Only the gourd-man's mouth moved, "Thirty-six in the multitudinous rooms of the house itself. Another fourteen are accessible through Coven house alone. A door to any other human library could be generated as the need arose, naturally."
"Thirty six? Ugh. We've been through three."
"Correct, mistress," Grimbough answered. "I have tasked several of the more educated goblins with searching as well, but I cannot guarantee their thoroughness. While they are instructed to bring any books on the subject to my attention, we cannot rely on them to thoroughly check each collection."
Conach rolled over the side of his perch, "What about you squash-head? Couldn't you use that encyclopedic knowledge of yours to find what we're looking for? Or at least look yourself instead of being a glorified candle stick."
The scant expression on Grimbough's face soured, "As I have explained, Master Fae, my enchantments preclude me from directly seeking any book."
Nea sighed. "Those early witches weren't exactly the most trusting bunch, were they? Honestly, Grim, they seemed to think you were the most dangerous thing in this house." During one of their earlier attempts to find information, Nea examined the spells keeping Grimbough alive. Seeing the mess of magic gave her a feeling similar to the one had when opening a box filled with tangled Christmas lights. "How they managed to find anything is what I want to know."
"The libraries were primarily organized and kept by a single member of the Coven. For some reason, another magical preclusion no doubt, I cannot recall her name. Nor do I remember what happened to her when the magic began to dry up. Presumably she died. Perhaps in one of her libraries. Perhaps in one she kept secret even from me." From the sound of his voice, nothing annoyed Grimbough more than the idea of something in the Coven house going on without his knowledge.
Conach offered up a sigh of his own to join the others floating about the room. "Did this mystery witch leave any mousetraps?"
Grimbough's head rolled to the side. "Mice? Master Conach, we are inside a magical house which has been sealed for hundreds of years. We do not have mice."
With a sudden lunge, Conach flew from the top of the bookcase, leaving it tottering dangerously. He thudded to the ground on the far side of the room, hands cupped over something on the ground. Smugness oozing from every inch of his night-sky body, he stood up with a mouse dangling between his fingers. "Then what's this?"
"Put me down, oaf!"
Conach looked at the mouse with a furrowed brow. "Did you talk?"
A sound like splitting wood filled the room as light blinded everyone. A small cyclone of white smoke pushed Conach away. When they recovered, Nea prepared herself to fight, but Grimbough swept past her, a terrible trembling passing with him. All around them a wail, like a siren but somehow worse, filled the air. The benches and shelves slid away from the phenomenon of smoke. The floor began to roil like churning water as rafters bent down from above like writhing whips. They slashed into the smoke, cutting away plumes as a voice from within screamed. Nea's mind raced with spells, trying to think off something applicable to the situation. Conach fumbled to his feet. The door of the library opened and another crack of sound brought the chaos to an immediate halt.
Tabby burst into the room, out of breath. "What the hell?" After a quick look around, Tabby's voice boomed over the din. "SLOW"
Nea couldn't move. Or, she couldn't move much. She felt as though she'd been trapped in a jar of thick molasses. Looking around, she saw Conach suffering through the same frustration while Grimbough kept moving with eerie determination toward the spot where the smoke had been. It had dissipated, and in its place stood a creature Nea could only think of as a human mouse. "Grimbough, stop!" Nea commanded. Without hesitation, he obeyed, languidly resuming his rigid posture as the house stabilized around them.
"And turn off that alarm," Tabby said. "Whole damn house is shrieking."
"There is an intruder," Grimbough said, voice dripping with fury. With no other action, the piercing wail stopped. Several goblins which had gathered in the doorway with hands pressed over their ears sighed with relief and waddled off to the mischief.
"I am not an intruder," the mouse creature said. Her hands remained bound to the cord-like rafters while the stone floor seemed to have eaten her feet. Otherwise, she had grey fur covering her body except for her belly and chest where it was white instead. Pink nipples poked through the fur, sitting atop sizable breasts which looked enormous on the creature's four foot frame. Two enormous, curved ears stuck out from the top of her head and a long, thin tail extended from the base of her spine. Her face came to a point tipped with a pink, twitching nose beneath which two long teeth protruded from her upper jaw. Paw-like hands balled into fists as she pulled against Grimbough's restraints with no success.
