“Werewolves are real and I have a talking bracelet.” Neil laughed. “Great.”
“You have the Reliquary,” Myrna corrected.
“And ugly shoes,” Flanders added smugly. “Werewolves despise all manner of clogs.”
Neil ignored him. “And the Reliquary is what now?””
“An eternal repository for wayward spirits collected by a great wizard. There are thirteen chambers and each contains an earthly fragment of the spirit’s former vessel.” Myrna pointed. “That one near your thumb, the little curl? That’s mine!”
There was indeed a small curl of brown hair where Myrna indicated, and Neil frowned. “And why did this wizard want to collect a bunch of dead people’s souls?”
“For our magic, obviously.” Myrna beamed. “I am quite the kitchen witch, I’ll have you know.”
“What do you do?” Neil asked Flanders. “Bark at squirrels? Chase the mailman?”
“I can channel the eternal fire and toxic sulfur straight from Hell, but please, keep making dog jokes.” Flanders rolled his eyes.
“Will do.” Neil looked back to Myrna. “Is he for real? Like, is all of this… really for real?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” Myrna’s brow furrowed. “We’re here to serve whoever holds the Reliquary. Which is you right now, of course.”
“However you’d wish!” Myrna held up her finger. “Within reason. You can’t ask us to perform tasks outside of our abilities and get your mind out of the gutter because we’re not those kind of spirits.”
“So, no askin’ Ned over there for doggy style?”
“My name is Flanders,” Flanders growled.
“Right. Got it. No Simpsons in Hell, I guess.” Neil slowly stood and then took a few careful steps away from Myrna and Flanders toward the counter. “What, uh, kinda stuff did Lou ask you to do?”
“I mostly brewed potions for him. Salves, ointments, lots of things like that.” Myrna beamed. “Monster anatomy is very unique and often requires very special treatment. Like, oh! Luke, the changeling, he needed—”
“A changeling?” Neil kept backing up until he hit the counter.
“Yes! A magical being capable of changing their shape into another.”
“After they’ve eaten them,” Flanders cheerfully added.
“Eaten them?” Neil fell against the stool trying to sit down.
“No, they don’t!” Myrna scolded. She hesitated, adding, “Well, not always. Some of them only need a tiny nibble. Anyway! He has very sensitive skin, so I made him an ointment of amla juice, beef jerky crumbles, and coconut oil. And oh! Mr. Azazel, the demon—”
“Demon?” Neil’s voice cracked.
“Yes, a demon.” Myrna continued on as if this wasn’t a horrifying revelation. “He picked up some sort of strange cough after his last visit to Hell, so I made him a tea with honey, salt, and ground pumice. I added some licorice too! Worked like a charm.”
Neil finally managed to sit on the stool, grateful for the counter to give him some space between Myrna and Flanders. Myrna had followed him right over while Flanders chose to curl up on the floor just in front of the greenhouse doorway.
“Sounds delicious,” Neil squeaked out.
“He seemed to like it!” Myrna smiled sweetly. “Vilanos, one of the fae princes, is also a huge fan of my apple cobbler.”
“Oh. Fae? Like a faerie? That’s, that’s nice.”
“They’re really not,” Flanders drawled. “You’d be safer with a demon.”
Neil had no idea what to make of that, blinking rapidly as he said, “So. Demons. Werewolves. Faeries. Uh, those are all real?”
“Of course.” Myrna chuckled. “You’re in a tranquilla città dove i mostri vivono liberamenete, or a città sicura if your Italian’s spotty. It’s a safe place for monsters, witches, wizards and all manner of not-exactly-human people. Somerstown is the largest in the country! Isn’t that neat?”
“Lou’s family, the Mostros, has been watching over the city’s monster population for generations. He’s one of their underbosses, a very prestigious position, and it was an honor to work for him! So much nicer than our previous owner.”
“No, no. We were stolen by the wizard in the eighties and ended up with some awful man who wanted to get into politics.”
“At least he dressed nice,” Flanders called out.
“Well, he was still awful.” Myrna huffed. “Buffy ate him, and then we—”
“W-wait, wait, why is everyone into eating people?” Neil sputtered.
“Buffy is a very sensitive beast, and he did not like that man yelling at him. Our next owner was very kind, an old woman who found us in a pawn shop. Her name was Birdie, and she was such a dear. We lived with her for just shy of thirty years before she passed away. Old age, I promise. No one got eaten!”
