“On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—”
Nevermore’s claws tightened on his book, leaving the lightest impression in the treasured yellowing paper. His beady eyes slid up to look at the speaker as she leaned against the counter of his little gatehouse, the watchtower high above his head like a hollow monolith standing over the trees.
“Annalise,” he greeted dryly.
Annalise blinked at him with eyeless sockets and a smirk on her skeletal face. But she didn’t stop. Dramatically, she stepped back and raised one rag-dressed arm to him as if calling him to a battle. “Is there—is there balm in Gilead?” she asked with all the theatrics. “—tell me—tell me, I implore! Quoth the raven…”
Here she paused, staring at the bird-man in expectation, mischief gleaming in her sockets. Hand outstretched. Beckoning for that single word—his name.
“I’ll knock you into a cocked hat, Miss Grisholme. I’m too corned and cold as a wagon tire to deal with your shit today.” Why does she insist on bothering him? It was a night for staying close to the warmth of the dark forest floor and the smell of wet leaves, but now he was regretting not taking his fully avian form up to the rafters above his head and reading his book in peace, damn the chilly draft. Blessed peace. Far from the amusements of cursed dead teenagers.
Annalise—or Anna. She used both all the time—rolled her invisible eyes and didn’t hide her displeasure, groaning as she leaned her bony elbows on the windowsill-like counter, nearly sticking her head through the window to invade the space of his watchtower.
Nevermore leaned back from her invasion, too used to the newcomer’s curiosity, but he still didn’t find it endearing.
“Spoilsport,” she said. “Alright, translate for me, old man.”
“Hat something. Corned. Wagon tire? You’re dating yourself. My poor twentieth-century mind needs slang translation.”
Nevermore scoffed. He was half expecting the questions. “Cocked hat…hmph…that’s easy. I’d knock some sense into you.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Anna gasped dramatically, but rolled her “eyes” again nonetheless, a movement that just seemed like her eye sockets stretching oddly and her lips twitching to another smile. But it was enough for the bird to guess her facial expression.
“Like it makes a difference. You’re cold as a wagon tire too. Dead, that is. Corned? Ah well, that’s a..hm…Whiskey is made from corn, you know.”
“So you’re drunk,” Anna said in understanding. “Cool. That explains it. You get more slangy when you’re hungover, sir. Hungover and grumpy.”
Nevermore scowled at her. After a moment his eyes softened, just barely. “You’re acting extra chirk today, but your aura says it’s a lie. Going to the cauldron again, young lady?”
Anna’s plastered smile fell abruptly. She looked away. “Stop reading my—.”
“It’s not telepathy, newcomer,” Nevermore reminded shortly. “Stick around long enough and you’ll eventually see other monsters’ auras.”
“Like I have a choice,” Anna muttered.
“Choice to what?”
Anna didn’t look at him. “To stick around…”
The skeleton and the bird settled into that awkward silence where each had a moment to collect their thoughts. Eventually, Nevermore sighed when he noticed Anna scratching at the inky soot on her lower arm that perpetually stained her bones.
“You’ve been dead for three weeks. No one—.”
“I know that!” she snapped. But she stopped scratching.
“Let me finish! No one knows why you’re here. Not really. They’ll keep asking, just like you, but you can’t sulk forever like a child. Tormenting yourself with questions you can’t answer will get you nowhere. Tormenting yourself with that damn cauldron does nothing but hurt you.”
Anna didn’t respond.
“I shouldn’t let you pass. I really should tell someone you’ve been using the cauldron. Like the witches. It’s theirs after all.”
“Well?” Anna said through her teeth, glancing at the bird.
He just shrugged and went back to his book, abruptly ignoring her.
If she was going to leave “Church Town”—he internally snorted at the stupid nickname like usual—then he didn’t have suitable grounds to stop her, especially since she was currently haunting with the witches anyway.
Anna stared at him before moving on. She stumbled on the uneven road and barely righted herself before she face-planted.
Nevermore didn’t laugh, but she knew he was probably watching her.
