Halloween is the start of a magical time. The seasons are changing from the bright, innocent months to the darkness and intimacy of winter. Homes become beacons in shadowy nights that seem to linger. Kids glow with the anticipation of their favorite holiday, grownups switch to warm beverages, and there’s a coziness permeating every human thought.
I hate it. I hate all of its high-fructose bits right up to its stupid, latex-masked face.
I want to do all of those things the other people are doing, but as I said—it’s a magical time of year. The various spiritual worlds are all closer to our reality at this season, which may be part of the coziness, but also means that banishers are on red alert from All Hallow’s to the Winter Solstice, pushing back booga-boogas like it’s some sort of twisted version of Whack-A-Mole. So here I am, unpacking my ritual components on the floor of an unheated barn positively covered in spiderwebs, hoping to send this creature back so I can go look for the next one. The monster-banishing part itself wouldn’t be so bad—I could banish things all day, every day. It’s the humans who insist that their monsters are miracles that really make things difficult. If I have to comfort one more teenage meal-to-be about the sudden, forced disappearance of their two-hundred year old werewolf sugar daddy, I’m going to spontaneously combust.
“Duck!” I shout to my sister, Ophelia, as the creature we’re chasing throws a horse shoe at her face. I cover my own in sympathetic fear.
“I thought Bill said we were chasing a goblin!” she shouts back, narrowly deflecting the projectile with her armored forearm.
“That is what he said!” I reply, standing up from the now-useless ritual I had been constructing. My foot sprays the pure-white linen cloth with dirt from the floor of the barn-turned-garage currently serving as this monster’s house.
“So why am I chasing a nuno, Summer!” Lia demands.
“I don’t know! Just try to catch it, I think we can fix it!” My mind races through options to bring this back in line. There’s nothing for it. I’ll have to start a new ritual, I think. A shovel falls where I’m standing, and I jump out of its way as Lia darts past me after the little man-demon.
“Hurry up, it won’t be long ‘til he finds the tractor keys,” Lia says over the din of more falling objects.
I run towards the car until another loud crash causes me to turn back. My sister spins away from some other object to track the bearded spirit-of-an-anthill as it runs through the rafters. Why an anthill needed its own spirit, and why it’s so rude is a mystery for the gods. It jumps down onto a tractor in the middle of the garage, and she slaps her butterfly net down on the seat, only just missing the monster as it springs to another perch, cackling madly.
Reassured that she’s not been buried under a pile of scrap metal, I throw open the trunk of our SUV and rummage frantically through dozens of boxes containing our arsenal and an assortment of ritual components. We should really color code them for emergencies like this.
“He spit on me!” Lia yells indignantly from inside.
I wince, chucking another box into the backseat. Nuno spit is poisonous, causing welts, boils or burning sensations, depending on where it gets you.
“I’m gonna fix it! I’ll fix it!” I shout over another crash.
I grab all of my new components and run back into the barn with my arms full, tripping over shovels, rakes and the miscellaneous other farm equipment that keeps raining down on us.
“Of all the clumsy, ignorant mistakes…” I hear my sister mutter as the nuno dives into a bale of hay.
The Filipino monster and Lia continue their destructive dance around the barn while I quickly draw my new banishing circle.
“Oh great Kan Laon,” I start the new ritual, sneezing from the hay kicked into the air by the creature’s antics. “We are honored by your benevolence.” I fight with a match to get the incense burning, dropping the flame into a small brazier with specially prepared woods waiting to ignite. “Please accept these gifts, and smile upon your neighbors.” I hastily add some rice, tobacco, and a packet of special herbs to the small fire. I finish my prayer, sitting back to wait and to watch my sister cavort with the mischievous spirit.
“How we doin’?” she asks as a length of rope falls down on top of her. I hold up my hand to show that I can’t talk right now. Rituals are serious business. After a certain point, you can’t mess around anymore or you risk ruining—or worse, profaning—the whole thing. Kan Laon probably wouldn’t punish me for messing up his ritual, which is one of the reasons I invoke him when we’re dealing with the Filipino pantheon. He’s much more charitable than some of their other gods. One of them once lightning-fried a dude for knocking on the door. While I hope someone has since informed him that a “no soliciting” sign would probably work just as well, I’m not taking any chances.
I hold my breath as the space I’ve drawn on the floor begins glowing, and a door to Kan Laon’s home bubbles up from the ground. From my spot next to the portal, I can see down into the heart of a volcano, and feel its heat on my face. In the center of the angry mountain sits an old, bearded man on an intricate bench, peacefully smoking a pipe. He catches my eye briefly and nods before turning his attention back inward. Kan Laon has vowed not to interact with mortals until he’s smoked his entire stash, which I think is a sentiment most of us entertain from time to time. The fumes from the molten rock and his constant pipe smoke waft over me and I am filled with a sense of well-being.