“That’s nice.” Neil checked his forehead to see if he was running a fever. His brain hurt trying to keep up with everything Myrna was saying because it sounded insane. To think this city was full of monsters and he had a date with one of them tomorrow was a bit more than he could process at once.
He was certain, however, that he did not want to meet Buffy.
“Lou had heard about the Reliquary and bought us from Birdie’s family. Buffy thought he smelled very nice and decided to let us go with him, especially after seeing how kind he was to Birdie’s grandchildren.” Myrna smiled. “That was almost a year ago and now… Oh! I suppose we belong to you.”
“I… I don’t need any ointments or salves—”
“There are still twelve more spirits who might be able to help you!”
“Eleven,” Flanders complained.
“Shush, you. Be nice!”
“Too bad there’s not a spirit who can save someone from their own torturous clothing choices.” Flanders sniffed the air. “Or bad breath.”
Neil pulled himself out of his daze to address the insult. “That’s rich coming from someone who probably has extreme ball breath from laying around licking them all day.”
“Hmm.” Flanders sniffed some more. “Smells like jealousy to me.”
“Can it, flea bag.”
“Are yours missing? When did you first notice?”
“I’ve never been a fan of shock collars, but I’m starting to see the appeal.”
“Certainly explains the Crocs now.” Flanders put his head back down.
“You…” Neil fumed. “Bad dog!”
Myrna cleared her throat. “Now, now, there’s no need for any of that! Flanders really does like you. If he didn’t at least think you were interesting, he wouldn’t be here.”
“That makes me feel so much better.” Neil took a deep breath. “The hellhound likes making fun of me. Wonderful. So, uh, how soon can I call Lou?”
“Oh.” Myrna frowned. “I’m sorry. Is it me? Am I talking too much? I know I can be a bit of a chatterbox. I really don’t mean to be! I’ve just always loved talking, and I get excited when I meet new people! We don’t really get to meet many, and I… Oh, I’m doing it right now, aren’t I?”
“No, it’s okay.” Neil managed a small smile. “This is just a lot for me. But I do like talking to you. And you’re very nice. So nice. Much nicer than the hellhound who’s probably due for rabies or something.”
“Aw, well, thank you.” Myrna curtsied. “I’m so glad! Even if we return to Lou, I do hope we get to see you again!”
“That would be great,” Neil said even as he had sincere doubts about dating a werewolf. “But, uh, how does the return work exactly?”
“Well, it’s up to Buffy really. He’s the strongest of us and makes those big decisions. Right now, he still seems pretty set on us staying with you.” Myrna shrugged. “Hard to say what he’ll want to do.”
“I, I think I am going to call Lou now and we’ll get this all sorted out.” Neil scrambled for the Rolodex to look up his phone number. It was organized alphabetically, and the first entry was an Aaron Anderson.
Or, at least it was until the words magically changed:
HERE IT IS
Neil shrieked and threw the Rolodex. “What the fuck?”
Myrna ducked out of the way as the Rolodex hit the floor beside her. “Oh!”
“The thing, it changed! It changed again!” Neil shouted as he jumped to his feet. He picked up the stool and raised it over his head. “Why is it doing that?”
“Well, we can certainly figure it out—” Myrna soothed.
The door opened and in walked Miss Loy.
Miss Loy was an elderly woman with blue hair who always carried a big yellow umbrella with her no matter what the weather was. She came right in, smiling brightly as she said, “Oh! Hello there, Neil.” She eyed the stool. “Getting a workout in?”
“Uh…” Neil glanced over at Myrna and Flanders.
“Pssst, don’t worry!” Myrna whispered loudly. “She can’t see us! Only people who have owned the Reliquary can.”
Neil nodded, and then replied to Miss Loy, saying, “Y-yes ma’am! Just, uh, you know, getting a little stiff from sitting here all day, so I decided to move around a bit!”
“Exercise is key to a long and healthy life,” Miss Loy said sagely. “My sweet Lydia and I still take long walks through Shelley Park every morning. It’s so lovely, especially when all the azaleas are in bloom!”
“That sounds so beautiful.” Neil forced a smile.
“Oh!” Miss Loy reached for the fallen Rolodex. “Were you working out with this too?”
“Yes. I was.” Neil gulped. “D-do you want me to get your order?”
“Please, thank you.”
Flanders sniffed the air, grunted, and then put his head down. “She’s a naga.”
“A what?” Neil snapped.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t say anything?” Miss Loy blinked.
