The Solstice Countdown – Lisa Shearin

For a welcome change, I was doing what normal people did for the holidays. I was going home to visit my family for Christmas and bringing my boyfriend to meet them. That was where “normal” screeched to a crashing halt. No one, nowhere, would ever describe me, my family, or my boyfriend as normal. My name is Makenna Fraser. I’m a seer and agent for SPI (Supernatural Protection & Investigations), based out of their world headquarters in New York. Since joining SPI, I’d helped prevent a horde of grendels from turning Times Square into a midnight buffet on New Year’s Eve, played a big part in keeping the tri-state area’s undead population from becoming permanently dead, found a literal Hellpit in time to stop a demonic invasion of New York, helped free the delegates of the supernatural world’s UN from a dimension populated by monsters picked from their nightmares, and most recently, had kept Las Vegas from becoming ground zero for a supernatural villain’s coming-out party. I loved my job, I was good at it, and lives were saved as a result. There weren’t many workplaces where you could get that kind of job satisfaction. My SPI coworkers and I would’ve had a much tougher time accomplishing all of the above without the goblin dark mage who was in the passenger seat of our rented Jeep Wrangler—the aforementioned boyfriend who was about to be introduced to my family. I knew he was nervous, but he wasn’t about to show it. Rake Danescu was a dark mage, spymaster, and recently named duke of the goblin court as well as governor of Earth’s goblin colony. Yes, his bank accounts packed a lot of commas and zeros, but that didn’t impress me. I loved who he was, not what he had. Rake had previously occupied a place of dishonor on SPI’s most-wanted and watched list.

He’d redeemed himself, and was now my mostwanted, and I was taking him home to meet my family. Rake came from an old-world world, and as we Southerners said, “his momma raised him right.” Rake was a door opener, he stood when a lady entered the room (even if the woman wasn’t much of a lady), and he pulled out chairs. In short, Rake was the perfect gentleman. Except when he wasn’t. And he was perfect at that, too. I hid my slow grin by turning my head slightly to glance out the driver’s side mirror. Rake was the consummate bad boy in all the best ways. Mom had warned me about them. Though to hear my family talk, my dad had been a bad boy, too.

Apparently, I took after Mom. My bad boy and I were way overdue for a vacation. For now, we’d be having Christmas with my family. An extended vacation would come later. After my SPI partner Ian Byrne’s bravery during our last mission in Las Vegas, Rake had sent Ian and his girlfriend, Kylie O’Hara, SPI’s director of media and public relations, on an all-expenses-paid trip to Bora Bora. After Christmas, Rake and I would be going to that tropical paradise ourselves. We’d taken Rake’s jet to Asheville and were driving the rest of the way in the rented Jeep. Once off the interstate, there was nothing but twisty mountain roads farther into North Carolina’s western corner, and my hometown. The winter solstice was tonight. We’d made the trip a few days earlier than planned because a storm was due to blow in from the south.

Winter storms from the south sent up red flags with North Carolina meteorologists. What we got precipitation-wise could be bad—either snow or ice. Or both in alternating layers with sleet and hailstone sprinkles on top. That’s why we’d decided to fly in rather than drive from New York. Get there quicker, dodge the storm, and spend more time with my family. I was coming home for the first time in a year, and I was bringing the first serious relationship I’d ever had home with me. Home was Weird Sisters, a little town nestled in a remote mountain valley. It didn’t show up on Google Maps, was named in reference to the three witches in Macbeth, and the first word of the town name perfectly described most of its citizens. Weird Sisters was settled by the kind of people that most people didn’t want to have living next door. Outsiders passing through instinctively knew whether they belonged here or ought to just keep going.

The town was located on ley lines that magnified psychic and paranormal energies. That might have been what attracted people—and nonpeople—to stop and stay. SPI kept the human world from finding out about the supernatural world. It wasn’t even all that difficult, especially with modern technology. The CGI in Game of Thrones made you suspend your disbelief of dragons. Daenerys’s kids looked plenty real, but everyone knew it was just Hollywood magic, not the real kind, because there wasn’t any such thing as real magic. Or monsters. I’d seen it hundreds of times: Humans jump through all kinds of mental hoops and contort themselves into knots, all to deny the existence of what had just scared the bejesus out of them. The truth—in the form of a ghoul—could be staring them in the face, a face about to get bitten off. Denial was comfortable, even though it didn’t make them safe.

They were in denial about that, too. People thought that simply not believing in something would keep them safe from it. I had news: a ghoul didn’t care if you believed in it or not. In fact, it’d probably rather you didn’t. Disbelief made people freeze, or at least hesitate when they should be running for their literal lives. Hesitation merely helped that ghoul get to eating you sooner. Our little town was filled with the weird, the eccentric, and the otherworldly. But they’re the weird, eccentric, and otherworldly I grew up with and was related to. We didn’t fear the strange; we welcomed it to the neighborhood and invited it home to dinner. Though in all honesty, some of our nonhuman townsfolk would rather have it for dinner.

