other how much you love the other.”

            Nox laughed walked backwards away from her sister. “You are ridiculous! We kissed!”

            “And you are smitten!” She sung the words into the air and spun in a circle.

            “Ludicrous!”

            Aurea jogged up to Nox and put an arm around her shoulder. “If you say so.”

            “Fine, what about you and Addae?”

            Aurea made a ‘psh’ noise and shrugged. “Addae and I had sex. I would hardly call that smitten.”

            Nox shook her head. She stopped. “Tell me you washed your hands before you touched me.”

            The blonde stopped beside her and paused. Did she wash her hands?

            The mage looked horrified. “Maker, Aurea, that is so gross!”

            Aurea couldn’t help but to laugh and wiggle her fingers at her sister. Nox continued to walk quickly away from her, avoiding poking fingers. “It was just his penis!”

            “Do not scream penis in the middle of Bourbon street.”

            “I could scream vagina?”

            A loud laugh. “Do not do that either! And I’m calling fist dibs on the shower when we get back to the hotel.”

            “Oh come on!”

            “No. It’s mine. And I’ll use all the hot water.”

            “That is just not a nice thing to do.”

            “Neither was touching me with penis hands!”

            “Well now there’s an image I didn’t know I needed.” The more Aurea thought about it the more she snorted when she laughed.

~

            Aurea groaned when the sun broke through the flimsy white hotel room curtains.

            “Oh good, you’re alive!” Nox’s voice was far too cheery for Aurea’s liking. “I went out and got breakfast.”

            The blonde grunted and rolled off of her stomach. “Any nightmares?”

            Nox was surprised at the question. “Surprisingly, no. It was a restful sleep. Maybe I should drink more often.”

            “Well you know my theory on that.” She pushed herself up and leaned her back against the headboard, watching her sister move about the room. “Is that a new dress?”

            Nox nodded. “Yeah. I… you’re going to call it reckless.”

            The rogue gave her a ‘look-who-you’re-talking-too’ face.

            “Oh fine. I did street magic.”

            Aurea’s eyes went wide and her eyebrows raised. “You did what?”

            “No one recorded! I don’t think… It was an accident, really.”

            “How do you accidentally use magic?”

            Nox handed Aurea a container and began pacing again. “Don’t you take that tone with me.”

            “What tone! It was a legitimate question.”  

            “I just did, okay. And someone asked where my bucket was to donate, so…”

            Aurea laughed and opened her food. “You hustled someone.”

            “I did no such thing.”

            “Uh huh. So how much did you make?” Aurea shoved a forkful of bananas foster pancakes into her mouth.

            Nox was quiet and began to twist the raw gemstone rings she wore on her fingers.

            “Oh, that’s not a good sign.”

            “I made about $500.”

            Aurea choked on the bite and managed to cough it back up. “Maker, Nox!”

            Nox sat on edge on the blue chair in the corner. “No one recorded. I made sure to keep an eye out for it, and I used a glamor! I had red hair and freckles and a big nose. Completely unrecognizable. And I got you and Cullen something!”

            “Bribery will get you everywhere.” Aurea laughed and cut another bite. “I’m not mad, Nox. Just surprised. Didn’t think you could be as reckless as me. Now, what’d you get me?”

            The younger twin shook her head and went to pick up a bag beside the door.

            “How did it feel?” Aurea took another hefty bite of food.

            The mage flexed and twirled her fingers. “It felt…Good. I didn’t think I still could use magic honestly. For six years I couldn’t. Any time there was even a twinge of magic every mage in the place, who wasn’t already tranquil, was smote.”

            “Smitted? Smat? Smote? Smitan?”

            “Smote. But it does sound weird, yes. It felt good. Like…”

            “Taking off your bra and pants at the end of the day.”

            “Exactly.” Nox sat the bag in front of Aurea and laid down on the bed, her hands held up in front of her face, her palms facing the ceiling.

            Aurea smiled and watched her sister for a few moments. It was good to see her so happy, to see her use magic again. She opened the bag and laughed when she saw what was in it.

“You bought me a bra and underwear set.”

            Nox laughed with her and turned her head to the side to look at her. “You needed some!”

            “Well it’s not like you don’t either.”

            “I am wearing mine.” She watched her sister shove another mouthful of food into her mouth. “Hey. I was thinking we should go visit that girl that went missing around Parish. The one Cullen found. She might know something.”

            The blonde turned the red lace and silk bra over in her hands, studying the pattern while she thought and chewed her food. In truth, she had thought about tracking the girl down too. Margret Addison.

“Do we think she’s here?”

“They have a pretty big ward here. It would make the most sense. I’ll call Cullen and ask.” Nox sat up and reached for the phone on the nightstand.

Cullen answered on the fifth ring, his sleep voice thick and gravely. After arguing gently with him for ten minutes, he finally gave them the name of the institution she was in. Aurea spent the phone conversation changing into her new underwear set and checking herself out in the mirror. Her scars were prominent and she lingered on them for a few minutes before she dressed.

“So what,” Aurea asked while she slipped a shirt over her head, “are we just gonna walk in and ask to see her?”

Nox bit her lip. “I am not sure. I was hoping you would have an idea.”

“Well, they probably only allow her parents in to see her.”

“I could construct a glamour?”

The eldest nodded and sat on the bed to pull her black boots on. “Only problem with that is: we don’t know what they look like. And I don’t have a computer to look them up.”

“We really should get one of those.”

“They’re too easily traced. We’re off the grid for a reason.” Aurea tied the boots tightly.

“Well maybe it’s time we get back on it. I want Howe to pay as much as you do.”

“Can we not have this conversation right now? What about the library?”

“Security cameras, they can trace the computer, get fingerprints.”

“If they can connect the visit to us. Which they probably can’t. What would we want with her?” Aurea put on deodorant and tossed it back in her bag. “Let’s just go see your girlfriend.”

“She is not my girlfriend!”

~

            It wasn’t hard to find the shop Elena worked at. It was the most comic looking Voodoo shop in the quarter. The entire time the twins were making their way to the storefront, they both felt on edge. There was a sort of lingering sensation of a bruise on the back of their necks. Aurea kept her eyes open and stuck close by her sister. She should have brought her gun, she decided. When they entered the store, it was almost with relief.

            Elena was behind the counter, her curly hair creating a wide halo around her face. She smiled when she saw Nox, her cheeks pinking up.

            “And to what do I owe this pleasure?” She straightened up, taking her elbows off the wood counter.

            Nox returned her smile and Aurea felt sick.

            “We need a favor,” the mage admitted. “We need to look up a girl’s parents.”

            “For reasons,” Aurea added as she looked at a few statues around the shop.

            Elena hummed thoughtfully as she looked Nox up and down. She was wearing a pair of burgundy velvet shorts and a white button up top that she had rolled up to her elbows. The shade of purple looked good on her skin.

            “And what do I get in return?” It was a simple question, but one that held a double meaning.

            Aurea narrowed her eyes. “Okay, see, I don’t have a problem selling myself for favors, but I will not subject my sister to it. Even if you are cute and she likes you.”

            “Aurea!”

            “What!”

            Elena laughed came around from the counter. “Relax, I’m not some middle aged man. I want a address where I can write to you. Since you don’t have a phone.”

            Nox glared at her sister when she started to protest. “That is completely doable. So you’ll help.”

            Aurea kept her mouth shut. She didn’t like the idea of giving their address out to people. They just met Elena, she didn’t care of Addae trusted her. Aurea still didn’t completely trust Addae. Not to mention now that she was sober and not teasing her sister, the thought of Nox falling head over heels for someone she just met, made her nervous.

            “Of course.” Elena led the two behind the counter where they all three crowded around a six-year-old computer. “I’ll need a name.”

            “Margret Addison. She went missing from Parish.” Aurea rested a hand on the counter and leaned her weight into it. There was something about Elena that screamed danger, but Aurea didn’t know why. She easily could have done catastrophic damage by then, but she didn’t.

            “Got her. She’s pretty.”

            Margret Addison was nineteen and graduated just before she went missing in August a year ago. She had red hair and a freckled face. It was hard to tell from the grainy news article picture, but her eyes looked blue. Her smile was large and toothy, two dimples that nearly overtook her round face. She was an elf, though she tried very hard to cover her ears in the picture.

            “Says she was missing for two weeks…tried to kill the cop that found her…Well he’s gorgeous isn’t he? Shame I’m not into men…” She scrolled the article further. “Mentions nothin’ ‘bout her parents though. Other than they were relieved to have her home. I’ll check another article.”

            Nox studied the girls picture on the next article. She looked happy, carefree. It was hard to remember what that felt like. She was just a child. Another victim that would never fully comprehend what happened.

            “There, Danthik and Cordelia. Pretty borin’ lookin’ if you ask me.”

            “Can you print that picture for me?” Nox turned her head to look at Elena, ignoring the gaze from her sister over her shoulder.

            “Sure thing, Ange.” Elena pushed a button and turned to rest her left elbow on the counter. “How long are you two in town for?”

            “Not long.” Aurea went to wait by the printer where she was still able to keep an eye on Nox.

            “That’s too bad.” Elena traced a finger across Nox’s knuckles. “I’ll take that address now then, if you want to give it to me. I really would like to keep in touch.”

            Nox nodded and stopped a cold chill that threatened to run across her skin at Elena’s light touching. “I would like that too. I found some of our mother’s old stationary that I’d like to use.”

            The blonde told her sister she’d be outside and gave the pair a few minutes to themselves. It would be the perfect opportunity for a cigarette anyways. She pulled a pack out of her purse after she shoved the paper to the corner of her bag. She put the Sobraine in her mouth and looked for her lighter.

            “Need a light?”

            Aurea smiled to herself and turned to greet Addae. “How chivalrous.” She cupped his hand and leaned forward to light. “What are you doing here?”

            Addae flipped the lid on his lighter closed and leaned his back against the wall next to Aurea. “Came to pick up Elena for lunch. You look tense.”

            “I just have the very distinct feeling that my sister is about to do something incredibly stupid.”

            The black man laughed and put his hands in his pockets. “I know the feeling. The joys of being a sibling, yeah? Anything you can do to stop her?”

            It was Aurea’s turn to laugh. Smoke slid out of her mouth and into the air around them. “Not really. I just have to tag along and keep her safe.”

            The man beside her nodded and took the cigarette out of her hand. He took a generous puff and handed it back to her on his exhale. “She know you smoke?”

            “Sort of. Hey? You know anybody that could get me a computer? Has to be untraceable, or at least damn hard to trace. I don’t know how to do any of that shit myself.”

            He thought for a moment before nodding. “Think I know somebody that can set something up for you. It’ll take me a few weeks to get in touch with him. How can I reach you?”

            “Elena.”

            Nox exited the building, wrapping her hair back up into a loose bun. She ignored the smirk from Aurea and smiled at Addae. “Good afternoon.”

            “It appears so.” He pushed himself off of the wall with his shoulders. “Stay safe.” He directed the phrase at both of them, but made eye contact with Aurea.

            Aurea nodded and put the cigarette out with the heel of her boot. “You too. Come on, Nox.”

            The walk back to the car was filled with pensive silence. The blonde itched to take another smoke out of her purse. This was risky. If it was discovered that they weren’t her parents, all hell would break loose. Glamour can’t change finger prints. They could be traced back to Elena. And Maker only knew what they would do to Elena when they inevitably got ahold of her. It was risky. Breaking Nox out of Knickerbockers nearly killed the twins, and that was with Aurea having planned for three months. This was a spur of the moment suicide mission.

            “He likes you.” Nox finally broke the pregnant silence with something trivial.

            “Addae?” She shook her head and hummed. “He likes what I gave him, what I still can give him if I want to.” Aurea turned them down an alley and started digging through her purse for another black cigarette. “Look, Nox this might not be a good idea. We don’t have any men’s clothing. How are we going to pose as her dad? And once she realizes we aren’t her parents, what then?”

            Nox sighed and held her sister’s hand. “Then I’ll pose as her aunt. Or her cousin. Or her sister. The point is we have options. Dad used to wing things all the time.”

            “And mom would always have to save him,” the rogue grumbled. Things could only go wrong.

~

            The institution was an hour outside of New Orleans. It would have been twenty minutes if not for the traffic. It was a three story sprawling metropolis of doctor’s offices and patient rooms. The grounds were surprisingly decorated with gardens and concrete statues of Andraste and what was most likely supposed to be the Maker. It made Aurea uncomfortable. Or it could have been the heavy glamour over her skin.

            “Are you ready?” Nox adjusted her hair and slipped a long dress over her clothes.

            Aurea squirmed in the uncomfortable contraption that Nox called a respectable dress. “If I have to be. Let’s get this over with.”

            The inside of the institution was stark white: white floors, white walls, white uniforms. Even the stairs were white. It smelled like antiseptic, bleach, and crushed souls. There were security cameras on every corner of every hallway, but judging by the lack of security guards, and the fact that a patient was physically fighting with a nurse, meant that they were probably unmanned. Two large orderlies walked past them and eyed the two sisters suspiciously.

            “I need to use the bathroom.” Aurea turned from Nox quickly and headed straight for the bathroom.

            The door shut heavily behind her. She could feel her throat constricting, her face turning red, she was struggling to breathe. Her skin hurt and she was dizzy. Her outstretched hands searched the the wall in front of her for support.

~

            She opened her eyes to white walls. Aurea tried to lift her arms but they were heavy at her sides and could only lift two inches before they resisted. Her vision was bleary and she struggled to keep her eyes opened for more than three seconds. The lids were heavy like she had painted them with cement. Where was she? What happened? Her body hurt the longer she was struggling with consciousness.

            “Aurea?”

            Aunt Leandra.

            Aurea lolled her head to the direction her Aunt’s voice came from.

            “Do you know what’s happened?”

            Mom.

~

            “Aurea. Aurea it’s me. Can you open the door?” Nox tapped her hand softly on the white stall door in the ladies’ bathroom.

            Aurea blinked and shook her head lightly to clear her thoughts. She took a moment to calm herself and opened the bathroom stall. “Sorry, I had to pee.”

            “You did not. Are you okay?” Nox crossed her arms and waited.

            “I will be fine as soon as we get out of here, so let’s not dally. Now if you’ll excuse me.” Aurea turned from her sister and threw up into the porcelain white toilet. “Okay…” She straightened up and adjusted her hair. “Let’s go find your daughter and my niece.”

            “My niece, your daughter.”

            “Right.”

            The two sisters walked back out of the bathroom together, Nox pretending to fuss over Aurea’s hair. Aurea looked calm and collected, her posture that of a middle aged woman, her hair– now thanks to Nox’s fussing– perfectly coiffed. But underneath the surface of her paler skin, she was reeling. It smelled too familiar, it looked too identical, some of the faces were starting to look like the ones she had left back at New Haven.

Nox always carried herself gracefully, she had since she was a child, but something about the halls of this place, made her less sure of herself. She never saw anything outside of her cell at Knickerbockers. The only reason she ever knew what was happening outside the four walls was due to a few templars who took the risk to speak to her. They were usually ‘let go’ after they were discovered. Cullen was never caught though. He used to slip letters in with her food. She only heard about Cullen because it was all the guards could talk about for weeks.

“I would like to see my daughter, please.” Aurea kept her demeanor as middle-aged-mother as she could.

“Hello Mrs. Addison. Just sign the book for me and I’ll have an orderly escort you. How’s Mr. Addison?” The nurse slid the guest book around to face her.

“He’s well, thank you for asking. How has Margret been?” Aurea signed the book with a flourish and handed the pen to Nox.

The nurse sighed and chewed her bottom lip. “She’s been asking to leave again. She tried to runaway last night. Unfortunately, we had to sedate her.”

“I am not crazy!” A woman screamed loudly from down the hallway and Aurea looked up.

“I assure you it was for her own good.”

~

“And how do you feel knowing your sister tried to kill you? Killed your family? Your nephew? Malcom was only a child.” The ‘doctor’ looked at Aurea through thick glasses, his eyes searching over the rims.

The blonde narrowed her eyes. “No.”

“No?”

“My sister didn’t do shit.” When he looked at her calmly, she snapped again. “My sister didn’t do this! It was the Maker damned templars! Why aren’t you investigating them! Why am I here!” Aurea stood up and paced the room, throwing her hands around.

“Ms. Amell, you need to calm down.” He motioned to the orderly by the door.

Aurea turned and watched the burly man approach her. “Do not fucking touch me. Why are you doing this!” She was backing up, waiting until her back hit a wall.

“We’re just going to give you something to calm you down.” He made a note in her chart with a frown.

A man behind her stepped into her and wrapped his arms around her tightly. “Just calm down now.”

 “Get off of me!” Aurea thrashed against the arms. She drove her foot into the instep of the man behind her and simultaneously jammed her elbow into his ribs. He let go of her in an instant and she slammed her fist into the throat of the woman coming at her with a syringe. “Don’t touch me! I want to leave!”   

Another orderly grabbed her from behind, placing his feet on either side of hers. Aurea thrashed in his grip, driving her head back to slam into his nose. He grunted, but kept hold of her as another nurse approached her. She pulled her legs up and shoved her feet at the woman coming at her. The recovered orderly grabbed her around the thighs and struggled to keep her still.

“Let go of me! I am not crazy! I don’t need to be here!” Aurea watched the needle plunge into the meat of her arm.

“This is for your own good dear.” The nurse soothed stray blonde hairs out of Aurea’s eyes. “You’ll feel better soon.”

~

            “Mrs. Addison?” The nurse was standing up behind the counter and looked concerned. “Mrs. Addison, are you alright?”

Aurea blinked and ignored the concerned gaze from the two women around her. “Yes, I’m fine. I apologize, just a headache.” Her smile was meant to be reassuring. The nurse nodded and watched her skeptically. Aurea could feel the sweat bead on the back of her neck, but she refused to wipe at it. “No need to be concerned, I’ll be alright, I assure you.”

“I have some medicine in the car for you, Cordy.” Nox smiled at the nurse and linked her arm through Aurea’s. “She’s been getting them more and more with the changing of the weather.”

The black haired nurse nodded and smiled. “I’m the same way. Well you let me know if you need anything.” She gestured a lithe hand to an approaching orderly and the women walked away towards her.

“Are you alright?” Nox whispered lowly in Aurea’s ear.

“I’m fine. The sooner we get out of here, the better.”

The followed the young woman though the halls, Aurea keeping her eyes forward. She felt sick again, like there was an animal trying to claw its way out of her stomach. The smell of the bleach solution used to clean was burning her nose and throat.

This was a bad idea. A terrible idea. I should have put my foot down. I should have stayed in the car.

Margret Addison’s room was at the end of the hall by the stairwell. It was surprising that after her attempt to runaway, they hadn’t moved her rooms. The orderly unlocked the door and and let the two women enter before she shut the door and locked it behind them. Aurea’s skin exploded in a painful bruise, and she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

You are not trapped. You can leave. You are not staying. You are fine.

The young elf was on her bed curled into the fetal position. Her hair was dirty, and the bottoms of her pants were covered in mud.

She got far.

“Margret.” Nox spoke first and slowly approached the bed.

The redhead rolled over and her eyes landed on Aurea. Aurea who still looked like her mother. “Momma, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Nox.”

In a few seconds the glamour was gone and Margret pushed herself into the corner.

Aurea held up her hands. “We aren’t here to hurt you. My name is Aurea, I’m a friend of Cullen’s.”

The mage smiled and sat on the end of the bed, doing her best to exude a friendly aura to the girl.

“Cullen…” Margret watched them cautiously, eyeing the door behind the blonde.

“Yes. He was the one that found you.”

“I’m not crazy.”

Aurea recognized the urge to tell every living soul that came into your room that you weren’t crazy. The only thing it did was make you look more unstable.

“I know. I know you aren’t. We both do. Margret, can you tell us what you saw?”

She froze.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to tell us, Margret.” Nox placed a hand gently on the girl’s foot. “It’s okay. We won’t tell anyone, Margret. See, we believe you. We saw something too.”

“You did?”

Aurea nodded and sat at the chair in front of a small desk in the corner. “Yeah. We need to know if it’s what you saw. Cullen said that you mentioned a ‘beast’?”

It was quiet for a few moments, the girl watching the twins cautiously. Aurea could see her questioning if they were traps, if the therapist sent them in to try and see if she was still having ‘delusions’. She didn’t trust them, and Aurea didn’t blame her. While Margret was surveying them, the blonde took the time to do the same.

The elf had dark circles under her green eyes. Her hair was dirty and dry, they had cut it short. She was small, even for an elf. It wouldn’t be surprising if she were not eating anything. It was never known if they would slip your meds into your food. She had bruises on her arm and it took only a moment for Aurea to witness Margret pinching the skin there tightly. A nervous tick no doubt made worse here.

“I don’t remember what he looked like,” she finally spoke with a whisper. “I just…I was out hiking. And I got lost, which is weird because I know those swamps. And there was this house…”

The twins watched her try to remember details that were slipping from her. They knew the feeling well.

“It’s okay, Margret. Whatever you remember.” Nox took the girl’s hands in her own.

Margret looked at Nox confused. No one had touched her in a comforting way. Not even her mother. She was scared, afraid of her own daughter and what she was saying.

“I hid. I don’t know why, just that I had too. I was afraid. It was in the swamp. The house. I got lost. I hadn’t seen the area before. It smelled. Like…like a sink-full of dirty dishes that have been there for weeks. And rot. Dirt. I kept trying to find my way out, but it just kept getting bigger and darker.”

“How did you escape?” Aurea kept watch on the girl’s face. She wasn’t lying, but she was confused. Unsure of the answers she was giving them. She could either be telling us what we want to hear, or she genuinely doesn’t remember.

“No. I don’t really remember Cullen finding me. I just remember waking up here and not knowing why or how I got here.” She took her hands from the black-haired twin and placed them in her lap. “I’m not crazy. I want to go home.”

~

            She was lying on her back in a hard bed. She couldn’t move her wrists. Or her feet. There was something heavy around them, keeping them to the bed. She was cold. Someone was stroking her hair and singing to her.

            “Momma?”

            “Shhh. It’s aunt Leandra, darling. You’re alright. They sedated you.” She cupped her niece’s cheek. “They wouldn’t let the kids in to see you.”

            Aurea could feel the tears rolling down her temples and into her ears. “I want to go home.”

            “I know, sweetie. We’re trying very hard to get you out.”

            Her vision was darkening again, her aunt’s voice fading away from her. “I want to go home.” 

~

            Aurea drug herself back into the present. White walls, Nox, Margret, sun against the window, lilacs–Nox’s perfume, her voice.

            “I’ve asked Momma, she won’t let me out. She’s afraid of me. Says I have to stay here. The doctors won’t let me out. Not until I stop believing in my ‘delusion’.”

            “You are not delusional.” Aurea sounded harsher than she meant to. “You are not delusional,” softer this time, “You are not crazy. You are just as sane as anyone else. I believe you.” Something she wished someone would have said to her.

            “Orderly!” The nurse at the desk could be heard clear down the hall.

            Aurea looked at Nox and then back towards the door. The jig was up. Somehow, they had discovered Nox and Aurea were not who they came in as. In her mind Aurea started plotting how to get them out of there and not in handcuffs. Nox started to rise from the bed and Margret clutched her hand tightly.

            “Take me with you.” Her blue eyes were large and pleading with them.

            Nox looked at Aurea who shook her head and widened her eyes slightly. They couldn’t take her. They would notice. There would be a man hunt. They would be found.

            “Aurea, didn’t you want someone to take you?”

            “Of course I did, but that never happened! And if it had, the people that saved me would have been put in danger.” She turned her back on the two women and started opening and closing desk drawers. The footsteps were getting closer.

            “We can get her out of here.”

            “Nox, there would be a man hunt. Her parents would never stop looking for her.” Nothing. Of course there’s nothing.

            Nox stood up and brought Margret with her. “Aurea!

            Aurea stopped and stood up straight, looking out the window at a tree.

            “We can help her. What if she were me? Wouldn’t you want someone to help me if they could?”

            The blonde turned and looked between the two. Margret was terrified, no doubt understanding what they’ll do to her once the women leave. There would be more drugs, more ‘treatments’, she would be here forever.

            “Damn it.”

            Nox nodded. “Thank you.”

            Aurea caught Margret’s gaze and held it. “You have to keep up. You have to do what I say exactly when I say it. Okay?”

            She nodded quickly, her red hair shaking around her face.

            “Get on the bed on your side like you were before. Nox, get under the desk. No one say a word. Got it?”

            The younger girls nodded and did as she said.

            I can’t believe I’m fucking doing this.

            She waited on the side of the door that would block her from view. The sounds of the boots on the floor stopped in front of the door and Aurea reminded herself not to hold her breath. The anxiety from the others in the room was seeping around her and latching onto her skin like rows of octopus suckers. The lock turned, the knob twisted.

            The door opened.

