top of page

Summoner's Circle

“Please tell me you’re not walking alone.” Grace stood by her bed, a shirt she was in the middle of packing forgotten in her hand.

I had almost made it out of our room, but she’d looked up as soon as I grabbed my backpack. I abandoned my escape plans and leaned against the closet door. “I’m just going to the library for my shift. The sun isn’t even set yet.”

She threw the shirt into her suitcase without folding it. “Girls go missing here all the time, Dari.”

“I know that.” My co-op job at the library meant I had a lot of hours to read up on local history of Moonlight Bay—the good, the bad, and the really freaking creepy. Young women had been vanishing in the area for over a century, though they didn’t mention that fun fact in the college brochures. There were all sorts of crackpot theories, from a confluence of ley lines to the lack of sunshine causing an increase in suicidal tendencies, but no real leads. No matter the reason behind the disappearances, my roommate playing twenty questions with me every time I walked out the door got old, fast.

“Then why are you so damned careless?”

I lifted my chin. “I’ll be fine.”

She huffed. “Just let me finish packing, and I’ll drive you.”

“You’ve got a flight to catch.”

Grace dug in her back pocket for her phone and made a show of looking through her contact list, lips pursed. “Call him and ask him to walk you, or I’m going to call him and tell him you’re walking alone.”

I’d expected a guilt trip, maybe even bribery, but not full-on betrayal. “You wouldn’t.”

She was fighting dirty. Tyler and I had argued about the same topic that morning, and Grace knew that because I’d complained to her about what a thick-headed jackass he was. If she called him instead of me, I would never hear the end of it from either of them. The kicker? As much as his overprotective tendencies annoyed me sometimes, I couldn’t blame him for his concern. His last girlfriend had disappeared the year before I’d come to Winters College. He’d never gotten over Amber’s disappearance. Sometimes I felt like her specter haunted our entire relationship.

“Fine.” I pulled out my phone and hit Ty’s speed dial number. While the phone rang, I fixed her with a glare.

Grace smiled sweetly and then went back to her packing.

“I’m sorry about this morning.”

His apology rather than a greeting threw me a little. “It’s okay.”

“I just worry about you, sugar.” He turned his Southern drawl up to eleven.

“I know.” I rubbed my forehead. Everybody worried, and I was the crabby bitch who needed my space. “Come by the room and walk me to the library?”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Gracie is blackmailing me.”

She threw a balled-up T-shirt that I barely dodged. “It’s extortion if there’s no money involved.”

Ty chuckled. “Well, she does have a thing for lacrosse players.”

“Don’t I know it.” We’d met because Grace had dragged me to a lacrosse match and the celebration afterward. The long-standing joke eased some of the tension between us.

“Be right there.”

I hung up and slid my phone into the pocket of my jeans. “I hope you’re happy. He’s going to be impossible all night.”

She shook her head, her blond curls whipping back and forth. “I’ll never understand why caring what happens to you is a crime.”

That hit too close to the last thing my mother had ever said to me, and I looked down, focusing on my fingers where I gripped the strap of my bag. “It’s not like that. I’m just used to doing things myself.”

Grace put down whatever she was folding and sat on the edge of her bed. “It seems self-destructive to me.”

I glanced up. We’d fought about this dozens of times but never really talked about why it bothered her so much. “I’m careful. I stay where it’s well-lit, and I stick to the paths more people use.”

“Don’t you think the other girls did the same thing?”

“I have no idea what they did. I just know I can’t let the fear of what might happen cripple me.”

She took a deep breath. “I understand that. I hate being scared all the time.”

I came to sit next to her. “I’m sorry if I ever made you scared for me. It isn’t something I try to do.”

“I get that.” She hugged me. “Sorry I made you call the lacrosse-stick-wielding jerk.”

I smiled at her use of my angry nickname for Tyler and hugged her back. “When you get back from Christmas break, you’re going to owe me for that one.”

When Tyler arrived fifteen minutes later, he held out a peace offering in the form of a coffee cup. I took it from him and inhaled. Soy latte. Coupled with his best hangdog brown-eyed stare, it was impossible to stay mad at him. “Apology accepted.” I sipped and then exhaled a long sigh. “But this ceasefire doesn’t mean I think you’re right.”

Ty smiled, showing off his deadly dimples. “Perish the thought.” He leaned down to kiss my forehead, then nodded to Grace, who was now packing with feverish intensity. “Need a hand, Grace?”

