Ebony Bell ran a hand along the bench, her fingers gliding smoothly over the newly polished surface. It glimmered back at her with all the sheen and clarity of a clean, white smile.
'Now, what do you think of that, Harry?' She tapped the bench again, eager to find out what the shop – or rather, the spirit of the shop's original owner – thought about her attempt at sprucing things up.
Harry didn't answer at once, and Ebony was forced to pat the bench again several times before she could even make out a mutter from him. He sounded approving. That, or he'd just swallowed another pigeon down his chimney.
It wasn't until that incident last year where Ebony had been unfairly, cruelly, and ever so epically cursed by the Grimshore family, that she had found out that Harry could talk quite easily. In fact, she had great trouble shutting him up these days.
But today, for some reason, despite the brilliant sunshine streaming in through the windows, Harry seemed hardly capable of a grunt.
From the way his door had ground open after several shoves – when it usually glided to with all the grace of a dancer opening their arms – to the way he now seemed to be ignoring her effort to polish the main bench: Harry seemed very much like a surly teenager today. Perhaps he'd reverted – brick, chimney, shutters, books, and all – to whatever counted as a juvenile possessed-bookstore in the night. Ebony half fancied that if Harry weren't firmly rooted to the ground through mortar and stone, he'd wander off with a mumbled 'going out, back later'.
'Cheer up, Harry,' Ebony crossed her arms and shook her head, her glorious burgundy-red locks dancing over her shoulders. She was in a fantastic mood today – what with this being a well-deserved break from police work, and the fact a whole new shipment of rare magical tomes was due in sometime this morning. She'd been waiting for those grimores for several months. And their arrival just so happened to coincide with a holiday. Lucky. That's what that was called.
It was funny how much Ebony seemed to enjoy pottering around in her bookstore these days. Ever since her frightful cursing last year, she'd become a lot calmer, more grounded even. Strange, little, mundane things seemed to give her great pleasure, whereas before she would have found anything that didn't come with fanfare and glitter boring.
And she knew precisely how this change in personality had come about, it had been magical, after all – and Ebony, being a witch, knew all about good old magic. Once the danger of being rewritten by the Grimshore curse has made Ebony question what she really wanted, she could no longer ignore the answer she'd been forced to come up with.
This, she wanted this. Her current life. With all its apparent normalcy and magic. Just the right blend of dust and sparkles; of ordinary and the extraordinary; of goofing about eating sweets and running over rooftops tracking down magical criminals; of being a bookstore owning woman and a crime-fighting witch.
She had everything. All the opposites, all the different facets you need to make any gem complete.
Well, maybe not everything. That was overdoing it slightly, Ebony realised as she pushed one wild lock of hair over her shoulder. She was currently single, after all.
Yes, there had been tantalising little moments with everyone's favourite part-time knight and full-time know-it-all – Detective Nathan Wall – but they just never went anywhere! Either the man couldn't make up his mind, or Ebony couldn't. But the fact simply was, that while she'd like to think there was some potential there – some spark between happenings, to use a magical term – that spark never took to flame.
Ebony let out a huff of air, and moved away from the bench, finally realising that Harry wasn't about to shake on his foundations and cheer her for having polished his bench for the first time since she'd bought the place.
This was her first real day off police work for at least two weeks. Magic misdemeanours seemed to be all the rage in Vale at the moment, and as the only witch liaison to the Police Department, it was Ebony's job to consult on all of them. That meant a tedious amount of paper work, footwork, and general huffing at the state of today's misguided youth, elderly, demons, summoners, and anyone else that could purposefully or accidentally misuse magic.
Ebony couldn't complain though. It was all interesting. And there was the usual added bonus of having Nate stare down criminals with his usual righteous look of determination – as if a look alone was all it took to stop a rampaging devil spirit. Well, a look, a gun, and consultant police witch, usually.
Ebony teetered by the front door, hand hovering near the open sign. She hadn't opened yet, and she wasn't really sure that she wanted to. While she didn't mind the occasional customer, because you never knew who you could meet, she had wanted today for herself. But what with working for the police more and more, this store was getting neglected. And to operate as a fully-fledged, legitimate second-hand bookstore, she needed to be open at leastsome of the time. Otherwise people might suspect the store was either a strange but effective drug-selling front, or some kind of inter-dimensional porthole of the kind where awkward kids can get sucked inside story books and have coming-of-age adventures in fantasy lands, only to return home to use their new-found skills to beat up bullies and the like. And Ebony really didn't want that.