“Gotcha!” Lia yells over the roar of the boiling lava, breaking the reverence of the moment.
I look up and see that she’s finally managed to trap the small creature in her net, which she then begins dragging towards me. When it realizes what’s happening, it tries pulling up against the netting, frantically working to put distance between it and the realm it so recently escaped.
“Oh no, you little shit. You’re going home,” my sister grunts as she continues wrestling it closer, combat boots inching backwards through the dirt.
I turn my attention back to the portal as a new source of luminescence approaches. Santelmo, one of the few beings allowed into Kan Laon’s sanctuary, is lightning bright, throwing the barn into stark relief as it drifts towards us. It can’t speak, but its spectral awareness seems to consider me kindly before turning to the trapped nuno at the periphery of the circle. It glows even brighter, and disappears again along with the monster we’d caught. The portal fades as Santelmo’s brilliance retreats once more to its master’s domain.
“Ugh,” Lia says into the new stillness, checking where the nuno had spit on her. “That was ugly.”
“So, Bill made a mistake. We figured it out.”
“His mistake could have killed us!”
I raise my eyebrows at her. “Well that’s dramatic. If everything went sideways, the worst that would happen is you’d need a course of antibiotics.”
“It was spitting and dropping things on my head! I could be imperiled right now.”
“Imperiled? Where else did it spit on you?”
“That’s…not the point. I could have been, Summer.”
“Ah, I see. Yes. You’re right. You almost-potentially-could-have-gotten a booboo,” I tease.
“Wasn’t you got spit on,” she mumbles.
I give her a look. It’s not unusual for us to get scraped up on a job; that’s par for the course when you’re a monster banisher. But the last time we saw a serious injury, I got shot in the shoulder and kicked around like a hacky sack by an incubus. I’m only just now able to move around again without a sling. I unconsciously roll my shoulder as I think about it, testing the tenderness.
“Oh come on, Summer. Really?” Lia asks, rolling her eyes. “Are you gonna keep throwing that in my face?”
“ ‘Keep throwing it in your face?’ It just happened! You’re whining about a welt that went away within five minutes of you getting it. Wanna trade?” I shoot back. I collect all of the items I’ve strewn about me in the chaos of two rituals.
“No, what I want to do is have the nuno spit on Bill, so that he never forgets the difference between them and goblins ever again,” she retorts, refocusing her attention to indicate that she didn’t mean to be the insensitive ass she sounded like.
I snort, and hand her some of the reagents from the floor. I forgive her agitation. Nuno spit feels like getting stung by a dozen wasps.
“I guess we technically could summon it back, but I think Santelmo might be mad.” I open the trunk and rearrange everything back into its proper order. Lia hands in her additions as I work.
“Enticing, but no. I’ll just have to find some other way to get it through his thick skull. I am done summoning things. It was fun while it lasted, except that instead of ‘fun’ I mean I hate it and want it to die,” she replies as she walks to the driver’s side.
A twinge of guilt courses through me. As part of the incubus debacle, I decided to summon, and subsequently lost, Maithe Dweubhal, the fairy that stole my sister’s childhood memories. All of them. The names of her family, her best friends, her favorite color, her first crush. All gone, fed to a faerie one by one while we slept. Understandably, Lia despises Maithe Dweubhal for doing this to her—having her out and free is a constant weight on her mind. And, because reopening that wound didn’t seem like enough trouble to be going on with, I then suggested we petition Artemis to help with the incubus situation. Yeah. That Artemis. That part went okay, actually, but then she transferred us to her uncle’s desk, and that’s really when things got out of hand.
“We’ll see. I think I may have the summoning itch,” I joke lightly, though summoning isn’t a laughing matter. It’s completely forbidden, and I am a fool to have done it.
“Itch nothin’,” Lia says. “Don’t think I won’t fight you.” She pushes me a little as she puts the car into gear.
We drive down one of the mountains in upstate New York towards Bill’s house. Bill is a medium who helps to trap or appease spirits, like most of the people who know that monsters are real. His specialty is in working with the Celtic and Germanic pantheons, and so we’d taken his word for it when he said he had a Germanic goblin trapped in a barn. Ophelia is pissed, I know, because she’s embarrassed that we took a rookie’s advice and got burned. Literally, in her case, which certainly isn’t helping her mood.
A short drive later, we’re standing in front of Bill’s little ranch house. As a medium, Bill can channel spirits who get close enough to him, and sometimes even highly agitated living people. So, naturally, he’s found himself a small corner of the map far away from anyone else—with very few human deaths near the property, so he says. Lucky bastard.
“Be nice, Lia. We were noobs once, too,” I remind her, noting her darkening expression.
