New story–Halloween Duty

Here’s a new Halloween story, a prequel to my new series, when Liz was working with her first partner. Neither of them have the Halloween spirit.

 

 

Halloween Duty

Dale Ivan Smith

I’m Elizabeth Marquez, Sorcerer-Agent for R.U.N.E.

I used to love Halloween, but after my sister and I discovered real magic and its hard consequences, I lost that love. Once upon a time All Hallow’s Eve was when the seam between the Hidden world of magic and the supernatural opened into the Everyday world, and ordinary people could readily see manifestations—especially goblins, ghosts, spooks, boggarts, and the fleeting glimpses of those manifestations showed up in far greater numbers.

Not so these days. Halloween went all commercial a long time ago, and in this age of smart phones and the internet, people over the age of six didn’t have any use for Halloween except as an excuse to dress up and clown around at parties.

Really, it’s a lousy holiday. People give out teeth-destroying quantities of candies to kids dressed up like pop culture superheroes, cheesy witches, and princesses.

And, on top of that, the numbers showed fewer manifestations on Halloween than almost any other night of the year.

But my bosses at the Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantment still took Halloween seriously. They ordered Tomlinson and I to pull Halloween Duty. Didn’t matter that I’d asked for the night off.

I had an actual date lined up, for the first time in far too long. Will was a charmer, and also someone always on a business trip. Heaven only knew when we’d next have a chance at a date.

Orders were orders, so Tomlinson and I walked out to his Ford sedan to leave on a pointless patrol in the greater Portland metro area, and wait for Ayesha, our Duty clairvoyant, to tell us about an extremely unlikely outbreak of manifestations. Spooks, spirits and goblins, not cursed likely at all.

Someone had left on a note on the Ford’s windshield. “Believe in Halloween,” it said.

Hilarious. Tomlinson grunted when he glimpsed it. He looked like a white-haired scarecrow in that old trench coat of his.

Two hours later we’d driven from Lake Oswego to Gresham, then through Portland and the tunnel, heading west on the Sunset to Hillsboro. Tomlinson grumbled the whole way, driving annoyed. He hated Halloween as much as me.

He’d just taken the Highway 47 exit near Forest Grove, to turn back around when a golden light fluttered outside my passenger window.

Tomlinson pulled over. I rolled down the window and a fairy-sized being landed on my side door. It was dressed like a leather punk, and wore its tiny hair in a purple mohawk. A messenger sprite. An ordinary person wouldn’t have seen anything in the dark—the golden glow would have been invisible to them. In daylight, the sprite would have looked like a butterfly to an ordinary person.

“Duty clair says eleven ordinaries have been panicked by magical activity in Hillsboro.”

That was bad. Panic was level 2 on the Fright scale. We had to put a stop to whatever was happening before ordinary people got the idea the supernatural was actually real.

“Where?” I asked.

The sprite closed its tiny eyes, held up a tiny hand. “Panic is centered near a house on Harding Street,” it said. It read off an address. “Genie Bradley says a new development on the north side of town.” Genie Bradley was one of R.U.N.E.’s resident super-knowledge spirits. Our old-school answer to artificial intelligence.

“Please give us the scoop on the manifestation causing the frights,” I told the sprite.

“Unable to comply,” it said.

I pursed my lips. “What do you mean?”

“We have no info on any potential manifestations.”

I exchange surprised glances with Tomlinson. That was weird.

“Ayesha can’t get any more detail?” I asked it. Clairs usually gave a lot of detail on a manifestation.

The sprite shook its tiny head. “Good luck,” it said, and zoomed off into the night.

I shook my head. “Curses,” I griped. “We have to go in blind.”

“This sucks,” Tomlinson groused. He did a U-turn, and headed back to the highway.

Harding Street was in a brand-spanking new Hillsboro subdivision. The streets were lined with young elms that had lost most of their leaves by now. We passed clumps of little trick or treaters. Princesses and princes, aliens, werewolves, and a lot of costumes popular when I was five, the last time my mother took Fiona and I out on Halloween, nearly twenty years ago.

Tomlinson muttered something about retro-costumes and greasers.

“What’s that, old man?” I asked him. It’s always fun to poke him about his age. I’m twenty-four and he’s well into old, on the far side of sixty.

