Raven stepped onto the paved path at the edge of the cemetery, feeling the energy of the place twist around her like soft, invisible ribbons. Taking a deep breath of the sweet, pungent scent of lilacs that lined the main gate, she pretended not to look around the slow gentle slope of the hills for that familiar tossle of dark hair. A feeling of relief washed through her as she saw nothing more than the ordinary tombstones. Perfect. No where in sight. That meant she could get on with her day without interruption from him.
Sighing in relief, she moved forward onto the path, her feet picking up speed as she passed familiar spots and headstones. It felt unusually quiet today as she let the stone beneath her feet move her along the familiar path. Normally there were her friends lining up along the path to say hello, or to gossip, or just to watch her notice them. But today, there were very few of her constant companions, and most of them looked confused or distracted. In fact, the whole graveyard felt strange and slightly off, like there were holes in the fabric that kept the place together. She stopped after a quarter mile and stood in the middle of the path, feeling the energy around her carefully.
Something was definitely off.
"Raven! Thank goodness you're here!"
She stopped abruptly and whipped around to stare into Gladys's shocked expression, the woman nearly bursting the seams of her perfectly tailored coat out of excitement and fear. She looked like the sky was falling around her and she had no idea how to combat the falling clouds.
"We've all been waiting for you desperately!" She tried to grab Raven's hands out of some pre-death habit, but her fingers slid easily through Raven's skin, leaving a strange tingling sensation instead. "We don't know who else we can turn to, and you're the only one who can see us."
"Well, I'm here. What's the matter?" She fidgeted with her hair, looking around for anyone who might be eavesdropping on their conversation. The coast was clear for now.
Gladys clasped her hands in front of her and gasped. "Sir Charles is missing!"
"Missing?" Raven's eyebrows knitted together. It wasn't entirely unusual for Sir Charles to go wandering off for a day or two at a time. He liked to walk through the cemetery and strike up conversations with other patrons besides his wife, as she was usually talking his ear off most of the time. "Like he ran away to the other side of the cemetery missing or…" She drifted off, not quite sure how to ask if a dead person might be more dead.
"All of us have searched the entirety of the cemetery looking for him! We have not yet found him, and his wife is starting to worry!" Gladys took off her hat and began fanning herself with it, as if it was a natural reaction for her when she wanted to calm down. "I don't know where he could have gone. He was here last night, and now he's just gone."
"Gladys, calm down. Where was the last place you saw him?"
"He was over near the far eastern side of the cemetery. The oldest part, dear. I barely ever see anyone go back there, but he was undoubtedly looking for someone who might play polo." Gladys clicked her tongue disapprovingly, as if talking about gentlemen's sports was akin to mentioning a lady's undergarments in public.
Raven rolled her eyes. "He does like to talk about polo. Maybe he got lost back there or caught up in a conversation." She paused for a moment. "Besides, it's not exactly uncommon for him to avoid his wife."
"No, it is not." Gladys continued to frown at her with a very stern, matronly look on her face. "But it is not like you to dismiss any of our concerns either, Raven. You are the only one we can turn to, and while I understand that we rely on you a lot more than we should, you are our only connection to the physical world." She huffed and put her hat back on her head, slamming her hatpin through the felt with an air of finality. "I will look for him myself."
"Gladys…" Raven chased after her, more so to stop her from stirring up bad feelings among her other friends than to actually apologize. "I will look for him now. If you want to come you can, but I will go and try to find him and bring him back to him wife."
"That is most appreciated." She didn't sound all that appreciative. With another huff, she turned around and scattered off, leaving Raven alone in the middle of the path, staring at the thick patch of trees that grew in the distance in the farthest corner of the cemetery.
Sighing she started jogging down the path again, watching her step as the asphalt turned into jumbled, mismatched cobblestone. This section of the cemetery was the oldest, and sat as far back from the road as possible, which meant that it was kind of a hotspot of angsty, angry teenagers to come and kick headstones over, smoke pot, make-out, or even try to summon satan. It was really quite surprising how many teenagers wanted to summon satan. It never worked, of course, but the problem was that sometimes their half-assed spells found online had strange side effects. Like moving a ghost from this cemetery to another, or even giving a physical apparition for a few moments. This had happened last year at Halloween to Tilly's friend Mildred, and the whole town had been in an uproar about it for a week; Raven's friends at the cemetery had been even worse.
