Author's Note: Just to warn you, this is my novel from NaNoWriMo 2011, 50,000 words of it written in the first 12 days of the month. It's been edited, of course, but the bulk of it was still written in two weeks (and I'm not the best at revision), so please keep that in mind! As always, reviews are very welcome. Enjoy! :)
A tattered grocery bag drifted through the air, ghostly white against the dreary gray backdrop of the autumn sky. It tumbled and cartwheeled, danced and pirouetted, twirled and curtsied, a lovely lost soul on a path to the gunmetal heavens.
Then, it caught on a twisted, leafless tree branch, and I couldn't help a wicked smile. Serves you right. If I have to be trapped in this car for hours, you have to be stuck in a tree.
"What are you smiling about?" came Van's cool voice, barely tinged with even a hint of curiousness, and I turned to him with a smile much more innocent than the one I'd had for the bag.
He was a pale silhouette against the drab gray sky, a ghost just like the grocery bag. Of course, he was the handsomer of the two, hands down. His short, dark auburn hair shifted the slightest bit in the whisper of a breeze that came over his cracked window, his tall torso erect but lazy all at once, his strong jawline and sweet, delicate nose accentuated by the harsh glow of the gray sky...and then, he pinned me with those olive-green eyes, and I felt my smile melt into a flirtatious smirk.
"I was just noticing how handsome you look today," I said, attempting a casual-cool yet seductive tone. "Is that a new suit?"
He turned away with the usual eye-roll. "No, it's not. You were with me when I bought it a month ago." But in spite of his mannerisms, his voice remained even, his demeanor unruffled. I sighed.
"I know that," I murmured, half embarrassed and half annoyed, as I turned my attention back to the dreary landscape. We'd left the suburban area behind and entered an obviously poverty-stricken urban district, complete with badly drawn graffiti and worn old houses in desperate need of repair. "You could just try flirting back, you know."
"You know I don't like to flirt," he said, barely pausing before rolling through a stop sign. I could hear the smile in his voice when he added, "Besides, if I were going to flirt with someone, I would be sure to pick someone who could do it better than you."
I whipped around, long ponytail slapping me painfully in the face, but the car jerked to a stop before I could speak. Through the driver's side window, past Van's handsome meanie face, I saw a crumbling old house just like the dozens we'd just driven past. The paint was off-white and peeling, the little shed out back half collapsed, and I could hear the lopsided front porch creaking from where I sat.
"Your family owns this place?" I said, my nose wrinkling. If you sniffed hard enough, you could almost smell the mold that probably covered the walls inside. "There's no way." But Van nodded and stepped out of the car as if nothing was wrong with this scenario at all, and I was quick to follow him out. "But your family is rich! Why would they want to own a dumpy old place like this?"
"It makes a good hiding spot," he replied coolly, starting down the cracked sidewalk with a rich-boy swagger that just didn't fit in here. I could only stare in open-mouthed horror, looking from the house to the man and back again in a vicious cycle of disbelief. "Are you coming?" he called, pausing halfway down the path to look back at me. I went through the cycle a final time, then started after him with my mouth still hanging open. He sighed at the sight of me and walked on.
"Why does it smell so weird around here?" I asked once I'd finally managed to gain control of my own mouth again. Van shrugged, leading the way around the side of the house in silence. "Shouldn't we, like, knock on the door or something?" I prompted after a moment, but this time, I went completely ignored. Van stopped dead on the walkway, his head tilting to one side as he gazed at something in the distance. I drew up beside him, taking in his puzzled expression, and asked, "What is it?" He pointed, and I followed his direction.
"What does that look like to you?" he asked, and I squinted into the darkness of the half-dead shed.
"It looks like..." I jerked back, my hands over my mouth to muffle a shriek of horror. "Oh, Van!" I cried around my fingers. "It's a kitty!"
It was a full-grown tabby cat – or, at least, it had been. Its decaying body hung by the neck from a rotting rafter, its face twisted in what had to be a cat's version of fear. It looked like it had been screaming.
"Take it down!" I yelled, feeling like a pitiful little girl as tears welled up in my eyes. "Please, take it down! We can't leave it this way!"
Van turned to me, his expression finally showing a hint of aggravation. "It's just a cat, Ember." But when he saw my face, he sighed resignedly. "All right. I'll take it down when we leave, but we need to get the book first." He resumed his casual walk down the pathway, and I listened from my spot on the sidewalk as he unlocked the back door and pushed it open with an abnormally loud creak, as if it hadn't been opened for years.