"Who are you then?" Conach demanded. "And why have you been spying on us?"
Nea regained her composure and got to her feet, crossing the room to stand by Grimbough, each of them towering over the small creature. "Yes, who are you and why are you here?"
"You can relax," the creature chittered. "I'm not...I'm on your side. I didn't want you to mess up the books, that's all. My name is Ineni."
Grimbough made spluttering noise, "Ineni? Ineni was the name of a Coven witch." His face contorted into suspicion, "One which I had forgotten until you said it. And I do not recall her being a mouse."
"Because I wasn't a mouse at the time, you old birdshit. Could you get him to let me go? This isn't exactly comfortable, and I've realized I'm completely naked."
Nea nodded to Grimbough who restored the room to its proper order. Meanwhile, Tabby conjured up a set of clothes for Ineni, a small white shirt and a pair of loose fitted shorts with a spot for her tail. Tabby nodded at her work with approval, "Now, want to explain yourself?"
Free from the bonds, Ineni hunched forward, rolling her hands over each other as her mouth moved nervously. "What's to explain? I'm Ineni. I live in the library. I saw all of you snooping about in my books. Little goblins running their hands over them, getting them messy. I wanted to keep any eye on it, so I watched."
"How are you in this house, Ineni?" Grimbough asked, temper barely in check.
"I never left, stickhead," the mouse hissed. "You weren't the only one who went to sleep for hundreds of years. I was here when the doors to the other worlds closed. I knew what would happen. Not like my sisters, the other witches. They wanted to keep fucking and trying to bring back the fae, but I knew a lost cause when I saw one. I didn't care about all their frivolity anyway. I only wanted my books. So I made my plans. I connected the rooms. I used the last of my power to make myself part of the house. Mice always helped me, so I took the form of one. Something small with small needs and a small impact."
"You've been here the whole time?" Nea asked. "You've been alive for over a thousand years?"
She chittered, "Yes. No. I slept some. Like Grimbough."
"How could you not sleep if you were part of this house?" he retorted.
"All of you is the house," Ineni said. "Only part of me is, the part of myself I bound to it to keep living. I slept when I thought I might go mad. Otherwise, I read my books. I visited other libraries and read theirs. There are always more books. More stories. I was getting along perfectly peaceably until you three arrived and stirred up everything. Do you know how many goblins have been fucking on top of my books in the past three days? Ugh! What are you doing?" She pointed a small, clawed finger at Nea.
Nea's face scrunched in concentration as small flickers of magical energy shot through the air around her. "I was examining the enchantment on you," Nea said. "You did this on purpose?"
The mouse woman frowned, "I did what I needed to."
Nea nodded and opened her eyes. "Well, you're not alone anymore. The Coven is back. Everyone pulls their weight. I don't think you can go back to being a witch. Not without dying, anyway. So how about being our librarian? You can work with Grimbough to keep the different rooms in order."
Ineni's eyes narrowed. "Can I make rules?"
"Some," Nea said, cautiously.
"No more goblins in any of the libraries," Ineni said. "And you three come to me when you need something instead of poking around like fools."
"Oh yes," Conach said. "That sounds like a much better system. Let's do that. Why have you been hiding tiny mouse lady? You could have been so damned useful."
She chittered, looking away. "I haven't spoken to...it's been a very long time by myself."
"You'll find that Nea doesn't tolerate people being by themselves too much," Tabby said. "Look at me, I was happily alone for my whole life, and now I live in a house capable of screaming like its dying because our gourd-man butler was scared of a mouse."
Before Grimbough could gripe, Nea continued, "Then it's settled Ineni will be the house librarian, uh, henceforth. Where have you been living? Do you have a room?"
Ineni shrugged, "I lived in a nook for a while. Haven't really been back since you all arrived. I've been mostly sleeping in the shelves. I can change back and fit."
"Nonsense," Grimbough said. "We will give you appropriate accommodations suiting your station. I will see to it at once." He strode away without waiting for a response.
