Updates after the prologue. Hope you enjoy it!
When Molly Met Onyx
Four Years Ago
“You’re not supposed to be here, but are you more worried about demons or cops?”
“Say what?” asked the jarhead on the other side of the counter.
“Sorry,” Molly said in a tactfully lukewarm tone. “Thinking out loud. Talkin’ to myself, not you.” In any other situation, Molly would have ditched him to talk to the dark-haired girl in the black hoodie and skirt on the other side of the bookstore, but the boss needed her behind the register. That left her trapped in unwanted conversation with the only other customer in sight.
“I’ve got time to listen,” said Aaron. He smiled at her again. She wished he’d stop doing that. She also wished she didn’t already know his name, or that he was home on leave from the Marines, or that he’d just finished his second deployment. “You seem interesting.”
“I’m the girl working the cash register in a bookstore,” Molly replied.
“Pretty interesting bookstore. Pretty girl at the register. You’ve got a great style. You must be real creative.”
Molly shook her head. “No make-up. Ordinary band t-shirt.” She gestured to her spiky, fire-engine red hair. “Picked my hairstyle out of a magazine. Not terribly special. Just a girl workin’ a counter.”
The two customers on the floor nearly equaled the height of the Christmas rush. Most of that business amounted to candles, statuettes, and other little trinkets of minor value. The real goods at Elizabeth’s bookstore didn’t get holiday markdowns. Customers who came for them usually went straight to the owner rather than browsing the shelves.
Elizabeth had several such customers in the back room behind the counter now. They’d left Aaron out here with Molly, where he’d tried to chat her up ever since.
“We both know you’re more than that,” said Aaron. “You’re a Practitioner.”
Molly’s eyes met his, though she wasn’t sure what to say. The fact that Elizabeth pulled his buddies into the back for a private conversation told her they were all Practitioners. She suspected as much of Aaron, but she didn’t expect him to bring it up. Molly never expected anyone to bring it up.
Aaron attempted to keep his smile humble. He failed. “I’m more than just a Marine,” he said. “Never worried about getting blown away on deployment. I’ve got some tricks for that sort of trouble.” He winked.
Molly held back her sneer. “That’s great.”
“So I’m thinking we’ve got at least that in common.”
“It’s not much in common.”
“Seems like a lot to me. But how do you know unless you find out?”
“Not terribly curious,” said Molly.
“Aw c’mon, I’m being friendly. Give it a shot, you might like it. Maybe try smiling a little? Might brighten your day.”
Molly clenched one fist behind the counter. She didn’t know how serious Elizabeth’s business with his companions could be. They all looked like they’d come in off a hunting trip in the woods, but back room meetings were only for serious customers. Elizabeth didn’t like offending fellow Practitioners, either. She put a high priority on polite relations and cooperation, if not friendliness.
Though Molly had every right to throw him out of the store, her boss might not appreciate it. She also didn’t know what she’d do if he wouldn’t leave.
“Look, let’s try again,” he said. “Hi, I’m Aaron, and you are…?”
“She’s the cashier.”
Molly and Aaron both blinked. The girl in the hoodie stood nearby, staring at him with big blue eyes.
“Yeah, obviously,” Aaron replied. “Do you need to pay for something?”
“No,” said the girl. Her voice was soft, feminine, and not at all timid. She kept staring.
“Hi,” Molly spoke up, brightening a little with the distraction. “Can I help you find anything?”
“So what’s up?” Aaron asked.
“Nothing,” said the girl. She kept staring.
Aaron’s lips pursed with a question. Words didn’t come to him right away. “No, really, what’s up?”
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
She didn’t speak.
“You’re hella cute underneath that hood and stuff. What’s your name?”
“Are you gonna stand there and stare all day?” He waited. She said nothing. Aaron turned to Molly. “Can you do something about her?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Molly answered. “She’s not bothering anyone.”
“She’s bothering me.”
He pointed at her. “She’s fucking staring at me, obviously.”
“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you not to use that kind of language in the store.”
He made a face. “What the fuck?”
“Sir, again, please watch your language. This is a family establishment.”
“It’s a fuckin’ occult bookstore full of books about demons and shit.”
“I’m a minor,” noted the girl in black.
“Yeah, see?” Molly asked. “The language isn’t okay.”
“She’s fucking harassing me,” he pressed.
Molly looked from one to the other and shook her head. “I don’t see how.”
“Oh, for—what?” he fumed, looking at the girl again. “What do you want?”
“I want to see how you handle unwanted attention,” she answered, and kept staring.
“What the hell are you even—is this some kind of joke?” Aaron shifted his attention back to Molly. “Is this how you treat customers?”
“We maintain a welcoming environment for everyone, sir.” Molly gestured to the bookshelves around the floor. “You’re free to browse if you like.”
