Till Death

EDIT: A Grave Death is now available on Amazon ~ 99c for a limited time only or available in Kindle Unlimited ~

 

I am busy working on A Grave Death, the first full length novel in my Independent Necromancers’ Bureau series (scheduled for release in May), and thought it might be nice to share the short stories I wrote a few years back with you.

The first of which is titled, Till Death.

*

 

Caim

A protective spirit (Wales)

Boys name meaning amddifynydd, protector (Welsh)

(n.) lit. “sanctuary”; an invisible circle of protection, drawn around the body with the hand, that reminds you that you are safe and loved, even in the darkest times (Scottish/Gaelic)

 

 

 

 

Working as an agent for the Independent Necromancers’ Bureau had its perks, but spending the night in a haunted house, miles away from civilisation, wasn’t my idea of one. Easy job, Thomas had said. Yeah, sounded great until you considered the angry shade screeching and snarling in my face. I’d rather face a horde of zombies.

At least, enclosed within my circle of protection, no harm could befall me. I might cook—I could swear the temperature in the room was so high, I started to smell like bacon—but the spirit couldn’t touch me.

My brow furrowed and my head pounded. The throbbing echoed through my bones, and I wanted nothing more than to call it a night, head home, and curl up in bed with the cat. I wanted to, but I didn’t. Instead, I set my shoulders and kept my focus on the link Jim Maybin’s spirit still had with his remains.

With the realisation that his tactics of fear and intimidation were failing, Jim attempted a new trick. Images of a young man and woman, too young to comprehend the future that awaited them, bombarded my mind. They stood on a balcony, as close as two people could be. The couple smiled and laughed underneath a purple dusk sky, wrapped up in the moment, storing every detail within their minds, and etching it into their souls. The memory was so complete, I felt the slight breeze that caressed their skin and brought with it the sweet scent of lavender. Crickets chirped, and the wind rustled through the leaves of a great oak, standing as a testament to the perseverance and resilience of life.

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a box before dropping to one knee and presenting the ring. ‘Rachel,’ he said as her hand flew to her face in shock. ‘I have loved you from the second I laid my eyes on you. You are my whole life and I can’t imagine spending a second of it without you by my side. Will you marry me?’

Jim shared with me one of the happiest moments of his life. His memory burned with emotion and tears streamed down my face, a mirror of those that flowed from Rachel’s eyes. Sure, having your heart ripped out of your chest and fed to you on a platter along with some cheese and pineapple was emotionally draining, but this wasn’t my first day on the job. No way would I buckle. My determination strengthened. With each breath, I drew the shade closer to his cremated body. The thread that linked Jim’s spirit to his ashes grew stronger, drawing him in and containing him within his remains.

I opened my eyes and looked at the man before me. He wore the khaki brown battledress he had died in. A remnant of the war that robbed him of his life.

‘This is the way it needs to be,’ I said to Jim. ‘You can’t stay here any longer. Rachel needs to know you are gone, so she can follow.’ With those final words, I allowed the intricacies of his existence to flow through my mind, and then severed the thread connecting Jim to his mortal body and the world of the living. His spirit left instantly, free to go to whatever afterlife awaited him.

I felt the blood drain from my face in exhaustion as I dropped my circle of protection and opened my eyes to the real world. ‘He’s gone,’ I said to the frail old woman propped upright in the bed. Long, white hair spilled over her shoulders. It was hard to reconcile this Rachel with the vibrant young woman from Jim’s memory.  Her son perched next to her, holding her hand with tender care. She beckoned me forward.

When I reached the bed, she clasped my hand with a light grip that bespoke her fragility. ‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice no more than a whisper. ‘After all this time, Jim can finally be at peace.’

Jim Maybin Junior stood and motioned to the door. ‘Thank you, Miss Dune,’ he said. ‘You have lifted a great burden from my mother. Now if you will excuse us, she needs her rest.’

‘Yes, of course.’ I gathered my bag and moved to leave. Goosebumps rose on my arms as I turned for one last look upon Rachel. The old woman had a few days to live, if that. My gaze travelled to the bedside table, where a black and white picture showed Rachel and Jim standing on the steps of a church. Rachel wore a flowing white gown and Jim, his army uniform. With all my heart, I wished that when the time came, Rachel would truly be reunited with Jim.

*

‘Thank goodness.’ DI Luke Baron rushed towards me as I walked through the office door. ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked.

