Web of Nightmares

web of nightmares

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chapter-1

drop-cap-Reg looked at the glossy new business cards with satisfaction.

Reg Rawlins

Psychic, Medium, Spiritual Advisor

The cards were thick cardstock with a rich texture and brilliant swirls of color. Nothing like the flimsy black-on-white cards she had first printed when she arrived in Black Sands. Then she had been destitute, as she always was, on the edge of homelessness, with just a few items of value that she could pawn to survive for the first month or two after getting settled. She’d expected to have to pay first and last month’s rent and a damage deposit, and that took a good outlay of cash to start out with. But Bill, the bartender at The Crystal Bowl, had introduced her to Sarah Bishop, an older witch who was looking for a tenant in her guest cottage, and things had fallen nicely into place. The rent was cheap, it was furnished, and Sarah had taken it upon herself to make sure that there was food in the fridge and that Reg had a steady stream of clients for her new psychic services business.

Even then, Reg had needed to scrimp and save, putting money away for the future when she might have to leave town in a hurry. She never knew how long a gig was going to last before everything imploded and she was on the run again.

But Black Sands had been a good find. She had made friends and had a good business going, arguably legitimate. While all of her business literature still stated ‘for entertainment purposes only’ to avoid accusations of fraud, she had found herself more suited for psychic work than she had ever imagined. Life in Black Sands was unsettled as she discovered new powers, real-life witches and fairies—a whole new world, both exciting and disturbing.

But for the first time, she had money and could afford to spend a little bit on luxuries. She had taken a couple of the glittery gemstones the fairies had given her to a jeweler to confirm what Sarah had told her—that they were real gemstones and not glass or semiprecious imitations. Real diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, and some stones that she hadn’t even heard of before. A rich reward for having helped save adolescent fairy Calliopia Papillon from certain death.

Reg ran her fingers through her red box-braids. She still couldn’t help feeling like it was all a big mistake. She had been the only one who had believed that she could do something to save Calliopia. The fairies themselves had given up hope. Calliopia’s mate had been prepared to dispatch her with the pixie version of euthanasia. All of Reg’s friends had said that it was impossible but, in the end, they had helped her out anyway. And she had succeeded.

She supposed that she should probably offer those who had accompanied her to the dwarf mountain a few gems as payment for their part in the quest. She hadn’t told anyone about the small chest of jewels she had received, and Sarah had promised to keep it quiet. She didn’t want the cottage or the big house getting broken into by someone out to steal the treasure. If Reg’s companions ever heard that she had been paid for the trip to the forge, they would probably not be too impressed that she hadn’t given them at least some token payment.

She didn’t have to tell them how much she had received. She could make it seem like she was dividing it evenly between the members of the company. They wouldn’t know the true extent of her newfound wealth.

There was a crash from across the room, and Reg’s first thought was that Nico had knocked something over. It only took her a split-second to remember that they had left the boisterous little cat back with the dwarfs, who had exalted him as a warrior cat.

It was a relief to have Nico out of the house and no longer knocking things over or attacking her with unexpected vigor, but she couldn’t help missing the mischievous kattakyn a little and wondering how he was doing in his new home.

She looked across the cottage instead at her own cat, Starlight, who had just crashed into the legs of a side table in the living room. The black and white tuxedo cat was intent on something out of Reg’s sight and she knew he was on the hunt. His whole manner had changed from that of a languid, lazy daytime cat to the feral intensity of the nighttime hunter. She moved carefully closer to him to get a glimpse of what he was chasing. Hopefully, just a shadow or a leaf blown in from outside.

A dark, hairy shape scuttled under the wicker couch and Starlight went rocketing after it. Reg couldn’t help letting out a little shriek.

“What was that? Get it, Starlight!”

She felt his irritation at her shout. Like he didn’t know what he was doing. She could see that he was already on the job.

“What is it?”

Starlight pounced, and Reg heard a crunch.

“Ugh.”

Starlight backed out from under the couch and turned toward her. Multiple legs hung from his mouth.

Reg covered her eyes. “Good kitty. Just don’t show it to me. Is it dead?” She didn’t want to look closely enough to find out, especially if it wasn’t and jumped at her when Starlight put it down. “You just go… eat it or whatever and don’t make me look at it.”

