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Month: November 2019

Day Shift – Chapter 15

Hunters

To those that had never experienced lust, it was a hard thing to express. In countless humans or non-humans, there was something that would set a person into this feeling. Most well-known for its use in its most common and pervasive version; shorthand for sexual lust. That may have given some people an idea of what the feeling was, but lust was more than that. There were people who lusted for power or knowledge or money. Lust drove men mad.

The thing to understand about the feeling is that it is all-consuming. It is an addiction. The aspect of the experience that has found itself as the target of a soul’s lust is to them an inescapable need. As much as they may want to escape, it will always draw them back in. The glance to a beautiful woman, the opportunity to make an extra dollar, to see just beyond the ridge; there is always something beckoning them back.  But with all addiction, it is insidious. One can believe themselves in control, just indulging in what they desire in a perfectly harmless way. Lust builds, though. Once you have a bite, you want more and more. Eventually, everyone who suffers from a form of lust falls for their gluttonous desire. Maybe it is because they delved too deep or stepped into a situation that triggered their dam to shatter. It may be no fault of one’s own. But you still fall.

Everyone makes mistakes. It is inevitable. It is unavoidable. No one is perfect. Missteps have different varieties though. Some are mere stumble and some change lives forever, but most fall into the middle ground.

Unfortunately for Mattias, this was not going to be a stumble. Or a middle ground.

For him, the lust for blood had suddenly overtaken him. Every semblance of his humanity began to strip away until there was only an animalistic drive to feed being left behind. Survival was all that mattered beyond that. As he lost control, thoughts began to fail. Blood stopped flowing to his brain normally. He couldn’t think like a human. Complexities were impossible to understand, and soon only the simplest of thoughts would remain. As he faded, his form changed too. He could appear as human most of the time, but his skin tightened against his bones as the blood had dried up. If he had noticed earlier it may have been enough to stop it. By the time he had gotten home, the skin shrank on his form, giving his fingers a long and claw-like appearance.

The point of no return was crossed. Thoughts left, and time lost. It happened fast. Suddenly. A single mistake, and he was a monster. He was one of the many reasons that humans feared the night. He had set up what defenses he could quickly, in hopes that someone would stop him. He had some confidence that would work or at least buy enough time for someone to get to him, to stop him. His last cohesive thoughts though were fear. He had fallen like this before. Each one was worse than the last, though. Each fall threatened to be the last. One would be the one where he wasn’t able to get help in time, and he either escaped his home and fed on a bystander, or he wasn’t able to feed in time and he simply faded into a ghoul.

In those moments, there was a cold that swallowed him. It was a heavy cold, pressing his chest against his lungs. It was a challenge to take in the breaths he needed, to keep thinking. The cold was otherworldly, clinging beyond just his skin and stretching deep throughout his body. It felt as though the ice was scratching along his soul. It was that frigid grasp of death. His body was shutting down, soon to be animated only by the curse of undeath that he had stumbled into. The panic that caused in him should have warmed him somewhat, but instead, it only deepened the chill.

His vision blurred.

His mind blanked.

His memories became vague and broken.

Dreamlike would be the only word to describe how he remembered anything that happened for the next stretch of time. He could catch glimpses of memories. These scattered images and senses were impossible to make sense of, and they seemed to be without rhyme or reason. The idea of a chronology was lost as things seemed to bounce from one time period to another as they desired. He could neither tell how long he was in this state nor when the scant visions of his time within it had occurred or even in which order. The truth was, that time was as lost to him as anyone with an injury or who had fallen out of consciousness.

What he did remember was vague. Perhaps the easiest memories were the earliest after fading away and the latest. He remembered the feeling of hunger, of stomping about and searching for food. He remembered ransacking his refrigerator, and the general mess he made in trying to find any semblance of blood. The scent of old take out, the chill of the box, and the dripping of the frozen goods after he left that search all stamped into his mind.

He knew that it was after that when his mind began to search elsewhere, though he didn’t know the exact drive that took him to search anywhere else in his apartment. He remembered attempting to sniff out the scent of blood. Someone to feast on. There was another scent blocking him though. There was only the pungent smell of garlic. As he got close to the source it overwhelmed him, and he needed to retreat to be able to breathe anything but the smell. It confused him. It made him frustrated and angrier. But he could smell just the smallest hint of blood beyond the horrific smell.

He grew more and more frustrated, his claws tearing at the walls in search of a new exit. He remembered the tearing drywall under his fingertips and the sound of the crumbling matter. The hunger began to hurt, his body aching with a need he could not contain.

He didn’t know when, but the hunger overcame his dissuasion tactics. Eventually, he made his way past the line of garlic below his door. He remembered using all of his strength, his celerity, to rush to create an opening. He remembered the sensation of wood against his shoulder, the shattering door raining down around him. He remembered the scream. That delicious, unexpecting scream.

The source of the scent of blood had been leaving the apartment. They had wandered too close to his door, and his drive to catch prey had overwhelmed the rest of it. It gave him the strength of cause to push beyond his defenses and start the hunt in earnest.

He remembered the look of terror on the man’s face. A bloody nose. It was unfortunate, a mere side-effect of the cold weather and dry heat clicking on. The scent was all the vampire had needed.

This poor soul had never seen a vampire, not a true vampire on the hunt and now, mere minutes or hours after missing a feeding, here he was. His control was lost. The human was no more. Only the beast remained an emaciated and skeletal form. The skin had drawn back tight enough to tear and rip. His jaw bone shone through, skin tore as it constricted around the bone. His long fangs dripped with a black substance, old blood or venom returning up and through their veins.  His eyes were dark, dull and soulless, fully dilated for a truer hunt.

The way Mattias moved was disjointed. His human body fighting the curse within. His joints twisted and snapped, sudden jerks of movement. Once his eyes had fallen on his prey, his entire body swung about towards him. As any excited animal, his mouth opened dripping of blackened bile that only further highlighted the four sharp and expectant canine teeth – and he let out an otherworldly wail. There was no soul to this sound. This was the sound of death, a cold gasp before a screech the sounded as though it tore from the throat. He threw his arms back, preparing to leap on the startled and unfortunate man.

Those memories had left his head. But there was one from this instance that survived. There was a sound, the sound of metal smashing against flesh. The feeling was there as well, just at the side of his head. A rush of anger surged up from within him, and his target shifted to the poor bastard who had hit him. There he saw a blur, stunned. A figure of a man, standing with a baseball bat in his hands. He couldn’t make out any figures, only the shadowed form.  He heard the word.

“Run,” The man had called out. He heard his prey’s footsteps.

Interloper. He could smell the man’s blood through his skin. He was ready for a fight. Adrenaline pumping through him. To the beast, it didn’t matter. A man with a bat was no threat. He could feast on this one instead. The memory of lunging towards the man was clear, but the man took a second swing. Somehow, it had been unexpected, but it landed squarely at the top of the vampire’s head, crashing down and sending the beast to a sudden stop.

He skittered on the floor, wildly twisting to pull himself back up. But there was another powerful swing of that aluminum bat. The last had come down, but this one came back up. It was a hard swing that found its mark against the chest of the rising beast. It would have knocked the air out of any man, but it just smacked against his ribcage. There was a pain, there was the sound of creaking bones, and the hissing anger of the vampire. Another strike against him followed. This human was admirable for fighting against him. A gallant act to save one its kind. It was foolish. It was pathetic. It would have no mercy from the beast. Defenses like this were useless, only driving the beast towards anger.

He remembered the focus it gave him, the need to end this human, this mere prey that dared to interrupt its meal. He would be more than a snack, though. His anger would drive him to drain the poor defensive soul.

He didn’t remember much for some moments. The many footfalls of prey feet, a fleeing man. There were flashes of a chase, through the halls of his apartment. He had been faster than the prey, but the prey was smart. It didn’t run in a straight line. It took turns, moving through open apartments at times. The chase, though only pieces remained in his memory, was a short but distant one. But Mattias had chased the prey with a rage that only built every moment he wasn’t caught. That hunger and frustration made him lash out further and further, attempting to reach his foe.

Even in this bestial form, he knew when he was being led on, though. He remembered that realization, the moment he stopped chasing. Other prey would be easier. With a wail, the vampire stopped his chase and turned to find an easier feast.

That had been his mistake.

The prey had been the Hunter.

As soon as his back was turned he heard the clattering of the bat to the ground. It didn’t concern him. It should have. The next memory was clear. Pristine. There was the hurried sound of feet dashing down the floor. The prey was returning to him. He turned to face him, only to feel a sharp pain in his chest. There was the feeling of something foreign, the crack and splinters of his ribs and the agonizing squelch of wood tearing and pressing into flesh. He was being staked. Salt and pepper hair tussled from the running, tired eyes, sweat on his skin, scruffy beard – a moment of closeness and familiarity with the hunter.

A fitting end to a beast.

As the stake sank to his heart, he felt a sudden and all-consuming cold. He let out a quiet moan. His body twitched, with blackened ichor dripping from the wounds given to him.

Then there was nothing.

So, it was a welcome surprise when the lack of anything gave way to a sound. It was the sound of skin slapping skin lightly, the snap of a rubber band. Sight came back to him suddenly, blurry at first. He saw the source of the sounds. A man sat nearby, with rubber tied around his arm, two fingers slapping the nook of his elbow. His eyes drifted up a bit further. The man took a needle a moment later and pressed it into his own arm, soon after dragging forth blood. The man was familiar.

It took him a second, before Mattias tried to speak, “Rory?” He spoke as his vision clarified. His voice was harsh, and he could feel the skin of his jaw flapping against his teeth as he spoke.

“Oh, hey… you’re trying to talk, but you still look like a lich,” Rory responded with a smile. “Don’t do that. I still have to sew you back together after we get blood in you.”

Mattias felt himself look around the room. He was in his own apartment. He had never left the building. He twisted around to look about, to see what he had done. His apartment was a mess, torn to bits and only minorly cleaned up around where they sat, and some in the kitchen. His eyes fell on the bent aluminum bat nearby, a discarded and bloodstained stake on the table. He swallowed and turned back towards Rory.

Salt and pepper hair, scruffy beard, tired eyes.

“You were the hunter?” Mattias asked, rasping out the words with a sufficient bit of volume.

“Just lucky I got here before Olivia. Don’t think she could have staked you. You were full-on gone.” Rory spoke, holding up the needle. He waved the tied hand. “Eyes up here, droopy,” Mattias instinctively looked, only to have his jaw caught by the man. It was odd to feel another human’s skin on his bone. “This will feel weird awake…” He said, pressing the needle to Mattias’ canine, sinking the point of the needle into the canine’s opening.

He was right. The feeling was uniquely unpleasant. Open nerves and a cold needle – but the feeling of blood flowing through his tooth a moment later removed any unpleasant feeling. When the needle was removed, he felt better and took a breath. “Thank you,”

“You’re welcome. Quit talking. Seriously…” Rory said quietly. “I can see the tendons holding your jaw together. You need to heal. Go back to sleep.” He said with a pat of his hand against the vampire’s shoulder. “One of us will be here when you wake up. And I’ll put you back together. Mind and body.”

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NaNoWriMo Day 15

Author’s Note – This is my writing for Day 15. I decided to take a day off for some self care, but wanted to still right a little bit. My goal today was only 500 words, so effectively it is a preview of the chapter to come. Below is the preview of Chapter 15. Enjoy. The full chapter chapter is now available in its own post! Enjoy.

Day Shift Chapter 15

To those that had never experienced lust, it was a hard thing to express. In countless humans or non-humans, there was something that would set a person into this feeling. Most well known for its use in its most common and pervasive version; shorthand for sexual lust. That may have given some people an idea of what the feeling was, but lust was more than that. There were people who lusted for power or knowledge or money. Lust drove men mad.

