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Authors: Peter Joison

b00jx4cvbu ebok

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELLRING

 

Peter Joison

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014 Peter Joison

All rights to this novel are reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the copyright holder. The characters and situations are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Cover design by Peter Joison.

www.peterjoison.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Cassie. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

S
UPERNATURAL
THINGS
WEREN

T
supposed to happen in a fruit and vegetable mart. 

 Apart from the bored middle-aged woman behind the cash machine, lazily writing prices on squares of card, the only people in the large one room store were an old lady over at the fruits, and Turner Conlin. Turner looked around at the stands of colourfully ordered vegetables and fruit. If he was going to start eating better than the instant noodles and pizza he had been overdosing on lately, he was in the right place. He almost felt healthier just being here. So far he had four potatoes in his plastic basket, and gave himself a mental thumbs up.

 Swinging his basket, quietly whistling a tune, Turner strolled up the fruit lane, and passed the green and red rows of various apples: Granny Smith, Bramley, Cox, Spartan. So many varieties. Turner had no idea which were for cooking and which were for eating. Thankfully, he saw the familiar yellow fingers of bananas at the end of the aisle, and made a bee-line for those. 

He drew near the frail-looking old lady. Stooped over the melons, she warily prodded a cantaloupe as if it was about to bite her finger. Just for a moment Turner glanced at the citrus fruit on the other side of the aisle. 

When he looked again, there was a young woman where the old lady had been. 

Mouth open, his gaze locked on the young woman, his neck twisted around as he walked another few steps. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. He had a flash of long red hair, smooth neck and long arms before he bumped into the banana stand, whacking his knee painfully. 

When he turned to look back the young woman was gone. It was just the old lady. 

Turner blinked, unsure of what he had just witnessed. He felt almost dizzy, and became acutely aware of his surroundings, the odour of ripe fruit, the leaves of wilted lettuce on the linoleum tiled floor and the high, white ceiling with its rows of old fluorescent lighting. 

The old woman moved on down the fruit lane.

What just happened? There was a girl. He was sure of it.

He had no recollection of walking to the stand of leeks and spring onions. But now, he used their signs, which sat above the stands on thin wooden poles, to hide behind as he spied on the old lady. Her hair was grey and thin, her hands stick-like, she wore an off-white cardigan and a dress the colour of old moss. She carried a red cane basket in one hand and moved from fruit to fruit, poking, squeezing and smelling. 

Could he make the girl appear again? Turner squinted at the old woman, squeezed his hands into tight balls, and chanted to himself, ‘Pretty girl, pretty girl, pretty girl …’ He waited a moment. Nope, she was still an old lady. He turned his head and quickly looked back. Magic! he thought. But no change. The old woman stubbornly remained an old woman. He frowned at a leek. Maybe he had imagined it? 

He had seen the girl when he had walked past the old lady, so maybe if he got close enough it would work again. He left his base at the leeks and moved stealthily towards the old woman. Back around into the fruit aisle. Nice and slow. Just act casual. His heart quickened, and his hand felt damp on the wire handle of his basket. 

The old lady looked up, her eyes narrowing. 

Turner stopped and feigned interest in the grapes. He could feel perspiration break out on his forehead. After a moment, she went back to choosing oranges and he continued on his quest. One step. Another. Turner’s heart pounded in his chest as he approached the old woman’s slightly hunched back. He held his breath. Closer. Closer. And three feet away, without even a flicker, the old lady transformed into the young woman. 

Turner stopped. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before. And although he had played hundreds of hours of computer games, he had never
expected
anything like this to happen. If a large blue police box had materialised at that moment, in the middle of the fruit and vegetables, he would not have been at all surprised. 

The girl had her back to him, busy with the oranges. She seemed to be about Turner’s age, somewhere in her early twenties. Her dark red hair fell in thick waves over a short black top and held promises of cherries, roses and wine. Turner’s gaze travelled down to slightly ripped black Levis, with a studded red leather belt and lipstick-red Doc Martens. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and tucked a stray strand of hair over one ear with her little finger. He liked her style. She was cool. Gracefully cool.

The girl turned around. 

Two things immediately and acutely struck Turner. One, her eyes were a most wonderful orange, the colour of autumn leaves. And two, he had forgotten to move. He realised that he must seem like a stalker just standing there, so close, staring. 

‘I,’ he began, but his tongue was thick, and his mind thicker. 

The girl looked not just surprised, but shocked. Her head turned left and right, as if checking for an escape route. Turner had no idea what to say. 

‘Sorry,’ he finished lamely, and scurried back to the safety of the leeks. ‘Bugger, bugger, bugger!’