'Harry,' she said lightly, 'should we open today?'
Now she was getting just a touch annoyed. She had started this day in a splendid mood. She'd thrown on her wild, 60's-style, kaleidoscopic dress, with an array of colours and patterns that belonged in a drug-fuelled trip – and she'd done so because today was going to be a wild, colourful, mad, brilliant day.
But Harry was bringing down the mood. It was the way the blinds sat sullenly against the windows, and the way the dust motes just hung in the air as if they really wouldn't rather be whipping around the place like mini hurricanes. He was low, obviously, and no matter how happy a witch is when she starts the day, taking on the mood of her magical bookstore is very hard to fight.
Ebony looped her hair around her ears, her carved-jade butterfly earrings snagging little strands behind their bumpy surfaces. She was serious now.
'Harry,' she put her hands on her hips and turned from the door, addressing the majority of the bookstore before her with all the ceremony of someone addressing a crowd. 'What is it?' She looked at the bookcases with their hodgepodge array of books, at the stairs leading to the mezzanine and her new third-level above, even at the light fittings with their 20's-styled round edges and frosted glass. In other words, she looked at Harry. Because Harry was the store – the whole of it. From the very foundations, to the particles of dust that covered the old gardening magazines stacked up by the counter. So in addressing Harry, you really had to address the whole building at once.
He didn't immediately reply, though she fancied she heard the slight groan of the floorboards under her feet.
It really must be a dire situation for the old bookstore, if Harry was keeping this silent. Ever since he'd found his voice, so to speak, last year, he'd offered her a non-stop running commentary on everything from the dilapidated state of the store to her relationship with Detective Nate.
And while the truth was that silence could sometimes be a blessing, she started to half wonder if this was a curse. A real curse. Perhaps a magical rat had taken a parting swipe at Harry after the old bookstore had tried unsuccessfully to swallow the rodent up in the chimney.
'Come on, Harry, you can tell me,' she said, far more gently now. If she was going to have to coax the truth out of him with honey and kisses, then so be it. 'Is it the books that are arriving today? Are you excited or something?'
The books in question were a number of exceedingly rare magical grimores - or books of spells - that Ebony had managed to secure from an old wizard in Europe. She had been lucky enough to have several books of her own that the man had wanted in a trade. They were piffle, really. But the books Ebony was getting in return certainly weren't. They were old, magical, and contained spells never used any more. They would fit into Harry's upstairs collection perfectly.
She put a hand on her chest, her gold and turquoise bangles clinking softly. 'I'm excited. I mean, those books should be wonderful-'
A large book on spades fell off the top of one of the bookshelves and tumbled heavily to the floor. Ebony raised an eyebrow. She guessed that rather caveman-like mode of communication meant a 'no' then.
'What is it then? Is it the fact I've been spending more time at the police station lately? There's far more magical crime around at the moment, for some reason. And I have a duty to help them; you know that. Also, I can't exactly go back on my pact to help Nate figure out who is behind all this Portal nonsense. If I did, he'd probably dress up in his knight armour and run me through. Plus, that's just during the day, I live here now anyway!'
Still no reply.
'Oh, Harry,' she stamped her little red heels on the floorboards, but not hard enough to make a mark. 'Come on already-'
'I've got a cold,' he suddenly mumbled. And then, as if to prove his point, the chimney gave a sneezing sound, and a whole pile of ash and disrupted-cinder flew into the main room.
Ebony coughed at the sudden cloud of dust, batting at it fruitlessly with her hand. 'What?' she spluttered after a moment. 'You've got a cold?'
The floorboards under her feet pitched a little, as if the building was having a sudden shiver.
Ebony stopped herself from telling Harry that this was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard. A magical bookstore catching cold? Firstly, it was made of wood, brick, and metal. Secondly, it was a bloody bookstore.
