TAROT DRACONIS: Queen of Pentacles

Sparkle

Wanda leaned back in her gravity chair; her stomach churned as the backrest went down and her feet went up towards the firmament. It surprised her that, though the chair creaked from disuse, none of its powerful cords snapped and sent her crashing onto her butt.

She gazed at the starlit sky. How long had it been since she’d lounged here, bundled up against the cold and with a steaming cup of tea beside her?

One year, two months and eleven days.

The last time, Ben had stood beside her, his telescope pointing at the heavens, ready to answer all her silly questions.

Now the telescope sat buried in the garage, while Ben lay buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Tears pin pricked her eyes, and she ran her hand across her face. The tiny dots in space came back into focus. Wanda took a long, quivering breath.

Only Ben had known how to use the telescope, and now she regretted turning down his many offers to teach her.

She took a sip; the tea burned her tongue.

Wanda put on her earphones, clicked her phone and settled down to wait for her eyes to adjust to the night.

Orson Welles narrated in her ears. 

It had been a tradition between them. They sat outside in darkness and waited for the stars to show. Ben turned on his Bluetooth speaker and together they listened to old radio shows. The Shadow, The Saint and Gang Busters.

Every year, on this special night, they listened to the War of the Worlds while Ben’s telescope pointed towards Mars, waiting for the real spectacle to begin.

Today was the first of many nights she would restart the tradition, alone.

“Oh Ben,” she whispered, “I miss you.”

Wanda closed her eyes, and only half listened to the narration. Her mind torn between paying attention to a show she knew and wading in the murky waters of yesteryear, which rippled with memories of Ben.

Orson Welles faded and Wanda found herself in another night with the telescope between them, while Ben peered through it.

“Did you know that when some stars die,” Ben’s sweet voice filled her ears, “they go into supernova and that explosion causes the birth of new stars?”

Wanda smiled.

Ben continued, “One day our sun will explode and we will cease to exist. Out of its ashes, a new star will spark and keep the cycle of birth, death and rebirth spinning for eternity. When you think about it, death is only a transition.”

A sob exploded in Wanda’s chest. Then a second and a third, until tiny little supernovae thundered in her body. Tears flowed down her cheeks, and she didn’t stop nor repressed them.

Orson Welles’s transmission ended and Wanda, adrift in an ocean of muffled noise, removed her earphones. The night silence was like a breath of fresh air, its quiet permeated her skin and the exploding sobs in her heart abated.

The tears stopped, and the stars came back into focus through her wet eyelashes. Becalmed, she gazed at the sparkling heavens, enjoying it for the first time in a year. A smile crept across her lips as she recalled Ben’s voice a few moments ago. 

“It was you, wasn’t it?” She whispered to the stars, “You were here.”

A flare streaked across the sky. Then another and another. The myriad of shooting stars soon engulfed Wanda in spangles and wonder and evanescing sadness.

“Goodbye,” She whispered as a new spark kindled in her chest: Peace.

OLD ENGLISH TAROT: VIII Strength

The Stairs

Hattie glanced upwards the stairs and sighed; their steepness insurmountable to Hattie in her old age, though she conquered them every day. She clung on to the wooden railing and, hitching up her long skirt, started her ascent with a Herculean effort. Hattie could not fathom how today’s girls in their full skirts—bell-shaped by cumbersome crinoline hoops—glided up and down stairs like fairies. Much too old for current fashions, she longed for the long dresses and high waistlines of her youth. 

Up, up, up she went, taking her time, step-by-step, the wood beneath her feet creaking as loud as her old, old bones. But the steep, polished staircase did not deter Hattie. She rested when she needed and, with great patience and willpower, little by little she vanquished the stairs.

She paused halfway up, her hand tight around the railing, her heart pumping fast in her chest. 

A scuffle, a slam, a gunshot.

The door on the top landing burst open. Two men clad in mismatched three-piece suits and newsboy caps ran out. Their feet clattered on the rickety staircase as they barreled down it. Police sirens blared in the distance as the man in pin-striped slacks flung a revolver into the gloomy alley beside the building.

The rascals reached the street and ran with footsteps clanging on the concrete sidewalk. The pin-striped man rounded a corner when his partner, who donned a plaid blue cap, stopped and glanced back at the old stairs with a mystified expression.

Pin-Stripes urged him to run, “Let’s go!”

“I think I just saw her,” Plaid Cap said.

Pin-Stripes paused, bouncing on his heels, unsure whether to stay or go. 

Curiosity won, “Saw who?”

“The old lady. The one on the stairs.”

Pin-Stripes chuckled, “Nah, that’s just a ghost story. She doesn’t exist. Come on!”

A Verizon van zoomed past and splashed the sidewalk with puddle water. The two gangsters shimmered in the sunlight as murky droplets showered them, then vanished before the water hit the ground. 