Feeling embarrassed, he roughly grasped the timber of the vegetable stand, and stared down at his hands. He panted, full of nervous energy. It was definitely weird. Beyond weird, in fact. But the image of her face wouldn’t leave his mind. She was gorgeous. Weird, but gorgeous.

He heard voices behind him and looked over his shoulder. It was the old woman, talking to the cashier. Turner quickly scanned the store. Nope, no girl. The girl
was
the old woman. The old woman who somehow transformed into a wonderful red-haired young woman whenever he got close. It was magic. Supernatural. And so, so cool.

‘Do you want these in a plastic bag Mrs Ashton, or back in your basket?’

‘Oh, back in the basket this time Margery, thank you.’

Turner eavesdropped on the conversation while he turned a cucumber over in his hands. Mrs Ashton? That’s not something you would call a twenty-something girl is it?

Without looking back, the old woman shuffled out of the mart. He watched her walk out of sight behind a tall stand of nuts and dried fruit near the doors. He wanted to follow her and see if she turned into a young woman again, or maybe a sword bearing elf, or even a vampire—Turner was prepared for anything at this point, but instead he stood there, immobile, his basket in hand, and his stomach clenched in knots. This was easily the weirdest thing that had ever happened to him. What if he followed her and she really was a blood sucking vampire? He breathed out in a puff. He thought of the girl again,
those eyes
, and made his decision. He hurried to the counter and gave the bored looking woman his plastic basket of potatoes. 

‘That’ll be one pound five, love.’

Turner opened his wallet. ‘Uh, can I pay by card?’

The woman sighed as if this was the tenth time she’d heard that today. Perhaps it was. ‘Not for four tateys, love.’

Turner glanced at the potatoes, and then towards the entrance. He frantically dug his hands into his jeans for change. He grasped a bunch of coins, but as he pulled them from his pocket they fell and scattered across the floor, rolling in all directions. The woman sighed and looked at him as if he was a cat which had just coughed up a hairball onto her slipper. Turner squatted and began picking up the money. He couldn’t reach the two pound coin which had rolled under the cashier’s counter. 

He looked again in the direction of the doors. He gave up on the coins. He stood quickly. ‘Sorry. Look, I’ll come back later or something OK?’ He left his potatoes on the counter and hurried to the door, to the sound of another deep sigh from the bored looking woman at the counter.

Out on the pavement, his eyes took a moment to adjust to the glare from the spring sun. Then, he looked up and down Wilby’s narrow High Street. Crammed with old buildings pressed up against the pavement, she could have easily ducked into another shop by now. He paced a few steps one way, turned and came back. What had she been wearing? White or green? Turner squinted, looked around again, but still no old lady and no girl. He punched his thigh. Damn!

*

Ember sat directly across the road from the Wilby Fruit & Veg Mart and watched the young man plod away up High Street, hands in pockets, head down. Although he had glanced at her sitting in the bus shelter, he hadn’t given her another look. 

This was because Ember now looked for all the world like an overweight, balding man in pale grey tracksuit trousers, and a dirty white t-shirt with the words ‘Ey up mi duck!’ emblazoned across the front. 

Ember was wearing a fell: a small bit of sorcery that allowed her to disguise herself as anybody else. She had changed from old woman to fat man at the exact moment she had stepped outside the door of the Fruit & Veg Mart. She had then quickly marched across the street and deposited her distinctive red basket out of sight behind the bus shelter. Unfortunately, it was external to her body and she could not disguise it with her fell. She had taken a seat next to a surly looking teenager with white ear buds in his ears, who was busy tapping away at his phone. 

The Fat Loser, as Ember thought of the fat man fell, was one of her favourites. She used it whenever she came to town and just wanted to do a bit of people watching. He made it easy for her to eat at a fast food place, or sit in the town square, next to the sixteenth century clock tower, and throw warm chips to the pigeons. Nobody bothered a middle-aged scruffy fat man.

Ember had frowned and let out a small gasp when she had seen the young man from the Fruit & Veg Mart lunge out the door and look frantically up and down the street. Her fat man had curled his hands into fists, and she sat upright on the bus shelter’s aluminium seat. 

In the store Ember had been surprised when the young man had approached her, and had almost been willing to pass him off as some weird, shy guy. But seeing the way he looked for her after he had left the store, made Ember think twice about that. 

Because, why would a perfectly nice looking young man run out of a store and search for an old woman like that? Not unless …

Ember had to get home. Her sisters would need to know about this. 

She rose from the bus shelter seat, grabbed her basket, and remembering to waddle like a fat man, walked up High Street. She passed the florist and the Cute Cuts Hairdresser, and turned down Westbury Road to where she had parked the Land Rover at Tesco’s, Wilby’s only supermarket. She had decided against completing her shopping trip; bigger things were afoot. 

