"Thanks for running out on me, Brenna."Brenna's alarm clock blared at her. She reached out from under the covers, trying to find the alarm by feel. Her fingers found her reading glasses and her sketch pad, but no clock. With a groan, Brenna threw back her blankets and rolled on her side. She opened her eyes and saw that her alarm clock had been moved to the far side of her night table. With effort, Brenna leaned as far as possible so she could turn her alarm off.
"Medical? Oh, Brenna, I didn't know."
"You know, Bren, maybe fashion school wasn't the best place for you."
"It belongs to a little old lady in Texas who died a week ago."
She let her arm dangle off the side of her bed as she tried to decide if she wanted out of bed. Brenna closed her eyes, giving them a rest. She vaguely heard her bedroom door open. "Oh, come on, Brenna!" her sister said. "Get out of bed already."
"What time is it?" Brenna asked, her voice rough.
"Time for you to wake up."
Grace huffed in irritation. "I either need you to help me or to be out of my way. I'm vacuuming the carpets this morning."
Brenna pulled her arm back in bed. "Okay, okay, I'm getting up." She snuggled under her covers.
Moments later, her blankets were ripped away from her. "Out!" Grace ordered.
"But Grace," Brenna whined.
"I want this house to be spotless for the weekend. Up!"
"I'm up! I'm up!"
Grace stepped back., watching. "And out of bed, too, Brenna."
Brenna swung her legs out of her bed. With an effort, she pushed herself out and standing. "There. Happy?"
"Much better." Grace smiled. "Breakfast is ready and still warm. Better get some before I start on the dining room." She left, closing the door behind her.
"Bitch," Brenna muttered. She gathered the clothes she wanted to wear today, her mended skirt, a light camisole with a purple cardigan over it, and her light linen gloves. Brenna grabbed a quick shower before heading downstairs and seeing what was leftover from breakfast. From her choice of toast, bacon, the remains of scrambled eggs, and fruit, Brenna chose toast and fruit. She figured that Grace cooked the eggs and bacon together or at least didn't clean the pan in between.
As she ate, Brenna heard the vacuum cleaner start upstairs. Grace was going to be a total pain, Brenna foresaw. Best thing would be to finish breakfast and disappear somewhere, maybe check in with Missy and see how she was doing. Anything to escape Grace.
Brenna finished her breakfast and took her dishes to the kitchen. She gathered her sketch pad, pencils, bikini, favorite purple towel, and her glasses, then waited for a break in the vacuuming to tell her sister that she was leaving. The van took a moment to warm up, but Brenna had it on the road soon enough.
The rush hour traffic slowed Brenna down considerably. The van loomed over most of the cars on the road. Even mini-vans seemed smaller to Brenna. She tried to keep out of the way of the commuters, turning off the freeway and on to side streets. As traffic built up, the young brunette wondered how her father managed to make the trip to work every day. She was working to keep her frustration from overtaking her.
Seeing a break in the traffic flow, Brenna stepped on the accelerator. She spied a mini-mall ahead, and prepared to turn into it, if the cars around her would just let her in. Finally, just to get in the correct lane, Brenna used the bulk of her van to muscle into a small gap. She found a parking space she could fit the Savana into, then shut off the engine. Letting the quiet seep into her, Brenna took a deep breath. She watched cars go by, the stop and go as traffic lights changed.
The young brunette climbed out of her van. She looked at the stores in the mini-mall; one was a fabric store she hadn't noticed before. As much as she knew she couldn't afford to go in, going back on the road was out of the question. Brenna walked over to the store, taking a look at the advertised prices before she entered.
The back of the store was filled from wall to wall with rows of fabric. Brenna felt her excitement growing as she browsed through the aisle of threads on her way to the cloth. It had been too long since she had last set foot in a proper fabric store. She felt like she could get lost in here and not care. Reaching the first row of fabric, she walked slowly, taking in the colours and selection. Feeling a little daring, Brenna removed a glove and felt the fabric. No flashes happened to her, but the cloth felt perfect to her. Ideas of how she could use it popped into her head.
Brenna looked at the price tag, ready for her excitement to crash into disappointment. She did the math, taking the price per yard and seeing how many yards she could get with what she thought she had left in her budget. After a brief argument with herself that ended with a self-scolding on purchasing on a whim, Brenna picked up the bolt of fabric to take it to be cut.
