This began as an idea for the 2020 Halloween Story Contest. I was trying to make it a story with no cliff hangers, no waiting for weeks for the next chapter, but it took on a life of its own and became a bigger, more complicated tale. So here is the beginning. I couldn't resist another "... in the City" title for this story, but I don't plan to get stuck on that theme forever!
I debated quite a while about whether or not I should submit this chapter for publication before my 'Were in the City' story arc was complete but I like this new story too and wanted to share the start of it. I will continue this story in time, but this part is I hope an interesting tale all on its own ... even though there will be questions to be answered in a future chapter.
Saturday October 31, 2015
For the first time in years Veronica had slept comfortably all night and awakened just after 8am. As she used the grab bar at the side of the bed to pull herself up, standing still for a few moments to let the world stop spinning before she started to shuffle towards the bathroom, she realized the worst of her many constant aches and pains had failed to materialize. It was going to be a good day, and she needed one last good day today.
She'd been preparing for All Hallow's Eve for a week. It had used to take just a day but at ninety-four years of age, suffering from vertigo and using a walker to move around, it didn't take much activity before she had to rest. She had always insisted on doing most of the work herself, to ensure it was done right, but this year it was especially important that nothing was missed or sloppy.
This year would be her last year, she knew it with a certainty that other people might envy or fear. Veronica was not afraid. She'd had a long and eventful life. Of course she had regrets, nobody reached the end without some, but they were mostly tolerable. The only one that still hurt was that she had never had children. There was no heir to bequeath the land to. She had struggled for years to figure out how to protect it.
Veronica's ancestors, from the most minor and insignificant branch of a large family, had immigrated to South America seeking a new start. They had survived but only barely thrived before her great-grandparents had decided to try something new, travelling to the west coast of North America after news of a gold rush there in the 1850's. It wasn't gold that changed their fortunes but the discovery of the land upon which she now lived. In her great-grandparents' time it had been miles beyond the limits of a newly founded town, pristine old-growth forest. Today it was eight square blocks in the middle of a major city.
To other eyes, it had been an unremarkable patch of trees, rocks and dirt. Veronica's great-grandmother however knew it was priceless. Her ancestors had scrimped and saved, putting every spare penny aside to purchase it and later build a home on it. For those few who could sense such things, it was a place of great power, where a remarkable total of six ley lines overlapped.
Ley lines, supernatural rivers that draw in and distribute the power of the natural world, criss-cross the earth but few know of (or believe in) their existence or how to take advantage of them. Veronica's ancestors knew how. Her grandparents passed to her parents an enormously wealthy and powerful empire, and they in their turn had passed it on to her. With no family for Veronica to pass it to, and no one she had ever found who had the rare abilities needed to harness the power of the place (she had searched for such a person for a long time), she had been forced to concoct a rather odd and risky plan to protect people after she was gone.
Yes, she was more worried about what might happen to people than what might happen to the land. The ley lines would never disappear, the power that flowed through them would continue to flow, but living over them, building over them was dangerous. It would be much safer if the land was left as it was, or became a park. With a few controls in place, the power wouldn't spill out into the surrounding area and affect the densely packed city that surrounded her home. Tonight she would create the shield. Her will, despite her lawyer's objections, specified the controls. She hoped it would be enough.
Veronica ate more at breakfast and lunch than she normally did, feeling unusually hungry. She checked that everything for tonight was setup correctly one more time, and refreshed her cat's food and water. After taking an afternoon nap she dressed carefully for the night to come, then walked slowly out of the house into the gardens. What had once been a simple, effortless five-minute walk was now a cautious fifteen-minute struggle but she reached the circle of stones with time to spare. Sitting on one of the stones to catch her breath, she reached down to pick up an unlit torch that had been placed there for her.
Retrieving a match from a pocket, she lit the torch and held it high, saluting the setting sun. She then slid the handle of the torch into a tube tied to her walker and began to walk around the outside of the circle, chanting in an ancient tongue almost no one today could still speak. In years past there would have been others, men and women, with her and their combined voices would ring through the trees. She missed them, all gone before her.
