Hazel and Holly — Dark Decisions
Previous: Finding Forgiveness
Hazel lay awake in bed as Holly slept next to her. The inn was booked up and hadn’t had any extra rooms for Hazel and Hemlock, so they had to share with their siblings. Hazel stared at the shadowed silhouette of the bone as it rested on the end table near her head. It was dark in the room, but the bone looked darker still, as if light refused to touch it.
Hazel couldn’t rest with that thing so close to her, nagging at the back of her mind of what she needed to do. She had told Holly they’d think of something and had felt a momentary pang of guilt for the lie, but she didn’t know what else to do. It was the only way. Holly would never understand. She didn’t want Holly to understand. Hazel wanted her sister to retain her naive optimism. Something the darkness couldn’t touch.
Holding her breath, she slipped out of bed, found her dress that she had draped over the back of a chair and, in the darkness, put it on. She moved slowly, quietly, careful not to wake Holly. Hazel probaby didn’t need to be so careful–Holly would sleep through crashing pots and pans and howling dogs. She’d likely remain asleep if the inn burned down to ash and embers around her. But Hazel didn’t want to risk it. Not tonight.
Once dressed, Hazel went to the table and took the hard, cold bone and then, quietly, slipped out the door.
A single oil lamp burned on a narrow table in the hallway, illuminating the way to Hemlock’s door. She gently knocked upon it and, after a few minutes, the door opened.
Hemlock blinked at her. “Hazel,” he said, sounding surprised. He glanced behind him before stepping out into the hallway with her and closing the door. “You know Hawthorn’s in there, right?”
Hazel shook her head. “I don’t want to come in. I need you to come with me.”
Hemlock grinned and stepped closer to her. “Oh? Where?”
Hazel fished the bone from her pocket and held it out.
Hemlock’s face fell and he sucked in a breath. “What are you doing, Hazel?”
“Finding my father.”
“Now? Tonight? Do you even know what you’re doing?”
Hazel shook her head. “I have no idea. But I’m never going to know. Now’s a good a time as any.”
“And what does Holly think of this?”
“I don’t want her involved.”
“She’s already involved. It’s her father, too. She has a right to know.”
Hazel nodded. “I know, but not with this. Not until it’s done and over. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t even know what’s out there in town after dark. It’s why I need you to come with me. You’ll be able to deal with what’s out there a lot better than her–better than both of us.” She took a breath. “I’m asking for your help, Hemlock.”
Hemlock rubbed his forehead and nodded. “All right. Just… let me get dressed.”
Hazel paced around the dim hallway until, after a while, Hemlock returned, smoothing the jacket of his rumpled black suit.
Hazel gave a feeble smile. “I’m afraid we both have the look of getting dressed in the dark.”
Hemlock grinned, straightening his shoulders. “People might get the wrong idea.”
“Let’s hope that’s the worst thing that happens tonight.”
The walked down the hallway towards the stairs.
“I wouldn’t mind, you know,” Hemlock said, “if they got the wrong idea. Or… even the right idea…”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and bit her lip to keep herself from grinning like the fool she was. She also needed to focus.
They headed downstairs and to the door. The common room was empty, save for a man sleeping at a table, his face buried in his arms. Hazel hesitated by the door.
“What time is it? Do you know?”
Hemlock pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open. “Half-past twelve.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“Maybe we should wait. Come out earlier on another night.”
Hazel shook her head. “No, something tells me we’ll need to be out at this hour regardless. There’s never going to be a good time. Better if we just get it over with now.”
Unable to meet Hemlock’s gaze. Hazel opened the door and stepped outside. Not wanting to linger too long, she picked a direction and started walking. Hemlock followed.
“Do you know where to go?” he whispered
Hazel shook her head. “No, I… I figure we’ll just walk and see what happens.”
Hemlock remained silent.
