“This is a bad idea,” he whispered.
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“We don’t know anything about this place.”
Bill grinned. “That’s why we’re exploring. Come on, it’s an adventure.”
George grumbled and slunk after his cousin, jogging between the trees that separated the decrepit village from its graveyard. The forest suddenly gave way to a broad valley studded with manicured trees and exquisite sepulchers, the failing sunlight staining the landscape scarlet. Given the destitution of the village behind them, the beauty of the cemetery was staggering. Bill elbowed George. “I bet Grandpa wishes he’d have died here.”
He shrugged and continued. Then he stopped suddenly, nose twisting in revulsion. “What is that awful smell? Are those onions?”
George glanced at their feet. He leaned down and pulled one up by the shoots. “Garlic.”
“Same thing,” he sneered, stamping disdainfully through the rows of garlic. “Onions, garlic, leeks, whatever. An entire family of so-called ‘food’ that smells like a man’s armpit.”
“Now, wait,” he protested. “Grandfather said garlic was a warning.”
He scoffed. “I’ll say. Nasty stuff.”
“He was delirious.” He stepped out onto a tiled walkway.
“We shouldn’t be here.”
“But this is our first adventure! He’d want us to go on!” He turned, following the path. “We’ll just go in one and then head home, alright?” He crept up to the first of the buildings, a tall, dark mausoleum, and tried the door.
“Bill, we can’t desecrate someone’s grave.”
Bill ignored him, digging into his pocket. “Locked. This looks like a job for the ol’ magical pen.”
George rolled his eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call it that.”
He grinned, brandishing a smooth piece of wood no longer than his hand. “You’re just jealous.”
And he was. Jealous that Bill had not just the ability to use it, but a real talent for it. Jealous that he had the thing at all. After all, George had been the one to figure out the lock on it. But he hadn’t been able to get it to work. Not at all. The closely held secret of all his grandfather’s abilities, his travels, his life’s work… The greatest discovery of George’s life, and he had had to hand it over to Bill.
Bill placed the tip at the top of the door, eyes closed. He opened stark white eyes and drew the edges of the door, tiny sparks fizzling at the end of it to leave a darkly glowing outline. The tall rectangle smoldered ominously before them. Bill placed the tip in the center and pushed gently. The door drifted away, fading into smoke, and George found himself staring into an ill-lit parlor, fading twilight drifting in through the door. Bill clenched his eyes shut and shook his head briefly, snapping out of the trance. He opened dark eyes on the world again and grinned, stepping through the portal and into the crypt.
George groaned and followed him into the shadows. He shuddered as he passed through. It felt different than the dimensional door they had used to get into this world. He suspected each kind of door would feel different: doors through objects; doors through dimensions, maybe even doors through time. There was so much they didn’t know about it yet, secrets Grandfather had taken to his grave.
They tiptoed through the dimness, peering around the sumptuously furnished parlor, not a speck of dust anywhere. Finally, George had to ask, “Are we sure this is a cemetery?”
“It’s gotta be,” he said, crossing the parlor. “We watched them bring that old man out here.”
He followed into the hall, protesting, “Alright, we checked it out and it’s duly creepy. Now let’s go home.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Being smothered by my sense of survival. Let’s go.”
Bill stepped out into a broad, tiled room, lit by ornate candelabras surrounding a central table. “See?” he said, waving his arm over the table. “What’d I tell you? One dead old guy. Cemetery!” He stepped closer, peering down at the corpse. “Although, on second glance, maybe not so old as I thought.” Frowning, he poked the body.
George gasped. “Bill!”
“What? He doesn’t care.”
“If you wait around another day, he might.” They startled at the strange voice and tumbled past the table together. They caught a glimpse of a shadow moving through the dark hallway, curvaceous as a scythe. She came into the room, a sensual swagger and frowning red eyes. “Disrespectful Children,” she scolded. “Whose are you?”
They stared, clustered silently. Finally, Bill stammered, “Good lady, I deeply apolo-”
“Whose Children are you?” she demanded.
They glanced at each other and Bill said, “Well, my father is Thomas Blakely and my mother-”
She glared, stepping closer, and Bill had the sense to shut up. Her hips swayed hypnotically as she circled them, inhaling deeply. She muttered to herself, “No scent I’ve ever known before. Hmmm…” She asked, “Where are you from? Surely not Fellston. They have more sense than this.”
“No, ma’am. We’re from Nebraska.”
“You’re both imbeciles.” She shook her head. “You honestly have no idea what I am? No reason to fear?” They didn’t answer and she circled the table slowly, long fingers trailing along its smooth surface. George stared at that unearthly pale creature, black fingernails and black dress, and jabbed Bill with his elbow, nudging him toward the back door. She sighed down at the man on the table. “I really don’t know what to do with these two. Most certainly not one of my Children, and probably not of any of my siblings’ either. Someone else entirely.” She looked up at them again, scarlet eyes glinting. “Your village is hidden?”
Bill stammered, “No, ma’am. At the very top of a hill. If we’re bothering-”
“It must be hidden,” she insisted. “Depleted as this realm is, you think we would have failed to notice an unrelated village on top of a hill? Where is it?”
He pointed vaguely. “It’s, uh, well, it’d be pretty tricky to explain. We’re not from around here.”
She laughed harshly. “I already knew that much, little darlings.” She shifted her weight, examining her painted nails. “The only thing I do not know is how you got here…”
“Well, we tramped through an onion patch-”
She silenced him with a glare.
George stepped forward. “Ma’am, we’re very sorry about all this. We really didn’t know anybody was here.” He nudged Bill again. “We’ll just get out of your way and-”
“Oh, dear me, no,” she laughed. “Fascinating little morsels like you? I couldn’t bear to let you go.” Her smile broadened. “Why, I haven’t had anyone for dinner in ages.”
George shoved Bill backward through the far door, slamming it behind him. “Go!” They tore through a dressing room, fumbling across a vanity and scattering cosmetics across the floor.
She opened the door behind them, calmly following. “If you were one of our Children, it would be different.” She smiled, beautiful and predatory. “But you’re not one of our Children. Now are you?”
“Bill, the door!”
He twisted, whipping out the stylus.
George grabbed a handful of glass bottles, throwing them at the woman. She grinned as one bounced off her forehead, and then rushed forward, grabbing George by the throat. “Where have you been hiding, little one?” she asked curiously.
Sparks flew from the stylus’ tip as Bill ripped open a gateway between worlds.
“I would even spare you if you told me… Hm?”
Bill dove on top of her from behind, knocking all three of them to the ground. George pried himself loose as Bill punched her in the face. She laughed, delighted. “George, run!” He threw the stylus at him and he caught it reflexively.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” She twisted Bill’s neck and he went limp, eyes wide as he flopped to the floor, breathing and immobile. She smiled down at him and purred, “Later, my dear.” George stumbled away, scrambling through the portal, and she leapt to her feet after him. Her hand closed on his wrist and she pulled him close, sinking her teeth into his throat and drinking deeply. His struggles weakened as the life fled out of him. She sighed contentedly. It had been so long. Then a breeze found her shoulders and she shuddered, confused.
Wide eyed, she dropped the body distractedly and stared. How did she get outside? And where?
The air was different here. The stars were different. She turned and looked back through the rippling tear in space, back into the dressing room she knew so well, and then out again across this new land. Where was she? Confused, she glanced down at the body, her eyes falling on the stylus. She lifted it curiously, her head cocked to the side, and felt a faint hum of power.
She looked back out over the unfamiliar landscape and inhaled deeply. Prey- and not one of the Children. She smiled.