But Ebony had no intention of saying piffle to this because she knew two very important things. Men - and even though Harry was technically a spirit, he was still of the male variety - and colds were not laughing matters. Men and colds were very serious, grave, epic matters. When a man had a cold, he would either think he was dying, or would think he was dying. And the other thing was, well, this was a magical bookstore. And magic always found a way of making the impossible possible. So if, on the face of it, it seemed impossible to infect a chimney and a pile of books with the human equivalent of a virus, then magic would certainly find a way to do just that.
'Okay,' she took a calming breath, 'how can I help you, then? Would you like me to light the fire to keep you warm?' she offered, even though it was a very warm day already. 'Would you like a health potion poured through the floorboards? Would you like me to clean the store of dust?' She fancied, in offering these things, that she would be acting just like a little white blood cell in a human body when it came to immunity. She would be actively going out and cleaning the store of irritants, and hopefully finding the magical virus somewhere and chucking it out the door with a shake of her fist. That was the other thing about magic: it loved a good analogy. Repeated stories across various levels of organisation and experience - magic loved a good tale, especially one that kept on revolving and reappearing no matter the circumstances.
'Hmm,' Harry managed, 'fire,' he said in caveman, single word staccato.
She nodded her head, and hoped she wouldn't boil in this soon-to-be tropical bookstore. 'Anything else?'
'Clean things up,' he said with another little cough - this time making the blinds and shutters clash and bang about.
'Okay. And if I come across any magical virus-looking entities-'
'Blast them,' he supplied with a little more confidence. That word and Harry were the best of friends. No matter how apparently sick he might be, or perhaps even on the edge of death, Harry Horseshoe would proclaim 'blast them' with all the certainty and gravitas of the second coming.
So Ebony quickly set about doing just as Harry had asked. She stoked a massive fire up in the open-plan fireplace in the centre of the wall just behind the counter. Then she put on some very light, dreamy opera on the stereo system, and proceeded to clean. Keeping an eye out, of course, for icky little magical viruses, whatever they might look like.
It was in this state - floating around with the high, easy tones of the music, and dusting and sweeping with both hands at once - that Ebony turned to find someone feverishly knocking at her door.
And by someone, she meant Detective Nathan Wall. A detective for the Vale Police Department by day, and a knight of the Round Table by night.
She walked over to the door slowly, a bare, childish smile on her lips as she made him wait. She finally opened it, but not before indicating the closed sign with a great flourish of her hand.
'About time,' Nate said a little harshly as she finally unlocked the door. 'And why didn't Harry just let me in? I thought he was over-'
'Hating your guts? Wanting to blast you? Wanting to feed you to the magical she-demons that lurk at the bottom-'
He put up a hand quickly and then fixed his tie straight with the other. 'I get it. But why didn't he let me in... And why is it so hot in here?'
'Harry has a cold,' Ebony said very carefully, knowing that men hated it when other men knew that they were dying from a man-cold.
Nate looked at Ebony, one eyebrow raised on his handsome face, his jaw set with a distinct and obvious line of disbelieving. 'A cold?' he repeated.
Ebony nodded very quickly.
'Magical bookstores can get colds?' he said, voice less harsh.
Ebony shrugged her shoulders, her lip kinking to the side. 'We live and learn.'
Nate didn't fight her on that one; he just looked around at the store with a suspicious gaze - possibly not wanting to come down with a man-cold himself. And Ebony just knew that if Nate did come down with a cold, he would be ten times worse than Harry. There was something about the mix of righteousness, officiousness, and plain go-get-'em bravado in Detective Nate that meant he would not be a very good patient.
'So, what are you doing? Cleaning up the store like you're his immune system, or something?' now Nate was smiling slightly, obviously tickled by his own rather bland humour.
She nodded, curling her hair behind her ears. Nate watched as she did this. He always watched her as she fixed her hair. And that's why she fixed it as often as she could in his presence. 'I imagine, at any time, I might come across the magical version of a cold virus lurking behind the gardening magazines, or swimming around in my lolly bowl.'
Nate made a mildly disgusted face. 'Really?' He shot a sideways glance at the large, painted-glass lolly bowl that sat on the main counter. The first thing he usually did upon coming to the store was delve a hand into the lolly bowl and grab out the best sweets, much to Ebony's annoyance.