I dropped my bag to the floor and rubbed the back of my neck. Great, if the police were looking for me, my planned trip to bed was sure as hell off the cards. ‘On a job,’ I said. ‘Why?’

‘I’ve been trying to reach you for ages. I called your last job. Mr Maybin said you left almost an hour ago.’

‘Uh, yeah, and considering it’s over forty miles away, I think I made great time getting back.’ I pulled my mobile out of my pocket and switched it on, only to be greeted by the chime of nine missed calls.

‘Seriously, Cassie. Haven’t you seen the news?’

I declined to answer, as I thought it was pretty safe for him to assume I hadn’t. Luke glanced at the TV hanging on the wall and I followed his gaze. The sound was off but the screen displayed the view from a helicopter circling the 17th century Morgan family mansion. A spotlight streaked over party-goers as they fled the house and rushed through the surrounding parkland. The red banner beneath the image flashed with the breaking news of a zombie attack.

Damn it. The term was reanimated. Zombie was a loaded word and they knew it.

For the first time, I noticed the chaos in the surrounding office. Footsteps pounded as secretaries rushed about and phones rang unanswered in their cradles. I didn’t need my spidey senses to tell me something big was going down. Even I could spot trouble when it hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I asked.

‘We need you. Every other agent is already in the field.’ Luke grabbed my arm and led me back out the door towards the elevator. ‘The mansion was booked tonight to host a wedding party. At around midnight, the reanimated arrived en masse. No fatalities that we know of, but we have reports of at least twenty-two injured. For now, it seems the remaining guests are barricaded in the attic, but God knows how long that will last.’

The elevator pinged and the doors opened. Mumbling to myself, I lamented my empty bed and then asked Luke if there was any chance of a coffee.

In the privacy of the lift, Luke embraced me and kissed my forehead. A comforting touch that sent warmth radiating through my chest. ‘Tough case at the Maybin house?’ he asked.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I said as I clung to his tall, robust body. We’d had the opportunity to work together on a number of cases over the last few years. Although our relationship had developed into more than just colleagues of late, I still wasn’t sure about my feelings for Luke. He was great. He really was, I just never thought I’d end up dating a cop. In truth, there weren’t many officers who found it easy to work with the Independent Necromancers’ Bureau. Hell, not many people found it easy to work with the INB, full stop. It might have something to do with the traditional image of sinewy old men, shrouded in black capes, cackling at the moon, and raising the dead for nefarious deeds. Either that, or it creeps them out that we talk to ghosts and have power over the dead.

This new development at the Morgan Mansion wasn’t going to be great for public relations. People see one dead guy walking around and the finger of blame starts pointing towards every necromancer on the planet, whether they’re the good guys or not. Make no mistake, INB are the good guys, we put down the angry hordes, not raise them. Right now, bad PR aside, it seemed there was a legion of reanimated to handle. Not to mention a rogue necromancer controlling them.

*

While Luke searched for somewhere to park, I hopped out of his car and checked my watch. It was almost quarter past two—the reanimated had rampaged for over two hours. Dreading to think what mess we would find, I shook my head and raced through the cluster of patrol cars. Their red and blue flashing lights combined with the light drizzle of rain to create a macabre atmosphere.

Set around a one mile perimeter, a circle of protection surrounded the house and pulsed with energy. At least none of the reanimated would be able to leave the area, which was something to be thankful for when you considered how close we were to the city centre. Luke’s debrief told me that the surrounding houses had been evacuated, and pushing my way through the bystanders to reach the police cordon, I knew where they had gone.

‘Who’s the agent in charge?’ I asked the officer standing hunched in his high-visibility raincoat, a constable, judging by the lack of stripes on his insignia.

He sauntered over, a leering smile on his pudgy face. ‘And you are?’ he said.

‘Cassie Dune. I’m with INB.’ I flashed my badge to confirm my position.

His smile turned to a sneer. So, he didn’t like necromancers. Just another cop to point the finger of blame for tonight’s antics at the shoulders of INB. The constable was about to say something when Luke arrived behind me. Maybe I should have played nice, but the mood didn’t strike me. So, when Luke placed a guiding hand on my back, dismissed the officer, and lifted the police tape to usher me through, I gave the officer a smug sneer that said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. More important than you, Mr lowly constable man.’