Her control over this newish body was still all over the place. It felt like moving a puppet, and she was riding inside the head. She still received sensations from all the oddly proportioned limbs. She missed the weight of flesh, even if she had trouble remembering it.
She left the looming watchtower behind along with its keeper, secretly glad he had decided to leave her to her devices. She walked for a minute before halting at her next barrier, this one not as fun to tease. She stared up at the enormous cemetery gates that seemed so out of place in the middle of a forest clearing, just as out of place as the tower and its keeper, at least to human eyes. There were no walls or barriers of any kind on either side.
There was no lock either, not that it needed one. A wooden sign hung down from one of the spikes up top.
It was gray with age and splintered. Instead of painting, someone had scratched into the sign with what Anna could only assume were claws.
Please Close Behind You
The gates didn’t need physical walls, but the boundaries were there.
Anna had literally run into those boundaries when she arrived in the middle of the cacophonous bonfire party that marked the end of another year in this place. She was confused and newly deceased. She had run from the reveling habitants, unfamiliar fear coursing through her fleshless bones and burning her with panic from the inside out. She ran, ignoring shocked growls and warnings from monsters that were distracted from the festivities by the show of an unexpected newcomer making a fool of herself. She had bolted, literally stumbling right into an invisible barrier. It knocked her out for a few nights, or whatever counted as “night” in The Hallow. However, she had been awake long enough to be handed a cup of warm cider and guided to a bed she didn’t recognize, in a world she didn’t recognize, surrounded by creatures that were so varying in their appearances that she forgot what a human face was supposed to look like.
She vaguely remembered Nevermore had been there that night. He had actually tried to guide her away from the gates, but she had panicked about a talking bird.
The witches took care of her. Apparently, there had been an argument about that as the witches haunted in a house they used as an apothecary that lay just outside “Church Town” and it’s Library that Nevermore protected with his watch tower.
There was no church in The Hallow. Not that Anna knew about, though that didn’t say much. As for the actual name for the odd town she had been staying in and near since waking up dead, there wasn’t an official one, but she preferred “Vale.”
Vale. “Church Town.” Home of the Library. Center of The Hallow Lands. The Land of Stories…
These were just words Anna had picked up from the monsters, no one giving her a certain answer. But she liked these words.
They sounded pretty. They sounded important. A tiny comfort from her reality.
Anna slipped through the graveyard gates, closing it firmly behind her, and began the short walk down a side path that would take her to what she liked to call the “magic pharmacy.”
She thought it was a funnier nickname than the witches did.
Hecate in particular had told her to shut up, though the witch said it in maybe not so many words.
But was Anna wrong?
She stayed on the path, weaving through a short but dense section of the forest. This was why there had apparently been a fight about a newcomer like her staying with the witches. The witches weren’t protected by Vale’s boundaries. The witches kept their own protections, and they thought it safer to practice their arts farther from the more “populated” areas. They welcomed the moderate seclusion the dark forest of The Hallow offered, with its trees stretching out in endless miles in every direction. There was probably better access to whatever materials they needed. It also discouraged some monsters from bothering the ladies unless they really needed something.
There were many creatures in the Hallow, and not all subscribed to the community and niceties Vale maintained. All sorts of creatures could attack someone like Anna, a newcomer with barely solid legs under her and very little idea of how this world truly worked—if she stepped off the path.
Anna veered off the path when the witches’ house came into view and made a beeline for a small pavilion overgrown with vines and brush in a small clearing just barely in sight of the abode.
She absently tried to wipe the slightly oily soot off her bony wrists, not noticing the black streaks she left on her trousers while she paced around the large cauldron the pavilion housed. It didn’t do much, of course. The soot never would go away and the pacing was a distraction.
But soot wasn’t her concern at the moment.
“My name is Annalise Grisholme,” she reminded herself. Her name was the easy part. “I’m 16…I think. My parents are…my parents are H-Harold. And Soboen. Soboen. My brother and sister are James and Jillian.” Annalise paused, staring at the cauldron, apprehensive.
“Please let me see them…Please work,” she muttered, stepping into the pavilion.
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This chapter was published 18 May, 2021. It was last revised 29 May, 2021. See Changelog.