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Category: Writings

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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Day Shift – Chapter 08

Beggars and Choosers

               A few days had passed since Mattias went into his boss’ office to demand they get additional people. He had dwelled on it since. He worried and fretted and wasted his next few days thinking he had been outplayed or outsmarted, and that he had burned a bridge before he ever got the chance to really get his footing. Or, well, whatever mixed metaphor he would think up at the time. He wasn’t clear why it worried him so much. Worst case scenario, he got fired – but that would put his team in a worse position and he just couldn’t bring himself to do that to them.

               That had always been in his nature, though. To worry. To dwell on every mistake he had ever made, no matter how little or large, no matter how impactful or neutral. It was his instinct. Worry. He had come by it honestly, from a long line of worriers, who felt that worry showed you cared – but that you couldn’t show anyone that you were worried, or you would be seen as someone who just wanted to have the appearance of caring. All of which was confusing, when he thought on it too long. It didn’t matter where it came from though, it was just there. Like his vampirism. It was part of him, and it might as well have always been. There was no changing it now.

               And even if it did, how would he know how to handle himself?

               So, there was a bit of normalcy to his worrying. That made it feel like home. Like laying on an uncomfortable couch in your own living room. It was your couch, and the place it was you felt comfortable. Even if you weren’t.

               Maybe his brain was beginning to decay a bit.

               He took a breath and leaned back in his chair. The waves of guests calling the past few days had been simple enough to handle. He had taken to the phones like you would a bicycle. That is to say that it was natural, and he only stumbled about as much as everyone else. That was the trick in this job, he had realized long ago.

               Treat every guest as a microcosm. You can’t remember them all, so you might as well forget the experience at the end of the day. Then there was nothing to dwell on. The more guests, the easier it was to forget that one mistake made earlier in the day. Sure, they might remember it. But the chances of them remembering and speaking to you again were slim. Even all that would keep him up and worrying sometimes.

               It was worse when it affected other people though. His eyes scanned across his team and he listened as they spoke to guests and one another. They were the reason he was worried. People too high saw them as numbers, and people down here couldn’t do much to help. Each had a life, with struggles of their own. They had their own struggles and stories, but like any good workplace, those seemed a bit more surmountable with friends and family around.

               They had never clicked like those sitcom workplaces though. There was no friendship outside of the workplace. Once they were clocked out, their lives were completely separate. It was a bit enough city that they only saw each other rarely outside of work. So maybe it was odd that he considered them friends and worth protecting to the best of his ability. Maybe he shouldn’t have stuck his neck out for them. Managers usually didn’t.

               He had always hated managers like that though.

               Somewhere along the way, his thoughts had taken over and that long inner monologue was broken when he glanced up and noticed all three of his team looking at him. No. That wasn’t right. He sat up as he realized their eyes were past him. He spun his chair around to see Ed there, and he reached up to pull off his headset.

               As his headset was pulled off, the sounds of the office came rushing back to him. Gone was the nice soft jazz music that kept him calm and contented during calls, and replaces was the low hum of office equipment, idle banter and the rain like clicking of hundreds of keyboards all being used at the same time. He took a second to realize what was happening, to get his bearings and clear his throat.

               “Sorry, zoned out. How long have you been there?”

               “About a minute.”

               “Cool,” Mattias said softly, quietly, his head shaking with a soft thankfulness that he hadn’t been doing anything he shouldn’t have been doing at the time. Like checking his cell phone, or buying things online, or whatever it was that would set Ed off. “Can I help you?”

               “Yes. I have two candidates. I need you and your team to group interview them, and then give me your choice of the two,”

               “Wait. Candidates?” Mattias sat up quickly. “For the other two positions? We need two – that’s,”

               “No. Corporate will only sign off on one.”

               “What? We need two,” Mattias protested.

               “We can’t possibly stick this out with just four of us,” Maddox piped in, warranting a quick glare from Ed. The woman’s eyes didn’t change or shift, there was no dark energy swirling forth from her, or the pressure of dark magics pressing around them now – but there might as well have been. The glare shut up Maddox instantly, and despite himself, he stammered out a short, “Sorry, Ms. Chambers,”

               She turned back to Mattias. “I already interviewed them. I narrowed it down. See which one fits your team. And you pick them. Let me know.”

               “Good, we’ll pick,”

               “No,” She spoke coldly, “Are you even listening today, Mr. Holland? Get your head back here. You,” She pointed one long, thin finger to the center of his chest, “You will make the choice. Your team can advise. I want to make sure we do this correctly. The first time.” She widened her eyes, “There won’t be a second.” She clarified.

               “Right. I will pick.”

               “Have the decision in writing on my desk before you leave today.” She spoke and started to turn around.

               “Wait, today?” Mattias spoke up and sat up swiftly. He was going to stand, and even started pushing himself up. A second of those glares cut him off though. He swallowed and felt her gaze fall on him. He had faced a few non-humans before, even one Medusa, but his desire to look away from her here was stronger than even that had been.

               “Mr. Holland,” Her voice was quieter, a hint of a hiss or a growl under the words. “I am sticking my neck out for you and your team. The interviews are tonight. You have thirty minutes after shift’s end to prepare, and two thirty-minute interviews after that. Then, you will have that decision for me.” She spoke quickly. “My meeting with corporate is at eight in the morning, their time, so I need it on my desk. Understood,”

               Mattias nodded.

               “Good. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow. Check your email.”

               She walked away after those words, never looking back. A small zone seemed free around her, free of noise and other employees – only the click of her heels as she moved on back towards her office.

               “Did she seem more upset than usual?” Lindsay pointed out the obvious.

               “Always seemed like that to me,” Maddox responded with an exaggerated shiver.

               “Yeah, but you’re an ass,” Ashley had already pulled her cellphone back out by that point and twisted back to her computer to return to work.

               “Wait, do we have to stay late for group interviews?” Maddox asked after a second, though it was rhetorical. “Damn it, that’s a stupid way to start off the weekend.”

               “What were you going to do instead? Go home and lay around,”

               “I’ll have you know, I had a big date planned,” He shook his head. “Have, a big date planned. I just have to go in work clothes now. But, at least I look pretty good in them.”

               “Keep telling yourself that,”

               “At least I have a date – what are you doing this weekend, hm?”

               “Same thing I always do. Stay at home with my boyfriend. Maybe go out if something strikes our fancy,”

               “Uhuh. Boyfriend,” Maddox with a tone that could only be described as audible air quotes. “How come we’ve never seen him?”

               “Because he doesn’t like the idea of coming here, jackass.”

               Mattias let them talk as he pulled up his email. He had to refresh a few times. But it finally popped up and he tuned out the others for another few minutes. It was a quick read. Ed had sent over her notes from her interviews with them. They were short, brutal, and effective. Frankly, he was glad he had a chance to read through them. It looked like there were two good candidates. One internal, one external. Both qualified. Both with decent interviews. Both ready to start right away. Benjamin Van Der Veen and Helena Piper. Benjamin seemed to win out in the notes, though. He was marked as well-tempered, his qualifications had a slight edge, and he was an outside hire – which the company liked for veteran teams. It almost felt as if Helena was just on the list due to her role as an internal candidate. Her department wasn’t even guest-facing. She had been working in an assistant role to someone in HR.

               The shift went quickly and had been near its end when this was dropped on them. So, before long they had gathered together and come up with a game plan. Basically, the three would watch Mattias interview the candidates, and give their thoughts after the fact. It was not what he had wanted. His pitch was everyone asked some questions, but somehow they shot that down without a fight. So, they prepared and waited. First up was,

               “Benjamin Van Der Veen,” The candidate introduced himself. He was only somewhat properly dressed. He had an old, but crisp, pair of jeans and a button-up shirt. He wore a hat, and a dark belt with a larger than average buckle – and of course, boots. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He had a distinct drawl, spoken through a beaming smile that was much wider than it should have been. He wasn’t a large person, nor did he stand out in any way, but rather looked average. Almost disarmingly so.

               “Mattias Holland,” Mattias stood from his seat and offered over a hand. The candidate gripped it and gave a firm handshake – but one that was cool and somewhat refreshing in a way. It was curious, really.

               “And you would be?” Benjamin asked before breaking the handshake and moving back to the others.

               “Maddox,” Maddox’s voice was a bit more polite than usual, and the two shook hands.

               “Ashley,” She chimed in, with a quick brush of her hair back behind her ear during her turn to shake his hands. Of course, the flush of her cheeks was what gave it away.

               “Okay, I think we’ve seen enough. Thanks for coming, don’t call us, we’ll call you,” Mattias said tossing the folder down with a sigh.

               “What?” Benjamin turned around quickly. “I didn’t even get the chance to introduce myself to all of you,”

               “Because you used charms on the humans,” Lindsay said softly with a little shake of her head.

               “We can’t have a team member that is willing to use charms on other team members. One guest gets wind of that and they’ll assume the entire department is doing that.” Mattias spoke quickly. “Sorry.”

               “Give me another chance? It was instinct man, and…” Benjamin suddenly stopped, “And it didn’t work on you at all…”

               “One, my ex-wife is a witch, so… basic charm magic is kind of like,” Mattias pointed at the animated lunchbox scurrying about under his desk, seemingly excited that there was a new person in the area. “Second nature, at this point.” He held up a hand, “Two, I died thirty years ago, so an incubus isn’t going to do shit for me. Sorry.”

               Benjamin tossed his head down a bit and sighed. “Man, fuck it. I didn’t want a damn CSR job anyway,” Even his accent had disappeared as he stormed off. His charade broken, there was no reason to waste his time there any longer. So, he didn’t.

               “Yeah, thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Mattias sighed.

               It warranted a raised middle finger from the other man as he walked off.

               “My vote is still for him,” Ashley said quietly.

               “You don’t get a vote,” Mattias spoke, standing up. “Come on, we’ll get some coffee in you two and snap you out of it.”

               Lindsay had also stood and put an arm around Ashley to guide her as Maddox was helped up by Mattias. They headed to the break room and started some coffee. It was a placebo trick, but one that was so familiar as a cure by most people that they just assumed it would work. He shook his head softly. They didn’t talk, though.

               Maddox and Ashley talked, though. They talked a lot. They talked about the good qualities of the last candidate and how he was going to make a great addition to the team. They talked about it for half an hour, through the cups of coffee and various requests for them to stop or shut up from Lindsay and Mattias. Incubi messed up one’s perception, though, so it was unlikely they were hearing anything past whatever his original plan for the meeting had been. That worry was back, though. That worry that this next candidate would be bad, and they would be stuck with either a fourth person pulling them down or just no one.

               “I’m sorry, is… is this where the interview is being held?” A somewhat nervous voice came from the entrance to the break room. “I’m… a bit early, but I work downstairs… so I just… stayed late. I hope that’s okay.”

               “No, no interviews here. We already found the best…” Ashley beamed, standing up with her coffee and a wide smile.

               “Oh.” The girl looked dejected, her eyes sinking to the floor and a soft nod all she responded with.

               “Ignore her,” Mattias said standing up. “There was an incubus and they’re…”

               “Horny.” Lindsay finished his thought.

               “Oh.”

               “You must be Helena. I’m Mattias, this is Lindsay, and the two dopes are Maddox and Ashley,”

               “Nice to meet you. I’m Helena.” She said, realizing that wasn’t the best response, and shaking her head. Her hands fiddled in her pockets, nerves building upon her. She was a heavy-set girl, but she already worked here, so she knew a lot.

               “Have a seat. We’ll make this informal.”

               She took a breath and nodded, finding herself a seat in front of Mattias and Lindsay, despite protests from the other two. She sat there, and while nervous, she answered the questions and talked to the two for the interview. There was nothing special about her. She was a college dropout, but someone who had worked with the company for a couple of years. She didn’t have much in the way of dreams or ambitions, but she was curious about people and wanted to try a more guest-centric position. But the thing that sold Mattias was that she was nervous. She was out of her element – and she had two people antagonizing her if only a little bit – but she sat down anyway. And did her best.