She closed the door of the four-wheel drive and looked around to make sure no one was watching. Then, she closed her eyes and began to change fells again. She imagined she stood in front of a mirror and old Mrs Ashton stared back. One moment she was The Fat Loser, the next, old Mrs Ashton. Hello dearie.

Ember grasped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. Things had been nice and quiet lately. But if that guy was what Ember thought he was, she and her sisters would have to come back into town, track him down—and kill him.

*

Still keeping an eye out for the old lady, Turner marched up High Street. If anyone would believe him about the transforming girl, it was his mad friend Derek.

A small electronic duck quacked as Turner entered the Wilby Computer Fix. The shop was small, and tightly packed with shelves of computer accessories: speakers, mice, keyboards, and USB toys, but not many actual computers. Turner knew the main business of the shop was repairing people’s broken machines.  

A young man with long shaggy hair and a scruffy short beard looked up from behind the computer at the front desk. He wore a black t-shirt with the letters ‘WCF:WTF?’ printed in yellow across the chest.

‘Turner! Whatcha know mate?’

Turner walked to the glass counter. He looked back at the door, and took a deep breath. ‘Derek, you are not going to believe what just happened to me.’

A calculating look came over Derek’s face. ‘You found your mojo? It was in a sock.’

‘Ha ha. No, I …’

‘You discovered that your deep and secret yearning for ABBA music means you can now wear your showgirl outfit with pride?’

‘What? I mean, really. What?’

Derek opened a box of USB drives with a small knife. ‘Wait, I got this. An alien.’

‘Derek.’

‘Yes mate?’

‘Stop. Listen OK? There was this girl in the Fruit & Veg Mart.’

Derek raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, did you … hang on, when you say girl, what do you mean, you pervert?’

Turner ran his hand through his hair. ‘Oh my God, Derek. Really? She was twenty one, twenty two. Well, most of the time.’

Derek had a handful of the USB drives in plastic packets. He placed them in a pile on the counter, and looked up. ‘What do you mean, most of the time?’

Turner placed his hands behind his head. ‘I mean, there was this old lady.’

‘I thought you said girl?’

‘Yeah, but first, there was this old lady. When I walked past her she turned into the girl. A really pretty girl.’

‘Just, turned into?’

Turner realised how this was sounding. God, he was sounding crazy to himself. ‘Yes. Like a switch being thrown. One second, old lady, next second pretty girl. She literally changed in front of my eyes.’

Derek grabbed his small pile of USB drives, walked around the counter and began to hang the packets on a display stand. ‘Right. Right. Shape changing. OK, cool.’

Turner followed his friend. ‘You don’t believe me.’

‘Look, Turner. I want to believe. I want to believe everything. Aliens, Hollow Earth, elves, ESP, friggin Tinker Gnomes of Dragonlance. I want to believe in them all. But which of those have I ever seen in my twenty seven times around the sun? Zilch. Big fat zero. So no, I don’t believe you. But I do want some of the weed you’re on. It sounds intense.’

Turner let out a deep sigh. He thought if anyone would believe him it would be crazy Derek. ‘Haven’t smoked anything and I’m not on anything else either. I saw it.’

Derek pointed to a row of clip on webcams. ‘Did you take a photo? Or, even better, a video?’

‘No, there wasn’t enough time.’

‘Show me when you do. Till then, you want to grab some noodles up the street? It’s my lunch time.’

Turner wanted to scream in his friends face, tell him it had really happened. He knew what he’d seen. But he knew better than to push the point. Derek wouldn’t bend. End of story.

Turner sighed and stuck his hands in his pockets. ‘OK, noodles it is.’

*

Ember sped through the tunnel of old oaks that lined the driveway to her home, Wickerwell Manor. 

She tapped the steering wheel with her fingernail, looked once in the rear-view mirror and dropped her fell.

 The manor house appeared from behind the trees: a gothic dollhouse, a hodgepodge of stone facades, decorated gables, turrets and intersecting, pointed roofs. Despite her current edginess, Ember smiled and thought, crazy old house; just the home for a group of misfit sorcerous sisters. The Land Rover parked beside a round, stone fountain. A marble, naked nymph stood in its centre, bearing a pitcher on her shoulder from which the water tumbled.

Ember entered the large entrance hall. ‘Hello?’ Her voice echoed of the high ceiling and the timber staircase.

‘Hi Em! We’re in the Great Hall,’ came the voice of her sister Chloe.

