Donna “Don” Kyle was exhausted. She and her partner had been on the road for almost two days without stopping, and there were limits to even her superhuman stamina. Their last investigation had been a group of vampires who had grown dangerously brazen after killing an undersized pack of werewolves, leaving little time for support and forcing the pair to confront them directly. Before that had been a string of haunted houses followed by a fiend that was mind-controlling feral dogs. Their next assignment was special as there was a suspected mage involved and the pair had a personal interest in any mage related issues, but mages were quick to go to ground and getting the assignment had been a bone of contention. If agents weren’t so thin on the ground, there was no way their handler would have given them work across the country, but the times were special. The sudden drop in the werewolf population a couple years back had the Choir’s North American division on its heels and agent shuffles were growing much more common.
Allie was sleeping fitfully in the passenger seat. Espers like her needed a great deal of sleep to function properly, so it fell to Don to handle the grunt work of being awake days on end when needed. Recently, Allie had been sleeping poorly for some unknown reason, which made things worse. Being Allie’s shield was draining, but caring for the little Esper as Don did made this recent development even harder to cope with.
“Where are we?” Allie yawned without moving much. She was curled into a ball in her seat under a small weighted blanket they had recently obtained to deal with her restlessness. It helped somewhat, but it wasn’t a perfect solution. Her wealth of hair, with its signature red streak cutting through like a vein of ruby running through onyx, was twisted into a thick braid that she had pulled under the blanket with her.
“Nebraska,” Don said. “We are going to need to stop for gas soon.”
Allie grunted and used her telekinetic powers to drag the blanket into the backseat and fold it. “You want me to take over?”
“No. I’m fine.” Don pushed her short, sandy locks back off her forehead. “I’m in the zone at this point. How did you sleep?”
“Like shit.” Allie adjusted her seat to be more upright. “Dreams are getting more vivid. It might be a good idea to head home when we have more time so I can get checked out.”
“Should I be worried?”
Allie was too young for her powers to mutate into the prophetic, but the fear was always in the back of Don’s mind. Espers all become oracles eventually, as the weight of their powers grows too heavy for a sane mind to carry.
Allie waved her off. “What is that smell? It’s really nice. Cozy even.”
Don allowed the dodge. “I don’t smell anything. Maybe it’s those trees?”
Along the road, a thin forest had grown to dominate the view. The trees were all very similar and strange. Each looked like a weeping willow, with thick trunks and wide canopies. Long reddish vines hung from the branches down to the ground, though with the sun setting and the dense foliage of the trees, it was growing harder to see much more detail than that.
“I thought you said we were in Nebraska?” Allie squinted at the trees.
“They all seem pretty evenly spaced out. Maybe it’s an orchard?”
“Could be. That would explain why they look strange. They smell great, though.” Allie rolled her window down and inhaled deeply. “Like, really great. Kind of familiar. You ever seen these before? The smell reminds me of the Cellar.”
“Under Haven? Really?” Don rolled her own window down. The headquarters of the Choir in North America had a massive, magically reinforced cavern beneath it that hid the Choir’s more clandestine activities as well as their training facilities. It didn’t really have a smell that Don could place that would bring up memories, certainly nothing that these trees were giving off.
“Yeah. You know the woods around the lake? The smell reminds me of that. I loved that lake when I was in the Academy,” Allie said wistfully.
“Don’t get all nostalgic on me.”
“Right, right. Oh, I think the town is coming up.”
The car passed a fairly large billboard, welcoming them to Williamsted. Don secretly hated small towns. They all looked the same. They all felt the same. Piled up secrets and barely restrained darkness bundled into a package of picturesque views and healthy lawns. The issue was that so many things could and did go wrong in them; she couldn’t help but become tense whenever she entered one. This place was no different in triggering her internal alarms, but there was something more, and it started with the trees.
Those trees from outside of town appeared to be eerily prevalent. It was to where they were the only trees Don could see; like no other trees ever existed. She’d never been in a city, town, or forest that only had a single type of tree in it. Not in the American Midwest, at least.
As they pulled into a gas station, Don’s internal alarm wouldn’t settle down. “Hey, Allie. This place is really giving me a bad feeling.”
“You’re just wired,” Allie said, placing a hand on her arm. It was frustratingly soft and light. “You’ve been fighting so much, and we haven’t had any downtime. Once we get to the next assignment and confirm if it’s her or not, we’ll try and get a few days’ rest. You want a snack?”
“I’ll be fine,” Don replied as the pair exited the car. She opened the gas cover and took off the cap. Allie has a personal vendetta against a particular mage that, to a degree, Don shared, hence the rush. Allie also wasn’t wrong about Don being wired. The more she fought, the more she looked for fights. In the last few days, she’d been in a lot more than usual. Allie was rested, at least more so than Don was. If Allie wasn’t concerned, maybe she could relax
“Sure.” Don let her eyes wander the area. She couldn’t relax. She knew better. She was Allie’s protector, and nothing would cause her to screw that job up faster than being lax.
The town seemed very well kept, with all the business buildings on the main road looking freshly painted. A few shops had banners celebrating the “Eternal Harvest,” whatever that was. The banners were colorful and carried familiar iconography.
Don locked the pump trigger in place and stepped around the car so she could see the banner better. It had what appeared to be Fae drawn on it. It was fairly detailed and showed a cheerful faerie and an uncomfortably accurate goblin. As she stared at the banner, something in her memory swam just beneath the dark. Something she felt in this moment would be extremely important, but her tired mind just couldn’t drag it out.
The click of the trigger lock releasing snapped her out of her musing. As she rounded the car to replace the pump, Allie exited the gas station store, waving a friendly goodbye to someone inside.
“Hey, Allie, check out that banner over there.” Don pointed, hopeful that Allie might remember whatever was escaping her at the moment.
“Oh, the clerk told me about that. It’s a local festival. Goes year-round,” Allie said, a tinge of excitement in her voice. “These trees have a fruit that’s supposed to be really amazing. They had a recent breakthrough in the last couple of years, and they are getting ready to bring the stuff to the rest of the country.” Allie held up a bottle of reddish brown liquid and shook it a little. “They gave me a free sample.”
Don gave her a flat look. “I am not drinking that weird-ass juice, from some weird-ass fruit, from those weird-ass trees, in this weird-ass town. And you shouldn’t either.”
“Well, I already had one inside, and it tasted like my childhood.” Allie smirked. “They have a fair on the far edge of town that we are going to check out because I know you need a break.”
Don started to speak, but stopped. She wasn’t sure how, but she knew her partner was compromised. Whatever it was, may have slipped past Allie’s well honed mental armor, but Don’s iron will made her immune to such things. Espers were partnered with a corpus blessed with that ability for just this reason. Allie was the boss and the brains and Don was Allie’s armor—barring that, her rescuer. You always bring your esper home. So, to do that, she needed to know what she was dealing with. If push came to shove, she could call home. “You know what? You’re right. Let’s check out this fair.”