“Hate is a bottomless Cup. I will pour and pour…”
The earth shook under Ember’s feet, violent upheavals throwing bodies into the air even as she stood firmly rooted. Ineffable blackness billowed from her very pores, forming a towering cloud which spread like a mushroom cap a thousand feet in the sky. The blotted sun could not penetrate the ebon shroud hanging over Cauchemar like the plague.
A sound reached Ember’s ears, an inhuman dissonance which crashed into her eardrums like pounding ocean waves. In the back of her mind, some glimmer of rationality told her the sound was her own scream of rage.
Her sister was gone. Stolen by the caprice of a demon and her own husband’s stubborn streak. Ember raged against her loss, her grief as she continued to scorch the sky. She knew that, if her tirade continued, she would blot out the sky forever, sunder the earth, and condemn her friends and family to death.
A big part of her didn’t care.
Something soft and fuzzy pressed against her face, caressing her cheek. It came again, this time with a scrape at the end. Ember became aware of Kali, her feline familiar, rubbing a furry face against her own.
“Ember, you’re going to kill us if you don’t stop. You’re channeling Dark Magic!”
Kali’s soothing voice cut through the din, the rumbling of the earth, the splitting of the sky, and the sound of her own scream. Ember stared at the chaos her backyard had become with lucid eyes for the first time since Ash had been stolen away.
A ten-foot-wide jagged fissure ran through her backyard, the badminton net dangling into its quivering depths. Cedric struggled to hang on to the edge, hands clutching clumps of grass. Sage’s ebon skin shone with sweat as she tried in vain to regain her feet, falling all over the winsome Willow as the Earth continued to rumble. Pharaoh Hori IV was the only being able to maintain an upright posture besides Ember herself, and he swayed about like a drunken sailor on a storm-tossed ship deck.
I’m hurting them. I’m hurting my husband, my friends…
Ember drew on Kali’s calming presence, allowing the Dark Magic to slip away, bubbling down like sewage down a storm drain. The Dark Magic drained away, leaving her bereft of wrath yet still somehow stained by it.
“Finally,” Kali said as Ember fell to her hands and knees. Tears blurred Ember’s vision as she stared at the twisted floorboards of her once pristine porch.
“Ash…” Ember’s voice felt hoarse, raw from her screaming fit. The black cloud dissipated slowly, allowing a beam of sunlight to spear down from the heavens and encompass her in a pool of radiance. “Ash is gone.”
“Easy, wolf boy, I got you,” Tyrone the Blackula said, helping Cedric out of the fissure with the ease of lifting a pillow. Pharaoh Hori turned toward Ember and let out a stream of ancient Egyptian, gesturing angrily.
“What’s he saying?” Sage asked.
“Loosely translated?” Tyrone said. “What the heck are you doing, you crazy witch?”
“I’m sorry,” Ember said, her voice breaking. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Ember wasn’t sure if she apologized to her friends and husband, or to her absent sister, or both. She glanced over at a long parchment scroll, unrolled until it spilled off the porch. The contract, the one she’d signed with Bubb.
“There has to be a way to get her back,” Ember said, scrambling over to the scroll on her knees. “There has to be…”
Cedric came up onto the porch and put his hand on Ember’s shoulder, but she shrugged it away. “Don’t touch me! You could have just fulfilled the contract. Then Ash would still be here.”
“I couldn’t just carve out your eye.” Cedric stood helplessly, seeming to be unsure of what to do. “I couldn’t do that to you.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Tyrone said, stepping onto the buckled and broken timbers of the porch. “Let me take a look at that contract.”
“You?” Cedric asked with a touch too much incredulity. Tyrone sneered at him.
“Yeah, me. Maybe I’m a pretty smart cat. Maybe I even used to be a lawyer before I was Turned. Did that ever occur to you, Mr. Condescending Sheriff?”
“Wait, you were a lawyer?” Kali said. “Wow. Bloodsucker in life, bloodsucker in undeath.”