She had an impulse to let Starlight out of the cottage so that he couldn’t let whatever it was loose or leave some dead thing in the middle of the floor. But he was an inside cat, and she didn’t want to lose him. Anything could happen to him outside. Instead, she retreated. “I’m going to have a bath. Let me know when you’re… finished with it.”

In the bathtub, Reg soaked in steaming hot water and thick bubbles, another indulgence that she would never have considered before. She closed her eyes and thought about what else she could do with her newfound wealth. She could afford to move somewhere else and get her own house if she didn’t want to live in the little cottage under Sarah’s dominion any longer. But it was a comfortable situation—at least most of the time—so she wasn’t really tempted to do that. She could travel. Not a road trip like usual, sitting in a cramped car for hours, but an actual cruise or an airplane to Europe or even Australia. She could go places she’d never even dreamed of.

She could visit Erin, her former foster sister, in Tennessee, and show Erin that she’d actually made good. She’d made more than either of them could ever have expected with her skills. Erin wasn’t the only one who could make a living running a small business.

Reg’s phone buzzed on the floor beside the tub. Reg picked it up and swiped without looking to see who the caller was.

“Hello?” She felt totally relaxed for once.

“Hello, Regina.”

Corvin. Her favorite not-favorite warlock. Even over the phone, his voice sent a shiver down her spine. Nothing like the electricity when they touched or the ability he had to charm or ensorcel his prey, but it was still disconcerting. His voice was smooth and intimate, and the way that he said her name (correctly pronouncing it Reh-JEE-nah, not ree-JI-nah) made her wish—just for an instant—that he was there with her.

“Corvin. What do you want?”

“Is that any way to greet the warlock who helped you to heal Calliopia?”

“You didn’t heal her.”

“Without me giving you strength when you needed it, and taking it when you were ready to blow up the forge, would she have survived? Would you have?”

He had a point there. Reg might have done most of the work, but he had been there when she had called on him and had stepped in at critical moments to save the day.

“Fine. Did I tell you thank you?” She said it sarcastically, then realized with a pang of guilt that she probably hadn’t. She’d been focused on her losses and healing Calliopia. She hadn’t expressed much appreciation to anyone in her company. Least of all Corvin.

He had been only too happy to feed off of her powers, and he had taken more from her than she had intended. She still felt off-balance and wasn’t sure how much of her power he had taken from her and what abilities he had left her with. It was hard enough trying to understand and manage the skills she had newly discovered in Black Sands. Having them taken away or altered was like taking a blow to the face; she was stunned, hurt, and didn’t know how much damage had actually been done.

“It would be nice to hear a thank you,” Corvin agreed. “Even better to hear that you remember what you promised me back in the beginning.”

Reg frowned and ran her fingers through the bubbles. “What do you mean, what I promised? You mean back when you stole my gifts?”

“I didn’t steal them; I contracted for them. And no, I didn’t mean that beginning. I meant when you first got the foolish notion to help Calliopia.”

“It wasn’t foolish. It worked, didn’t it?”

“That doesn’t make it less foolish. Just a better-than-expected outcome.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When you asked for strength so that you could go back and help her.”

“I didn’t…” Reg trailed off, remembering. He was right. She had made a deal. She had agreed to go out on a date with him.

Again.

Because all of the others hadn’t ended disastrously enough.

“Oh.”

“Yes.” Corvin agreed. “So do you want to pick the restaurant this time, or shall I? You can start working on that thank you speech and tell me over wine how much you appreciate my help.”

“I do appreciate what you did. But I don’t think I’m up for a date right now.”

“Why not? It would seem to me to be the best time. You don’t have any big jobs to do right now. You don’t have a dying cat or fairy on your hands. No supernatural parents coming out of the woodwork. So why not?”

She didn’t want to tell him that she wasn’t strong enough to withstand him anymore. Maybe she was; she hadn’t tested herself to find out. If Corvin still wanted to see her, then he still wanted to take more of her powers. And she didn’t even know what she had left.

“It’s just not a good time.”

“Then when would be? We can set up a time now. At least put a pin in the date.”