Her purchase in a bag, Brenna returned to her lavender van. She placed her purchase behind the passenger's seat and started the engine. The traffic still looked bad to her, but if she could drive against the flow, she might get to Gnarly's Boards. Brenna eased her van back into traffic, taking the first right she came to to escape from the flow.
Half an hour later, Brenna arrived at the beach parking lot. She closed up her van, then dashed to her friend's workplace. Only one of the store's regulars was inside. Brenna waved to Missy as she approached the counter.
Missy set aside her paperwork. "What's up, Bren?"
"I needed to escape Grace and thought I'd pop by," Brenna explained. "How are things with you?"
"Quiet. Not complaining, but it's odd. Probably will be busy tomorrow with kids cutting class the Friday before a long weekend. Krista's back in town. She's at my place right now, sleeping. She got in around four in the morning. Some sort of problem in LA."
"Yeah, she wasn't getting much out of officials in Sacramento." Brenna leaned against the counter. "I'll be happy when the weekend is finally over."
"So will I, but I'm working."
"Grace is getting all worked up over her graduation. She's even cleaning the house top to bottom."
"Can you send her to my place when she's done?" Missy laughed. "Got any plans for the day?"
Brenna shrugged. "I was thinking of finding some place private where I could either sit and sketch or maybe work on my tan."
"Not a bad idea. If business doesn't pick up, I might just join you. In fact, I might know a place. Can you wait on your tan?"
"Sure. It's not like I need it just yet."
Missy smiled. "Okay. I'll call you when Jared shows up around noon and let you know if I can join you. I'll even bring lunch with me if I can."
"Sounds great to me. I'm almost broke. I found a new fabric store and the cutest design and, well, splurged."
"Don't worry about it, Bren. Two of your customers finally paid in full, so you're good."
"In full?" Brenna worked out the addition to her bank account.
"No, you can't go back there. I know what you're thinking." Missy patted her friend's shoulder. "You've got other costs, remember? Like getting your own laptop so you're not completely reliant on costume requests."
"I know." Brenna sighed. "I still have to start getting the stories."
"Don't worry about it for now, Bren. It's going to take time to get things set up for you."
"Okay, okay. I can pay Dad back for gas money, at least. Look, I should let you get back to work. I can go find a place to relax for a bit. It's kind of nice being out of the house now that I've had time back in it."
"All right, Bren. I'll call you around noon and let you know."
Tricia checked her calendar. Absolutely nothing entered in it for the rest of the day. As far as anyone knew, it was so she could work on her existing projects and get them ready for next week. Tricia, however, knew better. A clear afternoon meant that the last sacrifice could be dealt with and no one would know until much, much later. Just one little detail was left. Tricia hit her intercomm. "Fiona, I need to see you."
"Right away, Ms Meadows." A moment later, Fiona walked through the door, notepad and pencil in hand. "Yes, Ms Meadows?"
"Come in. Close the door behind you." Tricia opened her briefcase.
Fiona closed the door to the outer office. "What is it, Ms Meadows?"
Tricia got to her feet. "First, just let me say that you've done an exemplary job as my assistant, especially with the long hours you've put in."
"Thank you, ma'am." Fiona looked uneasy, unaccustomed to praise from her employer.
"However, I've run the numbers. The extra hours have put a severe dent into the cash flow of the business."
"I can cut back my hours if you need it."
"It's not that simple, Fiona. You would have to drop to part time at your current salary." Tricia shook her head. She reached into briefcase.
"I could take a pay cut."
Tricia smiled. "That's the spirit I like to see in my employees. Unfortunately, it's too late." She pulled out a pistol, a silencer extending its barrel. Her secretary took a step backwards in surprise. Tricia squeezed the trigger twice. Fiona's legs gave out underneath her. The young girl crumpled to the floor. Tricia set the pistol back in her briefcase and took out the skinning knife. "Pity. I did enjoy your mochas."
Kneeling down beside the body, Tricia dipped a finger into the pool of blood spreading out under the body. She intoned the ritual to trap Fiona's soul within her body, running the girl's blood across her forehead. The blood faded back into Fiona's skin. Tricia allowed herself a smile. Flipping the body over, she started cutting her former secretary's clothes down the back. She pushed the fabric aside, giving her full access to Fiona's back.
The skinning knife sliced through the skin as she recited the combined ritual, one part to keep a piece of the soul to animate Fiona's skeleton, the other to send the rest of the spirit to the ashen man as his payment. Tricia worked to keep herself from rushing through the spell; one mispronounced syllable could have drastic effects. However, the skeleton started to fight its way out of Fiona's body.
