When the archer sprouted through the concrete floor, Fine Arts Macabre rippled. The force that was making the building pulsate had also added a silvery glow to the archer’s skin and eyes. Her metallic lips moved without producing audible words.
“What do you think she’s chanting, Miss Flynn?”
Laila had been reduced to a transparent sphere of energy that shimmered a few feet above the floor, encircling DeeAnn’s body. Her awareness shared headspace with DeeAnn’s consciousness. Because of it, Laila could speak through her apprentice’s lips. But she chose to answer in the girl’s mind, hoping DeeAnn would follow the example. “I don’t know what she’s doing.”
“I wish she would stop looking at me like that and mumbling,” DeeAnn said.
Through DeeAnn’s eyes, Laila tried looking towards the door—her view was blocked by the archer. Laila had used the last of her energy to separate her mind from her maimed body. It had been the only way to keep DeeAnn from irreversible harm. “Don’t let her see your fear.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Flynn. It’s just… Well, that woman’s eyeballs feel like hot fingers in my head. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else.”
DeeAnn’s choice of words made Laila pay closer attention to the archer’s movements. She, too, had believed that the archer was looking at DeeAnn. By the time she realized what was actually going on, the archer had pulled two of the three arrows that impaled Laila’s limp body to Fine Arts Macabre’s front door, and had shot an energy jolt that yanked Laila’s mind out of balance.
The channeling spell the archer had been chanting slammed Laila’s essence back into her dying body, giving her no time to tell DeeAnn what was happening.
Laila couldn’t speak. She tried, but her words turned to gurgles. The archer had removed the last arrow leaving a hole in her throat. There was no pain, but the blood loss was stealing her senses.
As consciousness left her, Laila saw the archer’s twisted features illuminated by the flaming hand she waved in front of her face.
DeeAnn’s fading voice yelled threats and obscenities.
“Quiet!” the archer shouted.
DeeAnn’s yells ended.
Laila tried opening her mouth to curse the archer. But her brain couldn’t find her lips. And her magic ignored the call of her will.
Amparo stood on the sidewalk leaning on her walking stick, her back to the entrance of Fine Arts Macabre. She disliked the sudden silence that oozed out of the building, but not nearly as much as she hated the smirk spreading over Blanche’s face. When a member of the Traditional Guild of Tales looked that joyous, it was almost certain that one of Amparo’s friends would suffer a great deal; or would lose the ability to ever suffer again, she thought. “Don’t look so happy, Blanche. If something has happened to the Curator or her apprentice, I could think you were involved.”
“Don’t be stupid, Keeper. I have no love for the Flynn woman, but I would never risk my position as Curator just to scratch an inconsequential itch. The Guild sent me and a Scout to check this place, after it showed as the center of an energy fluctuation. The voice you heard inside belongs to—”
She was too upset to allow Blanche to finish the sentence. “No one other than Laila can survive Fine Arts Macabre’s crisis wards. Not even me.” Amparo kept her tone leveled, but in her mind she screamed until Blanche’s face melted into a sad bloody puddle at her feet.
Blanche leaned forward until she was only a foot away from Amparo, and whispered, “What happens to the wards when the Curator is no longer breathing, Keeper?”
Amparo heard the door open behind her. She didn’t want to turn around, not while Blanche grinned like a pretty carnivorous flower that ate every one of the family’s kittens. But she forced herself to glance over her shoulder. The sight was much grimmer than she had expected: it looked as if the flower had butchered all the children before eating their four-legged playmates.
A tall blonde woman wearing black cargo pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt, and combat boots—the preferred attire of the Scouts of the Traditionalist Guild of Tales—stood in the threshold. Her hands were wet with blood.
Amparo squeezed her walking stick, and turned to face Blanche. “You are not the only choice left for Curator.” She was in so much pain. Her foot throbbed. Her calf was thicker than her thigh. Perhaps it’s been too long. Neutrality can’t last forever.
“I’m the only one here now,” Blanche said. “And I’m the only one left who isn’t a criminal on the run. The building will choose me.”
“Not while I am still Keeper,” Amparo said in a soft voice, as she jammed the iron tip of her walking stick into her inflamed calf. Pain, and a gargoyle the size of a cat, burst out of her skin.