Grace muttered as she wrestled with her suitcase. “I’m good. Sean is picking me up in a few.” She waved cheerily with the hand that wasn’t holding her suitcase shut. “Have a good break, you two.”

“See you in January.” I ran to give her a final hug before heading out the door.

Tyler waved over my head. “Safe trip.”

Out in the hallway, Tyler offered to take my backpack, and I let him carry it because I knew he would sulk if I didn’t. He grinned all the way down the stairs.

“Thanks for calling me,” he said as he held open the door at the bottom of the stairwell.

I walked under his arm and turned to fix him with my most serious stare. “I did it because Grace was pitching a fit.”

“I know. I still appreciate the call.”

Outside, dark was just settling in. Fog crept over the ground in front of us, misty tendrils cloaking one object after another as we walked along a well-manicured pathway. We passed under a lamp that flickered above us before going out. The ambient glow that gave the town of Moonlight Bay its name prevented us from being totally in the dark. Believe it or not, glow-in-the-dark fog was a fact that made the Winters College brochures. I admitted to being a little creeped out by it at first, but if there’s something my Psych 101 class taught me, it’s that human beings can get used to pretty much anything.

“With all the money we pay, you’d think they could replace the light bulbs once in a while.”

Ty tilted his head back to look at the lamp. “I’ve had to call maintenance to replace the lights in my room twice this year. The guy said it had to do with the fog.”

“The folks in this town blame everything on the fog.”

“Well, glowing fog three hundred days a year is kind of unsettling.”

“If it bothers them so much, why don’t they just leave?”

Ty shrugged as we came into range of the next light along the path. “They must have a reason for staying.”

My phone jingled in my pocket. “Just a sec.” I dug it out and glanced at the display. There was no one I wanted to talk to less than my brother, but I answered anyway. “Yeah.”

“Aunt Myriam wants to know if you’re coming home for Christmas break.” No greeting, just Daniel’s annoyed voice coming over the air from the far coast.

“You know I can’t. No funds.”

Daniel sighed. “She says she has something important to tell you.”

Aunt Myriam’s definition of important ranged from the pointless to the ludicrous. My mother had called her Touched, and that covered it nicely. Every other word was about a demon or a monster that was rising up soon to destroy the world.

“Of course she does. She probably thinks dragons are coming to get her again.” Next to me, Ty coughed. I gave him what I hoped was a withering look, and he took a few steps away, covering his mouth with his hand. “I can’t come back until the end of the school year. Tell her I’ll play dominoes with her then.”

There was a scuffle on the other end of the line. After a few seconds my aunt’s reedy voice took over. “You need to come home. I have a lot to tell you.”

“I’ll be home in May, Aunt Myriam. That’s just around the corner.”

“Do ya think I’m an imbecile, nena? I know it’s December.”

I sighed. The only thing I thought was that she was an old lady with a tenuous grasp on reality. “I can’t come back until the end of the year. We’ll talk then.”

“It’s about your mother.”

I almost dropped the phone. Of all my aunt’s ramblings, she’d so far never worked my mother’s death into them. My mother had died in a car accident almost exactly a year before, and the wound was still too new for me to deal with my unstable aunt making it into a conspiracy. “I have to go now. Talk to you soon.” I disconnected without listening to anything else she had to say and stared down at the phone.

“You okay?” Ty asked a few seconds later, concern in his voice.

I looked up him. “Uh, yeah. Just family stuff. You know how it is.”

“Sure,” he said, though he sounded anything but certain. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me against his chest.

I hugged him back, leaning into the warmth of his body to drive away the chill that had little to do with the fog.

***

Ty’s mouth danced a sensuous rhythm over my neck. I leaned back against the wall, and the stack of books under me shifted. The noise I made was not a squeak, no matter what he said. The breath of his laughter was hot against my skin.

I stopped him in the act of unbuttoning my blouse, yet again. “Knock it off, someone could come in.”

“Yeah, because the library is where everyone goes the night after finals end.” A chuckle of amusement was smothered in the side of my neck.

“People still have…” His circling tongue made it difficult to concentrate on the point I was trying to make. “Projects.”

He lifted his head to look me in the eyes. “No one has been here in hours, Dari.”

I nudged his questing hands away, but not with very much conviction. “If you want to go to a party until I’m done here, go ahead.”

“I want to be with you.” He wrapped his arms around me. “In case you hadn’t noticed.”