Raven typically avoided the older parts of the cemetery because the generation gap was a little too broad. She had the worst time understanding anyone as they fumbled out "thee" and "thine" and any variation in between. Also, she was often confused with someone wandering around in their underwear, and Raven certainly wasn't going to put on a period dress and petticoats to please some ghosts. No, it was much easier to avoid them altogether.
"Wandering farther than usual?"
Raven looked over to see a new face approaching her, dressed in a tailored blue wool coat and riding boots. He was dashingly handsome, with an almost mischievous smile playing across his lips. She gave him a very suspicious look and took a step back. New faces always meant introductions, and Raven had a tendency to weird dead people out.
"You must be Raven, I presume?"
Or perhaps she wouldn't have to introduce herself.
"You presume correctly." Raven raised an eyebrow. "And you are…?"
"Joseph Alderson the second." He gave a short, but polite bow. "Esquire."
Like she cared. Raven had met kings before. Although, admittedly no one quite so attractive. She crossed her arms over her chest. "Can I help you?"
"I believe the question is whether or not I can help you." He smiled an honest smile and continued to move closer to her, blatantly ignoring the space Raven kept between them. "I hear from across the hills that you've been looking for a lost friend who disappeared last night. Am I correct?"
"Yes. Sir Charles Timpleton. I am trying to see if he came through here last night," Raven said, taking another step back. She eyed him suspiciously, choosing not to get too close. Just because he was dead did not mean he was dangerous. She had been possessed before, yesterday at the hospital was case-and-point, and it was never a pleasant experience. It felt like she was drowning in memories with no hope for air. While she was lucky enough to have none of her possessions try to stay for long, she wasn't going to press her good fortune with a stranger.
"He did, in fact." The stranger nodded politely. "He often comes to me so we can discuss horses. I might be a hundred years older than him, but the mighty animal speaks no language, and we can transcend that rather unfortunate insight of time and word."
Raven remained unmoved, and continued to stare at him blankly. "You speak surprisingly modern for someone nearly 300 years old."
"Three hundred? I am a mere two hundred at most. You age me!"
Dramatic little twat, wasn't he? Raven fidgeted with her hair, trying to tighten the stubby ponytail and keep her hands busy. "I don't mean to age you, Mr. Alderson-"
"Please, call me Joseph."
"-but I am just looking for my friend. While I'm sure you are lonely and wish for companionship, I do need to find him so I can bring him back to his wife. That's all." Raven stared up at him as he stood a good head taller than her. "If you have any information on his whereabouts, it would be greatly appreciated."
"He was here last evening."
"I'm aware." Raven tried to keep her frustration from showing on his face. It did her no good to insult someone who was trying to help her. She cleared her throat and leaned back on his heels. "Do you know where he is now?"
"I do not."
Raven sighed and move to turn around, heading back to more familiar parts of the cemetery. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Alderson."
"It is not uncommon for souls to disappear around here, Miss Raven."
His words sent a strange, chilling sensation down her spine, and something in his tone made her turn around to look back into his face. He gave a thin smile, his eyes darkening slightly under the weight of her stare. "Souls are powerful things after all."
Raven found herself swallowing, wide eyes staring up into his face as the weight of his words settled over her. What was he implying? And was it a warning? She gave a polite, affirmative nod and walked away, holding a hand to her heart and feeling it slam against her ribs in a panicked fit. As she made her way back to the rest of her friends, she couldn't help but feel something dark and heavy settle over her. Where was her friend, Sir Charles? And even more so, why did it feel like Joseph Alderson knew more than he was letting on?
Even by the afternoon, and after all the distractions from the day, Raven still couldn't shake the feeling of dread that lay across her chest. Every quiet minute she had was spent pondering precisely what Joseph Alderson meant and why he said it. Souls are powerful things. She knew that. A person could not exist after death unless there was some kind of power or energy behind it. Admittedly, she didn't always understand what that power was or how it worked, but she knew that there had to be something that made a someone continue their metaphysical journey after he or she had expired. So, why would he tell her that?
Raven was torn from her thoughts as she heard the approach of her friend.
"Here are the most recent applications." Kori dropped a short stack of papers on her desk, neatly filed and color-coded according to their organizational system. She dropped into a chair next to her friend and leaned over the back, staring up at the ceiling. "Is maintenance ever going to fix that brown spot?"
"Probably not." Raven paged through the applications, looking for any names that might have jumped out at her. "I've asked them four times already. It's just old and we have to live with it. Oh, I see Katy is finally starting to work on her paper. Took her long enough."