“Stop him!” Amparo heard the Scout yell, right before Laila and DeeAnn ran out of the building.
But the warning had arrived too late. Amparo’s symbiont had already exposed the back of Blanche’s throat.
“The Blanche woman vanished before hitting the ground,” DeeAnn said, again and again, as if everyone hadn’t seen it happen. “Where do you think her body went, FAM? Did you eat her?”
“My reach doesn’t go beyond the walls of this building,” FAM said. “The Blanche lookalike disappeared because she was made of energy that doesn’t belong in this Realm. The essence went home.”
“How were you able to eat Aurora then?” DeeAnn raised an eyebrow. “And why didn’t the archer’s body go poof after you healed Miss Flynn? She was made of weird too, wasn’t she?”
“I haven’t eaten anyone. Aurora and the archer were never alive. They were energy shaped into bodies, controlled by Riders. When Aurora collapsed inside the building, I repurposed the energy that gave her form. I used the power to push out the mind that rode the archer, and morphed the energy left behind into something this Realm could understand.”
“You ate Aurora.” DeeAnn crossed her arms. “Just admit it.”
FAM exhaled her irritation and left the room, through a wall.
Laila stood near the door to her office. She hadn’t spoken since walking back into the building. She kept quiet when DeeAnn argued that, “Fine Arts Macabre is just too long of a name to call anyone. And ‘Fine’ is just too presumptuous. And we can’t just go around calling a building and its Sentinel by the same name. FAM just makes sense.” Just, just, just… the words echoed in Laila’s head. She stared at Amparo, and at the small stone creature pacing at her friend’s feet.
“Does it have a name?” Laila addressed the question to no one in particular, but the edge in her voice pointed at Amparo.
“His latest name is Dexter. From the TV show,” Amparo said. “He saw an ad on the side of a bus.” When Laila said nothing, she added, “He gets bored watching over the building night after night. So he renames himself, binge-watches TV, and reads when—
“He spies on me?”
“No, Laila, he doesn’t spy on you.” Amparo took a step towards her, but stopped when Laila shook her head. “He watches the building. I am Keeper. Dexter is Watcher. Our work is not—”
“Why didn’t you tell me? How can we be friends if I don’t know you?”
“I am your friend and you know me. I am also the Keeper of Tales. The latter has always been neutral.” Amparo was crying, but her voice didn’t shake. “I thought that if I told you about Dexter, then the essence of the Fine Arts Macabre’s Sentinel would have compelled me to share the same information with the Traditional Guild. They can’t be trusted. You’ve been Curator long enough to know that.” Amparo pointed at FAM. “After she went silent, I had no guidance. I didn’t know a way to keep our friendship completely honest without losing Dexter.”
“Why would he leave you for being truthful?”
“The Watcher’s allegiance is to the things guarded by this place,” FAM said, reentering the room through a different wall. “A new Keeper is appointed by the Sentinel, if there is evidence of trouble, Laila Flynn. But the Watcher has been around since the first Crafter left her original tale, and was read into a new Story Realm. Dexter can’t choose his host.”
The gargoyle curled up around Amparo’s leg, and bared his teeth at FAM. Laila started to like the little beast for that.
“And you?” Laila said.
FAM watched her for some time, and then said, “The essence animating this body belongs to the first Curator. She… I… chose to merge with the building when the energy needed to catalogue and shield powerful items, which had been separated from their wielders, became too unstable to be moved from place to place safely.”
“You gave up your life to keep strangers from getting hurt.”
“I’m not that selfless, Laila Flynn.” FAM grinned. “I didn’t give my life, for the change didn’t kill me. I exchanged my freedom for the protection of something that means everything to me.”
“What’s worth so…?” Laila’s words trailed off when the building began to shake.
FAM’s eyes silvered out of focus. “Something’s trying to get through my wards.”
“Trads?” Laila said.
FAM shook her head. “I don’t recognize the entity’s essence. But it’s large, powerful, wild.” She turned to look at Amparo, before saying, “And it’s coming from Pre-Chaos, New York.”
This is the conclusion of the Laila Flynn web serial. To read the tale from the beginning, visit my Stories page and scroll down until you reach the Laila Flynn heading. A novella, which will include the polished web serial plus the events taking place right after, will be published this October. This is a tendril of a much bigger world…
Tendril Tree, by Onirim