The sound of their footfalls seemed to ring in the quiet night. Hazel strained her ears as she tried to step lightly. She scanned the shadows, looking for movement, waiting for the rasping breath of anyone that might be hiding there. But the shadows remained empty. When they came across a tiny orb of blue light weaving in and out between the iron bars of a fence, Hazel took a sharp turn and headed away from it. Hemlock slowed as he stopped to gaze at the orb, but Hazel tugged on his sleeve, and he snapped out of his reverie and quickened his step alongside her.
Where should they go? The longer they wandered the darkened streets, the more Hazel doubted her decision to come out this night. She wasn’t a necromancer; she didn’t want anything to do with necromancy. And yet there she was, slinking among shadows as if she were one of them.
She turned down a narrow alleyway, holding her breath as she went, though the low windows were shuttered and dark. When she passed an uncovered window, she glanced inside before hurrying on. Hazel’s breath caught and she backed up and returned to the window. Inside, the room stood dark, yet she could still see the shadowed silhouettes of bookshelves lining the walls. A private library, nothing special. She should move on, but instead Hazel lingered there, her breath fogging the cold glass.
“Hazel?” Hemlock whispered.
But Hazel didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say–how to explain this tension tugging on her mind, or the fluttering of her heart. Or maybe she was just too afraid to say the words, because then it would be real.
Next to the window was a low arched door. Hazel walked to it and pulled on the handle, and the door creaked open.
“What are you doing?”
Hazel shook her head and, looking at Hemlock, said, “I need to go in there.”
She shook her head again. “I don’t know.” Hazel ducked inside and walked down a pair of steps that took her into a darkened hallway. Hemlock followed, closing the door behind them.
“Who lives here?” he whispered. “Do you know?”
“No idea.” She listened for any sound—footsteps, whispering voices, or the rasping kind of breath that came from sleeping bodies. But there was nothing. No clock ticking, no crackling of embers as they cooled in the night. Not even a scratching from rats in the walls—a sound which Hazel never thought she’d miss, but she missed it now. It was too quiet, and Hazel was too aware that they shouldn’t be there, yet she couldn’t bring herself to leave.
She walked down the dark hallway, running her hand along the wall as she found her way. Dust clung to her hand and floated into the air. Hazel sneezed.
Both she and Hemlock froze, but everything remained eerily silent.
Hemlock pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. “I think the house might be empty.”
Hazel nodded, took the handkerchief, and wiped her nose. “I hope so. How anyone could live in all this dust is beyond me.” But she remained tense. The amount of dust suggested no one had lived there in some time, yet the house was furnished. Shadowed portraits hung on the walls, and dusty carpets padded their steps. When Hemlock pulled out his pocket watch and conjured from it a fairy that gave off a brilliant white-gold light, Hazel could finally see the true state of the house.
Dust-laden cobwebs hung in the corners, fluttering in a draft that Hazel couldn’t feel. Faded paper began to peel from the wall in places. Further down the hall was a narrow table with a porcelain vase containing an arrangement of dried red roses that almost looked black. Webs stretched between the drooping heads of the flowers and, when Hazel touched one, the petals fell apart and fluttered to the floor in a papery cascade.
The fairy continued to flit down the hallway, and the shadows shrank away as it approached. They followed it and opened a door to a bedroom—the covers on the bed flat and undisturbed, the color indistinguishable underneath the dust. A photograph portrait of a woman rested on the night table in a silver frame. Her face was blurred, as if she had refused to sit still. Hazel made her way back down the hall, to the door she believed led to the library. When Hemlock and his fairy came close enough to illuminate the cracked and peeling paint on the door, she nudged it open and stepped inside.
The smell of dust was thicker here, almost mouldering in its stench, and Hazel put the kerchief over her nose to keep from sneezing again. She stood there, looking at the stacks of books as she wondered what to do.
Hemlock followed her in, and the fairy carrying his pocket watch flitted among the shelves. Shadows danced across the walls as the fairy darted to and fro. The light seared across Hazel’s vision, and she closed her eyes, leaving a ghostly winged after-image imprinted on her mind.