She made it all the way around. Once back at her starting point she rested again, then walked through a gap in the stones to the center of the circle where a large pile of wood was ready. This year she'd mixed in fresh branches from various trees along with flowers and herbs. She needed every advantage tonight.
Picking up the torch, she braced herself and held it high above her head for almost 30 seconds while she whispered a few more phrases before plunging it under the pile. The dry tinder caught quickly and soon the pile was burning bright and hot. She wondered how many calls 911 would get this year about a fire on her property. Luckily the fire department knew this was what she did every year, so there would be no fire trucks rushing up to her front gate unless she called them herself.
She turned back to the rocks to sit and wait. For the next few hours as the darkness got deeper she sipped hot tea from a thermos, and heard the faint, far-away laughter of trick-or-treaters, the random pops and bangs of fireworks, the rustling of small creatures in the air and the bushes around her. The cat came by twice, checking up on her and getting a few minutes of attention before he wandered off to continue his prowl around the property. At 10pm, the community fireworks show started. For twenty minutes it lit up the sky to the east, and then the night's activities were over ... for everyone but Veronica. Her work was about to begin.
She stood up and carefully stretched the kinks out of her limbs, picked up another unlit torch, then walked up to the fire and threw some more wood onto it. As it flared back up she could see the large flat altar stone near the other side of the circle. It had been years since the altar had been used but Veronica had kept it free of weeds and vines out of respect for the place and its purpose.
She lit the torch from the central fire and walked to the altar. There were piles of wood at the head and both sides, she set fire to all three as she walked once around the stone whispering more words. When she reached the foot of the altar she slid the torch into a clamp on top of a short pole so she had enough light to do what she had to do next. Taking a bone knife from a pocket she dragged the sharp edge across her palm. Pulling open her long coat she pressed her bleeding hand over her heart then leaned forward to place her hand on the stone.
"I reaffirm my promise to protect this land and respect all who are called to it."
She felt the stone vibrate and her hand got warm. She was still acceptable.
"Spirits of air, water, earth and fire hear me. Spirits of friends and family hear me. I am old and in my last days, without another to carry forward the promises of my ancestors. I wish to protect this place from those who might abuse it after I am gone. Help me! Give me the strength, the power, to call another worthy soul to this place and to shield this land until a new guardian comes to protect it."
She waited, but there was no sign that her plea had been heard. She repeated her request several times but there was no response. It was Samhain, the night when the boundary between the living and the dead was the thinnest, when spirits could travel easily and interact with the living. She had made contact before but it had been many years ago and she had not been alone then. She sighed, disappointed, but at least she'd tried.
She lifted her hand from the rock, grabbed the handles of her walker and shuffled back to the central fire. It had to burn for at least twelve hours so she threw more wood on top, preparing herself for a long night. Suddenly she heard someone say her name ... "Ronnie ...".
She knew that voice. Only one had ever been allowed to call her that. She spun around looking for him, moving too quickly and almost falling over.
"Ben!? Ben ... where are you?"
She heard a soft laugh and felt fingers run through her hair. "It is so good to see you again my love."
She shuddered, her heart aching. The only man she had ever loved unconditionally, passionately ... lost when she was 22 years old. He'd been 29 when he became one of the 'missing, presumed dead' during World War II.
She whispered, "Oh Ben ... why you? Anyone but you ..."
"I heard you my darling and I am here to help. What you ask will require the support of many. You must pull them all together here and soon. There isn't much time."
"How do I do that? I've made the blood call. What more can I do?"
There was another laugh, warm and sweet. "You remember the Great Rite don't you? You are asking for that level of energy. The powerful connection between male and female will call forth the spiritual intervention that you need. It's often done symbolically but its most effective if done for real."