            Aurea waited until the orderly was squeezing herself between the space before she slammed her foot into it, knocking her head into the metal frame. There was a scream on the other side and Aurea yanked the door open the rest of the way and grabbed the nurse by the shirt. She pulled her in and pinned her against the wall, leaning in close to her and putting a hand over her mouth.

            Aurea yelped.

            Her tanned hand yanked the syringe out of her leg before the nurse could push the drug into her. In seconds Nox was at her side, taking the syringe from her and using it on the nurse. In seconds she was sliding on the floor in an unconscious heap.

            “Margret, get up. We’re going.” The blonde was searching the orderly for the keys, cursing when it was taking too long to find them.

            The mage helped Margret up. “We need to hurry.”

            “I know this.”

            Margret grabbed a few things from her desk and shoved them in her pillow case. “We need the keys!”

            “I know this too! Keep your voice down.”

            When the keys were in her hands, she went out the door first, looking for any signs of trouble. The hallway was quiet. Which way does she go? Back out the front? Where there are more people to fight? The stairs? They couldn’t very well go out a window.

            “Why is it, whenever there is trouble in one of these places, there’s you?”

            Aurea whipped her head to the left. “Prosper?”

            Nox looked at Aurea in confusion, not recognizing the taller redhead in front of her. She was an elf like Margret, older though. The twins’ age perhaps.

            Prosper smiled at her and crossed her arms. “In the flesh.”

            “You’re coming with us.”

            The oldest redhead nodded and jerked her head towards Nox. “Your sister?”

            “Yeah. Tell us how–”

            “Stop right there!” There were four men running down the hall towards them.

            The blonde cursed and looked at Prosper. “Get them out of here.” She handed her old friend the keys. “I’ll meet you at the hotel. Go.

            Prosper led the two down a side hall, leaving Aurea alone. She let her eyes roam over each of the men, pausing at the batons on their hips. No guns. No guns is good.

            “Gentlemen, what do you say you just let me walk out of here and your dignity stays in check?” She smiled sweetly, flashing sharp teeth at them. When they kept walking, taking their batons out of the holsters, she sighed. “I guess that’s a no.”

            She rolled her neck and cracked her knuckles. They would only send one in first, the largest. After that, if he couldn’t take her, the other two would help. She needed to take the biggest down first and then get their batons away from them. The one in the middle swirled his baton through his hand. Aurea gave a short chuckle and got ready. He would come first.

            The baton swung through the air and she grabbed it, leaving herself open to a swing from the smallest man. The baton connected with her flesh in a painful whoosh and she gasped. She yanked the larger man towards her and threw him off balance enough to jerk the baton from his grasp. When a baton connected with the one in her hand, her entire arm jolted. She grabbed the tip of the stick, leaning back to doge a blow from the third man. She brought her baton up and slammed it against the fingers wrapped around the base of her opponent’s. When he let go with a scream, clutching his broken fingers to his chest, Aurea slammed the meal baton against the side of his head, sending him to the floor. There was one thing she forgot about.

            The big one.

            He grabbed her from behind, pressing her arms to her sides by the elbows. The third man was coming at her, baton raised. She couldn’t kick him, he’d take her legs like they did before. She couldn’t break the hold of the arms around her. His head was to the side so she couldn’t ram her self into him. Slamming her heel into the top of his foot would only work if he wasn’t wearing steel toed boots.

            The rogue was prepared for the punch that landed on her jaw, but that didn’t mean it didn’t send her head spinning. When she focused, he was coming at her again. The baton swung through the air, peppering her ribs with harsh blows. There was a mole on the side of his temple and the hair there was darker than the rest. His eyes were an ugly shade of bright blue. Like toilet bowl cleaner. He hit her with his fist again, splitting her lip open. She needed to get out of that hold. The batons fell out of her hands and she started to drop her weight to her knees.

            “Don’t bruise that face, boys.”

            Cold rushed over her. Her entire body felt like she plunged headfirst into Lake Michigan in the winter. Toilet Cleaner stopped hitting her and turned to watch the approaching orderly. She looked over his shoulder to the man coming at them.

            Cory.

            Hands on her thighs, spit on her cheek, tongue on her lips. Be a good girl. Be a good girl. Come on. Good girl. You’re so pretty. Blood on the white sheets, blood in her mouth from biting her tongue. Don’t scream, be a good girl for me. Maker you’re perfect. So tight.  

            Move!

            In one swift surge or speed and strength, she lifted her legs and wrapped her calves around Toilet Cleaner’s neck, crossing them at the ankles. Using all of her strength, she whipped his neck to the side until his weight pulled against her hold and she let him drop to the floor in a heap.

            “Be a good girl now, Aurea.” Cory smiled at her. His teeth were still perfect and white like he had just got them cleaned. He was bigger than she remembered.

            And just like that, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Her head swam and got lost in the torrents of her thoughts.  

            “There are people looking for you, Aurea.”

He was getting closer to her, if he reached out–

She felt like vomiting when his hand touched her cheek.

Frozen.

Cold body, cold hands, cold breath. Fire on her skin. She was on fire. No, no he was touching her. He smelled nice compared to the bleach smell that was always in her nose. Was that weird? That was a weird thing to say. Be a good girl. Fight, Aurea. Fight him. No. No. More cold. More punishment. More medicine. You’re lying. Good man. No.  

“I knew you weren’t dead when Howe sent some men to come meet me.” When she snapped her eyes to his, he chuckled. “I did know you better than anyone at New Haven.” He stroked the side of her face. “It’s a pity I’ll have to tell him you’re here.”

The blood she spat at him hit his face with a satisfying squelch. She clenched her jaw at him and raised her head.

“What happened to my good girl, Aurea?” His thick fingers wiped her blood from his face.

“She died,” she bit back.

The sickening smile was back on his mouth. “No, I think she’s right in front of me, pretending to be brave.” He looked to the man over her shoulder. “Simmons, take her to room 6. She and I will have a chat before Howe gets here.”

Move, Aurea!

She struggled to make her body obey her again.

“Let her go!”

            Cory turned to look at her approaching sister. He started to scream for more help until Aurea slammed both of her feet into his back, using Simmons’s chest as support. He went flying, landing on his hands and knees in front of her sister. In one breath Aurea dropped her weight to her knees and spun Simmons over her leg and to the floor. Nox shot a small orb of electricity at him, only enough to stun him until they could escape.  

            Cory got up and slammed himself into Aurea’s body. The two flew backwards, with him landing on top of her. She flipped them over quickly, straddling his hips and hitting every part of him she could get her fists at. He kicked her off of him hard, launching her backwards into the wall. He was on her in seconds, splitting the skin on her cheekbone when he hit her. Hands were wrapped around her throat tightly.

            “Maybe after this, I’ll spend some time with your sister.”  Cory sneered at her, and pressed harder on her wind pipe.

            Aurea let the white hot rage flare through her like a wild fire in a stiff wind. She turned her body and his hands slipped from her throat. Every ounce of rage she had kept locked inside exploded in a fury of punches, bites, and kicks. Her knee drove into his nose, the heel of her hand jammed against his eye, shit bit his fingers when they got to close to her mouth.

            “Aurea!”

            She kept going, crashing parts of her body into his. Was she screaming? Or was that Nox? Who was screaming? The blonde ball of rage ignored it. She wanted him dead. She needed him dead. Cory fell to the floor in a heap, unmoving. Nox leapt forward, grabbed Aurea by the arms and forced her to look at her.

            “Aurea! Stop. Stop, love. Please.” She cupped the side of her twin’s face gently. “Not like this. This isn’t you.”

            Yes it is.  

            “We have to go, Aurea.” Nox took her sister’s hand in hers and pulled her down the side hallway.

Prosper had shown them they way and got them out quickly. The youngest had questioned leaving Margret with Prosper, but she would not leave her sister to fight those men alone. It would only be a matter of time before more nurses and orderlies came to find out what the commotion was. Getting a bleeding woman past people outside with no one noticing was going to be another challenge. She no longer had it in her to pass a glamour over them, especially if she would have to do it for four women.

Aurea let Nox lead her through the halls and down stairs and more halls. Howe had talked to Cory. He knew everything about what happened to her. He would use it against her. Cory knew she was alive. He would tell Howe. Howe would come. They would all die. The house couldn’t protect her. Her body hurt. Her body was tired. Did she want to die? Or did she just want to sleep? Both sounded appealing to her. But she had people to protect, people to save.

She pulled away from her sister. “We need to hurry.” She quickened her steps into a jog and after a few moments heard her sister’s steps pick up speed.

“Hey stop!”

Aurea turned and caught the woman on the side of the temple enough to send her crumpling to the floor. Her twin cast her a disapproving gaze, but followed after her regardless. There were people on the stairs behind them, their footsteps echoing loudly in the acoustics of the stairwell. The blonde took the stairs quickly, jumping over the last three or four steps on each landing. Nox was only a few steps behind her at each jump, taking them quicker and quicker. If they were going to make it out of that place, they had to be fast.

“Left here!” But Nox rushed past Aurea and turned right instead, trying to throw off the people behind them.

The hallway they exited onto was long with no turns and no places to hide. Despite that worrying characteristic, it gave them the perfect shot to run at full speed without having to pivot. A loud piercing noise echoed in the hallway and red lights flashed above them. Then the doors started closing.

They needed to hurry.

Outside light was just in front of them, peering through the door like a long lost friend. The doors were still closing right when they got to them, and then they were closing one ahead of them. If they couldn’t get to that door by the time it closed, they would be trapped. Howe would have them. They would be killed. Prosper didn’t even have the keys to the car to get herself and Margret out of danger. Not that it would stop her, but having a car would certainly help.

Aurea’s ribs screamed at her with each labored breath that she took. Nox’s breathing was harsher than Aurea’s: not surprising since Nox was not active during her stay at Knickerbockers. The door was in reach. The blonde grabbed Nox’s arm and pulled her in front of her before giving her a hard shove out the door, sending her sprawling into the dirt. Aurea was four steps away from the door. She could see the hinges starting to close, to turn the door so it blocked off her escape. Nox screamed.

It closed.

Her dress bottom got caught between the door and its frame, jerking her to a halt. She turned and pulled at it harshly, ripping it at her thighs. Nox took her hand again and led her around the corner, where Prosper said she and Margret would be waiting. They found them hidden behind large flowering bushes. Aurea had no idea what they were, just that they smelled sickly sweet and she wanted away from them. They took off from behind the building and ran as quickly as they could to the car: Prosper running a little slower than she used to and a little more awkward.

The few people that were in the parking lot looked at them as they passed, one pulling a child against their hip tighter. Not that the group blamed them. Prosper and Margret were still in their patient uniforms and Aurea was covered in blood. Nox looked to be the only normal one out of all of them, but the siren was still going off. The jeep was right in front of them, a sanctuary in disguise. Prosper threw the back door open and shoved Margret in, sliding in next to her. Nox climbed over the driver’s seat and Aurea got in after her.

Without further delay, the blonde ripped the jeep out of the parking lot. Margret was shaking, her eyes still wide with fear and the realization that she just escaped an institution with three women she didn’t know and didn’t trust. Prosper rubbed at her leg through her pants, wincing with a great sigh. Nox took her sister’s hand off the shifter and held it tightly. They were safe. All four women were safe.

After a few hours of driving down the back roads, Aurea pulled the jeep to the side of the road. Margret stirred lightly from her sleep before turning to her other side. Nox looked at Aurea curiously, but released the grip she had on her hand. Aurea stumbled out of the car, leaving the door open to the warm stagnant air. Her feet were heavy, her legs shaky and threatening to collapse under her weight. Blessedly, Prosper and Nox stayed in the car. She barely made it to the ditch before she was bent over at the waist throwing up into the muddy weeds.  

The music from the radio filtered out into the swamp and the orange glow from the setting sun.

If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for ya son, I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one.”

Chapter Text


 

            The women arrived back at the house around ten, the air holding an odd chill to it. Nox helped Margret find herself a bed while Aurea set off in search of their first aid kid, Prosper following behind her.

            “Fuck.” Aurea sighed and dropped her head back as soon as the front door shut behind her. “We forgot the shit at the hotel.” She grumbled about missing a few of the clothes she did own and made her way to the kitchen. That was the last place they used the first aid kit.

            “You never told me you were rich.” Prosper flipped a light switch on the kitchen wall when Aurea bypassed it.

            “I’m rich. Well. Not anymore. When Mom and Dad died, their assets went to the government since I wasn’t old enough to claim them. I’m not sure how Gerdy managed to keep this place. Unless Dad didn’t have it listed under his name. He’s got cash stashed around here somewhere.”

            “Gerdy?”

            “Gertrude. Owns the dinner in town.” She let out a large ‘ha’ when she found the kit and sat it on the kitchen island before she sat next to it.

            The heavily freckled woman did the same, scooting a vase of utensils away from her. “You look like shit.”

            Aurea chuckled and winced at the pang in her ribs. “And here I was trying to be nice about not telling you that you got wrinkles.” She wiped at her busted cheek with an alcohol pad and hissed loudly, cursing her stupidity.

            Her friend took the kit from the bloodied blonde. “You’re going to fuck your face up worse.”

            Aurea studied her face while she cleaned the wound. She forgot how many freckles Prosper had. She always liked her eyes: they were a dark navy that looked almost like the night sky. The scar she had on her left cheek was fainter than it was before.

            “Gonna kiss me, Amell?” Prosper smiled as much as she ever smiled and placed a strip over the cut.

            “I might. So, you want to tell me what was up with that run back there?”

            She shook her head, dark red hair falling around her face. “Always the observant one. I ‘lost’ my leg. You want to tell me what has you shaken up?”

            “Just got up and wandered off, huh? I hate when they do that. I’m not shaken up. Cory.”

            “I tried to break out. Got pretty far before I shot myself in the leg. Because you know, I’m clumsy like that. The orderly? Why?”

            Aurea snapped her gold eyes back to Prosper and narrowed them. “They shot you?” And then quieter, less angry. “He put his hands on me.”

            “What good is a rabbit with only three legs?”

            The blonde smacked her upside the head. “You know I hate it when you call yourself that.”

            “What, tripod?”

            “Tripod. Now that’s catchy.”

They were silent for a few moments, Prosper gently wiping the blood off of Aurea’s mouth and chin. Her entire face hurt. The taste of bile was still lingering sharply on her tongue and in her throat. If her breath smelled, her old friend said nothing.

“I’m sorry about your leg.”

“I’m sorry about Cory.”

Aurea snarled. “I should have killed him.”

“You wouldn’t though, not in front of your sister. How did you manage to break her out?”

“I barely did. Took everything I had. Got hurt pretty badly on the way out.”

“She seems pretty…okay for Knickerbockers.”

“She wasn’t. It took a while for her to snap out of it. The longer she was out and the more I talked to her, the more she seemed like her. She still has slip ups, doesn’t quite remember what happened. Those days are fun.”

Prosper nodded silently and put the strips back in the box. “I wondered what happened to you after you got out.”

“How did you get here from New Haven?”

“Killed a guard who put his hands on me.”

“If only I would have done the same,” Aurea grumbled and got up to find a bottle of booze.

Prosper rolled her eyes. “You had to stay alive, Aurea. For fucks sake, you aren’t this stupid. If you would have killed Cory, you never would have seen the light of day and Nox would be tranquil.”

“Not for another three years. I could have broken out.”

“Oh bullshit. Then we would both be tripods.”

“Or a hexapod. Six legs are better than three.”

Nox walked in just as Aurea found a bottle of moonshine in the cabinet. “She’s asleep.” She pinched her thumbs and forefingers together in front of her. Her blue gaze flittered between her sister drinking out of the mason jar, and Prosper, who was holding her hand out for it.

“Good. She needs it.” Aurea reluctantly handed her friend the jar.

“What happens now?”

Aurea was tired of the question. “I don’t know. It’s not like they can tell the media two dead girls kidnapped two other ‘crazy’ girls. At most they’ll say Prosper and Margret broke out. Which means they’ll also probably get blamed for beating the shit out of the orderlies. Downside? Howe will now know we’re in the New Orleans area. So no more fuckups.”

“Well that’ll be hard for you to manage,” Prosper said with a snort.

“Tell me about it.”

“You were at New Haven with Aurea?” When Prosper nodded and took another drink, Nox continued. “What did you do?”

Prosper smiled and shrugged. “Killed the man that fucked up my wedding.”

“Oh.”

The three women left for bed soon after that. Aurea showed Prosper a room where she could sleep, and retired to her own. She laid herself down on the plush mattress, but she couldn’t sleep.

            White ceiling. Why do ceilings all have to be white. I could paint it blue. Or red. Red is too domineering though. White. White Snake. White Oleander. White chocolate. I hate fucking white. Is that a spot? Or are my eyes just matrixing things? Be a good girl.

            She got up.

            She made her way to the bathroom. Hand and fingers didn’t fumble for the light switch. The urge to remain in the dark lingered against her skin like a lover’s fingertips. Moonlight blocked by the heavy curtains. Bath or shower, bath or shower, shower or bath?  The shower seemed like a better prospect, one where she wasn’t likely to drown herself now that Prosper could protect Nox. Now that Cullen could. The bathtub was too tempting. Looked too much like salvation.

            The sound of the droplets hitting the glass reminded her of rain. Reminded her of Alistair and the first kiss they shared in an alley in Atlanta. It was hot then too. He tasted like the spearmint gum he swallowed in shock when her lips crashed against his like a car wreck. She walked into the shower, her clothes soaking and sticking to her skin. She should have taken them off, but her ribs still ached and she didn’t have the energy to care.

            The water was hot, nearly scalding. It ran down her face and into her mouth. It made it hard to breathe, but when was the last time she actually took breaths? Aurea slid down the wall under the spray and let her legs stretch out in front of her. The droplets hit her eyelids with soft plops against the skin. It stung the cuts on her face sharply. She should wash her hair. Wash his hands off her body where they still lingered. Wash his mouth off of hers, his teeth down the drain. Wash the blood off her thighs and out of her mouth. The water could take New Haven out of her, could take the white burned behind her closed eyes.

            Be a good girl.

~

            Nox woke up the next morning with a splitting headache. It started in the base of her skull, a sharp throbbing like a baseline to a dubstep song. It slid up her skull and settled on her cheekbones. She slowly peeled her eyes open, focusing and unfocusing them on the ceiling. Her magic was faint in her veins, a subtle shimmer that told her she used too much yesterday. She was someone who had never run in her life, who decided running a marathon would be fun. It was a mistake.

            With the pace of a snail, Nox sat up in bed. She needed lyrium. But lyrium purchases were heavily tracked and monitored. It was the quickest way to find apostates. Was there an alternative for lyrium? Surely in the six years she had been locked away there had been a development? But who was she kidding? Lyrium was the easiest way to control templars and mages alike. There would never be a legal replacement for it.

            With the knowledge that food would help, Nox eased herself from the bed. She grabbed a black lace and sheer robe from the back of a chair. The lace patterns mimicked lemon leaf and some kind of blooming flower. It was a gift from Aurea, something to make her feel normal and pretty. It did only one of them. The house was quiet, but she could smell coffee with chicory floating up the stairs.  She took them as quietly as she could, unsure who was awake or what time it was. Judging by the lack of paws at her heels, Cullen still had Hadar with him. It would be good for him to have a dog for a while.

Gerdy was bustling around their kitchen, slapping waffles down on a large serving plate. Her hair was tied up in a braided bun of sorts, a few white tendrils falling around her face.

“Good morning, Nox. I was wondering when you would wake up. Your sister is out on a walk through the bayou. I believe your guests are still asleep.” She smiled at her when she turned.

Nox returned her smile and pulled down a coffee mug. “Thank you. How did you know we were back?” The coffee made a pleasant sound as she filled the cup.

“Oh, I saw your car come through last night. Figured you two would be tired and in need of a good meal. Aurea said you brought home Margret?” Gerdy motioned for Nox to sit at the table and started to make a plate for her.

The mage sat willingly, not wishing to anger her headache more. Caffeine would help a little. “Yes. I…That was mostly at my insistence.”

Gerdy laughed and shook her head. “Broke her out did you?”

“Yes. And Aurea is not particularly happy with me about that. But in my defense, she also broke out one of her friends who apparently murdered someone, so.”

“What?” Gerdy sat the plate down in front of her with a smack.

“According to Aurea, he had it coming.” Nox eyed the food and felt her head throb in protest.

“You feelin’ alright, darlin’?” Gerdy looked over her silver glasses that were perched on the edge of her nose. She laid the back of her hand on Nox’s forehead.

Nox smiled and rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers. “Just a headache. I did too much at once yesterday. I’ll be alright.”

“So what will you do with Margret then?” Gerdy tucked a piece of hair behind Nox’s ear and went back to stir the eggs.

“We didn’t quite get that far.” Aurea walked in from the side door, slipping her muddy boots off before she came all the way in. She grabbed a cup out of the sink, rinsed it with water, and then poured coffee in it. “I don’t think she should stay with us though.”

Nox put her fork down and watched Aurea hop onto a counter. “No?”

She shook her head. “Nope. She’s a teenager. One who needs more help than we can give her, Nox. We are on the run from templars, who are now going to know we’re in Louisiana.” She took a drink of the coffee and drummed her long fingers against the hot ceramic. “She needs stability.”

The old woman nodded her agreement. “She has an aunt who wants her. Lexie. From what I understand she’s been arguing with Cordelia about getting her out of that place. I could make a call…”

Aurea pursed her full lips. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. How do we know she won’t turn us in?”

“Because Lexie believed her. Said she had seen things.”

“What’s the worse that could happen?” Nox pushed her plate away and closed her eyes. Her head was spinning like a disco ball.

“Uh, she could call the templars once she found out that a murderous apostate and her crazy sister broke her out?”

Aurea watched Nox in the silence that filled the space between them. She was in pain, Aurea could feel it roll of of her like thick storm clouds. She used too much magic the day before. She needed rest and a lot of it. There was something else weighing on her. Aurea could see it pressing down at the base of her sister’s neck. She sighed.

“Nox, why don’t you go lay down? Gerdy and I can hold the fort down and you need to rest.”

“I’m not going to go to sleep and leave Margret alone.”

“She isn’t alone.”

“Aurea, I love you, but you aren’t the best at comforting people.”

Aurea’s jaw clenched. “I think out of all of us here, I am the one who was in the same situation that she was. I know what she’s going through. I know how she’s feeling.”

“You don’t talk about it much.”

“Because you talk about Knickerbocker’s all the time.”

“That’s enough girls.” Gerdy’s voice was firm, a no nonsense threat their mother used to give them.

Aurea swallowed and let it drop, even though she still had an ocean of things she wanted to say moving in her throat. She got up from the counter and went outside to sit on the porch. It was cooler outside than it had been the previous few days. The swamp was eerily quiet, but she ignored it. The coffee burned her throat, but she swallowed regardless. She sat the mug down on the floor to her side and drew her knees up to her chest.

Nox wasn’t wrong; Aurea was a hard person. She had never been one to show weakness. Showing comfort to anyone wasn’t her forte. It didn’t mean that she didn’t feel, or that she couldn’t empathize. After five years of being kept in a place where emotions got you medicated, she learned to hide them. She learned to adapt.

She got cold.

Aurea sat in the chair for an hour before the pregnant silence was broken.

“Mind if I join you?”

She jumped at Cullen’s voice. He was standing in front of her, a neutral expression on his handsome face.

“Sure.”

He sat in a chair beside her, picking up her coffee and taking a drink. “You look like you have something on your mind.”

“We did a stupid thing. Broke out Margret Addison and an old friend.”

Cullen choked on the coffee and looked at her. “You did what?”

“Margret was Nox’s idea. Prosper was mine. They’re upstairs in bed.”

The stoic man was quiet and licked his bottom lip. “Margret…”

“She’s as sane as I am, Cullen. She was just in shock when you found her. She knows what she saw and I believe her.”

“Do you really think you’re the best people to take care of her?”

“Nope.”

He was shocked at the answer. He expected a fight, a protest of sorts. Cullen took his time looking at her. There was something else bothering her. A sadness beside her eyes, something weighing heavily on her.

“That isn’t what’s bothering you.”

Aurea smiled and looked into the trees on the other side of the railing. The swamp was dark and still. Like her. She wanted.

“Do you think I’m cold?”

The skin between his brows knitted together. “What do you mean?”

“Do you think I’m capable of comforting someone?”

“Yes, I do. If you have too.” He turned his chair to face her. “What’s this about?”

She was quiet for a while, watching white egrets make their way through murky water a few feet into the trees. They were beautiful birds. Despite their beauty, their calls were some of the ugliest Aurea had ever heard.

“I told Nox she could go up to bed since she’s so weak. She said she didn’t want to leave Margret alone. I told her that she wouldn’t be alone. She told me that I wasn’t the best at comforting people, like I’m inept at it. I’m a compassionate person, Rutherford. I just don’t fucking fling my emotions around like I do my libido.”

“I don’t think she meant to hurt you.”

“She didn’t hurt me.”