“Extinguish the light,” she whispered.
“The light, put it out.” She took a breath. “Please.”
Hemlock remained silent. But after a moment he spoke his spell and the light went out. Hazel opened her eyes as Hemlock returned the watch to his pocket. She could see him studying her out of the corner of her eye, but Hazel kept her gaze fixed on the books.
Despite the lack of light, the shadows seemed lessened. She could even make out the some of the muted colors of the leather bound books. Dark green and maroon. Midnight blue, black, and chocolate brown. Some of the titles were visible on the spines, even underneath the dust that coated everything like powdered breath. Whispering Wights and Intelligent Sprites: How to Imbue Cognisance into your Summoned Spirits. The Misunderstood Virtues of Blindweed and Direction for its Proper Application. Silenced after Sunset: 50 Counterspells for the Mischievous Familar. Necromancer books. Hazel wished she could feel surprised, but that particular feeling seemed beyond her. She pulled a book from the shelf and cracked it open, wrinkling her nose as a waft of musty air hit her, smelling like stagnant water and decomposing leaves. She held her breath as she brought her face closer to the pages, trying to make out what was written. But the text was faded, and the paper was blotted with a rash of mold like liver spots on old, withered skin. She pulled out another book and opened it, but the pages were the same. Then another but it, too, was illegible.
Hazel stood there, her arms limp at her sides.
“Hazel,” Hemlock said, his near-whispering voice carrying through the silence with surprising clarity. “Perhaps we should leave.”
Hazel shook her head. “There’s something here. I know there is.”
“Yes,” Hemlock said. “That’s what worries me.”
She made herself look at him. “I can’t turn back. Not until this is done. I think you know that.”
An expression passed over his face that Hazel couldn’t quite read. He looked sad but also strangely defiant, his shoulders squared and back straight as he met her gaze.
Hazel reached into her pocket and pulled out the bloodied bone. She held Hemlock’s gaze a moment longer. Then, looking away, she tossed it into the air.
The bone clattered onto the wooden floor, clearing a path through the dust before it rolled to a stop at the clawed foot of a dense cherrywood bookshelf. Hazel bent down to pick up the bone, and as she did, felt a draft of cool air coming from behind the shelf.
“There’s something here,” she murmured. She put her hands to the shelf and tried to pull it away, but it was too heavy. “Help me move it.”
Hemlock walked to the other side of the bookshelf and, on a count of three, they edged the monstrous thing away from the wall as it groaned and screeched across the floor. In the wall where the shelf had stood was the outline of a door. There was no handle or knob, only a hole in the wood where a knob should have been. Hazel hooked her finger into it and pulled, and in a cloud of dust and a squeaking of rusty hinges, it opened, revealing a dark passage beyond.
Silence lingered as she and Hemlock peered into the blackness.
“Well, that doesn’t look foreboding at all,” he said.
Hazel smiled, but it was fleeting and faded as a cold fear settled over her.
Hemlock looked at her. “Do you want to go first or should I?”
She closed her eyes, thankful beyond words that he was there. “I’ll go first, but we need some light. Maybe something less brilliant than the faerie, though?”
Hemlock shook his head. “This is a warlock’s house. I’ll need an object of mine for the magic, and the faerie is the only thing I can conjure from the watch.” He gave her a pointed look. “You’re under no such restrictions, though, unless a witch lived here as well.” He looked around. “Which I doubt.” Then he smiled. “Have you been practicing your Wyr pronunciation?”
“In the Grove, yes, but not since we came here.”
“Try the moth spell I showed you.”
Hazel nodded and spoke the words Hemlock had taught her, feeling both elated and relieved when a little white moth unfolded into being, its wings glowing with a pale gentleness of moonlight. It flitted into the passage, showing a narrow set of stairs that headed downwards.
Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Hazel followed it and descended into the darkness.
Next: Dark Deeds, Part One