The thing to understand about the feeling is that it is all-consuming. It is an addiction. The aspect of experience that has found itself as the target of a soul’s lust is to them an inescapable need. As much as they may want to escape, it will always draw them back in. The glance to a beautiful woman, the opportunity to make an extra dollar, to see just beyond the ridge; there is always something beckoning them back.  But with all addiction, it is insidious. One can believe themselves in control, just indulging in what they desire in a perfectly harmless way. Lust builds, though. Once you have a bite, you want more and more. Eventually, everyone who suffers from a form of lust falls for their gluttonous desire. Maybe it is because they delved too deep or stepped into a situation that triggered their dam to shatter. It may be no fault of one’s own. But you still fall.

Everyone makes mistakes. It is inevitable. It is unavoidable. No one is perfect. Missteps have different varieties though. Some are mere stumble and some change lives forever, but most fall into the middle ground.

Unfortunately for Mattias, this was not going to be a stumble. Or a middle ground.

For him, the lust for blood had suddenly overtaken him. Every semblance of his humanity began to strip away until there was only an animalistic drive to feed being left behind. Survival was all that mattered beyond that. As he lost control, thoughts began to fail. Blood stopped flowing to his brain normally. He couldn’t think like a human. Complexities were impossible to understand, and soon only the simplest of thoughts would remain. As he faded, his form changed too. He could appear as human most of the time, but his skin tightened against his bones as the blood had dried up. If he had noticed earlier it may have been enough to stop it. By the time he had gotten home, the skin shrank on his form, giving his fingers a long and claw-like appearance.

The point of no return was crossed. Thoughts left, and time lost. It happened fast. Suddenly. A single mistake, and he was a monster. He was one of the many reasons that humans feared the night. He had set up what defenses he could quickly, in hopes that someone would stop him. He had some confidence that would work or at least buy enough time for someone to get to him, to stop him. His last cohesive thoughts though were fear. He had fallen like this before. Each one was worse than the last, though. Each fall threatened to be the last. One would be the one where he wasn’t able to get help in time, and he either escaped his home and fed on a bystander, or he wasn’t able to feed in time and he simply faded into a ghoul.

In those moments, there was a cold that swallowed him. It was a heavy cold, pressing his chest against his lungs. It was a challenge to take in the breaths he needed, to keep thinking. The cold was otherworldly, clinging beyond just his skin and stretching deep throughout his body. It felt as though the ice was scratching along his soul. It was that frigid grasp of death. His body was shutting down, soon to be animated only by the curse of undeath that he had stumbled into. The panic that caused in him should have warmed him somewhat, but instead, it only deepened the chill.

His vision blurred.

His mind blanked.

His memories became vague and broken.

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Day Shift – Chapter 14

Black Friday

               Black Friday came the next day. As far as Mattias could tell, this and the following few days were the real Holiday as far as most people were concerned. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday; this trifecta was a period of holy days set aside for the almighty dollar. Everything seemed to revolve around this particular weekend in the business world, and where business circled civilization was drawn. That thought was not meant as a judgment, though he did feel that the idea of Thanksgiving got a little overshadowed in the modern era.

               An odd thought, he could admit, for someone that spent their entire holiday alone normally. Really, the day before had just reminded him of how important it was to have that connection to someone else as the genuine holidays approached. It made him rethink his plans for Christmas itself. He had planned on doing something unsurprisingly similar to his Thanksgiving if he was being honest with himself. It didn’t sound as nice after the day spent with Ashley. He was getting sentimental in his old age. Or at least he felt more sentimental than he normally did.

               Part of him wondered if it was the Sun that did it. If there was something about being in the sunlight more often again had reminded him of his humanity, and his need for other souls to be around to really feel like himself. Though, he doubted that. Really, it was likely just the situation. He felt like he may have genuinely helped her out, and that helping another person was what made him feel more human. He was sure that was the case if he actually thought about the situation for more than a few seconds.

               It was odd what one’s mind would do while sitting alone.

               He had come to the office for the first shift for Black Friday. That meant he was in before the sun came up. While he wasn’t the only person in the office, he was one of less than ten, when normally a couple hundred people would be in the office. It was quiet, and the lights were dim. He was essentially alone in his little part of the massive cubicle farm. He didn’t even have the luck of needing to work early in the morning. He was essentially just sitting quietly and waiting for the hell to start.

               It was the calm before the storm. The truth was, they were an entertainment company. Most people who were up at this point were out doing shopping, snatching up deals and fighting over doorbusters and the like. Once that first wave got home, then things would start. The many people that wanted to go ahead and set up their services, or maybe more realistically the people buying for themselves, would be running into problems and talking to their locations throughout the country. So then, he would hear the other poor saps here early start taking calls and typing away and know that his job was about to begin. As problems started cropping up at the locations and with the team here, then he would start taking calls.

               For now, though, it was a wonderful mix of dimly lit lighting and quiet clicking on keyboards as people worked. Well, ‘worked’ may have been code for sitting around on whatever social media or streaming site the worker preferred. There was nothing to do for the moment. In his case, Mattias was being boring. He was reading the news and sipping on his usual drink. The red bottle was about half empty, encouraging him to swirl it about in his hand as he sat in the quiet. It was strangely enjoyable to him, despite the nature of the news. It was all rough, except the occasional hidden gem of good news. Still, it was a decent way to start the morning.

               As the morning pushed ever towards dawn, he began to hear others beginning to receive calls. Light murmurs of talking from other teams began in earnest and once one started, it seemed like the floodgates fully opened. Within minutes of that wave beginning, his station was lighting up as well. He set aside the half-finished drink and went to work.

               Now, it was hard to describe this particular work if you had not done it before. The calls began and they did not slow down for hours. It was a genuine blur of activity. The conversations were all forgettable. The job was simple. Answer the call, fix the problem if possible, and then move on to the next. There was no pause between the calls, though. There was not a wait. You had time to hang up and take a breath. Maybe take a drink. Then another one was rolling through. Everyone on every side was dealing with the same thing. Workers that called just needed whatever it was fixed, and then they went back to the front.

               The only saving grace of this sort of shift was just that. You were too busy to think. No single guest became memorable in a way that would stick with you until the next. You didn’t have time to hold grudges or feel offended. There was someone else who needed help, someone next in a never-ending queue of folks that thought their issue was the biggest one you needed to address. And for that few minutes, it was. Then you’d move on. In a sick sort of way, he preferred this route to the normal job. He loathed taking it home, but he’d be too tired to care by the end of the day.  

               This year. He was lucky. He wouldn’t have a lot of stories to share with anyone. His worst one was from a manager just opening the store. A line had been waiting out front for the new hot release, stacked in a long line in freezing weather all in service to hope to be at the store before supplies ran out. The manager was calm and collected, though. She had just reached the store and gone in to get ready and realized something was off. A couple of things, really. And that made her unique.

               “Hey, GEC, store one oh nine two here. I have a couple problems if you have a minute,” She said clearly. There wasn’t a waver or a bit of nerve in her voice.

               “Sure, shoot. What’s the problem? S. Problems.” Mattias corrected himself.

               “Okay, first one is easy enough,” She spoke, a little sound of a crunch as she nibbled on something. It sounded like nougat. He only knew that because nougat and coffee was a good way to start, and one he used to do a lot. One of those things that he sometimes missed too. “Lady’s water broke in my line. EMTs are en-route, but it kinda made a hazard. Can I use the employee entrance for folks until I can clean that up?”

               Mattias blinked as his computer screen for a moment. The technical answer was no. Employee entrance was too close to stock to let guests through at their normal locations. “That’s a good one. Normally, no.” He said with a nod to himself, “If you don’t have something to block it off, I guess. But… try to find a way to block it off first.”

               She sighed loudly, speaking with her mouth full after that, “Okay,” She took a second to chew and then continued, “Second. New stock isn’t here.”

               “I’m sorry, can you say that again.”

               “New stock isn’t here.” She repeated, in an almost identical tone.

               “That should have been in before yesterday.”

               “Yup.”

               “And did you file an incident report?”

               “Yup.”

               “And still nothing.”

               “Nope.”

               He paused. The whole short conversation he had been pulling up their internal files. Once there, he saw that she was being truthful. She had filed one the day the delivery should have been made, and one every six hours after that trying to get some traction. No one had sent her anything beyond a simple ‘looking into it’ sort of response. He had access to every team’s responses and looking through he found the logistics reports.

               “Okay,” He said as he read across the logistics report. “Good news or bad news first,”

               “Good news,” She requested.

               “The driver that caused the problem no longer works for us. Also he’s in jail,” Mattias said, “Apparently he stopped to rest that first night, got in a fistfight over a lady,” He omitted the actual word, “And then fought the police when they showed up. Gave a fake name when dragged in. So the company found the truck yesterday, but it had been impounded and they can’t get the supplies back until after the paperwork is all wrapped up.”

               “So not tonight.”

               “Yup.”

               “That was the good news?”

               “Well, you figured out the bad news. Sorry. No way to get you any supplies today,”

               “Any suggestions on what to do with the fifty plus people already kind of on edge because of the baby?” Again, her calm demeanor was far from refreshing. It seemed almost callous. He worried she was just going to give up and leave. Of course, he didn’t really have any skin in the game there, so, she could have and it would not have affected him one way or the next.

               “What do you think is best?”

               “Give them free stuff.”

               “You could. Prepared to explain that to your regional?”

               She didn’t say anything for a second. “Yeah. Lady’s havin’ a baby and my driver got himself pinched.”

               “Yeah. What about an IOU guarantee for the expected supply? And a discount one what they pay for it when they do?” Mattias offered. He really didn’t want her to end up fired. Not over something this far out of her control at least.

               “Okay, that might work. I’ll think about it.”

               “Good, anything else?”

               “No, just thanks,”

               “All part of the job. Call back if you need anything,” He replied and hung up. Normally, he would have given more niceties, but he could see another call waiting. He had to move on. And that was his only interesting call. He kept working, and while there were plenty of calls, none of them past that one could be described as interesting. The call had made him wonder if he sounded as distant on the job as she had if he sounded as ready to be fired and to give up. Today, he didn’t think so, but on a normal day, maybe he would have.

               He finished up his shift about noon when Ashley arrived to take over for the rest of the day. They talked for a minute, but then she was on the phones and he was headed out and home after an exhausting stretch of hours. He’d have the weekend to recover though.

               When he got to the parking lot, he felt the sun hit his skin, and he felt a strong wave of nausea building, so he made it to his car as quick as he could. It had been a tiring day, but something made him feel a bit worse than he expected he would. Even reaching the car, he felt his fatigue build up enough to make him take a second of laying against the steering wheel before finally starting the car and heading out.

               The drive was not bad though. With the Holiday, it wasn’t like there were a ton of people working, and for the most part, he felt it was an easy drive. It felt long, though. He wasn’t sure why. When he pulled into his apartment he found himself at the door with a deep sickening feeling in his stomach. He pressed the door in and found himself in the outer hall. Each footstep felt surprisingly heavy. He didn’t know why at first. Then there was a sense of vertigo. The hall moved with him, twisting about and fighting him as he tried to reach his apartment. This feeling made him uncomfortable, a little agitated. It was frustrating and painful. He wanted to move forward, to get to his apartment and find himself able to rest. He just wanted rest.

               Until something caught his senses. It was a scent. The scent of blood. There was suddenly a taste in his mouth, a great hunger for something salty – something fresh. He needed it. He realized that, though, and pushed open the door to his apartment and quickly slammed the door shut behind. He locked the door behind him. He hadn’t felt this in a long while. He was losing control. He rushed to his fridge, which he opened and searched desperately for one of the red bottles he always had on him. He didn’t see any. The sudden remembrance of the night before came back to mind. He had an extra one or two to eat with Ashley. He only had one left.