"Oh, well, he turned around on that subject quickly," Ineni said. "Grimbough always was a bit of a stickler for protocol."
"You were a witch," Tabby said with sudden realization. "We don't need a book to tell us. Ineni, you must remember these rituals and how to do them."
The mouse giggled, "Sorry, no. Not really. The coven was different back then. All secrets and jealousy. Nothing like what I've seen the three of you doing. I was still only a novice witch when the rituals ended, and they didn't let novices in on the secrets of any of them other than the feast. I can find you accounts, though. Which one are you on?"
"Ritual of the Stranger, but we don't know how to do the one after it either, Ritual of Consumption."
"I'll see what I can find," Ineni said. With another small puff of white smoke, she changed back to a proper mouse, scurrying into the shelves before anyone could stop her.
"Guess we're done for the night," Conach said. "I mean, done with all the book sniffing. Gives us more time for other pursuits. I saw some things on the magic screen that I want to try."
"Computer, Conach," Nea said. "And you know there's other things to watch than porn."
"Yes, but what's the point."
The next morning, Grimbough led the Coven to a new room. "The Reading Room, mistress." It was a small, cozy place seemingly plucked from a Victorian era home. A small fire crackled in the fireplace, and Ineni waited in her humanoid form behind three small desks, each of which held a book. Ineni had a sandwich in each hand and smiled as the others entered the room.
"Good morning, Ineni," Tabby said. "Looks like you've found some things for us to read."
"Yemph," she said with a cheekful of sandwich. She swallowed. "Yes. These are the three most accurate accounts of the Ritual of the Stranger. You're free to read them yourselves, or I could simply tell you about them." She took another massive bite.
Nea raised an eyebrow, "Would you like to finish your breakfast first?"
Ineni nodded, "Sorry, this is the first time I've had food made for me in a long time. I've been eating dropped crusts and apple cores while dodging subway trains."
Nea wanted to ask more about how Ineni got out of the house in its dilapidated state or for that matter where the house had been before it became Nea's grandmother's old house, but didn't want to send the mouse woman on a new tangent. Instead, she sat down at one of the desks and opened the book. Most of the magical tomes translated themselves for the reader. This one didn't. It remained stubbornly in a script that Nea didn't recognize. She peeked over to the one Tabby was perusing. It seemed to be in Greek. Conach left his closed while leering at Nea. They'd skipped their morning romp, and he wouldn't be much use until he got it off his mind.
Ineni finished her sandwich by shoving the remaining crust into her cheek. "Now, like I said, these three books are all written records of successful rituals. The same ritual, I should say, performed three different times over the span of hundreds of years. Nea, do you know the language in that book? Conach probably does."
The fae peered over at the book and scowled, "That's Lroan'tch."
"Illspeak, is the closest we have in...what language are we speaking? English? In English," Ineni said. "Likely written by some of the earliest Coven witches with help from their masters. Six hundred years later, another ritual account was recorded, that's the Greek translation. Another three hundred after that, it was done again, translated into Japanese for some reason. I read all three. The details differ, but the mechanism is the same. The witches summon a creature from the space between realms. The thing violently attacks and defiles the victim, and the ritual energy is derived from the process. The risk is in the summoning itself. I suppose they didn't know better. The risk of such creatures being brought into our realm is astronomical, even if the world is on the line."
Nea held up her hand, "When you say 'violently attacks and defiles'...?"
"While there are few records of such creatures being used for Samhain rituals, plenty of idiot witches or warlocks or otherwise fools have summoned things from the Between. Death is usually instantaneous. Madness certainly is. Seeing one of the Between horrors is enough to break even the strongest mind. After that, the creature does what it wills, but in the case of the Samhain rituals, the spell guides it to...sexual gratification more or less."
"Jesus," Tabby said, shutting the book. "We're not summoning a molestation monster from hell to do this."
"Molestation is a polite way —"
"Not doing it," Nea confirmed.
Conach finally dropped his leering gaze, "We can craft a new ritual, same as the others. What is the essence of the ritual in these old versions?"