“Mmm.” He let her slap his arm. “There’s nothing wrong with being a stoic person, Aurea. You can still feel.”

She didn’t believe that. She felt numb half the time she was awake.

“He was there.”

An egret flew out of the trees in front of her.

“Who?”

She opened her mouth and then closed it, rolling her head from side to side. “The man who raped me.” It was the first time she had said the word rape. Rape. The word tasted sour in her mouth. She could feel Cullen’s shock and rage next to her. She knew he would be angry. “He was where Margret was. And…” Gold eyes closed to the world. “I keep thinking what if he laid his hands on her? On Prosper? He’s still alive. He’s going to tell Howe. And then he’s going to find us. All because I wasn’t strong enough.”

Cullen grabbed her arm tightly and pulled her closer to him. “Bullshit.”

“I should have killed him.”

It scared her how much she wanted to. How badly she wanted his blood on her hands. She wanted to make him suffer, to tear him apart synapse by synapse.

“Is he the one that did that?” He cupped her jaw in his hand and turned her head side to side.

“Yeah. Mostly.” She brushed his hand away.

They sat in silence for a few moments. Cullen drank the rest of Aurea’s coffee and watched the birds with her. They were alike, the pair of them. He knew she was strong: Mathias Amell started training his daughter from the time her sister exhibited magic. At the time, Cullen was jealous that Aurea was getting training from a mother who was a rogue and a father who was a mage. He taught her to sense magic in the air when a spell was about to be used, to know what type of magic it was before it was cast, how to defend herself from it. Despite all that, when she looked so small, he wanted nothing more than to protect her.

She would have made a wonderful templar.

~

            It was just after three in the afternoon when Margret woke up. Nox had given up and fell asleep in the garden just after two. Aurea sat on the front porch, nursing a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. What she really wanted was a particular strain of elfroot...

            “Can I have one?” Margret stood sideways in the doorway, peaking around the corner of it to look at Aurea.

            “A whiskey, sure. A cigarette, probably not. It’s a terrible habit.” Aurea held the package out to her, waiting patiently for the girl to come and take one.

            After a few seconds, Margret came forward and slipped a black wrapped cigarette out of the package. “Thanks.” She sat down in a chair next to Aurea and fumbled with the lighter. “Why’d you start?” She finally asked once she got it lit. “If it’s such a bad habit?”

            Aurea thought about it for a few minutes, struggling to remember the first time she smoked. “Stress. And I have a bad habit of collecting bad habits.” She took a few more puffs, exhaling the poison out into the afternoon heat. “How’re you doing?”

            “I can’t believe I did that.”

            “I know the feeling. But we all do what we have to do to survive. You could always go back. Tell them we kidnapped you.” The half-breed was serious about the offer.

            Margret was quiet, let an uneasy feeling settle over her. “I thought about it. But I don’t want to go back. I’m not crazy.”

            “Do you want to stay with us?”

            “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but no.”

            Aurea chuckled and sipped her whiskey. “I can’t say I blame you. We don’t really have our shit together. Where will you go?”

            “I have an aunt who will take me. She came to visit me before my mother took her off the list. I think it was because she wouldn’t leave Momma alone about letting me out of there once I snapped out of my shock.”

            She coughed when she inhaled too deeply, not used to the strength of Aurea’s brand. Or maybe smoking in general. Aurea waited for her to finish coughing before she took the cigarette away from her and put it out.

            “Margret–”

“Call me Mags. Everyone does.”

“Mags.” The whiskey burned her throat on the way down. “Are you sure this is something you want to do? You’re going to be on the run from this until your parents die. Maybe even until you do. It’s not… It’s not a good life.”

“Would you go back?”

“Not a chance in hell.”

“Exactly.”

The two women sat in silence, watching the sun make its way through the sky, watching the egrets poke through shallow water for dinner. Aurea needed to ask her.

“Mags? When you were there, did Cory…” She swallowed bitter memories. “Did he ever lay his hands on you?”

The silence that fell between them was the scariest Aurea had ever encountered.

“No. He… Made threats, but never acted on them. Apparently elves don’t do it for him.”

Aurea nodded and let the relief wash through her. If he didn’t touch Mags because she was an elf, he was unlikely to have put his hands on Prosper. She was thankful for that. The girl didn’t know how lucky she was.

“Did he ever lay his hands on you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry.”

Aurea said nothing, and instead shoved her used smoke into the package with the rest. It was a phrase that always got said: I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your parents. I’m sorry your sister killed them. I’m sorry you’re in here. I’m sorry he raped you. I’m sorry the templars fucked up your sister. I’m sorry. Did anyone actually mean it though? Whenever Aurea said she was sorry, it was because she didn’t know what else to say, it was a programmed response to show remorse for someone, to let them know you care. Since when was it unacceptable to say ‘that fuckin’ sucks, dude’?

“We can ask Gerdy to lend you a phone for you to call your aunt. You’re welcome to stay here until she comes.”

“Aurea? Thank you.”

“Come on. I’ll drive you into town.”

~

            The main strip was oddly busy for the sleepy township. Aurea felt exposed with her busted face and a scared looking nineteen-year-old riding with her. She pulled them into a space in front of Gerdy’s and got out of the car quickly. The less time she spent out in the open the better.

            “Come on, Mags.” She let the jeep door slam behind her, flinching at the echo as it bounced off the buildings.

            The cool air from the diner washed over her like an ice bath. It was an uncomfortable sensation that brought back equally uncomfortable memories. Gerdy was busy behind the counter, slicing a few fresh pies. The strawberry compote clung to the knife and disturbingly looked a lot like blood. There were three men at the counter, all in their 30s with graying hair. They were covered head to toe in camo and mud caked the bottom of their boots. There were two old women sitting in one of the pink leather booths, nursing a salad and coffee each.

            “Hey.” Aurea held the door open for Mags.

            Gerdy smiled and sliced through the pie again. “Hello, darlin’! Need somethin’?”

            Aurea nodded and walked further into the building, eyeing the men as she passed. “Yeah. Mags here needs to borrow a phone to call her aunt.” She leaned over, resting her elbows on the counter.

            Maggie shifted uncomfortably next to Aurea. She knew the faces of the men beside Aurea, but not their names. She hoped they wouldn’t recognize her. They watched Aurea walk past them, eyes lingering on the swell of her hips and ass. The youngest hunter smirked and elbowed the man next to him, leaning over to whisper something in his ear.

            Aurea knew they were looking at her. Boys had been looking at her since she was twelve and started getting her boobs. Just before her 13th birthday, her mother caught her tapping her chest down with tape over her bra. She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, mascara blackening the tear tracks on her cheeks. When her mother found her, she gently cut the tape away and pulled it off, letting her daughter breathe again. Aurea wished she remembered what her mother said to her that day. By the time she was fifteen, she had learned to ignore the stares.

            “No problem!” Gerdy wiped her wrinkled hands on her apron. “Come on back, sweetie.” She held her hand out for Mags to take it.

            Aurea stayed at the counter, spinning the pie plate around so she could pull a slice out for herself. Strawberry pie was her favorite and she hadn’t had a slice since… since.

~

            She woke up that morning with an odd ache in her chest. Part of her was missing. Her twin was missing. She woke up that morning with a gross reminder tattooed behind her ribs that she was once again alone. The clock on her pristine desk said it was just after 5:30. She wondered if they would let her sleep in that morning. The chances were slim. Everyone woke up at 5:45 on the dot every morning. Everyone was in the showers by 6:00. Dressed by 6:45. In the dining hall at 7:00. Meds by 7:30. Group therapy at 8:00. Journaling at 9:00. Exercise at 10:00. Lunch at 12:00. Meds at 13:00. One on one therapy 13:30. Journaling at 15:00. Art therapy at 16:00. Dinner at 17:00. Meds at 18:00. In your room at 19:00.

            Her door swung up and the alarms rang over the loud speaker. She sat up on the bed. Swung her legs over. Slipped her feet in her shoes. Stood up. Gathered her hair into a tight pony tail. Left her room. Walked down the hall. Took a left. Ignored screaming Judy. Entered the ‘locker room’. Undressed. Shoes in her cubby placed on top of her clean clothes. Dirty clothes gathered in a ball. Deposited in the laundry hamper. Uses the bathroom. Takes longer than allowed. Loud knocking on door. Wash hands. Avoid looking in the mirror. Ignore the pain in her chest. Turn on the shower. Wash body and hair with cold water. Numb to the dozens of women. Nod at Prosper. Stand closer to her for warmth. Leave spray. Dry off with hard towel. Slip on underwear. Ignore stare from Cory. Dress quickly. Hair in tight pony. Walk out with Prosper. Eat bland oatmeal. Pretend to swallow meds. Leave line. Duck into room. Hide pills in air vent. Group. Listen to the new girls say they aren’t crazy. Sit quietly while they drag them away screaming.

            “I have forgiven my sister for what she has done. I have not, I will not, forgive her for what she is.”

 Lie.

Hide emotions. Lie. Survive. Leave group.

“Amell. You have a visitor in your room.”

Nod. Look disinterested. Walk slowly. Open the door. Say–

“Alistair.”

He sat on her bed like he had always been there.

When she said his name he turned his head towards her, smiled broadly and stood up.

The door shut behind her and she rushed towards him, throwing her arms around his neck tightly.

“Hey,” he whispered in her ear.

He felt good. He felt like home.

His arms wrapped around her tightly, drawing her closer into his chest. She hid her face in the crook of his neck. There was so much she wanted to say to him. She wanted to tell him about Cory, about Prosper, about what she had to say about Nox. She wanted him to take her away.

“I brought you something,” he cleared his throat before he spoke, but the crack was still there.

Regrettably she let go of him so he could turn back towards the bed. He picked up a white box and held it out in front of him. Aurea raised her eyebrow at him, curious as to how he got the box in the building without its contents being confiscated. He smiled at her and opened the lid revealing a perfectly made strawberry pie.

“Where!”

“I made it,” he admitted proudly, puffing his chest out and raising his chin.

He looked like a chicken.

Aurea stood on her tiptoes and kissed him quick. He froze like a statue, hands holding onto the pie. She took the box from him and went to the bed.

“Did you bring forks?” No answer. “Alistair?” She looked up at him, finding him still standing where she left him. “Alistair.”

“Huh?”

“Forks?” She asked it with a smile that curled up one side of her lip.

“Oh!” He reached into his pocket and pulled out two white plastic forks. “I uh…I had to make them plastic so the metal detector wouldn’t…well detect.”

Aurea smiled and patted the bed in front of her. “Come on. Let me try this pie of yours.”

It was the best pie she had ever had. Aurea moaned around the first bite, letting the compote coat her tongue in thick sweetness. She looked up to find Alistair staring at her with a fork still in his mouth. She flashed her teeth at him and took another bite.

“I will eat all of this if you don’t get to moving.”

It had escaped her exactly how hungry she was, how much she missed food that had a taste. Alistair watched her eat bite after bite of sugar coated strawberries until there was nothing left but a few crumbs of crust in the pan. They didn’t talk, neither would know what to say to the other even if they tried. His large hands took the box off the bed and sat it on the floor.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get you an actual present,” he said sheepishly, running a hand through his hair.

“The pie was a good present.”

Aurea stretched out on her side and patted the bed behind her. After a few moments, there was a dip and a warm body pressed against her back. Alistair wrapped an arm around her middle and slid the other one under her neck. His lips kissed her cheek. She used to have the softest skin, but it had become dry. It felt good to be held by him though. To smell his cologne instead of bleach, to taste strawberries instead of blood.

“Stay until I wake up?”

“Always.”

~

            She would never tell Gerdy, but the pie wasn’t as good as Alistair’s. She could call him, borrow Gerdy’s phone. Except then he would have a location for her. And with a town as small as Parish he could find her in a matter of days. Would that be all bad though? Yes. Yes, you dumb bitch it would be all bad. Do you really want to involve him in all your shit? No, I don’t think so–

            “I said I’m talking to you,” the voice snapped at her.

            Aurea made a short sucking noise and slowly rolled her neck so she could look at the boy who addressed her. He was the younger of the hunters. Perfect teeth turned from a snarl to a smile when she turned her attention to him. It always seemed no matter what attention a man got from a woman, he was thankful for it. Her face was incandescently bitchy and one perfectly manicured eyebrow– thanks to tweezers she found in the bathroom– raised as if to question: What the fuck do you want?

            “Did you just move here?”

            Maker damned small talk. Just ask to fuck me so I can say no and we can both go on our way.

            She continued to stare at him, waiting for him to get the hint. To turn back around to his sandwich.

            “Oh come on, baby. Don’t be like that. I’m just trying to be nice to you.”

            Aurea turned back around and ate another bite of pie. She should call Alistair. Or Lark. Lark would probably kill her if she ever found out where she was though. Not to mention Garrett. Only Garrett would kill her while sobbing uncontrollably.

            “Well fuck you.”

            She sighed. “Okay.” She turned her body to face him, leaning her left elbow against the counter, a smile on her face. “No. You think I owe you a conversation? You think that because you’re not a terrible looking guy that gives you the right to start up a conversation with me? A woman who clearly does not want to have a conversation with you, who has done everything short of telling you to fuck off.”

            He opened his mouth and started to say something, turning on his stool to face her more completely. His friends were smirking, no doubt enjoying the public humiliation of their friend. Men.

Aurea held up her hand. Her eyes closed and she shook her head. “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to make nice with you. And I don’t want to fuck you. Which is your end game here, let’s be honest. You don’t want to get to know me. You want to be nice to me with the hope that I’ll let you fuck me and you can be on your merry little way. It won’t happen. I don’t want to sleep with you. I don’t want to know your name. I was content not knowing you existed. We aren’t going to be friends. So why don’t you turn back around, eat your sandwich, talk with your friends about how much of a bitch I am, and I’ll eat my pie. Okay?”

            She turned back, leaving him with his mouth open and his friends holding in their snickers. With a wrinkled nose, she pushed the unfinished pie away from her.

            “Great. Now you’ve ruined my pie.”

~

             Howe smiled cruelly. He almost laughed, a short ‘ha’ the only sign of it. They had found them.

            “Sir? Did you hear me?”

            “I did. You found the little bitches.” He took a sip of his scotch, closing his eyes with a hum.

            “Yes, but–”

            “But? But what?” His eyes narrowed, the smile gone from his lips.

            The templar in front of him licked his lips in his nervousness. He stuttered, trying to find the best possible way to tell him what happened.

            “Out with it!”

            “They escaped. Again.”

            The glass shattered in his hand and the young templar jumped.

            “They did what?”

            “Escaped, sir.”

            “You mean to tell me that they waltzed into this institution liked they owned the place and then just walked out?” He ignored the blood dripping down his hand and onto the floor. There were more important things at hand.

            “Not exactly. Two guards were killed, the other two badly injured. One of them was Cory Harvester from New Haven. He sent word that it was the Amells. So now we know that they’re in Louisiana. Sir.”

            Howe clenched his jaw and spun his chair to look out the window. They were slipping up, that was good. Harvester no doubt threw Aurea off her game. They were in Louisiana. If they were smart, they would have moved on. Why Louisiana? And why that institution? What was in New Orleans? The family had no holds there, no friends.

            “Get out of my sight.”

            “Sir?”

            “What?

            “Another body was found today, sir. This one missing the feet.”

            “And?”

            “Another woman has gone missing.”

            “How terrible.”

            “It was Leandra Hawke.”  

Chapter Text


 

            Mags left a few days later. Aurea was happy to see her go. It’s not a common occurrence for people like Mags to go back to a family. She could still have a normal life. Well. As normal of a life as someone who broke out of a mental institution, but still more normal than the Amells. The smaller girl hugged Aurea before she left. She wrapped her arms around her neck and held her tightly. Aurea stood motionless for a few moments before she hugged her back, patting her gently between the shoulder blades.

            “Mags, if you need us all you have to do is call Gerdy,” Aurea said next to her ear, looking at her twin over Mags’s shoulder.

            Nox nodded even though the small girl couldn’t see. “Anything you need. If you run into any problems, we’ll help you”

            Mags nodded against Aurea’s neck. “I’ll write to you.”

            “We would like that,” Nox confirmed with a smile.

            Mags pulled away and kissed Aurea on her bruised cheek carefully. “Thank you both for everything.”

            Nox nodded and held her arms out. The young elf stepped into them happily, pressing her small frame to Nox’s.

            “Take care of yourself,” Nox whispered before she kissed her cheek. “I have something for you.” She let go of Mags and pulled a small purple sachet out of her dress pocket. “To help you sleep. Put it under your pillow, or hang it from your bed.”

            Mags took it in pale hands and smiled. “Thank you.”

            A honk outside alerted them to her ride.

            Mags waved at the twins and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. She leaned down and kissed Hadar on the snout, smiling when he licked her chin. Sparing not a second glance, she left quickly.

            Hardar whined sadly next to Aurea. She patted him gently and cooed to him.

            “I’m going to go see Cullen to find out if he got Mom and Dad’s weapons. Do you want to come?” Aurea raised her gaze from Hadar to look at her sister.

            Nox was looking out the window, watching Mags ride away with the only family that wanted her. She felt sorry for her in a way. What was it like to have parents that were alive, but didn’t want you? Parents that were alive and well, but didn’t care about you? Who were afraid of you even? Nox had parents that loved her, that cared deeply about her, and they were taken from her. They didn’t willingly leave her at an institution.

            “You don’t want to take Prosper?” She didn’t mean it to sound as cruel as it did.

            The blonde shook her head, her loose waves swishing about her shoulders. “Nah. I’d rather take my sister. Stop by the post office… see if she got a letter from her girlfriend.”

            Nox smiled and shook her head. “She’s not my girlfriend.”

            Aurea made a humming noise and slipped her shoes on. “Hadar can stay and watch Prosper. Come on. We can get lunch.”

            “And you can call Alistair,” Nox said nonchalantly as she picked up a sheer kimono cardigan.

            She smiled at Aurea’s stunned look. Nox turned her head from her sister and chuckled, slipping the cardigan over her blue tank. She flipped her hair out of the back of it and combed it over her shoulders.

            “You didn’t think I knew? Please.” She picked up her purse and grabbed the keys. “I’m driving.”

            “Do you even know how?”

            “Yes. And you’ve been smitten with him since you were kids. I just don’t know why you won’t admit he’s your boyfriend.”

            Aurea followed her twin out, slipping her wallet into the back pocket of her leather shorts. “He is not my boyfriend!”

            Nox turned to walk backwards so she could cast a grin to her sister.

            “Just go get in the car,” Aurea grumbled.

            The Parish police station was small and immaculate. It was a one story brick building with white shutters out front. There were pink rose bushes and honeysuckle outside. Inside there were two offices, a records room, and six cells. Cullen’s office sat at the back of the building, his name pristinely painted in the center of his door. It smelled like pine sol and bleach. There was one man in the middle cell asleep. The door was left open and a tray of food sat beside him.

            The twins raised their eyebrows and walked back towards Cullen’s office. Nox knocked twice and waited. For about two seconds until Aurea opened the door and walked in. Cullen sat at his desk, an open file in front of him and a scowl on his face.

            “Afternoon, Rutherford. You know you have a guy out there in an open cell?”

            Cullen nodded and flipped a page of the report. “Yeah. That’s Earl. Stumbled in drunk at about five this morning. I’m glad you two stopped by.” He slipped off his reading glasses and sat them on the pages in front of him.

            Nox sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk. “That doesn’t sound like it’s good news.”

            Aurea walked around the room looking at the pictures on the wall and his books on the shelves. The room was bare of any kind of knickknacks. There was an area rug under the desk and the chairs settled around it.

            “Howe has sent templars from the Legionnaire unit to Vanguard’s where Mags and Prosper ‘escaped’ from.”

            Aurea’s boots squeaked to a halt on the waxed floor. “Does he know we’re here?”

            Cullen shook his head. “Not that I am aware. My advice to you is to be extremely cautious over the next few days. Parish is small enough that it’s likely to be skipped over on their radar, but still.”

            “And Howe?”

            “Will remain in New York.”

            Nox kept her posture straight and her gaze unfocused on the back of a picture frame on his desk. Aurea should have left her in Knickerbockers. It would have been safer for the both of them. The darker twin could have had a normal life. Or at least more normal than she had then. It was a foolish thing to think that they could escape their past completely.

            “I want to release a statement,” Aurea said quietly as she sat in the chair next to her sister.

            Both Cullen and Nox snapped their attention to her.

            “I want to release a statement. The public needs to know what really happened. We can find the proof that Howe planned our family’s murder to thwart efforts to gain mage rights. There are people out there who believe Nox didn’t commit the murders. Even if there aren’t, the political shit storm that would come after Howe for telling the public we were dead, when we aren’t, could destroy his career.”

            And then he’d be easier for me to kill.

            Cullen frowned and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Even if that’s true, the minute you release that statement, Howe will start covering his bases. If he hasn’t already. And it would have to be a video, Aurea. No one would believe a written one. On top of that, it could still be argued that it was released by imposters and should not be taken seriously.”

            Nox nodded. “A video could be traced too, right?”

            “Addae knows a guy. I could see if we paid him if he would help us.”

            “With what money?” Nox turned her body to face her sister.

            “Dad has cash stashed all throughout that house.”

            “Aurea what you are suggesting is the opposite of cautious. You might as well just call him and tell him your address.” Cullen leaned back in his chair and watched her face.

            “We have to do something.”

            They were all in agreement with that statement, but not on how to do it. Though everyone knew once Aurea got an idea in her head, it was unlikely to vanish because someone said it was a bad one. She would wait, but for how long none of them knew. The room grew quiet as the three of them thought about options. None of which seemed like good options. The slip up in New Orleans was foolish.

            “We came to see if you had gotten our parents weapons.” Nox finally said, breaking the tension.

            “Indeed he has,” a voice spoke from the doorway.

            Aurea stood up and spun around, pulling her gun from under the back of her flannel shirt.

            Samson stood in the doorway, a large black duffle bag hanging from his hand. “Don’t get so trigger happy there, Amell.”

            “Samson.” Aurea slowly lowered her gun and tucked it back where she got it. “This is your contact.” She hurled the statement like an accusation at Cullen. She sat back down on the chair, turning her back to Samson.

            Cullen sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Unfortunately.”

            Samson smiled at Nox. “It’s good to see you, Nox. Glad you’re out of that place.”

            Nox returned the smile genuinely. She had always like Samson. It was a shame they caught him smuggling letters between the mages at Knickerbockers. “Hello, Raleigh.”

            The older ex-templar sat the duffle bag down on Cullen’s desk, ignoring Cullen’s rapid movement to move his things. Nox was the only one allowed to call him Raleigh. He liked how it sounded when she said it. Like he wasn’t a terrible person.

            “Took some finagling, but I got ‘em.”

            “No one saw you?” Cullen asked, not bothering to hide his annoyance for Samson.

            Samson scoffed and started unzipping the bag. “I’m not a rookie, Rutherford. No one has any way to trace this back to me.”

            Their voices are far away as Aurea watches Samson’s long fingers drag the zipper back inch by inch. Pieces of her mother were in that bag, her father. She was on the edge of her seat, fingers clenched tightly around the arms of the chair. Would they still look the same? Her gold eyes follow Samson’s hand as he reached in the bag.

            “It’s a shame no one uses these anymore,” Samson pulled out an object wrapped in black material, “they’re beautiful.”

            Nox and Aurea waited with forced patience for Samson to finish putting all of the weapons on the table. Cullen watched with them, counting how many wrapped objects he sat down: four long, nine short.

            “That’s all of them then. The ones that I could find that is. One was missing.”

            “Which one?” Aurea snapped it out.

            Samson looked at her and shook his head. “You’ll have to tell me. I just know it was in the report, but not in the log.”

            Nox reached her hand out and trailed her fingers over the fabric. “A templar must have taken it at the house. After.”

            Aurea’s blood boiled. They took trophies then. No doubt it was Castland. She reached forward with Nox, stilling the tremor in her hand. She picked up the one she knew to be one of her mother’s daggers. She unwrapped it carefully in her lap. The black fabric unfolded slowly, tossing the weight down and back in her lap. When it was finally free to see the light, she let herself smile.

            The dagger was eighteen inches in total length. The tang was gold, made to look like a lion’s mouth holding the silver coated blade. The blade was curved with a spine depression just over half way up, the two-inch tip curved slightly into a hook. There were filigree designs etched into the shiny metal. It had been passed down to Aurea’s mother by her mother, and her mother before her. It was still just as sharp as the day it was crafted.

            Samson whistled and eyed the blade in Aurea’s lap. “Fancy.” He watched her take out the second blade, running her fingers over it carefully.

            Nox unwrapped one of her father’s daggers, about eight inches in length. The hilt was titanium quartz, the blade was silver coated steel. There were various gems in the hilt and scabbard. Sigils and runes were delicately carved the length of the blade, catching the light in dizzying patterns.