               He only half-finished it. The rest sat on his desk at work.

               He felt his face twitch.

               He could smell that blood and it was causing him to lose control quicker and quicker. His vision was blurring, his senses heightening. He felt his teeth itching, a pain in his stomach. There was a coldness overcoming him. The blood was no longer flowing within him, and he would need to eat soon. He didn’t know how long he could hold it off.

               He pulled his phone from his pocket and typed out two words.

               Losing control

               He sent it to Rory and then to Olivia. He wasn’t sure how long he had. There were innocent people at the complex though.

               He threw open his cabinets and began searching like a madman, mumbling to himself and asking again and again where he put it. When he found ‘it’, he pulled it out. The vampire tore the lid off a small plastic jar and moved back to his front door. He poured it in a line along the edge of the door, the smell of garlic taking over the home as he pushed back over to the bedroom and shut that door. He poured another line out there and dropped the empty bottle. He took a deep breath, coughing and hissing through the smells for a second. His eyes darkened and for the first time in a long time, the sun from his kitchen window burned to the touch.

               Control was gone at that point. He knew there was blood nearby, and he needed it.

               He wanted it. Once it was dark… he would have it.

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Day Shift – Chapter 13

Ashley’s Visit

 

               Mattias spent a few minutes cleaning up his apartment. With a resounding three rooms – well, four if you considered the Kitchen and Living room separate, which he didn’t – it took almost no time. Then he put on some water. One thing he had picked up from Olivia was enjoyment of pressed coffee. It saved him a little space on his countertops and made single cups a little easier than a pot. More importantly, it made him look fancier than he was. After a few minutes, he was ready for her to arrive. He couldn’t imagine why she had wanted to come here, much less as to why she wanted to talk to him.

               It worried him. His business brain assumed that she was going to quit on him. That whatever chance he had at coming out of this Holiday season was about to go up in smoke. He supposed that was okay. Maybe his worry had been right. He checked the clock on his stove, trying to keep himself from worrying too much when she didn’t arrive as swiftly as he assumed she would. It was one of those days with no traffic, so there should have been no delays. It should have only taken a few minutes. Eventually, she did get there. He heard the buzz and walked over to hit a button on a console next to his door.

               “Hello?”

               “Hi boss,” Ashley’s voice came through quietly.

               “I’ll buzz you in,” He said in his best sitcom comedian voice. She didn’t respond, though he didn’t know if that meant it was a bad impression or before her time.

               He just waited by the door for a few minutes. He was just awkwardly leaned against the frame, waiting and listening for her to arrive. It was silly. He felt like he had to be at the door when she arrived. It was taking longer than he expected to. She had entered his building, it should have only taken a minute or two. It took about five. He finally heard footsteps outside, and then a soft knock on the door. When he heard that, he twisted around and opened the door.

               Seeing her, he realized why it had taken her longer than he expected.

               She was not looking well. She was not sickly, but she was visibly bruised. A black eye and a large bruise on the same jaw. She gave a weak smile as he looked over her obvious wounds.

               “Christ, what happened to you?” He stammered as he realized he was staring.

               “Hello to you too,” She said quietly.

               They both stood awkwardly at the doorway for a minute. Neither said anything. That snark normally would have been something they bonded over, but right now it was clear that it was forced. She was not in a good place mentally, and the quiet shadow of a voice she was using was more than enough to bring that to his attention. It made his stomach sink.

               “Yeah, sorry. Just surprised,” He opened the door wider and waved her into the apartment. “Welcome to Casa de Holland,”

               “I can see why Olivia left you,” She said a bit cruelly as she stepped in. He recognized she was just trying to defuse, but still.

               “Ouch,” He said as he closed the door. “And this is all post-Olivia.”

               There was a sudden flurry of little plastic taps on the fake carpet as Lunchbox came bounding around the kitchen counter. It had heard a familiar voice and like any pet, it was excited. It rushed over to Ashley, who bent over to give it a quick pat on the top. “Yeah, sorry. Just lashing out,”

               “I get it. And it was kind of low-hanging fruit for you,” He said walking past her towards the kitchen, “How do you like your coffee?”

               “Oh, I don’t… actually need coffee. It was just a thought.”

               “Fair enough,” He stopped and spun around to look at her again. She was picking up Lunchbox by that point. He took a breath, “So, what happened?”

               She didn’t say anything for a second, hesitating. That was all he needed to hear – or not hear in this case.

               “That bad, huh?”

               She nodded a few times and concentrated on playing with the little animated satchel. It wasn’t something she seemed to want to talk about, at least not yet. Which cued him into what it actually was even more. It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to delve into or push her on, at least if he was right. It was just something you couldn’t do. So, he wouldn’t try. What she needed was something else.

               “Well, I don’t have much other than coffee to offer you. Coffee, water, blood, some leftover bones, and my Chinese food spread for the holiday,” He spoke, each item having a light point towards it before one final broad wave over the entirety of what was left on the table.

               She gave him an awkward glance, “Chinese food?”

               “It would have been racist to order Vietnamese,” He joked. It was one of the first things that brought a little smile to her lips. At least the first time it was a genuine one. That was what he hoped to see something to bring a little smile. He gave a shrug and motioned over, “Relatively freshly nuked, so you are welcome to any you might want. I got more than I can physically eat anyway.”

               She paused for a few minutes before she finally relented and moved around to his couch. “I might have an eggroll or two,” She said with a smirk. “Can I?” She spoke as she pointed with her elbow over to the couch.

               “Sure, make yourself at home,” He was quick to reply before moving into the kitchen. “Want a drink?”

               “Just water will be fine, I think,” She spoke as she sat down and let Lunchbox rest on her lap. It circled about like a cat for a moment and then folded itself down onto her as if sleeping. She patted it lightly.

               He moved about in the kitchen and prepared a glass of water for her. He paused and grabbed himself one of his red bottles from the fridge shortly after, then joined her on the couch. He set the water down on the table in front of her. She had already procured herself an eggroll and was nibbling on it – trying to decipher if it was any good or not.

               “Where’d you order Chinese food from?” She asked, casting a glance over to him.

               “Dragon Palace,”

               “Really? There’s somewhere with that cliché of a name?”

               “You should see the inside. All red lanterns and gold dragons, with stereotypical crane prints on the walls. Has a buffet too,” He said leaning forward to grab a plate of moo-shu pork. He gave a grin over to her. “And one of those weird koi ponds just inside the foyer.”

               She chuckled, “Not very authentic then, eh?”

               “I mean, If I wanted authentic I wouldn’t order from a place called Dragon Palace. Especially one that’s in a small little strip mall with a thrift shop and a check-cashing place,” He gave a smirk as he took a bite, “But you’ve gotta love the crappy stereotypical Chinese food, right?”

               She gave a nod and smirked back, “Yeah. My grandmother would hate this – but,” She took a larger bite, “I have to admit I do like MSG crusted cabbage,”

               “Exactly.”

               “So, a gamer?” She said with a nod towards the console under the television, which was currently paused and showing a home screen.

               “Used to be, but not a lot of time for it now,” He admitted. It was nice for her to try to make small talk, and she would continue through the visit. The two had small conversations for a little bit, and she slowly but surely warmed up over time. The discussions were mostly harmless but they did not delve into anything resembling a deep conversation. For the most part, they talked about pop culture and nerdy things.

               He quickly realized that she just wanted to keep her mind off of the situation that had befallen her, whatever that was. He had gleaned a bit of information. She was hurt, there were bruises he couldn’t see, it was keeping her from her family, and she was staying at a hotel during the aftermath. All of that pointed to the same thing. He didn’t need to push on that. She just needed someone she could trust, and for the moment that was him. The closest her conversation came to being anything similar to deep was when she asked if he thought Olivia might give her some pointers on animating things.

               Of course, he thought she would. As much as she probably would have hated to be signed up, he was sure that his ex-wife would adore bringing another witch into the animator’s lifestyle. After all, she seemed to want to animate everything, and the teaching other witches to do that would spread that ability wider into the world. Not to mention she loved the different perspectives and imagination brought by others to her workshop. It would be worth asking at the very least.

               Then came a question he didn’t expect.

               “Do you know what you want to do with life? Or… whatever?” Ashley asked, seemingly unsure about even asking the questions. “I mean, you never seemed like you wanted to be a customer service manager long term.”

               “No, I definitely don’t want to do that,” He shook his head a bit, “I was originally planning on just coasting on Night Shift until something better came along, or I figured that out.”

               “There must be something you want to do though. Like a dream or something.”

               “Not really. I lost a lot of them when I came down with the bloodlust,” He admitted, “I mean, I suddenly couldn’t have a family and a few years later me and Olivia didn’t work anymore. She kept moving and I was frozen in time, you know.” He took a long deep breath and glanced over to her. He saw for a few seconds that sad look on her face returning. She needed him to be honest and open with her, and to help her remember that there were people out there willing to not abuse her trust. He couldn’t believe he was going to admit to this, but she needed him honest. “Olivia always reminds me there is one thing I could do. One dream I had before, but it’s kind of a long shot. And I don’t know…”

               “But…” She encouraged him to continue.

               He let out a long breath, “After I was turned… I just wanted to live a normal life, you know how it is,”

               “Yeah. Not quite non-human, but witches do get a bad rep.”

               “Exactly. We are treated differently, have to live differently. Society just isn’t built for us. And I don’t want to change it, or anything. Just… a place where you could get help and learn to understand how things work, and how to deal with others when they don’t. It would’ve helped me. Or Olivia,”

               “Or me,” Ashley said with a soft breath, “Or Lindsay.”

               “Yeah. So, I just want to figure out how to make that sort of place a reality. Somewhere non-humans can go when they need help, or want to learn how to live with this bullshit,” He shook his head. “But, it’s a bit idea – way beyond me.”

               She shook her head back, “No. Not beyond you. I mean, you are giving up a day to help me out, and you don’t really need to.”

               “That’s different.”

               “Not really. Just expand on that. You like helping people,” She nodded, “Why not go for it? What’s the worst that could happen?” She smirked, “You are already dead.”

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Day Shift – Chapter 12

Down One

 

               Mattias’ weekend ended well before he was ready for it to do so. Or at least it felt like that. He had gamed all weekend and that made it go by too quickly. That was to be expected. And he had basically finished a new game he had been excited about, so what wasn’t to love, right? Come Monday morning, though, he found himself feeling a familiar sense of dread, a woeful lack of desire to role out of bed and move into his usual destination.

               But this morning, it was worse. His phone blinked. A message. That sense of dread deepened. He couldn’t explain why, but he knew that Olivia was likely still asleep, and Rory was definitely still asleep. So, either it was a message from late the night before or recent. He assumed it arrived recently. He sighed and took a breath, reaching over to grab his phone and pulling it over to the bed. He stared at it for a moment, before his groggy mind ordered his fingers to work. They did not cooperate, and he stumbled with the process of getting his phone unlocked and functional. When he finally did, he saw the message flash up in a preview. It was from Ashley.

               Hey boss, sorry to do this…

               Great. He swiped his finger over the message and gave a quick read to the entire piece that had been sent to him.

               …but I’m sick and won’t be in for a few days. It should be better by Black Friday though. I’ll have a doctor’s note.

               He groaned. He hated that she was sick, but he hated being down a person too. It wasn’t her fault, but it still set the day on a bad foot early in the morning. A grand way to start the last day before the hardest season of the year for them. He groaned and decided it best just to wallow in his dread for a few more minutes before getting back up with her. He eventually sent a text, something simple that didn’t give too much information one way or the next.