Raven glanced up from her papers and sighed. Kori was tapping her foot as she wiggled in her seat and continued to look expectantly at Raven. She looked like she was about to burst from trying to keep her emotions inside. Raven groaned and felt her patience snap. "What, Kori?"
"Come on, let's talk about him."
Raven raised an eyebrow and stared. "By him do you happen to mean-"
"Jason, Raven!" She threw her hands into the air and gave an overly dramatic sigh, kicking her feet in front of her as if she was about to have a tantrum. "Jeez! He's the first real guy I've ever seen you fawn over, and you're acting as if nothing happened."
"Nothing did happen. And I don't fawn over him. He's an annoyance to me, and I don't see why I have to bother with him." Raven ignored her friend's noise of a half-whine and continued looking through applications. "And even if I cared - which I don't - you saw, he has a…" She paused, not quite sure what to call that girl. "... lady friend. I am not even remotely in his radar, and I'm fine with that. In fact, I prefer it. And anyway, he told me I should probably stay away from him. So I will, fervently."
"Wait, wait, wait!" Kori popped up to a real sitting position and leaned forward on her knees, eyes wide with excitement. "He said you should probably stay away from him? I don't remember that. When did he say that? Why did he say that?"
Raven felt color crawl to her face, suddenly realizing she had backed herself into a corner. Damnit, she would have to admit everything to Kori, and that was opening a can of worms she did not want. "Well, I don't know why he would say that, and I didn't ask, because it wasn't my place."
"Uh-huh…" Kori remained unconvinced, but let it drop (which was a small miracle). "And when did he say those things?"
Raven rubbed the bridge of her nose and looked away. "Ah… well, when we went out to lunch on Saturday."
"You had lunch with him?" She squealed and jumped up onto her feet, looking down at her friend with an expression of excitement. "Lunch? Why didn't you tell me, Raven! We've been sitting here talking about boring work all day, we could have been talking about your date instead? Are you serious?"
"We get paid to talk about work," Raven deadpanned. She sighed and rolled her eyes, turning in her chair to face her friend. "Fine, Kori. I will tell you precisely what you want to know. I went to lunch with Jason, and he was perfectly nice. However, there are no feelings between him and I whatsoever, and he made that very clear. He's an annoyance, and rude, and I cannot and will not handle him. That's it."
Kori raised an eyebrow. "Except that maybe you like him." She paused and seemed to think for a moment. "And he is drop-dead gorgeous… for a gardener."
"No, I don't like him. And he is most certainly not 'drop-dead gorgeous'." Raven's head fell into her hands, and she tried to take a few deep, calming breaths. "Now, I'm done having this conversation with you, Kori. I am going back to do my work, so we can get out of here on time and I can get home before it gets dark."
"You're so sour, Raven." Kori waved her off. "He might be willing to like you if you just opened up once in a while."
"I don't want him to like me."
Raven felt a shiver run down her spine, as if someone had traced its shape with a piece of ice, and she felt her body twitch uncontrollably. She turned to the owner of the voice and looked up into the weathered face with an eye-patch and smile that reminded her of a lion stalking its prey. Slade Wilson. He was the last thing she needed to deal with today. She felt her body recoil from his proximity and stood up, wiping her suddenly clammy hands on her dress slacks. Kori frowned, but made no similar move to stand up to greet him.
Raven forced a small, polite smile. "Mr. Wilson. It's a pleasure to see you here today."
He frowned at her. "Likewise, Miss Roth. But, I am not here for pleasantries." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper, handing to her. "I've come to drop off the application you requested that I fill out in order to obtain the privileges of reading a book here." He paused, waiting for her to take it from his hands. When she did, he continued with an air of importance. "I have time open this Wednesday for an appointment, and I would like to schedule-"
"You don't get to schedule appointments, Mr. Wilson," Raven interrupted, setting the application in the stack with the others. She was trying to prove to him that he was no more important than anyone else in her life, no matter what he tried to say to her.
He looked down at her, shock lining his eyes. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I said that you don't get to schedule the appointments." She pulled herself to her full height again and stared up into his face. She didn't have time to argue with him, nor did she want to. No, she simply wanted him to know who was boss and get him out of her hair. "I decide when the appointments are made, for how long, and with what frequency. I will look at the current schedule and try to fit you in at a time that is convenient for both you and me."