            “Thank you, Raleigh.” Nox looked up from the blade held gently in her hands.

            “No problem.”

            Aurea turned the blade over and smiled. “Who’s up for a bit of hunting?”

The four of them spent the afternoon in Cullen’s office, pouring over a map of the area around the Amell’s home. Aurea carefully trailing the path that she chased the demon. And circling the area where she thinks she and Hadar lost it.

“You didn’t see it?” Samson asks, looking over the map.

“No. Hadar and I split up. I was going to end up in front of it, Hadar behind. Only Hadar was the only thing that came out.”

“I didn’t think demons were still a thing anyone worried about.” Samson admitted. The chantry always preached about them, but one hadn’t been spotted in decades.

“Same,” Aurea said with a nod.

Nox frowned. There was no guarantee they would find it again. “We could always take the wards down. I had to reset them that morning. Maybe if we took them down it would come back.”

Cullen pursed his lips. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Samson scoffed and pushed a picture frame two inches to the left. He would give Cullen a day before he moved it back. “As opposed to going to search for it in a swamp all of us are unfamiliar with? Even you know you don’t barge into a building without knowing the layout. At least with Nox’s idea we’re on familiar territory.”

“There’s no guarantee it will come back though,” Aurea interjected, leaning back in her seat. “There’s no way we’re going to agree. Rutherford and I will go into the swamp and search with Hadar. Samson and Nox will go back to the house and let the wards down.”

Cullen still frowned but nodded. “Better than leaving the wards down for days until it shows up.”

Nox unwrapped the two swords on the table. They were steel with sigils etched into the blades. The pommel on one was gold plated, the other white marble. They were twins’ sister’s. They were supposed to go to her son when he was old enough. She swallowed.

“Samson, Cullen, do you still know how to use these?”

The pair of them looked offended.

“Well that answers that question,” she said smiling as she handed them the blades.

“Let’s do this before it gets dark.” Aurea stood up and wrapped the blades back up again before she slipped them under her arm. She needed a scabbard for them.

~

            Cullen and Aurea walked quietly through the swamp. Hadar sniffed the dirt in front of them, occasionally chuffing and changing direction. The area looked oddly different than it did the last time she was there. She had been running then, so she brushed the feeling off. The blades hung on her back in a make shift scabbard. Cullen kept his in his hand, grip tight around the haft. His gun was still holstered against his hip, the press of it a familiar comfort. It would hardly do him any good, the beast not affected by bullets, but it made the whole ordeal seem… normal.

Their footsteps crunched all too loudly on the rough grass and twigs beneath them. An egret cooed softly somewhere behind them, rustling the water.

“You’re certain this is the area?”

Aurea nodded and kept pressing forward. “I marked that tree with an ‘x’. See?”

“How very pirate like of you.”

“Yeah, well. Let’s split up. You take that area, I’ll look around here.”

Cullen nodded and kept walking, his hand tight on the sword.

~

            “So,” Samson poked a liquid filled jar and returned to watch Nox walk around the room, “are we sure breaking these sigils is a good idea? Because I have to tell you, I’m having second thoughts.”

            “You were all for it back at the station.” Nox smiled and gathered a few ingredients together in a bowl.

            The ex-templar nodded and grunted, pushing the weight on a wind-chime. “Yeah, and now I’m faced with fighting this thing with a mage that hasn’t used magic in thirty years–”

 “Six.”

“In thirty years, and an elf who’s missing a leg. What was her name again?”

“Prosper.” Nox cast him a pleading look. “She’s Aurea’s friend. She’s going to be staying with us.”

“Aurea has friends? Huh.”

Samson smiled when Nox gave him an attempt at a withering look. “All I’m sayin’ is that this might not be the best idea.”

“Well then barricade yourself in here. The one-leg elf and dried up mage will protect you.” Prosper leaned against the door frame and watched the scraggly man observe her. “I’m sure you’ll make a great defenseless damsel.”

“As long as I get a kiss when I’m rescued.”

“I hope with a fist is fine.”

“Better than nothing.”

~

Aurea screamed. She didn’t mean too, but when you’re falling through the earth you tend to make noises. Her hands reached out, snatching at air, dirt, roots. Anything that she could. Her left hand caught a gnarled root, sliding along it until she jerked to a stop. The smell of rot and dirt filled her nose and mouth with its thickness. Hadar was barking wildly, jumping at the edge of the hole and then back again.

“Rutherford!”

“Aurea?” his scream cut through the bayou, sending birds flying.

Her hand was slipping. Blood was running down her wrist and arm, staining the shirt she was wearing. She brought her free hand up, wrapping around the top of the root. Risking a glance down she saw nothing but black and dirt. Maybe ten feet below her feet. She looked back up when she heard footsteps approaching.

“I could use a little help, Rapunzel!”

Cullen slid to a stop and dropped to his stomach at the edge of the hole. Aurea was hanging off of a medium sized root, feet dangling freely below her. Hadar barked beside him. He outstretched his hand to her frowning when it was inches from reaching her. Carefully he pushed himself forward, his chest over the side of the lip.

“I’ll pull you over,” Aurea grunted and tried to pull herself up further.

Cullen scoffed. “You’re not that heavy!”

“Have you seen my hips?”

Aurea eyed his hand again. It was inches in front of her, but her arms were already stretched taught. Her palm was on fire.

“Aurea.”

She looked back into his eyes, ignoring the concern held there.

“I have you.”

Doubt was swallowed. The long-haired blonde grimaced and pulled herself up. Her hand wrapped around his, fingers curling part way around his thick wrist.

“If you drop me, Rutherford.”

“Yes, yes.” He reached forward and wrapped his his other hand around her arm.

She kicked her feet and used her arms to pull her body up closer to Cullen. Her booted feet found the side of the oubliette. She pushed with her legs, Cullen’s hand traveled further up her arms where it gripped in the sleeve of her shirt. He pulled her closer to him, her chest pushed against his while she wrapped her arms around his neck. Hadar bit Cullen’s belt and pulled.

Her hair smelled like mint.

His neck smelled like cologne.

Cullen pushed his legs under him so he was on his knees. Aurea’s body dragged up with him until they both fell backwards. She landed heavily on his chest and laid there for a few gasping moments. His heart thundered against her ear and she knew hers was beating just as fast. She pushed herself off of him and rolled to the side. A crow flew over their heads. Its caw sounded like a taunt. Hadar pushed his face into Aurea’s, licking her chin and whining.

“I’m alright. It’s just a scratch.” She kissed his head and pushed it away so she could sit up.

“It is not ‘just a scratch.’” Cullen took her hand and pulled it close to his face. “You will need to clean that.”

“Oh sure,” Aurea said as she took her hand back, “I’ll just go dunk it in the bayou water. Give the gators a little tease.” She ripped off the bottom part of her ruined shirt.

Cullen watched her struggle with the strip of fabric. She was insufferable. Why she couldn’t just let him help her was beyond him. He sighed and took her hand back. Gently, he cleared away what dirt and pieces of wood he could. It wasn’t a deep wound. With proper treatment it would heal in a few days’ time. He wrapped the piece of cloth around her palm loose enough that she could still move it if needed.

“I am certain everyone, including myself, would be ever so grateful if you could stop treating your body like a punching bag.” He yanked the knot shut and looked back into her face. “You can be killed you know?”

Aurea huffed sigh and rolled her eyes. “It’s not like I saw the hole and thought, ‘Oh gee! Wouldn’t it be fun to fall down that?’” She took her hand back from his loose grip. “There’s a room down there I think.”

Cullen leaned forward and peered over the edge again. “Could be an old plantation cellar.”

Hadar barked and started to sniff the ground, digging his nose into the first layer of leaves and moss. The pair let him sniff around them, watching him disturb the earth. Every so often he lifted his head to sneeze indignantly. Aurea’s hand still burned. She tried not to show that it hurt. Cullen would love nothing more than rubbing it in her face. He was right though. She could be killed, she could be hurt. She should be more careful. But that could wait until she was old.

Or dead.

Hadar barked and pawed at the earth. Cullen eyed the spot curiously, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Still, he stood up and stepped over to where the mabari was hopping from foot to foot. He shifted the dirt and forest droppings with his black steel-toed boots. Gently, he tapped the spot with his foot and listened. There was a hollow noise that echoed almost like a well and he raised his head to look at Aurea. She blinked in surprise and stood up. Cullen knelt and wiped more of the debris away in large sweeps.

A large and thick wood board with a metal ring slowly made an appearance. It was surprisingly sturdy for being in the bayou. Especially considering the large hole in the earth Aurea created.

“It looks new.” Cullen gently pushed Hadar’s face away from his own so he could get a better look. “It isn’t locked, so it’s doubtful it’s a bootlegger’s storage unit.”

Aurea nodded and grabbed the handle. “Get your weapon ready then, soldier. We’re going spelunking.”

Cullen frowned and shooed her hand away to replace it with his own. “Have you not seen that terrible cave movie? They go down and there are all those terrible bat like humans that try to eat them?”

The long-haired blonde smirked and watched him pull the door up. “Are you telling me you watch bad horror movies, Stanton?”

He grunted. “On occasion I will catch parts of them.”

“Mm.”

He ignored her and shone his flashlight down into the abyss. “I’ll go first.”

“Oh, I insist.”

Cullen kept his hand tight around the grip of the heavy sword. It was hard to maneuver the flashlight, sword, and the rickety stairs. Any minute he felt like he would plummet head first and impale himself of the sword in his hand. He went slowly, keeping his eyes on the dark tunnel before him. It was impossible to tell how far it went on. When his feet touched solid ground, he motioned for Aurea to come down. He kept his light trained on the dark tunnel before him. His eyes strained to see anything past the edge of the light. It was dark and eerily quiet except for the sound of his breathing.

Aurea stepped down behind him and edged her way forward. She felt Hadar’s breath on the back of her legs when he joined them. The tunnel made her uneasy. There was only one way out that they knew of. If there was more than one tunnel, it was easy to get lost or separated. The ache in her ribs was back with a vengeance, and she cursed herself. She followed Cullen quietly as he pressed forward. She kept her eyes trailed on the edge of the light. Nothing felt out of the ordinary. There was no creepy feeling that made her hair stand up on end.

The pair was quiet as they made their way through the tunnel. There was a crunching noise in front of them, echoing strangely in the confined space. Cullen stopped, Aurea bumping into his back lightly. They listened, ears straining against the proceeding silence. Her body was tightening, muscles contracting, her heart thundering against her chest. Flight or fight and she always choose fight. Even when she shouldn’t. They pressed forward. The hair on the back of Hadar rose up and he began to growl.

The tunnel curved and twisted. It was impossible to see around the bend. On each turn the pair had weapons drawn and ready. There was light ahead, flooding the end of the tunnel. It was most likely the room Aurea nearly fell into. Cullen turned in the narrow tunnel, his shoulders almost brushing the sides. He stared at Aurea. Don’t do anything stupid. She raised her eyebrows and nodded her head to the light. Get moving, asshole.

Cullen entered the hovel first, his eyes taking seconds too long to adjust to the light. Aurea followed in after, closing her eyes and then opening them slowly to the room. The walls were stone, the floor was dirt and clay. The ceiling was covered in roots and a few small animal skulls. There were five other tunnel openings in the small room. Candles lined the walls and hung in the air, sat on books and dripped wax.

“Cullen.”

He stopped looking down the tunnels when Aurea’s voice whispered out his name. Brown eyes found her standing behind him, staring that the wall in front of her. He followed her gaze and took a startled breath in. There were jars on the shelves, varying in size. He walked closer to them, wanting to prove his eyes wrong.

“Don’t.” Aurea grabbed his arm tightly, holding him to the spot.

The jars held remains: livers, kidneys, lungs, hearts, ovaries, intestines, diaphragms, spinal columns, spleens, pancreases, larynxes. There were dozens of jars. Dozens of lives. Some of the organs were turning to mush in the jars, hardly recognizable. There was a desk situated just below the shelves. A skull sat next to a large book, more candles surrounded the pages. Various herb jars were shut tightly and lined up behind the book. There was a dagger lying across the pages, dried blood on the blade.

“We need to leave,” Cullen took a step back, “We need to leave now.”

“We can’t.”

“Aurea, I need backup. Police back up. This is a crime scene.”

Aurea stepped in front of him, her back to the shelves. “Who will believe you, Rutherford? Templars will swarm Parish. And then I’m dead. So is Nox and Prosper. We can handle this.”

Cullen stared into the gold eyes imploring him to listen to her. “Aurea, I am no longer taking lyrium. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.”

“I am. And so are you.”

She gripped his upper arm and gave, what she hoped, was a comforting squeeze. Leaving his side, she set her sights on the book. It was open to a simple summoning spell. Or what appeared to be a simple spell, but there were notations and scribbles in the margins. Someone was trying to change the spell, or improve on it.

“We should take this back to Nox.”

“Or we can leave it to rot here.” Cullen looked around the room a few more times, keeping a wary eye on the tunnels. “If it lives here, how do we get it to come out? I advise against splitting up. Too many tunnels and we don’t know where they lead.”

Aurea nodded and left the book alone for the time being. “It’s doubtful this thing is alone. I don’t think it’s practicing magic down here. Whoever summoned it, will come back.”

Hadar sniffed the air and paced around the room, his snout pressed to the ground.

“It could have already killed the one who summoned it,” Cullen leaned closer towards a shelf as he spoke, “Maker, what is that?”

“My guess is it was a pers–”

Hadar growled lowly in his throat.

Cullen and Aurea turned towards the dog, swords drawn in seconds.

Aurea smiled. “Just as ugly as I remember. Hello, Red.”

The demon let out a screeching hiss, almost like a tea kettle. In a flash it was charging them, claws drawn back, ready to gouge their way into flesh. Cullen moved first, the sword in his hand leading his way forward. Aurea spun to the side, narrowly missing claws. She twisted her body, the right dagger driving its way into hard flesh. The beast screamed and jerked its body around to face Aurea. She rolled back, dodging a hand reaching for her face. Hadar snarled and charged forward, his teeth sinking into a fleshy leg and twisting. Cullen sliced through its arm, inches off of his original mark.

“Stop squirming!” Aurea screamed to get its attention.

Better her than the dog. Or Cullen.

The demon threw its head back and screamed. The sound pierced their ears like needles. Aurea dropped her last dagger and covered her ears, her lips pulled into a grimace. Cullen followed suit, the sword clattering to the ground so he could protect his ears. The mabari whimpered but kept his jaws locked around the leg in his mouth.

This is going well.

~

            “Each sigil has to be broken for the barrier to fall.” Nox scratched a thick line into the dried blood with her small knife.

            Samson nodded and pulled out his own pocketknife. “How many are there?”

            Nox shuffled her feet and twisted her lips off to the side. “One on every door. And window. Give me your knives. You’ll need my blood on the blade to break them.”

            Prosper chuckled and sighed through her nose. “That’s one way to be thorough.” She passed her knife over to friends twin.  

            The ex-templar gave a short huff and held out his knife for Nox to prick her finger on. “I’ll get the upstairs. At this rate we should be done by next week.”

            “I’d rather be overly cautious than possessed, thank you!” Nox called after him.

            It took around fifteen minutes for every sigil to be broken. Fifteen minutes to erase hours of work. Nox felt a tug of annoyance in her stomach. After the beast was dead, she would have to redo every sigil. Perhaps she need not use as many. But the thought of leaving the house less secure made her queasy. She waited by the front door, her eyes tracing the twists and curves of the final signal.

            “You look like her when you think,” Prosper’s voice cut through the muffled silence.

            Nox jumped slightly. She turned to watch Prosper approach. “Do I?”

            Prosper nodded and leaned against the doorframe across from Nox. “You both get a little,” she rubbed the tip of her finger between her brows, “crease between your brows. And you bite the inside of your lower lip.”

            The mage smiled and looked down at her knife. “Yes. Our father did the same. It’s nice to know something of him still lives on.”

            “So, how does this work? What happens when you break the last one?” Samson’s boots thudded loudly on the stairs as he got closer.

            Nox looked away from Prosper and to the ragged man approaching. “I don’t know. It will come, theoretically.”

            Prosper frowned. “That’s a big ‘theoretically’. If it comes, if it’s able to sense when the protection spells are down, won’t other things?”

            The black-haired woman pursed her lips into a frown. “I’m hoping that there are not other things in the area. The likelihood of that is very small. But, yes, it is a possibility.”

            The two guests looked at each other with mirrored frowns.

            “I never said it was a foolproof plan. Just that it was a plan. If it doesn’t show up in twenty minutes, I can put a two sigils back up. They’ll hold until I can put more on the rest of the doors.”

            Samson frowned and crossed his arms. “Blood magic.”

            Nox sighed and brought the knife up to the sigil. “We can have a theological discussion on the properties of blood magic after we kill the demon.”

            She scrapped through the sigil, dried flakes of blood and various herbs disintegrating to nothing.

Now we wait.

~

            Cullen caught Aurea with his arm and chest as she was thrown backward, her blonde head smacking into his chin. For a few moments he swore he saw Andraste. The two landed on the floor, Cullen’s head smacking against the hard dirt. His arms fell to his sides, the sword falling out of his grip. Ringing pierced his ears and muffled any sound that tried to get past it. Aurea was moving against his chest, trying to sit up maybe. He needed to sit up, needed to pick the sword back up, but his joints hurt and the throbbing in his head made him want to be sick.

            The rogue sat up, desperately trying to ignore the screaming pain in her reinjured ribs. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs to satisfy their need for the blasted substance. Her gold eyes watched Hadar bark and lunge upwards to clamp his jaws around the beast’s neck. His teeth missed by a fraction of an inch. She was getting up, pushing herself off of Cullen and raising her weapons.

            It stopped.

            The beast raised its head, arms outstretched, and claws clacking together as it moved its fingers. Aurea saw her moment. She drew her arm back and threw the blade towards its chest. It sliced through the air, end over end. Aurea’s arm still extended. She blinked while she pulled her arm back. It was gone. The area in which the beast stood reigned empty. The blade went a few feet further before hitting the floor. Hadar barked and took off through one of the tunnels, leaving Cullen and Aurea where they were.

            “Hadar!”

~

            “So how long do we have to wait?” Samson twirled the blade by his side and felt its weight.

            Nox walked a turn around the living room and peered out of the windows. “I don’t know. Theoretically, if it’s locked onto the house, only a few moments. It would have felt the sigils breaking.”

            They waited. Prosper kept an eye on the front of the house. A few egrets lazed their way across the yard. The place was oddly peaceful. If you ignored the fact that somewhere out in that swamp was some kind of demon waiting to rip their throats out.

            “Well I’m not gonna wa—”

There was a loud blood curdling screech and then all the windows in the living room imploded. Glass and wood flew into the room, a few pieces slicing through the occupants. Could it not just use the door like a civilized demon? Nox pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, not completely sure how she wound up on the floor to begin with. Her black hair fell in her face, and she pushed it back as she looked up to take score. Prosper was leaning against a bookcase, holding a gash in her arm together. Samson was already up and slicing at the beast with his sword.

Someone had already started in on it, no doubt Aurea and Cullen. The mage pushed herself up and started hurling magic at the thing like it was her own personal punching bag. In that moment, it wasn’t a demon: it was the templars who killed her family, it was Rendon Howe, it was the Chantry, it was everyone who had ever laid their hands on a mage. She fought hard like a dying girl should fight. Elemental balls hit one after another. With each one it would turn towards her, only for Samson to hit it from the other side. Prosper waited until its back was to her before she charged as quietly as she could. Four feet from it, she leapt up and drover her blades deep into its back.

There are moments in life when a person doesn’t immediately regret something. It takes a few moments, or months or years, for you to regret your choices. They can live a happy life. That is until that one moment comes back to bite them in the ass. This was one of those moments. And it only took a few seconds. Because what Prosper failed to notice, and what Nox noticed too late, was at that moment Prosper leapt up, Nox released a ball of elemental magic. And it so happened, that the glowing ball of purple was electricity.

Samson opened his mouth and yelled at Prosper to let go, quickly withdrawing his sword. The orb hit the beast with a terrible cracking noise, and Prosper was knocked from its back like a ragdoll. In those brief seconds, where her hands were still wrapped around the neck of the daggers, her entire body hurt. It cramped up like a corpse while the current followed the roadways of her veins. She knocked into the wall, rattling a few pictures in their glass.

While the beast was distracted, Samson rushed it. He drove the sword in his grip deep into its red chest and twisted. He watched it gasp and sputter like an old truck running out of gasoline: like him. Its hand reached out to him, claws grasping in the air, like it was trying to touch his face.

“Prosper!” Nox ran over to the woman once she knew it was safe. “Are you alright? I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were going to do that.”

The mage brought the red-head into a sitting position slowly, keeping a hand on the back of her head. The situation could have been comical. Aurea certainly would have laughed at the stupidity and uncanny absence of luck that surrounded all of them. Aside from the gash on her arm, Prosper appeared to be unhurt.

“I can’t feel my leg,” Prosper whispered out, her eyes going wide.

Nox looked down in a panic before she realized. “Funny. So funny.” She pursed her lips and stood up, leaving Prosper to chuckle where she was sitting.

Samson yanked the sword back out of the beast and watched it crumple to the floor. After a few moments it stopped gasping and twitching. And because someone had taught the demon manners, it disintegrated into a pile of ash and flittered away out a busted window.

“And look at that, it’s self cleaning.” Samson picked up the daggers from the floor and set them on a table behind the couch.

“I need to put the sigils up. Samson, see if Prosper has a concussion?”

The gruff man nodded and squatted in front of Prosper. “How many fingers?”

Prosper rolled her eyes and stood up with some difficulty. “Two. I don’t have a concussion.”

Samson stood back up and picked the blades up so he could clean them. “Do I get that kiss now?”

~

            “Rutherford, come on, say something.” Aurea cradled his head in her hands, gently lifting it from the earthen floor.

            Cullen swallowed and focused his eyes on the woman leaning over him. Her eyes were stunning. A golden-amber color with streaks of light brown in them. They were stunning, truly. For a moment, he remembered being eight years old in the Amell’s kitchen. He had fallen off of his bike and torn his knee open. Aurea’s mother, brought him inside and sat him on the kitchen table while she cleaned the dirt out of the wound. His mother had soft hands, smooth as a lily, but Aurea’s mom, her hands were calloused. Her eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled at him. Aurea’s eyes.

            “Yeah,” he finally pushed out of his mouth.

            Aurea frowned and kept looking at him, tracing the lines in his face. “Can you sit up?”

            “Hadar?”

            “He’ll be fine, he’s a big dog. Come on.” As gently as she could, she helped him sit, taking it as slow as he needed so he wouldn’t throw up on her. “You good?”

            The blonde nodded, regretted the decision immediately, and spoke. “Yeah. Hard head. What happened?”

            What did happen? One minute it was there, and then it was gone. Like some kind of demented Houdini act. If it could vanish at will, why didn’t it the first time it was running away? Did it want Aurea to find this place? Was it a trap? If it was a trap, why did it leave so suddenly?

            “We need to go. Now. Come on, get up. I can’t carry you.” Aurea pulled on his arm until he got to his feet.

            While Cullen picked up the fallen sword and daggers, Aurea turned her attention to the desk. She started to move the dagger when Cullen yelled out to her.

            “Don’t! It’s a crime scene, Aurea. I need pictures first.”

            The blonde sighed but stepped back regardless. “Just once I want to see what happens when you break the rules. I bet you have an aneurysm.”

Cullen took several pictures of the entire room. The jars he took individual pictures of. His head was still swimming and pounding. He took photos of the book and dagger, zooming in on the page that it was open to. A hand on his arm shook him out of an unfocused state he wasn’t aware that he was in. Had he been falling?

“Come on, we need to get you some place where they can look at your head.”

She pocketed the small blade and slammed the book shut.

            “Aurea, you are not taking that thing. Put it back.”

            “Yes, I am. Rutherford, if we leave whoever summoned it is going to come back. They’re going to realize we’ve been here. They’ll leave and take this with them. I don’t know about you,” she hefted the book into her arms, “but I will feel a hell of a lot more at ease knowing they don’t have their book.”

            Cullen stepped in front of her when she tried to walk away. “This is a crime scene, Aurea!”

            “And you’ll leave here, get the men you need, come back, and everything will be gone.”

            She was right. And he knew it. Deep down he knew when they left whoever had made this place a home would return and take everything. He glowered at her. It was like she had this insane urge, an uncanny ability even, to always be right. Even when she didn’t want to be right, she was right. Her instincts were some of the best he had seen outside of the Templar Order.

            “Fine. But Nox does no spells from that book.” He pointed his finger at her and then the book in question.

            “Oh, damn. I was going to have her summon another demon when we got home!” Aurea rolled her eyes and started walking. “You ruin all the fun.”

Chapter Text

Sorry for the long wait between updates. Ya girl is not having a fun time with life. And this story has sapped everything my muse had. So we'll see where the updates take us. This chapter is a little shorter than I would have liked, but at least it's something. 