               No worries. Feel better. That was all he could think to say. She was sick, there was nothing he could really do for her except by handling whatever it is that she would have normally done. It made his day less of a good one, sure, but her’s was likely just awful. He hated that the thought of his own inconvenience came to him first. She wasn’t one to call in randomly, so it may have been something very bad. At least he knew it was genuine. After he thought about it, he didn’t remember any of his team calling in since the move to the day shift.

               He finally pushed himself up and got on about his day. Again, he went through the same motions. Get himself up, grab clothes, take a quick shower, get dressed, get lunchbox, and then drive to work. Deal with nausea. Regret ever having agreed to this and having to deal with the blasted sun the entire drive there. Today, was no different there. Actually, the sun might have brighter than normal, the sky clear and blue this morning, and people other than him seemed cheerful. Maybe it was just warmer and more pleasant than normal, or he had missed the memo about today being a good day. He didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

               When he got to work, he headed inside with a quick jog across the parking lot. He joined the flood of people that were moving towards their respective jobs. He crowded into the elevator with a group and listened to the conversations. Or, rather, he listened to the tone of the conversations. Here, like on the road, there was a bit of warmth and general good demeanor about the people he was around. They all seemed to be happier than the usual Monday morning, at least in his experience. Though, he remembered Monday mornings less and less though as his time as a vampire had gone on. He wondered if he was just forgetting the weeks before the Holidays being a bit more welcome than the usual weeks. Maybe he was. Maybe it was just a pretty day.

               Either way, he reached his office with no real trouble. Ava was there when he arrived, already talking on the phone with a client to plan some meetings later in the day with someone there. She gave a wide smile and a wide wave over to him, but she couldn’t. That was a great relief to him. Based on her excited wave, he felt that her reading of the meeting they had over the weekend may have been a good one. He didn’t consider it that way, and he thought he had been clear. Though, he was glad she had come in today and wasn’t drained.

               He took a quick look at Ed’s office and saw her there on the phone. Unlike normal, she was standing facing away from everyone, looking out over the city. She wasn’t moving too much, just nodding and he could catch her speaking from time to time. She seemed in a deep conversation, but not one that he would have been able to guess without hearing something from her. It was clear that she wouldn’t have that though. She was making sure people would see or hear her.

               He reached his cubicle area, where his team was already set up and ready to go. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary here though. His team seemed in good spirits too, though. Lindsay was working quietly, typing away on some incident report. Helena hummed along to some song in her headset. Maddox was catching up on some sport he followed. Pleasant.

               All this pleasant Monday feeling made him wildly uncomfortable. Something felt a little off. It was just his paranoia, of course, but it was one of those little nagging things he did. He always twisted things, a weird perspective that all this nice and pleasant feeling must have been balancing out the bad that was preparing to be unleashed on them. Despite his natural inclination to this ideology, the day went on without incident. The guests were nice, the tasks easy.

               The next day was much the same. The day was easy. The sun was bright, and people were in good spirits. Yet, something continually ate at him, that something wasn’t right. Ashley was still out, and it seemed that she would be for a few days. But she had been quiet and hadn’t spoken much to any of them it seemed. He had talked to Maddox and Lindsay, and she hadn’t said anything. She let Helena know that she would be back, but it would be a full few days before she could be. She didn’t even hint at the cause. Just that she was sick.

               Finally, the worry got to him enough that he opted to send her a text. Just a quick check-in. He planned to disguise it too, just to make sure she wouldn’t be able to accuse him of wanting to check up on her specifically. It was some stupid holdover from his youth. He didn’t want to be seen as caring. He wanted to be aloof and off on his own. A mysterious and cool person, rather than a soft caring individual. Which even as he chose to act that way, he realized just how stupid of a thought process it actually was. That wasn’t going to break the habit though. He had ingrained this silly behavior into his nature.

               Ashley, I just wanted to see if you were feeling better and if you needed me to get anyone to cover for you on BF. Thanks.

               That was all he sent. He sent it while sipping down another one of his red bottles during lunch break, recharging his blood stores and getting some much-needed energy back for the rest of the day. He expected her to text back rather quickly. After thirty minutes, he explained away the delay to her likely being sick and asleep. After all, the rest was important. But after a few hours of not receiving a response, he began to worry.

               For him, worry had always been an insidious thing. He had a somewhat unnatural ability to see things coming – be it from patterns or changes to those patterns, or some supernatural force – but that only made things worse. He could take the smallest things, and until they were resolved, their weight would seem to grow and grow. And in this case, he worried about one of his team. He worried that something awful had happened. His mind immediately jumped to the idea that she was deathly ill and couldn’t speak due to whatever illness it was.

               He considered sending another text, but he knew that would be a little too much. He didn’t know what to do but wait. But the waiting let him think. And the thinking made things worse. And then, with no warning, about five hours later he got a text back.

               I’m fine. I’ll be in on Black Friday, but I need to take off til then.

               He paused and stared at those words for a minute. Now he knew something was off. Three full days off required a doctor’s note, so she had to have gone there. So, she must have had something pretty rough.

               Sorry to hear that you’ll be out all week. Anything I can do to help?

               Again, the text took longer than he would have expected. It took about fifteen minutes before it arrived back in his inbox.

               No

               That was it. Not a no thanks, or anything similar. Just, no.

               Now, he was not close to his team. Not like some team leaders. He knew that, and never really wanted their day to day relationship to be any different. But he did care, and they were well aware of that. The short phrase shook him. Something was wrong, and it was much worse than he would have thought. He needed to give her an out. Something she could use.

               Okay. If you need it, just try to let me know by tomorrow if I need to make Maddox take Friday.

               Again, there was a long wait, somewhat arduous by comparison. Then again, she typed out a short and simple response.

               Ok.

               Ok. That was it. That didn’t even sound like her, much less look like something she would type. He didn’t text her often, but he saw a lot of her texts. She was always texting at her desk, which was fine given it didn’t interfere with her job. The team members they worked with knew her primarily through text. It was her preferred medium to communicate in and she knew all the little tricks. So, he doubted anything short of catastrophic would stop that. One-word answers just weren’t her style, not in this format at least.

               He couldn’t dwell on it, though. There was nothing he could do for her outside of hope for the best. So that was what he did. As the week went on, she didn’t show up. She stayed away, and he dealt with the fallout. He listened to Maddox’s moaning and told Lindsay to be on standby in case she couldn’t make it into work on Black Friday. Then, on that Wednesday, he went home.

               For him, Thanksgiving was a little holiday now. He had very specific traditions. Given he couldn’t really eat the meals anymore – at least not comfortably – so he didn’t. He didn’t have much family left, and though both Olivia and Rory invited him to join them and their families, he turned them down as he always did. Instead, he would stay home and do a lot of nothing. He had his game from the week before, and he had enough little red bottles to survive until next week, even if he didn’t get any food. Still, since it was a holiday he ordered an overabundance of Chinese food.

               It just seemed right to sit and enjoy an indulgence on one of the premier holidays of the year. Even he had to admit that it was a bit depressing to spend the day alone eating microwaved Chinese food ordered the day before. He should have accepted one of the offers. Maybe next year, though. Maybe next year he would spend the time with loved ones. His phone vibrated, the light from a text popping up.

               Hey boss. Sorry to bother you on the holiday, but… He swiped just under Ashley’s name to reveal the full message. …I just needed to talk to you before tomorrow.

               He took a breath and considered going ahead and texting Lindsay. Sure. What do you need? He responded, opting to at least see what it was she needed.

               I’m in a bad place and couldn’t visit family. I don’t know why I’m even asking, but are you in town?

               Yeah. Pretty much always could.

               Could we meet for coffee?

               Where? He raised a brow and shook his head. Nowhere was open.

               I don’t know.

               He sighed and glanced to his kitchen, and then back to the coffee table with a bunch of take-out sitting on it. He couldn’t believe what he was going to do. I have coffee here. He typed out. I could bring it to you. He hesitated over the send button for a minute, before finally letting his finger fall on the screen to send the text. Then he waited. There were only a couple seconds before the first response came through.

               I know this is odd to ask and you can say no, but could we just meet there? I don’t know really have a place to meet up at the moment.

               He started to type and another message but didn’t have a chance before another text came through from her.

               You can say no. Just inviting my manager to my hotel room seems like it would look bad. Like really bad.

               He adjusted his text a bit and started to send it back.

               I mean, maybe this is a bad idea. You can forget I asked.

               He gave a shake of his head and waited for a second to see if she would text again. She didn’t. It gave him time to type out something new.

               Ashley. Calm down. If you need to talk, we can. I’ll send you my address.

               Ok.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 11

Not That Kind of Vampire

 

               With Black Friday only a couple scant weeks away, Mattias decided it was best trying to enjoy one of the last few weekends he had available until the New Year. It was one of those weekends that he planned for meticulously. He did his research, got the food and snacks he’d need for the trip, and prepared with the best of them. He had no intention of letting anything distract from his goal of enjoying a weekend and doing something that he loved before that chance slipped through his fingers for the next few weeks and months.

               There in his living room, with the windows blackened and every possible distraction removed, he sat and took a tentative breath. He was ready to do this. To escape. Just for a weekend. Just for a couple days, to be somewhere but here. He smirked to himself, and with one clawed finger he pierced the crisp plastic wrap of a brand-new console game. For a long time, he had wanted nothing more than to be in another world, and forty hours of gaming in a weird and imaginative existence sounded perfect to him. The scent of fresh new plastic filled the room, and with a satisfying snap, he opened the case.

               He was old and missed the days when there was a manual to peruse over. That was okay though. With the modern world, he could get everything he needed from some fan wiki that had popped up on the internet in the days after the release of the game. That, of course, was something he hadn’t done yet. He had avoided spoilers completely. This would be his escape, brought by diligent and blissful ignorance. He stood up and took the disc out of the case with a satisfying click, and slipped it into the console. He took a breath and took his time getting back to the couch.

               Then he flopped down on the couch, lazily reaching out to grab the controller. The room’s light shifted heavily, the pale blue light of the TV lightened up with the game’s splash screen flickering into existence as he hit a button on the controller pad. There was a pause as the game loaded, and the trailer began to play. He had seen it before, a few times, on this very television. So there was nothing to do. With a satisfying tap of the controller again, he skipped it. Then, excitedly watched for the menu screen.

               It popped up – but his heart sank.

               There wasn’t a menu, only a progress bar. Below which there was a small flickering word.

               Installing.

               01%.

               “Damn it…” He muttered under his breath as he sat the controller down. No big deal. He would just wait to see about how long it would take. It took a few seconds, but the percentage crawled up. No problem. He reached over and grabbed his phone off the table and wasted time on the internet for a while. It would just take a few minutes after all.

               And yet, every time he would check the progress it would feel that much further. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes passed, and each check his frustration grew and grew over the situation. He was just annoyed. Finally, nearly an hour after he started, he saw the screen flash and change. It reloaded the trailer cinematic and he sat up excitedly.

               “Finally,” He said to himself, a bit of a wriggle in his seat in almost childlike expectation.

               Once again, the menu screen loaded. Then a popup showed through.

               Update required.

               “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” He groaned. He smashed a button to take him to the downloads screen, the images shifting and changing before they went to yet another menu and opened the download progress. His eyes drifted across the screen looking for how big of a download it was going to be. With a little luck, it was just a small update. Just a few more minutes. Of course, when his eyes fell on the size of the download for the update, they widened. There was a for a moment a clear sense of loss that filled them, a defeated toss of the controller onto the couch, and a somewhat tentative move to stand up. He wavered for a moment before he stepped around to a side table and snatched up his keys and wallet. And then he walked to the door.

               “I’ll be back lunchbox,” He called back into the house, before moving out and into the world.

               He didn’t know where he was going, or what he was doing now. He needed to burn a couple of hours to do what he wanted to do, so why not go out to town to distract himself. That made sense to him. He was annoyed. So why not go out and find something to sate him. He was going to go buy something.