"Are you coming?" he called again, more than a hint of annoyance to his tone now, and I hurried to catch up after sparing that poor cat one last, sorrowful look.
"Why do we-" A gag stopped me as I stepped through the door, and I had to physically plug my nose to keep from full-on vomiting. "Oh, God. What is that?" I asked, glancing around the small kitchen as if the source of the smell was going to jump out at me and introduce itself. I bet its name would be Tammy.
Van tried the light switch to the right of the door a few times, but the kitchen remained dark. Only the gray light at our backs kept us from being completely blind in this cramped, windowless space. "I don't know," he answered, soon following my lead and clamping a hand over his mouth. "But it can't be anything good."
"I hope it's not another kitty," I said, more to myself than to Van, and he led the way through the kitchen without comment.
We stepped into the dining room, a vast, empty space but for the chairs and dishes strewn about the floor around a long table. Half-eaten food lay upon the hardwood floor, flies buzzing about, and that awful smell grew just a bit stronger. I looked over the table to the grimy bay window, a dull red smudge on the pane catching my eye. There's no way that's blood, I told myself, swallowing hard. There's absolutely no way. It's probably just ketchup or something. Van strode calmly past the scene of disarray, into the living room, and I followed.
"Why do we need this book, anyway?" I finally managed to ask, my words coming out as a choked mess as I tried not to breathe in the stench. "We have plenty of spell books back at the house."
"We've used all of the useful spells in those." More correctly, he had used all of the useful spells in those books. I wasn't allowed to try any of the fun ones. I wasn't even allowed to try to levitate a freaking pencil. "We need new material before we go on tour again."
The living room was nothing special. A dusty couch, a dusty chair, a few dusty shelves, but nothing worth mentioning. The smell did grow a bit stronger, though. We were getting closer to the source.
"Why can't we just reuse some of our old material?" I asked, following him as he began to ascend the abnormally creaky stairs. Our way was lit by a small window at the top. "It's not like anyone's going to know the difference. If you make something disappear, everyone'll be happy."
He sighed. "Someone would notice. Besides, where's the fun in doing the same things over and over again?" he asked, glancing imploringly back at me. "Don't you want to learn something new?"
He turned his attention back to the path ahead, and I scowled at his back. "I'd love to learn something new, but I'm never allowed to learn anything. All you've taught me is how to put my hair up without using my hands," I said, flipping my waist-length ponytail for emphasis.
"And wasn't that useful?" He rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, and when even he gagged, I knew I was doomed before I'd even reached the top.
"Oh, God!" I cried, swallowing back a mouthful of vomit by some miracle. "What is that?"
Van pushed the nearest door open, and the stench wafted out into the hallway, striking us both tenfold. "Oh, shit," he whispered just as I turned to spew my lunch all over the upper landing of the stairs. "Oh, shit!" he shouted, and I heard the urgency in his voice even over the sound of my own retching.
"What is it?" I asked in a rasp, wiping at my mouth with the back of my hand, but he was already at the other end of the hallway, throwing open another door. "What is it?" I said, louder now, as his footsteps thundered up the hollow wooden stairs. "Van!"
"Oh, shit!" he yelled even louder now, and I sprinted after him. I found him kneeling on the dirty floor, a pair of floorboards missing from the spot in front of him. I caught a glimpse of another half-decayed tabby crammed into the small opening and staggered back, torn between wanting to cry and wanting to puke again. I put a hand over my mouth, trying to suppress both reactions, and he twisted to face me. His olive-green eyes met mine, filled with more fear and worry than I'd ever seen the man display before. "The tenants are dead," he said. "The book is gone."
"Is that...Is that bad?" I stammered, unsure of the seriousness of this situation.
He didn't even pause to make fun of my stupidity. "It's a book of dark magic."
My mouth fell open behind my hand, and I cried incredulously, "You wanted to use dark magic on stage?"
I barely heard him over the sound of my own outraged shouts. "What did you want to do, make the dead come back to life and wander around the audience?"
"Ember, someone killed an entire family to steal a book of dark magic." He lurched to his feet and took my shoulders in his heavy hands, bending down to put his panicked eyes level with mine. I clamped my mouth shut, caught in the intensity of his stare. "Someone now has a book that can bring back the dead or maim people from afar or even summon demons."
I went cold. "Oh, shit."