C


 

            “Find anything interesting?” Aurea leaned on the back of the couch and watched her sister flip through the pages of the grimoire.

            Nox nodded her head and tilted her head back. “Incredibly. I believe the pages to be made out of some kind of skin.”

            Aurea grew her lips up in a disgusted grimace. “That is incredibly unnecessary. And so extra.”

            Nox laughed and patted the seat beside her crossed legs. “I don’t know if it’s human. But it is unnecessary. All the lives that had to be taken to make these pages.”

            “It’s made out of skin,” Prosper emerged from the doorway, “and you’re actively touching it.”

            “Someone has to.” Nox turned the page again. “This is a summoning spell. I think it’s what was used to summon the red beast. But it’s been altered. See these? These little markings? They’re variations in the spell. I think they’re meant to summon specific demons and bind them.”

            Prosper takes a seat on a wide chair next to Hadar and pats him between the ears. “So whoever this belonged to is incredibly intelligent.”

            The mage nodded her head and turned the page again. “Extremely. Some of these I can’t decipher. I have no idea what they’re for. And the ingredients for some of them…I think I know why there were jars of organs.”

            Both Prosper and Aurea made a face and eyed the book with disgust.

            “If I could get back in to look…”

            Aurea shook her head. “No. Rutherford went back with backup after his head cleared. The tunnels had completely collapsed. Whatever was in there? It’s gone now. But my guess is whoever this belonged to,” she gestured to the book, “took the jars with them.”

            “Oh, lovely. So they still have the sugar and spice to make everything shit.” Prosper glared.

            “Even if they didn’t, I doubt they would hesitate to get more. At least no one else had to die.” Nox turned another page.

            “Yet,” Prosper and Aurea said at the exact same time.

            Nox sighed and shook her head. “You two were made for each other.”

~

            Nox walked into town later that day. The house was getting thick with an uncomfortable feeling she couldn’t quite place. She used the mail as an excuse. After all, they never did get it when they went into town the day they killed the beast. The gravel crunched under her shoes as she walked. It was a pleasant sound, one that she always enjoyed: it was oddly soothing. The warm air was finally starting to cool as fall approached. She hadn’t seen the leaves change since she was fifteen. They locked her away before they could change again. Nox tilted her head up and looked at the stormy sky and smiled. She hoped it would rain.

            The three miles into town were quiet, followed by more quiet. The only busy place seemed to be Gerdy’s dinner. But in a town that probably saw its last boom in the thirties, and then was taken hold of by churches, Gerdy’s was about the only place alive.

            The hot pink door to the dinner opened with a loud ding of the bell.

            “Hello, darlin’! It’s good to see you!” Gerdy yelled over the noise in the dinner.

            Nox smiled and made her way over to the pie display. “Hi, Gerdy. Did we get any mail?”

            “Hold on, I’ll go check for you. Piece of pie? Just made the apple about twenty minutes ago. Should still be warm.”

            Nox nodded and watched as the old woman cut a piece out for her. There were a few eyes on her as she took a seat at the counter, but she ignored them as best as she could. Her long white skirt cascaded down around the stool, swishing gently with each rise and fall of her foot.

            “Everything okay at your home now?” Gerdy asked, her eyes cast a knowing glance as she sat the pie down in front of her.

            “So far so good. We have some more company, but I’m not sure how long they’ll be staying.”

            “Let me check on that mail for you.”

            Gerdy disappeared through a doorway. Nox watched her go with a sudden realization. She had given Elena an address in town. There would be nothing stopping her from coming here and waiting for sight of them. And then, there was nothing stopping her from telling someone where they were. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do.

            “Here you are, honey.”

            Gertrude sat down a medium sized box and a few envelopes.

            “Thank you, Gerdy. Are you sure you’re okay with Aurea and I using this address?”

            “Of course, dear!” She placed a pie in a white box and closed the lid. “Now, I’m heading home for the day, would you like a ride back? Then you don’t have to go and carry this all by yourself.”

            “If you’re going that way, I’d love the company.”

            She nodded and told her to wait just a few more minute while she got everything ready. Nox continued to eat her pie quietly, watching the chef behind the window work.

            “I don’t care what you think, Rodger! Those fuckin’ mages should be put down like rabid dogs.” A man behind her snarled.

            Her body tensed.

            “They’re a Maker damned menace. Every one of them. Lock the damn doors and just burn the circles down with them in it.”

            Her skin was growing cold and her heart was pounding. It wasn’t the first time she had heard such rhetoric from people. She had been hearing it since she was ten years old and first started paying attention.

            “You’re such a bigot, Vince. Those people did nothin’ wrong to nobody. Wanna live their lives just like the rest of us.”

            “Bullshit, they want the rest of us brought to heel!”

            Someone else interjected, “You mean like we’ve brought them? It’s their right to want more freedom. They don’t have enough.”

            Gerdy reappeared in front of her. “I’ll have none of that talk in my dinner, Vince. Now you can pipe down and eat your lunch, or you can wear it out of here.” She placed her hands on her hips and waited for an answer. When she got none, she nodded. “That’s what I thought. Come on, dove,” she said to Nox.

            Nox grabbed the boxes and the envelopes and followed Gerdy out to her old truck.

~

            The package had contained two phones and one laptop. Inside there was a note from Addae.

            A,

            So I got ahold of that buddy I was tellin you about. He did some weird techie shit with the phones, they’ll keep you from being traced. Don’t ask me how I have no idea. The same with the computer. He said if they tried to trace it, it’ll bounce them around like eight different countries. Come see me soon. We have some unfinished business.

            Aurea smiled and handed a phone to Nox. “Prosper, you and I can share if you need to.”

            “Who am I going to call? My family’s dead.”

            “That is a valid point.” She paused, “Think they can make collect calls?”

            “Can you even call the fade?”  

            Nox shook her head at the two and found a few letters from Elena. The stationary was beautiful: thick cream cardstock embossed with gold filigree around the edges. The envelopes were a muted orange color and sealed with gold wax. The seal was some kind of art deco flower that looked maybe like a peony.

            She left Aurea and Prosper to their tantalizing conversation about collect calling the fade. The garden was finally out of the direct rays of the sun and the shadows cast by the trees around it provided a cool place to sit. She took a seat on the bench and carefully pulled the wax seal from the paper. It smelled briefly of oranges and some kind of spice. The smile danced across her lips before she had a mind to stop it.

            Nox,

                        Hello, darling. I do hope this letter finds you. Addae assured me it would, so if I don’t hear back from you in a week, I’m going to have to have very strong words with him.

            Elena’s handwriting was loose and script like. The cursive writing flowed across the page in a way that reminded Nox of the way Elena spoke. She read each letter three times, her fingers tracing over the ink and trying to hear Elena’s voice in her head.

            Stationary. She would have to get pretty stationary. If she had any luck there would be some in the house.

            A whistle from behind her startled her. “Boy, you are smitten, aren’t you?” Samson took a seat next to her and pulled out a cigarette.

            Nox smiled and took it from his fingers. “Don’t smoke. And I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            “Course not. What’s her name?” He tried to take the smoke back from her, but she held it away from him.

            “Her name is Elena. I met her in New Orleans. And I’m not smitten,” she added for good measure.

            Samson turned to face her with a toothy smile. “I don’t know about that, kid. You’re in deep enough to give her an address in town to write to you.”

            Nox frowned and tucked the letters into the pocket of her skirt. “That was a mistake on my part. But Aurea did it too with a boy. Granted, that boy is the son of one of Dad’s old friends, so maybe that wasn’t stupid.”

            The older man put his arm on the back of the bench and tipped his head back. “How do you people do it?”

            “Hm?”

            “This Maker damned heat.”

            “It’s actually cooling down a bit. Fall is coming.” She leaned into his side and laughed. “You northerners.”

            Samson took the opportunity to pluck the cigarette from her fingers and put it back in his mouth. “Don’t deny a man his vices.”

            “Those will kill you.”

            “So will life. I’m just helping it along.”

~

            Once again, Aurea found herself in the back of her parent’s closet. She sat down and turned the phone over and over in her hand. With a huff, her fingers dialed the number she knew so well.

            “Hello?” He picked up on the fifth ring.

            She hesitated.

            “Aurea.” He sounded relieved and it damn near broke her heart. “Aurea, say something.”

            “I’m not sure what to say.”

            “Tell me where you are?”

            “Alistair, you know I can’t do that.”

            He made a noise in his throat. “Aurea, please. Let me help you.”

            “I’m okay, Alistair.”

            “This phone call is longer than the others.”

            Aurea played with the tip of her braid. “Yeah. I got a phone. An actual phone…I’m not sure who’s paying the bill.”

            “Is Nox okay?”

            “She’s fine… today. She’s doing better now that we’re settled someplace.” She tilted her head back and looked at her parent’s old clothes.

            “I saw Prosper and another young girl broke out of an asylum. You have anything to do with that?”

            She could hear the tv in the background.

            “No idea what you’re talking about.”

            “Of course not.”

            They were silent for what felt like hours.

            “Aurea, I want to see you.”

            Aurea smiled and stretched her legs out in front of her.

            “Use your imagination.”

            He chuckled. Maker, she missed his laugh.

            “Oh, I have been. Believe me.” He gasped and she could hear the blush on his cheeks. “That was much dirtier than I meant it to be.”

            She couldn’t help but laugh at him. “Well, I don’t mind a little bit of dirty.”

            He hummed and then she heard him curse. “I forgot. How are you holding up?”

            “Okay. It’s actually been pretty nice aside from the occasional freakout.”

            “I know you were close to her.”

            Aurea paused and furrowed her brow. “Close to who?”

            “Your aunt, Aurea. Leandra?”

            “What about her?” Her heart was starting to swell in her throat. “Alistair.”

            “She…”

            No. No, no, no,no. No.

            “Alistair?”

            Don’t panic. Don’t panic, breathe. Breathe.

            “Aurea, I am so sorry. They found her yesterday morning.”

            She couldn’t hear the rest of what he was saying. It was like he was speaking from another room, or underwater.

            Murdered. Body. Lark. Arrangements. Aurea. Aurea. Aurea.

Chapter Text

           


 

            Aurea could hear herself breathing, she could see her chest moving out and in quickly, but she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She was gasping. Her ears were stuffed with cotton, and her heart echoed over Alistair’s muffled speaking. What was he saying?

            “I need to go,” her voice echoed in her ears.

            She hung up the phone and laid her head against the wall once more. It was a strange feeling that settled in the center of her chest. She couldn’t quite place it. For some reason, it felt different than when her family was killed. This was a hollow ache that left her weightless.

            “Maybe you shouldn’t touch that without gloves,” Prosper’s voice echoed in her ears.

            When did she get downstairs?

            “You know,” Nox replied, “you might have a point.”

            “It’s still human flesh after all.”

            Aurea wanted to say something to them, but her vocal cords seemed paralyzed.

            “Aurea?” Nox asked when she finally saw Aurea standing in the doorway.

            The blonde looked pale and ghost-like in her stance. She was staring at them, her gold eyes blinking slowly.

            Prosper smirked. “So, Alistair’s good then?”

            “Leandra is dead,” the words slipped out of her mouth like water.

            Nox blinked, the smile fading from her lips quickly. “What? Aurea, what?”

            “Leandra is dead.”

            Prosper let out a quiet curse and crossed her arms.

            “What do you mean she’s dead? How do you know? What happened?” Nox could hardly keep up with the questions she wanted to ask.

            Maker help her, Aurea couldn’t answer any of them.

            Prosper went into the kitchen and came back out with a bottle of whiskey Gerdy had brought over. She unscrewed the lid and held it out to Aurea. It took a few moments, but Aurea reached out and took it.

            “Aurea.”

            The whimper in Nox’s voice snapped Aurea out of her haze.

            “Alistair… Alistair said she was murdered. They found her body by the river.”

            When she said the words, her stomach dropped out of her throat to the floor. The room was devastatingly quiet. Prosper took the bottle from Aurea and took a drink before she handed it back. The blonde barely felt the burn of the alcohol when she swallowed.

            Nox sat back down on the sofa, her hands loose in her lap. Every parent figure she had was dead and buried.

            “We should go to them,” Nox whispered without looking up.

            Aurea swallowed another swig of the alcohol and shook her head. “We can’t.”

            “What do you mean we can’t?”

            “I mean, we can’t. Nox, we can’t go to them. The templars will be expecting–”

            “Fuck the templars!”

            Prosper blinked and retreated further from the room, grabbing Samson by the elbow as he was walking in.

            “Nox,” Aurea started.

            “No. No, I’m going. They need us.” She picked up her phone and slipped it into her skirt pocket.

            Aurea sat the bottle down and stepped in front of her sister. “Nox, we can’t go. They’ll be looking for us. Don't you think they know she’s dead? That we would want to go back?”

            “I can keep up a glamour,” she defended.

            The eldest twin frowned and shook her head. “No, Nox, you can’t. That stunt back at the asylum took a lot out of you. Your hands are still shaking. Not to mention how much you used taking down that demon. It’s too risky.”

            Nox wanted to hit her. Somewhere, deep in her rational subconscious, the part that wasn’t grieving, knew she was right.

            “She was our aunt, Aurea!”

            “I know. But we can’t go. It isn’t safe. It’s too risky.”

            Nox darted around her and turned back to face her. “Just because you don’t want to go–”

            “Nox, do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”

            “She was our aunt!”

            “I know!” Aurea screamed back. “I know she was our aunt, Nox! I know this. She was one of the last parental figures we had and now she’s dead. I know this. I feel it in my chest. And the only thing I want to do is run to Lark, to call her, to tell her I love her, to hold Garrett, buy Carver a beer. I know she was our aunt. I know,” she added softly.

            Nox crossed her arms over her chest and rubbed them. Her feet shuffled back and forth, trying and stopping her from going to her sister. She was still mad. She wanted to still be mad.

            “Then let’s go,” she said quietly after a few tense moments of silence. “I can do this.”

            “I’m worried you aren’t strong enough.”

            The room went quiet. Prosper and Samson retreated further into the quiet house.

            Nox felt like someone drove a spike into her chest. Her sister doubted her. The one person she had to count on didn’t believe in her.

             “Well. It’s nice to finally know what you think of me.”

            The blonde sighed and ran her hands through her hair. “That isn’t what I mean, Nox–”

            “Leave.”

            “Nox…”

            “I said leave!”

            “Fine!”

            She spun on her heel and left the room. In the hall, she paused and shoved her feet into her boots. Samson, who had been peering into the hallway from the kitchen, was jerked back in by a none too impressed Prosper. The door slammed harshly behind her. The windows rattled and for a moment she flinched. It took her a total of ten minutes to walk into town. Her feet beat up the gravel like it stole her lunch money. If there were birds, they didn’t sing as she passed.

            Nox wasn’t strong enough, as much as she liked to think so. They couldn’t go. It would be too hard. Too many templars would be there looking for them. They couldn’t go.

            Aurea walked into the jail before she knew what she was doing. The sounds of her boots hitting the floor echoed loudly in the small building. She found Cullen sitting at the desk in his office, bent over and filing paperwork. He only looked up when she slammed the door shut behind her and locked it.

            He watched her walk to the front of his desk, her eyes narrowed.

            “Aurea, what are you–”

            He made a muffled noise as her mouth claimed his and her hand gripped his hair at the back of his head. She was leaning half over his desk, her hipbones pushing against the metal. After a few stunned moments, he kissed her back. His hands no longer clenched by his side, he brought one up to hold her neck, the other to mirror the hold she had on his hair.

            She let him pull her towards him, crawling up on his desk so she was taller than him on her knees. Her hands pulled his head back so his neck stretched taught and she ran her fingers over it, feeling him swallow under her. His hand had her left hip in a tight grip. Aurea moaned into his mouth when he yanked her head back so he could bite at the junction of her neck and shoulder. She pushed him away from her, hands quickly undoing the buttons on her plaid shirt. Cullen mirrored her actions, before pulling his shirt out of the khaki pants of his uniform.

            Aurea unzipped her jeans and pushed forward to undo Cullen’s, her mouth finding his again and drawing his lower lip between her teeth. Her nails scratched their way down his chest, drawing red lines under their wake. He leaned into her, shoving papers from his desk so he could lay her down on it, sweeping her knees out from under her. She landed with a thud and an indignant squeak. She let him pull her ass to the edge of the desk and snickered when he couldn’t get her shorts off over her shoes. He dropped to his knees, drew her legs apart, and placed them on his shoulders. Her feet successfully trapped behind his head, bound by her shorts.

            A hiss echoed in his quiet office when he nipped at the inside of her thigh and sucked a mark into the flesh. He throbbed in the confines of his black boxer-briefs at the sight of her. Cullen pushed his face against her, his tongue licked against her folds, slid its way inside of her. His thick arms looped around her thighs and spread them open wider so he had more space for his shoulders. A shudder ran down him when Aurea cried out as he sucked her clit into his mouth. Her hand fisted in his hair and twisted, pulling his face closer to her, grinding herself into him.

            Cullen growled, and let go of one thigh to trail his hand up to her breast. He grabbed the fabric of her black lace bra and pulled the cup down so her breast could fall into his hand. He moaned into her at the feel, pinching her nipple between his fingers. His cock twitched heavily in the air in front of him, precum beading at the tip. A cold chill ran through Aurea the more he sucked and licked at her. His obscene sounds filled the air around them. She grabbed her other breast, kneading the flesh and pulling at her nipple. The pleasure was too high, yet she rolled her hips to get more of it. She wanted to fling herself over the edge of orgasm. To lose herself in the sensation.

            He trailed his hand back down her body and then slid two thick fingers into her, pumping them in and out slowly. She was so warm and wet for him. Her pants and high pitched exhales were music to his ears.

~

            His hands gripped her hips in a bruising vice, dragging her down the bed so she was pinned under him. His spit-slicked fingers pushed–

~

            “Come back, Aurea.” Cullen had pulled away from her as far as he could and had a hand on her stomach. “We can stop.”

            “Don’t you dare.”

            He nodded and pressed his mouth back to her. Aurea arched onto her shoulders when he gave a powerful suck and curled his fingers into her. She was so close she could taste it: little tiny sparks of color on her tongue.

            “Cullen.” His name felt foreign on her lips, but it tasted good all the same.

            Once she said it, she could stop saying it. Repeating it to the heavens so they could carve his name into the sky next to Alistair’s. Alistair. She choked on her next breath, for a moment picturing it was Alistair between her thighs. Cullen’s loud snarl drew her back to him, grinding her hips against his hands. Her walls were tightening, beginning their spasming dance around his fingers. All it took was a gentle nip and suck on her clit and she was breaking apart around him. His name fell from her lips in rough yelps. He worked her through it, moaned at her fingers twisting in his hair.

            She laid on his desk limply, enjoying her afterglow when he worked his body through the space between her legs so her knees rested against his hips. When she opened her eyes, she found him watching her, licking his lips and stroking his cock slowly. She caught his smirk and threw it back at him before she sat up and licked the pale pink scar on his lip. He caught her loose hair in his hand and pulled her head back, staring at the pale scar she had on her left lip that cut through the soft flesh and stretched just under her lower lip. Cullen leaned forward slowly and then drew his tongue across the line of her scar. She shuddered against him and opened her mouth.

            “Do you want this?”

            “Fuck me, Rutherford.”

            She reached forward and took his cock in her hand, gripping him tightly and twisting the head in her grasp. He moaned into her open mouth, thrust into her hand before she took it away and laughed cruelly. Cullen snarled and slid himself into her roughly, savoring her gasp. Knowing she wanted it hard, he slowed himself down to a crawl. He couldn’t help the confident smile that crossed his lips when she whined in annoyance.

            It was torture to have him thrust so slowly, to let her feel every inch of him and then pull himself away at a glacial pace. Gentility was not what she needed. She grabbed his waist and dug the heels of her boots into the top of his ass. Cullen reached forward and twisted a nipple between his fingers, rolling the beaded flesh until Aurea cried out and thrashed against him. He repeated the same treatment to the other side. The rogue pushed and pulled against him until Cullen got tired of her squirming and gripped her wrists and pinned them to the desk above her head. He took both of them in one hand and used the other to stroke over her, pinching flesh as he went.

            Maker, he felt so good in her. But she couldn’t come like that, not with him moving so slowly against her. Cullen knew that and knew that he wouldn’t be able to either. He wanted to stave off his orgasm as long as he could, wanted to pull as many out of Aurea as she could give him. He watched her wrestle with the grip he had on her wrists, knew that if she really wanted to she could throw him off in an instant. Then stopped.

            “Aurea. Aurea, look at me.” He stopped moving until Aurea looked at him with lust blown gold eyes. “Is this okay? Am I hurting you?”

            Aurea knew what he was asking. “No. I’m fine. Rutherford, please.” He still didn’t move, keeping himself buried in her, hand still pinning her wrists firmly to his desk.

            “Cullen. Cullen, please.”

            He smiled and continued his slow pace, ignoring her boots digging into the curve of his ass. She made sounds of protest under him, twisting her body and trying to buck her hips into him as much as she could. His hand continued its path down her stomach, dragging his nails lightly over her flesh and watching her shudder. She slipped her eyes closed and let out trembling gasps. Her fingers curled and uncurled against her palms, nails digging into the soft flesh.

            Cullen leaned forward and licked a drop of sweat from between her breasts before placing a kiss on the lightly freckled flesh there. He pushed his hand between their hips and drug his thumb over her clit slow and rough. She cried out when he his thumbnail traced under her clit before pulling the pad of his thumb back down over it. The feel of her squeezing around his cock was enough to make him shudder and groan loudly into her neck. He sucked a mark there at the junction of neck and shoulder. In retaliation, she turned her head and took the top of his ear between her teeth.

            He gave her one harsh thrust and she gasped into his ear. He picked up the pace on her clit, leaning up so he could watch her face as he drove her to orgasm again. His tongue licked his lips and he grunted when he gave another hard thrust into her. Her toes were curling in her shoes, legs tightening around him. She wanted more of him and at the same time less of him. Her body was trying to push itself to him. Cullen watched her take her bottom lip between her teeth and her brows furrow together.

            Maker, he wanted to cum, though he wasn’t foolish enough to think this was about her needing sex. She needed a release. Hell, we both do. He closed his eyes and shuddered: once he came it would be over for the both of them. His thumb stroked over her quickly, pushing her faster and faster towards her release. She was breathing heavy with him, both gasping out the others name. She was tightening around him, her legs shaking, and her arms straining to pull her hands up from the table. He kept them pinned there, pinned under him so she just had to take what he was giving her.

            “Cullen!”

            It was a plea. They both knew it. They both knew how close she was, how desperately painful her orgasm was becoming. She wanted to touch him, wanted to grip his shoulders and let him take her as many times as he wanted. She didn’t care how desperate or needy the noises coming out of her were. All she cared about was that scar, how his eyes held her pinned just as well as his hands did. Her orgasm was a flood, drowning her in exquisitely sharp pleasure. Her mouth opened and it took a few seconds before she could cry his name. Her head tossed from side to side, body pushing against his as much as she could.

            Cullen kept thrusting, kept moving his thumb soft and gentle over her clit. He read somewhere the female orgasm could last up to twenty seconds. She kept breathless little pleas in the shape of his name falling from her lips. It was too much, it felt too good. Her hips bucked violently against him. She struggled to open her eyes to look at him, to plead with him for something, anything. Finally, she relaxed against the table, giving into him fully. Her orgasm quieted but left her muscles shaking, her legs falling wider open still.

            The sheriff let go of her wrists and slid his hands under her back. He lifted her, spinning so he could press her against the wall. Aurea’s head lolled, a slow smile working at the corner of her mouth. She drew her hands over his shoulders and down his back, feeling him flex under her. Cullen gripped her thigh roughly, grunting when he pushed into her harder than before. She rocked against the cold wall. Her shoed feet toed at each other, trying to shove her boots off so she could wrap herself more firmly around him. The first boot fell loudly to the floor, but she hardly heard it over her heartbeat, or Cullen’s gasps and grunts in her ear. When both shoes were off, she wiggled her calves until her shorts and underwear dropped to the floor.

            Wasting no time, Cullen hiked her thigh higher around his hip and started thrusting faster into her. He couldn’t last any longer, couldn’t expect her too either. Her clit was so sensitive and every time he slammed into her, dragged himself across her swollen bundle of nerves, she cried out. He pushed his other hand against the wall beside her head, leaning forward so he could kiss her. One of her hands threaded through his hair while the other still gripped his shoulder tightly. They were sweaty, hair sticking to foreheads, bite marks and bruises on flesh they could reach.

            “I want you to come again, Aurea.”

            Aurea whined, tilting her head towards the ceiling. Could she come again? The prospect was interesting, and she wouldn’t stop him if he thought he could get her there. She nodded.

            Cullen leaned down and took a nipple into his mouth, lapping his tongue over the tight bud. He gave her a gentle nip and stood up straighter, thrusting into her faster and harder. Her nails were digging into his shoulder, giving up holding on to his hair. 