               He could work with that.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 07

A Fifth of November

 

               As expected, the next few days of work were no better than that first. They were exhausting. Each built on the last, and the cumulative stress was already beginning to show on his team. They could handle it though. It was that second week that really started to show the cracks. It was here they began to be tested. The ramp-up had begun for the month. Once Thanksgiving hit, all hell would break loose. That wasn’t the kicker, though. That wasn’t the part that drove them up a wall and started really getting the stress flowing.

               It was Ed’s news.

               Of course, Mattias kicked himself for not realizing it would happen. He knew when she said they would get two more team members that no such thing would ever happen. Her news was simple.

               “Mr. Holland,” She said walking into their cubicles as most of the team worked on the phone with guests. It was almost as if she had planned it that way, so they wouldn’t have any chance to respond to, “Our outside candidate opted to go another direction, so you’ll only be getting a single new team member. I’ll give you an update on them next week.”

               Which of course, was code for something went wrong there too, and I don’t know what that means yet.

               For course, that next week no updates came. It was the week after when she peaked in for a split second to add, “I don’t have an update yet. Sorry, guys. Keep it up,” She had said before disappearing back towards her office.

               There was a long moment of silence with the group, broken only when a phone call came through and a loud sigh fell out of Ashley’s throat. Her usual tone was suddenly gone after that, a click and a sickly polite, and excited tone taking the place of the unhappy sigh from the seconds earlier. “Yorokobi Guest Enrichment Center. This is Ashley. How can I help you this afternoon?” The rest of the team looked over towards her for a second, before she began to nod. “Oh, I see. Yes, let me see what we can do about that for you. Can I have the name the purchases were made under?”

               “Are they really saying we aren’t getting any help?” Maddox asked in a practiced hushed tone that they had developed over their time. It was just quiet enough to not be picked up by another person’s headset but clear enough to understand over the short distances between the desks in their area. He groaned, leaning back in his chair and kicking the seat back slightly, waiting for a response.

               “They most definitely are not saying that,” Mattias responded with a dismissive wave-off towards the executive offices, “They just are hoping we don’t notice that’s what they actually mean.”

               “Of course. And you don’t think they’ll actually bring anyone over either, do you?” Maddox asked quietly.

               Mattias tapped on the keyboard in front of him. On the address bar in his browser, above the work documents he had been looking at, he typed the same letter over and over. Just the letter F, a new one appearing with every rapid tap of his forefinger as he thought about what the best course of action was. He should just go complain, though that would require effort. It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to do. He didn’t want the conflict, he didn’t want the work, he didn’t want the job. Tapping away, it was hammering at his mind, echoing that he should do something.

               “Yorokobi, Guest Enrichment, this is Lindsay. How can I help you?” He heard the Fomorian say. Her voice was clear and precise, nothing like her normal shy self. She was confident and polite. While he could see the fake smile on her lips, he’d never had a guest or employee think it was anything but sincerity. He took a breath and glanced over to Maddox as she continued, “Oh, we’re always glad to hear that! Thank you. I’d love to hear more about your experience at the location,”

               Maddox was dour, his eyes cast at the screen just watching his console for a moment. There was a distant ringing. His eyes fell on the corner of the screen, where the alert was flashing. An incoming call. He groaned and closed his eyes, and then took a deep breath. “Yorokobi, Maddox speaking. How can I assist you today?” Again, his tone was completely different. The ass that was their coworker off the line was gone. His voice was warm and open, he sounded genuinely excited to talk to the guests. “Oh, really! What exactly happened?” He asked, “Oh, no! I understand that. I’m sorry about that. No, we take that very seriously.”

               As warm as he was being, it seemed something had happened. Mattias glanced at him, but only got a shake of Maddox’s head in response. “No,” The man said quickly, “That cancellation policy is something I can waive for you. One of our team here is Fomorian, and she’s always out on Moving Day. I hate that it fell like that for you.”

               Mattias bit his lip and let his eyes close. If there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that the best people for this job got eaten alive. They gave a damn about the people they were helping, and sometimes that stress built up and broke them. That just happened. With too much on their plates or no support from the higher-ups, there was no way they would survive. He scooted back a bit and gave a glance across the little pathway between cubicles.

               He clicked his mouth and waited a second before Halil leaned back from the section just across from him. His old manager mouthed the words, What’s up?

               “Watch my team for five?” Mattias spoke in barely a whisper, but slowly and clearly, with his handheld up with all five fingers spread.

               Hal gave a quick couple of nods, a warm smile, and gave the thumbs up. He rolled back in his chair so he could keep an eye on both sections, and that was all that Matt needed.

               The vampire stood and dusted off his suit a bit. He took one step forward but had to stop. Behind him, he heard little patters of tiny plastic feet. He turned back and his lunchbox had started to follow him out, as any pet would when their master got up to go on to something else. He shook his head and pointed down, then over to Lindsay. “No, stay here, listen to Lindsay.”

               It seemed a little dejected. Its form shrank and bent, and it backed off for a moment and watched as the man moved off towards the offices.

               He steeled himself on the way. He fought back a mix of nausea from stress and sunlight and came to the door of Ed’s office. She was on the phone. He took a minute and just watched her talking to someone. She sat with her hand holding the phone and one elbow on the desk. She would run a hand slowly through her hair from time to time and pull at it as she did. Her face distorted, twisted as it was clear she spoke louder, and then the hair pulls would bring her back to more of a level tone.

               “Oh, sorry. Didn’t know you had a meeting too,” A familiar voice said, emphasizing the word you in his sentence.

               “Kelly, we keep meeting like this,”

               The older man just made a note and didn’t say anything. He stepped away, not standing close to the vampire, and keeping a steady eye on him constantly. He really hated that defensive stance. He knew that worried look. It was discomfort, worry about being prey. Luckily for the old man, Mattias didn’t care much for hunting. He never did. He was as human at heart as anyone here. Still.

               He noticed Ed finish her call and glance up to the men waiting outside her window. One second of frustration taken out of the wrong person… He thought, with a flash of his fangs before he reached the door. He turned swiftly to grab the door, a bit of an inhuman flash of speed. He saw Kelly’s eyes widen slightly at the image. The man hesitated, and by the time he realized what was happening, Mattias was in the door and shutting it behind him.

               Ed spoke up, “What is it, Mr. Holland? I have a meeting.”

               “I realize that,” He replied quickly.

               “Make it fast.”

               “Why the hell aren’t we getting two more team members? The team was designed for five. We don’t have the staff to survive Christmas.”

               Ed stood up and put her hands on her hips. “I told you. We are working on it.”

               “Corporate speak for don’t hold your breath, right?”  

               She didn’t say anything for a moment. “I don’t have time for this, Holland.”

               “No Mister?”

               “Not when you’re coming in here all aggressive.”

               “Look, we need two guys. My team will burn out if you don’t get us more members – and you’ll have zero for the holidays.”

               She paused, “I know that.”

               “Then why aren’t you getting us more people? What’s the reason?”

               “I’m trying. Corporate doesn’t think they’re needed. Numbers don’t show it.”

               Mattias smirked. “Ah, because I’ve got three good team members, they think we’re doing fine.” He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “So, when things go bad and numbers fall, then they’ll start looking?”

               She paused and shook her head. “I get that you’re frustrated. I am doing my best – but you aren’t the only team leader that is dealing with the Holidays coming fast.”

               “Yes, but my team cleans up the messes that other team members make,” Mattias realized that was unfair after saying it, and shook his head. “I mean, we’re damage control. We have a stressful gig. Just…”

               “Mr. Holland, I promise, I am trying my best to get you two team members. If I could, I’d hire two today. But Corporate won’t give the sign-off, and I can’t pay them without accounting, and they won’t move without HR, who won’t take an action without first asking Operations Higher-ups, who can’t do anything without Corporate directors breathing down their necks.”

               He took a moment to think and shook his head. He wondered if she was just trying to get rid of him, or if she really was trying. She didn’t sound any fonder of the process than he was. “Any way to tip the scales?”

               She shook her head but then paused. “Would you get back on the front? Rather than management?”

               “What? No office, no raise, and now you want me back on the front? In the trenches and trying to do all the back end at the same time?”

               “It’d show that your team is desperate and in need of help…”

               Shit. She was right. It might have been worth a try, but he absolutely hated the idea. He groaned and glanced back out of the office, with his eyes trained on the direction of his team. “Fine, whatever gets them the help they need,”

               “Good. Start taking calls as soon as possible,” She said, “Once your account is showing more activity, I can use that as an argument.” She waved her hand softly and then pointed to the door. “Now, out. Send in Kelly.”

               “Fine,” Mattias replied, “Thanks for trying,” He added at the end.

               “We’re in this together,” She said sternly, “That includes Kelly. Don’t flash your teeth at him again. It just complicates it for the rest of us.”

               “Right,” Mattias didn’t wait for anything else, just pushing his way out of the door and back into the cubicle farm. He barely acknowledged Kelly, “All yours,” was all he said as he walked out and back towards his team.

               That didn’t go like he had planned, or imagined, or hoped. Actually, he wasn’t sure at all how that went. He assumed she would be the bad guy. Or at least a bad guy. For whatever reason, he felt she might have been being honest. Then again, she was originally from Corporate. That’s why she was here. She was their plant. Wait, did she just play him? Damn it. How did he miss that? He let his emotion take over, that was how. Now he was stuck in the trenches.

               He felt his hand clench and he shook his head. He paused near the break room and glanced over to the other employees in there. Right now, there were just a few people on break. None noticed him. None could have cared about what was going on. So it was as good of a place as any to brood, while they checked their phones for whatever it was they could find to waste a few more minutes before going back to work.

               He eventually sighed and stepped back out and rounded the corner to his cubicle area, hearing his team talk. His lunchbox excitedly ran around in circles under Lindsay’s chair. His team all spoke on the phone. Each had moved on to a new guest or problem from the sound of it, but each was smiling and working through the problems set upon them. They were a good team. He could help.

               “How’d it go?” He heard Hal’s voice.

               “Awful,” Mattias said quietly, “But, I might be able to help get my team what they need. So, I guess decent. Maybe. We’ll see.”

               “Good to hear. Also, that’s a cute lunchbox. Tell Olivia I want something someday.”

               Mattias smiled a bit and glanced back over to Hal as he moved back towards his own desk. Not a bad idea, he thought to himself. Not a bad idea at all.

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Day Shift – Chapter 06

A Sign of Things to Come

               The first day in their new workplace had come and gone. It was an exhausting nine hours of hell, one that they were not prepared for or manned to maintain. They were down two souls, and it hadn’t been a few minutes before they were connected to the system and their jobs began. They had barely sat before the first ringing began. Calls streamed in from customers and they were back in the thick of it.

               It wasn’t an unpleasant experience – speaking to customers. It was the volume that made the situation as troublesome as it was. Each call barely gave you a moment to breathe in between, and after a couple of hours, details began to blur together. Each was more exhausting than the last, the calls never changing in tone or requirements, but seeming to cumulatively build upon one another until they became overwhelming. It was at that point that the stress of one poor call could do some real damage. Luckily, in this industry, most people were kind and happy. Occasionally, you had an angry person. They would come later though, as the season became ever more ‘joyous’ a time. People were stressed then. It was understandable, but something they all collectively dreaded.

               For now, it was far off though. For now, there was the comfort of a cool desk and the silence of a lack of chimes from people seeking some assistance on whatever they needed. For now, it was just a moment of rest before returning home.

               Mattias peeled himself off of his desk a few minutes after the end of their standard shift. He looked around to his team. Maddox was already up and heading out of the cubicle with an annoyed snarl slapped across his face. Ashley was checking something on her phone, but her computer had been shut down. Lindsay was just finishing up some things – and for now, the other two seats were empty. He realized he should say something. With all his training and experience, years of life and learning, all he could think of was basically worthless.

               “Good work today, everyone. I know it was hard,”

               “Yeah, yeah,” Maddox said as he left the cubicle, his hand raised in the air, “I’ll probably be back tomorrow. Haven’t decided,” His voice trailed off as he moved away from them. He was clearly trying to leave as quick as possible, brushing past people without a care and just making his way anywhere but there.