Oh boy, had I noticed. He squeezed my butt, pressing me against him. His muscular body was deliciously warm. I decided nobody was coming up to the quietest wing of the library the day before Christmas break began after all. I reached for him.

That was when a woman screamed, a bloodcurdling screech the likes of which was only heard in slasher flicks right in the middle of the love scene. I jerked in Ty’s arms, slamming my head into the wall behind me. The pile of books under me had taken enough abuse and toppled.

Wide-eyed, Ty barely caught me before I tumbled to the ground. “What was that?”

“Someone in trouble.” I pushed him out of the way and ran for the door. In a graceful move that probably would have landed me flat on my ass if I’d thought about trying it, I vaulted the circulation desk. The sound had to be coming from the stairs, so I headed that way as soon as my feet hit the ground. The scream cut off, shrouding the library in silence once more. Not the usual quiet, more like a pause for breath before the next shriek.

“Dari, wait,” Ty called after me, but I didn’t stop.

I shoved the door open, filling the cramped landing with a banging echo. The dingy tiles were in need of a mopping, and the plaster walls could have used a coat of paint a decade ago, but the stairwell didn’t look at all like the murder scene I’d expected. Deciding the scream must have come from below, I turned that way. A strong hand grabbed my upper arm and almost scared me out of my shoes.

Ty pulled me behind him with gentleness at odds with his intense grip. “Let me go first,” he whispered.

His scowl related exactly how pointless an argument would be. Being in a relationship with a genuine Southern gentleman did have its drawbacks. I nodded grudgingly. He started down the stairs more slowly than I would have.

When we hit the landing below, he peered around the corner. I scooted up close and looked. The next landing was completely dark, as if all the lights below that level were out as well. He turned toward me, his frown deepening. If I knew Ty, he was about to tell me to go back to the desk and call the police. On another day his excessive chivalry might have sparked an argument, but in his tense expression, I read his feelings for me more clearly than he could have ever spoken them.

I was already nodding in agreement when something huge erupted out of the darkness below. A blur of shadows struck Tyler hard, tossing him like a dishrag. Ty hit the wall behind us with a sharp crack and crumpled to the floor.

I backed away, trying to figure out how a person could move so fast, when it turned toward me, and I realized that despite standing upright, it was not human. A canine muzzle jutted from heavy jowls, complete with an arsenal of pointed teeth and a snarling split upper lip. Saliva smeared the gray fur around the mouth and dripped from the deadly jaws. The creature’s movement was distinctly nonhuman, somehow too fluid and too stiff at the same time.

The dog-thing cocked its head, and its stare sharpened when it focused on me. A snarl vibrated the air around me, and if I could have caught my breath, I might have screamed. Instead of lunging toward me as I expected, the monster opened its jaws and emitted a shriek that rang off the tiled surfaces of the stairwell and threatened to burst my eardrums.

I tried to make myself as small as possible and covered my ears at the same time. The acrid smell of burning hair stung my nostrils. The dog-monster flailed, continuing its ear-rending wail until it charged forward and struck the wall, the hilt of a knife sticking out of the center of its back. It slid to the tiled floor with almost comic slowness considering the speed it had been moving at seconds before. I was so focused on the now seemingly dead, crazy dog-thing that I didn’t notice the woman approaching until she crouched in front of me.

Mirrored sunglasses hid her eyes from view and reflected a dual image of my terror. Her head was shaved on both sides of a flowing crest of black hair that fell below her shoulders. Sweat ran down the sides of her angular face. A large percentage of her brown skin was covered with vibrant red and gold tattoos.

Her lips moved, but I couldn’t hear her, so I shook my head. When she reached for me, I cringed. She stopped and pointed to my hands, which were still firmly clamped to my ears. I lowered my hands.

“Breathe deeply. It will help.” Her slight accent manifested mostly in a lack of emphasis and a crisp R. The familiarity of it tickled somewhere in the depths of my fear-fogged brain.

A few slow breaths later, the extra oxygen dulled the edge of my fear and cleared my head. “Is Tyler okay?”

“I don’t know.” When I started to push to my feet, she held out a hand to stop me. “Stay there. I’ll check.”

She rose and crossed the landing, clearing my line of sight to Tyler. I didn’t see any blood, but Ty wasn’t moving, and that worried me. The woman bent to put a hand on Tyler’s chest.

“Well?”

“He breathes, and his heart is strong.”

