Showdown at the Solstice, Part 1

Showdown at the Solstice, Part 1

Author’s note: the planned quartet continues with August’s second installment (read part one here)… stretched into two parts, because, well, it kinda got away from her like a mustang on the prairie. The on-going tale of magic gone awry in a small Texas town continues with the next solstice story. Look for a new story from Jill on the fall equinox, and continue with part two of this installment at the bottom!

CHAPTER FOUR

Regi Nardelle wasn’t in possession of any curses but, in that moment, he was thinking an awful lot about stopping by Glamr after the council meeting for a small, inconvenient one to mail his mother Jillian.

She had insisted he get involved with the community. She had nagged him to find a way to volunteer, connect with his fellow Saltbush residents, a way to really put down some roots and become a part of something.

And so Regi held her responsible for the fact that he was sitting here on a perfectly nice Wednesday evening in an overheating conference room, palms sweating, heart pounding, waiting for a town council meeting to begin.

He drummed his fingers on the table, marveling at how fast his nails had grown again. He’d clipped them the night before, but as always this close to a full moon, they were growing faster than a dog’s claws—because they were a wolf’s claws. At least the full moon and the solstice wouldn’t coincide in June; he’d get to remain human during the traumatic, dramatic events inevitable when magic was strongest. This time, anyway.

“Can you hear us now? Hello? Nope. Nope, we’re still muted.”

This, and a dramatic sigh, came from the kid called Mac, the youngest Texan ever to grace the Saltbush City Council. They were trying to get the Zoom call working on the ancient Dell laptop the council treasurer Tryx Young usually used to process the two or three expense reports they generated in a given year. Wiping beads of sweat off the back of their neck, Mac hunched down in front of the laptop, which was turned outward towards the gathered crowd. There was a lot of interest in tonight’s gathering, given how many vocal complaints the mayor Raul had pushed out answering until this meeting. At least three key issues were on the table, and it was already 7 PM.

Regi nibbled on his thumbnail and followed the laptop’s proverbial gaze towards the citizens of Saltbush who’d deemed their Wednesday nights equally waste-able. He spotted several of his faithful library patrons; the friendly woman named Juni Leyland who ran Past Times Antique Shoppe; a smattering of the brickyard workers who’d occasionally loiter outside of his favorite pizza joint. Then Regi’s eyes locked with those of Astira Kong, the gorgeous woman with whom he’d carpooled that evening—because they had both taken up residence, together, in Regi’s shack outside of town. In fact, Astira was Regi’s longest-running relationship, even counting that on-again-off-again fling with Sarah in college. He and Astira had been together two months and two weeks, an eternity in Nardelle time.

Tira, as she always insisted he call her, smiled brightly and raising her hand in a small wave when she registered that he was looking. Regi forced his lips to smile back, but even he could feel that the expression didn’t rise all the way to his eyes. The weight of his mission tonight sat heavily on his stomach, dragging down his mood.

Tonight, he had to try to ask this damn council, half-supernatural Below folk and half-human, to help him shore up the gate between the human and the fae realms. He had to ask without telling them what was really going on under their noses. And he had to get them to agree to allot a significant portion of the town’s capital project funds towards this ambiguous effort.

Regi’s stomach churned at the idea.

His sensitive nose picked up Tira’s tropical scent, as near and fresh as this morning, when she’d leaned over his shoulder and kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, “You’ve got this, my love.”

“I’ve got this,” Regi murmured under his breath, staring down at his hands. Christ, he was sweating like a damn pig. It was only late May and the summer heat already stifled rational thought.

The laptop spat noise, voices and static and background sounds. Mac jumped back, running their fingers through their bright blue hair. “Ah. Okay. There we go. You can hear us now, right, Hector?”

“Yup, sure can.”

“Okay, cool. Guess you can get us started, Mister Mayor.” Mac clapped their hands together and scrambled around the table, flopping into their seat across from Regi. They flashed Regi a relieved wink. Regi blinked back with dignity.

“Gracias, Mac.” Raul Aguayo, mayor of Saltbush, rose out of his plastic seat and pressed his palms together. “I call the town council meeting of Saltbush to order at 7:31 PM on Wednesday, June eleventh, twenty twenty-one. We’re here to discuss the sixteen agenda items as presented by our secretary. Quorum is met. Let’s begin. Sorry for the heat, everyone.” He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead, feigning fanning himself with his other hand. An appreciative chuckle rippled through the gathered townsfolk.

But then the chuckles and smiles disappeared as one by one, the complaints that Mayor Aguayo had pushed off until that evening were read off, one by one, as articles brought forth by a concerned citizen. Regi took his glasses off and wiped them furiously on a corner of his wifebeater, hoping he wouldn’t have to see all of the nods and angry agreement on the citizens’ faces, hoping that would somehow mean they wouldn’t slow down the meeting and push his agenda item all the way to the midnight deadline.

“The red light in the middle of town keeps glitchin’ out.”

“There’s a nasty mosquito-breedin’ pond at the end of Arroyo Road and this is the third time I’ve asked y’all to come get rid of it.”

“Mister Herrera’s donkeys ate my damn plums again.” Willow Trayler, the secretary and therefore the one tasked with reading off each and every complaint, blushed deeply and touched her mouth with the ends of her fingers. “Oh dear. My language. My apologies.”

Mayor Aguayo ran his hands over his face, briefly clearing the sheen of sweat on his forehead. “How many more of these are there, Missus Trayler?”

Willow did a quick count of the ones in her hands, then peered at something under the table. “Ah… About fifty more, Mister Mayor.”

“I see,” Aguayo said in a flat voice.

Regi’s throat was bothering him so he coughed, too loudly in a sudden silence. Everyone looked sharply at him. He glanced at Merle Pace on his left, then Gabe Nabers on his right, then realized they were expecting him to say something. “Ah, sorry. Just had… something in my throat.”

Unsatisfied murmurs, but they went back to turning their expectant looks on Willow. She blushed again and kept reading.

With each item, the tension in the room grew more palpable. Even without his werewolf-honed senses, Regi would have been able to feel exactly how much some of the people in the room wanted to be at one another’s throats. Things were always worse in a heat wave like this, but he knew it was more than just high temperatures; it was the extra weight of those shadowborne creatures squeezed through the portal disguised as Olde Saltbush Station because of—well, Regi wasn’t quite sure what had caused the portal in Loudon, Scotland, to snap shut. He often pressed Cara Boss for more details on what she knew, but the town’s infamous fairy godmother—and, as it turned out, one of the ancient and powerful guardians of the largest portals between the fae and human realms—kept her silence on the matter. Maybe she didn’t know anything, or maybe she wasn’t talking.

Either way, it was as if the stifling summer air was static-charged. Human eyes darted to Below faces, clearly seeking signs of unusual heritage or form. Supernatural senses stretched towards human minds, clearly seeking the telltale marks of treachery and ill will.

Even on a good night, council meetings could be tense, but Regi’s sense of smell picked up a subtle difference tonight: the humans reeked of confidence. It was as if they had, to a person, gained some shared confidence, and were unafraid of what might happen to them tonight, tension aside.

That was terrifying.

Willow was now reading some unusual complaints in an even shakier voice. “Been seein’ a lot more eyes in the pasture this last few weeks. They’re glowin’ and my dogs won’t stop barkin’.”

Mayor Aguayo raised a hand. “Now, hold on there, Missus Trayler. You said eyes?”

Willow startled, blinked down at the paper she was holding, then looked up timidly. “Aye, that’s what it says here, ‘Been seein’ a lot more eyes in the pasture.’”