Ember turned into an arched doorway which led into large room, easily the largest in the manor. This was the room the five sisters spent the most time in. Lit with dusty beams of light from the many bay windows, it had worn wooden floors, a large fireplace and a motley collection of furniture covered in piles of old books and maps. One corner though had been set aside, looking all the world like the room of a small girl. It contained a bed with a fairy adorned duvet, colouring books, and a small TV, in front of which a young girl sat watching cartoons. Usually Ember would stop and say hello to her ‘little’ sister Skye, but today she gave her a quick wave as she strode into the room.

Celeste, Ember’s eldest sister, put down the cup of tea she’d been sipping. ‘What is it, Ember? I can feel you’re upset.’ Ember’s other sisters, Brooke and Chloe also wore looks of concern.

Ember stopped, took a deep breath and said, ‘I think I saw a Skorn.’

Celeste stood. ‘What? Where?’

Chloe pointed to an empty chair. ‘Sit Em. Tell us.’

Ember collapsed into the ancient, upholstered armchair. ‘It was in the Fruit & Veg Mart. It looked like a guy.’

Celeste sat down again. ‘And?’

‘And he was kind of watching me. Not me of course, Mrs Ashton.’

Chloe frowned. ‘Is that it, Em? Kind of watching you? What did he look like?’

Ember could see the doubt on her sister’s faces. She looked around at each of them. ‘In his early twenties I think. Shaggy hair. Unshaven. Jeans, t-shirt. I caught him standing just behind me as well. Really close.’

Brooke laughed. ‘Some wanker gets his jollies from sniffing old ladies. So what?’

‘No,’ said Ember, ‘it was more than that.’

Celeste picked up her tea and took a sip. ‘Doesn’t sound like much really, does it, Em? Although Skorn aren’t easy to spot, they usually give themselves away with twitching, sniffing and that kind of thing. He was probably just some sad sack.’

Ember stood up. ‘Bloody hell! I tell you I saw a Skorn and you guys just brush it off! Thanks!’ 

A candle on the coffee table between the seats flickered into life, its flame jumping from the wick.

Brooke gave a little smirk. ‘Hey, calm down fire girl.’

Ember felt her face flush, and knew her eyes had probably gone from orange to red. She wanted so much to slap that smirk off Brooke’s face—with a flaming hand. ‘Shut up, Brooke! You watery …’

Brooke sat back in her chair with her arms folded. ‘What, Em? Watery what? Is that all you got?’

Celeste rose and put her arm around Ember, turning her toward the door. ‘Let’s you and I go for a walk, huh?’

Ember shook free from her sister. ‘Just … just leave me alone.’ She made sure the large old door slammed loudly behind her.

*

Ember stayed in her room for an hour or two reading and calming down, before she remembered she’d left the fruit and vegetables she had bought earlier in the day in the car. After retrieving them, she took the basket and its contents to the kitchen.

Chloe and Brooke were putting away the dishes from lunch.

‘Hi Em,’ said Chloe as Ember entered the room, ‘we missed you at lunch.’

Brooke dropped the tea towel she’d been wiping dishes with onto the bench and without a word started to walk from the room.

‘Brooke …’ 

Brooke halted and glared at Ember. Ember wanted to say sorry, but more than that she wanted Brooke to apologise as well. All she was getting from her sister was a raised eyebrow. 

Ember exhaled loudly, and waited another moment. ‘Nothing …’

Brooke smiled, shook her head and stalked out of the room.

‘God damn it,’ Ember said through gritted teeth.

Chloe opened her arms. ‘Come here you.’

Chloe’s hug felt so good. Ember loved her big, all of three years older, sister. She and Chloe had always been close, helped she guessed, by how they were the odd ones out in the looks department. Celeste, Brooke and Skye all had similar blonde hair and pale skin. Ember’s red hair defined her from the others. And Chloe, slightly exotic Chloe, had an Indian appearance.

Apart from the old Skye, Chloe was really the only one who gave Ember unconditional love, and therefore received the same from Ember in return. Celeste, the mother-hen of the group, always kept a little distance between herself and her sisters. While Brooke and Ember … well they had never been close. The others put it down to Ember being a fire elemental and Brooke water; they were bound to clash. Ember put it down to Brooke just being a constant bitch. And then there was Skye, the little girl who wasn’t, the little girl who hadn’t spoken, or even smiled, in over three years. Before Skye’s accident she and Ember had been not just sisters, but best friends.

Ember pulled away from Chloe’s embrace. ‘Thanks Chloe. I needed that.’

‘You and her …’ Chloe shook her head.

‘I know. I know.’

‘You shouldn’t let her get under your skin Em. She knows what buttons to push to annoy you.’

‘But she never stops pushing them, that’s the thing,’ said Ember.

Chloe lifted a pile of plates into the cupboard. ‘You should do what I do. When Brooke’s in one of her moods, tune her out. Imagine she’s not even there.’

