A Spirit Displaced (Lansin Island Series #3) Excerpt
SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't finished reading the first two books in the Lansin Island Series (A Death Displaced & A Body Displaced), then I wouldn't recommend reading any of this excerpt for Book Three of the Lansin Island Series. Even the first sentence would be a major spoiler for you, and then much of the previous events in the series are recapped too, so it's basically a friggin' spoiler minefield below! Here's your chance to step away and save yourself.
Note to Beta Readers: If I've previously discussed with you the possibility of beta reading A Spirit Displaced, then don't worry--I'll still be offering you an advanced copy of the whole book once I'm done writing it.
Disclaimer: The excerpt below reflects an early version of A Spirit Displaced. Any part of it could change between now and publication.
Scroll down for the excerpt ....
Note to Beta Readers: If I've previously discussed with you the possibility of beta reading A Spirit Displaced, then don't worry--I'll still be offering you an advanced copy of the whole book once I'm done writing it.
Disclaimer: The excerpt below reflects an early version of A Spirit Displaced. Any part of it could change between now and publication.
Scroll down for the excerpt ....
‘A DEMON?’ A sharp coil tightened around Nick’s heart. He rose from the couch, his body itching to move. ‘A demon wants me dead?’
Sitting across the room, James Rea gave a serious nod, his ashen curls bobbing above his gaunt face.
Nick put a hand to his forehead and squinted, but Tamara’s stricken face told him this was no joke.
Tamara Trewin was a witch, and like James, who wasn’t entirely human, she knew a lot about the Otherworld.
‘Great. So now demons are real too?’ Nick began to pace, shaking his head and thinking about his friends, his colleagues, his family. Are they safe? Am I safe? In his mind floated the image of a beautiful young woman with her throat torn out; he remembered a romantic weekend that never happened.
After a moment, he sat back down on the loveseat next to Juliet Maystone.
The two of them had been called to the witch’s cottage in the hamlet of Willow to be given this news. A month and a half ago, Nick’s girlfriend Kerra Evans had been murdered by a man called Austin Townsend, who’d been sent to hunt down and kill Nick. To get to Nick, Austin had seduced Juliet, but ultimately he failed in his tasks. James took Austin to the Otherworld for questioning, to discover whom he worked for.
After days of torture, Austin had finally spoken.
Reeling, Nick gazed about the room, trying to focus on anything. Austin was working for a demon? To ground himself, he fixed his eyes on a random object—a small handheld bell with three different lunar phases carved into it. The cottage was cluttered with many such witchy items.
‘We believe it is just the one demon,’ said Tamara. ‘An enemy we had thought long dead.’ She and James were sitting across from Nick and Juliet. The window behind them had its curtains drawn open, and the stark white daylight, courtesy of an overcast sky, barely penetrated the glass, leaving half the room looking icy and the other half in shade.
Lansin Island called this summer.
‘Why does this demon want to kill Nicolas?’ came Juliet’s voice.
Nick kept his eyes fixed on the bell. Juliet seemed to have accepted the existence of a demon rather casually. But then, she had seen many of the same impossible things he had—mind control, glistening portals to another world, an animated corpse. A demon, though? He wrestled with the concept nonetheless.
James said, ‘As far as we can tell, Nicolas hasn’t directly done anything to upset the demon. We’re almost certain it’s to do with the history of the Otherworld, a long history of war.’
‘Oh …’ Nick said quietly. Then louder, ‘What’s that got to do with me?’
‘I couldn’t give you a full story today even if I wanted to. But I’ll give you an … abridged version.’ James, moody as always, frowned and steepled his fingers under his chin. ‘I should clear up some misconceptions first. Your world is saturated with inaccurate folklores and mythologies, and even worse, stupid pop culture depictions of supernatural beings.’ He shook his head. ‘I bet you’re already imagining what this demon might be like.’
Nick lifted an eyebrow. It was true; he was imagining sexualised demons in dark business suits, beings with opaque black eyes, fallen angels, gory and gluttonous beasts, and other versions he’d come across in books and on screen. He started to chastise himself, then realised something.
‘But before, you told me and Juliet that elves, your full-blooded kind, are tall with shiny eyes and have pointed ears …’ he said to James. ‘That’s pretty generic nowadays; haven’t you seen The Lord of the Rings?’
James sighed. ‘Can you just listen to me for once?’
Nick opened his mouth to respond, then clamped it shut. He owed James some respect. After all, the half-elf’s job was to protect him—a task assigned by his full-blooded counterparts in the Otherworld, for reasons not fully known to Nick.
So far, James had done a poor job.
‘I didn’t say all of your folklores on this side were completely inaccurate,’ James stressed, glaring at him. ‘I’m only trying to separate myth from reality. The demon in question is the only one left. It would be more accurate to think of him as a demon lord … a godlike being, powerful and immortal. There were originally five of them—’
‘Five?’ Nick scrunched up his face. ‘Not six?’ As James slowly dropped his eyelids and sucked in a loud breath, Nick said, ‘Sorry. Carry on …’ A fear was building in him, and when he was nervous, he became facetious. And that wasn’t good for getting answers.