“Were there more details on this complaint, Missus Trayler?” Aguayo steepled his fingers in front of him.

Color flashed in the corner of Regi’s eye and he glanced over to see Mac barely concealing their phone, filming the meeting. Regi’s lip curled and he fought the urge. No growling at the kids, Nardelle.

“Not included with the complaint card, Mister Mayor,” Willow said in a near-whisper.

“Hmm!” Aguayo made the sound not like he was actually thinking, but more as if he expected someone else to jump in and provide more details. When no one volunteered, he leaned up and made a show of looking out into the crowd. “Is the person who filed this complaint in the crowd tonight? Ah? Would you like to share some more details of your story?”

Regi’s chair was suddenly very hard and uncomfortable. He shifted and looked around as discretely as he could.

Again, no one volunteered.

Aguayo stroked his chin. “I’d sure like to get to the bottom of some of these mysteries. Here’s hopin’ someone will come forward and we can launch a real investigation. But let the record show—we can only do so much if all you tell us is that things ain’t pleasant.” Steepling his fingers again, the mayor nodded to Willow. “With that in mind, Missus Trayler, do you think any of the remainin’ items are worth spendin’ time on?”

Willow squeaked, rushed through the pile of cards under the table in front of her in a flurry, then raised her head with a chastised expression. “Ah, no, I don’t believe so, Mister Mayor.”

“In that case.” Aguayo clapped his hands together. “Let’s talk about what everyone who came tonight is really interested in hearin’ about: the aid package.”

That resulted in a flurry of muttered responses, some pleasant, some much less than. Regi met Tira’s eyes, and she grimaced.

“I move that we discuss the federal aid package and how it should be distributed across Saltbush,” Aguayo said, and someone called, “Seconded.” As a hubbub of criss-crossing conversation arose, Aguayo added loudly, “One at a time, por favor!”

Maria Garza, the high school teacher, had her hand up already. “There is so much the school needs. Supplies, books, computers, we could spend all of it and only get half of what we need.”

“The roads are falling apart. We tried to control the fire at old man Singleterry’s house last month, but the truck hit a pothole so bad we got a flat.” Fire chief Darla Stone, a burly woman with unusual sleeve tattoos, ran both hands over her close-shaven hair and blew out her breath. “Thankfully we got there in time to get Singleterry outta there, but… it was a close call.”

“The roads? Are you shittin’ me?” Daniel Fisk, the only rancher on the council, was the first one to really raise his voice, and he accompanied it by slamming his fist on the table. “The roads on the east side of town are just fine. That would only benefit half of us.” He narrowed his eyes at Darla, then Tryx next to her. “Y’know, what do you have against kids, eh? Not like any of you west-siders have ‘em.”

There. It was out in the open.

The tension was not only palpable, it thickened the sweat dripping down everyone’s faces. Regi swallowed hard. The division between the humans and the Below was strong and unspoken: on the east side of Main Street, the humans found themselves making their homes, and on the west side, the Below took up residence. Real estate agents in town worked one side or the other, never both, except the old woman who did commercial properties. But “east-siders” and “west-siders” were terms kept in circles of trust, under breath, and into drinks.

Until now.

Darla sat up and forward, resting her hands on the table. “What did you just call me, Fisk?”

Fisk eyed her through one squinted eye, folded his arms, and looked away.

“That’s what I thought,” Darla said. She rapped both of her fists lightly against the table. “Anyone else got a cute nickname for me?”

Mac scooted their chair, and Regi could see their phone was still recording.

Darla tipped her chin at the mayor. “You can keep this meetin’ goin’, if you’d like.”

“I’d sure like that,” Aguayo said, his voice tinged with an unnatural chill. “So far I’ve heard we should spend this aid money on the school and on repairin’ the roads. Anyone else have a proposal?”

Gabe Nabers grunted and leaned forward. He reeked so strongly of confidence that Regi leaned away, wrinkling his nose. “Yeah, I got one. Maybe we use the money to clean this town up. If the roads are so bad, maybe all them west-siders could use ‘em one last time.”

Silence, except for the death rattle of the air conditioner.

Nabers slowly turned his neck like he was trying to crack it while giving Regi the stink-eye. Regi’s skin crawled.

Then Nabers’s unnerving stare must have slipped past Regi and landed on Merle, because Merle shrieked, “Why, you fuckin’—”

She leaped up, her chair clattering backwards. Regi knew Merle was disguised well as a small, compact woman; in reality, she was a formidable ogre named Bludstone, well-suited to her job as a diesel mechanic. Her fists upraised, she came roaring at Nabers.

Regi had a split second to react. He came up on his feet, raised his own arms in self-defense, and arched his neck to catch Merle’s eye. “Merle, no!”

She stopped a split second before barreling through him, the sparks of her anger visible across her face. Regi thought the anger was directed at her, but then he heard a sound that made his blood run cold: the scraping of a silver dagger across a leather sheath.

He knew it was silver. His blood knew it was silver. The werewolf inside him thrashed, wanting to be free to flee or address this threat head-on, but Regi kept a civilized death grip on his inner animal. He forced himself to turn around slowly and face Nabers. His eyes immediately dropped to the weapon in Nabers’s hand.

“You brought a knife to a council meeting, Nabers?” Regi asked in his best soft library voice.

There was a shuffling among the human councilmembers. Regi saw more silver, crucifixes, even a bottle of holy water. There weren’t any vampires in Saltbush that Regi knew of, but that water would wreak havoc on poor Darla. Sirens weren’t made to face God’s liquid wrath.

A question nagged at Regi: how do they know? It wasn’t like silver and holy water were common items one might carry, unless one also carried a suspicion of supernatural activity.

The citizens who’d gathered to attend the meeting shuffled uncomfortably. Clearly, they weren’t in on whatever information the council had been given.

Regi desperately tried to catch Tira’s gaze and, when he did, frantically signaled with his head for her to leave. She was half-fae herself, and though he knew from experience that she could stand up for herself in a fair fight, Regi wasn’t convinced this fight was going to be remotely fair. Only counting what he could see, there were five or six deadly objects in the room. His eyes swept over his other Below counterparts: siren Darla, ogre Merle, fully-fae Tryx, and mysterious Aza. One item for each of them. Gods, that was a thought.

“I think we ought to be able to settle our differences like civilized creatures,” Mayor Aguayo said into the eerie quiet. “Let’s put our blades and our claws away, shall we, friends?”

***

“What in all of the hells known and unknown happened in there?”

Regi closed his eyes and sighed as he ducked into the basement of Merle’s auto repair shop. There was no mistaking Hwan’s nasally voice and fiery indignation. The fox perched on two stacked crates in the center of the room, slowly rotating to point all nine tails in accusation at the non-human council members.

Nobody bothered with their earthly disguises here. Merle took up almost three times as much space in her ogre form, her thick limbs and fists tense. Aza Ali, who couldn’t attend council meetings in the summer because the sun was still up at 7 PM, raised her fruit bat wings halfway over her shoulders, searching the others’ faces. Darla fiddled with the fire chief badge on her heavy jacket, her own eagle wings brushing the floor, and Tryx twirled her cowboy hat in the air above her finger. They all looked up when Regi entered.

Hwan whirled around. “Nardelle, what in all of the hells—”

“I heard you the first time.” Regi stepped aside from the door and nodded at Aza. She waved one hand half-heartedly and the doorway thrummed. They were sealed away from prying eyes and ears. “Hwan, what did you see?”