               He did not, by any means, have the money to tie his annoyance to purchases. It was a habit he wasn’t breaking anytime soon, and he knew where he was going. Downtown there was a small shop that sold witchy items and stuff for non-humans. So, he’d go there for a while, and see if he could find anything fun. Maybe he could find something to distract him, or an interesting book, or just a bauble for his lunchbox.

               It took about twenty minutes to drive to the shop he was looking for and a few more to find a parking lot. On the weekends, downtown was always busy. On a surprisingly warm night like tonight, plenty of folks were out and about. College kids were pub-crawling and celebrating the coming end of a semester before the had to buckle down and study. Those of the town older than that were just trying to blow off steam, and maybe find something to drown memories of work in, like he was doing. Of course, he wanted a more solitary feeling than most people. He wanted to be left alone.

               He had never been lucky enough to get what he wanted.

               “Mr. Holland!” He heard a yell from across the street as he walked. It would have been fine to keep walking and ignore her, right?

               No, that would just make her yell again. Just a wave and an acknowledgment, and she’d go back to whatever it was she was doing. So that was his strategy. He turned and found himself scanning the crowd. Finally, he spotted the waving arm of one of his coworkers.

               Ava.

               Though she looked completely different than he was used too. He waved back.

               Then, barely looking, she grabbed her friend’s arm and bolted across the street towards him. The tiny little figure bounding across like a baby deer – without even looking where she was going or for cars or other dangers. It was stupid, but it was also busy so it wasn’t like there was much traffic in this particular area.

               “Hey, Mr. Holland! Neat to see you out and about,” She said as she came to a halt next to him.

               “Hi, Miss Mays,” He followed her formalities, not sure why she was approaching him. They barely talked at work.

               “How cool is this?” She asked, “Are you going to the Club?” There was an emphasis on the word Club. He caught it, and it made his brain suddenly click.

               He looked at her and her friend and discomfort started rising in his mind. His plan had backfired completely, and he suddenly realized what Club she was talking about. You see, she was in her gothic best. A thin black tank top with a capelet, a skirt that was only a few inches away from being a glorified belt, and knee-high black strappy boots gave her a very obvious look. A spiked choker, dark make-up, and a few superfluous chains dangling from useless clasps on her attire finished the ensemble.

               “Oh, no. I’m not that kind of vampire,”

               “There are different vampires?” Her friend slurred. She was similarly dressed if somehow a little bit more densely layered with accessories.

               “Yes, but I don’t think that’s actually what you’re asking,” Mattias said with a growing discomfort around us.

               “Why don’t you come with us? It could be fun.”

               “I appreciate the invite, by no,” He said raising his hands and shaking his head. He tried to make it as obvious as possible that he was not in any way interested. “You two have fun.”

               “Aw, come on. It’s feeding night,”

               “I’ll go with hell no then,” Mattias smirked a bit.

               “Aw, that’s no fun,” Her friend wobbled and stumbled a bit. “I bet you’re fun to feed.”

               “Nope,” The vampire shook his head. “No.” His finger pointed at the friend, and then to Ava. “No.”

               “Okay, well if you change your mind…”

               “You’re drunk, don’t finish that sentence,” He gave a bit of a stern voice.

               “He’s no fun. You said he was fun.”

               “He’s fun,” Ava stumbled a bit, “He’s just not that kind of vampire. Let’s go find sexy vampires.” They had both started moving away from him.

               “Ouch,” He added at the statement.

               “See you at work on Monday, Mr. Holland,” Ava gave a wave and they were off.

               “Be careful, Ava.”

               He felt eyes on him as they walked away. It was uncomfortable. It wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. He was being judged from somewhere, by someone familiar. It was night. His senses were enhanced. He could smell the humans, hear them breathing as they walked along the road, and feel the warmth of their hearts. They were, after all, prey – and he was designed to be a hunter. So, when one hunted him, he could feel it. The difference in their heartbeat and breaths, the smell the adrenaline gave their sweat.

               Hunters, of course, were rare now. Legal hunters were often employed by police departments to track down any vampires that lost control. He was not one of those, though. And the illegal ones were little more than ignorant bigots. He wasn’t afraid of them. They were generally stupid and in over their heads. So, who was hunting him now?

               “Mr. Holland,”

               “Miss Chambers,” He spoke as he realized it was Ed. How exactly could this night get any worse?

               “Not that kind of vampire?”

               “Saw that exchange, did you?” He spoke, finally turning around to see her a few feet behind him. She had a shopping bag in her hands from the same place he was headed. And she wasn’t sharply dressed. Her out of work attire was just as planned, mind you – but she had clearly put work into the fashion of it all. A layered ensemble of fall colors, with a light jacket and scarf, smart combinations of color, and just enough asymmetry to draw the eye to her face.

               “Yes. Ms. Mays didn’t seem like that type at work,”

               “A lot of us are different at work,” He said with a nod to her, “Some of us less so, looks like.”

               “What does that mean?”

               He paused. What did that mean? “I don’t know. Trying to sound deeper than I am.”

               She smiled. It surprised him. The smile was soft and genuine. It wasn’t sharp at all. “Well, I just wanted to say hello, and that you did really well. You think they’ll be okay?”

               “Yeah, they’ll be fine. A bunch of humans pretending to be vampires is all that club is. I mean, there might be a real one there, but it’s pretty rare,” He smirked and bared his teeth, “These aren’t really made for crowds, you know.” He shrugged. “Weird that she’s a bit of a thrall,”

               “Thrall?”

               “Its uh… Well,” He paused and felt a hand lift to the back of his head, where he brushed it through his hair. “It was a term used by vampires back when for thralls, people they kept as servants and meals. Now it’s for,” He blinked and paused, “Vampire groupies.” He felt his smirk fade to an awkward smile, and he laughed a bit, “Sorry, weird to say to my boss.”

               “Not on the clock. So, don’t worry about it.”

               “Good.” He pointed to the bag, “Demi’s?”

               She jostled the bag a bit, “Yeah. The incubus thing… got me thinking.” She admitted, “I mean, I hadn’t been since college, but I knew they’d have a couple books on non-humans. And some sage. So, I got a few books on ‘cubi, vampires, Fomorians, witches, slimes…”

               “Slimes?”

               “Yeah. One works in IT.”

               “Oh, I did not know that,” Mattias said with a small grin. “Studying up.”

               “I just thought, if I’m going to be a good manager, I need to know what you all are going through. And the internet is awful. Especially for Fomorians.”

               “Right? How racist are the faerie?”

               “It surprised me! They attack every site they can. And I thought they were just playful tricksters,”

               “The good ones, sure. But they have a lot of Unseelie folks nowadays. The Internet brought them out of hiding. Like human-trolls. And, probably regular trolls.”

               She smiled. “Yeah. Anyway. I thought it would help. I don’t want to take up your time, I just wanted to say hello.” She gave a little wave, “So, hello.”

               “Hello. Good to see you,” He said with an awkward little wave back. “And thanks for looking into that stuff. It’s nice to know you’re looking out for us outside of work.”

               “You guys deserve it.”

               He smiled, “And Miss Chambers, you can call me Mattias, if you’d like. Especially outside of work.”

               “Mattias. Sure,” She said with a nod, “And I guess you can call me Ed. Outside of work,” She pointed a finger at him from the hand that was holding the bag. “Miss Chambers at work.”

               “Got it.”

               “Good,” She said with a curt nod before she turned away, “Be good. Have a nice weekend. And I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

               “Tuesday?”

               “I won’t be in Monday.”

               “Oh. Tuesday, then.” He said. She gave another wave and then disappeared into the crowd. That was odd. Very odd. But he couldn’t complain. It was a good distraction, and he had to admit, he liked her much better outside of work. At least during that short interaction.

               He didn’t dwell on it too much more. He headed to the store, Demi’s, and browsed around for a while. In the end, he didn’t end up buying anything worthwhile. He just wasted time there and thought. He did chat with the staff a bit. They were old hippies, both human, but they had been part of the non-human culture for a long time. They were friendly, loving folk, who just wanted to see everyone get along. So, they tried to help facilitate that as best they could. It was nice. They had known him for years, and they were always nice to talk to, even if the conversation was very surface level. They didn’t fill him in on any juicy gossip or help him solve a problem in his head. They just reminded him of something very important. There were good people out there still – and if you paid attention you knew where to look.

               A nice night overall. And when he got home, his update was done. And for the rest of the weekend, he’d only move from his couch when he had to. The rest of the time he spent in another world, happy to be away from his own, but at least looking a bit more forward to the following Monday than he had when he left that evening.

              

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Marches – Chapter 03

Mirabelle

Ten years had passed since that fateful night when the Astier had come to her home, and despite her father’s attempts, the proposal was officially accepted and a plan for marriage put underway. Before that, though, there was one more meeting required between the two families – excepting the bride and groom would not be allowed to meet. As the weeks before their second visit to her home came and went, she found herself unable to do much but continue her studies. She poured over information about the Wyverns, specifically the Astier. She was not bashful about hoping that she would be able to find some way to refuse them, something to excuse her from this duty.

In truth, she was terrified. Her parents had spent much of her life explaining the horrors of the people of Nid de Vouivre. They were descended from barbarians and bandits and gave no weight to the honor that the rest of the nations so firmly stood by. Nothing she found changed her mind, but she could not square that away with the fact that her Majesty would call on them often as advisors and members of her court. A lady of virtue and honor, who trusted a veritable band of thieves.

Mirabelle had grown well, her looks straying away from her mother a bit as she aged. While her pale eyes and snow-white hair were as striking, she had grown thin and tall for a woman of her kin. Most importantly though, she was intelligent – much more so than her sister, or perhaps even besting her older brother. She learned quickly and was incredibly well-read and observant in all things, but especially with those actions of the people around her. She had become a natural in court and was even trained alongside other future ladies of her Majesty’s Court. Her mastery of the Masquerade grew from her people’s natural grace and the strict codes they followed to ensure their path was a pure one.

A waste, now that she would be cast with devils.

One morning after they had returned, when the sun was still low, Mirabelle sat in her room watching the wisps of snow tossed about by the wind. It was still warm enough that the snow would not amount to much, at least not for some time – but it had begun to freeze to the stone windowsills and shaded patches of earth around her home. Her handmaiden entered her chambers after a small knock. She was a timid young thing, from some distant foreign part of the kingdoms.

“My lady,” She said in a whisper, bowing and holding herself low to keep from drawing her mistress’ ire. “Marquise Tienette Astier is here and she asks if you would like to join her for a walk along the seashore.”

“Tell her no.” Mirabelle said with a shake of her head. “Give her whatever excuse you like.”

“Yes, madam.” The handmaiden spoke, backing out of the room.

This scene was growing old for the young woman. She wondered at the Marquise persistence and willingness to be rejected at every turn. She had no intention of spending time with them and hoped it would drive a wedge between them early. Despite her father’s demands and threats, she would not be moved to give them an inch.

Then something odd happened. Sitting in her room, she spotted a woman walking along the shore. She was alone, with one hand held out before her pausing to catch and examine snowflakes as they fell around her. Mirabelle was a bit confused. She had thought, like everything else, that it was an attempt to speak to her and put a dent in her resolve. The Wyverns’ were all tricksters, all working some scheme to get their way. She shook her head. “Coralie, come in here please?” She asked loud enough for her handmaiden to hear.

“Yes, madam?” The timid girl spoke as she pushed the oaken door open.

“Did the Marquise take her walk?”

“She is still on it. Yes.” The handmaiden spoke as she gave a quick bow.

“And yesterday, when she asked if I would join her for dinner?”

“I don’t understand the question, my lady. I’m sorry.” Coralie nervously replied.