Done with the spell, Tricia stepped back. She looked down at her business suit and sighed. Once again, blood had been splattered on her clothes. She had expected it, though, and had a change of clothes in her closet. She changed quickly out of her blood-soaked shoes and pants, putting on a linen skirt. Tricia turned her attention to the now-standing skeleton. "You, pull that over to that corner," she pointed behind her, "then wait for new orders." As the skeleton complied, Tricia leaned over the pool of blood to open the door. She leapt over the blood and into the outer office.
Tricia ran to the elevators in her stocking feet, hoping no one would come out of the other offices on the floor. She pressed the call button and waited for the elevator down to the parking garage. The elevator stopped twice to pick up workers heading out for a coffee break, but no one appeared to notice Tricia's lack of footwear. After one more stop on the ground floor, the car finally made it to the parking level. Tricia dashed over to her Lexus and opened her trunk. She looked around, trying to see if any witnesses were around, then grabbed the tarp from her car.
The return trip to her office was uneventful. No one got on the elevator for the trip back up to the fifteenth floor. Tricia wrestled the bundled tarp into her office, then locked the door behind her. She set up the tarpaulin in the outer office. The portal opened, the ashen man waiting on the other side. Tricia bowed her head. "The last one is done."
"Excellent." The ashen man stepped towards the portal. "Come closer, so you may partake in your reward."
Tricia smiled as she approached the portal. It disappeared as a huge hand emerged from the gateway and closed around her throat, squeezing off her air supply. She slapped at the hairy arm as she gasped for breath. "Why?"
The ashen man stepped closer to the portal. "Did you really believe that I'd let you take my power?" He stopped, a look of confusion on his face. "What did you do?"
"Nothing." Tricia started to go limp in the hand's grasp.
The hand shook the dark-haired human. "How many souls have you sent me?"
"Nine," Tricia gasped. The hold around her throat loosened, allowing her to take a breath of fresh air.
"Then why can't I walk through?" The hand flung Tricia across the outer office. The woman landed hard on the floor near the window. "What did you do?"
Tricia coughed as she massaged her throat. "I did what I needed to do."
"Then why . . . the souls weren't complete." The ashen man snarled. "What did you do with the parts you stole from me?"
"They're in my minions." Tricia pulled on a nearby chair to help herself to her feet. "I expected a double cross from you."
"You're not as gullible as I thought." The ashen man pulled back his arm. The hairy hand retreated through the portal. "However, our deal is still in effect. You owe me."
"You owe me," Tricia countered. "I fulfilled my end."
"Obviously not, since I'm still on this side of the portal."
Tricia kept her distance from the gateway. "We're at an impasse, then."
The ashen man smiled. "I cannot physically pass through the barrier. However, with someone willing to take on my power, I can transfer my essence. Do you accept?"
"After you tried to kill me? How can I trust you?"
"May I point out that your lack of trust has us in this predicament? No, this requires a willing, knowledgeable participant. Perhaps there is someone else who would like the power I offer. Someone eager to be ruler of the world."
Tricia felt her resolve melt. "Fine. I accept."
"Come closer, then, dear. This will be delicate. One wrong step and both of our essences will be cast to the void."
Against her better judgement, Tricia approached the portal. She took a cleansing breath. "Whenever you're ready."
A dark cloud enveloped the ashen man. It traveled through the portal, leaving the ashen man collapsed in a heap. The cloud engulfed Tricia, oozing into her through her skin. She felt chills running down her spine, then the power contained in the cloud released itself into her. Tricia gasped as the eldritch energy coursed through her. Her breathing quickened. She held out her arms, wondering if she could hold on to all the power or if she'd explode. Tricia closed her eyes. A moan escaped her lips; she couldn't tell if it was pain, pleasure, or both.
The sensations subsided, but didn't completely disappear. Tricia brought her arms in to hold herself tight. She felt refreshed, more energized than she had ever been. No one would be able to stop her. And no one can, a voice deep within her said. Tricia recognized the voice, the ashen man's. No one but that meddling Bladekeeper. We must deal with her.
"I could have killed her last week."
Killing her won't end her threat. The Soul Blade would only go on to one of her relatives.
"Then we kill her family first. I've already killed nine people. More isn't a problem."
Are you willing to track down her entire family tree? She may not even know how large it is. No, I have another idea.
"The math should have worked."
"Feeling of evil odd."
"Someone else has been killed and the demon has been released."
"I believe that is what you wanted to do to me, turn me into your thrall."