His face got strangely red, and he took a deep breath, as if he was going to start shouting at any moment. After a second, he let go of the breath and forced a strained, crooked smile. "I see, Miss Roth. Well, if there's anything I can do to speed the process along, please let me know. I am more than happy to help in anyway I can."
Raven crossed her arms over her chest. "You can let me do my job, Mr. Wilson. That's all I ask." She glanced down at his application again, looking at the title of the book he wished to view. "After I investigate if there are any other people who are interested in reading this particular book, and if they have previously scheduled appointments, I will call you. Expect to hear from me tomorrow around four in the evening with a suitable time and schedule for you to look at and study the book. Is that acceptable?"
He continued to stare at her. "Do I have a choice?"
"Fine. I look forward to your call, Miss Roth." He spat her name and glared again, mumbling curses under his breath as he stormed from the office. Raven stood there and watched him leave with something strange bubbling up from the pit of her stomach like black tar. It didn't matter how many times she met him, there would always be something that made her uncomfortable and uneasy. She shifted in the silence of the room, the dread in her heart growing deeper and darker with each passing moment.
"He gives me the creeps," Kori whispered, wrapping her arms around herself as she watched him disappear down the dark hallway.
"Agreed," Raven mumbled under her breath.
A thought struck her, and she reached toward the pile of applications, pulling his from the top. She ran through the normal information and questions until she got to the book he had applied to read. Raven's brow furrowed. Uno Avulso Non. It was an unusual book, and certainly not one that she had ever seen anyone request before. It was practically unheard of until this point. Something about the title piqued her interest, and she set the application down. If he was this desperate to get his hands on it, she honestly wondered what in the world was hiding in the book's pages.
"Do you mind watching the office, Kori? I want to check something out."
"Sure." She shrugged and plopped down into Raven's seat. "I'll be here until five, just like you."
"Mm. Thanks. I'll be back in a few minutes." Raven ducked out of her office and walked down the empty hallway, hearing her heels click on the tile and echo through the empty space. The noise seemed innocent, but added with the days events, it sounded strange and ominous, like her shadow was stalking her. Slade's visit coincided perfectly with the events of this morning, and something about that felt more than off, it felt downright suspicious. It could have been a simple coincidence, but Raven had seen too much of Slade in the past few days to even consider that option, in spite of what Jason had said to her.
She came to the end of the hallway and rushed down the flight of stairs into the basement, following another hallway with flickering lights and boring, blue utility carpet, until she reached the rare book collection, hidden in the space under the university library. It was a small, tightly locked room with three dozen shelves of books, and no windows. Many of the books were placed in their own individual cubby, locked tightly behind fireproof glass and safe from damage.
Normally, Raven enjoyed coming down into this room. There was the pleasant scent of old books and ink, and sometimes it felt as if they were all shouting for her attention. These books had stories to tell and histories to relay, and she loved hearing their tales. But today, it felt different, instead of stories, she felt secrets and conspiracies. It sounded like each of the books were whispering behind her back, trying to keep something from her.
Raven ignored the prickling sensation at the back of her neck and moved deeper into the room, scanning each of the shelves until she found what she was looking for. The book seemed innocuous enough, leather bound and sitting on its back, staring up at her. It didn't look as if it had ever been taken out of it's protective case, or even glanced at from anyone. Strange, almost all of the books had been handled at least once. She gently pulled the book from its home and stared at the aged cover:
Uno Avulso Non
There were times when she really wished she spoke Latin, it would make understanding titles and references considerably easier. Ignoring her frustration, she carefully opened the first page and stared down into the slightly bleeding, aged script.
Uno Avulso Non Deficit Alter - When One is Torn Away, Another Shall Take Its Place.
Raven was not a person who ignored protocol and rules. She liked rules, there was beauty in structure and balance, and she would always appreciate that idea. But something inside her knew that this was more than just an old book. She ignored her conscience screaming at her for handling a two hundred year-old book without proper gloves, but it only increased in volume as she tucked the book under her suit jacket and smuggled it out of the archives.
Thank you so much for reading, friends! Sorry this took so long to get to you, as there was a little research that needed to be done on the real Hellfire Club in order to properly reflect the history within the story. I hope I didn't disappoint…?
Anyway, thanks for being awesome! And please leave a review if you are so inclined.
And, as always, a super special thanks to my Beta, Jezebel . V . Sterling, who helped me figure out that I shouldn't give all the secrets away in the first seven chapters.