The Darkening Horizon-Chapter Four
The night was chilly as Francine tried to sleep. She stood from her bed and watched the moon floating through the sky as though a galleon from a shipwreck in the sea. She tiptoed to her window to look down into the courtyard. A few people milled about, and idle chatter hummed through the air. She listened to the sound of the fountain rushing, filling her head with a fuzzy, relaxing feeling as she rested her chin in her hand. She felt her eyes closing and her breathing deepen.
She intended to enjoy the feeling for moments longer before heading to bed, when a movement by the gate caught her eye. A small flicker in the shadows of the palmettos that doused the feeling of ease.
She was suddenly aware of two glowing red eyes looking up at her.
“Cici,” she whispered, her voice shaking.
Her sister didn’t stir.
“Cici, it’s here!”
“Mmph. Go to sleep, Fran,” her sister said, and turned in her bed.
Francine looked at her sister’s back. She knew it was nearly impossible to rouse her once she was asleep.
Francine watched the creature again. It looked up at her expectingly, then darted out of the courtyard. People passed by on the street without so much as a wayward glance at it.
Could they not see it?
Francine decided with little thought. She grabbed her robe and her shoes and quietly dressed. Then she silently slipped out of the room and tiptoed past her parents room to the lift.
Once she got outside, the creature ran up to her. As she caught a better look at it, she thought it resembled a small, thin fox with large ears.
“I knew you’d be here,” it squeaked. “Follow me.”
She felt an ill foreboding twist at her stomach as she tried to look inconspicuous to those milling about around her. She followed the creature out to the back of the hotel’s grounds and down a darkened street.
When they got far enough from the hotel that nobody was around, the creature walked in a misty circle twice and then sat on the ground in front of Francine, folding its tail around its tiny paws.
“This is much better,” it said, though Francine noticed its mouth never moved. It tilted its glowing red eyes in her direction.
“What do you want from me?” Francine asked.
“I know about your struggle, human. Your sister grows more ill by the moment. I know how this will go—she won’t survive next winter unless something changes drastically.”
Francine felt a freeze creep up her skin. “You’re lying.”
“You can try to say that, but you know I’m not. A cough like hers never goes away and you can see she’s grown more frail as time passes.”
“And you can save her?” Francine said in a tone that suggested she thought the creature was being dishonest.
“Absolutely, if that’s what you would like to ask for.”
“And what would you get from me in return? My soul, I suppose?”
“Humans. You believe that the good nature inside of you is a once-there, once-gone type thing. Yes, you would have to give up the part of you that cares about things or people, but you would get it back after your work was done.”
“Yes, you would work for my boss, Oren, in the Dark World. For a pact like that, saving your sister from certain death, you would expect to work through a time of 500 years, unless you wanted to stay in the Dark World permanently.”
Francine stared at the creature. This seemed too much like a setup to steal her soul. Her mother had always warned her of wicked demons and deals with the devil. Could this be the same thing?
“I can’t believe you. You’re just after eternal damnation.”
“I can make you a deal—I can help your sister now, for a short time. She could have one year of good health. After one year, however, her health will deteriorate again. I will visit you and you can make your decision then.”
“You’re going to help my sister? No strings attached?”
“No strings attached. If you decide you don’t want my help, you can tell me so and I can leave, never to bother you again. If you decide you would like me to help, you would come and work for my boss in the Dark World.”
“Okay,” Francine said. “You’ve got a deal. Now, I have to get back before somebody notices I’m gone. Is there anything else I have to do?”
“Not a thing,” the creature said. And with that, it disappeared within a blink of an eye.
Francine pulled her robe close as she looked around the dark street. She made her way back to the hotel, back up the lift and tiptoeing quietly past her parents’ room before entering her room.
“Franny, where were you?” her sister’s voice hissed in the darkness, making Francine freeze.
She turned from the door and looked across the room, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Her sister’s outline became more clear in the moonlight and Francine could now make out the frightened expression on Cecilia’s face.
“I just went for a quick walk, Cici,” she said, as though her disappearance should not be disconcerting. “Calm down.”
“You went out there by yourself? With plenty of strangers walking around. If Mom or Pop had woken up to see you gone—”
“And they didn’t, Cici, relax. I had a bad dream, and I needed some fresh air. I didn’t leave the courtyard.”
Cecilia sighed. “Francine, you’re always doing whatever you want, but you need to think of other people. It scared me when I woke up and you were gone. What if somebody had started something?”
“Then I’d have given him two shiners for his trouble. Come on, Cici, you know I can hold my own. Remember when Alex Lasso tried to steal my notepad in third grade?”
“First of all, you held your own enough to be banished to your room for a week, Francine, in case you forgot that there are consequences. Second, we aren’t dealing with third graders anymore. The world is full of dangerous people.”
“The dangerous people are the G-men and I’m not planning on swinging moonshine. Yet, anyway.”
“Probably because you haven’t found the right opportunity,” Cecilia said, wrinkling her nose in disapproval.
