Luke was still nowhere to be found.
Harriet paid for a taxi back to Gran’s flat and Alli gave the address to the driver. The journey took thirty minutes and Harriet sat in silence for the entire time, her gaze cast out and watching the streets as they rolled by. Alli studied her aunt’s countenance while she was unnoticed. Her heart trembled as she thought that this could be what her mother would have looked like this day, had she not perished in the fire. She was gripped by an aching curiosity to catch her aunt’s attention so she could study that face full on. Alli could see the resemblance between herself and her aunt; they had the same straight Grecian nose and pale complexion, they had the same hair colour and face shape, but where Harriet’s eyes were a bright and piercing blue, Alli’s eyes were a hazy blue-grey a colour she probably inherited from her father. But other than minute differences they could be mother and daughter. There was a foreign ache in Alli, a need that she had not felt since childhood; a need to know her mother. Having her mother’s twin sitting across from her in the cab only enhanced that ache, that greed. But there was something interminably absent in her aunt, she could sense that still even now she was being nice to her niece, Alli was still very aware of the coldness in Harriet that she had initially displayed. First impressions left lasting impressions, Alli was always taught, and Harriet’s first impression left much to be desired by an estranged niece.
They pulled up outside the apartment building and Harriet paid the driver while Alli waited at the curb.
“Where is your luggage?” Alli asked her aunt, suddenly noticing its absence.
Harriet eyed the building with another of her sneers, “Faye is bringing it.” She said and Alli’s stomach flipped.
“Faye’s here?” She asked.
The day had already begun to darken; the sun was all but concealed by thickening rain clouds low in the sky casting little but a grey hue on the world. The air was getting colder as the end of the day drew near and Alli wished she had brought a coat or jacket, but they would be inside soon.
Harriet ignored Alli’s question and moved ahead to the gate. It was in desperate need of oiling and Alli was harshly reminded of this when Harriet, in her spotless, creaseless suit, pushed it open and grimaced. The path, too, was a little overgrown, the grass on either side had not been mown in several weeks and the flower bush, which was no longer in bloom, was looking decrepit and lifeless with the leaves and remains of the flower heads sagging towards the ground. Alli saw her aunt’s sharp eye take all of this in with a barely concealed sneer and she felt a little tickle of shame at not living in splendour, as she knew Harriet and her daughters did having married into wealth.
She brushed past her aunt, that tickle of shame quickly morphing into annoyance; how dare this woman judge them or their home? Whatever had conspired between her and Gran, Alli was certain that Gran would have tried to make it up to her, or at least would have apologised if she had been wrong, which meant that Harriet in all her arrogant nobility had shunned her own mother all these years. Besides if she thought that the entrance was beneath her, she was going to have a shock when she saw the apartment which was clean but lived in by an avid artist.
The neighbour, Dorothy was sitting on the stairs with Gideon curled up in her lap snoozing. She was evidently waiting for Alli to get back and concern mingled with relief flashed across her face when she saw Alli and her aunt below. She jumped to her feet, knocking a now angry Gideon to the floor; he shot her a look of haughty disdain and sauntered off with his tail high.
“Honey, how is she?” Dorothy asked Alli pulling her into an awkward hug on the stairs. “Who’s this?” She asked, glancing over at Harriet.
“This is my aunt,” Alli said.
Dorothy nodded her greeting briefly and still holding Alli’s shoulders searched her eyes, “And Elise?”
Alli’s shoulders slumped, and fresh tears threatened, “She’s in a coma.” She said quietly.
“But- what happened?”
Harriet’s firm grip was suddenly on her wrist and urging her up the stairs, “The hospital may know more in the morning. I must get Allison to her home now; she needs to rest. Quite a shock the poor girl has received, I’m sure you will agree, miss?”
“Parks, Dorothy Parks. Yes,” she said, somewhat dazed. “I’m sure Alli needs to rest.”
And before Alli could bid Dorothy a proper goodnight she had been steered to the top of the stairs by strong hands and her keys had been compromised. Harriet did not fumble with the bunch and quickly selected the correct key; she opened the door and nudged Alli in first.
Alli automatically flipped on the light upon entering and was at once harshly reminded of the afternoon’s events. Paint supplies lay scattered about the floor and Gran’s candle and incense stick still lay in their position on the coffee table, both had been doused before Gran had been moved to the hospital but the sickly-sweet scent of them still filled the room.