‘There were five, and for as far back—’ James abruptly stopped and looked down, moving only his eyes, as if he’d just remembered something. ‘I haven’t decided how much to tell you,’ he mumbled in his deep voice.
The change in direction unsettled Nick. Even Tamara peered sideways in confusion.
‘What?’ Nick bawled. ‘Tell us everything! It’s about time you finally did.’
James’s eyes narrowed, and somehow his gaunt face became more taut in appearance. ‘That’s not your decision to make.’
‘Come on, James …’ Tamara gently interrupted. ‘They deserve to—’
‘And it’s not your decision either,’ James said, silencing her.
The witch arched her eyebrows, as if to remind James who the hell he was talking to, but that was all she did.
Slowly, authoritatively, the half-elf returned his eyes to Nicolas. ‘This is how it’s going to work from now on. I’ll tell you only what you need to know, and only what I’m certain I can tell you.’
‘That’s how it worked before,’ said Juliet, though she sounded quite neutral about it all.
James regarded her as if she were a bothersome fly he’d love to swat. ‘You’re not even required to be here, Juliet. You’re unimportant in all of this.’
If the atmosphere had been tense before, it was about to shatter now.
Oh crap. Nick held his breath in anticipation …
… but Juliet made no retaliation.
Nick resumed breathing and said, ‘Juliet has a right to be here, after everything—’
Juliet placed a hand on his knee. A tingle emanated from her touch, sending warmth through his body.
Very calmly, Juliet said to James, ‘As long as you can promise our safety and you can tell us everything we need to know in order to protect ourselves, then I’ll cause you no problems.’
A small and smug grin situated itself on James’s face. ‘Finally, a little cooperation,’ he said, then muttered, ‘from the last person I actually need to cooperate.’
‘Can we get on with this?’ said Nick.
With a sigh, James continued, ‘For as far back as the Otherworld history goes, my full-blooded kind have been at war with the demon lords and their various offspring. It’s a feud founded deep in the very cosmology of the Otherworld. But for millennia we held them at bay, because the demon lords didn’t just hate my kind—they also despised one another and would never join forces to fight us.’
Although James said ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘my kind’, Nick knew he was referring to the full-blooded elves, half-breeds like himself, and what happened in their collective past.
James looked no older than thirty, and as far as Nick knew, he wasn’t.
Nick began to raise his hand, then felt stupid and placed it back in his lap. He was twenty-five years old, not a schoolchild. ‘Can I ask some questions?’ he said.
James granted concession by widening his eyes impatiently.
‘You said the demon lords’—Nick’s voice tightened at how stupidly ominous it sounded—‘had offspring. But now the only demon left is the one that wants me dead. Did you wipe out the rest?’
‘Not the offspring, no. There are many types of cambion—that’s what we call the demon offspring in your language—still in existence today. We’ve held tenuous alliances with the majority of them since we defeated the demon lords.’
‘Oh … So this war in the Otherworld … It’s not ongoing?’
‘This is what I’m trying to tell you! It would have been the sixteenth century on this side when the war in the Otherworld began to peak. The elves were being aided by humans from this world—humans like you, with quirks of their own.’
‘Oracles?’ Nick asked. Calling himself an oracle didn’t exactly sit right, but he knew James and Tamara considered him one—because he had psychic visions.
‘Yes, plus some other gifted humans, too. And witches, like Tamara’s ancestors. Some witches came to the Otherworld to directly aid in our efforts, yet many remained and assisted the Otherworld through guided meditation. That way, they could help us while keeping themselves safe in this world. But as you know, witch trials became popular around that time, and many were executed on this side—’
‘—under orders from the demon!’ Nick finished, with the energy of an aha moment.
He had learnt the truth about the Lansin Island witch burnings from an acquaintance of Juliet’s named Ryan Fraser. Ryan had been enslaved to Aldrich Grendel—the man who had murdered Nick’s mother—but a series of events involving Nick, Juliet, and Nick’s two brothers had led to Aldrich’s death and Ryan’s freedom. Ryan later wrote to Nicolas, thanking him and detailing what Aldrich had claimed was the island’s true history.
Aldrich had been some kind of supernatural being, with the gift of longevity and the ability to control people with his mind. He had been tricked into believing he was serving an ancient god, and used his ability to initiate the witch burnings on Lansin Island all those years ago.
Now Nick knew who had posed as the ancient god—he knew who had manipulated Aldrich. The demon. And it made perfect sense that the demon had done it to weaken the elves’ war efforts in the Otherworld.
‘Exactly.’ James’s mouth quirked; he looked condescendingly pleased that Nick was finally catching on. ‘And until you told us about Aldrich’s involvement, we had naturally assumed the witch burnings were, well, precisely what they appeared to be: nothing to do with the Otherworld.’