“Right. Sorry. I’m, uh, hearing things. I’ll be right back.” Neil stepped out from behind the counter to first retrieve the Rolodex from Miss Loy. He placed it on the counter facing the wall so he wouldn’t have to risk seeing any other strange messages, and then he headed to the cooler door, a discreet panel hidden in the wall just before the entryway to the greenhouse.
It was designed to look like the rest of the brick wall, and it was almost impossible to see unless someone knew what they were looking for. It was accessible via a small notch in part of the brick that opened it.
Neil hurried inside the spacious cooler, glad for the cool air within to calm him. He knew Miss Loy’s order was a dozen yellow roses, and he found them in the usual spot in one of the many plastic tubs. He turned around, almost running right into Myrna who had followed him in.
“Shit!” Neil jumped.
“Oh! Sorry!” Myrna backed up, grinning sheepishly. “I was just curious what was back here.”
“Hey! What did Flanders mean about Miss Loy being a naga?”
“Flanders has a fantastic sense of smell. He can sniff out monsters even when they’re hiding in human form.”
“You’re telling me that Miss Loy is a snake lady person?”
Myrna shrugged. “If Flanders says she is, she must be.”
“But she’s… I…”
“Deep breaths, darling.” Myrna rubbed his shoulders. “Maybe I should make you some tea?”
“No weird monster tea!”
“No, no! A nice calming chamomile, how’s that?”
“Add some vodka and you got a deal.”
“Is everything okay in there?” Miss Loy called out hesitantly. “Are you all right, Neil?”
“Fine, Miss Loy! Be right there!” Neil hurried out of the cooler. He wasn’t sure if Myrna could follow, so he left the door open as he rushed to the register. “Here we go!”
Miss Loy grunted as Neil thrust the flowers at her. “Oof! All right!”
“Thank you, ma’am. Sorry again about the wait.” Neil snatched her credit card from her hand as soon as he could.
Myrna came out and then shut the door. She cringed.
Miss Loy jumped, startled by a door that appeared to close by itself since she couldn’t see Myrna. “There must be a draft in here!”
“Yes! So drafty. Very drafty.” Neil quickly rang her up. “Do you want your receipt, Miss Loy?”
“No, I’m all right, thank you.” Miss Loy eyed Neil. “Try to take it easy, all right?”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you so much. I will.” Neil forced on his customer service smile, hoping it wasn’t obvious that he was imagining what Miss Loy really looked like underneath her wrinkles.
But would they be green? Black? Purple?
“Take care now!” Miss Loy waved as she left, though she did glance back worriedly at Neil one more time.
Neil waited until she was out of view completely from the front windows before he sighed in relief. “Holy shit. Okay, yes. I need to call Lou right now.” He turned the Rolodex around to get the phone number, but all he saw was the card for Mr. Anderson. “Oh, come on.”
Then the words changed:
ARE YOU MAD AT ME? 🙁
“I’m sorry,” Neil said. “I was a tiny bit freaked out that the Rolodex was talking to me.” He looked to Myrna. “You really have no idea what this is?”
“Can’t say I do.” Myrna shrugged. “I’ve never met a possessed house before.”
“It doesn’t smell possessed as much as it smells enchanted,” Flanders chimed in.
“Are you enchanted or possessed?” Neil asked the Rolodex.
The letters moved around again.
The word stopped there and then changed again, writing quickly:
The front window exploded inward as a giant monster leapt through it with a horrible howl. Flanders leapt to his feet, impossibly fast as he dove over to shield Neil from the shower of glass. The entire window was shattered as was part of the frame, and the monster was a…
It was a…
Laughing was apparently his new reaction to all things shocking and horrible because the monster that had just come crashing into the flower shop was a werewolf.
The beast was a giant anthropomorphic wolf with shaggy gray fur and bright orange eyes. It reared up from where it had landed on the floor with a snarl, standing on its two powerful hind legs and glaring at Neil.
The cooler was the safest place Neil could think of, but the werewolf cut them off. It jumped right in front of them, blocking the hidden door with a furious snarl.
Neil and Myrna screamed again and then tried to bolt around it.
The werewolf swiped at Neil, catching his shirt sleeve and shredding it.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Neil groaned.
“Neil!” Myrna cried. “Oh, your poor shirt—”
“Just fucking run!”
Neil grabbed Myrna’s hand as they bolted to the greenhouse. He had no idea why he was headed in that direction except it was in the opposite direction of the giant werewolf. He looked back to see Flanders chomping down on the werewolf’s leg to keep it from following them, and the werewolf was more than a bit stunned to be attacked by something it couldn’t see.