Harriet made a quiet sound in the back of her throat and closed the door behind her. She brushed her fingertip across the untouched canvas on Gran’s easel and Alli could see the first real human emotion that her aunt had displayed since meeting her, regret. “This belonged to mamman?” She asked softly.
Alli nodded, “She paints.”
Harriet smiled up at Alli, her eyes glittering, “I remember.”
Alli hesitated, watching the reverent way her aunt was beholding Gran’s equipment, “What happened that you and Gran didn’t speak for so long?” she asked finally.
A darker emotion crossed Harriet’s face before she hid it away with, “That is a story for another time.” She said, she brushed her hands together sharply. “Are you tired, niece? Or would you like to wait up for Faye to arrive?”
Alli glanced at the clock it was barely six pm, she couldn’t sleep now even if she wanted to, “I’ll wait. What time is she coming?”
“Her flight should have landed ten minutes ago; she will contact me soon for the address and should be here an hour or so after that.”
“And Eliza?” Alli asked curiously.
“She is taking care of her father, next week his nurse will be back from vacation and Eliza will likely join us here if the situation is not resolved by then.”
Alli remembered Faye telling her over their email conversations that her father was sick, but Alli hadn’t like to ask what was wrong with him. Now, though, she started to think that perhaps it was worse than she had first imagined if Mr Augustine needed a nurse. She nodded awkwardly not knowing what to say next.
“Faye and I will spend the night here, and then tomorrow we will seek our own accommodation. If, as I predict, this ordeal is going to last a while, we will need our own space.” Harriet said. Her eyes were roaming around the apartment, taking in every last detail with a sharp appraisal that made Alli squirm inside.
Alli took her leave of her aunt to in the guise of changing her clothes; her real intention was to see if Luke was waiting for her in the bedroom. She had been surreptitiously trying to spy him in the apartment and had not yet seen any sign of him. She was disappointed, too, in the bedroom. He wasn’t sitting in his usual chair waiting for her to come home with a sarcastic or dramatic comment. She quietly closed the door behind her and finally let the tears come.
She only allowed herself ten minutes of complete despair before changing into a fresh pair of jeans and a sweater and going back to her aunt to play hostess. Loneliness and grief lay heavy on her heart.
Faye arrived at the apartment with a large suitcase half an hour after Harriet’s predicted time. By then the rain had begun and she was dripping and cold. Alli hurried down the stairs to help her cousin up with the suitcase.
Faye was as tall as her mother with the same striking eyes, but she favoured her father, it seemed, as the resemblance stopped there. She had a thicket of black curly hair and a slim, almost skeletal frame. Despite the rain and her sodden clothes, she was cheerful enough and delighted to see Alli bound down the stairs to help. “Allison?” She exclaimed. “My god you look just like Eliza!”
Alli embraced her cousin, grinning for the first time in hours, “Do I?” She asked absently. “You must be freezing! Come up and I’ll make you a nice hot tea.”
She grabbed one side of the case and they wrestled it up the stairs together, both panting when they reached the top, “Jeeze, what did you pack?” Alli laughed.
Harriet was sitting quaintly on the sofa; she had pulled back the paint speckled throw so she wouldn’t sully her clothes and watched Faye and Alli come back inside.
“Mamman,” Faye said once they had dropped the case and closed the door. She went to her mother and kissed her on one cheek. “Tell me why we were summoned here.”
Faye sat on the floor by her mother’s knee, as comfortable as if she was sitting on a chair. Alli planted herself awkwardly in the armchair and listened to their quick conversation. Alli had grown up around the French language, so she was able to discern the gist of their conversation.
“And you already know Allison, don’t you daughter?” Harriet finished.
Faye smiled kindly at Alli, “We speak online, mamman.”
Harriet waved away the explanation, “The next thing we must do is figure out why Elise has done this.”
Alli didn’t miss the fact that Harriet had ceased referring to Gran as ‘mamman’ in the presence of her own daughter.
“Tell me how you found her?” She asked Alli.
Alli jumped at being directly addressed and felt her cheeks blossom with a blush; she had already decided that she would not tell her aunt about the black-eyed man until she herself knew what was really going on, some inner warning bell advising her to be careful around Harriet. She considered leaving Luke out of her narrative also, but she had an idea that her relatives would believe in the existence of her dead friend as if he were just a regular boy, she quickly recounted the past few days when Gran had been jittery and scared, and then told them of how she sent Luke ahead to make sure Gran was home, as expected both her aunt and cousin did not even blink at the mention of her ghost friend. She left out the black-eyed man entirely and finished her narrative with Harriet arriving at the hospital with her.