Our main street is lined with shops, cafés, tearooms, and bookstores populated with psychics, mediums, crystal healers, tarot and palm readers, clairvoyants, and way too much more. Between that and the influx of tourists from all over the place, Weird Sisters has successfully made a booming business from the bizarre. There was no hiding what Rake was from my family. Most of us were seers. Some were much more. I’ve had my seer ability from birth. I was a precocious one. The rest of my relatives got their gifts at the same time as their pimples. Down through the years, the Frasers have taken it on themselves to protect the prey from the predators. Since the town’s founding in 1786, there’s been a Fraser in the top law enforcement spot.

Agnes Millicent Fraser is the family and town matriarch. Grandma Fraser has three daughters— and psychic visions. My mom, Margaret, is a seer who was a self-described free spirit in her younger days. (Grandma says she was a hippie.) After Mom finished sowing her wild whatever, she came back home pregnant with me, settled down, got civic-minded, and has been elected mayor three times. My aunts Eleanor and Victoria stayed close to home. Aunt Nora is a medium who runs the local B&B and is head of the town chamber of commerce. Aunt Vickie is a seer and the chief of police. Her husband is her second-in-command, and the rest of the department consists of four officers: a vampire, a werewolf, and two humans. I’d never even known my father.

There were photos and stories, but that was it. He’d been a student with Mom at university, and he’d died before I’d been born. It’d worked out nicely that my grandmother, mom, and aunts Vickie and Nora were the only Frasers in town this year for Christmas. I wouldn’t want to overwhelm Rake by subjecting him to the entire clan on the first visit. The local color didn’t stop with my family. The town’s volunteer fire chief was a pyrokinetic. He mostly put out fires. Starting them was reserved for quarterly fire department training sessions. Our town doctor was the grandson of a Cherokee medicine man. There was an antique shop run by a psychometrist.

Being able to identify cursed objects with a simple touch had come in handy more than once. However, not everyone who lived in Weird Sisters was a supernatural, psychic, or clued in to either one. Then there were the tourists. Business was too good to blow it by excessive PDA (public displays of ability). We kept things on the down low. For example, the local coven met monthly under the guise of a book club. In short, nothing rattled my family. But none of us had ever brought home a goblin for Christmas. My mom and grandmother had both known what Rake was, and we had done the Zoom meeting thing at least once a month since Rake and I had gotten serious. Rake had been glamoured for the beginning of the first conversation, then had dropped the glamour once the two most important women in my life had been prepared.

After the first call to Mom and Grandma, Aunt Vickie and Nora had joined in. Rake hadn’t said it, but he had to have felt like he was sitting in an interrogation room. At her first sight of the real Rake, Mom’s eyes had gone a little wide, Aunt Vickie raised one eyebrow, Aunt Nora inhaled what had to have been half the air in the room, and Grandma’s expression hadn’t changed one bit. A cagey one, Grandma Fraser, hard to read and even more difficult to predict. For the next four calls, Rake had been his usual hot goblin self, and conversation had flowed more or less smoothly. Rake was a charmer. Mom and my aunts had allowed themselves to be charmed. A little. Grandma was as hard as the granite in the mountains she and our ancestors had tamed and called their own. It didn’t mean she didn’t like Rake.

It meant she was reserving final judgment for a face-to-face meeting. Grandma didn’t trust technology to convey what was inside a person. She needed contact—a long handshake and an even longer stare. That little woman could pierce your soul with her bright blue eyes. “Hunter eyes,” the family called them. She was in her eighties and could still shoot the fleas off a bear that made the poor choice to mess with her prized flock of wool sheep. Grandma always said the measure of a man or woman showed in their eyes. No one, and I do mean no one, was a better judge of character than Agnes Millicent Fraser. If she accepted Rake, everyone would accept Rake. If she didn’t…well, this would be a short and awkward visit.

All the calls had gone well, though I had to admit, it’d been less nerve-wracking to do that first look at the real Rake online. Now, everything was going to be in the same room, up close and personal. I was gonna be eating Tums like candy to get through the stress of the next few days. I was partial to Tums mints. Acid control and fresh breath while I argued with my family. I’d also need to assure them that I wasn’t Rake’s toy or human pet. Goblins had a well-earned reputation for arrogance and thinking themselves superior to any other race or species. Rake wasn’t like that. I knew it. Now I needed to make sure my family did, too.