Ebony answered by flicking her hair over one shoulder and continuing to dust a mountainous pile of old landscape periodicals.
Nate eventually cleared his throat.
'Why are you coming to see me on my day off? This better be social,' she flicked him a smile, 'and not work,' her smile quickly turned into a crinkly little frown.
Nate pressed his teeth together and offered an uncomfortable grin that told Ebony it was definitely the latter.
She deflated a little, even offering a heavy sigh. 'But today is my day off.'
'Crime doesn't go by your calendar,' he pointed out needlessly. 'And yeah, it's work. But hopefully it shouldn't take too long.'
'That's what you said last time,' Ebony huffed heavily, 'and then we spent the whole night running through the sewers looking for immigrant forest spirits. I ruined my boots, and I smelt like-'
'No running through the sewers, I promise,' he patted his fist to his chest and bowed a little, looking very much like the knight he really was. 'I just need your advice on something.'
Pouting, but not ready to believe him just yet, Ebony gave a little nod. 'What is it?'
'Do you know anything about the Council of Eight?' Nate asked, head cocked to the side, all mirth gone. He was back to business. And with Nate Wall, he could swap between serious and frivolous in the blink of an eye. But when the swap was made, no matter how many jokes Ebony would try to make, he wouldn't rise to a single one.
But before Ebony could answer, a strange thing happened. Harry gave a rumble. It sounded as though he was attempting to crush his own foundations. Eventually the rumble made it all the way up into the chimney, until it puffed a large cloud of smoke right into the centre of the room. 'The Council of Eight!' the smoke suddenly took form, as if it was a giant, non-corporeal face. Which, in reality, it was. 'Bah humbug,' he said very seriously, 'what do you want with those tricksters?'
Nate, damn the man, was starting to get used to Harry's sudden uses of powerful magic. Ebony remembered a time when he would look to her with wide eyes at the sudden rumble and shake of her bookstore. And she remembered that time very fondly. There was something very delicious about taunting Nate when he was out of his depth - something she hadn't been able to do for months.
But now Nate just stood there and nodded very evenly, as if 'bah humbug' was an illuminating exposition on the function and history of this mysterious council. 'Why do you say they are tricksters?'
'They're the supposed ruling council of wizards - responsible for the regulation of magical practice and research across the world. But they are self-appointed, self-aggrandised, and wouldn't know a good blasting if it happened right under their fat little noses,' the smoke in the centre of the room puffed and bellowed in time with Harry's words.
'I see,' Nate said slowly and carefully, as if he were the consulting physician for a psychiatric patient. 'I thought you - as a wizard, or an ex-wizard, or whatever - were bound by their decisions? Like the Coven,' Nate shot a quick glance at Ebony.
'Ha, you think I'm going to kowtow to what that bunch of sugar-coated lollipops say! You've got another thing coming, sunshine, if you think they have the authority of the Coven. No, they enforce the ancient rules, yes, but a wizard is bound to those by something far greater than the Council. A wizard - a true wizard of the old ways - looks only to the staff and spell book for guiding.'
Nate, obviously now a little out of his depth, shot Ebony a longer glance. While Ebony knew that, as a knight, he had learnt a great deal about the various magical races of the Earth, there was nothing like first-hand knowledge. And while Ebony was certainly not a wizard, she did know that they were very different in their organisational structure to the witches.
The witches, all the witches, were bound under the Coven. And while each city, state, or country might have its own chapter of the Coven, they were all magically interwoven, so that the decisions of one would reflect those of the other. In that way, each Coven could maintain anonymity in their jurisdiction, and yet always act in a way that benefited the whole. It was complex magic of the kind that Ebony hadn't quite been able to get her head around yet. They called it emerging connections - the ability to act independently and yet always as part of a whole. It was high-level stuff, and not really the type of thing Ebony had much call for working in a bookstore, but at least she knew about it.