The fox flattened his ears. “Not much. I was out sniffing everyone’s rides, just—smelling what they’d been up to. I heard the commotion and came to the window. It looked like that Mac kid had their phone out, and every human in the room was packing something antimystic.”

“I don’t like Mac,” Darla said flatly. “It’s a little convenient, don’t you think? They don’t care about Saltbush, they care about their YouTube numbers. Have you heard the way they talk about the Below in their videos?” She licked her teeth. “I’d like to sing them down a dark alley.”

“We don’t tear up the humans, Dar,” Tryx said quickly, resting her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “Though,” she added, looking up to catch Regi’s eye, “kids with wild imaginations aren’t exactly gonna help our cause, now, are they?”

He tipped his head. “Our cause?”

Hwan sighed heavily. “Cara got word from Scotland. The guardian there is still alive. Turns out, it’s humanity that’s causing the portals to close.”

Now Regi sought a seat around the old oak table. “Explain.”

“They love to say they’re living in a more interconnected world than ever…” Hwan smacked all nine tails hard against the crate. “But humans are drifting apart. They let more and more separate them from each other and their ability to believe. Human belief in the supernatural—ahh, have you ever seen Hook, Regi?”

Regi shook his head.

“It’s a clumsy human movie, and they get portals and magic pretty wrong,” Hwan said with a dismissive flick of his paw, “but one thing they got right is that it’s belief that keeps the Below alive in their world. Not because humans have to believe in us for us to exist, but their belief takes up a lot of room, see. If it’s there, all sorts of other energy can’t build up between the realms… which would prevent anyone from crossing Between.”

They all let that hang in the silence for a while. Regi thought it sounded far-fetched, but he kept that opinion to himself.

“What can the council do?” Aza finally asked in a small voice.

Regi grunted. “I was hopin’ to get to ask for some materials to shore up our gate before the twentieth, but—we never got to that part of the meetin’.”

 “Shit,” Merle snarled, “and I can feel the magic gettin’ stronger as we get close to the solstice. Got that sniffle again.” She wiped her nose to demonstrate, then tapped the side of her head, a string of ogre snot extending from her finger. “And that headache. Like there’s crickets in my skull.”

Regi nodded. He knew what she meant: as the days grew longer, so did the incessant buzzing of background magic. Even he, only half a year sensitive to the stuff, noticed.

“So? What can the council do?” Aza asked again, angrier now. “Why did you call us together?” This last was directed at Darla.

Darla sighed. “I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, if the humans were gonna throw up a united front. And, well—honestly, I’m a bit worried we may have a spy in our midst. An unwitting one,” she said quickly, because the tension level in the room rose palpably. “Someone who accidentally told our human counterparts how best to harm us.”

Merle gnashed her teeth together. “You think it was one of us, Stone?”

Shaking her head, Darla clasped her hands together. “No, no, that’s so unlikely. A lot of us are friends or at least friendly with humans; it could have been that werebear who works as a hairdresser, or one of Maria’s aides at the school, or—”

The others, even Hwan, began to add their theories, and Regi let his mind wander, the way he did when he wished to access his mental archives. A few patrons had checked out books on supernatural topics in the last several weeks—Ping, doing a book report on UFOs; Mrs. Harris, looking for a new urban fantasy thrill; and… of course. Mac. Mac Calderon, YouTube influencer wannabe, supernatural afficionado. Or so they liked to think.

Mac had checked out three books: S. Baring-Gould’s “Werewolves: The Definitive Guide,” Elsie Arbour’s “A Natural History of Faeries,” and, an impressive find in the Travis County Library System, “The history of the supernatural” by William Howitt, published in 1863.

At the time, Regi had assumed Mac must be putting together some history-delving episode of their YouTube show, “Ghost About Town.” Now he wasn’t so sure. Those books would have had plenty to say on the subject of keeping supernatural threats at bay, and some of the methods the human councilmembers had gone for were a bit outdated. Even Regi, stubbornly avoiding as much werewolf information as he could since his transformation, knew that.

He tuned back in as Aza said, very sadly, “It feels as though the humans want to demystify the world. To destabilize what little foundation we all share.”

“We are in their world, Az,” Darla said, leaning over to rest her hand on Aza’s wrist. “Maybe they want it back now.”

***

The highway hissed under the Camry’s tires, the land on either side transformed by spring and then summer. The long grasses swayed in contradictory winds, and Regi imagined he was running his hand along the moon-touched tips as he sailed past. He had his windows down, letting the night air claw out the smells of stale fast food and nervous sweat.

Tonight it was just him and the road for a while. Regi preferred it that way.

Impulsively, he switched off his music. Mick Jagger stopped singing, plunging the world into a silence marred only by the sound of the road rushing past. Regi gripped the wheel at ten-and-two and took a deep breath, directing his consciousness towards the sensation of air flowing into his lungs, the way his meditation coach had taught him.

Before this year, driving back to his shack had given him a deep sense of a peace, a stillness of his soul that he’d rarely known before moving to Texas. He’d go to his job at the library and spend half of it staring out the window, longing for the four small walls of home. Though his skepticism had been tempered by his transformation, Regi wasn’t one for the kind of sentimental attachment that leads one to believe in ghosts; he didn’t think his father’s presence was tied up in the cabin or anything like that.

But he did feel a distinct sense of comfort and home when he was there.

In the last few months, however, since meeting Astira, he’d begun to dread going home. It just wasn’t the same when he knew he might walk through the door to another person’s sour mood fouling up his evening. And so he found himself doing his breathing exercises on the way home, something he’d hoped to leave behind in Chicago.

A low, longing wail cut the night in half.

Regi’s ears pricked up, even in their human form. He hit the brake, but not too fast, bringing the Camry to a slow stop. He waited, holding his breath, scanning the dark horizon. It was so close to the solstice that even past 10 PM, the sky still held a measure of blue, but by now everything was a silhouette at best. He could see the telltale red lights glittering on the sides of the wind turbines quietly powering Austin’s tech boom. They blinked like eyes as the blades covered them briefly.

The wail did not come again.

Ten minutes later, Regi sighed and gave up, guiding the car back onto the highway. There was no reason to go looking for trouble.

His sense of dread grew as he turned down his long gravel driveway and pulled up outside the shack. He turned off the engine and sat in the car for a long moment, carefully counting the seconds between his breaths. Soon he would go in and face her. Soon.

Soon came too quickly. The door flew open and light spilled onto the porch, along with Tira and the many tails of Hwan. She rushed to the door of the Camry and tapped a nail on the window.

“Oh, Regi, I am so glad you are home. Hwan told me what happened tonight.”

Regi grunted and motioned her to back away from the door. Before he could climb out all the way, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him so tightly he could hardly breathe. Regi shot Hwan a glare over Tira’s shoulder and the fox flicked a tail dismissively.

“Yeah, well,” Regi said as he extricated himself from Tira’s grasp, “it was definitely a hell of a night, but—all’s quiet on the Saltbush front now.” He thought about the wail, but kept it to himself.

“I hate to hear that such things are happening in Saltbush.” Tira hugged herself, looking out towards the wind turbines. “But we must all be ready to give our all in times like these.”

Regi pushed the Camry door closed a little too hard. “That sounds a bit like sayin’ we need to be ready to die,” he said, his long stride carrying him quickly towards the shack. He could already imagine how good the bed would feel, how nice it would be to just brush his teeth and pull up The Office on Peacock and—

“I am saying, Regi, that you cannot refuse to take on the responsibility before you.”

“Here we go again.” Regi waved a hand as if swatting her words out of the air. “This is about my werewolf forms, isn’t it?”

