Bones and Bourbon
Dorian Graves © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Chapter One: Retz
I woke up right when the teeth clamped down on my arm, which made me crank the wheel and almost ram into a guardrail before I realized I was driving. Neither of these things surprised me because it wasn’t the first time I’d woken up just in time to feel the hurt for whatever it was I’d unconsciously done.
What did surprise me was the identity of my attacker: a lone unicorn head. No body to speak of, just flaring nostrils, bloodshot eyes, and two rows of long, sharp teeth that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a shark.
I did the stupid thing and kept driving while I tried to shake the unicorn head off me. Why? Because I’m Retz Gallows, and I’d learned by then that even if I had no idea what I was doing when I woke up, I needed to get the job done first and ask what the fuck happened later.
I focused on the teeth that had broken through my skin (and my favorite shirt to boot) and were just striking my arm bones. My first order of business was strengthening my skeleton so the unicorn’s jaw couldn’t snap anything in half. It took just a few seconds for the bones to fortify, heavier but sturdy as stone. The unicorn gnawed my arm as if it were a chew toy. It snorted in confusion, both because of the sudden change and the fact that there was no blood or muscles in the way.
In case such wasn’t obvious, I’m not human. Well, not all the way. My father was a man of flesh, blood, and too many weapons hidden on him at any given time. But my mother was a huldra; her body was hollow, but she could still punch hard enough to stop a truck in its tracks. I’d seen her do it before too, though sadly, I hadn’t inherited nearly the same strength.
I imagined how nice it’d be if the unicorn’s teeth were fragile enough to crumble. As I did, bits of teeth stayed buried in my arm as the pieces fell apart, and the unicorn’s head fell unceremoniously into the passenger seat.
No, I hadn’t inherited the ability to control bones, even though sensing them was as natural to me as seeing and hearing. It’s a power my family wishes I’d never been given. But since I was pretty sure the unicorn head was no longer a threat, I decided it was time to ask the source of my powers what was going on.
“Nalem, you’d better not be asleep. Mind telling me where the hell we are?”
A deep, smooth voice purred an answer back in my head, “If you had bothered to look at the sign we just passed, you’d realize we’re in Oregon.”
“In case you didn’t notice, I was a bit preoccupied.”
A chuckle reverberated in my skull, and I felt the false sensation of my arms stretching, the ghost of Nalem’s actions. “Of course I did. I can tell when you’re borrowing my powers—and besides, who do you think left the head in here in the first place?”
I rounded another corner as the aforementioned head tried to headbutt my arm, horn-first. I realized I couldn’t affect the horn with my powers—it wasn’t quite bone, but something more magical that slipped away from my senses whenever I tried. So I just hardened my bones again and ignored the attack as I took in the scenery. True enough, we were on a half-paved road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by evergreens that tried to block out the bright blue sky. It was late July, so deep into summer that not even Oregon’s fondness of rain kept the heat away. My windows were rolled down, seeing as the AC in my ancient Buick had died out long ago.
“Two questions, then. Where are we going, and why do we have a unicorn head with us?”
“The same answer to both: We are traveling to visit…let us call her an old friend of mine. Her dwelling is hidden deep in these woods. And she’s the sort of woman you always remember to bring a gift for.”
I didn’t understand what kind of gift a unicorn head was, but Nalem had strange ideas involving etiquette, at least when it was or wasn’t appropriate to warp someone’s skeleton. I’ll be honest, I had no real idea what Nalem was. He had powers over bones, claimed to be old enough that he’d witnessed the rise and fall of Babylon, and my family hated him for more than just his tendency to take my body out on dangerous joyrides. He’d been with me for as long as I could remember, yelling at me to shut up when I cried, reluctantly calming me down when I wouldn’t stop crying, and giving me advice with varying degrees of dubious morality. He was like an imaginary friend that settled for an overstayed sleepover in my head, aside from being anything but made-up. Imaginary things didn’t take over bodies or twist skeletons on a whim.
Which brings us back to the unicorn head. It seemed to have realized that my bones wouldn’t break and that while I now sported some holes in my skin, the wounds were already knitting themselves back together with huldra-inherited speed. The head snorted and launched itself from the passenger seat with a whinny that’d make a shrieking banshee proud. The horn was aimed straight for my eye, so my instinct was to duck. The unicorn head sailed over me and out the window, leaving a trail of blood in its wake as it hit the road and rolled away.
