I turned the light back on.
“Hey, Volusian, how’s it going?”
He stepped forward, blinking with annoyance at the light, just as I’d known he would. He was shorter than me, very solid and humanoid in shape, which indicated a fair amount of power. He had smooth, almost shiny black skin and those narrow red eyes that always unnerved me a little. His ears had a slight point to them.
“I am the same as always, mistress.”
“You know, you never ask how I am. That hurts.”
He answered my lazy smile with a long-suffering scowl. “That is because you are also always the same. You smell of life and blood and sex. And violets. You are a painful reminder of all the things I once was and all the things I will never be again.” He paused thoughtfully. “Actually, the scent of sex is stronger than usual. My mistress has been…busy.”
“Did you just make a joke?”
I said this partially to deflect the sex issue but also to keep teasing him. Volusian was about as damned as a soul could be. I didn’t know what he’d done when alive, but it had been evil enough that someone had cursed him from ever entering the world of the dead. His soul would never find any peace. So he had haunted my world and the Otherworld until I’d discovered him tormenting a suburban family.
He was so powerful, as was his curse, that I had not been strong enough to destroy him and send him on. The best I could have done was cast him to the Otherworld, but I had no guarantees he wouldn’t return. So I’d done the next best thing I could: I’d enslaved him. He was bound to me until I released him or lost control. This way, I dictated his actions. I usually kept him in the Otherworld until I needed him. Teasing him was a way to project confidence in my control, like I wasn’t worried at all. I couldn’t show any weakness with him. He had made it perfectly clear a number of times that he would kill me horrifically if he ever broke free.
He didn’t respond to my last comment. He simply stared. He was only obligated to answer direct questions.
“I need some advice.”
“I do as my mistress commands.” There was an implied until I can choke the breath from her body at the end of that seemingly subservient statement.
“I’m going to be crossing over into the Otherworld soon. Physically.”
That almost surprised him. Almost. “My mistress is foolish.”
“Thanks. I have to find a human girl that some horny gentry abducted.”
He reconsidered. “My mistress is brave and foolish.”
“She was taken by a guy named Aeson. Do you know him?”
“He is king of the Alder Land. Powerful. Very powerful.”
“Stronger than me?”
Volusian stayed silent, thinking. “Your powers do not diminish in the Otherworld, as some humans’ do. Even so, he will still be at his full strength. It would be a close battle. Were you to fight him in this world, there would be no contest. He would be weaker by far.”
“I don’t think I can manage that. What about you guys? I’m going to bring you along. Will it help?”
“I feared my mistress would say that. Yes, of course it will help. You know my binds force me to protect you, no matter how much angst it causes me.”
“Aw, don’t sound so glum. Think of it as job security.”
“Make no mistake, mistress. I may protect you now, but as soon as I have the chance, I will rip the flesh from your body and tear your bones apart. I will ensure you suffer so gravely that you will beg me for death. Yet, even then, your soul will not find relief. I will torture it for all eternity.”
He spoke in a flat tone, not as a threat, but simply as a statement of fact. Honestly, after my week of propositions, statements about my impending death were kind of a refreshing return to normality.
“Looking forward to it, Volusian.” I yawned and sat on the bed. “Anything else constructive you’ve got to offer? In rescuing the girl, I mean.”
“I suspect my mistress is too…set in her ways for my advice, but you could solicit help.”
“Solicit it from whom? I don’t have anyone else to go to.”
“Not in this world you don’t.”
It took me a moment to get what he was saying. “No. No way. I’m not going to some gentry or spirit for help. Not like they’d give it anyway.”
“I would not be so certain of that, mistress.”
Gentry were petty and dishonest. They had no regard for anyone but themselves. No way would I appeal to one. No way would I trust one.
Volusian watched me. When he saw I would not respond, he said: “It is as I thought. My mistress will not hear anything she doesn’t want to. She is too stubborn.”
“No, I’m not. I’m always open to things.”
“As you say, mistress.”
The look on his face somehow managed to be angelic and scream you fucking hypocrite all at the same time. “All right,” I said impatiently, “let’s hear it.”
“There is another king, Dorian, who rules the Oak Land. He and Aeson hate each other – in a polite-faced, political manner, of course.”
“No surprise there. I’m surprised they aren’t all turning on each other. That doesn’t mean he’d help me.”
“I believe Dorian would be very happy to see someone come and kill off Aeson. Especially if he did not have to actually do it himself. He might offer a great deal of assistance to see you do it.”
“‘Might’ being the operative word. So you’re suggesting I just show up at his door and ask for help?”