Even a mile from the house, I could sense the power directed at the mansion from the make-shift tent housing the command team. But there was something else. An energy hidden beneath all the others. One that caused a tingling sensation to course through my caim, a Celtic symbol of protection tattooed on my shoulder.

When Luke and I entered the tent, Assistant Director Thomas Albert, my boss at the INB, and Chief Constable Rhys Dawson were mid-discussion. Five INB agents sat in protective circles on the floor. Their faces were glazed in concentration and sweat beaded on their brows.

‘You need to get this situation under control,’ Dawson was saying to Thomas.

‘Look, Dawson. We’re doing everything we can.’ Thomas paced the small space in front of his seated agents. He rubbed the back of his neck and gave them a weary glance. ‘I have more than twenty agents battling the reanimated, but they’re experiencing difficulties. A block of some sort. Not to mention that every time they get close, they’re set upon. We need to find out who’s controlling them, and as you can see—’ He gestured to the agents on the floor.­ ‘—we’re having no luck on that front.’

‘It’s in the house,’ I said.

‘What?’ said Dawson as all eyes turned to me.

‘The source of the problem,’ I said. ‘It’s in the house.’

A look of scepticism swept over Dawson’s face. ‘And you would know this how, exactly?’

‘It stands to reason.’ I shrugged. ‘Plus, I can feel it.’

‘Well, that’s just grea—’

‘No, wait, Dawson. If Cassie says the problem is in the house, then the problem is in the house.’ Thomas put his hand on my shoulder. ‘But you said source, not person.’

‘Yes. I don’t think this is the work of a rogue necromancer. There’s an artefact in that house calling to the reanimated. I can’t say why, but I just know it.’

‘Great,’ said Thomas. ‘What do you need?’

‘For starters, I need a coffee,’ I said, desperate for a caffeine fix. ‘Then, I need to get to that house.’

*

‘Duck,’ Luke said as he swung a metal bar in my direction. With a yelp, I ducked and watched it fly over my head to collide with the forehead of the reanimated behind me. A shower of blood flew from the impact, but did little to stop the walking corpse. ‘See, I told you I’d be handy to have around.’ Luke continued to pound his target. ‘Any chance of a helping hand?’ he asked.

With zombies, the hard work of containing the spirit within its remains has already been completed. You reach for the thread holding it there and focus your power to sever the soul’s connection to the moral realm. I went through the motions, found the thread and cut, but before the break was complete, some outside force knitted it back together. Thomas had mentioned a block, but this was active opposition. I focused again, drew on all my magic, and slashed at the barrier with a powerful blast of energy. Finally, with the soul free, the vacant remains dropped to the ground.

With the back of my hand, I rubbed at the sweat on my forehead. A spot of blood smeared with the contact. ‘Yuck,’ I said, wiping it on Luke’s jacket. ‘And I told you, men make my life…messy.’

‘Ha-ha. So what do you want to do next?’

‘I wasn’t expecting to run into anyone this far away from the house,’ I said. ‘Whatever’s controlling them is either doing a poor job, or it’s set them on attack mode. Either way, we have to get closer without drawing the entire horde down on our heads.’

Luke glanced around. The view consisted of the car park and outbuildings surrounding the mansion. The scent of damp grass overrode that of wet stone. Spotlights flashed through the misty rain, interrupting the peace of the night. The frightful grunts coming from the direction of the house aided in exuding that ominous horror movie ambience. His eyes alighted on the visitor centre. A small bungalow at the entrance to the grounds. ‘How about we go up?’ he said.

‘Up?’

‘Yeah.’ He pointed at the building. ‘The visitor centre connects to the lower barns. If I remember correctly, the lower barns connect to the Great Barn, and from there it’s only a short distance to the house.’

I sucked in a breath and dashed towards the centre. ‘Come on,’ I called to Luke. ‘We haven’t got all night.’

Getting on the roof had been easy. I moved a waste bin and used it to stand on before hoisting myself up. Luke pulled himself up to join me. Strange shuffling noises came from within and the stench of decay was unmistakable, but we moved over the lower barns uninterrupted. The Great Barn was a different matter. It was a monster of a building, too tall to gain easy access to the roof, and with no upper windows for entry. A throng of disgruntled-sounding monsters teemed inside, spilling into the adjoining courtyard and leading up to the house.

‘Any possibility you could take them down?’ Luke asked.

‘No, there’s too many.’

‘Make a run for it,’ he suggested. ‘Although, one scratch and I’m toast, right?’