Ember said nothing. Tuning out Brooke would be like trying to tune out a tornado. She grabbed a glass from the bench and filled it with water.

‘Thanks for the fruit and veg,’ said Chloe. ‘You didn’t do the other shopping?’

‘No. Not after seeing the Sk … the guy who wasn’t, couldn’t have been, never was a Skorn.’

‘Tell you what,’ said Chloe, leaning on the kitchen bench, ‘how about I come shopping with you tomorrow, and we’ll see if we can’t spot that Skorn guy again? I’ll go buy some bottles of wine and visit the bakery, while I’m there.’

Ember finished her glass of water, and placed the empty glass on the sink. ‘Thanks Chloe. We’ll do that. It’ll be nice having you there. OK, I’m going to hang out with Skye for a while.’

‘Sure. Make her smile OK?’ Chloe said as Ember left the room.

Ember found Skye in her corner of the Great Hall, lying on her bed. She was filling in a colouring book with a blue crayon, the only colour she used.

Ember sat down on the girl’s bed. ‘Hey there Skye-high. Whatchadoin?’

Skye looked up at Ember, and tucked some white-blonde hair behind her ear. But of course didn’t say a word.

‘Sorry about before. Fighting with the Brooke-head.’ 

A tiny part of Ember had hoped using her and Skye’s old secret nick-name for their sister would induce a smile. No luck, of course. But Ember gave a small gasp when the little girl climbed off the bed, stood in front of Ember and gave her a hug. Oh how Ember wished it wasn’t an eight year old version of her sister she was hugging though. When, three years ago, in the midst of a battle, Scathers had enveloped Skye for over a minute, forcing the nineteen year old woman to revert back to an earlier self in shock, they had also taken away a large part of Ember’s world.

Ember felt tears sting her eyes. ‘I miss you Skye,’ she said into the girl’s shoulder. ‘I miss you so much.’

*

Turner knew he was procrastinating by going grocery shopping on a Wednesday afternoon. But what was the point of being a freelance computer programmer if it meant he couldn’t take time off whenever he liked? He twirled his green shopping bag around his finger. Living the dream Turner, living the dream. 

He strolled the ten minute trip from his flat to the centre of town with his mind still on the girl from yesterday. Before talking with Derek, Turner had been sure he’d seen the old lady transform into a young woman, but now he wasn’t so sure. It was as if Derek had planted false memories in Turner’s head. Damn it! On High Street he passed by Derek’s computer shop and noticed the little sign in the glass door: ‘Out to Lunch.’ Turner was relieved his friend wasn’t in. He didn’t really want another conversation about hallucinations or ‘delusional perceptions’ as Derek kept calling them.

The street was busy with shoppers, mostly elderly or young mothers, as it was midday in the middle of the week. Once or twice Turner had to step out of the way of women with large pushers.

He was going to do his shopping at the Tesco around the corner, but first popped into the Wilby Fruit & Veg. Just in case. There were a few shoppers in there, but no magic girl. After a quick look around he left without buying anything, just like yesterday.

Once at the supermarket, Turner grabbed a small trolley, and noticed as he wheeled it through the vegetable section its front right wheel didn’t touch the ground properly and spun around in a mad pirouette. This small town Tesco was not up to the standard of supermarket Turner had been used to when he lived in London. Its aisles were narrower, its ceiling lower with its metal beams showing, and although the shelves were well stocked there wasn’t the range of products you could find in the larger city stores. He pushed his unruly trolley around trying to avoid the things he was trying to eat less of: frozen pizzas, chocolate biscuits, pop and so on. He had finally succeeded in grabbing some potatoes and bananas, and now headed to the pasta aisle.

A strange feeling came over him as he approached the pasta and rice aisle. His head felt cloudy, and the only thing he could think of was the red hair of the girl from the Fruit & Veg Mart. When he turned the corner into the pastas, he saw why; she was there! She was in her old lady form, wearing the same green dress and white cardigan, head down, scrutinising pasta sauces at the other end of the aisle. Turner’s pulse jumped. His hands squeezed the trolley handle. He stared, he looked away, and he looked back. 

She was here!

His heart pounded. He wanted to get close enough so she would transform into that girl again. She hadn’t looked in his direction yet, so taking a deep breath, head down, he pushed his trolley up the aisle. He had no idea what he was going to say when he got there,
especially
if she turned into a young woman.

About ten feet away the old lady looked up, and spotted Turner. Damn! Her eyes went wide, and she spun her trolley around so quickly she almost bumped into a fat middle aged woman with a shopping basket over one pudgy arm. The fat woman began to talk to the old lady, so Turner took the chance to creep a bit closer, until he was just a few feet from the two women. There! It happened; she had transformed into the girl again! Turner was so pleased to see that red hair and slim body he wanted to do a little dance, but instead pretended to be interested in the pasta sauces on the shelf. 