The wizards, however, were different. Where the witches acted apparently alone, but always for the good of the whole, the wizards acted apparently in union, but always for the good of the individual. And it had a lot to do with the origin of their magic. A wizard, unlike a witch, called upon the raw magic within, forming and shaping it with the various spells charted under their grimores. A witch - though still possessing raw magic within - only ever used it as a measure of that which was outside. Nature, the wilderness, the beyond. By measuring and relating to her own magic in the right way, a witch could use that connection to talk to nature. It was a pagan, earthy, dancing-around-in-circles-naked-type magic. While a wizard used his mind and spells to take what was inside him outside, without recourse to the trees, ground, and sky above. So a wizard's magic was heady, cerebral, sitting-around-in-towers-reading-books-type magic.
Two different modes, neither better than the other, just different. And it wasn't to say that a witch couldn't do the magic of a wizard, and vice versa. They were just tendencies. And to be frank, Ebony liked to think of herself as somewhere in between. She loved magical books and loved to read about new spells. But she also, and unashamedly, liked the occasional naked séance under the stars.
'It's quite complicated,' Ebony finally supplied, not really sure how she was going to explain this to Nate. While the knight-detective did have his own magic - will magic - it was very different again to the magic of wizards and witches. And even though Nate was no longer overtly hostile towards those other types of magic - like he had been when Ebony had first met him - she still fancied he liked resisting understanding them as much as possible. It seemed that if the detective could convince himself that such magic didn't make any sense, it might just go away for good.
'Start at the beginning,' he crossed his arms, expression serious. It was the same stance he used when talking to a suspect. Which Ebony noted with a quick flick on an eyebrow.
'Look, witches usually accept the rule of the Coven because it is a natural expression of their magic. All witches know that magic becomes stronger the more people that perform the same spell. They also know that the life stages - from maiden, to mother, to crone - all affect the power of a spell. A witch bases her magic on the land, on nature. So she tries to repeat its forms and cycles in her spells. And it's the same when it comes to the Coven. The Coven is made up - or at least it is supposed to be - of all the wisest witches, and I hazard to use the word crones here. They are meant to represent a deep connection to nature. And a witch's alliance to them is a symbol of her allegiance to nature.'
Nate looked unmoved. He always looked unmoved when Ebony tried to explain witch magic to him. Half the time she expected he was seconds from bursting into laughter and telling her she was talking absolute trollop. But even he knew when to hold his tongue.
'Wizards are different,' Ebony kept leaning on her broom. Once upon a time, she'd hated brooms, mostly because of their negative, stereotypical relationship to witches. But she'd gotten over that. She'd started to realise that your personality and identity where whatever you chose to make them. And running from other people's conceptions was just as negative and self-defeating as following their preconceived norms. No, to be an individual all you had to do was decide what you wanted and to stick with it. A simple formula, maybe, but still one of the hardest spells in the universe.
'Ha,' Harry suddenly hacked out, a little cough shaking several magazines off some nearby shelves, 'wizards are individuals. They don't have to accept the rule of any class or body. They accept the Rule of the Universe instead. The direct source of truth. Those be-bearded little goons with their blue robes and tattoos in the Council of Eight aren't any better than the universe, so why look to them for authority?'
'Just like a witch accepts the Coven because it is a symbol of connecting to the cycle - and therefore the power of nature - a wizard-' Ebony began.
'Goes it alone,' Nate crossed his arms further, 'because their rule book is the universe... I can't say I get it. But all I need to understand is that it is different, right?'
Ebony nodded, trying to keep that smile off her face - the one she always got when Nate was trying to negotiate through information. Because he always got this look to his eyes, this thoroughly handsome, cute look.
'What I really need to know is what kind of power this Council has? Do wizards have to follow their decrees? Can they do the kinds of things to wizards that the Coven can do to witches?' Nate flicked his gaze towards Ebony at the end, and it was measurably softer.
She knew why, too. Because he was referring to that little incident of the Coven removing Ebony's powers last year. It wasn't something she was particularly traumatised by, and it had led to some good outcomes... but she couldn't say she was comfortable with the whole experience. Almost being rewritten by a lunatic who was apparently working for some entity from beyond the Portal wasn't ever going to be a good memory.