“I’m gonna be nice, I’m just gonna tell him to be better at things.” She puts the car in park and pushes her loose dirty-blonde curls behind her shoulders. When I’m being poetic, I often think my sister and I are a balance of light and dark. She, with her wild hair and slate grey eyes; me, with darker locks sun-warmed with reddish highlights and cornflower eyes.
“I haven’t checked recently, but I’m pretty sure that’s still filed under ‘not nice,’ ” I say.
I knock on the door and stand back. In just a moment, the knob turns and Bill’s shaved head pops out.
“Well! Hey there, Summer; Lia. You’re back sooner’n I expected. Come on in!”
He stands aside and ushers us through the door.
“Thanks, Bill. Gettin’ cold out there,” I say pleasantly with a warning look at Lia to behave.
“Oh, I know it. Uh, come on into the living room, I got a fire goin’.” We follow him to a little den with old furniture and a warm fire crackling. “So,” he starts as we go to warm ourselves at the hearth. “How’d it go?”
“All right. It wasn’t actually a goblin which threw us for a tick, but nothin’ major.”
“Actually, Bill…” Lia cuts in, despite my glare. “It was really unprof…Bill?” Our host stops suddenly, his broad shoulders filling the doorway between the front door and the den. He steadies himself with an arm in the doorway, his shorn head lolling forward, forehead covered in beads of sweat.
“I’m lookin’ for those huntin’ gals.”
The voice comes from Bill’s mouth, but it’s noticeably higher, with a new sort of twang to it that makes me think of the low country, not Bill’s remote mountain accent.
“Bill? You okay?” I ask, furrowing my brow in concern.
“Sorry,” he drawls in his normal voice. “Sorry, just a dizzy spell. It’ll pass.”
“Why don’t you have a seat?” I suggest with a look at my sister. I suspect he’s channeling someone, but it can’t be either of us; we don’t talk like that.
“Yeah…let me just…rest a second.”
Lia and I guide him to a chair by the fire that bears signs of long use. We sit down tentatively across from him on the large, dated floral couch. It’s bizarre watching someone who is at risk of morphing into someone else. I’m pretty sure this sort of situation was not covered in the etiquette book my mother quoted to us as kids.
“Jeepers, I’m sorry to have a fit in front of you gals,” he slurs.
“Not a problem, just catch your breath,” Lia says soothingly in a full turnabout from her previous attitude. She can get feisty, but she’s got a good heart.
“I think I will do just…” his demeanor shifts again. “Lookin’ for any information on them two sisters,” the other voice bursts out.
“Kinda creepy,” I comment to my sister.
“I’ve never seen anyone in the process of channeling before. It’s real weird. I see now why people thought they were possessed,” she replies in a low tone.
“Last seen around Philadelphia,” the voice adds.
I eye Bill cautiously. We’ve been staying with our friend Nisha the past few weeks, in a suburb of Philadelphia. Curiouser and curiouser. I lean in to Ophelia.
“I think that maybe whoever it is, is looking for us,” I whisper.
“It feels a bit conceited, but I think so, too,” she says.
“Well, let’s not push it…we can find out who’s trying to find us some way that doesn’t make Bill look like he wants to hurl.”
“Yeah…let’s not drag him into this,” Lia agrees.
Bill continues to sway in his chair, but now he’s shaking, too. I’m afraid he might have a seizure. He’s obviously working hard to stave off the intruding southern woman, but fragments of words slip from his pale lips—apparently whoever he’s channeling isn’t ready to let go without a fight.
“Oh, God, he doesn’t look so good,” Lia whispers to me, leaning away from our drooling host.
“They say it takes a lot of energy to fight off the connection…looks like this one’s giving him a run for his money,” I reply.
Lia chews her lip anxiously.
“Is anyone gonna answer?” Bill’s other voice ask.
“The sisters are here!” Lia blurts out.
“Lia!” I exclaim in surprise. Didn’t we just go over this?
“Hello?” Other-Bill asks.
“Yes! Two sisters! Banishers!” Ophelia adds with an apologetic glance at me.
“Well, whad’ya know?” Other-Bill chuckles. “An’ everyone said t’me that this’d be a fool’s errand.”
“What happened to not provoking him?” I whisper angrily to my sister.
“I panicked! It was like listening to a phone ring and not answering!”
“Who are we talking to?” I call out, shaking my head at the folly of this situation.
“I’m called Celeste Beaumont.” My brow furrows. I know that name. Why do I know that name? I tap my forehead with the heel of my palm, as if I can shake the memory loose like ketchup from a glass jar.
“The mystic? From…New Orleans?” I ask at length. Lia also knits her brow and frowns at me. I guess she doesn’t have the same memory of this woman that I do.
“That’s me,” says Celeste-Bill smugly. “And who that?”