“Regi, please.” Tira crossed her arm and sighed, but it was a soft, sad sound, not a nagging one. “I don’t want Taiyang to suffer his curse because of any one person choosing not to fight as best as they could.”

“I’m choosin’ to fight. I’m doin’ the best I can.” Regi stood in the doorway, one foot over the threshold, and turned to throw his arms out in a gesture of helplessness. “I’m sorry that doesn’t look like what you wanted it to look like.”

And with those words, as if he had been shoved into a time machine and transported, Regi remembered.

His six-year-old hands, pressing a drawing he’d made at school into his mother’s hands. “Happy birthday, Momma!”

His father, handing her a box with a bow. “I hope you like it, sweetheart.”

His mother, lifting the contents of the box into the air, her expression flickering wildly. “Oh, it’s—it’s just like you said!”

His six-year-old brain, whirling with language that was still new, forcing his lips to blurt out, “But Momma, you hate pearls!”

His father, frowning, fists balling at his sides. “I’m sorry it isn’t what you wanted.”

His mother, frantically shaking her head. “No, no, Darryl, this is perfect.”

Regi remembered all of that in a haze of wistful nostalgia. His whole body remembered being six, remembered that as the happiest time in his parents’ marriage. Most days passed without yelling. Most days saw at least a little laughter.

Jillian had hidden the truth from Darryl that day, to preserve the temporary truce of their relationship. That was what Regi would do, too.

 He drew a shuddering breath, held it for a four-count, then let it out with infinite slowness.

“I’ll work on it, Tira,” he said, mustering as much enthusiasm as he could. “I’ll practice. Promise.”

Halfway between them, Hwan tipped his ears forward. He looked like he was about to say something, but the fox must have caught the scent of what Regi was trying to do and lapsed back into an uncharacteristic silence.

“Thank you,” Tira said, clasping her hands together at her chest. “From Taiyang, and from me.”

***

CHAPTER FIVE

Regi and Tira both tossed and turned all night, bubbled in their own awkward silences. After a few fitful hours of dawn-side sleep, Regi awakened with the sun on his eyelids and found Tira with her back to him. The sheet slipped off her shoulder, revealing her sun tattoo. Regi resisted the urge to kiss it. He’d let her sleep.

He shuffled to the kitchen and stared out the tiny window through the steam coming off his coffee. The enormity of the events to come and the helplessness of the moment rendered Regi’s mind blank, immobilizing him. After about ten minutes, he registered that he was still standing there, and forced himself to sit at the table and look at his phone.

His bleary gaze landed on an item in the Recommended For You section and he was suddenly very alert.

The title of the video read, “REAL SIGHTING 👻 – SUPERNATURAL IN SALTBUSH?!” It had more than six million views and was less than eight hours old.

He tapped on it and held his breath.

Mac’s bright blue hair appeared on screen. They were clearly holding their phone camera out in front of them, and their expression was more awed and authentic than usual.

“Holy shit, everybody, welcome back to Ghost About Town, where I am pretty sure I just saw a ghost?!” Their grin split their face in two, slightly blurred by the shaking of their hand. “I’ll show you too. Stay with me.”

Mac’s voice changed to a professional-sounding studio recording. “Today’s video is sponsored by Penny Shaved Penny Earned Razors. Are you tired of your store-bought blades—”

Regi scrubbed through the video until he was sure he’d seen the same grainy footage of a half-finished bathroom four times over. He let it play from the four-minute mark.

“Look at this. Right… there! In the corner.” Mac’s voice trembled. A red arrow overlaid, drawing Regi’s eyes to a wispy, pale smudge at the edge of the camera’s vision. Regi squinted—and then he saw it.

The smudge was the light off the bulbous, slimy black body of a shadowborne. It was exactly like the ones he and Cara Boss and Tira had fought together at the portal.

He swiped YouTube away and sat very still, other than the sharp rise and fall of his chest. His coffee sat cooling on the table.

Well. There was nothing else for it now. There were too many clues, too many fingers pointing Mac’s way. They were caught up in the middle of all of this, regardless of their intentions.

Regi grabbed the Camry keys. He hesitated at the door, looking back at the abandoned mug. He wondered if he should leave Tira a note.

But after a moment, he realized he couldn’t think of anything to say. He closed the door quietly behind him.

***

Regi had never been much for cars, but he appreciated the hell out of his Camry as it made its quiet, unassuming way across Saltbush to Mac’s infamous Ghost House. There wasn’t much in the way of life right outside of the House, but even so, Regi felt inconspicuous in the dark blue car. He parked a short walk away, just to be safe, and picked his way to the side door on feet made quiet by months of treading lightly in wolf form.

The Ghost House had once been one of Saltbush’s three general stores. According to what Regi had watched on Ghost About Town, Mac had purchased the abandoned building a couple of years ago with a modest inheritance from their grandmother, an impressive feat for a 19-year-old. They’d started with an interest in history and restoration and ended up enjoying the life of a YouTuber.

The modest ad revenue from Mac’s few thousand followers had allowed them to spruce up the general store nearly back to its original 1880s appearance: they’d restored the hitching rail, arranged a couple of old barrels near the door, and replaced the broken windows on the second floor. Regi tipped his head back and admired the craftsmanship of the sign proclaiming WALLACE & SHORT GENERAL STORE. Someone had taken a lot of care to repaint the block letters on the broad wall.

The side door, however, was out of view of the road, and so Mac had clearly deprioritized its restoration. The screen was rotting and sagging, the handle so rusty Regi was afraid to rip it right off the door. He raised his hand to rap on the window with his knuckles, then thought better of it and gave the door an experimental push with his shoulder.

It opened with an eager squeeeaaaaaak.

Regi pursed his lips together and grabbed the door to stop it moving and screeching. Inside, the Ghost House was cool and only a little musty. Regi raised his nose and caught the lavender scent of Lush’s Angels on Bare Skin from somewhere at the front of the building. The smell made him blush, remembering someone else who had used the product; to disguise the sudden sweep of heat through his body, he slunk towards the source of the smell.

He passed through the main area, which was staged with period-appropriate cans and sacks on the shelves and a big sugar barrel near the metal cash register. A modest collection of metal tea kettles and castor sets perched on the wooden counter, and the cigar display case was open with a couple of empty cases inside. Contrasting with the 1880s authenticity, there were cables and sound equipment and even a couple of GoPros lying around.

Light poured from a room at the end of the hall, flickering like someone was watching a movie. Regi moved towards it. Then, laughter—two voices. One was Mac’s, but Regi didn’t recognize the other. A whapping sound, like someone’s shoulder had been heartily clapped.

“It just! Keeps! Going! Look at this! Four hundred thousand followers now!”

“Stop refreshing, dude. Your F5 key will wear out.”

“I! Can’t! Stop! Trace, this is what I’ve wanted since I started GAT! Holy shit this ad revenue!”

Regi straightened up, took a deep breath, and filled the hallway with his most courteous tone. “Excuse me…”

Two stifled screams from the room. Regi winced.

“Who the—Trace, hand me that—”

Whatever Mac was asking for, Regi didn’t give their companion a chance to comply. He pushed through the door, arms folded. “Excuse me. This is the Ghost House, right?”

Mac and a tall, pale person stood backed against a large desk with multiple monitors on it, all showing the viral video. The scent of Angels on Bare Skin filled the room. Mac pointed at Regi as if their finger was a weapon. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you knock?”

“I did,” Regi lied easily. “You must not have heard me.”

The pale person—presumably Trace—frowned. Regi recognized Trace as a busker on Main Street, often found playing a four-string guitar for tourists and visitors.