“Nothing,” he muttered. Usually Tomlinson would open up, but this Halloween Duty obviously burned him even worse than me.

The house in question didn’t look especially scary. Soft golden light shined from behind closed curtains, and a jack-o-lantern grinned pleasantly from the porch. The maple in the front yard wasn’t festooned with skeletons, cobwebs or bats, and the neatly trimmed lawn had no tombstones on it, in stark contrast to the rest of the yards. The owners of those had clearly dropped major bucks at the Halloween store.

It was already nine-thirty, but a group of little kids dressed like superheroes, shepherded by a man and two women, trooped down the street toward the address the sprite had given us.

“Pretty late for little kids,” I said. Tomlinson parked the sedan about half a block from the house in question, facing it.

A group of teens in street clothes, with a single one wearing a mask of a former president worked the opposite side of the street. The house in question was at the end of the street.

I unbuckled and opened the door.

Tomlinson’s phone rang. “Now they call,” he complained. He answered it. “Three blocks over? You want me to leave Liz here? Really? Fine.”

He put his phone away. “Ayesha says she has another manifestation three blocks away, but she believes we’ll have an apparition here.”

“Never split up the party,” I muttered.

“First rule of Dungeons and Dragons,” Tomlinson said. He may be ancient, but he was a fellow geek.

“But orders are orders,” I said.

“Now you sound like me, kid,” he said. I got out of the car, closed the door. “Stay sharp,” he told me.

“You, too.” He drove off, leaving me standing awkwardly on the sidewalk—the only adult without trick or treaters.

Watch and observe. Sometimes, much of the time, we had to do that. I fidgeted on the sidewalk. The minutes crawled by. The kiddy superheroes were only two doors away, now. The slouching teens had passed us on the far side of the street. Their technique was to go the front door of a house, ring the door bell, and hold out their hands, intoning, candy without even a please. I mean, I’m not a big Halloween fan, but that was downright disrespectful to the day. That was part of what was wrong with Halloween these days.

“Happy Halloween!” An elderly man with a knitted cap and mountain jacket walked past me, waving.

Where had he come from?”

“Yeah, Happy Halloween,” I mumbled.

The old guy stopped. His eyes twinkled in the street light.

“Not feeling the spirit of the night?”

“Not particularly,” I admitted. “I’m not into candy and all the overdone yard decorations.” I didn’t usually spill my guts to strangers, but something about his kindly grandfather aspect made me.

“That isn’t Halloween,” he said.

“No, it isn’t, not to me. But what’s it to you?”

He smiled a warm, knowing smile. “I suspect much like it is to you.”

That was a non-answer if ever I’d heard one. He turned and walked on.

What a strange man, I thought. I scuffed my boots on the sidewalk, then looked up. He had vanished into the night.

Screams erupted across the street. I whirled around. Panicked teenagers sprinted away from a darkened house across the street. The one teen wearing the cheesy president mask tripped on low hedge and tumbled onto the sidewalk, crying in pain. I rushed up to him, knelt down. “You okay?”

“My arm hurts,” the boy said, still wearing his mask had come off.

I examined his arm, gently touching it. “Looks like it’s bruised,” but if it still hurts tomorrow, you should have it checked out.”

He nodded.

I looked around. With all the yelling, I’d have expected house lights to come on, but everything was quiet.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The shadows came alive!” The boy’s voice cracked. “Really!”

I peered around me. I didn’t see any tell-tale sign of a manifestation. Tomlinson would be able to tell for sure, but he’d driven around the block.

Shadow manifestations were scary, but usually only around for seconds at level 1, the fleeting level. I should have heard a creaking or rustling, or seen blackness moving.

More screams erupted down the block, and the teens pounded back toward us. One girl’s hair streamed behind her, her mouth in a wide “O” of fear.

“It slithered against me,” she screamed. The houselights remained off. On the opposite side of the block the kid superheroes walked up the next house. They didn’t seem to notice the teens. Now that was really strange.

I stood up, raising a hand. “What slithered?” I called after the girl as she ran past.

“Shadows!”

A red-headed boy ran after her. “I saw a goblin! It snarled at me!” He raced away.