            “What do you need, Aurea. Tell me what you need.”

            She couldn’t answer him and her mouth opened in silence. He shoved his hand between them and slicked his fingers over her clit. The blonde jolted in his arms, her nails digging into the hard flesh of his shoulders. It was too much. The pleasure was too sharp. His cock throbbed in her and he gasped against her neck.

            “Fuck, Aurea,” he groaned and gave another rough thrust into her.

            Her muscles tensed, her toes curled. She couldn’t breathe. Her entire world revolved around the man thrusting into her. His hair was coming un-coiffed, small tendrils sticking to his forehead. There was a boyish flush on his cheeks that made his freckles all the more prominent.

            “Please. Cullen, please.”

            His forehead pressed against hers. His wrist was getting a cramp from rubbing her clit, but he wouldn’t stop. Not until she came again. He kissed her again, claimed her mouth over and over. She pressed her body against him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

            Aurea cried into his mouth when she finally came again. Her entire body stiffened and her back bowed. She clawed at his back and the tops of his shoulders. With every thrust, she cried out until finally his hips stuttered and his head dropped to her shoulder. His cock twitched as he emptied himself into her. He pulled her back from the wall and carefully, albeit awkwardly, lowered them to the floor.

            Aurea collapsed against his chest, hers heaving against his with each breath. He smelled like sex and cologne. She rolled off of him, cushioning her head with his bicep.

            “She died,” she stared at the ceiling as she whispered it like it was a secret.

            “What?” Cullen snapped his head to the side to look at the blonde.

            “Aunt Leandra. She’s dead. She died.”

Chapter Text


 

            The funeral home loomed over them. There were templars posted around the building trying and failing, to blend in with mourners. The cousins were nowhere to be seen, likely already crowded inside. The sky outside threatened rain in traditional fall New York weather; it made the building seem all the more threatening.

            Aurea sat on a bench across the street. Her face covered by large black sunglasses and a large black sunhat. She pulled the cigarette from her mouth and exhaled the smoke into the city.

            “I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” Nox sighed from beside her sister. She adjusted her own wide-brimmed hat and tucked a stray piece of hair back into the mouth.

            “I smoke when I’m stressed. And this is a hell of a stressful situation.”

            The raven-haired twin didn’t argue that. She didn’t know how they were going to get into the funeral home. There were at least twelve templars outside. None of them appeared to be armed, but that didn’t mean anything. Especially with templars. If she used a glamour, they would sense the magic. And while they may not be able to locate that magic to a single person, they would still know someone was using it. She wouldn’t put it past them to put the entire funeral home on lockdown until they discovered them.

            “We could just go in like this,” Nox suggested.

            Aurea nodded. “We could. Dad always said if you want to hide something from templars–”

            “Hide it in front of their faces.”

            Mages are supposed to be afraid of templars. Especially apostates. So why would one willingly put herself in front of them?

            “We can’t let them see us,” Aurea added.

            “I know.”

            The minute the cousins saw them it would be over.

            Aurea’s stomach knotted up tighter. It was stupid. They should never have gone. It was one thing to waltz into a building full of templars when they weren’t looking for you. It was a completely different thing to walk into a room of them when they were. Shit, fuck, they were screwed.

            “You know the exit strategy?” Aurea dropped her cigarette and crushed it with her high heel.

            Nox nodded and took a calming breath. “Cause chaos and run like hell.”

            “The family motto.”

            Aurea stood up and straightened her tight black dress. Suicide. It was absolute suicide to go into that funeral home. Yet there they were, walking across the street to join the rest of the mourners. Her heartbeat thundered in her chest like the beat of a bass line. They passed under the scrutiny of the templars outside.

            Breathe.

            They signed the guest book: Goldie and Starshine.

            Breathe.

            Nox wondered briefly what her family’s funerals looked like. Aunt Leandra would have had to make all the plans. A soft piano played over the dulled chatter of the mourners. Leandra was always fond of old hymnals. Why are funeral homes always so dark? The carpet muffled their steps as they made their way through the crowd, Nox’s hand held in Aurea’s. The lilac casket was closed.

            The pair stopped when they saw their cousins. Garrett was taller, broader in the chest and shoulders than he ever had been. He sported a full beard that fit his face much better than being clean shaven. His eyes were red and teary, but his cheeks were dry. Lark was only a little taller than she was when they had last seen her. She had cut her chestnut hair, the new style framing her face pleasantly. She was stony as she stood between her taller brothers, her hands clenched tightly at her sides. Carver was just as tall and as broad as Garrett. When they had last seen him, he was a lanky teenager trying to bulk up to join the football team.

            The twins wanted nothing more than to rush to them. The urge to take them into their arms was painful. They knew the pain their cousins were in at that moment and it damn near killed them too. Instead of rushing to them, they stood back and watched as people approached the trio and hugged them, clasped their hands and offered words of wisdom. Words of wisdom that would mean shit to anyone grieving: She’s in a better place, she isn’t hurting anymore, justice will be served, she loved you so much, she was a lovely woman, she’s with the Maker now.

            Bullshit. All of it, bullshit.

            Lark looked up and caught their gaze. Both of them stopped and stared back. Nox itched to throw up a glamour, but it was too late. The action would only be more noticeable in a room full of people. Lark looked away, turned her attention back to the people coming towards her. Either she didn’t recognize them or didn’t want to give them away.

            “We should go,” Aurea whispered.

            “I just want to hold them,” Nox whispered back, swallowing the hard lump in her throat.

            Just then, a large snout pressed into Aurea’s backside. She jumped and turned around, meeting the large brown eyes of Fennel, Lark’s Mabari. She let herself smile sadly, kneeling down to rub her hands over his face and snout.

            “Hi, beautiful boy.”

            The dog wagged his stub of a tail and pressed himself harder into Aurea’s hand. Nox knelt down beside them, stroking over his back and sides. Fennel was only a few years younger than Hadar, but at that moment, he looked to be a hundred. He made a quiet chuffing noise before padding off to sit patiently by Lark. Normally the dog would have bounded over with reckless abandon and floppy ears. 

            Aurea stood and straightened her clothes. She didn’t get to go to her parent’s funeral. Or her sister’s. Or nephew’s. Or her brother-in-law’s. Did they have them together? Were they closed caskets too? Why was every member of this family murdered? Why could no one die peacefully in their sleep? Was that such an impossible request?

            “We should go,” she said quietly to her sister.

            The blue-eyed mourner was still watching her cousins, her mouth turned down sharply at the corners.

            “Just let me go to them. Two seconds, Aurea.”

            “We can’t. We…They’ll know us. They’ll die to protect us. I can’t lose anyone else. That includes you, Nox.”

            “I know. I just…”

            “They’re right there.”

            “Yes.”

            Nox tightened her hands by her side. They were just standing right there. It would take nothing in the world to walk over to them. Or, it would take everything. If she could just send a flit of magic to them, a small insect, a tingling sensation, the flicker of a candle. But no matter how faint the magic, it would be detected.

            “A note,” Nox whispered excitedly.

            “A note?”

            She turned to her sister and pulled them further into a corner. “A note, tucked under Fennel’s collar.”

            “A note,” Aurea said with a smile.

            The note was simple enough to just be cryptic. One sun on the top right corner, a moon on the bottom left. EEEJOKGAHB in the center. Aurea’s neat script was finished off with little flourish.

            Nox gave a low whistle and discretely patted her leg. After a few moments, Fennel padded back over, a confused expression on his face. Nox scratched his cheeks. Quickly, Aurea knelt and slipped the folded piece of paper into the folds of his thick collar.

            “Go give that to Lark. Hurry now,” Aurea whispered as she kissed his face.

            When he scampered off once again, the twins turned and made their way quickly to the exit. The air was getting thick with tension. The longer they stayed the longer the templars had to recognize them. They avoided eye contact with everyone they came across, ducking their heads politely.

            “Excuse me, ladies,” a gruff voice spoke from behind them.

            Aurea took Nox’s hand tighter and kept walking. Nox settled her body closer to Aurea’s as they walked. Both were ready to react.

            “Excuse me.”

            A hand gripped Aurea’s upper arm tightly, wrenching her back into the parlor. She let go of her sister’s hand, spun on her heel, and delivered a swift punch to the templar’s face. He let go, stumbling back into a couple talking quietly. Nox let out a large blast of energy to the four templars coming at them from the front. They flew back, knocking into bystanders and a wall.

            Aurea turned and grabbed Nox’s wrist, ready to run. Thankfully, there were already people running out of the building and they blended in seamlessly.  Templars were trying to push their way in, but they were no match against the panicked crowd aching to get out. Outside, Nox pulled Aurea to the left, away from the main crowd of people.

            “You there, stop!”

            Nox turned briefly and threw a ball of electricity at the templar. It stunned him, locking him in place long enough for them to slip from sight. There would be more, there would always be more. People on the streets scattered around them, some screaming. Aurea hated running in heels, no matter how pleasant the sound was. One wrong move and her ankle would twist out from under her.

            “Aurea!” Nox yelled and skidded to a stop, pointing to a man parking a dark blue motorcycle.

            Aurea gave a wicked smile. She slipped a pocket knife out of her bra and cut a high slit up the skirt on both sides. Taking off at a run, she made her way quickly to the man on the bike. Without saying a word, she grabbed the man by the jacket and tossed him away from the machine. She straddled the bike first, Nox sliding on behind her.

            “I’m sorry!” Nox yelled to the rather confused looking man as they sped off into traffic.

            Aurea was certain they made quite the sight. Her large hat stayed on her head thanks to several hat pins, Nox’s shawl was billowing out behind them. Not to mention Aurea’s thighs were exposed up to her ass and the fact that she was driving a motorcycle in heels. She laughed. She couldn’t help it, the image of them fleeing from a funeral, stealing a motorcycle, and speeding through the city was entirely too comical.

             “We’re going to hell,” Nox yelled into her ear.

            “We were going to hell before this!”

            They ditched the bike at a rest stop outside of the city. Aurea found a trucker to ask for a ride: he was an older man, maybe in his late fifties or early sixties. The rolled up flannel shirt revealed a peace sign tattoo on his forearm, probably from the free love era. His breath smelled like stale coffee and toffee, but his teeth were beautifully white. His graying brown hair was cropped close to his head; a stark contrast from the carefree previous lifestyle.

             “Sure, darlin, I’ll give ya a ride. I’m only going as far as Charlotte, South Carolina though. But you’re welcome to ride that far.”

            “Thank you, Jessie. I’ll go and tell my sister.”

            Aurea left him standing by his truck. “Got a us a ride,” she said as she sat next to Nox. “Seems nice enough. But I think the two of us can take him if he isn’t.”

            Nox nodded and sat quietly.

            “You okay?” Aurea asked, carefully taking in the state of her sister.

            Nox sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know, Aurea. Are you?”

            Aurea shrugged with a tilt of her head. “Some days. On the days that I’m not, I just keep moving.”

            “That sounds exhausting.”

            “It is. But we don’t have a choice.” After a long silence, Aurea sighed and stood up. “Come on, he’s taking us as far as Charlotte. We can catch a bus back there.”

            She held her hand out to her sister and waited for her to take it. She kept hold of her hand until they climbed inside the semi.

            “Let’s get you girls home,” Jessie said with a smile, putting the truck in gear.

            “I thought this was a semi, not a time machine?” Aurea asked with a smile.

            “It’s a time machine, but it can only move you forward.”

            “Damn,” Nox whispered.

Chapter Text


 

            Somewhere, just outside of Atlanta, Aurea’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket. Carefully shifting a sleeping Nox to the side, she pulled it out. A number she didn’t recognize stretched across the screen. No one had the number though that she didn’t give it to. Still, given their recent escapade, she was on edge. Her thumb hesitated over the green phone symbol. She waited, expected the call to end but it only rang more. She finally answered it, held it to her pierced ear, and said nothing.

            “How does a priest flirt with a chantry sister?”

            Aurea smiled. “He tells her to show him her urn of sacred ashes.”

            Lark was silent on the other end.

            “I’m sorry,” Aurea finally said, looking out of the truck window.

            It was raining outside. The droplets outside the dark cab collected on the window. Orange and yellow city lights reflected in the tiny orbs and cast a watery glow over everything. Jessie sat quietly beside Nox, his eyes firmly focused on the busy highway before them.

            Lark said nothing on the other end for some time. Aurea let the silence permeate the space between them. It felt like the first snow: everything is quiet and crisp, impeccably clear. It was as if the entire world faded away into the silent night.

            “I can’t believe you actually crashed a funeral,” Lark finally whispered.

            Aurea put her sock-covered feet on the dash and scooted down in her seat. “To be fair, I did tell Nox it was a bad idea.” She sighed and rubbed the dark circles under her eyes. “I’m really sorry about that.”

            “Aurea.”

            Her cousin never finished what she was going to say. Silence filled the air yet again and Aurea let the awkwardness seep into her pores. Shame was a hard feeling to shake off. The twins ruined their aunt’s funeral spectacularly.

            Lark laughed.

            The sound shocked Aurea into a stunned silence.

            “Maker’s balls, you caused a riot at a funeral.”

            “Not my best moment.”

            “I mean, Mom always said you were trouble,” Lark chuckled out. She sounded breathless.

            “Where are you?”

            “The the subway back home. I’ll have you know I trekked all the way to Queens for this phone. Where are you?” she asked after a pause.

            Aurea sighed and looked out the window. “Lark…”

            There was an angry snarl. “I’m your cousin, Aurea. They can’t track this phone call. I just want to know where you are.”

            “We’re in Georgia right now. We won’t be here long.” Aurea chewed the tip of her thumb. “How…how are you?”

            The silence stretched on between them before Lark finally spoke.

            “How did you feel?”

            Aurea sighed and wiggled down in her seat. “Well, when I wasn’t sedated, I was furious. I…I don’t know, Lark. My chest hurt and my throat hurt. I couldn’t breathe. But over all of that, I was angry. I still am. I wake up angry.”

            On the other end of the phone, there was a muffled choked noise.

            “Lark?”

            “I miss her.”

            Aurea’s throat tightened and she swallowed roughly. “I know. I know you do.”

            That should never have happened to Lark. In the list of people that should have something terrible happen to them, Lark was not on it. Aurea didn’t know what to say to her. There was nothing she could say. Losing a parent, let alone two, was difficult. It was pain and heartache for the rest of your life. A piece of you was taken and you were forced to walk around with an empty space in your chest.

            “Do you miss them?”

            Aurea pressed her finger to the corners of her eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, Lark, I do. Every day. Living…” she stopped. “It’s just hard missing them.”

            “Does it get easier?”

            “No.” She didn’t want to lie. Not to Lark. She had already lied enough. “No, it doesn’t. Or it hasn’t. Not yet. Nox thinks it will, someday. I don’t know if I believe her. Always the optimist.”

            “This hurts. It hurts.”

            “Yeah.”

            What else could she say? There was no way on earth to make her cousin hurt less, to make something that didn’t make sense, make sense. It was like trying to understand the chantry, or the Maker’s will if he existed and even had a will.

            “I just…” Lark grew devastatingly quiet.

            “Lark?”

            “I have to go.”

            “Lark. What’s happening? Are you alright?”

            “I love you.”

            “Lark?”

            The line went dead and Aurea stared blankly out the windshield. There was a tone in Lark’s voice that Aurea recognized instantly in herself: rage. Someone, somewhere in New York, was going to die at the hands of her cousin. Aurea only wondered who it was.

            “Problems with family?” Jessie asked her without taking his eyes off the road.

            She hummed in her throat and carded her fingers through Nox’s hair. “It usually is. Lark is practically my sister. Her mother, my aunt, was killed.”

            “I’m sorry. It’s hard losing a parent.”

            “It’s hard losing anyone.”

~

            At some point, Aurea had fallen asleep. She woke somewhere just outside of Louisiana with her face pressed against the cold glass of the window. The truck still vibrated with a working engine, but other than that, it was silent. Nox and Jessie were no longer in the cab, probably had found themselves inside somewhere. Aurea sat up and rubbed the chill out of her arms. There was white fog that pressed down on everything around her almost like snow. They were parked in some kind of a rest stop, but it was void of other cars or people.

            She opened the truck cab door and slid out onto the pavement. The sound of the door shutting reverberated and echoed in the air around her. The sound didn’t sit right with her. Something was wrong, but she couldn’t place what it was. There was a static charge in the air that made her skin hurt.

            “Nox?” she called out.

            Her voice echoed back to her. Was she in the fade? Maybe she was dreaming. That had to be it. Maker’s hairy asshole, she hated the fade. Now all she had to do was figure out how to wake herself up. She walked away from the cab and took off down the road beneath her feet. There was no sound of shoes crunching on the gravel, no wind in the trees, no sound of birds or cars. The only sound was her heartbeat in her ear and her steady breaths.

            Come on, Aurea. Wake up.

            “It’s not that easy, you know.”

            She spun around quickly and took a fighting stance. There it was in front of her. The creature from her first dream. Their hair floated out beside them this time, almost like they were in water. Their pale hands were clasped together in front of them: their fingers were long and spindly, nails were so white they looked as if they had soaked them in lemon juice. Except the tips of their nails: those were stained red.

            “I’ve seen you before,” she said. “Going to make me see my dead parents again?”

            “No. Now you and I will talk face to face.” They stayed perfectly still in front of her. “Your sister is a curious one, is she not?”

            Aurea hid her anger. “You’re what she saw, aren’t you?”

            “I am. She will not heed my warnings. Curious little mage,” they spit the word out with venom.

            Aurea noted their reaction. “And do we not like mages?”

            “They are vile.”

            “Mm. Look who’s talking.” She circled them, observing. They did not move with her, simply stayed facing the direction they already were. “Why does my sister have a connection with you?”

            “It is a curious thing, is it not? One I intend to sever completely.” They slid their hands apart and opened them.

“Who are you?”

            They smiled and blinked their pale eyes. “I am no one, and yet, I am everyone.”

            Aurea rolled her eyes. “Oh, Maker’s tits, are you serious? I don’t give a shit about your riddles. I want to the truth.”

            “You are wise for one so young.”

            “I’m not that young and you’re not that mysterious.”

            They laughed and it echoed around the two of them. “And quick of tongue.” They walked around Aurea in a circle. “My name was Dane, but that was a very long time ago.”

            “Well, what is it that you want Dane?”

            “You.” Dane stopped circling her.

            The scene shifted until they were in the bayou. Aurea kept her face neutral even though fear crept up her spine.

            “That’s very original,” she said with a slow clap. “Did you come up with that on your own, or did you learn it from bad guy school?”

            “I am not bad or good. I am neutral.”

            “Oh, sure. Sure, because neutral people can manipulate the fade and dreams. And tell people that they have blood on their name and that ‘the beast will have you.’ Totally not bad or anything.”

            They regarded her carefully, steadily studying her eyes. She showed no fear, her voice held no quake, her body was still. She was a snake waiting to strike.

            “That is simply the truth. The beast will have you, Aurea.” The scene shifted again. “And do you not have blood on your name?”

            All around her were bodies and blood. Every person she had killed getting to her sister.

            “Self-defense is not a crime.”

            “Taking the life of another is a sin–”

            She smiled wickedly, her lips pulled back over sharp teeth. “Taking a life is a sin, hm? And how many sins have you committed, Dane?”

            “They were heathens. They need to be sacrificed–”

            Aurea laughed loudly. She locked him in with gold eyes and smirked.

            “Who are you to decide, Dane?” She watched his hands twitch. “You are nothing. You are no one. Just,” she took a step, “like,” another, “me.” She was nose to nose with them now, could see the veins in their eyes and across their skin.

            Dane snarled but stayed rooted to the spot.

            “We’re both killers, Dane. And we’ll both burn for it.”

Chapter Text


 

            The next day, Aurea and Nox sat in a truck stop restaurant, waiting for Cullen to come pick them up.

            “Toi et moi, nous devons parler,” Aurea drawled out in French.

            “Sur?” Nox finished her omelet and sat the plate on the side of the table.

            “Dane.”

            Nox’s face went pale. “You know their name?” Their conversation was continued in French, yet still, she whispered.

            Aurea leaned back in the blue leather booth and crossed her arms over her chest. “Yeah. They came to me last night.”

            Nox looked away from her twin and out of the window. Dawn was just breaking over the eastern horizon. It looked like it was going to be a bright day full of sunshine.

            “Nox.”

            “I’m listening. What did they want?”

            Aurea sighed and dropped her head back on the seat. “Me.”

            Nox snapped her head back to her sister. “You?”

            She hummed. “That’s what they said. Original line, hm?”

            “Why?”

            “That’s rude. Don’t pretend like I’m not fantastic.”

            The twins grew quiet again.

            “You should have told me sooner, Nox. I’m not blaming you, I just…We need to get ahead of this thing. Whatever they are.”

            Nox nodded and traced a sigil on her forearm. “I’ve been trying to sever the connection we seem to have. Nothing I’ve tried has worked.” She looked back out the window. “They’ve murdered people in front of me. Like it was nothing. And yet…”

            Aurea watched her sister’s face carefully. Nox bit the corner of her bottom lip and worried it.

            “Nox?”

            The blue-eyed beauty sighed. “Dane believes that what they are doing is the right thing. I can feel it when they kill. Nothing is going to convince them otherwise.”

            “Do you know why they’re killing?”

            “No. Something about sacrifice, but that doesn’t always mean anything.” She leaned further across the table. “They’re hunting someone right now, following them. I can’t ever see her face though. She infuriates them for some reason.”

            “Well, we need to find her before Dane does. Do you know who she is? Or where even?”

            “No. All I know is she’s somewhere in New Orleans working at a voodoo shop. Possibly. I’ve seen her come out of one with Dane. I can’t ever see her face though. It’s like they’re keeping it from me, or I just can’t see her. I don’t know.”

            Aurea hummed and trailed a finger around the rim of her coffee cup. It proved a difficult task indeed. Even if they could narrow it down to women who worked at voodoo shops in New Orleans, that was still a horrendous amount of people to keep track of. And that was only a possibility that she worked at a voodoo shop. There were around 400,000 people in New Orleans. About half of those were female. 200,000 women in New Orleans and they were looking for one.

            A needle in a Maker damned needle-stack.  

~

            When they arrived back into town with Cullen, there was an older white man waiting in front of the sheriff’s station. His salt and pepper hair was slicked back making his sunken face more prominent. His eyes were small slits that sat too far back in his skull for comfort. He looked to be about 5’9 and probably very sensitive about it.

            “Shit,” Cullen hissed out as he parked.

            “Who’s hoss?” Aurea asked, unbuckling her belt.

            “The mayor.” Cullen clipped his gun back on and gave a smile and a wave to their welcome committee.

            “Why is the mayor here?” Nox looked at Cullen with concern.

            “I didn’t even know a town this small had a mayor. What’s he want? Does he always do this?”  

            Cullen looked at the two of them and smirked, “You two are so paranoid.” He stepped out first, and nodded his head, “Mayor.”

            “Cullen, please, Clinton.”

            Aurea noted how Clinton straightened himself and pulled his shoulders back when he stood next to Cullen. Tiny man complex, she thought.

            “I was wondering if I could speak with you and your two…guests.”

            Aurea didn’t like how he said the word. Nox’s spine stiffened. The two sisters stepped closer together and watched the mayor carefully. The way he regarded them was off-putting. For a terrifying moment, Aurea thought he knew who they were. Were they walking right into a trap? Would Cullen step in to help them? It was hard to believe that he wouldn’t fight for them, or with them, but the possibility of betrayal was still there.

            Cullen let the mayor walk in first, and then followed in after. At least they couldn’t ever tell him that he never gave them a chance to run. The door shut behind them softly. The mayor led them to Cullen’s office and was moving to take Cullen’s seat behind his desk, but Cullen got there first. Aurea smiled at the boyish rivalry and motioned for Nox to take a seat in front of her.

            “What can we do for you?” Aurea asked, watching as the mayor took the leftover chair and drug it to the side of Cullen’s desk.

            The older man sat, crossed his legs, and steepled his fingers over his chin. “I’ve heard some very disturbing rumors.”

            Cullen kept an edge to his voice when he spoke, “And I’m sure you’ve done your research into those rumors, instead of taking them at face-value?”

            “Of course. Yet,” he picked lint off of his jacket, “I find that it is always best to go to the subject of the rumors.” His gaze shifted to the twins. “One of you is rumored to be a mage.”

            Aurea laughed. Nox simply smiled and folded her hands in her lap. They were the picture of ease.

            “That would mean we were apostates, mayor,” Nox explained sweetly. For being on the road as long as she had, she still looked well put together. Her hair fell loosely around her shoulders, her white linen shirt had not a spot or wrinkle on it, her khaki pants were perfectly tailored.

            “That is what it would mean, yes. And if that were the case…”

            Cullen leaned back in his chair. “But that isn’t the case here, Clinton. I can and will vouch for these two women.”