‘This isn’t a cheesy horror movie. One scratch and you’ll be fine. But if they decide to rip your head off…then you’re toast.’

‘Gotcha. I’ll try and avoid losing my head.’

Despite the warnings and debrief I’d been given, the reanimated were more numerous than I had expected. Some looked as though they’d crawled their way out of the grave. Though I guessed that shouldn’t be a surprise, as they probably had. I strained to listen for any sign of trouble or movement within the mansion. Apart from the gleaming lights and the music playing somewhere inside, all stood still. Something wasn’t quite right. Something that went beyond the worry of a hundred walking corpses. If only I could put my finger on it. ‘It’s strange,’ I said after a moment.

‘You can say that again.’

‘I mean…they’re drawn to the house, but beyond that, they seem to lack purpose.’ I watched as the bodies milled about. Mindless beasts drawn by some unexplained impulse. Maybe zombie was the correct term to use after all. ‘There must be in excess of thirty windows on the ground floor alone. If they wanted in, they’d be in,’ I said.

‘Maybe that’ll work in our favour.’

‘Maybe.’ The tingling in my caim tattoo had increased in intensity. In an effort not to itch at the mark, I turned away and manoeuvred over the roof, scanned our surroundings through the blackness of the night and considered our next move. ‘There,’ I said, spotting a likely route. ‘If we drop down from the other side of the barn, we can use the cover of the ornamental hedge before making a dash across the field to the stables. We can gain entry to the house from there.’

‘Some cover,’ Luke said. ‘That hedge can’t be more than two feet high.’

‘You got a better idea?’

‘Nope, but one thing before we go.’ Luke swept me into his embrace. His shirt, damp from the rain, clung to his firm chest. He kissed me without reservation before pulling back and staring into my eyes. ‘You’re a special lady, Cassie Dune.’

He wanted to say more, the words shone out of his face. I understood, but held up a hand to stop him. Now wasn’t the time. We needed a cool head and emotions would only be a distraction, for both of us.

I pulled out of his arms and moved to the side of the barn away from the courtyard. With the stables in sight, and Luke by my side, I dropped from the roof and crouched in the shadows.

Luke looked in all directions before signalling me to make my move. Coiled and ready, I sprinted to the gardens and then flung myself flat on the ground to avoid detection. Luke followed a few seconds later.

I gulped in a breath and raised my head above the greenery. ‘We’re good,’ I said, noting that the mob hadn’t spotted us. We moved together, crawling through the mud military-style, groping alongside the hedgerow, through the dark, and towards the open field beyond. A nagging thought kept surfacing in the back of my mind. The way my caim burned. The creeping sensation of power that hummed through my being, I’d felt it before. If only I could remember where.

When we reached the edge of the gardens, Luke rose to a crouch. ‘All clear,’ he said before sprinting across the open field.

I made a grab for his foot, but missed. My mouth opened to yell for him to come back, but I couldn’t risk the sound. Instead I ran after him and reached for my power. Luke was almost to the stable when one of the reanimated barrelled into him from the side. He fell down in a bundle on the floor, but had the sense to roll, narrowly avoiding a tearing grasp aimed at his throat.

I blasted my gift to release the trapped soul and pulled Luke to his feet. The body tumbled to the ground behind us, lifeless once more. Arriving at the stable, Luke kicked open the door. Once we were both safe inside, he wedged his metal bar through the handles as a barricade.

‘Thanks for that,’ he said, bending over, and coughing in an effort to catch his breath.

‘No problem. I owed you one.’ I listened for sound outside. ‘I think we’re safe for now. I didn’t see any more following.’

The stable contained empty stalls, a bunch of old tools, and some bundles of fresh hay. Considering the fact that no horses had been kept here for decades, the equipment was for display purposes only. I spotted the entrance to the tunnel in the far corner. ‘It’s this way,’ I said.

The stables led to a deserted kitchen. Pots and pans shimmered silver in the light, food lined the units, and the mouth-watering smell of slow-braised pork and apple wafted through the room. Tempting, and although my stomach grumbled in protest at the lack of food, I considered my mud-caked skin and clothing, and stayed my hand. Instead of reaching for a canapé, I picked up a towel and cleaned myself as best I could.

‘Any idea where we look for this artefact of yours?’ Luke asked after he finished clearing the dirt from his own clothes.