               “Any other snarky remarks?” Mattias muttered under his breath, turning to the other two.

               “Wasn’t listening,” Ashley said without looking up from her phone, though she did stand and start moving away. Her attention was glued to her other life, and there was nothing he could do to drag her back to this one. Not that he wanted to. He envied her ability to just lose this world for her preferred one.

               “Thanks, Mattias,” Lindsay spoke up after it was just the two of them. She fiddled with her fingers, twisting them in and out of one another as she stared down at the floor for a moment. “Hope we get used to it fast, and that our help gets here soon.”

               “Yeah,” He responded quietly, “Me too.” She turned back towards her computers as he spoke, which intrigued him a bit. “Sticking around a while?”

               “Just want to finish up some little reports on some of the calls, and little fixes I did,” She admitted very quietly.

               “You sure? It was a hard day. It could wait until tomorrow, you know if you want to just take off and get some rest,” He gave a shrug as he finally started to stand. With one long stretch and a bit of a yawn, he heard her respond – though to him she was a little distorted, a little blurred from the stretching.

               “No, I’m okay. It’ll be easier to leave later anyway,”

               “Okay,” He yawned out as he finished his stretch, “Suit yourself. Just don’t stay too long, and enjoy your evening when you take it.”

               “Okay. You too, Mattias,” The Fomorian girl said with a soft and quiet tone, burying herself in the screens again to catch up on a few things.

               Mattias always felt a little bad not being the last of his team to leave – but for now he couldn’t stand the thought of being here any longer. So, he gave a little wave and began to head out. Most workers were doing the same, so there was a little bit of a delay, a little queue to move from one point to the next through the valleys between cubicles. It took a few minutes to squeeze by and get headed out. A few coworkers gathered and talked, joking about the end of the day. It was something he didn’t personally enjoy doing, but not something he really thought too much on.

               He glanced over to Ed’s office as he passed it. She was less sharp at the time, her jacket off and her work strewn about her desk. She didn’t look like she would be leaving anytime soon. He gave a wave, but she didn’t notice. That was fine. Probably good. He shouldn’t have been an ass.

               Then it was just a long ride down on the elevator, one crowded with other people who just wanted to get home too. He wasn’t much of one for the crowd. The absent-minded bumping of one person into the next, the weird idle conversation or nervous coughs. And the smell. He didn’t remember the smell of sweat being so prevalent when he was among the living. Now it was overwhelming with no real way to describe it except maybe as that gym clothes smell. He hated it, but it didn’t last long. Soon enough they were to the first floor, and everyone flooded out. Now that the parking lot was in sight, they all had one goal in mind. Get to the cars, and get home.

               So, they rushed out. Of course, Mattias followed along without thinking, until he hit the parking lot. He felt a sudden heat overrun him, his face turning bright red, and the taste of blood filling his mouth. It made him rush back to the shade before a wave of nausea flowed over him like a dam bursting. His hand gripped his stomach and he soon enough found himself crouching in the shade just outside the doorway. He couldn’t think of anything but trying to keep himself from vomiting. So, he tried to hold himself together, literally and figuratively. The hand on his stomach helped. Breathing slowly helped. But nothing eased it completely.

               For nearly ten minutes he sat there just trying to feel well enough to stand back up. Just trying not to make a scene. He was failing at one of those, for sure, but he thought he wasn’t really making a scene. When he was finally able to stand back up, he did so slowly and a bit shakily. The taste of acid in his mouth was a stark reminder that he had moved to fast into an area he knew he shouldn’t have. He had to wait. At least a few more minutes.

               So, he took up watching people leave. They rushed to their cars, pulling out swiftly, and often carelessly. A few stray honks and rapid-fire shouts came from close calls, but nothing interesting really happened. Everyone just rushed to their car, so they could speed out of the parking lot and sit in traffic for another thirty minutes or more. At least the inside of their car was theirs, though. Somewhere they could claim. Here, they were the item owned. And that made a big difference. At least, it did to him.

               Eventually, he made enough progress to take a long step back into the light. It was similar to his last but just calculated enough that he could feel nausea and control it. At least long enough to reach his car. Once inside, the bit of shade made him feel a bit better, but he was going to need more to survive the drive home. He started the car up and then rifled through his backseat. It was a mess of things, which honestly were mostly small empty red bottles which he had drunk on the way too or from work, the occasional bag from a fast food joint or grocery store, or some other trash. In the back seat proper, he kept a stack of covers and clothes, something to fight against the cold, and just out of habit they never left his car.

               At the bottom of this pile was a hooded jacket. He grabbed the cloth and gave it a yank, expecting it to come free of the pile with no issues. It did, but with the disheartening sound of a rip. There had been a moment of resistance, and the sleeve of the jacket had been caught in the space between the seat proper and its back – which folded down for trunk access. Presumably, he had lowered the seats sometime in the last year and the sleeve got stuck.

               He sighed. Though he hadn’t worn the jacket in a year, it still felt bad to tear the sleeve nearly off. He took a breath and gave another hefty tug, finishing the job and eviscerating what parts of the sleeve remained stuck. He flipped back around to the driver’s seat and flopped down. Despite a chill in the air, he turned his airconditioning on full and began to pull off his business jacket, and replace it with the hooded jacket.

               With one frayed sleeve, it covered most of him and was a bit of a loose fit. He zipped it up and pulled up the hood, tightening the strings of the hood until it pulled in around his face tightly. Luckily, his breath was always cold now, so he didn’t have that annoying feeling of warm breath bouncing back against him you sometimes got with hoods over your mouth.

               He needed to be as covered as possible, driving at sunset. He readied himself, wriggling to a comfortable spot in his seat and turning on the radio to drown out the loud blowing of the air. He took a deep breath through his nose and gripped the wheel.

               The smell of the jacket was unique. The smell of car and abandonment intertwined with that scent things get when they’ve baked in the sun for months. He didn’t approve. It was just a little inconvenience, a little annoyance. It would only take a few minutes to get home. Then it was over. With the thought, he gave a curt nod and started to pull out of the lot.

               And into the standstill traffic of the main roads – with only the sound of muffled Public Radio and air conditioning as his companions for the time.

               Just a small wait.

               Nothing he couldn’t handle.

               Of course, that was a lie. By twenty minutes in he was flipping through radio channels trying to find something to keep him from going insane as he slowly but surely made his way towards home. Forty minutes in, he switched to just sitting in silence. By the end of the first hour, he had settled back into the news again – repeating the news reports as those repeated every fifteen minutes or so. It took him nearly an hour and fifteen minutes to get back home. This drive, a mere few days ago, had been a fifteen to twenty-minute drive. How did people do this every day? How did people enjoy this every day?

               He groaned and found his usual parking spot taken. Instead, he parked a little distant from his apartment entrance and had to walk. Not a problem. It had gotten dark as he drove home, so a walk in the shadows would do him well. He caught a glimpse of a couple of neighbors on his way, all as tired looking as he likely looked. All exhausted from the day. He wondered how his team was holding up. He didn’t want to think of himself as better able to handle things than them, but he was a bit protective and hoped that they were doing better than he was tonight. They probably were.

               He found himself broken from his thoughts when he reached the top of the stairwell and came around the corner to his apartment. The hall was dimly lit, but his neighbors just down the way had their door cracked and both peeked out with their eyes glued on his door, and then on him as he approached it. It made him pause for a moment until he heard one of them.

               “It moved again,” He heard, catching one waving him over towards them.

               The vampire followed their eyes back to the door. There was a bag sitting at his door, which he hadn’t left there. It was a small bag, and after a second he realized it was just a lunch bag. It was shaped like the old aluminum lunchboxes you’d see in videos of old construction teams, with a small rounded top that could be opened with a zipper, and a good sturdy handle at its peak. Which was odd. As he paused, the bag twitched and jumped up. It twisted around and its top bent back as if looking up at him, though it didn’t have any eyes.

               The neighbors let out a bit of noise, startled whimpers as they retreated a bit. One gave a quiet, “Watch out,”

               “It’s fine, just an animated… lunch box,” Mattias said squatting down in front of it.

               “A what?” One of them asked.

               He reached out and offered a hand. The lunch box waddled forward, atop a trio of little spindly legs made of something else. It looked like they were most likely little plastic knobs. They almost looked like the sticks you might find on a controller for a game console, but a bit bigger. They might have been. Cobbling together an animated lunchbox and old pieces of a broken controller sounded up her ally. “What are you doing here, lunchbox?”

               It waddled forward a bit further and then bobbled as it came to a rest. The zipper on it flittered for a moment and then pulled across its top slowly but surely until the top of the lunchbox rose like a mouth. The flap inside pushed up a letter, and then it leaned back to show a little bag under the flap.

               “Why is it moving on its own?” One of the neighbors said in a tone that was somehow both a whisper and a screech.

               “It’s an animated lunchbox. I don’t know how to make that any simpler for you,” Mattias spoke as he pulled out the message. “Are you animated?” He asked the folded up piece of paper under his breath.

               There wasn’t a response.

               Though his neighbors continued to freak out quietly as they watched, one finally asking out loud, “What is an animated lunchbox?”

               “Its a lunchbox capable of movement. Animated,” The vampire turned towards them. “It’s magic.”

               They just stared dumbly at him. “It might bite you,”

               “With what? It’s not a mimic, it’s a lunchbox.” He sighed before turning back to it with a quizzical glance, “Right? You are just a lunchbox.”

               The thing nodded, causing its top flopping back and forth and waiting to be zipped back.

               “See,” He pointed at it. “Not a mimic.”

               “What is a mimic?”

               Mattias stood up and looked at the note, but then turned to answer. “Magical creature. Turns into normal things, like a fridge or toilet, and waits for prey to come to it. Then eats them. They’re all over the place.” He said with a smirk, before pointing at the lunchbox, “But this is a lunchbox. It’s perfectly safe.”

               “How do you know?”

               “My ex-wife made it,” He waved the note, before flipping it open to read. “Watch out for mimics. The landlady said she saw one slither off not too long ago,”

               That was a lie, but it got them to look away and into their own apartment long enough for him to slip into his with a little wave for the lunchbox to follow. It waddled behind him quickly, its legs not quite long enough to pull it completely off the ground each time. Instead, with little flops and scrapes it moved across the floor behind him – it’s top bouncing up and down and occasionally smacking the floor behind it as it moved.

               Mattias let it get in before closing the door and finally reading the note.

               In case your teeth itch. And a little friend to help make sure you drink enough at work. There was scribbling text on the note. As soon as he read it, though, the text dripped down along the page, forming new letters on the line below. Don’t forget what I said. And then again, this time forming a small heart and the word Olivia, before the ink simply faded away.

               “Huh.” The vampire intoned lightly, before turning back to the little thing. He leaned over and pulled out the bag. Inside was a wrapped piece of something. Bigger than he would have thought she would have taken the time on. And he tore the tinfoil to see what it was. Soon enough he was holding a bone in rib roast, precooked for him. A nice thought. He could eat meat pretty well still, and the bones in roast would be about perfect to nibble on with his canines. His tongue slipped across the sharp point of his fangs and he took a breath. “Nice to know she still cares,” He told the lunch box.

               He reached down and grabbed its handle, pulling its top back up to where it would sit if zipped. Then he zipped it up. It bounced and flopped about happily, and a bit more easily now that it didn’t have a few pounds of meat inside it.

               “So, she wants you to stick with me?” The man shrugged before walking towards the kitchen. “It is going to be boring. Bad TV and some food were all my plans for the night. Hope to fall asleep…” He spoke, glancing back. As soon as he had said the word TV though, the little lunchbox went bounding off towards his living room and in the dim-lit room off in the distance, he could see it struggling to climb up onto the couch. And just like that he had a pet.