Ineni thought for a moment. "I suppose, the crux of it is the thing from another world. Something from outside the victim's perspective of reality. It became called the Stranger ritual later on. Some translated it as 'horror' or 'unknown'. Somewhat difficult to provide an accurate description of a thing that's whole purpose is to obscure its existence."
"Like aliens," Nea said, a smile brightening her tired eyes.
"Similar," Ineni said. "Yes, I think that might work. Many of the core concepts are identical. Creature from the void, inexplicable as to why its attacking, a strange preoccupation with exploration of the human anatomy which results in fear, sexual tension, and death."
"We can stop before the death," Tabby said. Ineni shrugged. "But, I agree, it sounds like it could satisfy the ritual. How do we get aliens though?"
"He's an alien," Nea said, jerking her thumb toward Conach.
"Ah-ah," Ineni wagged her finger. "A fae won't work. However repressed, such things still exist in the consciousness of every living human. An accountant who has never experienced one flight of fancy in his life wouldn't be all that surprised to meet a fae or werewolf or vampire on the commute home. A true alien has to be from outside the human understanding, a creature which shouldn't exist."
Tabby dropped her head to the reading desk. "So we have to get nymphomantic energy out of a human while that human doesn't understand what is happening to it, why it is happening, or who is doing it. Any suggestions on how we do that?"
Ineni began chewing the bread from her cheek. "Noph, I hung up muh witch 'at a long time 'go."
From behind them, Grimbough cleared his throat. "The house may have something which could be of help. A creature seen only rarely on earth even in the ancient times. One contained here for the protection of the realm."
Conach hopped to his feet. "Alright then, let's go see the unimaginable horror in the cupboard before breakfast."
If Stacy felt a sensation of being watched, she didn't mind it. She was accustomed to being watched, not by people, but by cows. Fifty yards away from her back porch, a half dozen of her herd stood in the dimming light staring in her general direction. She liked their company to a degree, but so long as it wasn't feeding time they remained ambivalent about her. About most things for that matter.
She sipped her coffee while doubting she should have a cup so late. Stacy didn't like the taste, but appreciated the warmth. It rarely turned cold in Texas by the measure of most other climates. In mid October, though, the nights could take on a decent chill, especially to someone who spent their whole life in the blazing sun. She took another sip and leaned back into her rocking chair, trying to spot the one cow that had to be looking at her.
Her mind drifted, wondering what someone would see if they did creep out to her farm to have a look at old Stacy Keller. For one, she would have resented the word old. Life begins at thirty-eight, she told herself on her thirty-eighth birthday. A second life, perhaps. She'd done one run through already. Married at eighteen, pregnant at nineteen, divorced at twenty-two. She did a speed run of all the big traumas to get them out of the way. She and Kate, her daughter, roughed through it together, moving back in with Stacy's parents. Time went on. Her ex-husband disappeared and no one missed him. Eventually her own parents went, too. And finally, Kate went off to make her own brazen mistakes in the world. Stacy stayed with the cows and the farm and the old ranch house which once buzzed with life.
She thought of herself as a handsome woman. Kate's friends, the young men who still lurked around the small town, described her as a MILF. Stacy had a plan of how to react when she overheard someone whisper the word about her. She would act affronted and give the young man, probably Jacob Stevens, a firm talking to in her most motherly tone. Then, when no one was looking, she'd press herself against the young buck and give his crotch the tiniest of squeezes. That would be the end of it, of course. Stacy would let them have their fantasy while she kept hers.
As her thoughts turned to dumping out the coffee in favor of wine and a romance novel, rustling drew her attention. The cattle shifted, uneasy. Coyotes could make them shift like that, but much else. And coyotes wouldn't usually come so close to the well trafficked parts of the ranch. Stacy put down her coffee and considered grabbing her gun. Several other possibilities crossed her mind. Town kids out trying to mess with the cattle, something smaller like a snake, or maybe nothing at all. Sometimes cows got spooked by the unfamiliar crunch of a leaf. One cow spooked another and so on before you had half the herd thundering off to the far side of the paddock.r"