“No… I might be going on a trip. I’m not sure when I’ll be here.”

“You’re going on a trip? You just got back from your quest to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I would think you would want to relax at home for a while.”

“I haven’t decided yet. Arrangements are up in the air. So we’ll have to see.”

“I have a sneaking suspicion you’re just trying to put me off.”

“Now you’re the psychic? I wouldn’t put out your shingle quite yet.”

“I think there are enough psychics in this town to go around.” Corvin’s voice held a bite that Reg didn’t normally hear from him, and it stung a little. There was no reason she should be offended that he thought there were enough psychics around. He desired her powers, even if he said he wouldn’t want to be a psychic. She rolled her eyes and sank a little deeper into the water.

Corvin eventually broke the silence, his tone less acid. “Well, Regina, even if it is just for a cup of coffee… I look forward to seeing you again. Don’t be a stranger.”

When Reg got tired of soaking in the tub, she toweled off and opened the door a crack for a peek at what was going on in the cottage. She didn’t hear any more chasing, pouncing, or crunching going on. She didn’t hear or see anything out of the ordinary. But she also didn’t see Starlight. She hoped he wasn’t hiding, waiting for her to come out so that he could present her with the prize.

But then, what would be worse? Seeing it? Or not seeing it and stepping on it or coming across pieces here and there throughout the house over the next few days?

Maybe it would be better if Starlight brought it to her. Whatever it was.

She entertained the fantasy for a few seconds that maybe he had just picked up a twig or a piece of yarn or something equally innocuous, and she had only imagined that it was something worse.

But she knew in her heart that it wasn’t true. There had definitely been legs. And something had run across the floor before Starlight had pounced.

“Starlight? Hey, where are you, Star?”

There was no answering meow or patter of soft paws. Reg stepped out of the bathroom and looked around, hoping to spot him. No sign of him in the kitchen or living room, unless he were hiding behind or under something. Reg looked around the kitchen island to be sure, then went to her bedroom.

Starlight was sleeping on the bed as if nothing had happened.

Reg looked around on the floor, stepping carefully to make sure she didn’t put her foot onto anything.

“Where did you put it? I don’t want to find it around here later…”

Starlight opened one eye, his blue one, and looked at her without expression. Reg scowled and pointed at him.

“You know what I’m talking about. Where is it? Where is the… whatever it was you caught?”

Starlight curled his head under, closing his eye again and beginning to purr. Reg reached over to pet him, looking around him carefully to make sure that the thing wasn’t on the bed. If he were lying on it…

But there wasn’t anything on the bed but the cat himself. And Reg’s messy blankets. She always meant to make the bed as soon as she got up in the morning. She knew that other people managed it. But somehow, she never quite got around to it. And when she walked by later in the day, and it was still messy, she wanted to straighten it, but it seemed like a waste of time and energy when it would only be made for a few more hours and then she would be sleeping again.

She was a terrible housekeeper. It was a good thing she had Sarah looking after her.

She turned toward the big house at the front of the lot, reaching out mentally to sense whether Sarah was there or not. She sensed someone and wondered at first whether it was an intruder but, when she took a few steps toward the house, the feeling resolved, and she knew that one of the people who had just arrived home was Sarah. But she wasn’t sure who the other was.

It wasn’t fair that Corvin had taken so much, making her feel half-blind, like she was bumbling around in the dark or without glasses. Not that she needed glasses. But some psychic goggles might be helpful.

The thought drew Reg out of the bedroom and into the living room, where she took her crystal ball down off the shelf. She had initially bought it as a prop, to make herself look more legitimate, but it had ended up being a tool that she used frequently, helping her to focus her thoughts and to clarify her vision.

She placed it on the coffee table and sat down in her favorite chair. Starlight often came out when he knew she was looking into the crystal, but he didn’t this time. Getting his energy back after the chase or sleeping off a stomach full of something nasty. Reg made herself as comfortable as possible in the wicker chair and stared into its depths, looking beyond the shiny surface and a few bubbles in the glass, into the heart of the crystal.

But she didn’t see anything. Just glass. A sea of glass. No shapes to indicate who was there or things to come or to pinpoint the location of some lost object.