              

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Day Shift – Chapter 05

Helsing’s Legacy 

             “Mr. Holland. I understand that on the night shift there was a certain lack of decorum required,” Ed’s voice cut as he entered her office. The door had barely opened before she laid into him. Her dress was only half as sharp as her tone, and that was saying something. He had expected some pushback, of course, but he thought that she would at least have the decency to give him another few minutes. Or maybe let the door shut behind him before she did so. But no, that wasn’t going to be their relationship, it seemed. “Here, we’ll require you be a bit more put together. I expect you to conform to the company dress code in the future – just consider this a warning.”

               “Noted,” He said glancing down at his attire. He raised his arms slightly to get a good look at himself. Aside from wrinkles, he thought he was within code. “What am I missing, exactly?”

               “Management is required to wear business attire. For men, a pair of black or brown slacks, a tucked-in white or gray collared, button-up shirt, matching coat, shoes, and belt,” She listed – each item of clothing counted down as her fingers pointedly rising as each was enumerated.

               “Oh, right, I’m management,” Mattias gave a quick nod, raising a hand and a finger of his own, “And if I don’t have those things?”

               “Get them,” She said. There was no feeling in the words. It was so matter-of-factly put out that it could have been the words printed to page. She did soften after a moment, though, with a soft sigh. “I’ll have HR email you the expensing paperwork.”

               “Neat,” He said with a bit of a smile, as he let his handset on his drink and twist open the small red bottle. “Was this meeting specifically about dressing me down, or did you…” He took a sip. “…have something else.”

               She didn’t seem to enjoy his nonchalant discrediting of her reprimanding. Her face was a bit distorted, somewhere between annoyance and exhaustion if he was reading her correctly. Of course, she wasn’t as readable as most people he had met, but he couldn’t put a finger on why. Her natural demeanor never seemed to change that much, and even when she was frustrated, like now, she would quickly return to her normal cold sort of self.

               “Something else,” She added, as her voice faded back to the regular cold that he had known from her in the past. “I have a couple of new members for your team coming. One is a new hire. He’ll be along in a few days. Another will be a transfer from our data center support team. Both are moving to town for the jobs.”

               Mattias let out a little, single chuckle.

               “What?” She knew it was a bit rude.

               “Nothing, just a surprise.” He responded with a shrug. Really, he was just hoping they realized what they were getting into – and didn’t personally know how they would possibly decide moving here for this kind of job was worth the cost of moving and resettling your life. He didn’t know their lives, though, so maybe they had a good reason. He shouldn’t judge. He would. He just knew that he shouldn’t do that.

               “Good. Next week will likely be when they start,” Ed added, finally sitting down in the large executive chair behind the actual red oak desk – likely the only real wood on the entire floor. “Now, due to a recent change, you won’t be getting an office.”

               “Wait, what? What change?” He protested, having expected a private office to do his work as a manager. It was likely the only thing he was really looking forward to with the change, and even then he realized it was more of a silver lining.

               “Managers and team leaders will now be working with their team on the floor. We’re converting the offices,” She replied.

               “Except this one,” He spoke with a small shake of his head.

               “Right. Directors will still have private offices,”

               Mattias didn’t say anything. He couldn’t think of anything.

               “It wasn’t my decision,” Ed added quickly, “Will that be a problem?”

               There were a thousand things that went through his head that moment. A thousand smart remarks and childish quips, along with a handful of reasonable complaints. Of course, when push came to shove none of those came out of his mouth. Only a single word slipped out, “No.” He heard himself say. It was almost as if the word had a mind of its own as if it wanted to escape and didn’t mind that there were plenty more arguments that could have been made. He never would have admitted that there were other reasons that he just said no, not even to himself – but he wouldn’t have long to dwell on it anyway.

               “Good. Your team is assigned to a cubicle square, but luckily you are right next to the windows,” She added, “And the break room. So, you’ll have ample chances to meet the rest of the team here on the day shift.”

               He just blinked.

               “You don’t look happy with that,”

               “You do realize I’m a vampire, right?”

               “Yes.”

               He swallowed and adjusted, “Okay. So,” He motioned towards the office, “See how it’s shady in here?”

               “Yes,” She nodded, and on the third or fourth nod realized what he was getting at. Her head lulled back and she let out a long, “Oh. I understand. Sunlight is uncomfortable for you,”

               “Well, that’s one part,”

               “Can you last a week?”

               “What?” He responded as he watched her pull a pad of paper from one of the drawers.

               She set it down on the desk and grabbed a pen, clicking it a couple of times, “Can you last a week?”

               “I mean, yes. But it’s…”

               “Good. We’ll get shades installed…”

               “…exactly comfortable.”

               “Will that work? Shades?”

               “It’ll help,” He couldn’t help but say the words with a bit of quiet amazement at the way she worked. It was as if he was only tangentially here. That the words he had started to say cued her into something, but now she knew precisely what she was going to do and how she was going to handle it – without any further notes from him.

               “Good,” She had written down something in sharp letters, circled in a way that almost made a triangle more than it made a circle. He could read it fine but tried to look away when her eyes twisted back to him. “Anything else?”

               “I just want to raise one more little thing to your attention,” He spoke softly, raising his hand and giving a little pinching motion at the term little.

               “Yes?”

               “I’m not sure how well this set up will work for a team off nightshift. It’ll take them a while to…”

               “Already ahead of you,” She said with a nod. “I understand they’ll take some getting used to this kind of work environment and we want to make it as easy as possible. So, your team will have an easy week, and on Friday we’ll have a large meet and greet with catered food.”

               “I think that’s,” Mattias waved his hands down quickly, “the worst idea,”

               “Really?” She spoke as the door opened behind him, she leaned to one side, “This is my next meeting. Mr. Kelly. Mr. Kelly, Mr. Holland – he’s just transferred from Night Shift, and he and his team will be,”

               “Oh, the new Damage Control team,” The old man said reaching out a hand. “I’ve heard good things.

               “A pleasure,” Mattias reached his hand out towards Kelly.

               “Right, Mr. Holland and I were just talking about his vampirism,” Ed spoke. She never noticed the next part, or if she did she made no signal that she had. Kelly stopped his hand and pulled it away at the word vampirism.

               “Oh. Well, good to have you aboard. I can come back,” Kelly spoke. It left Mattias with his hand in the air.

               “No, Mr. Holland and I can continue another time.” She said, waving towards the door. “If you would, Mr. Holland. There is a placard for your team on your cubicles, just hang a left and just past the break room.”

               “Right. Another time,” Mattias said, shoving his hand into his pocket. “Kelly.” He nodded to the man and stepped out into the hall again. He didn’t wait or hesitate. He just left.

               So far at this job he had been incredibly lucky.

               He knew that. He always knew that. He was treated very well for the most part. His team was understanding of his condition as a non-human, and what that entailed. He didn’t have to deal with the old-world mistrust and fear for the most part. His team knew that he wasn’t going to attack them or spread his curse, or any of that nonsense. He was just trying to do his best with the cards that were offered him. But there was still a hatred between humans and many non-humans. The people like him, the so-called ‘dark’ non-humans may have had it the worst.

               Vampires, in eras before the industrial revolution, had preyed on humans. So it was understandable that it took them time to get over that. But that was two eras ago. The Industrial Age, the Atomic Age, and now into the Information Age – and still that old fear held on. Fear that kept people from giving him a chance or shaking his hand.

               The good note was that the sunlight wasn’t making him nauseated any longer. It was the stress of the realization that he was going to be at least partially ostracized by the people that worked here that was causing it now. Stress was a much different sort of unwell feeling, one that at least he could turn to anger if it got too bad. His particular non-human traits were not even as noticeable as many others, and he began to worry about what might happen to any other non-humans that worked here. Lindsay was obviously not human. He shook his head and tried to chase off the thoughts after realizing he had been standing in front of the office for a few seconds. He started his walk down the aisles of cubicles and towards his new home away from home. His new prison in the sun.

               The walk down to this new office area, this new place they would be, was longer. For the first time in a long time, he felt the stares of the people around him. Eyes boring into his being and examining him, trying to size him up and figure him out without so much as a word. He had grown accustomed to his comfortable life, with his comfortable team, and now, suddenly he was back here. He was back in a pit of emotions he felt he had grown past. Or, maybe survived in the past would have been a better term.

               As he found his way to the cubicles, he nearly bumped into someone coming out of the break room. They didn’t say anything, except a simple, “Watch it,” As they passed by. He tried not to think anything of it.

               That was a hard thing to do in his situation. He was hyper-aware of his situation, thanks to his condition. He concentrated on his objective. Get to his desk. Find a way to make it through the day. That was the simplest thing he could do. He was probably making more of this than there was to it. He was overthinking. No one noticed. He just looked like a pale fellow, someone who needed to go outside for a while if possible. Of course, that was true, but also something he just could not do currently – or really, ever again.

               When he came around the corner of his team’s cubicle block there was a moment when his breath just left him. It was stark. The cubicle was an open plan, with six sterile and empty desks – with fresh new computers that smelled as if the entire area had only recently been unwrapped from whatever plastic it had originally been wrapped in and heated by the warmth of the rising sun. Of course, this was also mixed the thousand various smells wafting over from the nearby break room which was near headache-inducing, but coffee was winning out. So, to him, the smell was coffee and plastic.

               His team was not here yet, except for Lindsay who stood awkwardly at one side of their new open floor office. They were still likely rolling in and finding a spot, misjudging the time they needed to a lot, or simply not being able to wake up as needed. Lindsay shuffled to one side as he entered, a bit further – nearly brushing up against a desk before a worried look crossed her face and she moved to the middle place between two of the desks. She gave him a little half-wave, her arm twisting at her elbow to raise a hand for a split second before it snapped right back down to her side.

               He gave her a nod. She was his unabashed favorite. Sure, they were both non-human and they had that in common, but that wasn’t what made him like her. His joke was that she was quiet and didn’t bother him. That wasn’t it either. She was honest in the exact opposite sense he was. She wore her nerves on her sleeve and you could tell when she was nervous. He just bottled it up, hiding from all the Helsings in the world that hated him for being him. He was detached. It would have been better to be like her. To be honest.

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Day Shift – Chapter 04

That First New Morning

 

               Again, the agonizing screech of an alarm was the only thing that was able to rouse him from his sleep. His drive to move was less than it would have normally been, and his body’s natural aversion to daylight hours made it seem heavier than usual. He was determined to have a better morning though. Numerous alarms and a swing at a good night’s sleep ensured he would be up on time. Though, in all honesty, he didn’t sleep well. He tossed and turned and got bored and sat on social media sites for hours and hours and watched pointless videos instead of shutting off and sleeping. He just couldn’t find himself tired or relaxed. Between nerves and his own natural schedule, there was no way that he would find a good comfortable rest.

               He did, eventually, doze off. But that sleep was not a particularly restful sleep. Nights like this, he would slip off for moments, but the inevitable nightmares induced by the stress he felt kept waking him up. Those dreams where the day had begun and operated normally until some twist of terror would pull you out of your sleep, and adrenaline would keep you up for a few minutes. He was always used to such things, so he tended to fall back asleep. Though, that may have just exacerbated the problem, making him have most of the night in short bouts of poorly interrupted naps.

               That morning, despite his lack of energy, he was up and ready much more smoothly than he had been a few days prior. He had time to enjoy a simple, lukewarm shower and a small breakfast before his final alarm let him know he should be leaving. He got dressed, and though he had time, he looked no more put together than he ever did in the past.

               As he was leaving, his phone chimed. It gave him a simple text message alert. The name simply said, Olivia.

               Good luck. The text said, though the gif of a particularly popular cartoon character in a particularly sarcastic scene. It made him roll his eyes. It was meant in a playful tease, of course, but it still made him feel a little bit like an idiot. But, she did at least say something to him one way or the next. Which was nicer than any of his other so-called friends. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, and with his usual accouterments, he headed out to his car.

               It was still dark out, which was nice for him. His car started up normally, and he tried the radio for a few minutes as he started to pull out – but it was miserable. For all of his life, he had absolutely hated early morning radio. He had no desire to listen to morning radio hosts. They just annoyed him. Noises and constant yammering with guests that he could have cared less, and clearly didn’t want to be there. And there was so much time between the music that it seemed almost pointless. The music was why he listened to the radio on the drive. And for this drive, reliable music would have made it so much more tolerable.