I took a few steps down the sidewalk toward where they’d been running from. Nothing.

Time for a spell. I caressed my amulet, felt the artifact stir. “Show me the magic,” I whispered in German.

The air hummed faintly around me. Silver light erupted around me. I blinked. Magic was everywhere. Why hadn’t I felt that before?”

I blinked again, trying to clear my vision. That was the problem with conjuring magical vision, you saw it. And while I saw it, I couldn’t see anything else.

“Cease,” I commanded. The light vanished.

My heart pounded. How had we not noticed that before? Especially Tomlinson. Had the magic just now erupted? I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath of the cool, crisp October night air.

Tomlinson hadn’t returned yet. Had he found a manifestation or two?

I pulled out my phone, called his number. It rang three times, went to voice mail. “Tommy, you there? What’s up? Give me a call ASAP.”

I hung up.

Something cackled high overhead. More teenaged screams down the block. A second group of teens in hoodies, fled toward me. A witch flew above them on a broomstick, wearing a tall pointed hat.

I reached into my jacket, and closed my fingers on my defensive talisman.

“Declare yourself!” I demanded in French. If it were a manifestation, it should come to a stop and do as I commanded. If were an actual witch, her magic would flare up. If it were an actual witch, she’d be going straight to the Silos. Flying around on a broomstick, Halloween or no Halloween, was a blatant violation of the rules.

The witch swooped down and landed beside me, smelling of strong herbs and straw. She hefted her broomstick like a staff.

“We have a believer,” she said, and cackled. A chill ran down my back.

I raised the talisman.

“No need for that, I’m only here to frighten,” she said. Another cackle and she vanished, taking her broomstick with her.

My heart hammered away.

I tried Tomlinson again, but nothing doing.

The kids had reached the house at the end of the block.

I forced my legs to move and ran after them.

They had reached the front door, which opened, and a kind-looking grandmother type stood there.

“Trick or treat!” The kids said in unison.

“Which do you prefer?” the old woman asked, with a warm smile. Her voice rang like a bell.

“Treats!” The children replied, young voices piping.

The adults with the children smiled. None of them seemed to notice me.

“I have apples for you to bob, if you’d like!”

“Yes, please!” The kids chorused.

The group trooped inside. The door remained open. I could hear the children’s happy voices and the adult’s gentle laughter.

I closed my open mouth. I’d never gotten to bob for apples. Mom thought it unsanitary.

“You could join them if you’d like,” the kindly old man said beside me.

I jumped, brandishing the talisman. The entryway was tight quarters for a shield summoning.

“No reason for that,” the old man said. “I’m not here to harm you.”

“Why are you here, then?” I demanded.

“I’m the spirit of Halloween,” he said.

I swallowed. “There’s no such thing.”

“There is indeed. A sorcerer such as yourself should know that, but you’ve let your unhappiness blind you to Halloween’s true spirit.”

“But what about all the people who just want to party and eat candy.”

The figure shrugged. “I do what I can.”

The spirit of Halloween. “I thought you were a myth.”

He smiled. “I am. But I’m also real.”

“Have you sworn on the Compact?” I blurted out the question.

“I’m far older than your compact,” he answered. Your rules and laws don’t apply to me.”

My stomach churned.

He raised a hand. “Do not fear, sorcerer. I am not here to harm anyone. Only fulfill the magic of the night. Nothing more. Believe in tonight. Believe in the power of fear and delight. It will renew you.”

Just like the witch had, he vanished into thin air.

An instant later, the entire neighborhood vanished, leaving only a grid of streets and a sign saying houses coming soon.

I blinked. Something supernatural had done a number on my head. That had been a very potent illusion.

The spirit of Halloween.

A quarter mile away I spotted Tomlinson’s Ford. It started up and wound its way through the grid of streets toward me.

Tomlinson arrived a minute later. He’d tried calling me, but I hadn’t answered. He’d seen a group of teenagers, dressed like kids from the fifties, running and screaming about skeletons and zombies.

The spirit of Halloween was real.

Someone at R.U.N.E. had decided we needed a lesson in belief. I wonder if it had been my mother.

Everyone knew Tomlinson and I were skeptics when it came to the Halloween spirit.

Well, we certainly had it, now.

 

END

 

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