Now that the adrenaline had subsided and I knew Ty was still alive, tears threatened. Tattoo lady came back to stand over me. I took a deep breath. She’d already been witness to me huddled in a corner like some kind of helpless infant; I refused to let her see me cry too. I looked up, trying to meet her eyes, but only found the dual reflection of the mirrored lenses. “What was that thing?”

Her lips thinned. “You ask a complicated question we don’t have time for at the moment. I promise you that answer, and many more, but for now, you must trust me.” She held out her hand.

I let her help me to my feet but pulled away immediately. “I don’t even know you.”

“Call an ambulance. Tell them your boyfriend fell down the stairs and hit his head. You won’t need to explain the creature, because by the time you return, the body will be gone, and so will I.”

“What? How?”

“Another question we don’t have time for. They’ll keep him overnight. I’ll wait outside the hospital. If you want answers, come find me. If not, go home. The decision is yours.”

Staring at her, it occurred to me that I had no idea what had happened to the screaming woman. For all I knew, she was the one who had screamed, though it seemed unlikely after what she’d done to the dog-monster. “What happened to the woman who screamed? Is she okay?”

“There was no woman. That noise was intended to draw you out.”

I blinked as the meaning behind her words became clear—bait. “So that thing was here for me?”

“Yes.”

“That means you’re here for me too.”

She nodded. “We are swiftly running out of time, Darianna Jiménez.”

A shiver crept up my spine and settled between my shoulder blades. “At least tell me your name.”

“You may call me Ash.”

***

By the time I’d gotten Tyler settled at the hospital, it was nearly midnight. I made up a story about him slipping on the stairs because the janitor had been in there mopping earlier. Tyler didn’t remember anything—which the doctor said was normal—and it was certainly for the best, considering my hands started shaking anytime I thought about what had happened. As I exited the hospital, I started to worry that my lie might get someone in trouble. I couldn’t remember the janitor’s name, and trying to think of it distracted me enough that I barely noticed Ash sitting on a bench in the smoking area. She faced away from me, but her silhouette was unmistakable as she lifted a cigarette to her mouth. Even though it was dark, she still wore the mirrored sunglasses.

I stopped when I drew even with her. “Would you have let me walk by you without saying anything?”

She exhaled a long stream of smoke as she nodded. “The choice is still yours, to walk on or not.”

“Ignoring all of this isn’t a choice I can make and still stay sane.”

Ash stood and ground her cigarette out with one heeled boot. “I would like to think I would make that decision myself, but I’m not sure I have the courage.”

In the cramped stairwell, I hadn’t noticed how much taller she was than me, how big she seemed, but now I could think of little else. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had, after all. I shoved my hands in my jacket pockets so I wouldn’t have to feel them shaking. If she’d wanted to hurt me, she could have done so back at the library. “I wouldn’t say I have an overabundance of courage. The first time you saw me, I was cowering in a corner.”

In the most expression I’d seen from her thus far, one corner of her mouth curled upward slightly. “Being afraid does not make you less brave, and it was not the first time I saw you.”

She started to walk away, and I jogged a few steps to catch up with her. “You’ve been following me?”

“I was sent here to protect you. How else was I to accomplish my task?”

“So you just waited around until that thing attacked me? Tyler could have been killed.” It was the middle of the night, and I was yelling in a hospital parking lot, but I didn’t care.

“We did not know for certain that you would be targeted.” She inhaled deeply and released the breath in a long sigh. “Your mother did not want this for you. She insisted that you never be contacted.”

Flexing my fingers in my pockets, I took a moment to regain my composure so I wouldn’t yell. “You knew my mother? She was involved in all of this somehow?”

“Once you start down this path, you won’t be able to turn back. I will warn you again. She did not want this for you. You should consider why she made that choice.”

“Why is everything fucking choices with you?”

“Life is a series of choices. Each of us must live with what we choose.”

“You must write fortune cookies for a living.”

She turned toward me briefly, her mirrored lenses bending the streetlights above into rainbows. “Hardly.”

I shivered again; it was becoming a habit around her. “Where are we going?”

“I’ll escort you back to your campus via the wharf.”

“Walk the wharf road at night? You’re even more cocky than I am.”

“Do you imagine something there is more formidable than what attacked you on the stairs?”

“No, I’m not sure anything like that exists.”

Her chuckle was a dry, rasping sound that somehow reminded me of crackling flames. Not unpleasant exactly, but strange. “I can handle whatever we might encounter.”