‘Mrs Ashton! Fancy running into you! Stocking up again?’ came the voice of the fat woman. 

‘Oh hello, Mrs Winslow. Yes, yes, you know how it is, don't like to make more than one trip into town a month if I can help it.’

‘You should get someone to do the shopping for you. Someone younger perhaps? It must be hard for someone of
your
years …’ said the fat woman.

 Turner’s gaze was on the jar of tomato and basil sauce in his hand, but his ears were on the conversation behind him. His nose wrinkled at the syrupy tone of Mrs Winslow’s voice. 

 ‘Yes, yes. I mean no, I enjoy the shopping really. Excuse me, Mrs Winslow I need to keep going …’

Turner saw his chance, and taking a deep breath, turned and said to the girl, ‘Uh, excuse me,’ he began, ‘I saw you at the pasta sauces, could you … uh, recommend a good one?’ Turner mentally face-palmed. Jesus, what a stupid line!

The girl's eyes widened, and without a word tried to push past both Turner and Mrs Winslow, who now stood arms crossed, staring hard at Turner.

Mrs Winslow snorted through her nose, which wrinkled upwards, pig-like. ‘What do you want from Mrs Ashton young man? Are you after her money or something?’

‘Mrs Winslow!’ said the girl.

Turner was confused. ‘Money? No. What?’ Trying to ignore the old busybody, he noticed the girl had a dragon tattoo beneath her left collarbone and said, ‘I like your dragon by the way …’

Turner wasn't prepared for what happened next. The girl jumped as if zapped with an electric prod, and leaving her half-full trolley, scurried off down the pasta aisle.

Mrs Winslow’s left eye twitched madly and she went red in the face. 'Help! Help! Get the manager! There’s a pervert here! Security!'

Several other shoppers started walking towards the commotion. Turner had no idea what was going on. His head whipped between the bellowing fat lady and the retreating young woman. This is why I don't try to pick up girls, he thought.

The girl had reached the front of the store. Turner realised with a shock she hadn’t reverted back to an old woman. ‘Wait!’ he yelled, and ran after her.

‘He's after old Mrs Ashton's money!’ Mrs Winslow yelled from behind him.

The girl strode quickly to the store entrance. Turner raised his hand, palm out. ‘You can't leave!’ Incredibly, she stopped; the sliding doors wouldn't open.

The girl stepped back, and then forward again trying to make the doors open to no avail. Abruptly she spun on her heel and glared at Turner, her eyes wide and fierce. She then flung her arms together as if pulling giant curtains closed. Packets of pasta and rice erupted from the shelves. Turner ducked and covered his head, just as a loud crash came from the front of the store. Someone nearby screamed, and from further away in the store the cry, ‘Get down! Get down!’

Turner rose up on his knees to see the girl walk over the blown out remains of the front sliding doors, and run into the car park.

‘Was it a bomb?’ asked an old man who had been standing next to Turner, but who now knelt on the floor. He grasped at two long strands of spaghetti that stuck out of his neck, like some misplaced insect antennae. His hand came away smeared with blood. ‘Oh,’ he said faintly, ‘neck spaghetti blood,’ and fainted to the ground. Turner dived and grabbed the old man’s shoulders just in time to stop his head from hitting the floor. 

When he gently lowered the old man’s head onto the tiles, Turner noticed the mess. The old man was covered in pasta and rice, and there were piles of packets, boxes of rice and pasta strewn across the floor. Turner wondered how he had escaped being struck by anything. For although the shelves around them were empty, where Turner had been standing there was an empty circle, completely devoid of even a grain of rice. 

 A state of chaos gripped the supermarket. People pointing, yelling, running. Many had tentatively began to gather around the remains of the front doors. Half a dozen customers and staff now stood around Turner and the old man on the floor.

Turner’s head spun. Shopping. Potatoes. Pretty girl. Old lady. Pasta and ... bang? Something astonishing had just happened, but for the life of him he had no idea what it was.

‘That's him! That's the terrorist!’ Turner looked up to see the fat old woman stab her chubby finger at him. He hardly knew her, but Turner already hated Mrs Winslow. A lot.

*

Ember ran across the car park, startling people who had never seen an octogenarian sprint like that. Chloe, who had been sitting in the Land Rover disguised as the male gardener, was already running towards Ember. ‘What the hell is going on, Em … Mrs Ashton?’

‘No time, Chloe. Skorn! Get in. Drive!’ Ember ran past her sister to the car and yanked open the passenger door.