“Did she adjust her plans?”

“No, my lady. She ate alone when you declined.”

“And the did she walk the gardens?”

“Yes, madam. I believe she even picked a few of the winter bloom flowers.” The handmaiden gave a nervous shrug, “She did ask for a weight to press them, though I believe that is the only change from the invitation she gave to you.”

Mirabelle turned to her handmaiden. “Has she spent the entire time she has been here alone?”

“Yes, madam. When not with your mother or father, or at another function required of her, she has reliably asked me to give you an invitation to join her and then carried on as invited.”

“Why?”

“I’m sorry, madam, she hasn’t shared that with me,” Coralie said softly.

“Coralie, bring me a coat – and get one for yourself,” Mirabelle ordered, standing from her position. She quickly moved to find her boots, and her handmaiden soon returned with a warm furred coat. She was quick to wrap it about her shoulders and headed out of her room and into the complex.

Coralie struggled to keep up, walking fast behind the young lady. As they passed through the corridors, she spoke to no one and eventually turned out of the main complex and followed the paths out to the beach.

Soon enough, she found herself a few lengths away from the Marquise, who stood just at the waterline watching the snowfall over the cold gray waters of winter. Mirabelle couldn’t think of anything to say at first. The woman she saw was so different than what she was used too. She didn’t wear the silken gowns she was used too, instead a blouse and pants. While they were nicer than many, they were practical and well worn – and at her hip she wore a blade. Then there was the mask. That basilisk mask hid her eyes and much of her face. Even the dark colors gave a foreboding look to her, but here she seemed different.

“My lady, you honor me.” Tienette’s voice broke the silence, but she didn’t turn to greet the young woman. “I didn’t expect you to join me today. Your girl said it was too cold.”

“What are you doing?” Mirabelle asked with little empathy in her voice.

“Enjoying the snow on the beach.” The woman responded softly.

“You are Tienette au Basilic. But you are walking the beach alone?”

 The woman laughed softly, “Yes, I am. I thought it might be something we both enjoyed. There is little prettier than light snow over the sea, is there not?”

“Why did you eat alone last night?”

“Because you did not join me.” Tienette paused and turned to the young lady finally.

“You could have eaten with another or your husband.”

The woman sighed. “I suppose. But to be honest, I was in no place to go see eat with another.”

“Why?”

“Honestly, because my husband does not like to see me cry.”

There was a long pause. Mirabelle was silent. “Why would the Basilisk cry?”

There was a moment when she caught a glimpse under that mask. Flushed cheeks, an awkward twist of her lips. It was bittersweet, the only way to describe it. It was a sad look. “I…” She shook her head, and then there was a small smile that crept across her lips. “I had this fantasy on my way here.” She took a breath, “I knew you would be resistant. I was when my marriage was decided. But I thought maybe I could find something we both enjoyed, some way to bond and find some common ground to stand upon.” She let out a chuckle at herself, “The fantasy was that you and I would actually be fast friends. When you were a girl, you were not scared of anything. Or at least your curiosity overruled your fear. Something we shared.”

She paused for a moment, before giving a shake of her head. “Truthfully, in the stories I hear, I see myself a lot. I hoped we would be close.” She let out a long breath, “Unrealistic, even in the best situations. I hope you’ll forgive me – it isn’t something to put on you.”

Mirabelle was a bit confused by the display. It seemed genuine. More than genuine even. She glanced at Coralie with an inquisitive look, and the girl simply gave back a quick nod. It hastily confirmed the sincerity of the woman’s admittance. It was something she didn’t understand, that she couldn’t understand.

“Why?” Mirabelle asked. “Why did you hope?”

“Because, my mother in law is a challenge, but we did connect over dueling.” Tienette gave a soft shake of her head and then looked away to the sea one more time. “It made the transition to a wife much easier for me.” She took a long breath of the sea air and gave a sideways glance across to the young woman. “You don’t believe me.”

“I,” Mirabelle started to say something, but she realized she had been blindsided a bit. “I don’t know.”

“My lady, if I may…” Tienette spoke quietly, “Wyverns have a reputation, often well deserved, but just as often one they cultivate. But we are her Majesty’s subjects, just like you. Our worlds are not so different.”

“You are monsters.”

Tienette laughed at the term and gave a nod. “I see you remember our first meeting. My husband loves nothing more than to play into the stories.” She stepped towards the sea. “Why am I called Basilisk?”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything.

“You studied us, did you not?”

The girl gave a nod and finally answered. “You are Tienette au Basilic,” She swallowed, “You kill with a single glance, more poisonous than the deadliest viper.” She paused a moment, glancing across the woman and letting her eyes fall to the blades at her hip. “And you are never without your Fangs.”

Tienette nodded and spoke softly. “When you face the Basilisk, you are already dead. To turn towards her is to invite death, as even a single gaze will steal the life from your blood. The only way to win against such a creature is to look away.” She took a breath, “Exaggerations, I assure you. I am a competent duelist and have been lucky. I simply never denied the other stories and they grew from there. Do you know what I spend most of my time doing?”

Mirabelle shook her head.

“I handle our estate’s books. I make sure that everything run’s smoothly. My husband is often dealing with our province’s court dealings, so that leaves the day to day things to me. So, I spend a lot of time working with the villages under our care.” She smiled to herself. “It is not as glamorous as the claims that I am some great assassin.”

Mirabelle just stared for a moment more, saying nothing. With the wind coming in along the coast, she took a breath of the cold sea air and finally relented. “I’m sorry.” She said quietly. “I misread your intentions.”

“No, you were cautious.” Tienette corrected. “A bit prejudiced, yes, but all the same. That is something our people hold higher than most of the other kingdoms. Still, I only want to get to know you. I hope to find some common ground, of course, but perhaps more importantly, I am still a mother. I want to know I’ve made the right decision for my son.”

Mirabelle nodded, speaking softly. “Then, a small dinner tonight? To make up for the others missed.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Tienette admitted with a little bit of excitement in her tone. “Thank you, lady d’Argent.”

The young lady was not sure what to say, and merely let the words lie there with a bow before she turned and headed back to the towers. She looked back after some time, with Coralie following behind her as close as she could. The air was chilling more as the day pressed on, and she knew that meant more snow would come. Coralie’s breath was already beginning to show with each exhalation. It was the sign of a storm, the air continuing to cool despite the day wearing on. She noticed that Tienette had not moved much, though. Instead, she took a seat there on the sand, watching the sea.

The Basilisk would stay there for nearly another hour, before finally heading inside to prepare for their meal, and the young silver lady would return to her quarters to do the same. She began to read a bit more, calling on Coralie to fetch everything they could about the province that Tienette and Valamir oversaw. There were the legends she had always heard of the Wyverns’ Nest, but now she needed to know more.

In the stories, the place was under the shadow of the Great Mountains, hidden away and well protected, but with dangers around every turn – from bandits and raiders to monsters and worse. It was described as a scary place, but in looking through the books and scrolls she had been brought, she found the province of her prospective family to be anything but that. Located in the foothills of the Great Mountains, it was a lightly forested region known for crags and rock formations in the hills, but with a lot of fertile valleys thanks to the abundance of streams. To the north, it was bordered by the Great River, and to the south the dense forests of the Rane province.

When she looked up the holdings of the Astier family, she was surprised to find they were on the borders of the Rane province and the Wylds to the East. The couple hamlets and single village in their domain were small. They had a few farms that kept the populous fed and happy, but really it was just a small region with little of import. That was, except for may the road. It was the only Kingdom rode between Rane and Vouivre, and in turn, was the only way to get from the outer provinces and kingdoms to places like Ava by foot. But even then, it was rarely visited, as it was generally faster to travel up the river or by sea.  It was just a small, poor, corner of the Republic.

There was a bit of curiosity that climbed into her thoughts as she flipped through the tomes that she had collected, all spread out across the room and opened to their appropriate location. She was used to having to find answers herself, and this was no different. As she searched, she found herself almost disappointed that there was nothing more groundbreaking. For the rest of the day though, she would study up on as much as she could, knowing that nothing would really prepare her in a day, but knowledge of the region would make her meal a little bit easier if nothing else.

As the evening approached, Mirabelle changed into simple dinner attire and went to meet with Tienette. The dinner that night was surprisingly pleasant, if mostly uneventful. The cooks prepared a few light courses for the two, and they sat in a small antechamber and talked.  Before the young girl had realized it though, hours had passed and they were still talking. It was mostly of little things, soft conversation designed to be more or less unimportant. It gave some great insights for both though, she found that Tienette was a fan of dry wit, that she painted when she had the spare time, and that she enjoyed snow so long as she was able to just watch it. Apparently, their manor was surrounded by willows, and with light snow, there was little the Marquise found more beautiful. Mirabelle was similar in a lot of ways, though she still was not willing to admit it. More importantly, both women were straightforward and a bit brash.

For the first time, that night, she saw the Marquise as just another woman, though. Despite the fact that she still wore the basilisk mask, she wasn’t a monster. She was bound by the same sort of honor rules. They were odd, in ways, but they did pique her curiosity. So, for the next few days, they would have a meal together and chat. The snows came, and they laid heavy upon the island. Mirabelle was astonished to watch the Marquise walk along the paths of snow so happily each day, and they would trade stories over meals at night. Finally, after a couple of weeks, though. This came to an end. They met again, and while she knew they would leave soon, she found herself not looking forward to that day.

Tienette joined her for a meal that last night, as she had for many days, but seemed quiet at first. Then, as questions bounced back between the two, one question was hung in the air that all of her training and etiquette could not find a polite answer for.

“Do you want to marry my son, Mirabelle?”

There was a long pause. Neither moved or spoke and for that pause neither woman would move or adjust. It was as if time froze with the question.

Finally, “No.” was the word that slipped from the young woman’s lips. She shook her head. “I’m not ready to marry yet, and while I know these things are arranged for me, I…” She sighed. “I don’t know him, or your culture or people.” She shook her head quickly, “I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s the right answer. You’ve never met him.” Tienette spoke softly. She let a lingering sigh escape her lips and then turned away from the young woman. “Would you consider coming and living in our old manor for a year?”

“What? I’m not sure I understand…”

“Traditionally, a woman of marrying age will come live near her husband for a few months.” The Basilisk’s words were calm, “I thought, maybe, if you came early and lived among our people you might not find everything so daunting.” Her head shook softly, and she reached up to adjust her mask for a moment. “You’d be allowed your own support. Your girl, some guards, whoever you like really, could come with you and stay with us for the time. I could keep having meals with you. You could meet my daughter and youngest son. And maybe,” She huffed, “Get to know my fool of a husband when he isn’t living up to his reputation.” She turned back to Mirabelle.

For a moment Mirabelle started to speak, but then her eyes landed on the woman’s fingers. They gently pressed against the bottom of her mask, pressing up and raising it softly. For the first time, she saw the woman’s face. She was, well, normal. There were no monstrous scars, no ethereal or wicked beauty, no disfigured face – she was just a woman. She was, actually, disarming. Her face was rounded softly, with lower cheekbones than most. Her eyes seemed bright and were a striking blue that differentiated her well from the other men and women of her province, but the mask cast shadows and kept such things well hidden. She had a slightly crooked nose too, once you got to where the mask normally rested. She smiled and tilted her head softly to one side before she removed the mask fully and sat it down on the table.

“And if after half a year, still three months out from your marriage, you can let me know if you want to stay or go.” She spoke quietly, “No tricks, no cost to you. Just a promise from one woman to another.” She offered her hands over to her, crossing the table with a warm if nervous smile on her lips.

Mirabelle was astonished. This wasn’t something that she had expected, or even really considered. She saw the offered hand, turned up towards her and laying on the table waiting. Her eyes drifted to the mask, and then back to Tienette. She didn’t know what to say. “How will you get permission from my father?”