He pointed to the girl in black. “Don’t you maintain the right to refuse service to anyone?”
“That’s a good point. Please step outside, sir.”
“What the fuck? Not me, her!”
“She’s not doing anything, sir. You’re raising your voice and you’ve ignored my request to curb your language three times now. Please step outside.”
“I’ll leave when my dad and the others come out of there!” Aaron snapped, his finger now pointing to the door behind Molly.
“You can wait for them right outside the door, sir.” She gestured toward the entrance, where tall windows lined either side of the door. Rain fell on the cars parked along the curbside immediately past the glass. “I’m sorry, but you’re making my customers uncomfortable.”
“Deeply,” said the other girl.
“This is bullshit!” He looked to the girl in the hoodie. “Why the fuck are you causing a scene, anyway?”
“I’m causing a scene by standing here?”
Molly thought fast. This wasn’t a situation Elizabeth would want. She couldn’t afford to get into trouble with her boss. Then, as Aaron pointed at the other girl, Molly noticed the globe and anchor tattooed on his wrist…and wondered if he might not have a similar problem.
“Hey, Aaron,” she spoke up thoughtfully, “you said you’re gonna be posted as a recruiter near here, right?”
“So if I talked to some Marines in another recruiting office and asked about a recruiter named Aaron, how hard do you think it’d be for them to figure out who you are?”
Aaron blinked. “What?”
“I’m wondering how much trouble a Marine gets into for harassing a couple of women in a civilian store,” said Molly.
“Or if they want to hear about you being in a store like this one,” noted the other girl.
Molly leaned forward on the counter. “You don’t happen to have a magic spell for dealing with that sort of trouble, do you?”
Aaron nodded angrily as if working up a retort, but all he could muster was, “Fine. Bitches.” He stomped to the exit, threw the door open and then turned to slam it shut in his wake. His manly display was thwarted by the pressurized arm on top of the door that ensured a slow, steady closure.
Basking in victory, Molly shared a triumphant grin with the girl in the hoodie—who soon lowered her head and moved back to the bookshelves. Oh God, thought Molly, don’t be shy now! C’mon! She opened her mouth to summon the girl back, but stopped when she heard shouting from the closed door behind her.
“—gonna come crashing down someday soon, and you know it!” came a muffled, male voice. “The only rational thing to do is to prepare, not stick your head in the sand!”
The reply was too quiet to hear. That would be Elizabeth, Molly knew. She wouldn’t be loud. The boss wouldn’t be intimidated, either. Molly pulled her verawood wand from the shelf under the counter. Her heartbeat picked up as she considered what might happen if things got ugly. She wouldn’t let Elizabeth face a fight alone.
Her eyes flicked up toward the lone customer. The girl had her back to Molly, standing at the bookshelves again, but her head turned sideways as if she could hear.
“You’ve been around since the First World War!” shouted the man. “You’ve seen what’s coming. And you know how to contact the other side! You could help!”
“We are done, Leon,” came a faintly accented feminine voice. Molly’s eyes widened. What did someone have to do to get Elizabeth to raise her voice? “You will leave now.”
“We’re not leaving until we—nngh!”
Molly heard enough. She threw the door open with her wand at the ready. Her heart skipped a beat at the sight of lethal weapons held by angry men, but almost as quickly as she recognized the threat, she saw that it was already under control.
Elizabeth stood at the head of the small table. All three of her furious guests sat with pistols drawn—and pointed at one another. Not one of them visibly threatened Molly’s boss.
Though her face showed some wrinkles and other signs of age, Elizabeth looked much younger than Leon’s accusation would indicate. Her hair was still brown and rich rather than grey. Even her comfortable green dress kept up with current fashion. She held her arms out to either side, fingers arched to maintain her spell without the aid of a wand. Her Belgian accent came through stronger than normal as she asked, “Are you watching the other one?”
“Other?” Molly blinked, then stepped back through the door to look to the window. Aaron stood right outside, puffing away angrily on a cigarette. As he looked up, Molly forced herself into a casual stance where he could see her. “He’s outside. We’re good.” She wondered if she looked or sounded even remotely convincing. Guns were as far out of her experience as the level of magic she saw from Elizabeth.
“You really want it this way?” one of the “guests” asked through gritted teeth. He wore a padded green camouflage coat, a matching ball cap, and mirrored sunglasses. His handlebar mustache twitched angrily as he spoke. “You really wanna be on our bad side when it all comes down?”
“I think I will be fine, Leon,” said Elizabeth. “If you truly understood the nature of divinations, you would know that no Practitioner can predict World War III, or Armageddon, or whatever disaster you and your playmates think is coming.”