Nick took a moment to observe Tamara. The witch gazed at nothing in particular, her wild orange hair a bush around her proud face. As the last living descendant of the Lansin Island Witches, it must have been difficult for her to discover the real reason her ancestors were killed, especially after living more than sixty years believing something else.
‘So, what happened next?’
Juliet added, ‘And if this war is over, then why does the demon want Nicolas dead?’
That made twice she’d asked that question, in some form. Nick felt a strange comfort to realise she was concerned about him. Sitting close to her like this, he was so aware of her body heat, of the air they were sharing.
‘Nicolas,’ the half-elf said sharply, ‘what do you know about the oracles’ involvement in this war?’
The question hit Nick in the gut. ‘I … don’t know anything.’
James lowered his head and crossed his arms. His lips were pressed together, his eyes scrutinising.
‘How could I know anything?’ Nick asked, heat spreading across his cheeks.
‘Fine.’ James unfolded his arms and raised his chin.
What the hell was that all about? Nick inhaled a tense breath.
‘After the witch burnings,’ the half-elf went on, as if there’d been no digression, ‘my kind managed to keep fighting back on the other side for another century. The war had barely changed; it was more of a routine. But then our intel discovered something: The demon lords were planning to come together, to discuss how they would end the war and enslave my kind once and for all.’ With the help of a significant pause, his expression portrayed how awful that fate would have been for the elves and the Otherworld. ‘This is where the oracles come in, and Nicolas … you will soon understand your involvement in all of this.’
The half-elf left them waiting in anticipation for a few seconds. Quiet filled the room. No noise came from outside, as if even the tiny hamlet were listening in.
Attempting all the drama of a practised storyteller, James said, ‘From what we know, oracles were humans and originated from this side. They could see the past, the present, the future, and even events happening elsewhere. But their gift could only be passed down to the firstborn child. Our history says the first oracles appeared in ancient times on this side and were advisers for people in power. And, actually, some of your world’s mythology reflects this too.’
Yep, hand out credit where it’s due, thought Nick, resisting the urge to tap his foot impatiently. He wasn’t fond of James as it was; the half-elf was not only bitter towards humans, but towards full-blooded elves, too. He seemed to believe neither race accepted him, that he didn’t belong—yet he didn’t help the problem by being so bloody sulky about it.
‘When my kind first learnt of their existence,’ James continued, ‘we saw the potential for them to help us in the war on our side. So for centuries we tracked the oracles and persuaded them to help us when they could. But because of the nature of their gift—its limitations hereditary-wise—the oracles eventually thinned out until there were only five left.’
‘Five?’ said Nick. ‘Again?’
‘Five demon lords, and five oracles?’
James sighed. ‘Is everything so hard for you to believe? You’re an oracle. You should be the most open-minded person in this room.’
Nick flushed at the reprimand. This room’s a freak show, he thought as he looked from Juliet, with her perfect complexion, perfect health, and ethereal glow, to James, with his ridiculous height and his mismatched eyes of vibrant orange and pale blue, and then to Tamara, who wore a full-body robe Nick knew concealed a wand in its folds. Alone, the witch’s presence was too strong for this tiny cottage; having four not-so-ordinary people crammed into the confined space was pretty overbearing.
I’m not that close-minded, he quickly told himself, then took a moment to calm his nerves, to think straight.
‘Fine,’ he conceded out loud. ‘I’m just struggling with how epic and cheesy it sounds; it makes it hard to believe.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s like the opening monologue to a fantasy film or something.’ Though they could have picked a narrator with a more exciting voice.
‘You’re not in a film, Nicolas. You need to start taking this seriously.’
Slowly, Nick nodded.
Juliet realigned the conversation with, ‘So, there were five oracles left. When was this?’
The half-elf looked at her approvingly. ‘By that point, the seventeenth century. It was the same time when we discovered the demon lords were planning to join forces. The five oracles consisted of one elderly woman and her middle-aged firstborn son, two other grown men whose parents had already passed, and then one very young girl whose parents had also passed. For most oracles, their gift didn’t trigger until they reached their twenties. A rare few would trigger before, and many others years later. For some, their gift never did trigger, yet they still passed down the potential to their firstborn.’
Well, it’s nice to know I’m average. Nick felt oddly uncomfortable, as if they were all discussing when he had hit puberty.
‘The young girl I mentioned,’ said James, with a level of reverence, ‘her first vision came when she was seven. As far back as our annals go, that’s the youngest ever onset.’ He hung out his words, apparently expecting a reaction.
‘Okaaay …’ said Nick. ‘Well, it’s not a competition, is it?’
Tamara snorted, and even Juliet laughed.
James was far from impressed.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, James,’ said Tamara, frowning comically at him, ‘lighten up, you sour-face! You’ve just told Nicolas that a demon wants to kill him. I believe he realises how serious the matter is.’ She rolled her eyes, then looked at Nick with an apologetic headshake. ‘It certainly wouldn’t hurt to lighten the mood in here.’