“I’ll ignore that,” Tyrone said, flipping through the contract. Ember waited with bated breath, frantically hopeful the vampire would uncover something, anything she had missed. For a time Ember’s friends gathered around her in silence.
“What…what just happened?” Kathy asked. “Some kind of Earthquake, or…”
“Mom,” Willow said, leaning against the older woman. “Not now.”
“This is why you don’t invite mundanes to a magical gathering,” said Munkilok, the entity who possessed Ember and Cedric’s seven-year-old ward, April. “Can’t put this genie back in the bottle.”
“Ah ha!” Tyrone smacked the contract with his hand. “Hey, Witchy Poo, when you got married to Wolf Boy did you change your name?”
“Yes,” Ember said. “Yes, I did, but what difference does that make?”
“Well, B.L.C. Bubb used your maiden name on the contract! We at least have a chance to get it voided.”
“How do we do that?”
Tyrone cocked an eyebrow. “We talk to the Infernal Arbiter.”
“The who?” Cedric asked. His tall, lanky form hovered over Ember, blue eyes writ large with concern, yet afraid to offer comfort.
“The Infernal Arbiter. He handles contract disputes for demons and devils. We can pop over into Limbo and get this settled.”
“How long will that take?” Ember asked.
“Two or three days in Limbo. But time runs faster there, so…a couple minutes, maybe?” Tyrone shrugged. “Can you handle the spell?”
“I don’t know the interdimensional coordinates of Limbo.” Ember’s voice held tinges of panic. “Ash is the one good at dimensional magic, not me!”
“Relax, Witchy Poo, between me and the Pharaoh I think we got this covered.”
Tyrone spoke to the Mummy in Hori’s native tongue for several seconds. Then they began a chant, arcane syllables issuing from both their mouths as they slowly vanished from sight. One moment they faded into translucence and then they were gone.
Ember paced across the porch, fending off and snarling at her husband’s attempts to calm her. Most of her friends feared to come close. Only Kali seemed able to penetrate the bubble of bellicosity separating Ember from the rest of the world.
Her gaze snapped around to the ground near the fissure. Tyrone and Hori appeared in the same spot they had vanished from—and they were not alone.
“Ash!” Ember raced down to throw her arms around her sister. Ash didn’t return the favor, stiffening up and glowering as Ember embraced her.
“I got a temporary injunction based on the wrong name being on the contract,” Tyrone said. “It’s going under review. Until then, Ash is free to return to the Earth realm.”
“Thanks, Tyrone,” Cedric said.
“Yeah, thank me when you get my bill.”
“Ash, are you all right? What happened?”
Ash didn’t answer. She roughly extricated herself from Ember’s grasp and shoved her sister away.
“Don’t. Just don’t. Don’t talk to me, don’t even look at me.”
“Ash…” Ember felt her heart sink as Ash strode angrily around the fissure, got in her car, and tore down the gravel road toward Cauchemar.
Ember’s sister was safe—for now—but had she lost her anyway?
“If God had a wife He would be in just as much trouble as any man.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo
“Guess the backyard barbeque is over,” Sage said with a sigh.
“There’s not much of a backyard left,” Kali quipped as Ember and Cedric faced off on the porch.
“A contract with a Demon? Ember, what the heck were you thinking?” His hands swung through the air with wild gesticulations, as if his anger extruded from his fingertips into the hot summer air.
“It was the only way to get your memories back,” Ember snapped. “I need my husband whole!”
“And you were going to trade your left eye for that?”
“Yes!” Ember stomped her foot on the porch and seethed. “I’d trade both eyes if it meant I got to have you back the way you were.”
“Well, you didn’t pay the price. Your sister did.”
Ember’s anger dissipated under that simple, cold declaration. She collapsed to the porch like a Pinocchio with his strings cut. “I’m sorry, just needed more power, just a little more, and it seemed like a good deal. One measly eye for my husband?”
“You should have known that dealing with demons would end this way,” Cedric said. “Ember…”
He heaved a sigh, then crouched down to put his hand on her shoulder. This time she didn’t fling it away.