Harriet considered Alli for a long moment before replying, her sharp blue eyes alert, “Where is Luke now?” She asked. “I wish to question him.”
Alli took a deep breath, “He left just after I came in and found Gran, I haven’t seen him since.” She said, only lying by omission.
Those piercing eyes gave Alli the impression that her aunt suspected her of lying and she tried to look as innocent as possible. Her aunt traced her lower lip with one thin finger, regarding Alli deep in thought, “Tell me, Allison,” she said at last. “How is it that you have lived a life of normality, you know of no demons, and are not a hunter, and yet you have powerful psychic powers?”
Alli blinked, “I…”
Faye’s eyes widened at her mother’s question, “What do you mean she knows nothing of demons?” She asked. “She has a spirit guide; of course, she’s a hunter!”
Alli shook her head vehemently, “No, I’m not a hunter; I don’t even know what you mean.” She admitted.
“She’s not lying,” Harriet said to Faye, who looked at Alli with shock.
“Mamman, you said that Elise was a formidable hunter.” Faye said.
Harriet stared directly at Alli, making her feel itchy and uncomfortable, “She was.” She said simply. “Allison, did you know that your grandmother raised me and your mother to be demon hunters, like her?”
Alli shook her head, lost for words. She wanted to deny her aunt, accuse her of lying. But she herself was proof of the supernatural with her abilities, her psychic powers, as Harriet had called them.
Harriet went on, “I assumed that you, too, had been raised in the way that we had been. A natural assumption considering the same woman raised us.” Her eyes flashed. “However, I found you to be naive and not in the least what I was expecting.”
Alli was overcome with the sudden urge to apologise for being such a disappointment, but she refrained.
“And yet, you do have power. I felt it plainly in the hospital when you tried to touch my mind. The question of why Elise did not train you is the one I will be focussing on, for I feel that by finding the answer to that we may then begin to piece together the events that unfolded here.”
“But I don’t know why.” Alli said, annoyed at herself for sounding like an errant child.
“Did Elise know of your powers?” Harriet asked.
Alli shrugged awkwardly, “She did, but we haven’t spoken about them in years.”
“She must have taught you to control some of them?” Harriet asked, “I remember myself struggling as a child with the unwanted thoughts of others. Elise was the one to teach me how to block them out. Did she not do the same for you?”
Alli shook her head, mute.
Harriet shook her head, “Curious indeed.” She said, “Your mother was not blessed with mind-reading as we are; she was a master of mind control.”
“She was?” Alli exclaimed.
“There was not a human I ever saw who could deny her when she exercised her power over them.” Harriet said with pride. “She didn’t need to read minds when she could simply order a person to tell them their inner thoughts and secrets.”
Alli shook her head; this was all so unreal. Yesterday she was a normal girl with a normal Grandmother, who simply accepted that she was born with a few ‘quirks’ that let her read minds, see ghosts, move objects etc. Now she was learning that she was descended from a line of demon hunters, the placid grandmother she had been raised by was, in Harriet’s words, a formidable hunter which left the question; “Why didn’t Gran tell me any of this?” Alli asked out loud.
Harriet continued staring at Alli, her expression thoughtful. “I would not presume that it was out of love that she kept this information from you. After all, this is the same woman who dragged her twin daughters around hunting with her because she was so obsessed with the life.”
Alli shook her head again, “It doesn’t sound like the same woman.” She said, sounding defeated. Had her whole life been a lie? Or was this just some elaborate joke? She didn’t know what to think about Gran, but she could tell from Harriet’s bright eyes that she was not insane, and this was not a joke. This meant that Gran had kept things from Alli, big secrets. She had known about Alli’s powers and done nothing to help her with them, had known about demons and not warned her. Alli’s heart ached; she longed to ask her Gran why she had done this. But Gran wasn’t here. If all of this was to be believed, Gran had left her body and run off somewhere Allie could not follow, she had left her here to discover the lie of her life through her distant aunt.
“I think Allison has heard enough for one night,” Faye said to her mother, her brows drawn in sympathy.
Harriet narrowed her eyes, “She needs to know.” She countered. “It is unacceptable that she doesn’t already.”