               It was just a few days ago that he made this drive in a mere few minutes – but early morning driving, along with so many other people, was hellishly dull. There were too many stoplights in this town, and people piled out to head towards their job, or drop their kids off at school, or whatever. He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. There was only one reality here. The movement was slow enough that it seemed like he would just crawl along between lights, barely making any headway. He was surprised people lived like this. What did they do in the car every morning? Listen to some random people make bad pop culture jokes interspersed with random noises? Or was there something he was missing? It had to be that, right? Something people knew that he didn’t. No one looked to be as deep in thought or miserable as him as he looked around and caught glimpses of other drivers.

               The person in front of him, in particular, seemed unaffected. She was dancing in her car, enjoying a coffee, and seemed genuinely happy. She’d even wave to people from time to time. He hated her a little bit, as he sat in his quiet existential box waiting to reach a job he didn’t particularly want to go to. But, she turned off and into a shopping center, and he was back to watching people in short bursts. No one else was as interesting to him. Except one person with a bunch of bumper stickers he didn’t understand. It just seemed like random numbers to him. But whatever they meant, the person seemed proud of them.

               Eventually, nearly thirty minutes after he left, he finally found his way to work. His car pulled into the parking lot he was used to early that morning. His clock said 6:44 AM. The sun was beginning to peak over the horizon through the skyline of small skyscrapers in their midsized city. That light hitting his skin sent a bit of shaking through his form, a wave of building nausea almost instantly coming over him. It was a familiar feeling he had been able to tamp down on for so long, but now he was going to face it again. Olivia was right. This might have been a very bad choice. Maybe starving was a better plan.

               He was a creature of habit, and the first thing that irked him was the fact that the parking lot was already full. He wouldn’t be able to park where he wanted to. Or even in the same section. He had to wrap around and find a parking space, and it took him a circle or two to find a spot. Even that was not a decent one, it was far and with no possible shade between it and the entrance. He took a minute to steel himself and prepare to get into work for the day. One long breath helped center him and he stepped out into the morning light.

               It was a mistake.

               As soon as that solar light fell on his skin more fully, he felt another wave of nausea and fatigue. It made the walk to the front door feel as though it took forever. With the sun out, it was such a different world. He remembered it differently than it was now – even without the painful parts of the existence. His skin was burning within seconds, heated up and his skin turning bright pink and red. He made his way to the lobby a few seconds later.

               He waited for a few moments just inside the door, enjoying the shade of the building and feeling himself get a bit closer to normal once he had a second. He never thought the smell of stale recycled air and fluorescent carpet – and whatever that third smell was that he couldn’t quite place. Just that general stench of a building full of humans. He sighed and straightened himself up a bit only to catch the eyes of Marcell staring at him.

               “You aren’t lookin’ so hot,” The old night guardsman said quietly, twisting back down to look at his tablet for whatever internet surfing he was doing to pass the time.

               “Not great. But I’m okay,” Mattias said softly, taking a moment to clear his throat. He took a step forward and found himself a bit dizzier than he would have thought, but that faded quickly. The further away from the sun, he was, the better he was able to do. “I guess good morning.”

               “Mhm,” Marcell responded with a quiet nod.

               Mattias didn’t try to engage beyond that. He just decided to move on. He heard the door open behind him and saw another person enter. Some older man in a business suit with a dark briefcase. As the vampire called the elevator, the man walked up next to him and looked at him.

               Really looked. He stared at him with a strange intensity that Mattias didn’t particularly like. And he never said anything. He just stared, until the elevator dinged. The man pushed past him, his shoulder checking the vampire as if this was some sort of race to the tiny cubicle that would lift them both to their destinations. He didn’t understand the strategy if he was honest. Or why the man was in such a rush.

               Holland followed him into the elevator and stared at the lit-up number. Looked like he was headed to the third floor. It was only proper to start off polite, he thought.

               “Could you hit floor four for me?” Mattias gave a small point to the number as the door started to shut. The man turned and stared back at the vampire. Mattias’ eyes widened expectantly, but nothing happened. The man just stared. It frustrated the vampire a bit, “Alright, fair enough. Not until you’ve had your coffee, I guess.” He thought out loud, stepping forward and leaning past the man to hit the number of his floor. All the while, the man just stared at him.

               It was a long twenty seconds before they reached the third floor. And that stare never left him. Mattias could not understand it and couldn’t read him. He wasn’t sure if he had done something to piss him off, or if he was trying to establish some sort of dominance. Whatever it was, it wasn’t working. When the doors open, the man muttered under his breath something and shook his head, stepping off and away. A great way to start the morning.

               The elevator doors closed and the lift began to rise again. A few more seconds and he was on the fourth floor. He moved towards the entrance to his office and found himself frozen at the door. He hadn’t realized how many windows there were in the cubicle farm, and that morning sunlight pouring in was intimidating, to say the least.

               He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. The fact that the glass doors had blocked the sound of the room astonished him. Even with not nearly half the staff having arrived, there was a buzz of activity that seemed so loud. It must have been louder today than usual, as they had often crossed paths with others as they left the night shift, but it was never like this. It was a buzz of laughing and early morning talking, the sound of percolating coffee, and early morning hums of computers coming online, and the clacking of passwords being entered. The smell of coffee was actually overwhelming, but that part was a little bit comforting and made him feel a lot more.

               He glanced down to his small red bottle and gave a smirk. He was sure that smell would not have been as popular with the people getting ready for work. He was pulled from that thought when he heard the hiss of the door behind him pushing open, and a bubbly voice bounding out.

               “Oh, sorry! We don’t technically open until seven,” He heard the voice speak quickly. It was so high and mousey that he didn’t know how to respond, and it was followed by hurried clicks of high heels on the fake wooden floors. A common sound here, he admitted, but she seemed to be moving quickly. He turned his gaze towards the sound, as she continued, “Give me one second to put down my things and I can get you checked in.”

               “No, you don’t,” Mattias tried to speak up, but his quiet lack of a morning voice didn’t help in this situation, she continued as she moved past him.

               “It’ll just take me a minute. Mondays, am I right?” She asked quickly. Now, Mattias was not a big man, but this woman made him look like a giant. She couldn’t have been five feet tall. That small package was paired with nearly three feet of long golden hair with strips of artificial platinum throughout, a smile as bright as any he had seen. Much more than any he had ever given. She hefted a load of bags that would have made a packhorse buckle. She had her purse on one shoulder, which was one of those massive tote bag style ordeals that seemed to bulge at the center from the number of things within it. Her lunchbox was another surprisingly large bag. And across her shoulders she had a rather well-packed backpack, which by the branding near its straps was likely holding her laptop. All of this she was carrying in addition to the number of layers of clothes she wore. She was meticulously dressed for her days work, with a morning coat over her business jacket, a small sweater vest, and a button-up blouse under that. She wore a knit scarf and long gloves. All of which she had to pull off once she got to her desk. “And who are you here to see?”

               “No,” Mattias said with a shake of his head and a small wave of his arms. “I work here.”

               “Oh, a new hire. Here for Orientation, then?”

               “What? No. I already work here,”

               “Yes, employment comes before,”

               “No I mean I’ve worked here for years.”

               “I would have remembered you, then,” She spoke quickly, a wide smile on her face, and sudden piercing gaze turned in his direction. “I’m good with faces, and yours is unique.”

               “I’ll take that as a compliment,”

               “Good, because it was one,” She spoke, but he honestly wasn’t sure if she was being facetious. She had to be, he thought. There was no other explanation for how polite she was being to him at their first meeting.

“Right.” It had already taken her longer to get her accouterments off and hung up than it did for him to put on his entire outfit this morning. “I’m Mattias. Was on night shift and,”

“Oh, you’re the Manager that got switched to Day Shift. Congratulations!” She clapped a bit as she spoke, rifling through her drawers.

“Uh, thanks.”

“Nightshift must have been terribly lonely. I’m glad you’re here now. We’ll have to celebrate you and your team coming up to greet the sun, finally, after all those years,” She was chipper. Of course, she didn’t realize the sun was making him nauseated, and the very fact that she was chipper made him think that she likely didn’t actually know what she was saying – at least in regard to him – but he had no time to correct her before that small hand slammed a chocolate and caramel bar on the counter side of her receptionist station. “Here, I know it’s not much but I didn’t know you guys were going to join us after the shutdown. I’m glad no one got fired though!”

“I can’t,” He said with a little wave of his hand. For the first time, he saw that smile of hers fade, just a bit.

“Oh. You’re not much of one for sweets then,”

“You could say that, yes,” He responded. That seemed to take more steam out of her. He realized the answer she had probably been looking for was a timing thing, not that he couldn’t. Her eyes widened larger as she seemed to come to a realization that it wasn’t a choice, “I mean, I’d love to take it – but I literally can’t.”

“Oh god,” She said quickly, pulling the candy away. “I’m so sorry,” The way she said so took up the most of that short sentence somehow, “Dietary restriction. I should have asked that first,”

“You could say that. Yeah,”

“Are you…” Her voice lowered as if she was trying to be polite, “Diabetic?”

“I don’t think you have to whisper that,”

“I mean,” She kept whispering, “I don’t want other people to know if you don’t want to tell them,” She said quickly, “I’ll keep it quiet.”

“No. I, what? No. That’s not it, exactly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I guess I could be diabetic, technically. I mean, my pancreas doesn’t work, and my blood sugar depends on who I drank last.” He tapped his chin a bit, in thought. This was something he did. Meander on topics in weird directions, and some people, like the receptionist, didn’t understand he was just thinking.

“Wait… drank?” She glanced across him for a moment and the blood drained from her face and she slipped back, “An alcoholic?”

Mattias was confused and just shook his head. “No, I’m a vampire.”

“Oh,” Her tone changed immediately back the more chipper one, “Good, I was worried.”

He couldn’t help but smile as she put the candy away and smiled back over to him. “Why did you think an alcoholic?”

“Bourbon cream filled bar,”

“I thought it was caramel,”

“They look similar,” She shrugged. “Wait, vampires can’t have sugar?”

“We don’t metabolize things like humans. I can eat, but it takes longer and is really bad for me if I don’t have proper blood flow.” He shook the red bottle in his hand, a little sloshing noise from the container made its way over to her, and for a second she seemed confused.

“Is that… blood?”

“Human, yes. Not sure what type, just grabbed one from the fridge,” He said with a shrug.

“Neat. Just out of curiosity…” She said quietly, “What would happen if I had a drink?”

“Uhm…” He glanced down at the bottle and then back to her, “First, weird question,” He said quietly, and then with a tilt of his head gave a smirk, “Second, nothing.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense. I just thought, maybe there was something special about it,” She said with just the softest hint of disappointment in her tone.

“I mean, its good blood. Like. Great quality, I guess.” He paused, and then there was the dreaded awkward silence between the two, where neither said a word for a moment. He gave a point towards the cubicle farm beyond. “I should find my new… office. But it was nice to meet you,”

“Oh, yeah! Sorry, it was weird,”

“Eh, I like weird,” He replied, “Oh, and your name was?”

“Ava-May Mays, but people just call me Ava. Or Miss Mays,”

“Which do you prefer?”

“Ava.”

“Ava it is. And you can call me Mattias.”

“Mattias,” She smiled, “Good to meet you. Welcome to the Day Shift,”

“Thank you, I’m…”

“Mr. Holland,” Ed’s voice shattered the conversation with a purposeful intent of a bark. Somehow she had snuck up on them, standing in the entryway to the cubicles beyond. The woman was as sharply dressed as always, cutting a stark figure of a silhouette against the rising sun beyond the windows. “My office.”

“Right, on my way.” He had stopped the sentence then at first, but she was shrouded by the position of the sun, and didn’t move – but he felt like he could see her eyes narrow expectantly on him anyway, “Ms. Chambers.”