“How the fuck is there a werewolf in the middle of the fucking day?” Neil demanded.
Myrna gasped. “You know they don’t actually need a full moon to shift, right?”
“I fucking do now!”
Two more werewolves busted through the greenhouse windows, and Neil and Myrna clung to each other, screaming.
“Give us the bracelet,” the larger of the werewolves snarled. “Now!”
Flanders pushed himself in front of Myrna and Neil, and he let loose a blast of white fire from his mouth. The flames sent the werewolves running for cover, but one of them tripped over a large planter. Flanders marched forward, spitting out more fire and catching the werewolf in the blast and turning him into a charred skeleton within seconds.
The flames were unlike anything Neil had ever seen before. Even as he stared at what used to be a giant werewolf, the floor beneath its body was untouched. The fire was precisely targeted and once the object of its aim had been decimated, the flames simply extinguished themselves. Whatever was left behind of the wolf continued to smolder until it was nothing but ashes.
The gray werewolf who had busted through the front window was up on its feet again, charging now toward Myrna and Neil.
Neil was positive this was going to be how he died.
Kibbles ‘n Bits for a werewolf.
A haunting howl pierced the air, loud enough to rattle the windows. Neil tried to look for the source, and he saw a massive black shadow zooming through the air to tackle the attacking werewolf.
It was another werewolf.
This one was the biggest yet with jet black fur dusted with silver and gleaming blue eyes. The black werewolf took the gray one to the ground with an epic roar, clawing and tearing at its throat. The small werewolf who’d retreated earlier was back to join the fray, but the black wolf easily tossed it aside for Flanders to incinerate.
Neil couldn’t tear his eyes away from the giant black werewolf, his heart pounding as he realized those icy blue eyes were very familiar…
The black werewolf continued to wrestle with the gray one until there was a sickening crunch—the gray wolf’s neck breaking.
The black werewolf pulled away with a growl, rising to its feet and brushing off its fur. In a low, growly tone, it said, “Flanders, if you please.”
“I don’t work for you anymore,” Flanders said sweetly. “But I do love burning things, so I’m only doing this because I want to. Not because you’re telling me to.” He spat a blast of fire at the gray werewolf’s corpse, reducing it into ash like the others.
The black werewolf then began to change. Its fur receded to reveal flesh, and there was a noisy popping sound as it shrunk, no doubt from its bones rearranging themselves. The shift revealed a human who was impressive in his own right as he was muscular, thick, and…
Oh, so very naked.
It was Lou.
Neil couldn’t help but stare, gawking at the feast of beautiful bare skin before him.
Lou’s hair was falling around his face like a wild mane, and his broad chest heaved from the exertion of battle. Every inch of his powerful body spoke of brute strength, and his muscles were absolutely bulging. He had a thick sweep of hair across his torso that led an enticing trail right down to his—yup, naked.
So definitely naked.
Neil jerked his eyes upward.
“Hi, Lou!” Myrna whispered loudly as she gave a little wave before going back to clinging to Neil.
“Hello, Myrna.” Lou smiled, though it was strained. His gaze snapped to Neil. “Summon the Architect. Now.”
“Summon the what now?” Neil blinked.
“Summon the Architect. From the Reliquary.”
“Wow.” Neil laughed. “It’s so fucking cute you think I know what that is or how to do it!”
“He really has no idea what he’s doing.” Flanders snorted. “Just look at his shoes.”
“You say, Architect, awaken,” Myrna whispered urgently to Neil..
“And what will that do?” Neil scoffed. “Summon more werewolves? Maybe a fucking naga? Oh! How about a dragon that shits gold?”
“The Architect will fix this.” Lou crossed his arms. “Hurry up before the police arrive. We need to leave as soon as possible.”
“Now!” Lou barked.
“For fuck’s sake, you really are such a douche.” Neil freed himself from Myrna and looked down at the bracelet. He felt absolutely ridiculous, but he said, “Architect… awaken?”
There was no magic puff of smoke or glittering clouds to announce the Architect’s arrival. It was simply there as if it had been standing there all along, an unnaturally tall and thin creature that had to bend at its waist to fit inside the greenhouse. It had smooth white skin like marble, and it was covered in strange structures rupturing right out of its flesh that looked like archways and stairs. Its face was gaunt with deep set black eyes, a tiny nose, and a wide mouth full of overly large teeth.
It was one of the most terrifying things Neil had ever seen, and he had to swallow back the urge to scream again.