Even as I sped up to get away, I strained my powers to feel for the unicorn’s bones. There was the subtle static from the skeletons of all the still-living small birds and rodents flitting around the woods, and the oddly comforting presence of bones lost to the undergrowth or strewn along the side of the road. Past those, the unicorn head rolled to a stop and tried to right itself, snapping its broken teeth all the while. There was no way for me to affect it from such a distance, unfortunately. I could only change the bones of the living if I had direct contact with the body, though I didn’t have that limit with dead bones. Which only made me wonder how the unicorn kept moving without a body. I mean, I didn’t need a heart or other organs to survive, but didn’t unicorns?
“Actually, the horns are what keep them alive. So long as the horn is attached to the head, a unicorn could be in a thousand pieces and still strive to hunt you down.” Nalem sighed and leaned back against my skull. He didn’t actually have a physical form inside me, but he affected my bones to leave impressions of his existence. “The horns are also powerful purifying agents, which might have come in use if you weren’t such a coward. But we do not have the time to turn back, and luckily for you, I brought a backup gift in case this exact scenario occurred.”
Translation: That had been a test in disguise, and I’d flunked. I tried to push the thought out of my mind and focus on what a nice day it was. But my curiosity got the better of me instead, so I pulled my senses away from the road before the static of the living gave me a headache, and I checked the rest of the car to figure out what Nalem’s idea of a backup gift was.
“…Is that a dead goat in the trunk? What kind of lady would want a goat in the first place, much less a dead one?”
Instead of responding with words, Nalem answered with flashes of memories. I caught a brief glimpse of a gorgeous blonde surrounded by velvet and lace. Following that was a giant snake head adorned in golden scales, fangs bared as she lunged. A few other images spilled into each other, so fast that I barely made out details. A city on fire, scales rising from ocean waves, the blonde dressed in mourning blacks under a cloudy sky. The styles were antiquated and the memories patchy; whoever this woman was, she had been around for at least a few centuries. And she could turn into a giant snake.
“Can’t we deal with something normal for once?” I asked. My phone rang from somewhere in the car, so I opened compartments to figure out where Nalem had hidden it. “Something like, I dunno…humans? Crazy cults or secret government groups, same as all the movies?” The question was rhetorical, of course: most humans couldn’t comprehend the supernatural. Whether I used my powers on the dissected frogs or accidentally revealed the huldra-inherited hole in my back while swimming, unnatural sights always rearranged themselves in human memories to something that made sense. Even the rare exceptions, like my father, still had difficulty believing some of the things they’d seen.
Nalem shook his head—at my question or at me calling movies normal, I’m not sure which—and pointed to the glove compartment. “The day an actual human becomes a threat to me, without any supernatural influence, will be the day I’ve lost all glory. Not that such a day will ever happen, little one.”
I ignored his cryptic comments as well as all the candy wrappers that fell out of my glove compartment when I grabbed my phone. I’d already had enough of Nalem’s bullshit for one day.
“Hey, Retz here. What’s up?”
“I’ve been trying to call you for hours!” The accented voice on the other end was both exasperated and relieved. I heard chopping and bubbling in the background of what must’ve been our bustling kitchen back home. “There’s a note here from Nalem that you left, but he didn’t say where. Or why.”
“What did he say?”
“Ahem. Erika, taking your son for a joyride. Do not expect to see us for a while. If you need Retz beforehand, suck it up. XO, XO, Nalem.”
I glanced outside. To be honest, I had no idea exactly where we were or even what time it was. “Sorry, Mom. I just woke up, and somehow, I’m in Oregon. I’m guessing a few hours out from home, unless Nalem drives like you do.”
Mom chuckled, though she still sounded ready to tear her tail out from worry, or would’ve if she still had one. As a huldra, Mom looked and sounded as human as anyone else, but back in the day when she had lived in Germany, she was a woodland seductress who could crack a man’s skull with her bare hands. She was also one of the only people Nalem seemed to fear. Maybe it was because of the time when I was five and she’d chased him through the house with a soup ladle. He was silent a whole week after that. The fact that huldra didn’t have bones for Nalem to break or internal organs to otherwise maim also bothered him more than he’d ever admit.
Mom clicked her tongue. “I should not be surprised. I already called the salon and told them you were sick.” There was a sizzle from the other end; she was either making one of her weird alchemical concoctions or a soup just as deadly and inedible. “Do you have an idea where you’re going?”
“No clue. Visiting some snake-people, apparently. You think it’d be too middle of nowhere for snakes up here.” I held my phone between my ear and shoulder as I drove. The roads were thankfully empty, if a bit windy.
“A lamia, you mean? That is strange…most lamia I’ve heard of are quite sociable, even when they puppet from the shadows. And they are not fond of the cold. Do you know their name, my sweet potato?”
I ignored the childhood nickname and realized I hadn’t asked. Nalem answered in my thoughts with a sly sneer so strong, my own face was tempted to mimic it.