“And it can’t be helped now.” Faye said calmly. “She has had a shock tonight with Elise, and now she is being bombarded with information that a day ago she would have dismissed as madness. See reason, mamman. There is nothing you can tell her tonight that you can’t tell her in the morning.”
Alli smiled her thanks at her cousin, she was starting to feel very overwhelmed by all of this and just wanted to lie down and process it all.
Anger flared in Harriet’s eyes an instant before she doused it, “Very well.” She said curtly. She turned to Alli, “Faye and I will take Elise’s bedroom tonight.” She said.
Alli nodded in agreement, even though it gave her a pang to think of someone else in Gran’s bed. She excused herself not long after getting her aunt and cousin settled in Gran’s room and shut her bedroom door behind her gratefully. She was glad to be alone with her thoughts now and didn’t think that sleep would come for a long time. There was too much going around and around in her head.
Could Harriet possibly be talking about the same Elise as Alli’s Gran? A woman who loved to paint and loved coffee more than she should, a woman who treated her granddaughter to a trip to the zoo once a year and took her camping in the summer to the coast; a woman who had been keeping secrets from her granddaughter all along.
Alli curled up on her bed, not bothering with the sheets only needing the comfort of her pillow. She drew Mike the bear into her arms and held him as she once did as a child in the care home, before Gran and before Luke. She was as lonely now as before, bereft of both of them. Where was Luke? Had the black-eyed man done something to him?
Alli cried herself to sleep that night.
In the next room, mother and daughter were silently discussing the situation.
“Mamman, how can this be?” Faye asked quietly. “She knows nothing of us or Elise, nothing of demons. Her powers are probably fragile and weak from lack of training.”
Harriet inclined her head, “I think you are mistaken about her powers.” She said slowly. “Why else would Elise shut her away from her heritage?”
“That doesn’t make sense, mamman!” Faye snapped.
Harriet’s eyes seemed to glow in the dim lamp light, “I have told you before how strict Elise was in raising me and my sister. She put the safety of the world before her own children, rightly so as any huntress should do.” She said, reminding Faye of her own harsh upbringing. “Elise would do the same for her grandchildren, she spent many years with you and had just begun training Eliza. The only reason Allison was not trained was because my sister walked away from the life. She abandoned me and my mother and the cause for a man.” She sounded bitter, and Faye felt a mirror rage in herself at the injustice, she knew only too well how important their job was to the world. “Most likely that is why she was killed.”
“A demon?” Faye asked, still hushed.
Harriet nodded, “Elise was with you in training, do you remember that day? She had summoned a lesser demon for you to practise on.”
Faye nodded; she did remember that day. She remembered it very well, it was the same day her father had been injured and left bedridden.
“Her spirit guide informed her of the planned attack on Rose and her husband. Elise tried to warn Rose, but she refused to listen.” Harriet was sitting very still, her hands clasped in her lap. “That was when Elise left. She left you alone with the demon and it nearly killed your father.” Her hands tightened and her fingers were bloodless white. “Elise caught the first plane to England, but she was too late. Rose and her husband were killed in a fire. The child escaped through a window.”
“Are you sure it was a demon?” Faye asked, taking her mother’s hand to try and soothe her.
Harriet nodded, her eyes glassy, “Oh, oui, it was a demon. Elise had many enemies in the demon world, enemies who would relish the chance to slaughter her children. Rose, too, had killed her fair share of demons in her time before she quit for England.”
“She should have known.” Faye said. “She should have remembered.”
Harriet smiled grimly, “My sister was a hopeless romantic. She had the power to be a great huntress, but she lacked the heart for it. I can quite imagine her sitting with Roger, the warning from Elise still fresh in her mind. But she would have felt safe, at home, and loved. She believed that evil could not touch her there. She thought she was protected.”
Faye shook her head, “She was wrong.”
“Indeed,” Harriet took her hand back from her daughter. “The Elise that I knew would have snatched up that surviving child and taught it everything she knew about the demon world; she would have been rigorous especially through her grief.” She narrowed her eyes. “So why didn’t she?”
“Perhaps she wished to raise Allison in the way Rose would have wanted?” Faye suggested.
“That sounds plausible, but no, I don’t think that is why.”
“Then why, mamman?” Faye asked eagerly.
Harriet’s lips twitched, “All in good time, ma petite.”