“I’ll ask.” Was the only reply.

For a moment Mirabelle was terrified about the prospect. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. She was scared, and it showed on her face for a time. She didn’t know how her father would react, or even if it was something she should do or that she wanted to do. But as she dwelt on the topic for a few more minutes, she finally showed her decision with a slow nod.

“I think I will agree.” She said, resting her hands atop Tienette’s. “I’d like to see your home. But it will need to wait until after my sister’s wedding.”

“Of course. Family first.” Tienette said giving a quick squeeze to the girl’s hand. “Leave everything to me.”

 

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Marches – Chapter 03 Notes

Today, I’m posting the third chapter of the original Marches. This is where I feel now, looking back, the story really began. This Chapter, or at least its heart, will make up the first couple chapters of the rewrite. This is the first time we spend any real time with Mirabelle, and it shows Tienette off a bit, hinting at her character a bit early on. Without any changes, I think this is an okay chapter, but there are a lot of ways I could expand on it.

Most importantly, I think, this was the chapter that made me realize I wanted to concentrate primarily on Mirabelle’s perspective. Originally, I intended on changing back and forth from Mirabelle and Sarus (the son of Tienette and Valamir, who would be her husband). This was when I started to lean more towards Mirabelle, if only because I didn’t have a good view of Sarus yet while I was writing. This is also the first chapter that I feel will make it mostly intact in the second finished draft. It will be rewritten but a lot of it will stay. The heart of the conversations, the snow falling on the beach, and the general feel I enjoyed and would like to remain.

Now, there is a subtextual content that may change. In this chapter, I feel that Tienette felt less like she was up to something than say Valamir, or even to some degree Vedast in later chapters. But, she is as much a schemer as her husband, though her goals here are very different. Also, I want to highlight the familiarity of the situation that she displays. Tienette was also wed to the Vouivre as an arranged marriage, just as Mirabelle is about to be. She, however, wants a different path for her son than the one her husband was given. It isn’t made immediately clear what that difference is.

I don’t think at this point in my writing I knew fully who Tienette was. I think she was still a bit of a mystery to me, and I tried to keep it that way. But later on, it becomes clear that she is from another province, just like Mirabelle was, and one that plays a pivotal role in the story. I think highlighting that, and some of the other expansions made to her character, later on, would be great to demonstrate here, to provide a bit more context as to why Mirabelle connects with her – at least partially – as quickly as she does.

I also didn’t add much of Bastien (her guardsman) in this chapter. You’ll meet him in Chapter 4 officially. I’m not sure if he was a real character yet when I wrote this. He doesn’t appear at all in this chapter, and that is a glaring omission that needs to be fixed. It is a continuity error once you get a couple of chapters forward. It could be handwaved, I suppose, given she is at her family’s hold and there are plenty of guards around. But it is something I want to change.

I hope you enjoy. Let me know what you think.

Fair winds,

Museless Bard

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Day Shift – Chapter 10

In the Shadow of the Valley of Christmas

 

               “Alright, it’s time to see who this year’s Black Friday sacrifices are going to be,” Mattias spoke as he rolled back in his chair. “You all know the drill. Volunteer for Christmas or draw from the pile. People that work on Christmas don’t work Black Friday, and vice versa.” He smirked, “And, day after Christmas starts Hell Week, so, we’re all on full shifts every day until New Years Day,”

               “Yay,” The sarcasm in Maddox’s voice as he twirled in his seat was thick enough to smack someone with. It wasn’t a sentiment that was missed by anyone.

               “Wait, I don’t get it. Is Christmas…” Helena raised her hand as she spoke as if she had needed permission.

               “Not working Christmas is the reward for working Black Friday,” Mattias explained.

               “Oh,” Helena paused for a moment. She was new and naïve, so she raised her hand a little higher, “I’ll volunteer for Black Friday.”

               Maddox laughed, and Lindsay just shook her head. It was Ashley who spoke up.

               “Oh, honey, you’re new, so we’ll pretend you didn’t do that.”

               “How bad could it be?” She asked, lowering her hand softly.

               “Sales start at ten on Thanksgiving this year. Corporate is giving us two hours of on-call time, then one of us has to be here midnight to ten, then someone ten to six. They won’t cough up the cash for all of us to work holiday overtime and night hours, so,” Mattias said quickly.

               “So we get screwed. Hard.” Maddox wasn’t particularly helpful.

               “He’s not wrong though. Black Friday, for us, will be bouts of quiet. Phones won’t be on, so you’ll just be taking calls from locations. So… until something goes catastrophically at a location it’ll be slow and boring.” Mattias finished with a quick, “Any examples?”

               “I had a manager call me a couple years ago. He was vomiting on the phone, because a guest got trampled, and he thought calling us first was a good plan. Instead of his Regional or Legal,” Maddox shrugged, “Like, literally, on the phone. He described it in detail too, and I had to use another account to call his ASM to come in because he was useless. An ambulance took him to a hospital too for the shock.”

               “Yeah, that’s nothing,” Ashley chimed in.

               “Not a competition,” Mattias tried to cool them down, but there was no stopping them after he asked for examples. He realized his mistake too early.

               “I had a team member call me crying because the manager never showed up to unlock her store and the guests had her surrounded in her car and she freaked out. Police showed up. It was weird.” Ashley said quickly, with a nod, “You could hear idiots outside her car yelling at her and threatening her. I told her just to drive off, but she wouldn’t.”

               “Again. Not the best advice to a panicked person,” Mattias said, waving over to Helena.

               “Aw… I don’t get mine?” Lindsay protested.

               Mattias sighed and dropped his head, moving his hand over towards Lindsay instead.

               “I got a call. The manager just said, ‘The Store’s on Fire’, And hung up. I had to scramble. Turns out he set the fire.” Lindsay added with a smile. “Okay. That’s my weird story. I’m done. Thanks.”

               The vampire shook his head and turned back to Helena, “Long story short, you are on your own and weird shit happens. You must deal with it. No managers above us are in the office. So, we’re on our own. Same with Christmas, but it’s a slow day all in all. You know, people have families and such.” He smirked a bit, “Still want to volunteer.”

               “I mean…”

               “No, she doesn’t. And she gets to draw last,” Ashley kicking the edge of Helena’s chair to twist her away from the conversation a bit. “Let’s do this thing so I can go home.”

               “Yeah. I don’t want to be here. I can drown myself in videogames at home to keep from thinking about the shitty holidays,” Maddox spoke up, stopping his twisting and leaning forward and holding out a hand. “Me first.”

               Mattias tapped the side of his leg. His lunchbox scrambled from under his desk and tripped over the leg of his chair, tumbling back to its little knob feet and twisting up to look at him. If you could describe it as looking. He leaned down and gave the soft box a little pat. He slipped his hand to the zipper and pulled it open. The box’s top lulled back and it bounced around. “Everyone gets to get a strip of paper,” He said to the box before waving it off towards Maddox. “Don’t look until everyone, including me, has one.”

               “Oh good,” He replied as the lunchbox wobbled across the cubicle to him, “I get to put my hand in the weird living lunchbox.” He didn’t hesitate though, reaching in and pulling out a small slip of paper. He held it in his fist.

               The lunchbox then waddled over to Ashley. She was less hesitant, even giving the odd little arcane creature a pat on the head. As a Wu, it was clearly not her first animated creature.  She even gave it a little smile, “Your Matron just likes animating everything doesn’t she…” She spoke in the same cutesy voice one might to a puppy or a kitten. “Bet you used to have a family of weird little wobbly things that weren’t supposed to move, didn’t you,” She pulled out a strip of paper between two fingers and gave a nod to the box to send it on.

               Lindsay was a little less receptive to the thing, reaching in quickly and pulling out a strip before pulling away from it. She gave a stern point over to Helena and the box tapped over to the final member of the team.

               Helena just stared at it, and then carefully reached her hand out towards it. Her fingers brushed across the bag and she pulled away with a small gasp as it moved. It was alien to her, but she tried again and quickly pulled out a piece of paper from the lunchbox. It stood there for a second before moving back to Mattias and setting itself down under his chair.

               He reached in and pulled the final piece of paper out and sighed. “Okay,” He spoke quietly. “Everyone can look,”

               The team collectively flipped their papers around to read them. Each person took a moment to see, and the calm looks on some people’s faces were all he needed to see to know what they had gotten. His eyes glanced down at his own – and it simply said Black Friday. He could have guessed that was the way his luck would fall on a month as grim as this one had been so far. But then, his eyes raised to see that everyone was glancing at Helena. She seemed nervous. She hadn’t looked at hers yet but had seen everyone else – except maybe Mattias – looking relieved.

               Ashley reached over and snapped the paper out of her hand and quickly handed it back, “It says Christmas.” She spoke, handing it back over. “You got lucky newbie.” For a split second, Mattias thought he saw smoke on Ashley’s hand, but when he saw the ink run along her palm he knew what he had seen. “Guess it’s me and the boss.”

               “Hah. Two years in a row sucks to be you,” Maddox said jumping up from his chair and grabbing his jacket. “See you all tomorrow,” He grinned and began to walk off. It was only a second before Lindsay and Helena were also packing up and heading out.

               “So, how bad are the five days after Christmas?” He heard Helena ask Lindsay as the two walked out together.

               “Just insanely busy. Like… a hundred guests per day for each of us probably. It’s exhausting, but the pay is great.”

               “Really? And then that’s basically the worst time of year for us? Like, volume-wise?”

               “Yeah. Blockbuster season sucks too, but it’s a different kind of suck.”

               His attention turned back to Ashley after the other two had left, their voice growing distant and hard to hear. He watched her for a second as she sat at her desk. She wasn’t in a rush, despite how much she had acted like she was a moment or two before.

               “You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Mattias spoke quickly. “I was going to be here. She would’ve been okay,”

               “Do what?”

               “The ink-shift charm. It’s how Olivia sends every letter,”

               “Ah, shit. You noticed, huh?” Ashley sighed, “Probably a waste of magic… but I didn’t want her to be stuck here doing it. Besides…” She trailed off and didn’t say anything for a long time. It must have been twenty seconds before she took a breath. “I don’t think my Holiday season is going to be very… well… good. So, I might as well be here, right?”

               He paused. He didn’t really remember Ashley being open about her outside life much. “That’s my usual excuse, so I know it’s not a good sign. Everything alright?”

               “Yeah,” She said as she grabbed her bag and tossed it on her shoulder, “I just.” She shook her head, “At least you guys don’t suck.” That was all she said. She didn’t give him a chance to give any additional questions or comments, “I’ll see you tomorrow, boss.” She said, only pausing to point at him, “Don’t tell Helena I did anything, got it.”

               “Got it.”

               She turned and rushed out of the cubicle and away from there.

               He sighed and stood up, glancing out of the cubicle and down after her. After she was far enough away, she slowed down. She was in no rush to leave, but she didn’t want him to notice that. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t push beyond that. He just gave her space. She deserved that much. After a few minutes she was gone, and he was there alone. Or, at least outside of his team. He gathered up his things and picked up his lunchbox. He zipped it up with a quiet, “Sorry buddy. Got distracted,” And tucked the creature in his arms.

               As he was finishing up, Hal peeked his head into the cubicles. “Hey, Mattias. Who got the bad news on your team?”

               “Me, and…” He paused for a moment, “Me and Ashley, sort of.”

               “Sort of?”

               “Helena, the uh,” He adjusted as the lunchbox squirmed in his arms, “The new hire originally drew the short straw. But, Ashley stole it. Even used magic to hide that fact.”

               “Really? I don’t remember her using magic much when I was a manager.”

               “That’s what I thought. She kind of admitted she’d rather be here than with her family, or whatever.”