She was so glad her sister didn’t stop to argue, but jumped straight back into the driver’s seat. Within moments they sped from the car park, just narrowly missing a woman pushing a stroller, whose scream of abuse could be heard even over the screech of the tyres. Safely out onto High Street, Chloe, eyes straight ahead, knuckles white on the steering wheel said, ‘A Skorn? You sure this time?’

Ember leant hard back into the seat, and let out a long breath. ‘Yes. No. I think so. It was the same guy, and he saw through my fell. He saw through my fell, Chloe! And he had powers. I’ll tell you all about it when we get home.’

‘Jesus, Ember. You better be right. You completely blew your cover back there.’

Ember winced and tried to think of anything she could have done differently. She put her head in her hands and then pulled her hair back from her face.

‘I know. But I had to get out.’

Chloe patted her sister’s arm. ‘If it really was a Skorn, thank God you did. But using our powers in public is a big no-no remember. Your story had better be good—or Celeste will tear you apart.’

Ember bit her lip and thought about how her eldest sister would react to all this. An angry Celeste. On reflection, the Skorn at Tesco’s didn’t seem so bad.

*

Ember could tell Chloe was worried by the way she sped down the long driveway.

 Chloe punched the steering wheel softly. ‘You realise if what you say is true, we will probably have another Scather battle on our hands?’

Ember closed her eyes. ‘I know, I know.’

Nobody answered their calls of hello as they walked through the house. Ember and Chloe found the other three sisters out the back of the manor house. They sat on picnic rugs in the shade of a large elm.

Ember and Chloe exited through the sunroom and walked down the back steps.

 Celeste waved. ‘Over here.’

Celeste sat, leaning against the tree reading, Brooke was lying on her stomach with her legs in the sun, and Skye was stretched out on the other rug, drawing a picture of a rabbit, surrounded by a scattering of blue pencils.

Ember marched across the short green lawn to the edge of the rugs and put her hands on her hips. ‘I was right!’

Brooke mumbled into her arm, ‘What are you screeching about?’ 

Ignoring Brooke, Ember spoke to Celeste. ‘The Skorn. I saw him … it again.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ said Brooke.

Celeste frowned, and placed a brown leaf in her book as a bookmark. ‘Chloe?’

Chloe placed an arm around Ember. ‘I think it’s something. We should listen to what she has to say.’

Chloe sat up straight. ‘OK, Em. Tell us about your Skorn.’

‘What about Skye? Should we talk somewhere else?’ asked Chloe as she and Ember sat down next to the little girl. Ember placed a hand on Skye’s back.

‘Maybe hearing about Skorns and Scathers will shock her back,’ said Celeste.

‘Celeste!’ said Chloe.

‘What? We’ve tried everything else. Look,’ said Celeste, as she counted on her fingers. ‘Our twenty-two year old sister is a mute eight-year-old girl. She can’t fight. We are not a full Vordene. Skorns bring Scathers.’ She ticked off the last finger on her left hand. ‘So, if we fight, we’re done for.’

‘I can still fight. And there
are
four of us,’ said Ember.

‘As a foursome we’re hardly stronger than as individuals. We need the power of the five. Without Skye we aren’t really a Vordene—we haven’t been for over three years. 

Chloe looked at her hands. ‘Maybe it’s time we …’

Celeste shook her head, her gaze intense. ‘No, Chloe. We’ve talked about this. We are going to give it another year. If Skye doesn’t come back to us by then, that’s when we start talking about the succession.’

Yeah, thought Ember, ‘succession’ meant babies. And apart from Chloe, none of them were ready to go down that road quite yet.

‘But we might not have a year if Ember’s right,’ said Chloe, bringing the conversation back on track.

Frowning, Celeste turned to Ember. ‘Tell us.’

Ember took a deep breath. ‘It was the same guy, but this time in the supermarket. Chloe was waiting for me in the car. I started the shopping, as Mrs Ashton of course, but then I saw him in the rice and pasta aisle, looking at me all weird again. Just as I was about to get the hell out of there I ran into old Mrs Winslow.’

‘Ugh,’ said Chloe. 

‘Yeah. She started carrying on like she does, then the guy comes up and asks me about what sauce I like or something. Mrs Winslow accuses him of being after my money, but the guy ignores her and get this … compliments me on my dragon tatt.’

Celeste leant forward. ‘What?! He saw through your fell?’

‘Yep.’ Ember brushed hair from her face. ‘So I ran … well walked quickly to the front doors. Then, he yelled out “Stop” or something and the doors wouldn’t open.’

Brooke sat up. ‘Jesus.’

‘So that’s when I spun around and, using a little bit of power, made stuff from the shelves fly at him. Then, no other choice, I blew out the doors and made a run for it.’