I closed my eyes, blocked out distractions, and centred my energy on the pulse of magic embedded beneath all others. A frosty shiver ran through me as I traced the source to the top of the house. ‘Up,’ I said and opened my eyes.

‘Up.’ Luke nodded in resignation. ‘Always up.’

Fully alert and on the lookout for danger, we moved through the house.  In the Great Hall, music played and light danced over panelled walls, creating new dimensions to the intricate carvings. In a state of disarray, chairs were left knocked over and a puddle of red wine pooled at my feet.

A small step closer to the window told me that the mansion stood surrounded. The horde of reanimated gathered outside, spilling over the confines of the courtyard on to the lush field beyond. I’d first visited the manor as a wedding guest myself. The contrast between that warm summer afternoon and this frigid March night couldn’t have been more pronounced. A wedding should signify life. The hope of a fresh start. An extended family welcoming new members with vibrant colours and loving friends. But death prevailed here. No joyful footsteps pounded the oak flooring, no guests laughed as they sat at the beautiful tables, laid with flickering candles and rustic centrepieces. Instead, an eerie feeling of abandonment blighted the room.

Luke stopped the music, allowing the groans to echo through the house.  ‘Have you ever heard of the Pair Dadeni?’ I asked, now understanding the nagging thought surfacing from the back of my brain.

‘The Black Cauldron. The one that creates an invincible army of undead warriors.’ Luke shrugged. ‘I’ve seen the film.’

I smiled. ‘You get too much of your information from movies. Pair Dadeni, the Cauldron of Rebirth, fabled to have the power to revive the dead.’ I rubbed my burning shoulder and sucked at the corner of my lip.

‘When I was sixteen,’ I said after a few moments, ‘my nain, my grandmother, gave me a tattoo of a caim. Told me it would aid with my gift. Protect me, and help me control the undead. She also said that the ink used was laced with a scraping of metal from the Pair Dadeni. I always thought it a story, but that’s what I’m feeling here. I know it.’

‘But in the story, wasn’t the cauldron destroyed?’

‘Not destroyed. Broken.’ I looked into Luke’s worried eyes. ‘Broken into four pieces.’

‘And you think one of those pieces is here, calling to the reanimated?’

‘I do, although maybe not a full piece,’ I said, eyeing the dead outside. ‘Maybe just a fragment. I can feel it in the attic.’

‘Then we’d better get to the attic.’ Luke grabbed my hand, leading the way through the house and up the stairs.

The weather outside had deteriorated during our time inside. Rain lashed against the windows and the wind howled through the halls. From the house above came the incoherent mumble of voices. I listened hard, but couldn’t make out the words nor the number of people speaking.

After a few moments, we found the entrance to the attic. We tried the door but it was locked. We knocked. No answer. The voices were clearer now and mingled with the muffled sound of crying, but there was no sign of movement towards the door.

Now, I was not suggesting it would have been a good idea to start pounding on a door barricaded by helpless civilians, who more than likely believed we were zombies come to eat their flesh. The possibility of one of those civilians having a heart attack was quite high, as was the likelihood of me being whacked in the face by a frying pan. Neither of which were good options. Although, I knew which one my superiors would prefer. But after standing at the door and yelling for five minutes, I gave one last warning shout and then let Luke ram it with his shoulder. It didn’t budge.

‘Let’s try together,’ he said. ‘Okay, one, two, three…’

We barged the door. Ignoring the pain that flared through my arm, I gritted my teeth and said, ‘Again. One, two, three…’

After the third try, the lock broke under the impact. The door shifted a few inches but came to a stop when it hit a furniture barricade. The voices inside stilled. Through the opening, I saw a narrow flight of stairs, highlighted by a single bare bulb, which led to a darkened room. ‘There’s no need for concern,’ I called through the crack. ‘This is Cassie Dune, I’m with the INB. I’m here with Detective Inspector Luke Baron. We need you to move the barricade.’

‘How do we know you’re not one of those monsters?’ a deep voice queried. Whispers could be heard behind the man, urging him to stay quiet.

Because I’m talking to you and not trying to rip your head off, was what I didn’t say. Instead, I opted for a more diplomatic approach. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘I understand that you’re frightened, but if we’re going to help, you need to let us in.’

A figure moved forward out of the shadows at the top of the stairs. He shrugged off a staying hand and moved into the light. Standing a little over six feet tall and wearing a light grey wedding tuxedo, he fiddled with the ring on his finger. ‘Can you get us out of here?’ he asked.