               “Ah.” Hal said with a long slow nod, “I suppose that happens. People have rough relationships outside of work. At least they know we’re all in it together here, right? That’s what I always wanted you all to think, anyway.”

               “Right. I suppose it makes sense,” Mattias felt his pocket vibrate.

               Sorry man, work is hell. Can’t make it tonight. I’ll catch you next time. A text message lit up his screen with the name Rory under it. He sighed a bit.

               “Everything okay,”

               “Yeah, Rory just canceled on me again,” Mattias spoke for a moment and glanced up at Hal, who was quiet and just nodded. He had given a half-hearted noise that sounded like a bit of condolence. He was worried about his team and his own sanity, so he did something out of character, and something he knew he should have done years ago. He still didn’t really want to, but maybe it would be good for him, “Want to grab a drink, Hal? There’s a place that will make rare burgers and has a pretty good selection of…”

               “Sure, let me grab my jacket,” Hal responded quickly.

               “Good deal,” Mattias said as he hit reply. No worries. I’ll grab a drink with Hal. Got on the Black Friday shift.

               Good luck, man. I know that shift sucks. We’ll grab drink another night.

               Right. Take care.

               “Ready,” Hal said in a bright yellow coat with a fluffy white collar. It matched nothing he wore, or that Mattias had ever seen him wear.

               “Alright. Burgers fine?”

               “Can you eat burgers?” Hal asked quickly.

               “I can eat anything if I’ve had blood lately. Rare meat is the best though. I’m sure I’ve explained this to you before,”

               “I don’t think so,”

               “Really? Huh,” Mattias grinned. “I guess three years is longer than I should have kept you in the dark, right?”

               “I knew you’d open up when you were ready.”

               “Weird way to put it,”

               “I know. I thought that as soon as I said it.”

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 09

Brand New Mess

               Helena Piper started the next day. She was assigned to shadow the rest of the team while Mattias’ explanation on why he torpedoed the ‘superior’ candidate was brought up before Ed and a couple people from Human Resources. Apparently Benjamin accused them of discrimination because his status as an Incubus was not a reason to choose another person. It took a couple of hours, but Matt finally explained that had nothing to do with it, it was his choice to attempt to use those powers to gain an unnatural benefit. He also argued that it was inappropriate for the workplace, even if it had not been used for personal gain, as it violated the company’s sexual conduct guidelines. Incubi were charming, but they charmed in a very specific way.

               Human Resources basically raked him over the coals for the first half-hour of the meeting, but Ed was quiet. She realized after he explained the feeling of the handshake, the cold drawing her forward to an odd warmth and then her mind quickly being made up about how he was a better choice; it all just fit too well. HR was not as familiar with what had happened, but once Mattias explained that both he and his Fomorian team member were able to detect his leaning into his charms rather easier. Really, more Lindsay than himself. It was just that sexual charms, like all those used by the Cubi, just were not effective on Vampires. He didn’t have blood for that kind of thing anymore, so it wasn’t something he could remotely care about. So, it just didn’t work. His familiarization with charms from being married to a witch gave him the rest of the clues needed to put it together fast.

               When Ed first spoke up, it was to keep Lindsay from having to talk to HR. She explained that she saw what Mattias was saying, and she thought he was right. Then, the conversation was over. He was no longer being interrogated but instead was near buried under a layer of paperwork. He had to fill out incident reports, get everything in order, and then double-check everything. Then they scanned and copied and signed more things. Then HR gave him a speech about how he needed to not act so quickly and check with his manager before moving on things like this. Of course, he didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He didn’t want a person like that on his team, and frankly, if they did, he was happy to leave over it.

               They agreed that Helena was a good choice though. As an option, she was a reliable worker, and she knew the company and its values well. That would save them a lot of time. Her previous managers spoke well of her ability to adapt and her passion for taking on something new. It was annoying to deal with. But HR had more important things to do and soon enough they headed off and he was allowed to head back to his team and help out like he had planned on.

               But something stopped him as he reached the door. Ed had still been quiet throughout the meeting, and after. She hadn’t said much. It wasn’t like her. That usual confidence seemed to have disappeared. He took a breath, and that turned into a sigh. He didn’t know why, but he felt he had to ask.

               “Everything okay, boss?” His hand rested on the door, waiting for an answer. He didn’t know if she would give one, or if she would just give him a quick and quiet response to get him out of her hair. He had to ask though.

               “I’m okay, Mr. Holland,” She gave a quiet response, which was all he had expected. But she continued, “I don’t like being tricked, though,”

               He paused. His hand was on the handle of the door and he would have been able to just leave with a quick statement. He took a breath and shook his head. “Yeah, it sucks. But don’t let it weigh on you. He cheated, and you can’t be expected to plan for that, you know.”

               She didn’t say anything for a second, “I’m not used to dealing with non-humans.”

               “We’re not terribly common. And not to put too fine a point on it, but humans have made it a point to ignore us their entire history,” He shrugged, “Write off the stories from the dark and hope that things keep moving forward. Not that I blame anyone. I used to be human. I didn’t think much about non-humans either until, well,” He tapped two fingertips against his neck and glanced back over to her. “Seriously, if he had realized I was a vampire, he probably would have gotten away with it. One of the few times I’ve had a silver lining with that particular symptom, to be honest.”

               She didn’t say anything again for a moment. He couldn’t look back at her. He didn’t want to see her vulnerability for some reason. He had no desire to have any sort of control over her and crossing this bridge might give him just a bit. He didn’t like to change. Having her at arm’s length was a good way to keep change away from his near future as well. He couldn’t leave her spiraling into the thoughts that a brush with non-humans like this could cause. It looked like he would have to break that change.

               “It’s not my first time,” She admitted. It was a string of words that felt a little heftier than he wanted. It made him turn around towards her.

               He saw a woman sitting at her desk. Her usual sharpness was gone. The way she slouched and leaned against her desk was much less powerful than her usual demeanor. “What does that matter?”

               “I should have known better…” Her eyes kept glued to the floor below, or perhaps the top of her desk. He wasn’t that sure from this angle if he was honest.

               “I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t work that way, you know?”

               She glanced up at him but didn’t say anything.

               “I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve lived in this world for years. It doesn’t get any easier. There are still missteps all the time,” Mattias said with a hand motion in the direction of his team. “I had no idea how to handle a Fomorian until I met Lindsay.” He shrugged, “I’m used to Witches, but Mountain Witches from European ancestry are vastly different than those from Asian ones, like Wu.” He shrugged a bit, “And I could really go on.”

               “I know,” She said quietly. “I guess I’m just rusty. It’s been a while since I was able to deal with non-humans day-to-day.” She took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m just feeling stupid. I appreciate you taking a minute to talk to me though.”

               “Well, don’t feel stupid. You did fine, given the situation,” He shrugged a bit. “You’re doing fine with all of it,” He sighed, “And thanks for sticking your neck out to get us a person. I wish it hadn’t turned out as weird as it did.” Why he continued, he would never know. But he added, “And if you need anyone to talk about non-human stuff, I’m available. I have a whole lot of time and not a lot of goings-on to fill it.”

               “Thank you, Mr. Holland.”

               “Hm.” Mattias smirked, “I thought that exchange might get a Mattias, instead of a Holland,” He gave an exaggerated sigh with a slumping shrug before finally pulling open the door. “Until next time, boss.”

               “Try not to make it an HR reason for the next meeting,” She called after him as the door shut itself.

There was a little brush of air as he was back out in the cubicle farm. From her nice airconditioned and private office, there was a different taste of air. It was less stale. It didn’t make the top of his mouth itch as badly as this foul air did. It just reminded him that it was implicit that he would get an office as management. What a shame.

But in a weird way, he was oddly happy with the day. It was a near-miss with HR, and nothing bad happened. And he felt like he had gotten to see a side of Ed he didn’t know existed, with a bit of vulnerability. She was a good boss. He didn’t trust her still, but she did feel more human. There was a bit of irony to that statement for him, he knew. He had been human once and at heart he still was. Just a human with a condition that made him dead and only animated by drinking blood and other such weirdness.

He adjusted his jacket. There was a moment where he dusted his shoulders off. His hair didn’t grow anymore, so it was specifically frustrating that he had a sort of dandruff. It was odd that certain little things bothered him like that. Of course, he had dead skin flakes. The fact that all his skin was technically susceptible and the only way to stave that was with fresh blood should have made it bother him less. It just showed up so obviously. He hated it.

The distraction of that train of thought came crashing to a halt as he realized that Hal was standing nervously at Mattias’ team’s cubicle area. That was not a good sign, and as he approached he heard quiet. There was nothing but one team member talking. One whose voice he didn’t know well yet, but at that moment recognized immediately.

“I understand… I would be upset too,” He heard her say, her voice shaking as he walked closer. “No… no sir.” She was responding to someone on the other side of a call. “I’m not trying to… no, sir.” She was struggling to keep afloat it sounded like.

Mattias put a hand on Hal’s shoulder, and whispered, “What’s going on?”

Hal gave a quick shrug, “Maddox came and got me. The first call the girl was soloing, some guy seems to have thought she gave him two different answers, and just went off on her.”

Mattias rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Right, guess its time to work, eh?” He said slipping past and twisting over to his desk. He took a breath and turned the screen back on.

“I’m sorry, let me… let me see if I can,” Helena tried to get a word in edgewise.

Meanwhile, the manager pulled up his console, slipped on his headset and breathed softly. He clicked a couple buttons and prepared to dive in. She was using another employee’s account, so it took a minute to find the live call. But once he had, he waved over Maddox, who was closest. “One of you take her on a break after this, right?”

Maddox just gave a thumbs up and slipped over to stand between Ashley and Lindsay, who were sitting around Helena as she talked.

Mattias clicked the button. And then there was sound in his headset.

“Look, I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, but I best damn hear a manager in the next five seconds. I have your name written down and will sue you personally to hell and back for personal defamation and false advertising.” He heard a voice barking into the phone. He had planned on defusing the situation – but he had a simple rule he always followed.

“Hello, this is Mattias Holland, Manager of the Guest Enrichment Center. Helena had chimed in to get me to join the call a few moments ago. I’d be happy to help,” He said, sickly sweet and unphased by the anger in the voice on the other end. “I’m afraid I may be unable to do so now, however.”

“What? Who the hell is this? Say your name and position again?”

“My name is Mattias Holland. I am the Manager of the Guest Enrichment Center for Yorokobi Entertainment. You were speaking with our newest member in…”

“Oh, good, finally. I want to,”

“I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t help you. I’ve cut off Miss Piper’s line as well. Given you have chosen to threaten a team member with a lawsuit, I am legally and ethically obligated to inform you of the following.”

“What? What do you mean you cannot,”

“Ma’am, please listen closely. Your call has been recorded and your complaint logged. We will be looking into the situation. However, given your threat, my team can no longer help you. Your call will be sent to our legal department, and they will be in touch with you or your representation as soon as possible. Can I have the name of your legal counsel?”

“What? I don’t… I mean,”

“Am I to understand you do not have legal counsel? If so, is the phone number you called from your personal number?” He asked coldly, nodding his head back towards the hall to try to get Maddox or someone to help Helena out and get her walking it off.

“I. Yes, but I want to talk.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. If you would like I can transfer you directly to our legal department, but no further conversations can be held with our employees directly. Would you like me to transfer you?”

“No. I just want,”

“I’m sorry, I can’t,”

“I was kidding. It wasn’t a real…” Mattias didn’t say anything, he just let the person ramble for a second before the realized their misstep, “I didn’t want anything from a stupid foreign company anyway,” There was a loud snap, the sound of a phone being slammed, and it was over. He glanced after his newest member, who was being walked out towards the break room. A great first day on the job for her. He wondered if it would make her rescind her acceptance.

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