Volusian inclined his head in the affirmative.
“Have I ever killed or cast out any of his people?”
“Then I think it’s ‘likely’ he’d kill me the moment I set foot on his land. I can’t imagine any gentry’s keen on letting their biggest assassin in the door.”
I wasn’t touting ego in that statement. Much like Volusian’s death threats, I simply stated a fact. I knew my own worth and reputation as far as the Otherworld was concerned. I mean, it wasn’t like I was reaching genocide levels or anything; I just had more notches on my belt than most.
“Dorian has…an odd sense of humor. It might amuse him to welcome an enemy like you. He would enjoy the sensation it would cause among others.”
“So he uses me for entertainment and then kills me.” I couldn’t believe Volusian was even suggesting a plan like this. He hated me, but he also knew me. If he hadn’t had such a stick up his ass, I would have sworn he was messing with me. Yet, his bindings forced him to sincerely give the best of his counsel if I asked it.
“If he gives you his word of hospitality, he is honor-bound to keep you safe.”
“Since when do gentry keep their word? Or have honor?”
Volusian regarded me carefully. “May I speak bluntly, mistress?”
“As opposed to usual?”
“Your hatred of the gentry blinds you to their true nature. You are also blind to the only thing that might let you escape this mad scheme alive – not that I would mind if you were torn to bloody shreds by Aeson’s people. But whatever else you believe, one of the gentry will stake his life on his word. They keep their oaths better than humans.”
I honestly didn’t believe that. No matter how much I might need help with this, it wasn’t worth it. I would not make a deal with the devil.
“No. I won’t do it.”
Volusian gave a small shrug. “As my mistress wishes. It makes no difference if you speed your own death. I cannot die, after all.”
I stared at him in exasperation. He stared back. Shaking my head, I stood up for another summoning.
“Okay, if that’s all, I’m gonna call the rest of the gang.”
He hesitated. “May I…ask my mistress a question first?”
I turned in surprise. Volusian was the epitome of don’t-speak-until-spoken-to. He only answered what was asked of him. He did not seek out other information. This was new. Wow. What a week of earth-shattering events.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“You do not trust me.”
“That’s not a question, but no, I don’t.”
“Yet…you came to me for advice first. Before you spoke to the others. Why?”
It was a good question. I was about to summon two other minions. I didn’t trust them either, but they had more reason to show loyalty than Volusian. They did not describe my graphic death on a regular basis.
“Because no matter what else you may be, you’re smarter than they are.” I could have elaborated on that, but I didn’t. That was really all there was to it.
He thought about this for a long time. “My mistress is less foolish than she normally appears.” I think it was the closest he could come to thanking me for a compliment – or giving one.
I took out the wand and summoned my other two spirits. I didn’t bother with candles or darkness because these ones were easier to call – especially since I was technically only “requesting” one to come, not ordering him.
The coldness and pressure came again, and then two other forms appeared. Volusian stepped back, arms crossed, not looking impressed. The two newcomers glanced around, taking note that I had gathered all of them. The three of them never interacted much in my viewing, but I always wondered if maybe they hung out for coffee or something in the Otherworld and made fun of me. Kind of like how people make fun of their boss after work during happy hour.
Still affecting unconcerned, lazy control, I unwrapped a Milky Way and sat back on my bed again. Leaning against the wall, I surveyed my team.
Nandi was less powerful than Volusian, so she had a less substantial form in this world. She appeared as a translucent, opalescent figure that seemed vaguely female in shape. Centuries ago, she had been a Zulu woman accused of witchcraft by her people. They had killed her and, like Volusian, cursed her from finding rest. Unlike Volusian’s, I could break this curse and send her on to the land of death. I had encountered her haunting this world, more frightening than harmful, and bound her in service to me in exchange for eventual peace. I had demanded three years of loyalty, one of which she had fulfilled. When the other two were up, I would let her pass on. Whereas Volusian always seemed sullen and sarcastic, Nandi was always sad. She was the poster child for a lost soul. A real downer.
Finn, however, was a different story. Of the three, only he looked happy to be here. He too was not powerful enough to have a solid form. He translated to this plane as small and glittering, barely there, much like how humans perceived Disney-type pixies. I had no claims on Finn. He had started hanging around because he found me entertaining. So he popped up from time to time, followed me, and would generally come when called. I had the power to force his service, but – even as much as I disliked all things from the Otherworld – I was hard-pressed to do so without provocation. I didn’t entirely trust anyone who offered help so freely, but he had never given me reason to doubt him either. Indeed, he’d always been very helpful. I had no idea what his story was, if he too was a cursed spirit. I’d never pressed for the details.