Acting victimised, James took a slow breath and stared precisely at no one. When he eventually spoke, he went straight in with, ‘The young girl was extremely wise for her age, and as talented with her ability as the older seers were. She was willing to help us. So with the threat of the demon lords coming together, we brought all five oracles to the Otherworld, where they worked in unison to predict the demons’ attack. They foresaw that the only way to destroy the demon lords was to sacrifice themselves, and many others, in the process.’
‘The young girl included?’ asked Juliet, more softly than usual.
A nod was all the half-elf gave. No one spoke for a moment.
James shifted in his seat. ‘When the demons came together, my kind were ready for them. We had gathered the most powerful magic-wielders of all, and together they focused their magic into one mass of energy. Even though the oracles had foreseen the destruction of the demon lords, they knew the outcome was not certain. The best way to ensure that outcome was for them to stay at hand, predicting the demons’ movements on the go, in case the enemy caught wind and altered their plans. Luckily, their prediction was accurate. When the demon lords arrived, the magic-wielders detonated the energy ball, obliterating everything in a three-mile radius.’
‘Jesus …’ said Nick, trying to imagine the explosion. If such power was needed to kill the demons, then what hope of survival did he have?
‘The destruction was worse than even we had expected. The power of the explosion was so strong it echoed through to this side; because of the timing, we’ve always suspected it of sparking the Shamakhi earthquake over here, which claimed eighty thousand lives in November 1667. In the Otherworld, many beings from both sides of the war were killed that day. Some of our lands were destroyed, and the Otherworld still bears the crater. But after the dust settled, so to speak, we had peace. And we’ve more or less had peace since then. The remaining cambions either surrendered, were soon defeated, or fled to distant parts of the Otherworld. And now for almost three hundred and fifty years, we have assumed the demon lords and the oracles were wiped out.’
When James finished speaking, everyone was quiet. Nick let the revelations sink in. He felt dizzy. Words spun in his mind: oracles and elves and demons and war and magic-bombs! And just earlier today, Nick had been considering whether to grab a KFC Variety Meal for dinner this evening. His head began to pound. ‘Okay … okay …’ he mumbled, inwardly fighting for a grasp on reality. Then something leapt forwards from his memory, something that gave him hope. ‘James, even if one of the demon lords is back, is he really a danger to me on this side? When you took Juliet and me to the portal on Kern Islet, you told us why the existence of the Otherworld is so heavily guarded …’
‘I did,’ James agreed. ‘Pure Otherworld beings can’t survive on this side. They would quickly weaken and die. But beings from this world can survive in the Otherworld. This gives your side the advantage, posing a danger to the Otherworld if its existence became common knowledge on this side.’
‘So the demon can’t even cross over and survive anyway?’
‘No. But as you know, he sent Austin after you.’
Nick felt Juliet shift on the couch beside him. With a seemingly unintended curtness, she said, ‘Austin’s not a problem anymore, though, is he?’
‘No,’ said James. Nick was unsure why she had asked. Roughly a month ago, the half-elf had already made it clear they wouldn’t be seeing Austin again. Austin may have given up his employer’s identity, but he still had to answer for his crimes—in whatever way the elves saw fit.
Pushing back mental images of Kerra, he said, ‘What about these … cambion? Cambions? Is that the plural?’ He pulled an unsure face; James nodded. ‘Are cambions pure Otherworld beings? Can they cross over? I’ve read about mythological creatures before, just out of interest, you know—before I knew any of this stuff was real!—but I thought a cambion was the offspring of a demon and a human …’
Almost in sync, James and Tamara looked at each other. They fidgeted and straightened up as if to gather strength.
James answered, ‘Just forget what you’ve read in books. We call any type of demon offspring a cambion. But yes, some have mixed with humans, and even other species on this side …’ He cringed at that, then aimed his frustration at Nick. ‘Why does talking to you always feel like going in circles? I told you, there’s no way I can tell you everything today.’
Quickly, Tamara added, ‘Essentially, Nicolas, if you wish to be able to sleep at night, it’s best you remain ignorant of what exists out there.’
‘Erm …’ Nick turned towards Juliet, who offered no reaction. How is she taking this so well? He gave his attention back to the other two. ‘I’m not sure that’s going to help me sleep, but thanks anyway, Tamara.’
As sarcastic as he had been, it was easier to relax after hearing the witch be so flippant. He didn’t know Tamara well enough to completely trust her, but she certainly came across better than James the Miserable Half-Elf. Also, the ghost of Nick’s mother had trusted Tamara enough to be channelled by her. That was how Tamara and James had found him in the first place and begun keeping an eye on him.
If Mum trusts her, then she must mean well for me.
Nick asked, ‘Will the cambions follow this demon if they find out he somehow survived the explosion and has returned?’
James lifted one side of his mouth and rocked his head side to side. His curly hair jiggled. ‘Not all cambions followed the demons in the past. Although they descended from them, most eventually became more autonomous as their own species. Their bonds to the demon lords varied. There are some who would feel allegiance to the returned one, and others who, by now, have learnt to coexist in the Otherworld with us. Some of the mixed breeds have even integrated better in this world; they would have little to gain from aiding the demon.’