“What are you doing here?” Mac repeated. “Wait, you’re on the council. Waaait. Why are you here? Is this official council business or something?” They waved their hands in front of them as if clearing the air.

Regi had practiced his lines in the car on the way over. “You believe in the supernatural. You might be the only one around here I can convince who can do anything about it.”

Mac’s hand had been edging towards a spray can on the edge of the desk, but at that, they stopped and turned their full attention on Regi. “About… what?”

Regi gestured to the screens. “What you caught on video, I know what it is. It’s called a shadowborne. A whole bunch of ‘em came out of a portal at Olde Saltbush Station a few months ago. I fought ‘em myself.” He squared up, folding his arms again. “I was going to tell the council about it and ask them to help me shore up the portal before it happens again, but—you pulled off that little stunt where you armed everyone and we all got pretty distracted.”

Mac winced. “Yeah… sorry about that.” Then their face drained of blood. “Wait. Waaaaait. Hold the front door. You believe in the supernatural?”

Trace leaned forward to catch Regi’s answer. Regi took in their pale skin, their taciturn tendencies, the bulging veins along their arms. Trace was… a zombie.

“You don’t?” Regi said mildly, trying to mask his surprise. Mac was in deeper than he’d thought.

“Of course I do.” Now it was Mac’s turn to fold their arms across their chest. “This isn’t official, is it?”

“I told you. I was tryin’ to ask the council to help me buy some materials and shore up that portal.” Regi pointed towards a large pile of 2×4 boards in the hallway. “Who knows if they’d gone for my proposal to shunt some of the capital project funds anyway. You’ve got hardware store sponsors. I was hopin’ you could help me.”

Mac followed Regi’s pointing finger and took a deep breath. “So… what’s in it for me?”

Regi had anticipated this question. He hated when people asked things like this; in his mind, if the person was truly unable to see any advantage when they thought critically about the situation, they should refuse, not ask the proposing party.

But he was ready.

“Depends on what motivates you.” Regi flashed his canines in a way he knew from wolf-form experience was extremely effective. “For one thing, if you’re lookin’ for more access to the supernatural community, you’ll need to know someone in it who isn’t an outcast.” This he said with a pointed look at Trace. “For another, your buddy here has a secret, and it won’t take more than a nudge in the right direction for the comments section to spot it. And if that ain’t enough, well…” He widened his menacing smile. “I just happen to be a werewolf.”

Regi hoped the light glinted off his fangs in a menacing fashion. He knew it was more likely he looked a fool.

But Mac wasn’t paying attention anyway. They whipped their head to stare up at the taller Trace, an expression of shock and betrayal twisting their eyes. “Trace? What—what’s he talking about?”

Trace growled, a guttural sound aimed at Regi. “What are you doing.” Not a question, a threat.

A chill scuttled down Regi’s back as he realized he had no concept of the zombie’s fighting abilities. He’d assumed a street musician would be easy enough for a werewolf to take on, but it dawned on him that he had no clue what kind of latent powers a zombie might have. That was an undead human, after all. The laws of nature already didn’t apply to them.

“In the video,” Regi said, tipping his chin towards the screens, hoping to break Trace’s attention on him. “Mac says, ‘after all, we are of alternate persuasions.’ And you say, ‘more than you know, Mac.’”

Flat stares from his audience. Regi gulped.

“So?” Mac jutted out their chin at Regi, hands on hips. “Who cares that we’re enby and agender? That’s not a secret. Not like we’re the first people on the internet to decide we didn’t like binary identities.”

Alternate persuasions. You said that right before you show pretty concrete evidence of a supernatural presence. You really think nobody goes back through that video lookin’ for more clues?” Regi tilted his head to one side and threw as much shade with his eyebrows as he could manage.

Mac stared back defiantly, but Trace shrank into themselves, hissing. “Ahh. Shit. He’s right.”

“He’s right? About what, Trace?” Mac’s eyes got huge and young. “What aren’t you telling me?”

Regi cursed himself silently. Perfect. Now this was becoming the zoomer therapy hour. He was no closer to his building supplies or his peaceful existence than when he’d walked through that rusty-ass door. He tapped his fingertips together before realizing he looked like an anime villain and dropped his hands to his sides.

“I—” Trace looked helplessly at Regi, who shifted his gaze away. “I am a zombie, Mac.”

“A… zombie.”

Regi snuck a look at Mac. The kid was so forlorn that every blue hair drooped, showing their dark roots.

“Yeah,” Trace said, “the living dead. I am no longer flesh and blood the way you are. I am—”

A slapping sound cut over Trace’s words as Mac clapped their own cheeks in both hands, the blood draining from their face. “Oh… shit. I—I outed you. I outed you with this stupid video. Trace… Trace, I am so sorry.”

Mac sat down hard in their office chair. It spun around once with infinite slowness as they let their head slump against their shoulder and stared with unseeing eyes into the distance.

“I’m the worst,” they said under their breath, repeating it as precisely as a DJ. “I’m the worst.”

“You are not the worst.” Trace brought the chair to a stop and then spun it with a twist of their wrist so that Mac faced them. “Snap out of it. There is a strange wolf-man here and you need to be more present.”

“I—I gotta make up for it.” Mac held their own face again, releasing a low, long moan like a balloon losing air.

Regi scrunched his nose. Characteristically, in the face of an irritating youth, his head had started aching. “You could help me shore up that portal. You might save this town if you do.” He was tired and he hoped he didn’t have to say more.

“I… I…” Mac turned their squished face on Regi, comically twitching their lips like a beached fish. At Regi’s blank expression, Mac slowly dropped their hands, their expression sobering. “Okay. Uh. I’m not sure how many supplies I can really talk my way into. What kinds of things do you need? How much?”

Stunned, Regi blinked hard a few times before answering, though he’d done the calculations already. “Five hundred two-by-fours.”

Trace whistled. “Gods. You are asking for a town’s worth of lumber.”

“Not my first choice, believe me,” Regi said, thinking about all of the flack his environmentally-rabid college self would be giving him.

Mac tapped their chin with their thumb, nodding ever so slightly as if agreeing with a voice in their ear. “I’ve got an idea. But… can you wait a couple days?”

***

Regi had been through one solstice in Saltbush before. Solstices were sacred, happy holidays for the fae and their Below counterparts, and good excuses for the humans to party. In the winter, the vibe had been very different—cozier, more intimate. If you went home with someone after a winter solstice party, it was to cuddle and make out by a fire.

A summer solstice party was a very different matter entirely.

Still, he could feel tension in this crowd that filled the event area of Glouree Park. Bodies of humans and the Below alike swayed frantically to music pumped through four sets of ancient, over-powered, under-balanced speakers.

His pocket vibrated and he flipped his phone up to his face to read the sequence of frantic messages he’d just received.

Tira’s hand rested lightly over Regi’s, and he realized he was gripping his now-warm can of beer until his knuckles paled. He looked up and met Tira’s brown eyes.

“You are going to squeeze your beer right out, Regi,” she said softly, so only he could hear. “Are you well?” She pressed her cheek against the sleeve of his dark blue polo shirt, tipping her head to look up into his eyes.

Regi shook his head. “Mac’s still havin’ trouble gettin’ the funds transferred from YouTube,” he said in a low voice.

Tira pursed her lips to hide a smirk. “Mac, eh? Are you on texting terms with them now?”

He waved her off. “There’s some sort of authorization layer stopping them, since they’ve never tried to withdraw this much at once before. I dunno. It feels… nefarious.” He flexed his fingers around the beer, trying to get them to loosen. But since his most recent transformation, a few days before, his hands had refused to leave the crooked shape of his wolfman third form.