Ophelia and I trade looks. Who could be looking for us if they don’t know our names? While the community of people who deal with non-human beings is larger than you’d think, banishers like us are much less common. Not everyone has the necessary equipment, knowledge, or fast and loose approach to life required to spar with divinity. We meet a lot of people, and our names are our calling card. Even when our phones get turned off, or we switch numbers and email addresses out of justifiable paranoia, someone always knows how to find us. That is, if they actually know our names.
“We’re the sisters you were looking for. Summer and Ophelia,” I say.
“The ones th’t met Hades?”
We both sit upright and reach for our safety blankets—I fiddle with my charmed earring which glows and turns hot if I’m in trouble, while Lia loosens a knife from one of her sheaths. My earring isn’t hot, and no one makes any sudden movements, so we both relax slightly.
“How do you know about that?” Lia asks, her voice harsh.
There are only two people on this planet who know about that apart from us: one is one of our closest friends, and best secret-keepers. The other is a detective in Roanoke who probably won’t ever mention the experience to anyone ever again—not even to himself.
“The spirits were all in a tizzy about it. Couldn’t believe two livin’ gals could go into death an’ back out, quick as you please.”
Spirits are such snitches.
“And why are you looking for someone who knows Hades? We’re not goin’ back,” I state, perhaps a little more defiantly than is necessary.
“I believe that! No, I’m lookin’ for y’all to help me with a problem we’re havin’ down here. Couple kids gone missin’ on the bayou. I seen the thing takin’ ‘em, but it ain’t a one of mine.”
Mystics are like next-level mediums. On top of being able to channel local beings, they can sometimes call out to spirits a little further away, and can communicate with them directly, rather than by becoming a vassal. Celeste would be able to tell if any of the local spooks were acting up, easy as store-bought pie. But she can also project her consciousness into others, apparently, which means she has a few unusually strong powers, and possibly witchcraft as well. We’ll have to be careful with this one.
“We’re in New York at present,” Lia tells her. “So I’d recommend asking for someone closer—we’re only a couple days out from Halloween, there’s gotta be someone within a few hours’ drive of you.”
“I know for a fact there’s someone closer, but they can’t do nothin’ for me.”
“Well, who is it? We’ll give ‘em a call, explain what’s up…”
“No.” The mystic using Bill as a puppet interrupts Lia abruptly.
“What do you mean ‘no?’ ” I ask with a little more heat than I’d intended. “No” is not a word I hear very often from the people looking for our help.
“I don’t want them. The spirits aren’t sayin’ nothing’ about the kids,” Celeste-Bill says as if this explains everything.
“And?” Lia asks in exasperation.
“Not much to do when you dead but gossip, see? The spirits normally got more to say than a sewing circle. They even knew about you stoppin’ by Hades’ house, right? But I ask ‘em who’s taken them kids, and suddenly ain’t none of ‘em never seen anything. Makes an old mystic like me a titch uneasy.”
“…And?” Lia asks again. “I’m sorry. You’re not really giving us a compelling reason to drop everything we’re doing up here and drive a thousand miles to handle a routine monster banishment.”
“The spirits aren’t talkin’. But I got a picture of whatever it is. He ain’t from these parts, whatever he is. An’ then I found another creature, said she knew the gals who escaped Elysium, said if anyone could catch this thing, it’d be you ‘uns. That you took the job real serious.”
I suppress a grimace at the word “job” thrown at us like a rock. I’m a little bit of a martyr for duty.
“Which is why it’s our job to tell you to call one of the locals. We’ll be back up if need be,” Lia responds hotly.
“Who told you to call us?” I ask. “We don’t keep pets.” I use the pejorative term for monsters who make themselves useful to humans in exchange for the opportunity to stay on Earth.
“She didn’t leave a name, but she said you knew her. Brought her here, in fact, which was a surprise, I’ll tell you what.”
“We don’t bring anything anywhere,” Lia says dismissively.
“Are you sure? ‘Cause she was able to tell me whereabout to focus, and she seemed to know you all right. Called you the ‘wingless ones’ that spoke with the ‘Guard of the Southern Fallen’. Little purple thing. Celtic, I think.”
Ophelia clutches the arm of the couch tightly, her knuckles white while she tries to regain control of herself. She’s taken it very personally that her tormenter is topside. The being described by Celeste is undoubtedly Maithe Dweubhal. If Dweubhal is there, Lia will be too, come hell or high water. Of course, I want to fix my mistake, too. But my first thought is how suspicious it is that this ultra-powerful-seeming mystic from the bayou just so happens to come across the one monster that would convince us to drop everything and run, without even knowing our names. That does not bode well. Neither does her vague determination not to work with the local talent, or her uncanny ability to climb into people’s heads a thousand miles away. But it doesn’t matter what I think. A glance at my kid sister says that our collective mind has already been made up.
“We’ll be right there,” Lia promises with a deadly gleam in her eye.
I can almost hear the trap being set.