A sudden realization hit him. He didn’t remember if Miss was right for Ed. Was she a Miss, or a Misses? He couldn’t remember if she was married, and he couldn’t see her well enough to make out a ring if she was. It made him suddenly very self-conscious. He was worried that she wasn’t going to respond well if he was wrong. Her response didn’t instill him with confidence either.

She gave a small huff, a hum of sound that was neither happy or unhappy. It was cold and frankly uncaring and he wasn’t sure if he had misspoken. But she did move off towards her office, so he was going to count it in his wins for the day.

He took a breath and stepped through the opening and into the offices proper. The torrent of sunlight stopped him in his path and made him keel over just a bit, for a moment. Nausea and fatigue moved on him like a storm. His muscles tightened up and his body tensed without him in control. He felt like he was the embodiment of discomfort for a few moments, but as he took stock he was able to regain some semblance of control and begin his walk towards Ed’s office. She hadn’t paused when he did, so he took a while to catch up to her, and then he was there at her door.

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Marches – Chapter 02

At the Silver Coast

               Cote d’Argent was a land without parallel in its natural beauty, at least to many people. Named for the long silver sand beaches that stretched across its shore with the Great Seas, it was almost paradise to so many. The crown jewel was the home of its noble family, the Palais de la Lune. This palatial complex was sat atop a small, hilly island just off the silvered coast. Its white stone towers rose out of the sea like a beacon, all surrounding one massive cathedral at its center. These spires were a sign of hope for so many. The Palace itself was open to the public, all save for one section reserved for the family.

               Since the beginning of the nation, and even before, the noble family of Cote d’Argent had served as caretakers of the temple. They were a lineage of Magi, powerful but honorable, and blessed by the goddess of the moon and sea with abilities and quirks that set them apart from many of the other houses. This was no different for Duc Vedast. Vedast was a striking man, tall, well built, and undeniably handsome. His skin was warmly toned, bathed by the light of the sun along the beaches. His eyes were bright, with a defined twinkle to them behind those blue starlight colors. His position afforded him many comforts, and he was always dressed in the finest clothes that tailors of the kingdoms could provide, with vibrant blues a favored color. He was marked with the sign of his family as well. His hair, from birth, had been a crisp white, as bright as a blanket of fresh snow. His voice was deep, calming, and he was a natural orator – and he served proudly as the high priest of Lune.

               With an entourage of his servants and guard, he stood on the bridge connecting the small island to the mainland. It was ornately decorated, with intricate imagery of the goddess they served carved into the massive curved planks that made up the bridge. On this day, it was unseasonably warm, and the Sun was high in the sky as they waited, dressed in finery to greet their guests. As the horses were seen in the distance, Vedast could not help but fidget anxiously at the approach. He glanced to his side, where stood his wife, Lutisse – a tall and slender woman, also blessed by Lune with striking white hair, now pulled up into an elaborate style ordained and tied with gold and jewels of every sort. Her dress was just as ornate, and in a matching blue color to that of her husband.

               She glanced back to him with a soft smile, pulling her children a bit closer to her. Two of her three children were there – both of her daughters. She was protective of them, holding them tight to her body, with only the occasional glance to her husband or a guard. The young ladies were dressed somewhat more conservatively and did not quite seem to understand why they had to stand atop the bridge and wait. They fidgeted and moved back and forth, scolded by their father from time to time when they started to slip from their mother’s grasp.

               The wait seemed to drag on and on before finally the entourage of Marquis Valamir arrived. There was a collective shiver that rolled through the men and women of the Argent Coast as he and his party came into view. While not dressed for war, his entire party came with their masks adorned. Made from the feathers of Wyverns, each mask bore the visage of some great monster. While for many, it was simply an interpretation of a wyvern, there were a few that were more ornate. Valamir stood out, but none more than the mask of his wife.

               Sitting atop a steed next to her husband, she bore a twisted and deformed mask resembling and basilisk. When paired with her otherwise simple dress and accouterments, it seemed almost out of place – but then one’s eyes were almost drawn to the twin blades at her hip. The scabbards and hilts were all that was visible, but they brought to image the blades within rather quickly. They were pristine and exquisitely made of finely crafted leather. The hilts were wrapped in scarlet cloth, and the pommel inlaid with obsidian stone. She was Tienette Astier, Marquise du Nid de Vouivre, and she had a reputation to match that of her husband.

               Vedast gave a warm smile and opened his arms wide in greeting, stepping forward towards the riders. He gave one last glance across them before settling on Valamir. “Hail traveler, and welcome to the Palais de la Lune. May the Goddess of the Moon and Sea smile upon your arrival, and bless you while you are guests in our home.”  He spoke warmly. “I am Duc Vedast d’Argent, and this is my wife Lutisse, and our two daughters – the eldest Roheis, and our youngest Mirabelle.” He motioned to the two young girls. They both had their mother’s eyes and hair, and the resemblance to their mother was astonishing.

               Valamir smiled from his horse and dismounted before speaking. “You honor us, your grace.” He spoke as he dusted off his black and red clothes – which matched the general formal style of the Duc but were of much simpler construction and material. He gave a bit of a bow. “I am Marquis Valamir Astier du Nid de Vouivre, and this is my wife, Tienette.” He motioned up to her, and she likewise dismounted. “Our son is young, so we did not want to risk bringing him on such a long journey. A few months with his grandmother and uncles will likely do him well, though.”

               The Duc was a tilted his head and then gave a slow nod. “Of course, perfectly understandable.” His voice was quiet, and he spoke slowly for a time his eyes glued to the newcomers. “I was surprised to see your letter – and then to receive one from Duc Gilles.” He twisted about and raised one hand back towards the island and his home, “Come, let us walk and talk. I’d like to show you my abode, and perhaps we can enjoy a meal before we get deep into the conversations at hand.”

               “Of course, your grace. A wonderful idea.” Valamir spoke before walking up next to the Duc. The two were quick to fall into benign conversation, and as they walked those behind them fell into step. For nearly an hour, they walked the grounds. Despite a decent tour, not a single word of importance was shared between the two. They spoke of unimportant and distant ideas. There were some common ground topics that were brought up, such as the health of Gilles, but beyond some of these nothing seemed to transpire.

               Eventually, they were taken to eat a meal. The families enjoyed a large meal together, one that would be a feast in nearly any other house. It was a show of wealth and comfort, as had been the tour. Vedast hoped that showing off might dissuade the Marquis from continuing in this errand. He had no intention of letting his daughter marry a wyvern, and his reluctance to even broach the topic in the slightest made that abundantly clear to everyone who walked with them. This was all a formality to both families. Both men had seemingly made up their minds, and it was a long time until any decision had to be made for such an arrangement.

               There was a token acceptance of the Astier right to be considered, and that was all. The families began to separate ways and head to quarters to rest for the night. The silence was broken by the voice of the young Mirabelle. “Why do you wear masks?”

               It caused the families to pause. “Mirabelle, it is impolite to speak out of turn.” Her father responded quickly. “My apologies.”

               “No, it is a good question,” Valamir spoke, before glancing at the young girl. “Has your father explained the Masquerade?”

               “No.” She said with a bounce up in her voice.

               “She is young,” Her mother explained but gave no details beyond that.

               “Yes, well, the Masquerade is our Court – where we nobles go to speak. We wear masks to hide our faces, so we can speak freely.” Her father explained. “The Vouivre wear masks at all noble functions, and many day-to-day.”

               “Why?”

               “They say your mask is the face you present at court,” Tienette spoke, kneeling to the girl’s level and offering a smile from behind that mask. Realizing the girl was still very young, she reworded her sentence. “You act one way in temple, and one way at home, right?”

               “Right.”

               “Well, we do the same in court. So, we wear masks to show who we are right then.” She continued, motioning between her and her husband, “We, and others from our provinces, believe differently though. We are the masks.”

               “Why monsters?”

               “Because we are monsters,” Valamir spoke softly, before giving her a twisted smirk. “Just like the stories you will hear all of your life.”

               The girl did not have a response to that, but her father quickly ended the conversation with a quiet rebuttal of the idea and a promise that he would explain it more as she grew older. The families split apart for the evening and went to their separate quarters, but the lords would meet again that night to speak to one another about the real reason they had met. Late, long after their wives and children were away, Valamir and Vedast met in the Magi’s study. This conversation was spoken in hushed tones, with even the attendants at an arm’s length to make sure that none could overhear them, at least to any detail that would matter if leaked out from these chambers.

               The room was filled from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with massive book and scroll cases. Thousands of tomes and countless loose scrolls and paper surrounded the central object in the room – a small sitting area and writing desk. It was here, by flickering candlelight, that the two men would speak frankly to one another about the purposes of this visit. For this night, for this conversation, the two sat across from one another. Valamir was calm and collected, sitting with his back straight and emotive motions of his arms as he spoke.

               Vedast, however, lacked such composure. “You think I’d ever let a daughter of Lune marry into the Wyverns?” He spat the words. “What are you really here to accomplish?”

               “Just that. Our people are more powerful together. A marriage would be mutually beneficial, granting you the resources of the Nest, and the specialists she trains.” Valamir crossed his legs and leaned back, barely raising a hand as he seemed to yield the floor.

               “Or, she could marry one of Ava, or of the Dunelan – Cael Varin de Auduna, Theirry Matisse de Ava, even Eponninia Vania de Rigani have all been put forward by their parents.” Vedast took a breath and leaned forward, “Why would I let her marry a poisoner and schemer… You said it yourself… a monster?”

               Valamir’s lips curled into a smile, the eyes under the mask catching a shadow moving along the wall of the corridor beyond the study. “Why not?” He spoke, and then a coldness returned to his voice, and almost cruel bite, “She is the daughter of monsters…”

               The sound in the Marquis’ tone sent a shiver up the Magi’s spine. He knew that tone. It was a tone of knowledge, “You can’t possibly,” The Magi spoke softly, a quiver in his voice as he looked to the floor.

               “I do, Duc,” The Marquis spoke, an uplifted and almost happy tone in his words as he pushed on the topic a little, “I found the evidence,” His hand waved lightly in the air in front of him. “Well, disturbing seems such an understatement.”

               “So.” Duc Vedast shook his head. “How did you find out?”

               “Your mistake in the Last Watch.” The Marquis spoke. “You covered yourself well there mind you. It was not easy.”

               The Duc nodded, “And what will you do to her?”

               “Nothing. You have my word.” The Marquis said, and then there was a silence that hung in the air.

               “I don’t believe you.”

               “Very well. My proposal is this. Your daughter Mirabelle and my son Sarus are married when they come of age. We shall come and visit, from time to time, before. Should she refuse her duty, we’ll allow it, given you accept the fault.” Valamir said with a little tilt of his head to one side. “Then, they take over our Manor, and live peaceful lives overseeing a village on the borders.” He raised his hands, offering a pause before adding. “That is all.”

               “What is your end game, Valamir?” Vedast asked, raising his head. “If I am to share a family with you…”

               Valamir’s smile widened, “Then perhaps I’ll tell you when that is official.” He paused a moment. “But,” He reached a hand to pull his mask away from his face, for the first time, “To show you I am serious… I have no plan to include our children in it.”

               Vedast shook his head. “Fine, Wyvern.” He all but growled the words, “It is not as if I have a choice.”

 The next morning, they had planned to meet again, but Vedast was suddenly called away due to some political trouble in the region, and it was decided that the Astier would leave. After their conversation, Valamir was not surprised that something would come up. He knew Vedast would set to work to head off this plan, as best as he could.

 

 

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Marches – Chapter 02 Notes

This chapter is another casualty of the change in perspective. Originally, the first few chapters were laying the groundwork for Mirabelle’s change in experience, and at first, I was very confident with that choice. But as I read back over while editing the first draft, I found that the story was solely hers, it was from her perspective, despite what I had planned originally, or even tried to continue a little later in the stories. With this original set up, there was very little time to set up just how different Mirabelle’s life would be with the arranged marriage to the Astier. 