I appraised her again, slower this time. She was nearly Tyler’s height in those boots, and looking mean might be the most flattering way to describe her. “I don’t doubt it.”

We turned right at the edge of the parking lot, heading toward the sound of breaking waves. Mist rose from the water. I shivered again. “What’s this all about, Ash?”

She glanced around, probably to ensure that no one could hear us, but she needn’t have bothered. The street around us was empty and silent. The citizens of Moonlight Bay respected the fog. “This is about a war that has been raging on this planet since long before any civilization kept records. Though it has been the subject of myths and religions for millennia, no one really believes anymore.”

I blinked a few times. My first inclination was to think she was as unhinged as my aunt, but then how would I explain the dog-headed monster that had almost killed Tyler and me? “You’re going to tell me the thing that attacked us was a demon or something?”

“The word demon implies such a being is evil, which it need not be.”

“It didn’t exactly seem friendly.”

She shrugged and dug into her pocket, producing a silver cigarette case. She lit one before continuing, exhaling smoke as she spoke. “A being from another plane operates by a different set of rules. I prefer daemon or elemental, which are free of such associations.”

We turned onto the boardwalk that paralleled the coast. The metal railing wasn’t much of a barrier between us and the ocean. I wondered when exactly I’d begun to see the fog as a threat. Probably when a creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog tried to eat me.

“So more like a natural spirit than a monster?”

“Yes. Among them there are two factions called Dusk and Dawn that have been at war as long as any of them can remember.”

“If they’re from another plane, what does any of this have to do with us?”

“Dusk believes that if they can seize control of our planet, they will win the war once and for all.”

“This all sounds like fiction.”

She blew out a cloud of smoke. “For me, this is a normal day at the office.”

I let that soak in for a minute. Given everything I’d already witnessed, was what Ash said any more strange or unlikely? “How was my mother involved?”

“Your mother, like me, was part of a group whose sole purpose is to protect our planet from those who would take it.”

I stopped. “Now I know you’re making this up. My mom was a translator, not some kind of superhero.”

When she realized I was no longer keeping pace with her, she turned around. She leaned against the railing with her back to the bay, ignoring the mist and turbulent waves behind her. “A group like ours requires individuals of many talents. Your mother was not a fighter, but she was important to us.”

The fondness in her voice made me reassess her age. Her face was unlined, but there was a sense of accumulated wisdom to her that was undeniable. The more I tried to pin down her age, the more difficult it seemed. “How well did you know her?” I wished I could have seen her eyes to gauge her reaction, but the mirrors stared back at me, cold and expressionless.

“We were colleagues.” She took a last pull on her cigarette, then crushed it beneath her heel.

I watched for any hint that there might be more she wasn’t telling me, but no flicker of emotion touched her face. “Why didn’t she want me to know about the group?”

“It is not an easy truth to live with. She preferred that your life not be filled with monsters around every corner.”

I thought of my aunt and her stories. Could she have known all along about my mother’s double life? “Are there monsters like that around every corner, Ash?”

“No, but sometimes it seems there might be.” She looked both ways along the boardwalk. “Your mother wanted a normal life for you.”

“So why are you here? How did you know I’d be in danger?”

She seemed to consider whether she should answer or not for a moment before deciding. “Divination.”

“You’re talking about magic.”

“I am.”

“Is that how you killed that dog-thing?”

“It’s called a vehrka, and yes.”

I swallowed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her being some kind of witch on top of looking like she could take on a biker gang single-handedly in a bar brawl. “I didn’t think that knife in its back would have brought it down.”

Ash almost smirked, or at least I thought she did. Her expressions were impossible to read without being able to see her eyes. “It would not have.”

I shivered. “So what happens now?”

“First, we stop you from freezing to death.” She shrugged out of her long coat and held it out for me. On her bare forearm, there was an intricate tattoo of a lion that looked ready to leap off her skin.

“Thanks.” I took the jacket and wrapped it around me. Warmth soaked into me, and I sighed. I started down the boardwalk again, with Ash striding alongside. “Step one complete.”

“If we’re lucky, our enemies might believe the vehrka ran off. It happens sometimes. If they are otherwise occupied, they might forget about you.”

“And if not?”

“They will send another. Probably something less easy to kill.”

“Wonderful. What about me and this mysterious organization of yours?”

“That’s more difficult. You should be tested to see the extent of your latent magical ability.”