Reg sighed and decided to go up to the house for a look. Sarah always said she was welcome at any time.

chapter-2

drop-cap-reg knocked at the back door and opened it, putting her head through the opening to call out to Sarah. It still made her a little uncomfortable to treat the house as if it were her own. She was always a bit anxious about being too familiar and raising Sarah’s ire. Sarah didn’t get angry very often, but when she did…

“Sarah? Anybody home?”

“Come in, Reg.”

Reg followed the answering voice into Sarah’s sitting room in the front of the house. She and the person Reg hadn’t been able to recognize by feel or see in the crystal were sitting comfortably, obviously mid-conversation.

“Reg, dear. This is Jacky Lane. Jacky, my tenant and good friend, Regina Rawlins.”

Reg nodded and smiled. “Glad to meet you,” she said more boldly than she felt, and offered her hand to Jacky Lane to shake. When in doubt, act confident and march right in. “Are you new in Black Sands? I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

“Yes, brand new,” the woman agreed.

“We’re old friends,” Sarah said with a little laugh.

Jacky was younger than Sarah.

Well, most people were younger than Sarah, who claimed to be centuries old, but she looked to be in her late fifties, and the new woman seemed like she was in her forties or maybe early fifties. If she were a magical practitioner, then she too might be much older than she looked. Reg wasn’t sure what it was that made the practitioners look so much younger. It had never seemed like the right time to ask. The newcomer had long, curly brown hair with a gray streak coming from one temple. She was slim and athletic-looking and had a pleasant smile.

“So nice to meet you,” Reg repeated. She looked at Sarah, trying to ask with her body language and expression whether Jacky Lane was a practitioner or not.

Sarah gave a very slight shrug, and Reg figured that Sarah did not think it was an appropriate time to broach the subject. Reg was still trying to get a handle on such things. When was it polite to ask someone whether they were magical or had some sort of paranormal powers? Did she have to wait for the other person to bring it up? And what if she did put her foot in her mouth and brought up magic to someone who was not a practitioner or even a believer?

She supposed she would just laugh it off, make a joke of it. But she wouldn’t want to irritate people or forces that didn’t like to be made light of either.

“So… what is it you do?” Reg asked, hoping that might get her a little closer to an answer.

Sarah raised her brows and looked at Jacky for her answer.

“I don’t know what I’ll do here,” Jacky said, rolling her eyes a little in embarrassment. “I’m looking around. I was teaching yoga back in Texas.”

“Oh,” Reg nodded with interest. Yoga was one of those things that suggested Jacky might at least be open to magic, even if she weren’t a practitioner. Some things like yoga, feng shui, and veganism seemed to indicate that people might be more receptive to alternative lifestyles or life forces. “There are classes at some of the community places around here. Sarah is tapped into all of the community stuff, so she can probably tell you where to apply. If that’s what you want to do here, I mean. Maybe you want to start fresh with something else.”

“Maybe,” Jacky agreed.

“Do you want to make yourself a cup of tea and sit down with us?” Sarah suggested to Reg.

Normally, Reg would have demurred, but she didn’t want to go back to the cottage to see if she could find what Starlight had caught. Or released. After a moment of hesitation, she nodded.

“Actually, yeah. I wouldn’t mind visiting for a little while.”

Sarah nodded, looking mildly surprised. She moved as if to get up. “Let me get things out for you—”

“Oh, I know where everything is.” Reg waved her back down. “I can find my way around. I’ll just be a few minutes. However long it takes the kettle to boil.”

Sarah nodded and leaned back.

Reg retreated to the kitchen. She turned on the fancy new electric kettle and opened the cupboard to look over the array of teas that Sarah had on hand. A lot of them were handcrafted, and Reg never knew whether they would taste good or be medicinal and nasty. So she stuck to the commercial teas still in their boxes. There was a green package of mint tea that appealed to her. With a little honey to sweeten it, it would be almost like dessert.

The conversation had moved on, when she returned to the sitting room, to the wildlife and environment around Black Sands. Sarah was talking about the Everglades, and Jacky sat patiently sipping her tea. Sarah only talked about the well-known plants and animals in the Everglades, no foxfire or swamp goblins, or whatever else happened to live in the marshes that Reg wasn’t aware of. That was one place she really didn’t want to explore. Alligators and snakes were bad enough.