‘I’m going to try,’ I replied.

*

By that point, the storm outside was raging, and the noise as the rain pounded the roof was so deafening I could barely hear the words of the groom as he led us inside the garret. The stench of vomit, sweat, and alcohol turned my stomach. An indication that David had been holed up in the room with his new wife, Bethan, and their guests for over three hours.

Bethan jumped from her seat as soon as we entered. ‘Can you stop the monsters?’ she asked. As evidence to her tears, her carefully applied make-up smeared her face, and she looked more like the Joker than a blushing bride.

‘Are you getting us out?’ another voice said.

Neither Luke nor I responded. Instead, we peered around. I thought my night had been bad, but the wedding guests looked like they’d been hung out to dry in a snow storm. A soft glow cast their dispirited faces in a morose light as they sat huddled in groups. The men had sacrificed their suit jackets to keep the ladies warm. Windows rattled and the lace curtains swayed as wind seeped in through the ancient frames. The chill air raised fog from everyone’s breath. The bridal bouquet lay discarded and forgotten on the floor.

‘It could be anything,’ Luke said as he scanned the room. ‘Can you get a read on anything?’

I noted all the different metals in the form of jewellery, furniture adornments, and decorations. ‘Not yet,’ I said. The groom distracted my gaze. He stood next to his bride and once again turned the ring on his finger. ‘Is that bothering you?’ I nodded towards the wedding band.

‘It’s new.’ David placed his hand on Bethan’s shoulder and gave her a half-smile. ‘Will take some getting used to, I guess.’

She smiled back at him and looked at her own ring. ‘Mine too. I worried I might be allergic. It’s been itching for hours. I’m probably just not used to wearing one.’

A look of worry crossed David’s face. ‘Does it kind of burn?’ he asked.

‘So, it’s two rings to rule them all,’ Luke interrupted, a slight smirk on his face.

It sure as hell looked that way. To confirm the obvious, I opened myself to my gift. The feeling that lightning sang under my skin flooded me, and I perceived the tendrils of power coming from the rings. ‘Where did you get them?’ I asked. ‘Can you take them off?’

‘Look,’ David said. ‘I don’t see—’

‘Just take them off.’ I crouched down on my knees, grabbed Bethan’s hand, and tried to remove the ring. The metal turned on her finger, but no matter how hard I pulled, it wouldn’t move past Bethan’s knuckle.

Bethan became frantic. She yanked her hand out of my grasp and tugged on the ring until her finger bled, but it wouldn’t move. By this time, David had attempted to remove his own ring without success, but when he saw Bethan’s pain, he reached out and clasped her hands.

‘What does it mean?’ he asked.

I raised my voice and ignored the question. ‘Who made them? Where did you get the metal?’

‘I made them.’ He sat down and sighed, then wrapped his arm around Bethan’s shoulders, pulling her into a side hug. ‘The metal came from an old trinket box belonging to Bethan’s grandmother.’

‘We thought it would be romantic,’ Bethan said. ‘Gran used to say the box brought luck. That it bound two hearts together for all eternity.’ For a long breathless moment, Bethan’s eyes locked with David’s. A touch of tears formed in their corners. ‘Before she died, she said there was no fear to be held in death. That she never felt the loss of Grandad, as she knew that if she held the box tight and wished, he would be there with her.’

The room fell silent for a few moments. The only sound was the incessant pounding of the rain and bellowing of the wind.

‘This is what I know,’ I said carefully. ‘Your wedding bands are drawing the reanimated to the mansion. Though why they have stopped outside, I cannot say for certain.’ I stood, paced the small space available, and tried to make sense of my thoughts. ‘I suspect whatever urgency activated the rings has passed, and without focused commands from their masters, they have just milled around.’

‘Their masters,’ David said, jumping up. ‘So can’t we just get their masters to send them away?’

‘I wish it were that simple.’ I looked at the groom in his smart tuxedo, and the bride in her vintage-inspired lace dress. Resisting the urge to say Beetlejuice three times, I considered how young they seemed. Too young to be married, let alone carry the burden I now had to place on their shoulders.

*

We left the attic with David and Bethan and went down the stairs to the Great Hall to begin our preparations. The reanimated were visible through the windows, ignorant of the gusting wind and rain that pelted their bodies and plastered the tattered remains of clothing to their skin. Luke helped me clear the floor, while David comforted an ashen Bethan.