Tira traced his fingertips with hers, implying more with the tilt of her body. “Maybe—”

But whatever she might have suggested was lost as screaming broke out and the crowd scattered in a mad, panicked dash for cover. Regi pushed Astira behind him and dropped into a crouch, rolling up on the balls of his feet.

Whatever had entered the crowd moved as if through water and was always blurred as if it was in the corner of his vision, even when he faced it.

But there was blood. Blood everywhere. He smelled it, and the wolf in his veins responded to it. He had to fight to keep his head from tipping back, wrestled back a howl that threatened to fill his throat.

“Someone’s dead,” he said to Astira.

She limped forward into the crowd anyway, leaning heavily on her crutch.

“Someone is hurt!” she called over her shoulder.

Regi sprinted to her side and knelt down beside a twitching teenage boy. There was blood smeared across his face, and a dark, ugly bruise spread from vicious punctures on his chest.

“Jesus,” Regi breathed. They might have been wounds from a serrated blade, or worse—the work of massive, jagged teeth.

“Hands here,” Astira said, guiding him to apply pressure to the wounds. Regi winced at the sensation of the hot blood oozing against his fingertips, but he forced himself to focus on Astira’s quick fingers moving to cast a light clotting spell.

Though it seemed the boy’s wounds had stopped bleeding profusely, Astira frowned and leaned closer. “This is not good. We need to get him to Miss Boss.”

Adrenaline lanced through Regi’s guts. “Shit. That bad?”

“Worse,” Astira said, meeting his gaze with the full force of her fear. “Much worse.”

***

Perhaps it was the groaning boy they lugged between them to the door even with Astira’s own injured leg, or perhaps it was the sour look on the fairy godmother’s face when she answered their frantic knocking, but Cara Boss’s den of a living room seemed smaller, darker, full of shadows than it had the last time Regi and Astira had visited.

“His wounds turn and sour,” Astira said when Cara opened the door. “A deep venom.”

“Get him to my table,” Cara said, waving them towards her kitchen.

Regi heaved the boy up onto Cara’s worn dining table by the shoulders, while Astira settled his feet onto the back of a chair. Cara swept in, her fluffy pink bathrobe filling the kitchen.

“Outta my way,” she said, putting a hand in the middle of Regi’s chest and pushing him bodily from the boy. “I can smell the dark magic on his wounds.”

Regi and Tira locked eyes.

“Who is he? Where was he attacked? What else did you see?” Cara popped off the questions rapid-fire as she did a quick but thorough examination of the boy’s injuries. When neither Regi or Tira had an immediate answer ready, Cara glared at them and growled, “Every second you bite your tongue, it’s another second this boy loses.”

They told her, trading off when they ran out of words, about the solstice party. While they talked, she worked, her fingers weaving strands of light over the boy’s oozing skin. Regi explained the strange way whatever had attacked them would disappear when their eyes tried to find it.

The blood drained from Cara Boss’s face. “Shit. Whatever it was, it was usin’ illusions. Means it knew exactly what it was there to do.”

Regi made to rub the back of his neck, then stopped when he felt the sticky presence of blood on his fingertips. “Crash a party?”

“Summon fear to Saltbush,” Cara said as if she hadn’t heard him. “And begin the rites.” She leaned down close over the boy’s face and murmured something that sounded foreign and jumbled; visible, superheated breath drifted in a cloud from her mouth. She blew gently and the smoke settled around the boy’s lips. “He’ll make it. Barely, but you got him to me in time. Good work.” She straightened, grimacing, then clapped Astira on the shoulder. “Stay with him, wouldja? I need your Regi with me.”

Surprised, Regi followed Cara through her house—past the living room and the temptation of its giant shag rug; past the door to the bedroom, open enough for Regi to spot a pink comforter; down the stairs into the storm cellar. Regi’s eyes adjusted quickly to the nearly pitch-black room, and he could see shelves with canned food and a small inset on the far wall.

Making a flourish with her hand, Cara said, “Lumina,” and both of her palms lit up with a soft pink glow.

Now Regi could see that the inset was more like a shrine to the cowboy life. Cara approached it, bringing her palms together so that the light between them intensified. She shot Regi a one-eyed squint and then muttered,

“I’m reapin’ the crops, the cattle I’m ropin’…

May the curtains fall and the portal open.”

The shrine groaned as if with a great effort and slid to one side, revealing a stone passageway. Cara looked over her shoulder and Regi was startled to see a flush on her cheeks.

“Each of us guardians made up our own passkey phrases. It was… a very long time ago.”

Regi grunted, not sure what kind of response the distinguished fairy godmother was looking for. “It’s, ah, not a bad rhyme.”

“Very little rhymes with ‘open,’” Cara said. “Come. The guardians await.”

She stepped into the passageway and vanished.

Not into the darkness—Regi was confident that his lupine-influenced eyes would have been able to catch even the slightest gleam of light on her skin and robe. She was simply gone.

Regi stood still in the quiet storm cellar. His senses were turned fully outward, so he was keenly aware of the pinching sensation of blood drying on his arm hairs and the ragged breathing of the boy in his sleep above him. His nostrils flared gently. Cara’s scent lingered like perfume, but the telltale suggestion of blood flowing under skin was gone.

“Do I follow?” he whispered to himself.

Following. Regi had never been built for it. He had always been a lone wolf, present ironies of that term aside. The idea of kowtowing to authority, or keeping pace with the masses, just for the sake of it, made his skin crawl.

But hell. He couldn’t look at the last year of his life and tell himself with any integrity that he had any idea what he was doing anymore.

Maybe it was time to try following. Cara Boss, at least. Cara Boss was a badass and he trusted her.

So he sucked down a deep breath and plunged into the passageway after Saltbush’s legendary fairy godmother.

It was pitch black only for an instant. Then, as if he had stepped into a sunlit room, Regi’s eyes were immediately assaulted by a light as blinding as full Texas daylight. He growled and shaded his eyes, trying to make out where he was and why it was so bright.

He saw Cara Boss first. She was transformed from her disheveled evening-wear-and-rollers look into the vision of a fairy godmother: flowing, glowing pink dress; glittering shoes; a silver wand tipped with a massive pink ruby. She stood at a tall wooden podium, tapping the end of the wand into one palm, turning her stern gaze on each of the other three figures in turn.

In his blood-soaked cargo shorts and polo, Regi felt sorely underdressed. He slunk around behind Cara, using her and her podium to block some of the light, which he saw was coming from a source at the center of the four podiums creating corners in this small, dome-shaped room.

At the other podiums, three individuals stood at various levels of attention. Regi tried to take them all in at once, but his attention was drawn to the youngest and smallest of the three first. She stood tall and regal, her backbone straight and her suit crisp, not a wrinkle in sight. Regi squinted. Or… was she a he? He registered that if these were Cara Boss’s counterparts (and regardless), he shouldn’t go around assigning gender assumptions to beings he met anyway.

“Do not attempt to pull one over mah eyes, Boss,” the figure next to the young one was saying in a gruff Scottish accent. In contrast, this bearded person was very old, very pale, and visibly very angry. “Whatever the bloody hells got out of Loudon is showin’ its ugly mug ‘round your parts now. You cannae keep pretendin’—”

“And what if it is the same, Doug?” demanded the third figure, flipping a long, heavy braid of dark hair over their shoulder. Their accent was halfway familiar to Regi’s ear, though he knew he would remember seeing such a striking person before. “What will you do about it?”