If the next few days didn’t go well, I’d be needing a prescription for something stronger than Tums. I took a deep breath and let it out as the blur of snow-covered trees passed in my peripheral vision. I’d chosen Rake and he’d chosen me. I desperately wanted my family to approve of him, of us. But if they didn’t, they didn’t. It would hurt and hurt bad because I loved my family, but it wouldn’t change how I felt about him. My family knew I’d made up my mind and given my heart (and other parts) to Rake. They also knew that if I changed my mind, it would come from me and not them. The next move was theirs and theirs alone. Rake reached over and rubbed my thigh.

I didn’t have a hand to spare. For me, driving a Wrangler took both hands, that is, when I wasn’t changing gears. Sure, it had power steering, but driving a Jeep was a fully interactive experience, at least it was for me. “It’ll be fine,” Rake told me. “I’d rather it be better than fine.” “That’s up to me and them. Your part is done.” “That’s the problem. There’s really nothing more I can do. I’m a control freak, remember?” Silence from Rake.

“You’re not even going to try to disagree with the control freak part?” Rake smiled and patted my leg. “That’s another thing I love about you. I can always count on you to tell the truth.” “Thanks. I think.” All that apprehension had grown and wadded itself up into a Gordian knot of fight-or-flight. Oh yeah, this was going to be the vacation of my dreams. I wished we’d gone to Bora Bora with Ian and Kylie. 2 There were no straight roads within twenty miles of Weird Sisters. I knew every curve, which was why I was driving.

I knew the depressions in the road where water tended to pool, and in winter, turn to ice. There was enough snow to cover the ground and roads, but not enough to form a safety barrier between tires and the ice lurking just beneath. I’d thought that my years living in New York and rarely driving might have dulled my instincts, but once we were close to home, it all came back. The rental Jeep was new and unfamiliar. My Jeep was an old friend that I’d grown up driving on these roads year-round. Most people would complain that they felt every bump in the road. Not me. I called it being at one with my Jeep, and it was a good thing. My Wrangler didn’t have any fancy bells and whistles, just the basics needed to get me where I was going. This Jeep was virtually new and seriously loaded.

In my opinion, a tricked-out Wrangler was just wrong. And “wrong” had taken a sharp left turn into “obscene” when they’d made this one an automatic. Jeep Wranglers should have a stick. Period. “There’s a lot of fog around here,” Rake noted. “We’ve got hot springs running all under the town and surrounding mountains,” I said. “It takes a lot of snow to get any kind of coverage. In some places, a foot at one house could be slush at their neighbor’s.” Within the next quarter mile, the Jeep became completely encased in fog. The headlights reflected back at us, and I had to slow to a crawl.

I knew which way the road was supposed to go, but it would be all too easy to misjudge exactly where the road was. In most places, we’d be stopped by trees. In others, it’d be a freefall off the side of the mountain. I didn’t want to experience either one. I’d never run off the road around here myself, but I’d heard descriptions from Aunt Vickie of people who had. Fortunately, I knew these roads like the proverbial back of my hand. Rake was scowling and fiddling with his phone. “Checking my nav skills against Google Maps?” I asked. “I’d like to, but I can’t. My phone’s not working.

No signal. Is that normal here?” The tiny knot already in residence in my stomach started growing. “No, it’s not. There’s a tower about ten miles from here. They tried to make it look like a pine tree. Emphasis on tried.” “How much farther?” “About seven miles, but all of it’s on roads like this.” He raised a brow. “Your tourists come in on—” “Oh, Lord no. Grandma’s house isn’t in town.

This is the shorter…” I took a quick glance in my side and rearview mirrors at the wall of fog surrounding us. “And usually scenic route. To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen fog this bad.” The Jeep suddenly stalled, leaving us coasting down a dip in the road. The lights on the dashboard flickered and died. My next few words expressed my displeasure with our piece of crap rental. The Jeep slid to a stop at the bottom of the dip. I hadn’t been going fast enough to have any momentum to even get a start up the next hill. I put the Jeep in park and tried to crank it. Click.

I tried again even though I knew what I’d get. Another click. Something had just sucked the life right out of the battery, or it hadn’t had enough juice when we’d left Asheville. Great. Dead Jeep, equally dead phones. The knot in my stomach tightened with a jerk. The horn honked and we both jumped. Then the radio blared, going up and down the line of stations and static. I looked up through the windshield, half expecting one of the UFOs from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to be hovering over us. Nothing but fog above and all around.

The wind picked up, sending the powdery snow swirling as the frozen crystals caught the last of the day’s light. Twilight. I had several bad feelings about this. The Jeep’s interior glowed red as Rake powered up his defensive magic, and our headlights began to dim along with my hopes. I froze. “What is it?” “Don’t know, but they’re not friendlies.” “They?”

.

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