            “Good, because we don’t tolerate mages in this town.”

            “And what else don’t you ‘tolerate’?” Aurea didn’t keep the bite out of her tone.

            Cullen looked at her out of the corner of his eye and then turned his attention back to the man beside them. He knew the answer to that question and now so did Aurea. It was a very well known and tolerated aspect of Parish’s current mayor: no mages, no elves, no ‘non-whites’. More than a few times Cullen wanted to knock in the teeth of Clinton.

            Clinton smiled and shrugged. “Let’s hope no one has to find out.”

            Aurea narrowed her eyes but smiled all the same.

            “Tell me, is that red-headed elf staying with you?”

            Aurea clenched her jaw so hard she thought her teeth would crack. “Yes. She’s my sister.” Not a complete fabrication. They were sisters, just not by blood.

            That got his attention. The brown-eyed asshole snapped his eyes to Aurea’s face and he stared in shock.

            “Our mother was Dalish,” Nox confirmed sweetly.

            Aurea tucked her hair behind her ears to give him an unobstructed view. They weren’t as dramatically pointed as a full-blooded elf, but they were still noticeable. By the time Aurea was fifteen, she had three piercings in the lobes and her helixes pierced in three places. During her time in the ‘hospital’, they had all nearly grown back shut again. Re-piercing them was a bitch.

            “If that was all you wanted from us?” Aurea asked, stepping back from Nox’s chair. She didn’t wait for him to dismiss her, instead, walked out of Cullen’s office with Nox beside her. When they were out of earshot, Aurea sighed. “I fucking hate that guy already.”

            “Cullen,” Clinton sat forward on his chair and attempted to lock Cullen in a stare.

            “Clinton.”

            “I want you to keep an eye on those girls.”

            “Most definitely,” he said, watching them walk out of the building.

~

            “You caused a riot at your aunt’s funeral,” Prosper said with admiration.

            Aurea sat on the couch after her shower and nursed a whiskey sour. “I did. Punched a templar right in the face.”

            Prosper laughed and scratched Hadar between the ears. “Sounds like you.”

            “How did you and Samson get along?”

            Her friend shrugged and picked up her own drink. “Well enough. He’s an asshole, but he’s a good guy.”

            “Mm.”

            “And how did you and Cullen get along?” Prosper asked with an innocent expression on her face.

            Aurea glared and her old friend smirked. Of-fucking-course Prosper knew.

            “Was I that obvious?”

            “You came back with your lipstick half on your face, one boot unlaced, and your shirt was ripped. Yeah, you were obvious.”

            Aurea sighed and rubbed her forehead. “It was nice. I needed a release.” She remembered Cullen’s face after, how relaxed he had looked. “I think Cullen did too. He’s wound up tighter than a chantry sister in a whore house.”

            “And Alistair?”

            “What about him?”

            “That’s my question to you, Aurea. Don’t throw it back at me.”

            What about Alistair? They weren’t really anything. She didn’t even feel guilty for sleeping with other men. Why should she? Alistair had more than likely moved on with his life. As he should have. Did she honestly expect him to put his life on hold for her? No. That was stupid.

            Later that night, Aurea curled up amongst her blankets and pillows on the bed. She was alone in the room, Hadar sleeping with either Prosper or Nox. Maybe even Samson. The dog didn’t seem to mind him. The blonde laid there looking at the ceiling for several moments before she picked up the phone on her nightstand.

            Alistair was easy enough to find on social media. He was a civil rights lawyer now. She smiled at the stoic picture of him that his firm had put up on their website. It appeared Duncan had taken him under his wing and law firm completely. Alistair wasn’t married yet, but there were several pictures of him with a young blonde woman with striking blue eyes. He had a mabari: a beautiful light gray with light colored eyes.

            Aurea smiled fondly and felt a pang deep in her chest. A pang she promptly ignored.

            On the third ring, he answered.

            “Why is it,” he yawned, “you always call me when I’m in bed?”

            She blushed and smiled some more. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking.” She turned on her side and curled a pillow under her head. “What are you wearing Mr. Theirin?”

            “Cheese pajama bottoms. With googly eyes.”

            Aurea laughed loudly before she muffled them noises with a blanket. “Maker, tell me you aren’t.”

            “I’ll prove it to you.”

            There was some rustling on the other end and then a picture of Alistair from the bellybutton down, completely with cheese pattered pajama bottoms. Maker, the man was a sight.

            “Well, well. You’re much…bigger than I remembered.”

            “Are you calling me fat?” Alistair squeaked. “Or are you remarking on uh…something else?”

            “Well in order for me to remark on that, Alistair, I’d need to see it.” She could practically hear the blush in his breathless laugh. “But I meant muscle wise. Running with the dog maybe?”

            “You’ve been snooping.”

            “It’s not snooping if it’s on your social sites…What’s his name?”

            “Cheddar.”

            Aurea giggled and rubbed her eyes. “You and your love of cheese. Tell me, Alistair, do you love me more than cheese?”

            “Oh, Aurea, it’s no contest.”

            Aurea swallowed and said nothing for a few moments. The only thing that passed between them was the soft sounds of their breathing.

            “She’s pretty. Your wife.”

            “My wife? I don’t have– Oh! Oh, no. That’s,” he laughed, “Maker, no. Aurea that’s Anora. She’s Cailan’s wife.”

            “Oh.”

            She wasn’t sure what she felt so relieved at that moment.

            “How are you?” he asked timidly.

            “Okay… We crashed the funeral.”

            “I heard. Impressive.”

            “How… how are you?” She played with the skin around her thumb.

            “I miss you.”

            “Yeah?” she asked coyly.

            Alistair gave a breathless chuckle. “Yeah. I miss you. Is that so hard to believe?”

            “Maybe I just like hearing it.”

            “I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”

Aurea squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face into the pillow. She missed him.

            “Aurea?”

            Maker, she missed him too.

            “I’m…I…” Say it. Say it, you coward, say it. “I miss you too.”

            He hummed on the other end of the line. Maker, she missed his voice. She missed how he smelled, she missed how he tasted the last time she kissed him, she missed how he felt. Against her will, tears started to burn in her eyes.

            “I’m in Parish.”

Chapter Text

       


            “So,” Aurea traced her finger around the rim of her coffee cup and considered adding whiskey. “I may have done a stupid.”

            Prosper snorted and took another bite of egg. “What else is new?”

            “I’m sure whatever it is we can fix it,” Nox reasoned.

            The blonde laughed nervously and then coughed, “I told Alistair where I am.”

            The room grew silent and the two women stared blankly at Aurea. Aurea, who refused to meet their collective gaze.

            “You did what?” Nox asked with a bemused expression on her face.

            “Haha, yeah… Yeah, I did a stupid.”

            Prosper laughed loudly and leaned back in her chair. “Gods, you have it bad. How long did that take, Aurea? Two minutes?”

            “I will have you know it was five.” Aurea sighed and rubbed both of her hands over her face. “Look, I fucked up. Gloriously, I know.”

            “I’m impressed,” Nox sighed happily.

            Her sister looked up, confusion masking her features.

            Nox smiled and swirled her spoon around her coffee. “I was worried you wouldn’t let anyone get close again. Is he coming?”

            “Maker, I don’t know. I hung up as soon as I told him. Oh, fuck you, Tripod,” Aurea laughed when Prosper snickered. “I never claimed to be good at this. Seducing people, yes, but…whatever this is? No. Not when it comes to Alistair.”

            Samson shuffled into the room, bare-chested and in plaid pajama bottoms. His scruff was getting thicker and he was putting on more weight. He picked up a mug from the sink, rinsed it, and poured himself a generous amount of coffee.

            “What are we clucking about this morning?” he grumbled.

            “Oh, Aurea told Alistair where we are,” Nox replied casting a wink to her sister.

            Aurea threw her hands up in the air and leaned further back in her chair.

            Samson blinked in surprise and shook his head. “Love.”

            “It is not love!”

            “Mmm.” Samson smiled.

            “It’s love,” Prosper agreed.

            “When is he coming?” Nox asked.

            Aurea sighed and rubbed her face. “I don’t know.”

            “Well what did he say after you told him?” she pressed.

            “Well…”

            Prosper laughed, “You hung up on him, didn’t you?”

            “I panicked!”

            “Sweet Maker,” Samson sighed.

~

            In all his life, Cullen had never seen anything quite so gruesome as a body torn apart by alligators. Before he even completely shut the car door the smell permeated his pores. There were several county cops surrounding the area on the bank where the body washed up. Elton, the man who found the body, was sitting on the back step of the ambulance. He looked at Cullen with an ashen face but said nothing.

            “Do we have an id yet?” Cullen asked as he approached the four men.

            “No. Not even sure how we’d go about getting one. She’s been in the water so long prints are of no use. We could try dental records, but a few of her teeth are missing,” a young deputy answered, moving the handkerchief away from his mouth.

            Cullen knelt down next to the body and frowned. The body was of a black woman. Part of her leg had been ripped away by animals, most likely gators. Her left arm was also missing from the shoulder down, there was a large chunk missing out of her side. Cullen swallowed the bile down and stood back up.

            “My guess is she fell in and the gators got her. This’ll be the fifth one this year.”

            Cullen took in the state of her dress and frowned in thought: her top was made out of a flashy material, low-cut and beaded, her skirt barely hit mid thigh. Even from where he was he could see puncture wounds in her chest that didn’t match teeth.

            “I don’t think so,” he finally said. “She’s dressed for a club, not for fishing or hiking. Have we found a car around?”

            Another woman shook her head and checked her notebook. “No. No abandoned cars in a five-mile radius.”

            “So how would she have gotten here? You don’t go for a walk in the bayou dressed like that. The mosquitos would eat you alive before you got six inches from the car,” he explained. “I don’t think it was the alligators that did this.”

            “Well, what do you think happened then, Sherlock?” And older sheriff with a steely gaze looked him over.

            Cullen looked back at the body and then along the bank. “I think she was dumped somewhere around here. Those look like stab wounds in her chest.”

            There were murmurs around him as they discussed his theory. Up to that point Cullen had avoided looking at the victim’s face. Bodies pulled out of the water were usually never pretty to look at and the smell was worse. Yet something was urging him to look at her features. When he finally did, his stomach churned. There, on her forehead, was a symbol. It looked almost as if it had been burned into her flesh. With his back to the other police, Cullen quickly snapped a picture of it on his phone.

            “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get back,” he said quickly as he stood up.

            He left quickly, sending gravel spitting from beneath his tires as he took off.

~

            “What are you doing?” Samson asked, sitting next to a scowling Aurea.

            “Research.”

            “Howe, hm? Piece of work, that one. Are we going to kill him?”

            “Nox said no.”

            “Damn.”

            “If we kill him,” Nox sighed from her seat across the room, “we are exactly the monsters he claims we are.”

            “I’m okay with that,” Aurea answered back.

            Howe smiled back from the computer screen and Aurea wanted to reach through it and strangle him. It wouldn’t be hard, just a little pressure on his throat. He was a man she could kill without hesitation, without remorse.

            “What’s the asshole up to these days?” Samson asked, dropping an arm over Aurea’s shoulders.

            “A charity event in New York. He’s not even trying to hide.” And here we are, like rats, she thought. “He makes it look so easy.”

            Samson hummed and took a drink of his beer. “Yes, he does. And the minute you think you have him, the trap will set and he’ll have you. You want to kill him, you gotta be smarter than he is.”

            There was a knock at the door and Aurea jumped. She looked up with a panicked gaze and waited.

            “Think that’s your boy?” Samson asked with a smirk.

            “Nox!” Cullen yelled from the hall and the door slammed shut.

            “Damn,” Samson whispered.

            “Nox, I need– Samson, why are you still here?” Cullen crossed his arms when he saw him, his famous scowl showing up again.

            “Well, Prosper loves me, so I’ve been hanging around hoping she’ll realize it.”

            “Cullen, did you need me?” Nox tilted her head and took in the state of him.

            “That book,” he started, his hands moving in front of him, “where’s the book Aurea brought you?”

            “Here,” Nox gestured to her lap, “why? Did you need it back? Because I haven’t–“

            He approached her and picked the grimoire up, flipping through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. Their eyes were on him, watching him like the madman he felt like.

            “Here,” he finally said, putting the book back in her lap and pointing, “I found that symbol on a body they pulled out of the river today.” He took he phone out of his pocket and pulled the picture up. “See? There, on her forehead.”

            Nox looked closely at the script on the page and then the image on his phone. “You found this carved into a body?”

            “It looked like it had been burned in.”

            “Gross,” Aurea grumbled, going back to stalking Howe.

            “Do you know what it’s for?” Cullen asked.

            Nox took a moment to read through part of the spell. “A summoning spell I think. Or maybe a binding ritual? It’s hard to say, I would have to read more.”

            “Do it. Please?” Cullen asked while pacing their floor. “Something about this doesn’t feel right and I need to know what that symbol is. If there’s a mage around trying to summon more of those beasts, we need to stop them. Now.

            “Alright, Cullen,” Nox reached out and took his hand in hers, “alright.”

            Cullen looked into her blue eyes and felt a little calmer than he had entering the room. Nox had that effect on people. Mathias often told her it was because her eyes were so large and trusting that people couldn’t help but to calm down around her. Or perhaps it was because Cullen knew that she wouldn’t stop until she found out what the symbol really was.

            “That son of a bitch!” Aurea screamed.

            Cullen jumped and put his hand on his gun, coiling to strike. Nox flinched and clutched the book tightly. Samson simply took a sip of his beer.

            “Maker, Aurea, what?” Cullen took his hand away from his weapon and rubbed his face.

            “He started a foundation in Dad’s name. For families affected by magic.”

            Samson cursed beside her and then the room fell quiet. She exuded rage. Every square foot of the room was permeated by it. He murders her father then has the nerve to start a foundation for him! She stood up, paced the room like a lion caged. Samson reached forward and pressed play on the news clip, waiting for it to load.

            “It’s been seven years since Mathias Amell and his family were brutally killed. Mathias…” he choked up. “Mathias was a good man. He loved his family, he loved his country. Both turned on him in the end. He was blinded by love, they all were. Blind to the horrors that magic can carry. Who among us can blame him? He loved his children. Nox Amell could have been a sweet young lady, and she was for a time. I had the pleasure of knowing this family. I watched their girls grow into lovely young women.” Howe wiped tears from his eyes. “I too saw a change in Nox, but…I refused to believe it. I…I uhm…Maker, forgive me.” He took a few more seconds to compose himself. “I loved Nox like my own daughter. I loved all of them like my own family. Magic corrupted them. That’s why I’m starting the Mathias Amell foundation here in New York to help with–”

            Samson shut the computer with a snarl.

            “That absolute bastard!” Aurea screamed.

            Nox drew in on herself, closing the book in her lap with a quiet thud. She flinched when Aurea threw a vase at the wall, shattering it into tiny pieces. She could feel Cullen watching her, wanting to reach out for her. She’d let him if he only tried. For families affected by magic. Like it was a curse. A disease that needed eradicating. Instead, Cullen went to Aurea, trying to keep her from breaking her fist open on the wall.

           “Don’t tell me to calm down, Cullen!” Aurea pushed him away from her. “I want him dead, Cullen. I want him burning on the pyre he set for my family!”

           Aurea stormed from the room, pushing past Cullen’s open arms and unbalancing him. She went into the kitchen, startling Prosper who sat on the counter eating a bowl of cereal. The hurricane found what she was looking for in the liquor cabinet: an entire bottle of gin. Before she left out the back door, she threw the cap into the sink. The door slammed behind her, rattling the glass of the windows.

           Maker damn the man. Damn him to whatever hell there was. Damn him to the clutches of a rage demon. She sat on the bench in the garden Nox had been tending to and took a swig. He took her family from her. He stole a part of her sister that she will never get back. Nox was tortured, starved, beaten, all because of him. Aurea was… The next gulp burned when it went down.

~

            Aurea sat in the chair on the corner and watched Nox sleep. The baby doll she had found at a rummage was tucked up under her sister’s arm. It was missing an eye and freaked Aurea out if she looked at it for too long, but it brought Nox comfort Aurea couldn’t.

            The blonde bit her lip and wrapped her arms around her knees. Nox was still skinny, the bones of her ribs stuck out painfully. Aurea needed to clean the cuts and sores on her tiny body, but Nox screamed the last time she tried. Her thigh where Nox burned her still ached. They needed to be cleaned or they would get infected, but short of holding her down, Aurea didn’t know what else to do.

            Nox’s scream made Aurea jump out of her chair in a panic.

            “Aurea, the baby! She’s not breathing!” Nox woke up screaming, clutching the doll to her chest and sobbing.

            “It’s alright, Nox! She’s okay, look!” Aurea rushed to the bed gently took the baby from Nox, holding it to her own chest. “See? See, look, she’s fine. I can hear her heartbeat. Listen?”

            She held the doll's chest up to her sister’s ear and prayed it would work. The way Nox sobbed drove a knife in Aurea’s chest. She waited, held her breath until a smile stretched over Nox’s lips.

            “She’s fine,” Nox sighed. “She’s fine.”

            “We’re all fine…”

~

            Cullen reached over her shoulder and plucked the bottle from her hands. “Maker, Aurea.”

            Aurea snorted and tried to grab it back when he walked around to face her. “Give it back.”

            “No,” he said firmly.

            Aurea stood up and leaned over the back of the bench to grab at the bottle. He stepped away from her and took the bottle inside. She followed him quickly, reaching around him to try and take the bottle away from him. When that didn’t work, she ran ahead of him and pressed herself against him. She smiled demurely up at him and ran her hands over his stomach. When she leaned up to kiss him, he leaned back.

            “You’re drunk, Aurea,” Cullen whispered as he held her away from him.

            “I am drunk,” she confirmed bitterly. “I am very drunk.” She moved to kiss him again, but he turned his head. “What’s wrong Cullen? Still hung up on my sister? Had a taste of me and it wasn’t her so you don’t want it anymore?” she sneered. “Maybe if we were identical, hm?”

            Cullen moved away from her and sighed, dumped the rest of the bottle down the sink. She was trying to hurt him. He recognized the tactic in himself. Push people away so they can’t see you hurt. Hurt them so they don’t hurt you.

            “Come on, Rutherford. Open invitation,” she said as she threw her arms out to the side and smiled at him.

            “No,” he said softly.

            He picked her up swiftly and dodged a weak fist she threw at him. She pushed at his chest, at his face. Yelled at him to put her down, but he only kept carrying her.

            “Put me down, Rutherford, I can walk!”

            Cullen carried her past the living room where Nox sat quietly and up the stairs. Prosper was waiting at the top, a deep frown pulling at her lips. She walked ahead of Cullen and opened Aurea’s door for him, dodging a weak flail from Aurea’s legs. Cullen set Aurea down on her bed and she promptly rolled off the other side.

            “Aurea, please,” Cullen begged. “Please, calm down, love.” He was worried, afraid she would hurt herself just to prove she still could.

            “He murdered my family! I am allowed to be bitter and angry!” she screamed at them. “I am allowed to hold on to my rage! He’s out there acting like nothing happened. Like he didn’t destroy everything we loved. Like he didn’t throw Nox into a place that broke her. Like he didn’t do the same to…to me! He was supposed to be our friend!”

            She grabbed a vase on her dresser and threw it on the floor.

            “He watched us grow up! He came to recitals!” A picture joined the pieces of the vase. “He was family. He…he…fuck!” She turned around to face them both. “He let me call him uncle. ‘Be careful, uncle Howe.’ Be careful.” She clutched a hand to her chest and sobbed. “And he looked at me. He looked me right in the fucking eyes and he said, ‘You too.’ And the next day, the next fucking day, he sent them to murder my family!”

            Aurea was gasping. She let out whimpers and short cries each time she tried to say something else.

            “Daddy trusted him. He…we a-all trusted him!” The lamp was next to shatter.

            Prosper stood still in the center of the storm, waiting calmly for it to pass. When Cullen tried to reach for Aurea, she put a hand out and stopped him. Let her finish, she thought. Let her finish and she’ll burn out soon.

            “Momma died reaching for him! She,” Aurea gasped painfully and clenched her fists, “They died. They all died. He took them from us!”

            The paperweight was heavy in her hands. It sailed through the air in bright colors and smashed into the mirror. It splintered but didn’t shatter. A small miracle. Cullen winced and waited, waited for her to stop.

            “And now he’s walking around acting like he’s the victim! Like he did nothing wrong. And I can’t even stop him,” she clutched at her hair and doubled over briefly, “I can’t stop him. He’s flaunting it!”

            All Cullen wanted to do was hold her. Hold her until she was quiet, until she was calm, until she didn’t hurt anymore. He should call Alistair. Alistair could help.

            “He…he,” she couldn’t breathe, her hand clawed at her throat. Bright red welt lines stood out on her pale golden flesh. “Oh, Maker.”  

            Finally, finally, she stopped. Her arms wrapped around herself and she sobbed. Prosper got to her first, wrapped her arms around her tightly. Aurea fought for a few minutes until she finally went lax against her friend. She gasped and wept into Prosper’s shoulder.

            “This hurts!” she whimpered.  “Prosper, this hurts.”

            Prosper soothed her as best she could: smoothed her hands over her back, over her hair. Cullen left the room quietly, shutting the door as softly as he could to give the two women peace. He headed back downstairs, patting Hadar in the hall as he went. He found Samson holding Nox on the couch: she had her legs tucked up beside her, her head on Samson’s chest. She was staring off in front of her at nothing, lost in her own thoughts.

            Samson nodded to Cullen as he stopped in the doorway, kept his hand playing in Nox’s hair. Cullen motioned to the front door before he left quietly. Nox stirred against Samson’s side and cuddled in closer.

            “When will it stop hurting, Raleigh?” she whispered.

            “I don’t know, love. I don’t know.” He kissed the top of her head and rested his cheek there. “But I promise you, I’ll make sure he hurts more.”

Chapter Text


 

Nox woke up in a dark room, sandwiched between two bodies. She was in Aurea’s room, Samson on one side of her, Aurea on the other. Aurea, who had her cheek pressed against Prosper’s chest, an arm thrown over her waist. Even sleeping she looked like she was in pain. Samson had an arm over Nox, holding her head under his chin. As carefully as she could, she slipped down the bed and onto the floor. Samson stirred and rolled on to his stomach, an arm circling Aurea. Nox smiled, pulled her phone from her pocket, and took a quick picture.

            Quietly, she crept out of the room. Hadar whined lowly and she shushed him. In her room, she picked out a long-sleeved white lace dress. She dressed in a haze, looked out the large window at the rising sun. A barn owl flew from a branch and disappeared out of view. She slipped her feet into her boots and tossed her hair into a loose bun. It was so easy for her to leave it down and hide her face, hide the scars, but it was a habit she was trying to break.

            Downstairs she left a note in her scrawling script telling Aurea not to worry: she had her phone on, had money, and was taking the car for just a little bit. It would likely not go over well, but Nox needed to get out for a bit. Whether to prove that she still could or simply because she had an itch, she wasn’t sure.

            New Orleans appeared over the water quicker than she had thought. It could be incredibly stupid to head to a city where they were last seen. Stupid, yet something there called to her. The old jeep faithfully rumbled its way over the blinding water. She parked her on the edge of the city and caught a trolley into the quarter. She made faces and played with a small child two seats in front of her who laughed and giggled. The small boy had his whole life ahead of him. Envy was not a feeling she was used to.

            Two templars got on the trolley at the next stop. Her throat clenched shut and she tried to swallow. Maker, she was stupid. Going to the city was a stupid thing to do. When they walked past her she shivered and waited. And waited still as the young child continued to laugh and make faces.

            “Got any plans for this weekend?”

            “Eh. I might head up and see Ma. You?”

            Nox continued to breathe as normally as she could. They didn’t recognize her, that was good. It meant they weren’t looking for them, or only a select few knew she was alive. Good, that was good. She went back to playing with the child, trying to look and act normal. The two men got off at the next stop and didn’t look back.

The phone in her pocket buzzed and she jumped.

“Hello?” she asked quietly.

“Oh, Maker’s balls. You scared the shit out of me. Are you okay?” Aurea’s panicked voice shook on the other end. “I woke up and you were gone and I couldn’t find you.”

“I left a note, it’s on the table in the hall.”

“What note– Hadar, spit it out. Oh, that’s just gross.” Aurea sighed. “Yeah, I got your note right here. Covered in dog spit. Are you okay?” added hesitantly.

Nox nodded even though she couldn’t see it. “I’m okay. I just…needed a change of scenery for a moment. I’ll be back home tonight, I promise.”

“Where are you?”

Nox exited the trolley and slipped on to another.

            “You’ll get mad.”

            “You’re in New Orleans, aren’t you?” Aurea chuckled. “Well, I can’t fault you for that, because that’s where I was going today. Just…shit, just be careful. Do you have money?”