It leaned down close to Neil, staring expectantly.
“Ask him pretty please to fix the shop,” Myrna urged.
“Uh. Sure. Yes.” Neil cleared his throat. “Mr. Architect, please—”
“Will you pretty please fix the shop?”
The Architect said nothing, but he turned to appraise the damage in the greenhouse. His body squeaked like rusty hinges as he moved, and he lumbered over to the shattered glass and framework. He leaned down, his long arms scooping up the debris and then shoving it into his mouth, his large teeth gnashing away.
The very sound of teeth on metal and glass made the inside of Neil’s ear tickle, and he shuddered. He jumped when strong hands grabbed his shoulders, and he jerked his head up to find Lou standing in front of him.
“Are you all right?” Lou asked, his brow furrowed.
“Oh, I’m fucking peachy.” Neil laughed wildly. “I have a possessed bracelet, a talking dog is constantly insulting my shoes—”
“They’re hideous,” Flanders sniped.
“—werewolves just trashed my uncle’s shop, and you! The hot douche I’m supposed to go on a date with tomorrow! You’re a fucking werewolf!”
Lou flashed a cheeky grin. “Surprise?”
“No! Fuck you! This is not a surprise! This, this is—!” Neil stuttered as Myrna handed him a coffee mug. “This is tea?”
“Chamomile,” Myrna said cheerfully. “To help soothe those nerves, darling.”
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Lou said, “and I’m very sorry that you got involved. Listen to me, please. We need to—”
The Architect retched loudly, puking the debris it had been chowing down on in a shower of glittering liquid aimed at the broken windows. The liquid suddenly took form and grew solid, reforming the damaged greenhouse until there was no sign it had ever been broken.
It was both revolting and fascinating.
Neil slurped his tea.
The Architect cocked his head, as if appraising his work. He glanced over the shop, and then he stalked over to the front window to eat the broken glass and wood there, doubtless to repeat the gross process.
“We need to go,” Lou said firmly. “You must relinquish control of the Reliquary over to me immediately. You have no idea what sort of power you’re playing with.”
“I’m not trying to play with anything!” Neil defended. “It’s not my fault the damn thing decided to jump on me!”
“Those were mostri ribelli, monsters who refuse to bow to the family’s authority and have been organizing a revolution against us.” Lou swept his hair out his face. “I don’t know how, but they now know that a human has the Reliquary and they will stop at nothing to take it from you.”
“Kill me.” Neil inhaled sharply. “You’re saying they’ll kill me.”
Myrna patted Neil’s shoulder. “Drink your tea, darling.”
“Yes.” Lou grimaced. “They want its power to take over the city and oust my family, and I will not let that happen.”
“Isn’t your family still fighting over it too, though?” Myrna pointed out with a curious quirk of her brow.
“I can handle them,” Lou replied. “The Reliquary chose me, and it will choose me again. Now, let’s go.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Neil threw up his hands, backpedaling toward the counter and the safety of his stool. “I’m not going anywhere until you answer my questions! And oh, do I have a lot of them!”
Lou sighed heavily. “We don’t have time for this.”
“Well, you’re gonna make time because I’m not going anywhere with you until you do.” Neil held his head high.
“Okay, fine. What do you want to know?”
Neil panicked and sipped his tea. “Uh…”
“Well, now I can’t think of anything.”
The Architect puked again, his magical liquid vomit repairing the broken front window. He made a low rumble that sounded very pleased, and he turned to Neil with a big grin.
“Great job with the vomit. Looks awesome.” Neil gave him a thumbs up. “Thank you.”
The Architect eyed Neil and then licked one of his long fingers. He reached out to tap Neil’s torn shirt, and the fabric magically melded back together.
“Whoa! Okay.” Neil cringed, wiping at his sleeve. “Could do without the drool, but hey, thank you very much.”
The Architect grinned one last time and then disappeared.
“Can we go now?” Lou pressed. “You can ask me whatever you want later, but we really need to leave before more monsters come. I highly doubt these wolves were working alone.”
Neil took a deep, cleansing breath.
He’d had quite a morning.
His uncle’s flower shop could talk, monsters were real, there were also bad monsters, and oh yeah, he had a magical bracelet full of freaky spirits that said bad monsters would murder him for.
Neil slurped the tea. “Fine. Yes. Whatever. I just wanna get this damn thing off and to please go back to my nice boring life, please.”
“Of course.” Lou hesitated. “I need a favor first.”
“For fucks’ sake, what?”
“Give me a pair of pants.”