“It already came!” protested one of Leon’s companions. His hand shook as he kept his gun trained at Leon’s head. “That’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you!”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and looked to her assistant. “This one is fixated on either the Mayan calendar or Y2K. I cannot remember.”
“It’s all connected!”
“Shut up, Dutch,” growled Leon.
Elizabeth sighed. “He is not actually Dutch. I would know.”
“You think this is funny?” Leon snarled.
“I must. If I do not laugh at your silly paranoia, I will cry. I do not wish to be sad today.”
“What the fuck kinda spell is this?” demanded the third man. “God damn it, let us go! It ain’t right, takin’ control of someone’s body!”
“No, but threatening me with violence is somehow acceptable?” She flicked her wrists subtly. In unison, the three men pressed the magazine releases of their guns, dropping each weapon’s clip onto the table. Not one of them turned his gun from the other in the process.
Elizabeth stood over them looking like a disapproving aunt. “I know enough about guns to remember you each still have one bullet ready to fire. I am also well-versed in self-defense. I have nothing to fear from guns. But should you approach me again with another pathetic threat and harm some innocent along the way, you will pay dearly.
“Listen to me carefully, gentlemen,” she went on. “I will not aid you in your preparations for the end of civilization. I will not side with you against our fellow Practitioners. I will not join in your paranoid quest for power. I will absolutely not help you contact the ‘other side,’ nor even explain what a stupid notion that is. Try these things at your own peril. You may find success in such foolishness is not to your liking. But you shall do so without me.
“Go back to the mountains. You are no longer welcome in my store. Any of you. I would not sell you so much as a pencil. If you or the rest of your circle darken my door again, I will not be this gentle. Do you understand?”
Leon scowled darkly. “I understand this situation perfectly.”
“Splendid. Whatever you tell yourself to placate your ego is not my concern.” She flicked her fingers again, forcing each man to eject the last bullet from his gun before dropping the weapons on her table. Then she lowered her hands. “Molly, our guests are leaving.”
“Cool.” She watched as the men stood under their own power. Neither Leon nor his friends seemed interested in retaliation. Leon barely gave Molly a glance as he led his friends outside.
“Take a moment,” said Elizabeth. “Let your heartbeat settle. This is over. We are both fine.”
Molly swallowed hard, but did as Elizabeth instructed. The older woman’s even tones helped calm her down. “Are they gonna be trouble later?” she asked. At the front of the shop, the door swung shut while Leon angrily waved his followers into their cars.
“I think not,” said Elizabeth, stepping out to observe with her. “You may not have noticed, but I quashed every spell they attempted while I held them. They will not cross me until they attain a much greater degree of power. Seeing as they came to me searching for such power, I doubt they will find it soon.”
“Is that what you were talking about? Sites of power and contacting the other side?”
“Yes. Take your ordinary paranoid Doomsday planners, add a handful of genuine Practitioners, and you get the Spartan Light of Unconquered Cascadia.” Elizabeth gestured grandly to the pair of SUVs rolling out of the parking lot. “Leon has divined the Apocalypse at least seven times since the turn of the century and has been disappointed every time. But still they believe, and still they prepare.”
“How do they plan to survive the end of the world?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Mystic wards on their compound and a lot of canned food, I imagine. It sounds terrible to me.”
“Wait, you said they divined it. If they’re actual Practitioners, do you mean they did that with real magic?”
“I would imagine so.”
“But we’re still here. No Doomsday.”
“Ah. Yes. We have not talked about divinations. They are not your style. Different Practices argue about this sort of thing, but I have studied it closely and worked to shed my own bias.” Elizabeth smiled fondly at the younger woman. Though she mentored Molly, that didn’t make the redhead an apprentice in the strictest terms. They followed greatly different Practices. Still, given Elizabeth’s long experience and knowledge, her guidance helped Molly learn and grow dramatically faster than she could on her own.
“The future is not written,” she explained. “Divinations draw upon collective intentions and expectations, you see. They predict events because the magic gives a sense of what others plan to do and what they believe will happen. Get enough people nervous about a zombie uprising and you may see such a plague in your visions of the future…but it will not happen, because zombies don’t work like that.
“Leon clearly doesn’t understand this. I believe he pulls his divinations from limited sources of information. The course of global civilization is less obvious when you live in the mountains among fewer humans. Weather is easy to predict there. The animals know what to expect. But human events? If you live in an isolated compound of paranoid fools, you’re bound to predict the end of the world every day.
“I will clean this up. Thank you for watching the front, Molly. I am glad you are here.”
“So am I,” said Molly. “Um. We’ve got a customer over by the books. I’ll go check on her.”
The girl in the hoodie lurked in the far corner of the store. Molly found that intriguing. She also noticed how the girl’s posture stiffened as she approached, though with the hood up and her back turned, it wasn’t easy to tell much else. “Hey there,” said Molly. “Can I help you with anything?”