“I know the answer is probably yes,” Reg said during a break in the conversation, “because it’s a warm place, and these things always seem to like warm climates… but are there any kinds of… big spiders around here.”

“Oh sure,” Sarah said with a laugh. “A lot of different kinds. Banana spiders, wolf spiders…”

“I shouldn’t have asked…”

“As you said, they like warm climates.”

“But they wouldn’t be in the house, right? They couldn’t get inside?”

“You never know. They can squeeze in through some very small cracks. Or come in on your grapes and sneak out when you’re not looking.”

Reg gave a shudder. She liked grapes. But she wasn’t going to be buying them any time soon after hearing that. Or bananas. She assumed that banana spiders rode in on bunches of bananas. So much for fruit in her diet.

She tasted her mint tea. It wasn’t bad. “I’m not big on bugs.”

Sarah shrugged. “Live and let live,” she said philosophically. Then she raised one eyebrow. “Although, some of them are supposed to have certain… medicinal qualities.”

Which meant, Reg assumed, that Sarah would put them in potions. She resolved again never to have any of Sarah’s handcrafted teas without a full list of ingredients and assurances that there was nothing formerly large and hairy ground up in it.

“Traditional Chinese Medicine uses a lot of animal ingredients,” Jacky contributed. “Just very small amounts, but some of the endangered species are supposed to have very powerful medicinal effects. Which is why they are endangered. They’ve been hunted to the point of extinction.”

“That’s very sad,” Reg said. She looked for a way to change the topic. She didn’t want a lecture on veganism or saving the world or whatever else Jacky might be into. “Did Sarah tell you that she has a parrot? I bet Jacky would be interested in Frostling,” Reg suggested.

Sarah tilted her head to the side slightly, studying Reg to see what she was getting at. “I do,” she said slowly. “An African gray parrot that has been in my family for a very long time.”

“Oh, does he talk?” Jacky asked with interest.

Reg remembered the parrot telling her wryly that birds couldn’t talk. “Yes, a little.”

“How interesting. I hear they are very intelligent. Smarter than dogs. You can even hold a conversation with some of them, at a low level, like a toddler.”

“They are certainly smarter than a toddler,” Sarah corrected. “Frostling is, anyway. He’s a very intelligent creature.”

“I’d like to see him. Could I?”

Reg decided that she should probably head back to her own house. Check in on Starlight and make sure he hadn’t eaten anything else. Her previous encounter with Frostling had not been a pleasant one and she didn’t want a repeat.

“Is it that late already?” she asked, looking out the window at the level of the sun in the sky. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to sneak out.”

“Thank you for coming over,” Sarah said. “It was nice to have you.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Jacky chimed in.

Reg nodded to her, decided she didn’t need to shake hands again, and headed out the back door.

She didn’t actually need to check on Starlight. Everything still seemed to be fine at the cottage, with no sign of the spider or whatever kind of critter she had seen. Reg decided to grab her purse and head over to The Crystal Bowl for dinner. It was a bit early, but she could have a drink or two, followed by a meal when it was a civilized hour. There were always people at The Crystal Bowl. Sarah would probably head over there herself once she was finished her visit with Jacky. Although being old friends, they might already have other plans.

Reg paused outside after locking the door. She could smell the scent of the flowers in the garden as the day started to cool. She wandered around to the back garden to breathe it in. And to make sure that a certain warlock was not hanging around where he should not be, trying to charm her with his rose-scented pheromones.

The garden appeared to be deserted. Reg stood still for a moment, watching and listening. She had found that Forst, the gardener, often blended in with the plants when he was working there. She could rarely see him unless he wanted to make himself known. And of course, Corvin could be hiding in the shadows starting to gather.

Waiting, she didn’t see or sense any other parties. She was alone, as far as she could tell, with the wind chimes echoing the sound of the elven bells she had heard there before Yule.

She breathed in the delicate scent of the flowers once more and went on.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Web of Nightmares

By P.D. Workman

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