“What do you mean?”

“You come from a long line of magi. I have my doubts the line ended with you.”

“So my mother was a witch?” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear the answer, but I hoped that she wouldn’t deny me.

“I dislike that word. But yes. And her mother, and her mother before that, going back at least ten generations.”

“Wow, that’s kind of a lot to live up to. What if I don’t have the juice?”

“It is not really a question of if, more how much. There are varying degrees of ability. Your mother was not as powerful as some in your ancestry.”

“So it’s possible I’m a dud.”

“Unlikely.”

“How can you know that…?” With a sudden flash of insight, I grabbed her arm. “You know who my father is, don’t you?”

She looked down at my hand, her face still expressionless. “I cannot answer that.”

All the arguments I’d had with my mother over the topic of my father came back in a jumble. All the terrible things I’d said to her in those early teenage days when I thought we’d both live forever and I’d never come to regret them haunted me all over again, just as they had the day I found out she’d died. I dropped her arm as if she’d burned me. “If I join your club, do I get to find out, or is that held over me for my entire life?”

“Your mother couldn’t tell you, and neither can I.”

“So it’s your group’s rule? That’s why she couldn’t tell me? Do you have any idea how many awful things I said to her about that?”

“Some idea.” She resumed walking toward campus, and I kept up beside her. “If your father’s identity was public knowledge, you would be in more danger.”

“Fine. What does it matter at this point?”

We settled into an uncomfortable silence that only made our footfalls on the boards under our feet seem louder in the quiet night.

Chilled for no specific reason I could point to, I huddled deeper into her coat. “Why do you wear those glasses?”

“To hide my eyes.”

I chuckled. “May I see them?”

She turned to face me and tugged her glasses down the bridge of her nose with one finger. Her irises… smoldered, a rich golden red that shimmered in the darkness of the night. Involuntarily, I took a step backwards, then stopped. She pushed the glasses back up and continued walking, not waiting for me to catch up.

I jogged a few steps until I was beside her again. “I can see why you hide them. How did they come to be that way?”

“Over time the power I work with changes many parts of the body, though the eyes are most obvious.” Though it sounded like an ominous statement, her tone didn’t change.

“My mother’s eyes were normal.”

“Her talents leaned a different way than mine.”

“Would my eyes change?”

“I can tell you that you don’t have my talent, because I would be able to feel it. As to what ability you possess, I don’t know. Magic rarely follows rules as you or I might understand them.”

We crossed from the wooden boardwalk onto the concrete sidewalk that led to the WC campus. The library was dark, as were the class buildings that flanked it on either side. I shivered again, remembering the monster that had attacked Tyler and me a few hours before. “So I learn to do the hoodoo, I join up with you guys, and then what?”

Ash dug for another cigarette and paused to light it before answering. “It’s too early to say. Some members lead almost ordinary lives, like your mother. Others, like me, travel where we’re needed constantly.”

I began to understand why my mother wouldn’t have wanted me involved. She’d been manipulated by them and didn’t want the same for me. Was it too late to back out now? Ash had implied as much very early on. “And who decides what kind of life I get to lead?”

“The Dawn Council. They provide us with assignments.”

“What if I don’t want to sign my life away?”

She took a pull from her cigarette and shrugged. “I’m not certain. That I know of, no one has denied them. What we do is important, Dari, in a world-altering way. Once you understand that, it’s difficult to resist.”

We reached the side door of my building. I searched my pockets for my ID and found it after a few seconds. “There’s no way out now, is there?”

“Could you return now without going further and pretend there was nothing strange in the world?”

I thought about the dog-headed monster again. How many more of those were out there? How many worse things were hiding, waiting, and trying to seize control of a mostly ignorant planet? “No, I guess not.”

“You did not believe me when I said you were brave earlier, but you are.” Ash crushed out her cigarette under her boot. “It would be best if you didn’t change your behavior for now. We’ll see if their interest in you is only casual or if there’s a reason they came after you.”

I nodded. “How do I call you, if I need you?”

“I’ll be nearby.” I thought she smiled then, or as close to a smile as her stony face could manage, which was barely more than a twitch of her lips.

I slid out of her jacket and handed it back to her. After pivoting to run my card through the security pad to open the door, I turned back, and Ash was gone. I didn’t bother to look for her in the bushes. I had a feeling that she wouldn’t be seen unless she wanted to be.

bottom of page