His shining body settled upon my dresser. “Hey, Odile, what’s new? Why do you smell like sex? Did you get some? Why are we all here?” Too much exposure to my world and television had given him a better grasp of our slang than the others.
I ignored the questions. “Hey, Finn, hey, Nandi.” The female spirit merely nodded in acknowledgment of the greeting. “So,” I said in my best boardroom voice, “I’m sure you’re all wondering why I called you here today.” None of them found that funny, so I just kept going. “Well, brace yourselves: I’m going to be paying you guys a visit. In the flesh. The real deal.”
Nandi showed no reaction whatsoever. Finn leapt up in excitement. “Really? Truly? When? Now?”
Nice to know someone appreciated me. I debriefed them, telling them the story. Volusian leaned against my wall, letting his body language convey to me what an utter waste of his time it was to have to hear this all again.
Finn’s enthusiasm diminished a little. “Oh. Well. That’s ballsy but also kind of…”
“Foolish,” said Nandi in her typically gloomy monotone. “It will end in despair. Dark, bitter despair. You will die, and I will never know peace. My suffering will be without end.”
“Never thought I’d hear you two agree with Volusian.”
Finn shrugged. “It is a good cause, honest. But you can’t really just walk into Aeson’s castle and take the girl. Not that I’m saying you aren’t tough enough or anything. You’ll just need a plan. A really good one. Yeah. What’s your plan?”
“Um, well…to walk into his castle and take the girl.”
Volusian sighed loudly. It was hard to tell with those red slits, but I think he rolled his eyes.
I shot him an angry glance. “Hey, it’s a hell of a lot better than your plan. Would you like to share it with the rest of the class?”
When he finished, Finn said, “Now, that’s a good plan.”
I threw my hands up. “No, it’s not. It’s a horrible plan. I’m not asking one of the gentry for help.”
“King Dorian might help you,” offered Nandi, “although his help would most likely only offer a brief flaring of hope, which would then make our ultimate defeat that much more tragic.”
“Stop with the maudlin crap, Nandi.” I wished they made ghost Prozac. “Anyway, it’s a moot point. We’re taking on Aeson directly. End of discussion.”
I gave them the time and location of our meeting spot, binding them to silence about the plan. I had to take it on faith that Finn wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag, but once he’d reconciled himself to my possible demise, he seemed pretty stoked about the whole idea.
“I have one more question for all of you before I release you. In the last week, three denizens from the Otherworld knew my name. What’s going on? How many of them know who I am?”
None of the spirits answered right away. Finally, in a voice that sounded like he couldn’t believe I was asking, Finn said, “Why, everyone. Well, almost everyone. Everyone that counts. It’s all they’ve been talking about for the last couple of weeks. Odile Dark Swan is Eugenie Markham. Eugenie is Odile.”
I stared. “Everyone’s been talking about this?”
The three spirits nodded.
“And none of you – none of you! – thought this was worth bringing to my attention?”
More silence. Finally Nandi, compelled to answer any direct question, merely said, “You did not ask, mistress.”
“Yes,” agreed Volusian dryly. “Had you summoned us and asked, ‘Is my name known in the Otherworld?’ then we would have readily answered.”
“Thank you, mistress.”
“It wasn’t a compliment.” I ran a hand through my hair. “How did this happen?”
“Maybe someone guessed,” said Finn.
Volusian cut him a glance. “Do not be an even bigger fool than you already are.” The dark spirit turned back to me. “Not all creatures come to this world to fight you. Some may have spied. For someone quiet, discovering your identity would not have been so difficult.”
“What are they saying, then? Are they all going to try to kill me?”
“Some are,” said Finn. “But most of them are weak. You could probably take them in a fight.”
“Unfortunately,” added Volusian.
Great. This was not good news. Some part of me had been hoping only a few knew, but now it seemed my identity was the gossip du jour in the Otherworld. I wondered if it would be worthwhile to find a local witch and set wards around my house. I could also keep the spirits on permanent guard duty, but I didn’t really know if my patience was up for large doses of their idiosyncrasies.
“All right, then. Get out of here. Come back at the time we set up. Oh, and if any of you hear anything that might be useful about Aeson and the girl, come tell me. Do not wait until I explicitly ask you.” Those last words were a growl.
Finn vanished instantly, but Nandi and Volusian watched me expectantly.
I sighed. “By flesh and spirit, I release you from service until next I call. Depart to the next world in peace and do not return until my summons.”
The spirits faded into nothing, and I was left alone.