Integrated in this world? An electric spider crawled up Nick’s spine. Maybe a cambion-human hybrid will serve up my Variety Meal later … He huffed.
‘What’s so funny?’ said James.
‘Nothing …’ With a long exhalation, he lowered his shoulders. ‘So what’s this demon lord’s name?’
‘In the Otherworld, he has only one name.’ James paused then said something in his native tongue. Although Nick had heard the half-elf speak the language before, the sound was so alien he gawked. ‘But on this side, the humans who knew about the Otherworld gave the demon many names across the years, in many different languages. I don’t know why your kind couldn’t simply stick to one. My personal favourite is Mal’stum.’ He pronounced it mal-STOOM.
‘That’s a … erm … strange name. What does it mean?’
‘A few things—evil, cunning, deceptive.’
Tamara interrupted with, ‘It also means The Sly One.’ Her expression became deadly grave, then she smiled mischievously. ‘Ignore James. He loves to complain about everything but himself; he is exaggerating about the number of names we have given this demon. Still, for the sake of ease, we should refer to him as The Sly One. It has a ring to it, does it not?’
The name certainly rang in Nick’s head, before sneaking about and seeming to slip into deep pockets of his psyche where it would take root, breed fear, and eat away at him. The Sly One … evil, cunning, deceptive …
‘Evil?’ he barked. ‘Is this a big battle of good versus evil?’
In a weary whine, James answered, ‘No, Nicolas …’ He covered his face slowly, as if he’d lost the energy to go on.
‘War is never that black and white,’ said Tamara. ‘And the Eternal War—that’s what we’ve always called it, even after the demons were supposedly vanquished—was not about good and evil, or right and wrong. For the elves, the Eternal War was about survival, about finding peace and coexisting. But that was never an option. The demon lords were what they were: they devoured, they corrupted, they destroyed. They revelled in suffering and fed off of flesh ... the flesh of anything they could get their hands on.’
Nick’s stomach turned. He twisted towards Juliet, but found her as stolid as she’d been throughout the entire conversation. Why is she so okay with all of this?
‘When you learn more about the elves,’ Tamara went on, ‘you may think their ways are wrong too. They are not like us, Nicolas. They live in a harsher world. Of course, magic has its splendour—and oh, there are wonders to be seen on that side!—but quite frankly, you would not want to live there.’ Tamara promptly stopped, as if she had gotten ahead of herself.
James’s eyebrows soared to unexplored regions of his forehead. But he said nothing and just blinked very slowly.
‘So …’ Nick began to piece things together. ‘The reason I’m so important to the elves is because the oracles of the past basically ended the Eternal War?’
‘Yes,’ said James.
At least he finally had a solid reason. ‘Well, apart from being some kind of celebrity, why am I important now?’
‘I find myself asking the same question,’ James replied, sounding so bored he could die.
‘James!’ Tamara scolded.
James ignored her. He stared sullenly at Nick. ‘I’m sure you can figure it out, Oracle,’ he mocked. ‘The revelation has stirred up a lot of commotion in the Otherworld. There’s movement happening, big decisions being made, riots and revolt. The question of your importance is a rather divisive issue at the moment, but the majority seem to agree that you may be needed.’
‘To help us defeat the demon this time around.’
JULIET WAITED WITH Nicolas outside Tamara’s cottage, relieved that the conversation was finally over. She breathed in the fresh air as James squeezed into the passenger’s side of Tamara’s purple Volkswagen Beetle and Tamara put a suitcase in the luggage compartment, which, Juliet found interesting to discover, was at the front of the car.
After slamming the lid down, the witch came and stood in front of Nicolas and Juliet. ‘We’ll be in touch.’ She smiled, then pulled an uncertain face. ‘That is, if I don’t get tired of James and decide to throttle him.’ She winked, then said as she climbed into the vehicle, ‘Keep safe, the pair of you.’
The door shut. The car started up. They drove away.
‘Great,’ Nick mumbled. ‘James was meant to be keeping an eye on me himself. Now some other stranger—or strangers--will be watching over me.’
Juliet said nothing. There was nothing she wished to add to the situation. The main reason she had come today was to find out if she and Nicolas were safe. It was pretty obvious Nicolas was in more danger than her, but at least he was being monitored. He’ll be protected. I hope.
The conversation in the cottage had come to an end shortly after James announced that Nicolas might be required to defeat the demon. The half-elf had refused to say much else. So Nicolas had said, ‘James, you have to give us more than that! How can I feel safe when I don’t know what’s going on around me? What about my family’s safety? I want to tell them the truth ... and my friends.’
‘Look. Austin is gone, you’ll be watched, and you can’t tell anyone anything,’ James replied. ‘Just go back to your everyday life.’
‘Well, that’s another thing! The whole issue of my privacy …’
‘Nicolas, we don’t have time for this,’ said James. His arrogance had annoyed Juliet all afternoon, but she knew confronting him would be fruitless. ‘It’s already taken me longer to explain than I had planned. Tamara and I need to leave.’