“Lady Delight?” Even saying the name felt dangerous.
I heard a knife strike the countertop as Mom swore. “The name is familiar enough for me to tell you that good things never follow it. When she is involved, fortunes are made but people go missing. You must be careful.”
Of course Nalem had dubious friends. Why should I be surprised? “I will be, Mom.”
“Good. Because I hear your engine, and you shouldn’t talk and drive at the same time! Even with your body, that is most dangerous.”
I started to tell Mom that I’d be fine and the lamia were probably the more pressing danger anyway, but the world decided to contradict me instead. A large white blur zigzagged almost drunkenly across the road. I slammed on the brakes, causing my car to literally screech to a halt. The phone fell off my shoulder, bounced against the dashboard, and then dropped to my feet, Mom’s voice still harping on the other end. The Buick’s poor brakes didn’t stop it until its front bumper scraped against the guardrail, and, by then, whatever I’d nearly hit was gone. I didn’t catch a good look at the creature, except that it was around the size of an elk and way faster than one.
I gave myself a moment to breathe and make sure my ribs hadn’t actually snapped their way out of my chest before asking, “That…wasn’t what I think it was, was it?”
“The unicorn body, chasing us blindly without its head? Indeed it was.” With nothing else to hold on to, Nalem had dug his metaphorical claws into the back of my skull. He pried his fingers free, but a headache was already forming anyway.
I put the car into park for a moment and picked up the phone. “Hope I didn’t scare you, Mom. Deer jumped out at us.” I wasn’t going to worry her further by mentioning that Nalem had decided to piss off a unicorn. “Don’t worry, I’m okay. Mind if I call you back after I’ve dealt with the lamia?”
“I do mind, but I’m sure that won’t stop you. But if you don’t call back soon, I will come down and get you, so don’t worry. I’ve yet to fight a lamia, after all.” Before I could protest that I didn’t need her to punch snake-ladies for me, she added, “And do try to ask—”
“I will, Mom. Don’t worry. Love you.” I clicked the phone shut after her “I love you too,” and allowed myself a moment to catch my breath. Whatever Nalem was planning this time, it was already going downhill, and fast.
I said aloud to Nalem, “On a scale of one to ten, how worried should I be?”
“Fainting Victorian with a weak constitution. But that’s because you’re a coward.” Nalem straightened his posture and stretched his arms. “Though perhaps I should also be erring on the side of caution. Drive slower. I don’t think we’re too far off.”
“I’m beside myself with excitement. Though I gotta ask, why are we visiting her anyway?”
I felt Nalem’s sneer again; this time, my face twisted to match. He grabbed control of my voice just to show off as he told me, “Because, little one, Lady Delight wants to make an offer to us. And after all these years preparing you as a vessel, it’s time to finally put you to good use.”
An hour later, I still had no idea where, exactly, we were going. We’d long since driven off actual paved roads, and the dirt road was hard to see with all the ferns and blackberry bushes growing over it. My car was old, and I doubted it could drive well on anything other than freshly paved roads, even when it had been fresh off the lot. Plants snapped under its wheels, and I flinched at every bump. The engine drowned out all sounds of animal chatter and nature. Madonna had long since left the radio, which had given way to static. The path we were on took us up a large hill, just small enough not to count as a mountain.
“What are we even looking for?” I asked Nalem, interrupting yet another attempt at a nap. “Do they live underground or something?”
“Lady Delight would not be so crude to, as she puts it, live like a common snake.” He’d been curled up in my head but now rolled onto his back and placed his sharp heels against my skull. “As I said, I have not seen her for ages. For all I know, she’s built a mansion out here.”
Why would anyone willingly live out here, of all places? Yes, it was far from humans, but it was hermit-levels of isolated. My cell-phone bars had gone out soon after I’d talked to Mom, and I hadn’t even seen normal phone lines hiding amongst the trees. And while it was one of the few months when Oregon wasn’t drenched, the summer heat had instead left everything flimsy and three seconds away from catching fire. Maybe an overzealous survivalist would enjoy that, but a snake whose very scales looked to be made of gold? Didn’t make any sense to me, unless she happened to have a castle or something.
Which, I realized once I got to the top of the hill, she did.
The castle was large, at least to me, but didn’t come anywhere close to the surrounding trees in height. The view was right out of a storybook, with spiraling pointed towers, walls of muted gray stone strewn with ivy, and even a drawbridge with a moat. Someone had even taken the time to carve a moat around the castle, filled with murky water and riverside plants dying from the summer heat. Crisp and clean banners, red-and-blue checkerboard emblazoned with a five-headed serpent in gold, hung from under the windows. Despite the bright colors of those banners, the castle exuded an aura of cold—not in temperature, but clearly unwelcoming.