“I know, you were desperate. Bubb knew that. He knew you weren’t thinking rationally, he took advantage of your compromised state.”
“Oh Goddess, Cedric…what have I done? I almost destroyed my family…”
Ember teared up, shoulders shaking with sobs as she thought of Ash’s angry flight.
“And now my sister hates me.”
“Ash doesn’t hate you,” Kali said, rubbing up against Ember. “She’s just mad. She’ll get over it.”
“Come here.” Cedric helped Ember gently to her feet. She clung to him, pressing her face against the hard knot of muscle on his chest and sobbing gently. “It’s going to be all right.”
Sage looked over at Tyrone. “Hey, you said you’d gotten a temporary injunction. What does that mean?”
“It means the case needs further review. The Arbiter will convene a hearing at some future date where we’ll hash it out. Either way, he can’t take Cedric’s memories, though.”
“But will he take Ember’s eye?” Cedric asked. “Or take Ash again?”
Tyrone’s silence was telling.
Cedric led Ember inside the house and set her down on the sofa. He set a tea kettle on the stove, then returned to her side, handing her a handkerchief.
Ember took it with numb fingers and blew hard. “I’m sorry. I messed up. I really messed up this time.”
“Yes, you did,” Cedric said gently. “But we’ll get through this together.”
“I don’t know yet, but you’ll think of something. You’re brilliant.”
Ember sighed, leaning into his comforting bulk. “I don’t feel all that brilliant at the moment. I feel like a right sucker.”
The tea kettle whistled, and Cedric hastened back into the kitchen to pour two cups of steaming water. He plopped tea bags into the cups and left them to steep.
With the aid of calming tea, along with Cedric and Kali’s efforts, Ember gradually came down. Ash was safe, and that was the important thing. Bubb could be dealt with at a later date, would be dealt with. Ember fingered the soft flesh around her left eye.
If it comes down to it, I’ll give up my eye. I have no problem doing that.
She and Cedric prepared a dinner made of barbeque leftovers and talked quietly well into the night. When dawn came the next day, it brought with it the inklings of hope. Cedric was right. They’d figure something out. They’d faced worse threats than Bubb…hadn’t they?
Ember puttered around the kitchen, taking a long time to prepare coffee as she mused over possible solutions. Kali curled up on the kitchen table in a patch of sunlight, alternately napping and cracking feline eyelids to check on Ember’s progress.
The creak of floorboards overhead heralded the arrival of Cedric. He tromped down the steps, cracking his jaw with a huge, wolfish yawn.
“There’s just something about the smell of coffee on a Sunday morning.”
He came behind her and encircled her waist with his powerful arms. Ember leaned against him, content in his warmth. The downstairs bedroom door swung open, and April appeared, the clear light in her blue eyes indicating Munkilok wasn’t in control—for the moment.
“Ember, Cedric, can we go to the fair today?”
Ember turned toward April and smiled gently. “April, dear, you know the fair isn’t coming around until September.”
“Not that fair,” April said, her brow furrowed. “The Fair Mr. Tobacco is having.”
Ember and Cedric exchanged glances. “Did you hear anything about this?”
She shook her head. “Not a peep.”
April grabbed something out of the back pocket of her overalls, a folded piece of pink paper. Ember unfolded it; lips pursed in a thoughtful frown. Bold text greeted her gaze in a festive font.
Big Tobacco’s All-Star Carnival and Campaign Rally
Games, rides, food, FUN!
Paid for by the friends and supporters of Big Tobacco, Mayoral Candidate.
Cedric looked over her shoulder and cocked an eyebrow. “Tobacco has friends?”
“Hush, you know Sage really likes him,” Ember said. “Besides, do you want Kleen to win the election and be the new Mayor?”
“Is there a box we can check that says, ‘none of the above?’ Seriously, he has to get a permit for this kind of thing.”
“So, can we go?” April asked. “Please? I’ll do all my homework and keep Munkilok away for a whole week.”
Ember sighed. “Looks like we’re going to the fair.”