At that point, Nicolas had turned to Juliet in confusion. When he looked back at James, the half-elf said, ‘We’ve been summoned to the Otherworld. My full-blooded kind are impressed with what Tamara and I have discovered so far. They want our input moving forward.’
‘Stop asking questions. We’re leaving.’
Then Tamara had stood up. ‘Nicolas, I’m not particularly thrilled about this either. The pointy-eared sods aren’t even compensating me for my lost time. Oh, they can buy James a house on your street so he can watch you all day long, but me having to cancel on my clients clearly means nothing to them!’ Then she had left the room and returned with her suitcase already packed.
And that was that.
Now here Nicolas and Juliet were, outside and alone in the mild weather, the afternoon and a sizable chunk of the evening gone. At this time of year it would be light until late, but even so, Juliet wanted to head off. There was nothing more to do here, whereas her everyday life had become near frantic. And she loved having a busy schedule—she felt security in it.
She took out her mobile phone to check the time. Did the bus she’d caught to Willow run back this late on a Sunday?
As if he’d read her mind, Nicolas asked, ‘Do you want me to drop you home?’
‘That would be helpful. Thank you.’ She gave him a glance, and when she did, she realised how much she wanted to speak to him, to make sure he was okay after today’s revelations. His expression was somewhat slack, as if the things on his mind were weighing down his face.
Juliet experienced a tightness in her throat. Since the last time she’d seen Nicolas, she had worried about his safety … but now that James had finally told them about the demon, she felt strangely reassured. Danger was more frightening in the dark than in the light.
She followed Nicolas to his car. When they were inside, he said, ‘I can’t believe James isn’t getting anyone to watch over you …’
‘I’ll be fine.’ She took a moment to think. ‘The demon doesn’t want to kill me. I’m not an oracle.’
‘I’m just a soulless immortal who sees ghosts,’ she clarified, and a laugh bubbled out of her, the stop-start kind that resulted from deep acceptance of a crazy situation.
She felt uncommonly lighthearted, and her senses flooded with the desire to cling onto the feeling. The craving momentarily blindsided her, but Nick’s laugh brought her around.
‘I keep forgetting you might live forever,’ he said. ‘It’s just insane. You look more perfect every time I see you.’ He was matter-of-fact, but then he must have realised what he’d said, and how it had sounded. His cheeks coloured. ‘I-I was …’
‘I know what you meant,’ she reassured him. Clearing her throat, she ran a finger along one side of her head to push her hair behind her ear.
‘You … you are beautiful, though, of course,’ said Nicolas, not wanting her to jump from one impression to the other.
After a soft laugh, Juliet said, ‘Thank you. You don’t have to say anything …’
They both went quiet.
Juliet found herself stroking the side of her arm, dwelling over her ‘condition’ and its side effects. In a way, Nicolas was to blame for them. Last October, he foresaw Juliet’s death and acted swiftly to save her life, defying fate and inadvertently leaving Juliet displaced. Her altered state gave her the ability interact with the Spiritworld and its inhabitants. But more than that, being detached from her soul meant she would never age; her body would perpetually self-actualise.
She had a constant background hum of anxiety at the thought that she still didn’t know the full extent of her psychic and bodily changes. But I can never resent Nicolas for saving me, whatever the repercussions.
Immortality she did not want, but she was certainly glad to be alive.
‘Juliet.’ A gradual frown worked its way over Nick’s face. ‘You were really quiet at Tamara’s. Were you okay?’
‘Sure. I was fine.’
‘You took all this demon business pretty well.’
‘Honestly, I was fine ... I just have a lot going on at the moment. This Otherworld drama feels quite peripheral to me right now.’
‘So you’re not concerned about an ancient mythical thing wanting to kill me, then?’
Juliet laughed. ‘That’s not what I’m saying. It’s more that as long as we’re safe, we know what to do, and James and Tamara can keep on top of it, I’ll accept almost anything those two tell us.’ She paused to confirm she really felt that way inside. If James told her dragons were real … she would simply nod, assess the situation in a practical manner, and then get on with her life.
Nicolas smiled noncommittally. He was plainly trying to see things her way, but failing to.
Maybe I would feel differently if the demon wanted me dead, Juliet considered. The things she had learnt today had certainly affected her. How could they not, with that awful history of war and heroic sacrifice? And that poor young girl … the poor elves. She could only imagine the terror they must be feeling now at discovering an enemy had returned after centuries of hard-won peace. But at the same time … that wasn’t her world. And James didn’t want her involvement. She was already making an effort on this side to help troubled spirits move on, whenever she could. At the least, I’m doing my part with the Spiritworld, she told her conscience. But lately, a deeper self had been breaking through …
With a small burst of energy, she said, ‘None of this is your fault, Nicolas, but before I met you, I was a more positive person. I thought I knew myself. I never would have lied to my best friend, like I’ve had to. I was confident. I trusted life …’ She stopped. Nick’s brown-green eyes were fixed on hers with so much empathy, she was struck by a perfect blend of safety and vulnerability.