‘Damn,’ said Celeste, ‘damn, damn, bloody damn.’

Ember bit her lip. ‘I know Celeste, I know. But I was trapped. Trapped in the same building as a Skorn. Possible Skorn.’ 

Ember knew Celeste was concerned about the Skorn, but she was probably just as worried about the girls’ secrets being exposed. Without their disguises, their fells, people would start to talk about the five sisters who lived by themselves in the large old manor. If it was one thing the girls didn’t need, it was attention.

‘Chloe,’ said Celeste, ‘have you come across anything like this? Skorns with those sort of powers? I thought they were sort of spies, on the lookout for people like us.’

Chloe shook her head. ‘I’ve never read anything like that. Skorns are just people infected by Scathers …’

‘Scather zombies,’ said Brooke.

Chloe didn’t even smile. ‘Yeah. We’re not even sure if their main purpose is to sniff out Vordenes or whether that’s just a by-product of having the spirit of a Grimshade creature inside you. I’m not even sure Skorns can see through fells. If they had too much power
we’d
be able to sense
them
.’

‘So what do we do?’ Ember asked Celeste.

Celeste stood up. ‘We go Skorn hunting that’s what. You, me and Chloe. Brooke, you stay here with Skye.’

‘Hey!’ said Brooke, ‘Why don’t I get to see some action? Make Ember stay home, it’s her turn to look after Skye.’

The little girl now sat cross-legged watching the conversation closely. Ember gave her small smile.

‘I don’t mind sitting this one out,’ said Chloe. ‘Talking about Scathers made me remember something I’d read in one of Great Aunt Rhea’s journals. Something about the Ring.’

Celeste sighed. ‘We’d all love to find our Ring Chloe. We’ve been waiting most our lives, haven’t we? But there’s a time and a place, and this …’

‘But it’s important, Celeste. Really. I’m going to talk to Aunt Lani about it too.’ Chloe pointed to the small chapel on the other side of a low stone wall, the home of their aunt.

Ember looked in the direction of the chapel and said softly, ‘She may not be much help, Chloe. She’s getting worse. Yesterday I found her lying on her back in the vegie patch. When I asked what she was doing she said she was learning Vegetablese.’

‘She’s gone a bit nutty, yeah,’ said Chloe, just as quietly. ‘But she’s still our Aunt Lani, and our only living connection to our other Aunts, Granny Ira and all that. Like I said, it’s important.’

Celeste put her hand on her forehead and nodded. ‘OK, fine. Brooke, you’re in.’

Brooke punched the air. ‘Woo! Gonna go skin some Skorn scum!’

As one, the other three sighed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

I
T
WAS
LATE
afternoon by the time Turner escaped all the commotion at the supermarket. After standing around with a dozen other customers for an hour, and finally giving a statement to the police and then talking to a reporter, he wanted nothing more than to get home.

Chaucer Street was a narrow road, tightly packed with rows of 1950s semi-detached houses, each fronted with a minuscule front garden. The inhabitants on this street seemed to be having a little war in trying to outdo each other in elaborate letterboxes. Turner passed a small castle, a football, a miniature pillar box and his favourite, the ceramic mermaid sitting atop a rock-like letterbox at number 6.

Carl, an exuberant border collie, met Turner half way down the street. Carl belonged to Mr Holt, Turner’s landlord, but unlike his owner, Carl always met Turner in a frenzy of enthusiasm. 

Turner bent down to ruffle the dog’s thick black and white coat. ‘Hello Carl. How did you get out, huh? Cheeky dog.’ In answer Carl gave a small bark and danced around Turner, his tail wagging vigorously.

Turner reached the gate of number 8 and not for the first time, shook his head at its small rusted metal letterbox. The house itself looked just as unloved. Heavy curtains were drawn across all the downstairs windows—windows in a desperate need of a wash—and weathered white paint peeled in scabby patches from the house, revealing the red brick underneath. 

Old Mr Holt knelt in his tiny front garden, and muttered to himself as he stabbed away at a flower bed with a garden trowel. Turner had been hoping to get up to his flat without running into the man, but no luck. In a blur, Carl ran through the gate behind Turner, and straight over the top of Mr Holt’s freshly turned soil.

‘Get off there, you bloody mutt!’ said the old man and flapped his hand at the dog.

Thinking this was a great game, Carl ran in a circle on the tiny patch of lawn, stopped with his head down, tail wagging frantically and barked happily.

Mr Holt threw a small clump of dirt at the dog. ‘Stupid animal. No food for you tonight!’

Taking advantage of Mr Holt’s attention being elsewhere, Turner was just about to slip through the front door.