            “I have money… I have to tell you, that wasn’t quite the reaction I expected.”

            “You,” she paused, “You can take care of yourself. That’s just something I need to come to terms with. I’m just so afraid of losing you.”

            “You aren’t going to lose me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I’ll call you when I’m on my way home, okay?”

            “I love you.”

            “I love you too, Rea.”

~

            Aurea sighed and leaned back in her chair, her head dropping over the side.

            “She’s okay?” Samson asked gruffly.

            The blonde nodded and rubbed her face. “Yes. She’s killing her sister, but yes.” She turned sideways and draped her legs over the armrest. “I’m not being overprotective right? Or paranoid?”

            “No,” Samson took a seat on the couch and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “No, you’re not. But she’s a big girl and can take care of herself.”

            Aurea was silently looking at the ceiling. Maker, her head hurt. She shouldn’t have drank. There were a lot of things she shouldn’t have done. Fuck. Cullen. She groaned and put her hands over her face.

            “Maker, I’m a bitch.”

            Samson chuckled. “I’m not arguing there.”

            “I’m borrowing your bike, Sammy.”

            Aurea hated making apologies. They were always awkward and she never knew what to say. Despite all that, she knew she had to make an apology. The growl of the motorcycle did little to clear her head on the matter. She stopped at the store and got a six pack of beer then walked over to Gerdy’s. The usual customers were already at their assigned tables like school children. Few looked away from her, even fewer said hello.

            “Hello, darlin’,” Gerdy called out from behind the counter. She let out a low whistle as she took in Aurea’s state. “You look like hell, baby.”

            Aurea would be the first to admit that she did, in fact, look like hell. Her hair was falling out of the bun she had put it in the night before. She was still wearing the makeup she had the day before, the liner and mascara giving her a smoky eye she didn’t intend to have. Her face was puffy and blotchy. She had looked better.

            “Hangover and guilt,” she admitted with a shrug. “You think I could get a large pizza and a peach pie?”

            Gerdy nodded and went back to the kitchen and Aurea took a seat at the counter. Someone filled the coffee cup in front of her and she gratefully drank it.

            “Another one went missing.”

            “Another? Maker, at this rate we won’t have a town anymore.”

            “Mm,” the owner of the first voice agreed. “Her husband said she went out to get the laundry and then just,” he paused to make a gesture, “vanished.”

            “Who was it?”

            “Ah, that couple that lives on the outskirts. Jud and Abby.”

            “What is that? The fourth one this month?”

            “Something like that. Rutherford has no idea what’s going on either. He’s runnin’ the men ragged. Had them out last night and into this morning. Dogs couldn’t catch a scent. Clinton is having a field day with him.”

            Aurea clenched her cup a little tighter and listened.

            “He’s doin’ his best. Everyone knows that.” The other man huffed. “Hard to do much when this town was cursed from the first day.”

            “Don’t be stupid,” a third man commented. He had a thicker drawl to his voice than the others.

            “You know it’s true, Conner,” snapped the first.

            “I don’t know shit, Rick. And you should know better than to talk about that in front of people. They’ll think you’re crazy,” Conner added quietly.

            How many people had gone missing exactly? She’d have to ask Cullen. Gerdy would know about the curse they were talking about. Or not talking about rather. The coffee was bitter and burnt her tongue, but she kept drinking. Anything to look like she wasn’t eavesdropping.

            “Everyone knows it’s true. Everyone who’s lived their life here knows about that curse. Look what happened to the Amell family.”

            Aurea’s body went tight and cold.

            “That house has been in their family for generations. The first Mathias shot and killed himself in the backyard. Then his wife gave birth to a son,” Rick explained.

            “And then a daughter.”

            “Ah, the daughter was dead at birth.”

            “Yeah,” said Conner.

            “The point is, that entire family set up here and now look at them.” Rick took a drink and burped. “Mathias married that elven woman. Had three girls, and then one of them slaughtered them.”

            “Bullshit. I don’t believe that girl killed them,” the unnamed second voice growled. “The whole thing seems fishy to me.”

            “Well we can all agree on that,” Conner sighed.

            “Here, darlin’. Aurea?”

            Aurea snapped her attention back to Gerdy. The old woman looked at her with sharp eyes and pursed lips.

            “Thanks, Gerdy. What do I owe you?”

            The old woman looked at her for a few moments and then shook her head. “Nothin’. You go on now.”

            Aurea took the boxes, picked up the beer and left. She shrugged off the conversation she had heard and kept walking. Or she tried to shrug it off, but she kept coming back. Cursed. The word circled around her head in various shapes. Cursed. Cursed. Cursed. Cursed.

            The door to the police station pushed open easy. There was one person in a cell: an old man with major scruff. He was laying down on the bed with his eyes closed, a soft snore echoing in the otherwise empty building.

            Grow bigger tits, get in there, and apologize, you fucking coward.

            Cullen’s door was open and he was sitting at his desk. He had a pair of glasses perched on the edge of his nose. He was looking over a map of some kind, probably of the area.

            Aurea knocked on his door twice with her knuckles, balancing the beer between her hip and the frame. Cullen looked up and pulled his glasses off. He looked haggard.

            “So,” she said with a smile. “I owe you an apology.”

            “No,” he sighed. “No, you don’t. You were hurt and needed someone to lash out at.”

            “Yeah,” she conceded, “I was. But that doesn’t give me a right to be a bitch to someone who doesn’t deserve it.” She shifted her feet. “Buy you lunch?” She held up the beer and smiled again.

            Cullen returned her smile. “Yeah. That’d be great.”

~

The church loomed before her. Its white towers and pale stained glass windows offered little insight to the supposed loving nature of the chantry officials. She hesitated outside the large wooden doors. She hadn’t placed a foot inside a chantry since she was seven, the age her magic manifested. All her life Nox had heard the chantry’s rhetoric on mages. Parents using the old texts as a reason to drown their babes to kill the magic in them. Mages are a curse from the Maker for human folly. They had named her kind inherently evil. Two hundred years ago they had burned mages like her on a pyre.

Yet, there she stood, in front of the one place that persecuted her kind, that helped with the genocide and systematic inequality of elves. For a moment she had half an idea to burn the place to the ground. Would it make her feel any better? She doubted it. There would still be an ache in her chest, a kind of emptiness that could never be filled. Her daddy called it ‘saudade’. Only going home again would fix it and she could never go home again. Not really. Not to the home she wanted at least.

Each step she took to get to the doors made her heart skip a beat. By the time she reached the ironwork she could hardly breathe, the loose white dress suddenly felt like a straightjacket. With a hesitant hand, she pushed the doors open and they groaned loudly in protest. It didn’t smell like the chantry she remembered. There was a smell of lemons and lavender mixed with dust. The last chantry she had been to had smelled like rot and must. Her boots echoed on the marble floor and the doors shut loudly behind her. The noise created a small pool of panic in her heart.

There was just one woman in the dark wood pews. She sat towards the front, two rows back from the giant statue of Andraste. Nox slowly walked up the large aisle, her eyes locking on to the face of Andraste. They always sculpted her as so peaceful looking. Yet from everything Nox had read about her, she was strong. She fought in a war, she led her people. She wasn’t peaceful. How could she have been?

Nox took a seat in one of the pews and sat quietly. She studied the statues face. It was possible she was looking for something. Even if she didn’t know what. Her eyes flittered away from the stony face. Did it even matter anymore? What she believed or didn’t believe? Believing wouldn’t bring her family back. It wouldn’t heal the hurt she and Aurea were left with. She let her eyes drift and unfocus.

Sitting there in the pew, she could feel the rage. It was just there, lurking beneath the surface. Yet so was the pain. Tears stung her eyes and her mouth opened softly. She took a quiet breath in and a tear slid down her cheek.

“Are you alright, sweetie?”

Nox jumped at the old Irish voice. She turned to the side and found a gentle looking old woman sitting beside her. She wasn’t sure when the old woman sat beside her, or for how long she had been there.

“I…” She found herself unable to lie. “No. But I…I think I might be. Someday.”

The old woman nodded and took Nox’s pale hand in her wrinkled one. “Having trouble with the Maker?”

“Can you have trouble with someone you don’t know exists?”

“Had a falling out, hm?”

“I,” she sighed. “Yes. I used to believe, but…” She shook her head.

Nox sniffled and wiped at her cheek with her free hand.

“The chantry wants you to have blind faith. I have a difficult time with that.” She nodded to herself, her silky gray hair sliding over her shoulders. “He has a plan, they say. Works in mysterious ways. Bah,” she waved her free hand. “He knows just as much as we do.  And that ain’t much.” She smiled at Nox. “He’s fumbling around in the dark just like we are. Trying to let us figure it out on our own.”

“You don’t believe in destiny?”

“’Course not. Our life hasn’t been predetermined. We float around this universe just bumping into things. Eventually, the milk has to spill. Whether we spill it or someone else does.”

“Sometimes I think it’s gasoline.”

The older woman laughed and nodded. “Aye. Question is, who has the match?” She paused some and looked at the statue before them. “Some people like to blame things on the Maker. Their bigotry, their hate, their unfathomable intolerance. But that’s not the Maker. That’s people. That’s people using a being that may or may not be there to justify themselves. But that’s not the Maker. He’s fallible but he loves. Just like the rest of us.”

Nox looked away from her wrinkled face and sharp brown eyes. “Why doesn’t he help us then?”

“Oh, he does. But he only helps those who help themselves. A man is in the desert. He’s dying of thirst and he says, he says, ‘The Maker will save me.’ Aye, and then another man comes along and offers him a ride on his horse. ‘No,’ he says, ‘No, the Maker will save me.’ Three more men come by and each time he says, ‘No, the Maker will save me.’”

“And he dies,” Nox finished. “And he asks why the Maker didn’t save him and he says, ‘I tried, but you sent me away.’ My dad used to tell me that story. Only his was the ocean and boats.”

“Same meaning all the way round.” She turned further in her seat and took Nox’s hands in hers. “He doesn’t forget his children, love. Not ever. You’ll find him again. You just have to know where to look.”

Nox turned back to face her, to give her a hug, to ask her more questions. The old woman was gone. Nox looked around the pews swiftly but found no sign of her. On the seat where she sat was a small necklace with an Andraste pendent. Her long fingers picked it up gently, nails stained from herbs. The metal was warm in her hands.

“You just have to know where to look.”

Where to look? What does that– Her head snapped up and her eyes got wide. She knew where to look.

“You must be careful treading here. So close to it.”

Chapter Text


 

The jeep squealed to a halt in the Amell’s gravel driveway. Nox threw it into park and jerked the keys from the ignition as she threw herself out of the door. The last of the summer heat slammed into her chilled skin on the way into the house. She nearly tripped on the brick steps up to the porch in her haste. The columns of the house provided her support in her stumble. The door pushed open without much trouble. She made a note to lecture about keeping the doors locked.

            “Aurea!” she screamed when she threw the door open, startling the dog who was sleeping in the hall.

            “Son of a bitch,” Aurea’s muffled response came from the living room.

            Nox rounded the corner and found Aurea wiping droplets of whiskey off of her top.

            “I know where it is!” She knelt down in front of her sister’s pale legs and took her hands. “I know where it is,” she gasped into her face.

            Aurea watched her sister with wide eyes. “Where what is, Nox? Are you okay?”

            Nox smiled and shook her head. “I’m not losing my mind, Rea. What Dane wants to bring forward? Whatever he’s making the sacrifices for? It’s here in Parish. In the Bayou. No, no, listen,” she pleaded when Aurea opened her mouth to protest. “When we first got here I had a dream about this place. There were hundreds of bodies coming towards me and there was a spirit there. It told me to be careful “treading” so close to it. And in New Orleans– Yes, I know it was stupid to go back, but I stopped at a church. And there was an old woman sitting next to me, except she disappeared, but she told me I would find it if I knew where to look.”

            Aurea watched her twin frantically try to explain her racing thoughts.

            “So, an old lady Houdini and a spirit said some really cryptic things and you think it means that whatever Dane is trying to do, is here?”

            “Yes! And I,” she trailed off, her eyes caught the twisted shape of a woman looming behind them. “Aurea…” she whispered.

            Quickly the blonde jumped out of her chair and spun around. Nox backed up with her and drew a shield around them. A wet smell filled their air around them: like mildew and rot. Air crackled around them with static, snapping against the walls of the shield.

            “Who are you?” Aurea demanded, taking Nox’s free hand in hers.

            The dark elven woman said nothing. She was twisted somehow, something in her form not quite right. Her clothes were torn and bloodied, stained brown and green. Decaying teeth poked through a missing section of cheek on her jaw. Her bent and twisted fingers emitted creaking noises when she moved them. The entire left side of her face was split open down to the bone. Through the holes of her skirt her legs showed: covered with thorns and bite wounds, missing flesh.

            “Lisimba.”

 Nox wasn’t sure why she said the name, but the corpse in their living room rolled her head and stared her down.

“Diata’s ancestor?” Aurea whispered, turning her head towards Nox, but not taking her eyes off of the woman. “I thought he sent Kione.”

“He did.”

“What do you want?” Aurea asked again, carefully watching for any sign of understanding.

Still, Lisimba said nothing, only watching them with bloody eyes.

“What did Diata say exactly,” Aurea whispered to her sister.

Nox thought for a few moments, tried desperately to remember what all Diata told them when they had seen him last.

“He said he called on his ancestors. More than one. Maybe…maybe she’s here because of him? She’s here to guide us. That’s what he said. He called on them to guide us.”

“Well, then what’s she guiding us to?”

They watched her in silence, waited for the woman to do something. Instead, she watched them, small strings of flesh stirring when she breathed through her mouth.

“Le Sange de Bayou,” Nox whispered.

Lisimba jerked her head back to Nox and let out a kind of gurgle.

“Maker’s hairy balls!” Samson yelled from the doorway, wrestling with the gun in his holster.

“Wait!” Aurea yelled, but Lisimba was already gone, nothing in her wake except the smell of mildew and flesh.

Nox let the barrier fall and sighed. “Le Sange de Bayou. That’s what we’re looking for.”

“What the fuck was that?” Samson looked between the two sisters, waited for an explanation.

“A guide,” was the only explanation Nox offered.

Samson looked at Aurea who shrugged in response.

“A rotting corpse is a guide. A guide to what? Doom?”

“What we need to find,” Aurea clarified. “Le Sange de Bayou. An old plantation house. Somewhere close I’d imagine.”

“Le Sange de Bayou? The fuck does that even mean? And what the fuck was that!”

Aurea sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I need you to calm down. I can’t talk to you when you’re this hysterical.”

“Oh, sure!” Samson threw his hands up. “Sure, I’ll calm down. There wasn’t just a rotting corpse in your living room.”

“Le Sange de Bayou means the blood of the bayou.” Nox was calm, watching the older man have his version of a mental collapse.

“Maker’s hairy left ball, do you two just attract this bullshit?”

“It’s a gift,” Nox shrugged with a smile.

Aurea slumped back down in her chair and rubbed her forehead. “Okay, let’s take stock. We’re running from templars and Howe. Nox has the mental stability of a wet toothpick.”  Nox made a gesture of protest and then sighed and gave a half shrug. Aurea continued. “I can’t feel anything and when I do, I feel everything. Prosper is missing a leg. Samson is going through lyrium withdrawals. So is Cullen. Cullen who found a body with a sigil carved into its forehead. Someone is summoning weird ass demons in the bayou. There’s the whole Dane situation–”

“He could be the one doing the summoning,” Nox interjected.

“Plausible. Oh. Yeah. And we have rotting corpses popping up in our living room. Am I missing anything?”

“That I’ve lost my damned mind,” Samson grumbled.

“That was a given.” Aurea rubbed her temples with her fingers. “We have our own personal little shit storm.”

“Could it get any worse though?” Nox offered.

Samson groaned, “Fuck, it can now.”

“I didn’t think you were superstitious, Samson.” Aurea smirked and picked her drink back up.

“Well, I wasn’t. Until there was a rotting corpse just hanging out in your living room.”

“We all have our little problems, Raleigh.” Nox smiled and patted his shoulder on the way out of the room.

~

            “So,” Alistair’s deep voice was a comfort. “Did you know there are 113 Parishes? Not including small districts.”

            Aurea laughed quietly and hunkered down deeper in her blankets.

            “Honestly though,” he continued, “I’m surprised you called me again after that little tidbit of information. I thought you’d chicken out on me, Amell.”

            “I wanted to. But.”

            “Butt?” his voice rang with a smile.

            “But. I do miss you. And I feel better when I talk to you.”

            “Where exactly is this Parish? I mean, I can go to every single town called Parish, but I would waste a lot of time.”

            “Alistair–”

            “Don’t give me that, ‘It’s too dangerous’, bullshit. That’s never stopped us before.”

            “Dangerous when we were sixteen meant a hell of a different thing than it does now. Dangerous at sixteen was getting caught in the back of your Jeep by my Dad. Pregnancy scares. Dangerous now is…”

            “Nox being thrown back into Knickerbockers? Or being killed? Being made tranquil? Losing you forever? I know what dangerous is, Aurea. And if it means I get to spend time with you, I’m willing to risk it. You need help, Aurea. Maybe the help of a civil rights lawyer?”

            “I think we’d need you more for physical fighting at this point.”

            She went over all the details. All the painful terrible details. Alistair was quiet on the other end, giving her solace in the moments she took to think of what happened next. It all unfolded like an origami swan. Setting her parole officer’s bathroom on fire, stealing an SUV and switching the plates, rescuing Nox, the nightmares, Nox’s mental stability (which was getting better), Dane, Cullen, Prosper, Gerdy, Diata, Elena, Samson, the red demon, the jars of human organs, the weird spell book covered in human skin, the spirits that kept showing up in their house. When she was finished, she took a deep breath and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

            “Alistair?”

            “Hm?”

            “Tell me you didn’t fall asleep and you actually heard all that.”

            “Oh. Yes, I heard all of it. I’m deciding the best way to kill Cullen without getting caught.”

            “Why are you killing Cullen?”

            “For not telling me you were there.”

            “Oh. Oh, you know where he is. Which means-”

            “Yes, Aurea. I know where you are. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

            Aurea crawled in bed with Prosper that night and snuggled up close like it didn’t annoy elf.

            “Are you asleep?” she whispered.

            “I was,” Prosper grumbled and repositioned her pillow.

            Aurea bit her lip and studied the back of her friend’s head. “Alistair is coming.”

~

French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.

            The girl was closing shop. As if such depravity could be considered product. Sin. She was selling sin and blasphemies to unsuspecting lambs. She must be sacrificed. Dane watched from a crowd of people. No one paid attention or pretended not to notice the strange creature among them. So many turned a blind eye to their surroundings. The Maker could walk the streets and they would pass them by. Just. Like. Them. They would sacrifice her tonight. The moon was in the proper position for this bloodletting. It would have to be tonight. Tonight or it would have to wait. Time was not renewable.

            They followed her. She gave money to a degenerate on the street, handed it to them gently. Dane sneered. Their knife was in their hand. They could do it. Right here, on the street. They could cut them open and no one would think twice, no one would say a thing against them. It would be so easy. Dane thought about it before they pocketed their knife as they passed. No. No, the knife must stay pure before it cuts her flesh.

            Dane followed her. They waited until she was down an ally, Pirates Ally before they struck. The girl fell silently, crumpled in a heap at their feet while Andraste watched from the church courtyard.

 

Somewhere in the Louisiana Bayou

            She was wet. Sticky on the back of her head and neck. Her eyes slowly opened against the blinding pain in her head. She expected to be greeted with the illuminated New Orleans sky but instead found trees. Trees and stars. Her limbs felt heavy and it was difficult to turn her head. But you see, she heard a low murmuring coming from beside her. Somewhere in her gut, she knew not to look, she should run, but until her arms and legs cooperated, all she could do was watch and listen. Their back was all she could make out at first: pale, every bone showing in the bright moonlight, there were some kind of markings all over them, not quite like tattoos, but not burns either. The harder she tried to decipher them, the more they seemed to move.

            Fear. It bubbled up slower than she expected. There was darkness starting at her fingertips, working its way over her forearms and biceps, her neck. Run. She needed to run.

            “Your whimpers will not save you, girl.”

            Had she been whimpering? She hadn’t thought she was, but her heart was thundering in her ears and she could hear bugs crawling beneath her, waiting to take chunks of her flesh. Run. Few times in her life she had felt the urge to run as strongly as this. Once when she was in high school and a boy followed her home. And again when she was older. She was walking home through the quarter and got the feeling someone was following her. Now though, she was no longer in control of any of her muscles.

            Their faced leaned over her: white eyes like milk. Their skin was so white it was almost transparent. Evil surrounded them like a shroud. It dripped at the edges, tainting anything that stayed in its presence for too long. It was going to kill her. It was going to drive the serrated knife through her ribcage over and over again. It would then carve a sigil into her forehead, then use her blood to draw one on themselves. She was a sacrifice and she saw her death reflected in the pale of their eyes.

            Run, girl.

            The voice wasn’t hers, but she listened. Her muscles unlocked, they obeyed. She drove her heeled boot into the soft flesh of her murderer’s abdomen and shoved until they flew backward. She scrambled, body flipping over, fingers digging through the earth, feet grappling in the mud for purchase. She pressed up, hurtling her body through the muck. She ran, clamoring over tree roots, leaping over sticks, pushing off trees to push herself further. It didn’t matter if she didn’t know where she was. All that mattered was that if she stayed, she died. Everything flew by her in a haze of dark colors. She turned away from the river, angling herself away from the waiting jaws of gators and leeches. Ancestors guide her.

            They had to.

~

            Nox sat on the couch next to Hadar, stroking his velvet ears between her long fingers, spellbook in her lap open to a page on tranquility. There seemed to be some thought there on the thick pages that it could be reversed somehow. Mentions of spirits and demons, however, the ritual was speculative at best. There were several ideas for rituals, but none made sense. There were red stars next to the thick looping black script that she assumed meant the rituals had been tested and were failures. Or, they could have meant they were the best most likely option. There was no indication or key that told her what certain symbols meant. The recipes for tinctures and spells were simple enough to follow.

            Next to the script, there were thinner simpler notes that were likely added at a later time. All signs pointed to a book passed down through the family. Or a very close apprentice. Nox had made her own notes in her own notebook, spells to try, tweaks to be investigated. Each time her fingers flitted over the ink she got a feeling of familiarity. There, just below the surface

of her skin, there was a tingle of electricity, a small vibration she couldn’t quite place. Why was that, she wondered. Was it just a tinge of leftover magic transferred to the page? Her own imagination?

            Aurea thought the grimoire was disgusting. “It’s made out of human flesh, Nox.” She had a point after all. That afternoon, she had rebound it with a cover of linen so the materials were not visible. Nox tried to push the knowledge out of her mind: she had to know what was in it. Now more so than ever since Cullen had discovered the symbol carved into the young woman’s forehead. That was a ritual that needed to be understood, to be discovered. Especially if it required more victims. Yet, despite her best efforts, despite pouring herself over the yellowed pages, no mention of that ritual had been found.

            “What do we do, Hadar, hm? Have you any idea where this ritual would be? Hm? Is it hidden? Maybe invisible ink?” The dog rolled over on his back and lolled his tongue out. “I don’t think so either. Perhaps hidden between the lines. Or maybe words are misspelled and those letters are the new spell!”

            Hadar woofed silently and Nox laughed.

            “Yes, I’m being silly. I just can’t figure out where this summoning spell is. Most of these are for the standard wants and needs. Nothing sticks out of the ordinary here. Yet. Yet, I should say. I just haven’t looked hard enough.”

            She was about to flip to the beginning of the book, to start her research over again, when a noise outside caught her attention. It was a quiet gasp followed by the sound of gravel grinding together. Hadar’s ears perked up and he flipped over to his front, watching the window. Nox quietly shut the book and placed it on the white ottoman in front of her. She drew a barrier around herself as a precaution. It was a precaution, however, until the hair on her neck rose to attention and her body tightened to a threat hanging in the air. Hadar felt it too, his hackles raised and a low growl in his throat.

            The rapid knocks on the front door made her skin jump. She quietly made her way to the door, Hadar between her calves. Aurea came bounding down the stairs, a nervous smile on her face.

            “Do you think it’s Alistair? He was supposed to be here today.”

            “No,” but before she could finish her sentence, Aurea swung the door open. Nox balked in surprise and let out a quiet gasp. “Elena?”

            Elena stood on the opposite side of the doorway, her skirt torn up to her thighs in places, her feet were bare and bloody, her white blouse was covered in dirt and blood. Her brown eyes were wide with terror as she took in the sight of the twins.

            “It’s out there,” she whispered, pushing her way forward.

            Nox grabbed her by the hands and pulled her inside, pushing her towards the kitchen. Aurea whistled at Hadar and started to head outside.

            “Nox, tell Samson and Prosper what happened and that I’m circling the house.”

            “Come back,” Nox added quickly before the door shut.