Trust? she wondered, then recoiled. Another man’s face had entered her mind.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ Nicolas asked.
She closed her eyes briefly, squeezed the image away. ‘I’m just determined to be my old self again. All these supernatural things were real before I met you; I just didn’t know they existed. For now, I want to continue my life as if there’s no danger.’ I want to strive in this world.
Nicolas looked at her thoughtfully, then nodded.
She glanced about the area they were parked in, her eyes landing on the willow tree in the centre of the hamlet. After a while, she twisted back and fastened her seatbelt. ‘Are you going to …?’
‘Oh, yeah, sorry.’ Nick started the car. ‘I’m just sitting here, holding you up, and you’ve probably got things to do—’
Clunk! A seagull landed on the bonnet. With a start, Juliet threw her head back, smacking it against the headrest. She inhaled so fast it hurt her chest.
The bird remained on the car, padding about on webbed feet. Then it stopped. It swivelled its head to one side, fixing a beady eye on Nicolas.
The moment lingered.
Eventually, Nick muttered, ‘What the hell?’ and beeped his horn to frighten it off. The seagull remained. Unruffled, it stared a few seconds more, then flew away in no hurry.
A sense of déjà vu niggled at Juliet as she rubbed the back of her skull and inhaled slowly and purposefully. A glance at Nicolas told her he was experiencing it too.
Hurriedly, he said, ‘This happened to us before! Remember? We were about to set off for Grendel Manor, then a bird landed right in the same place! A crow, I think …’
Juliet, slightly embarrassed by her overreaction, wasn’t sure what to think of the incident. It was just a bird. Dwelling on it would only drag the day out even more. To make light of the matter, she said, ‘The birds seem to have a thing for you.’ That unfamiliar lightheartedness rose in her again.
There was a pause before Nicolas laughed. ‘You make it sound much better than it is. I’m beginning to think they’re bad omens for me.’ He huffed as if to mock his own words, but slowly, his expression grew heavier. ‘I’m going to ask James about it next time we see him. For all I know, these flying monsters could be the demon’s eyes.’ He laughed again, and his face lightened a little. ‘Sounds like a Stephen King book or something …’
Although she hated to see him worried, Juliet didn’t want to feed the matter. They were on an island off the coast of Cornwall; it was summer; seagulls were to be expected. And for all she knew, the bonnet could have a squiggly scratch on it that, when viewed from up above, resembled a tasty worm. Without intending to, she shook her head and smiled to herself.
‘Awesome,’ said Nick. ‘You think I’m crazy.’
He began to drive.
They soon made it out of Willow … only Nick had gone the wrong way.
Juliet didn’t want to criticise his driving—after all, she had only recently taken up lessons herself—but she figured Nicolas hadn’t meant to head in this direction. As neutrally as possible, she said, ‘It would have been faster to drive north around Eradon Lake and then towards Chanton.’
‘Huh? Oh …’ He seemed to snap out of a trance. ‘Sorry. I’ll have to hook around this way instead. It shouldn’t take much longer.’
His mistake was understandable. When people were preoccupied, they often fell into habitual behaviour, and if you were to drive in any direction by habit, you’d drive towards your home, Juliet figured. The awkward thing was they’d now have to pass by a place that held recent and terrible memories for both of them.
‘What’s on your mind?’ Juliet asked, sensing Nick’s frustration.
‘James,’ he answered instantly. ‘Every time we see him, he seems to tell us a lot, but we end up knowing very little. He chucks things at us, massive revelations about wars and demons and other beings we could do without, and then says he can’t tell us any more and we’ll just have to wait for him to get back to us, when he’ll probably just do the same again.’
‘You know he can only tell us what he’s allowed to.’
‘Well, he should go and tell us everything anyway!’ Nicolas had raised his voice, but Juliet knew his anger wasn’t aimed at her. ‘I don’t understand why they are drip-feeding us information if I’m apparently so important to them. It just doesn’t make sense …’ His hands tightened on the steering wheel. She watched him scanning ahead through the windscreen as if he were driving in search of answers.
‘What can we do, though,’ she said, taking her eyes off of him, ‘apart from take his word for now and assume you are being protected?’
‘But that’s just it … I don’t want to sit about and be reactive. It’s about time I figure out what this all means. I don’t even know what I want from my life …’ His voice softened on the last word. So quickly that Juliet might have imagined it, he turned towards her, and then back to the road. His mouth hung open. ‘I,’ he said quietly. ‘Do you … ?’
‘No, I, uh … I was just wondering.’
A pause. ‘We said about going on a date before … I thought, maybe, you’d want to go for a meal?’
As quick as that, Juliet’s stomach turned to jelly. Adrenaline flushed through her body. A meal? she thought, remembering a dinner-date where she had gazed into chocolate-coloured eyes. No, she was going to say, a walk maybe, something different, but her mouth dried up at the realisation that she essentially wanted to say yes.