I crossed the room to the couple, intruding on their whispered words. ‘It’s time,’ I said, motioning them to stand up.

We gathered in the centre of the room, while Luke stood guard at the doorway. Despite his prowess, he was unable to help further with the magical proceedings. As Bethan stumbled over her dress, I gripped her arm and supported her until she successfully lowered herself to the floor. The beautiful gown crumpled in a heap beneath her legs. Joining his hand with hers, David sat next to her.

‘Are you ready to destroy an army?’ I said before folding myself to the ground and taking their free hands within my own. I collected my powers and created a circle of protection around us.

David’s eyes flickered to Bethan and he squeezed her hand. She gave him a faint smile. When she looked at me, she took a deep breath and nodded firmly. ‘We’re ready,’ she said.

‘Concentrate on me.’ I glanced from David to Bethan, steeling them with my gaze. ‘No matter what you see, never break your concentration. Focus on me and we can end this.’

It’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced magic, how it feels to open yourself to the energy of life and death. How to view the world as a webbed frenzy of interconnected threads. So, I didn’t bother. Instead, with a final nod and my best attempt at a reassuring smile, I took a deep breath and allowed my power to roar within me.

Bethan cried out and drew a shuddering breath. ‘How can you stand it?’ she said as swirling currents and whirlpools of power tugged at our minds.

‘Focus on me,’ I said into the maelstrom. ‘You can do this.’

To our sight, as we sat connected within the circle, tendrils of power snaked out of my chest and wove a path to join the magical link emanating from the two rings. Despite the searing pain that burned my caim like a raging fire, I forced myself to work slowly, weaving an unbreakable bond into the structure of the metal at the atomic level. A clammy sweat formed on my brow as I fought to gain entry. The force within the rings struggled against my intrusion.

I drew deeply, accessing reservoirs of power I never knew I possessed and forcing my will upon the magic. For a brief second, I glimpsed the evil used in creating the Cauldron of Rebirth. The malevolent force that sacrificed thousands upon thousands of lives to its making. The horror and agony suffered by so many damaged souls rushed over me in waves, turning my stomach and making me want to cry out in agony. I attempted to shield David and Bethan from the worst of the pain, but from the tightening of their grip upon my hands, I knew some had seeped through.

When, at last, I became one with the rings, I blasted a severing command to the horde of reanimated. Two hundred and thirty-four spirits fled their remains and moved on. A loud thud reverberated through the building as their bodies tumbled to the ground in perfect unison. The pitiful cries of ninety more souls, released as the rings on David and Bethan’s fingers fractured and broke, tore at my heart and cursed me with grief. Souls that had been trapped within the fragmented pieces of the cauldron for millennia. Now, finally free.

I relinquished the connection to my power, released the hands of the bride and groom, and pulled myself onto unsteady feet. Luke rushed forward to support me, and I choked back a sobbing cry. So many souls, so much anguish. If just one small piece of metal could imprison so many, then how many lent their power to my caim tattoo, and why couldn’t I feel them? How many more lay trapped within the remaining pieces, and where could I find them? So many questions. Questions I didn’t have the strength to answer.

In my despair, I spared a glance towards David and Bethan. I hoped their marriage would survive this day, but somehow, I doubted it could.

Luke called in to report our situation, although I was sure they already knew. I had sat down to consider the questions bombarding my head when my phone rang.

‘Miss Dune,’ a voice said when I answered.

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sorry to bother you at this hour. It’s Jim Maybin. I wondered if it would be possible for you to return to the house.’ His words came out in a croak. ‘My mother has passed. I mean…she hasn’t. But she should have. She’s worried that Dad isn’t really gone and that she’d be leaving him.’

‘I’ll be there in an hour,’ I said to Mr Maybin.

Just enough time to change my clothes, grab a coffee, and travel the forty miles to the house.

***

EDIT: A Grave Death is now available on Amazon ~ 99c for a limited time only or available in Kindle Unlimited ~

I hope you liked it. I’ll be publishing the second short story, A Matter of Death in a couple of weeks. So check back then 🙂

If you did like it and would like to leave a review, you can find Till Death on Amazon.

 

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The featured image of Tredegar House, the mansion location detailed in Till Death is credited to Edney Gate and Tredegar House
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Philip Halling – geograph.org.uk/p/5819630

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