 

The story itself in this chapter was the first introduction of Mirabelle and the first interaction with the couple that would become her inlaws. Elements of that, I believe, are important to hold to the story – but could be done in a much better way. This chapter, the chapter before, and the original prologue are being re-written to bring them into a new sort of prologue, to lay the groundwork for the story, but be separate. These people set Mirabelle’s story in motion, but from her perspective, they didn’t enter it until much later.

 

Still, this was the first chapter where I started to see the story coming together, so I wanted to post it up. Pieces of it will survive the edits, but I am honestly not sure how much. I think it works better if Mirabelle doesn’t remember them at all, or only vaguely, on their first meeting in the early chapters. So, we’ll see where the rewrites take me.

 

That all said, I just want to take a moment to highlight Tienette. She was literally a late addition, and I thought ‘oh, she needs a cool title’. So I settled with calling her the Basilisk. This wasn’t meant to be anything at the beginning. I really thought of her as a background character, whereas Valamir would be the main member of the Astier family that made appearances. Beyond Mirabelle’s, as yet unseen husband to be.

 

That did not last. It is part of the nature of how I write. Marches was a much different beast for me. It didn’t start with worldbuilding. It started with a single idea, and I built characters to fit that idea, and the world formed around them. Normally, I do the reverse – build the world, so that the characters react more naturally with it. But this way was interesting. Why did, even in these early chapters, Tienette feel different? I don’t know. 

 

Basilisk was too cool of a name. And for that matter, so was Tienette. So I latched on to her. By the next chapter I had shifted gears, and it was Tienette who became Mirabelle’s drawn into the world of the Wyverns. In these early chapters I still didn’t know the characters, but as strange as it might sound, Tienette was the first one that I thought I might have someone else in the setting to connect onto – especially outside the setting as a whole. 

 

Anyway. This chapter was alright. Nothing special. There are elements I’d like to keep, but the perspective had to be changed, and so, it needs to be completely rewritten. So, as always, here is the original for you all to enjoy. 

 

Fair Winds,

 

Museless Bard.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 03

Crepes

 

               “You’re an idiot. Why didn’t you just quit?” Olivia spoke to him with no holds barred. A flash of her hand in a harsh wave gave him little solace over the lonely booth table in the back corner of their usual haunt – though that word held such a different meaning these days. “You could survive a few weeks finding a new job. This one clearly doesn’t work.”

               “I know,” He said quietly, staring down at the plain crepes on his plate, and then up to the sweet monstrosity she had made hers into, and then up to her.

               Olivia was a mountain witch, a classic American archetype. She was the crazy woman at the edge of the wilderness who was set in her own ways. Her hair was wild, and her demeanor uncouth. Like the Baba Yaga of Europe, her abilities were bewildering and made no real sense. The warmth drained from the air around her, animals were comfortable near her and spoke to her, she could see auras of mortals and non-humans, she could work minor spells, and who knew what else. It was ever-changing, like the wilds themselves. She was strange. A Hedge Wizard with a mix of craziness brought by the countless mystic archetypes that helped settle the west. Of course, that meant she was human.

               She had continued to grow old, and he had stayed much the same. And it was that fact that eventually broke them. He was cursed to live as he was, at least until such a time as he faded away from whatever reason. Most likely getting Van Hellsinged by some new age Hunter who considered non-humans ‘dangerous’. So now, here he sat the same as the day she met him – but she, she was in her forties.

               She was still beautiful to him. Of course, he had always had a thing for older women, and if he was honest, during her time as a mother she had filled out nicely. She disagreed with him. And frankly he was a complete ass forever making note of it. He couldn’t help it. Of course, when she saw him the same it was the opposite. It made it clear how much she had changed, that her path had continued, whereas he had stopped on his path when his vampirism took hold.

               He gave a shake of his head. “I don’t know why I said yes.”

               “Because change scares the hell out of you. It always has, but now especially. Quitting, well that would have been a change. You’d have to move out of the safety and comfort of the place you’ve built for yourself. That is a big change. A frightening change. You, you would rather stay mostly comfortable and not take a damned risk.” She spoke as the waitress dropped off a fresh cup of coffee for Olivia.

               “You want that warmed up?” The waitress spoke as she pointed to his cup.

               “That might be nice, if,” Mattias added with a small point to Olivia as she started to speak up. It didn’t stop her.

               “No. Caffeine makes him burn through blood faster, and yet he still won’t give it up.”

               “I can make my own decisions.”

               “No, you can’t, obviously,” Olivia said, “Bring him decaf.” She tapped on the table.

               “Really? Still going to modify my orders.”

               “You need to stay healthy, and if you won’t do it when you’re alone, I can sure as hell do it when you’re with me. Eat up.”

               “Fine, witch,” He hissed at her. The waitress had by this point wandered off. It was too early to watch a grown couple argue over things like this for her.

               “How are you going to do daylight?”

               “Daylight won’t kill me,”

               “I know that. But the fatigue is going to tank your performance,” She paused to pick up a bite of sweet crepe and cream, holding it on her fork before she continued with another question, “And when are you going to get time for torpor, hm?”

               “I’ll just sleep like humans do and get real rest during the weekend.”

               “Uh-huh.” She said before taking the bite and shaking her head. “That’s never worked for humans.”

               “Well, humans suck at life, but I already blew that, so I’ll figure it out.”

               “That makes… zero sense.”

               “Shut up. I’m still thinking about it.”

               “Why don’t you try talking to them? They know you’re a vampire. They have to help how they can. Maybe a dark room for your office, or at least shades.” She sighed, “Why don’t you just do what you want to do?”

               “I don’t know what I want to do.”

               “Uh-huh… keep saying that.” She said quietly with a shake of her head. She took another bite and the two sat quietly for a minute.

               “What do you mean?” He sighed, realizing she was leading him to a question but that she was just going to sit there and give him the silent treatment until he asked. They had known one another long enough that she knew he would eventually push her to say something. It was the same old game. It always was. Not that he didn’t like playing.

               “You know what you want to do,” She said, “The place you’ve always talked about opening. The place you think it would be so great for people to have access too.”

               Of course, that was vague, even for her.

               He did know what she was talking about, though. Not that he was going to admit it here or anywhere. “Just because I talk about something doesn’t mean its what I want to actually do. I talk about professionally playing video games sometimes, it doesn’t mean I’ll quit and become an actual pro gamer or some bullshit.”

               “Yeah, but you don’t care about that,” She pointed her fork at him. “You do care about other things, though. Like that Fomorian girl on your team,”

               “Lindsay?”

               “Sure,” She shrugged, “I don’t have any idea what her name is.”

               “You want me to go after Lindsay,”

               “No, pervert. I want you to admit that there are things you like doing. That you consider yourself lucky to get a chance to do,” She said quietly, “You’ve had a shitty run of it, and you made something of yourself anyway. Beyond what was expected of you. So why won’t you admit that and actually, oh I don’t know,” She took another bite, and through gritted teeth gave a final word. “Try.”

               He paused and considered diffusing the situation with another perverted joke, but it seemed unfair. Unfair, and unfunny. And likely ineffective at doing anything but raising her ire. He took a deep breath and shook his head. “I don’t want to abandon my team at Christmas.”

               “Christmas is two months away.”

               “Christmas starts on November 1st in every customer-facing industry…” Mattias

               “Not for me.”

               “You’re a witch. Witch season ends on November 1st, so you guys hibernate until next Halloween, as far as I can tell.”

               “Not too far off.” She said quietly, before giving a little smile. “So, breakfast on the new year to see how far you’ve gotten, and maybe you’ve geared up and can jump in to try what you really want to do. I’m happy to help if you decide to do that. But this,” She waved at him just as the waitress returned with a decaffeinated coffee for him. She stood awkwardly there for a moment, causing Olivia to pause.

               Mattias glanced up to the Waitress with a practiced but hesitant smile, “Thank you,”

               “Anything else I can do for you? Or are you ready for the check?”

               “Check,” Olivia said pointing at him, “He just got a promotion.”

               “Oh,” The waitress said, pulling out that little black book with the check tucked inside and setting it on the table in front of him. “Congratulations,”

               “Thanks…”

               “And a box for me,” Olivia said softly, pointing to the mountain of food on her plate. “I think I’ll finish this later.”

               “No, you won’t,” Mattias said quietly with a shake of his head as he reached for his wallet. He flipped out an old beaten up debit card and slipped it in the black book with the check. “Take your time,” His head shook slightly, and then pointed towards Olivia, “You were saying.”

               “I forget,” Olivia replied with another bite

               “What? You pointed at me and said, ‘but this’,” He put his hands on his chest and sighed. “It was twenty seconds ago.”

               “Oh, yeah,” She said quietly, waving back at him. “This whole lazy just surviving thing. That has to stop. You were better than this before your vampirism. There is no reason you can’t succeed at what you want to do with it. Even if it did change the end goal a bit.”

               “A bit? A bit? You think?”

               “Don’t be an ass.” She raised one finger and stared over at him for a moment. “Alright?”

               “Fine. Have it your way. After Christmas, if I survive, I’ll give you an update and we can see about making something of my bigger plan.”

               “This, like all things, is temporary,” She said calmly. “You should do the great thing you know you can do and make that temporary matter. Even if it comes from a cursed place, you can still do good, and do more than just survive.” She smiled up at the Waitress, who returned for a moment to drop off a plane white to-go box, which she then slid over to his side of the table. “Would you mind?”

               He rolled his eyes a bit as the check was laid back on the table. “Thanks again, you all. Come back and see us again.”

               “I’m sure we’ll be back,” Olivia gave a wide smile as Mattias took up the to-go box and put both her leftovers and his in the box, and then passed it back over to her. She smiled, “And thank you for breakfast. And I guess, congrats, you’re an idiot, do better.”

               “Thanks, Olivia,” He said with a sigh, picking up the check. He glanced at the cost, and with a pause, he figured up the tip in his head and jotted down that number. He left a decent tip, nothing too spectacular. “And I’m always happy to get a meal when you come by. It’s nice seeing you.”

               “And you… come by the house from time to time. And maybe say high to Morrigan from time to time. She does like non-humans, you know. And is always reading about them.” She spoke with a grin, “But you know how six-year-olds are. They don’t understand that non-humans live a different life than the rest of us. It’d be healthy for her to see the truth before she’s older.”

               “Is she in Kindergarten now?”

               “First grade. I just said six.”

               “I don’t know how children work. You know that. Part of the problem, if you remember.”

               “I remember.” She said, scooting down the bench-style seating as she prepared to leave.

               Olivia stood up and stretched, stepping out of the booth. There was a little shuffling as she stepped away, and he watched as her purse jumped down off the booth seat and followed a few steps behind her – the strap twisted to form a couple of little fat legs that the creature moved on. It kept pace with its mistress for a moment before Mattias shook his head.

               “Forget something?” He said as he leaned over the table to grab the to-go box.

               “Oh, thanks. Purse, would you?” Olivia requested, waving the purse back towards the table. “Meet me in the lobby. I’m going to stop by the restroom.”

               The purse waddled back over to the table and twisted as if to look up at Mattias. The vampire just grinned and offered the to-go box over to it, holding it above the creature for a moment.

               “Just want me to set it on top of you.”

               The purse twisted and bobbed, which was as close to a nod as he should have expected. It was enough for him. He sat the white box on top of the purse, and it turned away and waddled off towards the door. He turned back to the table to catch his eyes on the waitress. She seemed pale, watching that small purse carry away a take-out box.

               “Ah… huh. She’s a witch – they like to animate things.” Mattias explained before picking up his coffee and taking a sip. “Could I get a to-go cup for the rest of this?”

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Day Shift – Chapter 02

Daywalkers

 

               “Then I suppose we’re finished here,” Mrs. Chambers said as she closed the folder. She paused for a moment and looked down the table at the vampire who had laid his head on the table and just sat there unmoving. “I’ll let you break the news to your team.” She quietly put his folder into her dark leather briefcase, which had been hidden under the table. “I’ll be in my office when you are done.” She ended with a nod and walked around him.