“Probably. I hear those parties are a barrel of fun to go to. We should try to find one. Do you think people here in St. Augustine—”
“Franny, I’m serious,” Cecilia said. “Don’t change the subject.”
“Egh, Cecilia, you’re worrying yourself sick. I’m not—”
Francine stopped short as she spoke and took a long look at Cecilia.
“What?” Cecilia asked.
“You haven’t coughed once yet. You usually start your coughing when you’re excited.”
Cecilia narrowed her eyes at Francine in the moonlight. Then she looked down and examined her hands.
“My hands haven’t shaken once,” she said softly.
“Look, let’s not get too excited over this,” Francine said. “But maybe you’re getting better? Maybe it worked.”
Cecilia looked down at her hands again and then back to Francine. “Maybe what worked?”
Francine blanked for a moment, then cleared her throat. “The Florida air, of course. Maybe being here really helped.”
Cecilia wrinkled her nose. “Don’t you think it’s come on a little sudden, though?”
“Look, don’t question it. Let’s see how you feel tomorrow, okay? Let’s just get some sleep.”
It took a good few minutes for Francine to convince Cecilia to go back to sleep. When she finally heard the deep breathing from the bed beside her, free of coughing and wheezing, she drifted off to sleep herself, thinking back to what the creature had said.
One good year. She could worry about what was next after a year.
Telese shivered as she pulled her blue velour cape over her shoulders, peaking around the large oak tree. As she listened to the conversation, her stomach twisted into knots. She couldn’t deny that the offer for free help for a year would be generous for the Dark World. What were they getting at?
When Francine walked away, Telese thought about catching up to her, talking her out of this plan. But what did she have to offer that rivaled saving her sister’s life? There was no feasible way that she could compete with the shade’s offer.
Telese let out a sharp breath, feeling it come out in spurts. She bit her lip, thinking of what to do next.
“Ah, yes, the most wonderful of occasions,” she heard the southern accent behind her.
Telese clenched her fists and took a breath. “Not now, Mortimer. I need to focus.”
“On what,” he said, appearing in front of her, his blue eyes shining as she leaned against the oak tree. “Trying to stop our new friend’s course of action? Seems underhanded of the Sirens to get involved in honest Dark World business.”
“Honest and Dark World don’t belong in the same sentence together, Mortimer. What are you guys up to here? I’m going to get an answer eventually. You may as well just tell me.”
“And take all the fun out of watching you seethe. Come on, Tilly, your rage is absolutely delightful. Why, if it’s not a precursor to the power that you have at your fingertips at any point in time, I don’t know what is.”
“This is your plan? To get me so mad that I explode again?”
“Part of it.”
Telese closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I need you to understand that my past rages are not yours to control. They really wouldn’t benefit you, Mortimer, so I’m not sure why you’re counting on it.”
“Oh, we could teach you, I believe. I mean, just think about it; no answering to Alexandros, no punishments, no threats,” Mortimer said, tilting his head as he watched her.
“Again, Mortimer, I would rather drink acid. Now, what is the rest of your plan for this place?”
Mortimer was silent for a moment, his eyes wandering to the cobble street, glistening from the light rain that had begun to fall as they were talking.
“It’s rather difficult for you, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice lower, more serious than it had been. “To imagine not being under the control of a tyrant. Maybe you’re right in hating Oren. But I could always talk to the Dark One to see to it that you never have to find yourself in his presence. There’s so much more for you in the Dark World, Tilly.”
Telese knew she would not get any more answers from Mortimer. Now he was merely intent on convincing her to make a pact and the same argument would start anew.
“If you’re set on not helping me, I’m set on going back to my room,” she said, walking past him and onto the cobble street without so much as another glance. The rain picked up as she walked, and she felt the bite of cold through her cape.
“Well, that’s not very sports-like of you,” Mortimer said, his jovial tone back in place. “I’ll give you a clue—the war is nothing compared to what is coming up. Your precious pet humans have a lot ahead, and your dear Light World will help them along the way. We already know some of their plans. They’re wonders for the Dark World.”
Telese stopped in her tracks and twirled on her heel. “What do you mean?”
Mortimer shrugged. “You know how you can find out more.”
“Mortimer, if you know something that’s illegal for you to know—”
“No worries, Tilly, this is all public knowledge. Or, at least, it would be if Sirens were as adept at getting information as we were. The Light Lord is sloppy with their information.”
“Mortimer, you need to tell me what is going on!” Telese demanded, lightning flashing above them as she felt her eyes glow just as bright.
Mortimer shrugged again. “I guess that’s on you to dig up or make a pact and I can show you. You have a lot to think about, Tilly. I’ll leave you with that.”
He waved his cane before she could protest, opening a portal of violet and indigo. As he stepped through, he gave her a smile that stretched her rage further inside of her. After a moment, both Mortimer and the portal were gone.
Telese made her way back to her room and collapsed on her bed, hearing the creak of the springs as she turned to her side. There was no arguing that something big was coming.
Would the Sirens be ready?