“Why, come to Saltbush to do my duty, Ah would!” the Scottish one said, banging both fists on the podium. “Those are the creatures which Ah was sworn to protect by the very oath that gave me two and a half millennia of life. You cannae handle this on your own, Boss! And dinnae call me Doug, Ming,” he added, pointing a shaking finger at the third figure.

Ming pressed her hands together and bowed her head in the Scottish one’s direction. “I do not mean to insult, Mister Glenn. Simply put, we cannot risk two guardians together in the same place. In these times, it is already so dangerous for us to simply survive…”

“Such a brutal attack directly on Loudon, the heartland of fae-kind. This was not a mistake. This was a choice.” The first person straightened their suit and stared levelly at Cara Boss. “We are none of us safe. Ming is right. We cannot come to your aid, Boss, but we will do what we can.”

Regi watched Cara’s shoulders slump with relief. “Good. Thank you.” She pivoted on her heel and pointed her wand straight at Regi. “Get up here. Tell ‘em what you saw tonight.”

Regi’s mouth moved as if he were a beached fish. He felt the hard, ancient stares of the three other guardians bore into him as he moved, as if through quicksand, to Cora’s side at her podium. His mouth was as dry as that time he’d tried weed in his friend’s dorm.

“The attack,” Cora whispered, a little too close for his comfort. She had the smell of cinnamon gum on her sour breath. “Focus on the attack, Reg.”

Licking bone-dry teeth, Regi leaned forward on the podium as if speaking into an invisible microphone. Force of habit, he supposed, from high school debate. “I—there was a solstice party. There were some humans but mostly non-humans. Saltbush residents, maybe a few folks from out of town, but not many I didn’t recognize. Uh… something came outta nowhere. I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was, because it moved so fast and—every time I tried to look at it, it was like my eyes couldn’t get traction on it. I’d look away, or it would be at the corner of my eye before I could really see what it was.”

A collective gasp rose from the other three guardians. Next to Regi’s ear came the thwack of Cora’s wand smacking with satisfaction into her palm.

“Yes. Yes, you see? Thought it was bad myself, but didn’t want to panic before I got my ox in a ditch,” Cora crowed. “Alright, then. What do we do about it? That’s one of yours, ain’t it, Dougie?”

Dubhghlas,” the Scottish guardian groaned, “and… yes, Ah reckon that’s the brollachan. Probably had possessed some hapless creature, human or otherwise. Quite familiar with the brollachan mahself, had to dig out a right bad infestation of ‘em out on Orkney a few centuries back.”

“I should hope you have some tips and tricks for us, then,” Cara said.

“Aye. They’re afraid of fire, for one. Found that out on the Orkney shores, we did. What kind of wounds did you see, boy?” Dubhghlas directed this question at Regi, who was still standing beside Cara with his hands clasped behind his back.

“One death, three wounded,” Regi said as if reciting. He’d had to quantify and articulate the results of the horrific scene under his breath a few times to keep himself from breaking down, so he was ready for the question. “Total on four bodies: eighteen stab wounds, some as if the blade was twisted; two throats slashed, including the dead one; and deep scratches as if from a human with very long, sharp fingernails.”

Dubhghlas blew out his breath. “Gods bless us. It is fortunate only one is deceased now. Ah reckon that’s a fair bit of luck you ‘ave in your Texas town.”

“Luck?” Regi said, somewhat stunned, but Cara interrupted, “You mean… we should expect worse attacks goin’ forward?”

“Ah am truly surprised,” the Scottish guardian said heavily, “that the attacks were not far worse tae begin with.”

***

“Do you have to stick your head out like that?”

Regi could admit only to himself that his barked question was partially out of envy, but when the fox wagged all nine of his tails happily and yipped back, “Of course I don’t, but I want to!” Regi felt vindicated in his irritation.

“You’re messin’ with the gas mileage,” he growled, but mostly to himself.

Astira laughed, a sound that indicated partial disbelief. “Let him be, Regi. I will contribute the next time you must fill up Maisie.”

Regi burned at the sound of his car’s name, which he had errantly let slip to Tira when she’d mentioned her favorite character from Game of Thrones. “It’s fine. Whatever. Just… appreciate my rules being respected, y’know?”

“Hwan is not much of one for rules.”

“So I’ve gathered.”

The coolness of the late summer night rushed past, sometimes gusting into the car as a crosswind hit the Camry. Regi shivered and leaned forward to turn the air on warm, glancing over at Astira as he slowly turned it up. She hated when he turned on the heat, but he was always cold, and this was his car.

He looked up in time to see the red lights blink to life on the turbines as the car crested a small rolling hill. Only this time, there would have needed to be three thousand turbines on the horizon for as many winking lights as glowed there.

The heater kicked on with a roar, and Regi shivered again, but not from cold.

“Regi, why are you turning on the heater? It is summer.”

“It’s cold.”

“Ah, but you do not have that—what is it? Dual climate control?”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, it’s an old shit-box or whatever.”

“It is not a ‘shit box.’” Astira made quotes in the air with her fingers and said the insult as if it were two distinct words. “But I run warm, and you will sweat me out of my clothes.”

Regi grinned weakly. “And that’s a problem ‘cause…what?”

She waved him off, but it was with a pleased smirk.

In the Camry’s headlights, Regi could see the butt end of Cara Boss’s pale pink 1957 Cadillac El Dorado. Cara had insisted on driving herself and taking the lead, and though she strayed towards the centerline a bit too often for Regi’s taste, she did look pretty damn perfect in that car. It fit her entire persona so well. A little too well; Regi found himself wondering whether she’d perhaps built this present life she led around a particular person she’d been back when this car was brand new. Cara had the original license plates, after all.

It took Regi angrily tapping the steering wheel through a few pop songs, but they turned onto Second Street and pulled into the lot for Merle’s Garage. Regi blew out his breath after he turned the car off, still holding the wheel in both hands.

“This ain’t gonna be pretty.”

“Keep the hope,” Astira said softly, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “We are stronger than we know.”

She got out of the car, whistling for Hwan, who shrugged at Regi before diving out onto the gravel.

Regi sighed and shook his head, staring out the windshield. “Jesus. You’d think we were some kind of animated show about misfits from Below.”

It took him another couple of minutes to convince himself to get out and head inside the shop. Down the stairs and into the basement, which was much too small for the number of people in it tonight. Regi, Astira, and Hwan pressed into a room already crowded with Aza, Merle, Tryx, and Darla. Everyone was sweating profusely, the high-pitched scent of nervous social energy.

“That fucking Mac and their ghost channel,” Merle snarled louder than the general murmur of discontent. Everyone dropped what they were saying, or dropped the volume, and let her speak. “Nobody’s safe around here now. So much national attention on us… You turn a corner, there’s another TV program trying to grab an interview. Shit.” She bared her teeth. “I hate it. This ain’t my Saltbush.”

“Aguayo was stirring the pot at that last meeting,” Darla said. “You heard him. ‘Settle our differences like civilized creatures.’ That wasn’t supposed to be a compliment.”

Everyone else murmured in response, mostly in assent.

Astira frowned. “I was there too. The room was very tense, and there were counter-measures, but—in the end, I believed it to be a misunderstanding.” She looked around, searching the council-beings’ faces with diminishing hope. “Do you not agree? Do you think—do you suspect they wish to drive us out?”

Again, everyone murmured, but nothing loud enough to register clearly. Regi’s gut churned.