“I see someone was busy while I was gone,” Nalem muttered as I slowed the car to a stop. “That or she pulled in a lot of favors.”
“You being one of them, right?” I tugged my sleeves over my wrists and examined the damage to my poor shirt. I hadn’t even been sure unicorns were real that morning, and then they terrorized my wardrobe.
“We should be on equal ground right now. If I help her in any way, she will be the one to owe me. And if we succeed, she’s a lady better to have as an ally than an enemy.”
“I should probably be concerned that you’re now including me in whatever you’re doing.”
“We’re sharing a body. Of course you’re involved.”
He had a point, much as I wished he didn’t. I shoved my keys into my pocket and stepped out of my car. I was going to get the goat out of the back and then holler for a way in, but I was found first. A rustle came from the trees behind me, and I only had a moment to move before it came hurtling toward me. I barely managed to dodge by slipping on the grass and falling onto my ass. The two-headed beast slithered by, its black-and-red scales glistening in the sunlight. I scrambled to my feet, the palms of my hands sliding against grass and brambles. The lamia lifted both its heads, tongues flicking in the dry air. I reached out with my powers for anything I could summon.
The dead goat bashed against the locked trunk, and the lamia turned around to face me again. One head lowered to stare me in the eyes while the other reared up and poised to slam down on my poor skull. I mentally screamed at Nalem to help. Our power kicked in like a hook lodged in my chest was being pulled, or rather, it was pulling something toward me.
The two-headed snake charged again. I thrust what I had summoned, the corpse of an aged stag, in front of me while I dove behind the car. The bones split from the rotting meat of the corpse, attempting to pierce the snake. A piece of antler caught the corner of one eye. The lamia shrieked.
“There, you foolish hatchling! Is that any way to treat a guest?” Nalem stole control of my voice when I was busy fighting. He urged me to take a step forward with confidence, but I shook and barely moved. He mentally groaned at me before continuing. “Lady Delight summoned me here, and I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate you eating her honored guests.” Gesturing to my body, thin enough that my ribs almost pierced through my skin, he added, “Not much to eat here anyway.”
The lamia turned to face me again, heads low and fangs bared. For a moment, staring at those gold eyes, I thought it was going to charge again. Instead, the heads shuddered and then shrank back, scales sliding off to reveal human flesh. With popping, cracking bones and the squelching of skin, the heads gave way to reveal a woman from head to torso—and only one head, thank goodness. Her eyes were still gold, just as her lower half was still a tail covered in black scales, peppered with red. But the rest was still human—not even a caricature of one, seeing as brown roots poked out from her violet-dyed hair. She had no clothes on, but this didn’t seem to bother her in the summer heat.
“Don’t worry, I’m aware. She never said I couldn’t have some fun first, though.” She curled her tail around herself, baring her teeth at me. One hand clapped over the gouge under her eye, bits of red oozing out from between her fingers. “Not every day a legend drives up here, Harvester fuckin’ preserve me. Though I thought you’d be taller. And not driving up in a piece of shit.”
“Vessel’s choice, not mine. I was told to arrive immediately, and fancy carriages are no longer efficient or in style.” Nalem nodded toward the trunk of the car and said, “I did bring a gift, though.”
“You’ve done this song and dance before, then.” The lamia shivered again and started to offer a hand to me before hesitating, as if she just remembered who she was dealing with. “Zalin. Our Lady’s mentioned you a lot. But don’t let it get to your head, ’cause they’re mostly complaints.”
“My reputation precedes me, then. No matter; I’m here now. Do lead us in.”
Zalin nodded, waving for us to follow. Nalem started to, but I had something to say first. I broke through the numbness of his control to grab my voice. “Before we go, I was wondering, have you heard anything about an Alexander or Jarrod Gallows? Anything at all?”
Zalin turned to me, licking her lips. “No time for questions now. Our Lady’s waiting, so you can ask her later. But me, those names don’t rattle any tails. I don’t deal with people unless I’m breaking them.” With a snicker, she resumed slithering to the castle as the drawbridge eased down over the moat.
“Do save your questions involving your pathetic family for later. Or better yet, forget them,” Nalem said as he gave me control of my body back. As he spoke, I got to work opening my trunk, which took a few tries because of the age of the Buick. It was still easier than ignoring Nalem’s taunts. “It’s not like they’d get you out of this anyway, even if they hadn’t left you.”
“They left to help me get rid of you, and don’t forget that.” I finally wrenched the trunk open and lifted the goat out with my powers. I held it floating a few inches off the ground; it already smelled rank.
Nalem laughed. “Keep telling yourself that. Now, get moving before you regret it, little one.”
No need to tell me twice.