"Shit Ben, I'm 94 years old! Nothing ... and I mean absolutely nothing ... works the way it used to. Ain't gonna happen for real for me ever again!"
"I see the years have coarsened your vocabulary a bit my dear ... There is a way, if you trust me. Will you trust me?"
"What are you talking about?"
She saw something shimmer on the other side of the fire, quickly becoming more distinct and solid. Ben, in all his naked glory, as fit and vital as he had been the night before he'd left ... never to return. He held out a hand.
"Come to me. Walk through the fire to me my love."
"THROUGH the fire?! Ben, that's not possible."
"Do you truly want what you asked for at the altar? If you do, you must trust me. Walk through the fire to me. Do it now."
On this night, in this place, she had to believe. Steadying herself with one hand she used the other to undo her coat and let it drop to the ground. Underneath she wore only a simple cotton shift. She left her warm boots on. She moved as close to the fire as she dared with the walker then took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
"Don't close your eyes. Look at me."
Locking her gaze on him, she let go of the walker and took a step forward ... and then another. She could feel a tingling all over her body but no heat or pain. She kept going, reaching out her hand for his. When their fingers brushed together he grabbed her hand, pulled her into his arms and gave her a long hard kiss. Eventually he pushed her an arm's length away and raked his gaze up and down her body.
"Beautiful ... so beautiful ..."
She looked down at her body, twisting her hands in front of her. She was naked, and young again. She could see long black hair falling over one shoulder.
"How? ... "
She started to turn around, to look back at the fire. Ben tightened his grip on her arms, holding her still.
"No. Don't look back. Come with me, there is little time left."
They walked together to the altar. Veronica stepped up onto the stone and knelt in the center facing the moon. She whispered, "I do this of my own free will, without fear or force." Ben knelt behind her, his hands tracing the length of her spine. She heard him say the same words.
She twisted her head to look into his eyes, "You were my first, and you will be my last."
He grinned at her, "And your best?"
She laughed softly, "I'll let you know later ..."
He wrapped a hand around her neck and bent down to whisper in her ear, "Challenge accepted my dear."
His lips met hers, gently at first, then more urgent. He had always taken his time when they had been together. It seemed that no matter how little time they had tonight he was not going to rush. She had missed how incredibly good it felt to touch, stroke, taste someone you loved. The heat built slowly, but steadily, their hands everywhere. When his fingers entered her core, she rode them hard, groaning, several sweet spasms squeezing them as he thumbed her clit.
"Oh Ben ... how I have missed you darling ... please ... please ... fill me, take me my love!"
He pushed her down onto bent arms and entered her from behind, in one slow gentle thrust. He held himself there, placing soft kisses and small bites along her back. She moaned and began to move ... if he wasn't going to, she had to. She heard him laugh, "Such a greedy lover!" She ground herself up and down his length, squeezing muscles and teasing every sensitive spot she knew a man had. She heard his breath quicken, his hands gripped her hips and he began to thrust in sync with her.
She could feel her body straining towards a spectacular finish, aching to fall. "Not yet my love! Say the words, call them all to us now!"
It took every bit of strength she could muster to do what he asked. "Spirits of air, water, earth and fire hear me ... Ben! ... uhhhh ... Spirits of friends ... and family ... hear me ... uhhhh ... I am without another ... to carry forward the promises of my ancestors ... Help me! ... Call another worthy soul to this place ... create a sh .... a shield around this land ... until a new guardian comes to protect this land ... BEN!!!"
Her body arched back violently, every muscle tight and twitching, for the longest time she couldn't take a breath or make a sound. Afterwards she remembered Ben shouting her name, the feel of him buried deep and cumming hard, continuing to thrust himself into her as her body eventually bent forward and sagged down onto the stone ... but in the moment, her body was overloaded and her mind drifted.