“Um…I’m okay, thanks.”
“Thought you might be. You’re over here by the good stuff,” Molly noted. The hooded head twitched. Molly grinned. “You knew that already, didn’t you?”
The girl turned until those pretty blue eyes emerged from her hood. “I’ve seen lots of good stuff in here.”
“Yeah. Still easier with someone to show you around. The service is free. Besides, I owe you one for helping me out with Creepy back there.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m glad I could help. I can’t stand jerks like that.”
Molly couldn’t wipe the smile off her face now if she tried. Something about this girl, she thought. “You’re safe here. I’m not scoping you out as a potential shoplifter or anything. You’ve just got this look like you’re not supposed to be here, and that’s not a problem for us.” She tilted her head toward the shelves on the wall. “Especially not anyone who knows to come to this end of the store. It’s not like we have an age restriction, either…if you really are under eighteen?”
“For a few more months, anyway. Thanks.” The other girl bit her lip before saying more. “Nobody else knows I’m here.”
“And nobody here knows who you are.” She held out her hand. “I’m Molly. You can give me a fake name, I’m cool with it.”
The girl hesitated, but when she accepted the handshake, Molly felt a cool electricity from her touch that had nothing to do with sorcery. “Call me Onyx.”
“I can do that. So what brought you here to the ‘I Know Bullshit from the Real Deal’ section?”
“I see things sometimes,” said Onyx. Her lips twitched with the hint of a grin.
“When you’re asleep, or when you’re awake?”
“Like faint shades of color around people?”
Onyx nodded. “That, too.” She paused. “I like yours.”
“What do mine look like?”
“Fire. Yours is redder and hotter than most people’s. It’s reaching out to me like Creepy’s aura did to you,” Onyx ventured slowly. “Only with you it’s more of a gesture and less like a grab.”
“Busted already,” Molly admitted, but she kept smiling.
“I’m not actually sure what it means,” Onyx conceded. “I only feel like I’ve got a faint idea.”
“No. You’ve probably got a very good idea.” Molly pulled a hardbound book from the shelf and held it out. “It all depends on your Practice. The basics are spelled out here.”
Onyx glanced down at the book. “I’ve got this one already.”
“Bought it at the Circle’s End on Capitol Hill. I didn’t know if it’s legit, but it felt right. Righter than the others.”
“It’s legit,” said Molly. Her hopes rose. Holy shit, she thought, is she like me? “You’re on the right path already. I can tell you that much.”
Onyx nodded. “I tried one of the rituals this morning. It led me here. You guys aren’t listed online as an occult bookstore or I’d have been here before.”
“Yeah. I keep reminding the owner about internet advertising, but she’s dragging her feet.”
“For like twenty years?”
“She’s got different ideas about advertising…and time.” Molly shrugged. “What were you looking for with that ritual?”
“Answers. I have dreams sometimes. When I wake up, the dreams fade, but the feeling is there. Like I’m looking for someone.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“All my life.”
“Wow.” Molly’s eyebrows rose. “So you’re not looking for something, but someone?”
“More than just that. I’m looking for answers. How to figure out those dreams. How to make sense of the things I see and hear and feel. What to do with it all.” Onyx shook her head. “Lots of things.”
Molly’s smile simply wouldn’t die. She wondered if it ever would, or if she’d ever want it to. “Want some help with all that?”
The usual questions:
First: No specific release date yet, but I’m looking at having this available on Amazon before the end of the month!
Second: The cover is done and I’d do a reveal but WordPress is being super snotty with me for some reason. Sorry about that. Once again, it’s by Lee Moyer, and once again it’s gorgeous.
Third: Yes, I will pitch this to Audible and hopefully get Tess Irondale to narrate, but I’m gonna refrain from making any guarantees. No promises on anyone else’s behalf.
Fourth: Current writing plans/projections are as such:
September/October: Release Personal Demons, get paperback and hopefully audio lined up and in production. Prep for NaNoWriMo.
November: Write the most ridiculous shit I’ve ever written for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This will tie in to none of my other books. My goal is to make sure I can never discuss this project with a straight face.
December: If NaNoWriMo is a success, I’ll probably need to do edits and revisions and whatnot. Also put together cover art and such. Also move on to the next project.
NEXT PROJECT AFTER THAT: Most likely I’ll get back to a Poor Man’s Fight spinoff novel starring Alicia Wong and Gunny Janeka. It’ll be set between PMF and RMW. I’m already over 20,000 words into this project, so hopefully that will also be a quick turnaround.
AND THEN: Either PMF #4 or Good Intentions #4. I dunno. Whichever speaks to me loudest. Maybe I’ll flip a coin?