Astira pushed up out of her seat, leaning against the support beam and raising her cast-swathed leg the inch she could manage. “Look at me. Look at how I am injured. This was from creatures called the shadowborne. They came through to Below when the portal in Loudon closed on the spring equinox. I fought the shadowborne myself, destroyed many of them. But even between Regi and Cara and Hwan and myself, they were nearly too strong. We only won because we worked together.”

Astira turned her head to look sharply at Cara, the tilt of her eyebrows and the set of her jaw telling Regi exactly how little she wished to ask for the permission she now begged for silently. Cara Boss nodded slowly, folding her arms across her chest and lightly but rhythmically scraping one spur against the floor.

Astira turned back to the council-folk, drawing a deep breath that strengthened her shoulders. Regi melted a little at the sight of that curve in her perfect spine, even as he steeled himself for what he knew she must say next. He was proud of her, kind yet powerful Astira, never willing to back down from the righteous fight.

“Saltbush, and Fourwings as well, are under direct attack,” Astira said sharply, bringing her fist up to her face. “The portal we all use to freely cross to back to our fae families could snap shut in three nights, when the solstice gives such unnatural strength to the magical realm, for the darkest of magic, faithlessness, grows too strong in the age of human technology. If our own does not close, another of the remaining three will, and we must still face the dark creatures such an event would send to us.”

Cara stepped forward as if to take over, but Astira cut her off with a pointed look. “There is only one way we will stand against what may come: by working together in trust—”

Regi carefully looked around at the council. Their faces twisted with worry and fear, but in each expression there was a measure of hope, or at least a desire to hope. He turned toward Astira, hoping to shoot her an encouraging look, and instead he found her looking straight at him.

“—and embracing and mastering our strengths,” she finished. It was meant for no one else in the room.

She had no right, Regi thought. He bristled. He had let her into his life, had been generous with his home and his time and his—

His thoughts were interrupted by the hollow thud of Merle’s fists hitting the oak table.

“Gods take them all!” she roared. “I will not fight for my life beside humans. They don’t care if we live or die anyway.” Aza wrapped her wings over Merle’s shoulders, but the ogre shrugged her off. “Don’t. Don’t bother. I ain’t gonna be comforted tonight. And the solstice, just cursed like that? This is too damn much.”

She dropped her head into her massive hands and great rivers of snot oozed between her fingers.

“I need your help, all of you,” Astira said, her voice rising. “We are about to receive a drop of supplies from Mac Calderon—”

Now Darla leaned forward, hissing, “I hate that little snake. Don’t trust ‘em. Wouldn’t take their charity for the world.”

It was Regi’s turn to fold his arms and step into the conversation. “Not even if it meant savin’ your hometown?”

Darla rolled her eyes and leveled her gaze at Regi. Her eyes were flat, cold, fish-like. “Not even.”

“Life or death, for all of us, Miss Stone,” Astira said, but Darla stood up and rapped her palm on the table.

“Excuse me, I don’t recall asking you your input, Miz… how long you been in Saltbush again?”

Astira balled up her fists. Regi moved to touch her wrist and turn away so he could whisper, “Ain’t worth it, Tira.”

The look Astira shot him dripped with meaning, but he didn’t have time to process what it was, because Darla shouted into the sudden hubbub, “Enough! I’m not saying we shouldn’t do what we can to shore up the gate, protect our town. I’m just saying we shouldn’t tell the humans all about what we’re doing.” The siren glared hard at Regi. “Don’t anybody get any stupid ideas.”

“Alright, listen up,” Cara Boss said, clapping her hands sharply. “Y’all might not know this young lady here, but everythin’ she said, I seen it with my own two. Can’t be treatin’ this lightly. We need a plan.”

***

On the way back to the shack, the Camry reeked of tension. Astira tried to put on a playlist on her phone, but after half a song, Regi turned the sound system all the way down. Only the sound of the highway rushing by marred the otherwise total silence.

When Astira spoke, it was in an uncharacteristically small voice, but it sounded like thunder against the quiet. “I am afraid that what we did at the equinox meant nothing, Regi.”

It was like a slap to the face. Regi jerked as if he’d been asleep, his knuckles paling on the wheel. “Nothin’, eh. All of it?” He glanced over; she shone blue in the light of the idle head unit. “You think none of it meant—”

She sighed, hissing in exasperation. “That is not what I said, nor what I meant. The fight, the shadowborne, that is what I meant. That meant nothing if another gate slams shut on Sunday. Taiyang’s curse will come true, and everyone he loves will die.”

“That’s a bit dramatic,” Regi said. “You said he and his parents live in St. Louis. It’s not like they have a gate that’s gonna squeeze shadowborne on their town like it’s a toothbrush.”

“Do you really think that what happens here will not affect the rest of this country, the rest of this planet?” Astira’s voice squeaked in indignation. “I want to save my nephew from this heartbreak—”

“No, really,” Regi cut in, letting his eye-roll color his tone. He slammed both palms against the wheel. “You, want to save your nephew?! I would have never guessed. Look, Tira, here’s the thing: I’m all for helpin’ you on this quest to keep Taiyang’s curse from comin’ true. But I think you’re blowin’ things outta proportion, and draggin’ people into your personal problems. You came to Saltbush, you stayed in Saltbush, somebody in Saltbush got hurt and suddenly you’re playin’ the town savior. First off? In Texas, that ain’t really how it works. You’re not gonna be anyone’s savior if you’re not one of them. Second—”

Whatever Regi’s second point might have been, it was lost to Astira’s flustered wail. “Dragging people into my problems? Who am I dragging—you?! You invited me to stay in Saltbush! You begged me to move into the shack with you when the hotel drive annoyed you.”

“Oh, I begged you,” Regi snapped. “So glad to know that’s what you thought that was.” His gut churned, and he registered that he was finding it hard to concentrate on the road.

“Um… humans…”

“Shut up, Hwan!” both Regi and Astira barked.

In the rearview mirror, the fox flattened his ears against his skull and shrank into his puffy tails until all but his nose disappeared.

Regi pivoted his glare to Astira, who was giving him as good as she got.

“Do you not want me here anymore?” Astira finally asked. “Is that it? You must talk to me, Regi. Whatever it is that you want, I cannot read your mind.”

He stared out hard into the night, trying to ignore the blinking red lights to the southwest, trying to ignore the gnawing anxiety climbing up his esophagus. This was it. This was the inevitable break, the crack in the shell of bliss that spelled “THE END.” This was the moment Astira Kong realized Regis Nardelle was actually a piece of hot shit.

“Please, Regi.” Astira’s voice crumpled with tears. “I want you to talk to me.”

He let the Camry coast to a stop and take up space on the empty highway. Slowly, he turned to Astira. “Do you? Or do you want me to tell you what you want to hear?”

Immediately her expression tightened. “Oh, yes, because you are in such control of your life and your choices.”

 “Excuse me?” Regi said, his jaw clenching up. “Is this about me and my fuckin’ werewolf form again? God, woman, you are a—”

“Whatever you are about to say,” Astira cut him off with both her hand and her sharp words, “I will not hear it.”

She unbuckled and pushed out of the car, slamming the door behind her. Then she yanked open the back door. “Get out, Hwan.”

Regi watched with growing sadness as the fox shrank into himself impossibly further. Astira rapped on the side of the card. “NOW, HWAN.”

Step by trembling step, the fox uncurled and tiptoed out of the car. He landed lightly but Astira closed the door hard, folding her arms and stepping back.

Regi’s stomach churned, but he had no desire to be weak and foolish and throw himself back into her good graces. Without looking into the mirror again, he gunned the car. Somewhere on the prairie, a coyote howled.

***

Read on to part two of this installment…

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