The altar stone was shaking, all the circle stones were humming, and she could see the trace of the ley lines glowing along the ground where they met and overlapped inside the circle. The air was snapping with electricity, faint figures were moving around them. Ben held her close as they both repeated her request several times more. Finally, overwhelmed, she closed her eyes and drifted again.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on her back looking up at the sky. Everything above her, around her, seemed to be glowing. She lifted her hands to her face, startled when she realized she could see right through them. "Ben? ... what's happening?"
"You have what you asked for. The spirits are seeking a new guardian. A shield has been made. No one who isn't worthy may set foot here now."
She sighed, relieved and grateful. She sat up, looking west over the gardens towards the house, and panicked! Flames were shooting out of the upper windows, black smoke erupting into the air.
She jumped off the altar, ran forward ... and got stuck at the circle boundary. It was like pushing against sticky jello, there was no way across.
She screamed out, "What's wrong?! Ben, help me!"
She felt him wrap his arms around her from behind, "Dawn is near. Time is moving on without us now."
"But I need to help ... and there are still things I need to do ..."
He sighed sadly, turning her to look her in the eyes. "I know how you feel ... believe me, I know. But we must leave the living to their fate, whatever it may be." He held up their clasped hands, barely visible now, "We are together again my love, a priceless gift don't you agree?"
The rays of the morning sun caressed the circle and then they were gone.
Late June, 2020
Opal had had great plans for the start of the new decade. She'd been struggling for several years, increasingly restless and dissatisfied with her job and her circumstances in general. She'd been dreaming of starting a new life on the west coast. Even though she was not someone who usually took risks she was going change that. On New Year's Eve 2019 she had raised a glass of bubbly, closed her eyes and vowed with all her might that 2020 would be a very different year. Six months later she really understood the meaning of the phrase Be careful what you wish for!
The walls of the apartment she was spending far too much time in seemed to be shrinking around her. The next door neighbours she generally liked were driving her crazy. Her work was conducted through long videoconference sessions with choppy sound and frozen images while she tried to look professional sitting at her kitchen table. She was one of the lucky ones -- she still had her health and a paycheque, at least for now.
Everything was upside down. To keep herself calm, she walked. At least once a day, sometimes twice, she did a circuit through the neighbourhood, carefully keeping her physical distance from everyone else who was doing the same. Opal made sure she smiled and nodded to everyone she passed. It felt awkward and antisocial to have to move away from people all the time but it was necessary.
There was one section of her route where she never encountered anyone else walking. It was a eight square block property where the Robertson mansion, or what was left of it, stood surrounded by high stone walls, a chained-up front gate and wild overgrown grounds. A fire, five years ago, that had taken the life of the last Robertson to live there had been the end for the relic of a bygone era. The whole property had been slated for demolition and new apartment towers were to be built on the site, but the COVID-19 situation had delayed all of that.
Opal didn't mind walking all the way around that property, but it seemed everyone else did. She hadn't grown up in the area, having only moved here in January this year, so all the stories of witches and covens and rituals associated with the Robertson family were just wild tales that didn't frighten her in the least.
Three weeks ago she'd seen a feral cat rush across the ruined driveway behind the chained gate as she walked by. Opal found all creatures fascinating, even spiders and snakes, but she LOVED cats. Stuck in a no-pets apartment, she had immediately volunteered at an animal shelter after she'd gotten settled in the city and had helped trap feral cats for their catch-spay-release program. After spotting the cat she'd phoned the shelter and found out that no one had done any trapping on the Robertson property because no one was allowed entry. Even if they could get in, the program was on hold due to the current COVID crisis. When restrictions were eased, with demolition about to begin, there would be no way any cat caught could be released back to the property so the shelter would have to figure out what to do before any trapping could be attempted.
Opal couldn't just do nothing. She knew that where there was one cat there were likely more. When demolition started they might be killed. They would certainly be driven out of a territory where they could survive into the more developed surrounding area where they'd have a much harder time surviving. She needed to know how big a feral population there was on the property so the shelter could ask for time before demolition to rescue them, and she could start getting any cats there used to coming for food so they could be trapped later.