Am I ready to date? Over the past few weeks, she had tried to expunge Austin from her heart and mind. Even thinking about him wasn’t worth her time, but occasionally she couldn’t help it, and these unwanted thoughts always came with unwanted feelings. To make it worse, it disgusted her that she could feel any type of sorrow over someone who had done the things Austin had.
‘What do you think, then?’ Nicolas urged, avoiding eye contact and focusing on the road.
A meal, she reconsidered. A meal would be fine.
Just as she opened her mouth to answer, they reached the edge of Forney Forest, the other side of which blended into Eleanor Lodge Park. Nick’s expression quickly changed; he must have finally realised why driving this way meant more than just a few added minutes to the journey. This location was a potent reminder of his recently deceased girlfriend. About a month ago, in the lodge park they’d soon be passing, Nicolas had told the ghost of Kerra that he loved her, just before Juliet helped her spirit move on.
With a sinking sensation in her body, Juliet acknowledged the dilemma she faced. Agreeing to go on a date would seem like stomping all over Kerra’s memory, but saying no was not what she wanted, either. Considering the time-sensitive nature of the question—the longer she took to answer, the worse it would look—she forced herself to come to a quick decision. I can’t let these circumstances determine my reaction.
Again, she was about to answer, but her senses suddenly piqued. Her skin itched, alerting her to the proximity of a ghost. With Tamara’s help, Juliet had learnt to passively block out the spirits. She could also feel when one was reaching out to her, and then make the decision to let it through or not—like answering a door.
Now was not the time to answer the door.
Mustering her ability, she pushed back against the spirit. The itching sensation increased, though.
‘That’s strange,’ she said aloud.
‘What?’ Nick sounded a little indignant. ‘Going for a meal?’
‘No …’ It was strange that her blocking technique hadn’t worked. It was strange that the sensation was getting stronger, stronger, STRONGER!
In a flash, a wall of white mist appeared in the middle of the road. A shadow, maybe a person, dashed through the fog. Nicolas didn’t seem to notice the figure, so Juliet screamed, ‘Watch out, Nicolas!’ and instinctively went for the wheel.
The car rumbled over rough terrain, sending shocks up Juliet’s body. With a screech, the side of the vehicle met the remnants of a low stone wall. And stopped.
It was dark, until Juliet opened her eyes. She was unhurt. She looked at Nicolas and found his eyes roving over her.
‘Are you okay?’ His voice shook.
After a nod, she turned her attention elsewhere. She hurried to exit the car, having to squeeze out because of the wall right next to her, and then hastily assessed the crash.
The road they had been on dissected Forney Forest to the right and a large field to the left, with Eradon Lake standing out beyond the crops. The car had ended up in a shallow ditch. Luckily, Nicolas had slowed down enough to avoid serious damage to the vehicle, but now he was out of the car and examining the condition of his black Vauxhall Corsa for himself.
From the expletives he muttered, he didn’t sound so optimistic. On the passenger’s side, scratches ran from the front registration plate and under the headlight, where they were replaced by the culprit: the dilapidated farm wall, one of its stone blocks planted into the vehicle. None of the lights appeared to be smashed, just the body disfigured.
Nicolas puffed up his cheeks and put his hands on his hips. ‘I told you that bird was a bad omen.’
Juliet’s senses buzzed again. She pivoted, twisting in the direction that felt right, and saw the white mist. On the other side of the road, the white blanket became thicker, spreading out and creeping into the forest.
Once more, a shadow flashed across it.
‘I saw something,’ Juliet said, then looked left and right for vehicles before crossing. She ran towards the trees.
‘I didn’t see anything. Wait! What are you doing?’
She slowed down, turning back to Nicolas. As she waited for him to lock the car and catch up, the white fog moved deeper into the woodland.
She pursued it. The undergrowth was thick in places and bramble caught at her ankles, forcing her to jump, rustle through, or change course, until she ended up on a nature trail. Gradually, her surroundings grew darker and murkier until it seemed like night had fallen. The air became icy, its bitterness biting her face.
‘It’s so cold,’ she said, tensing her shoulders and marching on doggedly. ‘Can’t you feel it?’
‘No,’ came the answer from behind.
If Nicolas couldn’t feel the cold and also hadn’t seen anything, then this had to be something to do with the Spiritworld. But even to Juliet, the white fog was new. And why couldn’t she block this all out as usual?
She made it to a clearing and stopped. The mist completely surrounded her. She wondered how crazy she must have seemed to Nicolas, chasing through the forest after nothing.
There was a sound of footsteps, and the shadow dashed into a dense part of the whiteness directly in front of her.
When the fog cleared, Juliet found a spirit in its place. Her heart smacked inside her chest. She recognised the ghost, whose chocolate-coloured eyes reminded her of Austin’s.
Looking over her shoulder, she said, ‘Nicolas … It’s your mother.’
END OF A SPIRIT DISPLACED EXCERPT
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