He dumped the spirit back into the spirit world, where it would either recover or simply fade out of existence. It was a pitiful thing, as were all ghosts. They were shadows of their former human selves; unable to move on upon death because of some sort of unfinished business. Pathetic. Demon’s rarely spent time on such beings, choosing instead to ignore or destroy them.
Since this one had no useful information, he should just end its existence now and be done with it. But when he moved to do so, an image of a round angelic face and twin grey orbs rose to his mind’s eye, and he refrained. Perhaps the ghost would be of use to the girl.
So, he left it in the spirit world where it would slowly revive if it was strong enough.
He teleported himself back to the flat where Elise had lived, in the dim hope that her soul might have returned there. It was late and the place was seemingly deserted. He stood in the middle of the lounge and cast his gaze about the darkened room. The candle and incense that the huntress had used to separate her soul were still sitting where they had been earlier, only now there were several used mugs littered on the coffee table, which meant someone had been here.
He moved towards the bedrooms, being cautious but not worried.
From the master bedroom came a hushed conversation in French, he cocked his head and made out a familiar voice, at least he guessed who it might be. If it was Harriet Augustine in there, which was likely considering she and Allison were related, he should be careful not to be seen. Not that he feared the huntress, but he would rather not have a standoff right now.
Instead, he turned to the second bedroom and pressed his ear to the door. In his spirit form his heart didn’t beat, but he fancied that if it did it would be racing right now. In his mind’s eye he drew up the image of her as she had been earlier today; her dark hair loose around her shoulders, framing her face with sumptuous waves. Her soft grey eyes had been alight with fear and urgency; her whole face had been pale and scared, the strength in her was almost palpable, he could taste her courage in the air. The last time he had seen her had been when she was five-years old, and he was jumping out of the second story window with her nestled in his arms. Twelve long years had passed between then and now, and not a day had gone by when he hadn’t thought of her. His first glimpse of her today after such a long time had stolen away his breath and stilled him completely. A woman, she had become. He remembered holding her against his chest, her slight frame fragile and delicate, and her sleeping face sweet and unaffected by the death and destruction unfolding in her life. He had loved her then, completely. He had fooled himself over the years into thinking that that love had diminished, been corrupt by time. But a fool he was, because upon seeing her again that one raw emotion had risen like a tide within him, threatening to drown his sanity.
He pressed his palm to the door and closed his eyes. For any other human he would have been able to read their minds to see if they were sleeping or not, but because of her huntress blood, he could not touch her.
Unable to deny himself, he passed through the door as a ghost. The room was dark, but the curtains weren’t drawn, the moonlight streamed in casting its creamy glow across her face making her look as ethereal as an angel. His breath caught at the sight of her, curled up on top of the bed, one hand limply around that old bear he had rescued for her and the other tucked under her cheek. She was sleeping. He could see the dried moisture around her eyes and her darkened lashes that meant she had been crying and his shrivelled and blackened heart ached for her.
God damn fate that he should be the one to cause her such suffering…
A foreign ache within him had him approaching the bed. He studied her smooth features and yearned to touch her, to taste her, to claim her. Her lips were slightly parted in her slumber, a decadent invitation that begged for his kiss. He gritted his teeth against the desire that burned hot and heavy in his gut. He had been dead for such a long time, a demon for almost as long as that, and he could not remember ever feeing such a host of emotions and longing. Something about this girl had awakened a dormant lover and mate inside him, and that side of him demanded that he claim her.
Against his better judgement he reached out very slowly and brushed his fingers across her cheek, removing a stray strand of hair. Her skin was soft, and warm. She moved with his caress and a small frown creased her brow. He stilled completely in fear and sweet expectation of her waking. But she slept on.
Disappointed and relieved at the same time, he let out a long, shaking breath. His fingers found the softness of her cheek again and trailed down the supple curve of her jaw, he could not stop the groan that escaped his throat.
Her eyes snapped open, and he teleported out in the same instant.
Alli sat bolt upright, certain that she had felt something. She cupped her cheek, the lingering brush of fingers fresh on her skin. She had seen him, too, she was sure of it. Leaning over her bed, his black eyes glowing from the reflection of the moonlight.
She shook her head, her gaze seeking every corner of the room. There was clearly no one here. She must have been dreaming, she reasoned. Her heart was racing from the sudden jolt of wakefulness. She lay back down, this burrowing under the sheets for warmth.
© Emma Stead
Begin the story here – Merely Mortal, Chapter One –