               The sound of her stiletto heels against the fake hardwood floor of the office hit him like stake each step. Soon enough, there was a little hiss of the door being pressed open. Then the hiss of it shutting.

               Today was a bad day.

               He heard mumbling outside for a moment before the door hissed open again.

               “I just heard the news, Matt,” Hal’s voice came through. “Congratulations! We’re going to be peers on Day Shift.”

               “Yay.” Mattias didn’t move, just lifting his wrist and spinning his hand with his head down on the table.

               “That’s the spirit!” Hal responded in all genuine seriousness, taking Matt’s response as an actual ‘yay’, which warranted a groan from the man. “I’ll get your team,” He heard the man clap and excitedly move towards the door. “You just enjoy it.”

               Mattias groaned and rolled his head against the conference table for a moment. This is not what he wanted to do with his life, and he had just agreed to do it through the worst possible season. Holidays. Not only that, he had doomed his team to the same thing. Or, at least, those that agreed to come along on corporate’s new fantastic adventure for them. He assumed he would lose some. People didn’t do this job because they loved it, though. They did it because it was this or starve. He had just chosen this over starving.

               A few more moments of existential thoughts and silence was all he had to endure before the door pushed open and his team began to cycle in. A few of them wouldn’t even get the offer. He still didn’t move, he just laid there and dreaded it a bit longer. Sweet, loving dread. The only constant companion he seemed to have.

               “Just have a seat. When you’re all here, Mattias has an announcement.” Hal’s voice called out from the door. Shuffling of feet and moving of chairs finally warranted some semblance of life from the team leader.

               Mattias sat up and glanced around at his team as they sat down. He went through his mind real quick on how to do this and then opted for his usual strategy of just stumbling through. He even started with his usual, “Uh… yeah. So…” He stammered before finally finding some footing in his disappointment. “Bad news first. They’re shutting down the night shift.”

               His team was taken aback, a series of “What?” and “Really?”, one “Finally,” and a gasp or two. None that he particularly tied to any individual.

               “Good news. They offered us all transfers to the day shift. Half will stay on Hal’s team… half are going to be joining a new team. With me.” Mattias, at this point, was nervously talking with his hands. The motions of his hands didn’t necessarily follow any rhyme or reason. They were just there to distract people, in hopes they wouldn’t notice his pausing and trying to come up with a plan. “On the day shift.”

               “Day shift?” One of the team spoke up. He let out a sigh afterward. “Like, nine to five?”

               “Seven to Four, actually.” Mattias corrected.

               “Seven to freaking four?” The team member spoke up. “No man, I’m out.” The team member pushed back on his seat and stood up, shake his head. “I ain’t working nine-hour days and driving forty minutes both ways. I’m out.” He didn’t sound too upset, but his heavy footfalls were quick and out the door. “Consider this my two weeks,” He called from outside the conference room.

               “We’re a right to work state, so, you don’t need to give two weeks,” Hal answered, sort of to the team that was in the room, before chasing after the member leaving.

               “Carlos isn’t wrong. If this isn’t what you signed up for, the company will give you a small severance, and you can go.” Mattias added, waving towards the door. “Anyone else?”

               A few team members glanced around before a couple stood up and walked to the door. One more raised her hand. “Any, ya know, pay raise?”

               “Nope. Cost of living and a chance of a raise at the end of the year. A transfer, not a new offer.” Mattias shrugged.

               “I’m out too… gotta job during the day,” The woman spoke and stood up. “So, like… bye.”

               “Bye, Liz.” One of the remaining team members gave her a wave as she left with the others.

               Then there were six members left in the room. Mattias took a deep breath and asked the question on everyone’s mind. “So, everyone else is stuck, right?”

               “You bet. I’ve got rent coming up, so…” One of the team said.

               Mattias nodded and let one of his hands lull back towards the door. “Alright then, Hal can handle the outgoing guys. Let’s talk about what’s happening with us. Starting next week, we’ll be on the day shift. Ashley, Maddox, and Lindsay are with me. Shantelle and Braxton will be sticking with Hal. So, you two will be doing the exact same thing, just a different time of day – and a bit of a busier workflow.”

               “Define a bit,” Shantelle said with a grimace, twisting her lips into an exaggerated frown because she knew what was coming.

               “Well, you know how many guests we handle as a team every night…” Mattias spoke with a sigh, “That number, except per person…”

               “Up to a hundred guests per person? Seriously?” She protested. “Best damn believe I’d be the hell out of here if I didn’t need the damn insurance.”

               “You and me both,” Braxton chimed in with a little raise of his hand as if he needed to add that for permission.

               “I get it, trust me,” Mattias added. “But, yeah. Tomorrow is a paid day off so you can get things in order. And we’ll start back Monday. That’s all you need to know. So, you two can go home if you want.” He added.

               “And us?” Maddox asked as he leaned back and put his feet up on the table.

               “You three stay. Our jobs are changing.”

               “Oh, good. I love it when unannounced changes disrupt my entire life, and I have no recourse,” Ashley chimed in, only to be interrupted.

               “Yeah yeah, we’re all screwed, don’t launch into some political…” Maddox twisted away from the woman in all black.

               “Diatribe?”

               “I was going to say bullshit. Not sure what you said is a real word.”

               “A little vocabulary would go a long way in making you into a more fulfilled person, Maddox.” She retorted, with him mimicking her with his hand making little mouthing motions. “Fine, be an ass.”

               “Ass, I know that one.” Maddox jumped a bit.

               By then, Shantelle and Braxton had both slipped out of the room, and Mattias was just waiting for the two to get done. As they seemed intent on starting something, he decided to interrupt. “Any thoughts Lindsay?”

               Lindsay shrugged. She was the only other non-human on his team currently. She was a Fomorian – ostensibly related to the fey folk, but always at odds with them. They weren’t well-liked. Her hair was like seaweed in color, her eyes pale gray like ocean fog, and she always smelled a bit like saltwater, though she tried her best to cover the scent with perfumes and deodorants. Her choice in fruity flavors of such things though just made her smell like saltwater taffy. Which was an improvement to most. The main signifying feature of her race was that they were part fey, part giant. So, she was large. She stood a full foot taller than Maddox, who was already freakishly tall for a human.  She was their gentle giant, though. She didn’t talk much. And guests would have never guessed she was a Fomorian. On the phone, her voice was quiet and soft, with a little bit of husk.

               Really, he was lucky. Ashley was a Wu – a Chinese witch, despite the fact that she was mostly Vietnamese. She was familiar with the non-human world. Or rather, her grandmother was a Wu, and Ashley had a mild interest in such things but wasn’t practicing. It made her more comfortable around him than most humans. Maddox was straight-up human – but his brother married a Lycan, so despite his general demeanor he never treated anyone any differently because of the background in the occult. So, the fact that their team leader was a vampire never really seemed to bother them. They were often ignorant of the situation’s details, of course, but never in a way that had bothered him. It was luck.

               “So, since Ashley still isn’t talking, what is the new… gig?” Maddox asked, leaning back in his chair with a glance over to Ashley.

               She twisted her lips and crossed her hands in her lap.

               Mattias took a breath. “Seasonal Guest Enrichment and Retention Team,” He let that sink in.

               “What the hell does that mean?”

               “It means when someone screws up, we go fix it. We call the guests, we fix the problem. Whatever that is.”

               “Damn it, we’re damage control? For Christmas?” Maddox figured it out quickly. “So, when a damn manager snaps at some already pissy old bat,” He held up a hand and pointed to Mattias. “Sorry, no offense,”

               “Why would I be…”

               “We have to deal with the fallout. Right?” Maddox didn’t pause in his thoughts.

               Mattias gave a nod. “Yes. Basically.”

               “Oh good. So, they’re throwing us to the wolves. Nice.”

               “Yeah. Apparently, our retention scores were through the roof on Night Shift. So… congrats on keeping customers coming back despite the nonsense – and now that is your whole job.” Mattias said with a forced smile.

               “I kind of like solving problems. Better than taking random calls.” Lindsay’s voice cut through, causing the others to look over at her.

               “Well, we’ll be helping with that too, let’s face it,” Mattias whispered out.

               “Well, shit. So, what we do now, but more.”

               “And no pay increase.”

               “Right, because there is no way they could pay for that. Their struggling, so much.” Maddox groaned and spun about in his chair a bit. “What else? We have to wear business casual now too?”

               “Yes.” Mattias said, “Coats, ties, dresses for the ladies.”

               “What? Why? It’s not like the guests even see us.”

               “I agree.”

               There was a lull in the conversation before Mattias had to go over the specifics, exactly how it would change things. It didn’t matter though. No one listened. It was just time to get the information out. He’d go over it again the next workday. And likely the next after that. They had to change directions, and inertia was a hell of a thing to overcome. But they would overcome it. That or they would starve. Those were kind of the only options. Well, some of them might not starve, but anyone of them would struggle.

               The meeting ended, his team went home, and he sat there alone. At least for a few minutes, just thinking about what had happened, what was coming, who he would become. Instinctively, he packed up to go home too. It was a strange feeling – this mix of dread and resignation to a fate he hadn’t looked into. Things blurred together, he felt adrift and at the same time on a course he couldn’t control. A low-level manager in a job he hated, with little chance to expand his horizons. His thoughts were interrupted as he left, interrupted by a cold sound of speech from a woman he had just met.

               “See you Monday morning, Mr. Holland.” Ed’s voice sent a shiver up his spine. She looked pleased with herself and gave him a little wave. He couldn’t help but feel frustrated with her existence at the time, the way she was all but oblivious to the dynamics of the team and only operating on a single diction from some corporate report puller who had never worked with a customer in their life.

               He gave a half-hearted wave, a purchased smile, and then headed out. Back to his old car, and back to the night from whence he came. He knew this feeling was frustration. He had felt despair before, he had felt the heavy hand of fate guiding him on a path he didn’t want in a way that forever altered his life – and this was not that feeling. This was just frustration. Still, he felt like a piece of him was stolen, that he was bound for a place he didn’t want to go. He dreaded it. But it let him survive, one more day, one more night. It kept him alive.

               So he could keep doing what he loved.

               Which, he would one day figure out.

               He sat in his car for a moment as that thought sank in. What was he doing this for? He could just… quit and do nothing. But he enjoyed a comfortable life. And that would have made sense if he had any sort of direction he wanted to go with. He needed to think, to talk to someone. So, he pulled out his phone, and with a thumb, he spun down a list of names. He stopped at Rory.

               Hey, He typed out, I’m out early and got some news. Wanna grab brkfast? He watched as his phone autocorrected a misspelled breakfast.

               Gotta work early. Sorry. What’s up? The words popped up with a little chime on his phone. He stared a minute.

               Nothing. Just changing to the day shift. Mattias responded, staring at the screen and being bathed in blue light for a minute.

               Lame was all that came back through in the next text.

               He paused, and for a few minutes, he thought about just driving home and going to sleep. But, it was unhealthy to bottle up your emotions, to dwell on them. He knew he needed to meet and talk with someone. But with

               He scrolled down the names again and selected another. Olivia.

               Want to grab breakfast? He typed and clicked send.

               Two or three minutes passed, leaving him regretting that choice. The screen darkened and he was sitting alone in the dark, in a virtually abandoned parking lot before most people even woke up. He realized he was texting people who likely were still asleep or getting up and ready for work. He finally twisted his keys in the ignition, and the car rumbled to life. And he resigned himself to go home.

               What did you do? A chime alerted him to the text. Luckily, he had barely put his car into drive.

               Got a ‘promotion’.

               Really? Sounds ‘good’. Where do you want to meet?

               That Bakery on Clay St?

               Fine. See you in twenty.

               He realized that he was visiting his ex in hopes of finding some solace. Good plan. Excellent plan. What could make you feel better than realizing that what you are ruined what you wanted to be? And now you’re stuck in a dead-end job that you hate. He let his head hit the steering wheel before sighing and steeling himself. The Mountain Witch was the best thing he had ever known, and she would know what to tell him to calm down. He was sure of it. She always did. Even if he didn’t like to hear the answer sometimes.

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