'Almost,' Harry said after a moment, the cloud of smoke simply paused in the middle of the room as if someone had replaced the real thing with a photo. 'They are the ones that police the Rules. If any wizard breaks the Rules, then the Council can and will send its Enforcement Squad after them. But they cannot interpret those rules, and they can't make new ones. Oh, they've been trying to for years, but at the end of the day a wizard always has recourse to the Staff and Spell book, if he doesn't agree with their interpretation.'
Nate put a hand up to his face and massaged his nose. It was clear this was too much information and too fast. For someone without a fine knowledge of the inner workings of the wizard world, it probably wouldn't make any sense at all. 'Is that like defending yourself in court, or something?'
'More like defending yourself in glorious gladiatorial-style wizard battle. The winner being the one who is stronger, and thus the one that is right,' Harry's voice became stronger, even lost the congested edge.
Ebony half wondered if he was conjuring up some pleasant memory of blasting away some wizard who ever dared to question the great Harry Horseshoe.
Nate narrowed his gaze. 'That doesn't sound very much like respecting the rule of law. The strongest guy isn't usually the right guy. Sounds more like a dictatorship.'
'Cods-wallop. This is wizards, boy, not ninny citizens with their courts and magistrates. Magic, little knight, is right. And the righter you are, the more magic you have. Power comes from understanding the Rules and from applying them correctly. So it is always the recourse of a wizard, when under attack by the Council, to prove their better understanding of the rules in the art of magic.'
Nate shook his head very gently, even offered Ebony a careful smile. And Ebony just smiled back. She knew that Nate would be having an exceedingly difficult time coming to terms with this. Dukeing out the law, gladiatorial-style, wasn't something the knight would agree with. The law as there for enforcing, end of story.
'Why do you need to know all of this stuff anyway?' Ebony cut in. 'It's not like this can be very relevant to the Vale Police Department. The Council have jurisdiction over wizards, and we don't. If a wizard commits a crime in Vale, then it is up to the Council to deal with it, not us.'
'No one has committed a crime,' Nate took a heavy sigh, as if he would have proffered right now that someone had committed a crime instead. 'It's just that the Council are visiting.'
Harry roared through his chimney with such a sharp rush of air that the fire went out in a puff. 'What?'
Ebony couldn't help but splutter too, letting her broom fall to the floor. 'Visiting?'
Nate shrugged. 'I don't really know the details. All I know is that in a month from now the Council of Eight will be visiting Vale for some kind of conference or meeting. And the police department have been put on alert. The Council will be providing their own security, but we have to help.' Nate straightened up, sighed again, and then shrugged his shoulders. 'But judging from your reactions, this isn't going to be a walk in the park.'
Ebony shook her head quickly, batting at the massive cloud of smoke that had erupted into the room after Harry has squashed the fire with his rage. 'Try a walk in a park full of tattooed, motorbike-riding, leather-wearing men who just love to get into fist fights.'
Nate sighed even deeper, then offered Ebony a strange, careful smile. 'You aren't going to abandon me on this one, are you? This could be a chance to find out who is behind the changes to Vale's Portal, after all?'
Ebony played with him for a couple of seconds, looking coyly over her shoulder, as if she was searching out better things to do rather than provide security for a massive bunch of surly, biker-like wizards. Then she caved and dipped her head. 'This sounds like too much fun. But do you really think this could have something to do with the Portal?' she asked, expression more serious.
He nodded. 'Call it a feeling.'
'Or call it the fact that the Council hasn't travelled in eighty years. But now, all of a sudden, they want to come to Vale,' Harry finally supplied, the lights flickering all at once.
'Ah,' Nate said slowly. 'That's what I call a coincidence of considerable interest.'
'That's what I call the beginning of potentially a great number of problems,' Ebony translated with a huff. She was well aware that she was huffing quite a lot today. And, perhaps, it was a premonition of what was to come.
Because when it came to foreboding signs, they didn't always come in the rolling of great thunderclouds on the horizon. Sometimes they came in the audible tick of the clock, in the sudden silence before snow, or in the well-placed sigh of a body that knows things are about to get heavy.
This story is actually complete, and is about 100,000 words long. It is available for purchase through the Amazon Kindle Store and Smashwords. Just look for my pen name, Odette C. Bell, or the the title.
If you can't afford to buy it, please PM and I will DocX it to you.
Thanks for reading!