ALEISTER CROWLEY THOTH TAROT: XIV Art

Boris Karloff

Torrents of rain lashed down on the car as it rattled along the puddle-ridden and uneven wooded lane. The headlights created a narrow beam on the bald stones of the rocky road snaking through the forest, like skulls sticking out of the ground. Fat drops pelted down through the gnarls of overhanging branches, and the streaming rain caught the feeble shaft of the headlights. The water reflected the light, and Gloria imagined shooting stars streaking down from the sky. The scene would have been romantic, but for the gushing water, and Stu’s fingers wrapped so tight around the steering wheel, his knuckles were bone white. Even Gloria could see them in the gloomy deluge.

“We need shelter for the night,” Stu said.

Gloria chuckled, “That’s what they said in The Old Dark House.”

“The what?”

“Oh, it’s an old Boris Karloff movie. Motorists ask for shelter from a storm at this creepy old house. Then a crazy maniac terrorizes them.”

Stu remained silent and gave Gloria a sideways glance. He would have teased her about her love of old movies, but the road was too dangerous. Besides, at the moment they’d be lucky to come upon the Bates Motel.

 Stu slammed on the brakes, and the car skidded to a stop. The road ahead was underwater, and Stu thought his little hatch-back sedan would flood.

“What now?” Gloria asked.

“Turn around, I suppose…” Stu answered and shifted gears.

With much effort, he turned the car, and they retraced the drive. 

Gloria gasped, “A light!”

He braked. She pointed at the passenger side window, and Stu leaned over the steering wheel for a better view. Gloria was right. A dim light gleamed through the trees, and as they rolled beside it, Stu discerned a narrow driveway.

“I suppose your movie will come true,” he quipped as the car inched down the path, “did they die?”

“No, but almost…”

“Well, let’s hope for the best,” he said as they approached a cabin almost invisible in the thick woodland.

He turned off the car and, pulling his jacket on his head, ran up the front porch and knocked. Gloria switched on the interior light. He glanced around the property, bemused. He knocked again, and catching Gloria’s eye, shrugged.

Still no one answered; Stu hurried back to the car.

“No one home, I guess,” he said.

“Look!” Gloria pointed at the dim light in a window.

Through the glass, they glimpsed an old lady gazing out.

“I’ll knock,” Gloria said, “maybe she’ll open this time.”

Flinging Stu’s jacket on, she rushed to the door.

She knocked, but no answer. Three times she tried.

“Odd, I guess she’s hard of hearing or…?” Gloria said as she entered the car.

“Or she’s pretending because she doesn’t want to let us in,” Stu grumbled, “anyway let’s go.” 

He flicked the ignition; the car sputtered and revved, then died. He tried again, but the car did not start.

He heaved a dejected sigh. 

“Well, that’s that,” he said, letting down the backrest and covering himself with his sopping jacket, “nothing to do but sleep.”

He closed his eyes.

Gloria reached into the backseat and found her own jacket. She took Stu’s wet one and replaced it with a blanket she always kept and settled down for the night.

Sunlight shone through the windshield when Gloria awoke to find Stu’s face crumpled in confusion.

“What…?” Gloria’s words faded. 

They sat parked in a field, just a few yards from the smooth pavement of the highway. No trees, no house, no old lady in sight.

Stu flicked the ignition, and the car purred to life.

“At least Boris Karloff didn’t kill us,” he said as he pulled onto the paved road.

THE GODDESS TAROT: II Wisdom – Sarasvati

Mind Full

“This is stupid,” Edith wriggled in her lotus position. She moved her neck from side to side and straightened her shoulders. With a deep breath, she tried to focus on the yoga instructor’s soft, lulling voice as he led the class into a meditation.

Edith wondered why she was here. Her therapist had recommended yoga for stress management and, like a fool, she had obliged. The guy next to her squirmed and the rustle of his movement sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Someone behind her cleared their throat, and that too grated at her brain.

Edith inhaled again, forcing herself to focus, but the instructor’s words meant nothing. Her never-ending to-do list occupied her thoughts. 

Darkness surrounded her through her closed eyes; someone must have turned off the lights. She hadn’t realized how much the yellow light filtering through her eyelids bothered her. Then something clicked in Edith’s brain and muted the anxious thoughts. She felt herself melt into the ground as she exhaled.

She was in utter darkness now and frightened, as she sensed her arms go limp and her shoulders droop, but the soft chanting seeped through the blackness and calmed her.

It grew louder until she distinguished the low, yet mellifluous unison of men’s voices intoning unintelligible words. The perfect harmony of their singing suggested to Edith she might be inside a temple or a church. The sound echoed inside a vault, though the yoga studio had a low ceiling.

A shudder, no, a trickle crept up her fingertips and a warm electricity coursed through her. It wasn’t a jolt, but a sense of home.

A point of light appeared in the darkness that clouded Edith’s mind. It merged with the blackness and she glimpsed a simple altar, made of rough-hewn wood and stone, unlike the one she’d seen that time in the cathedral.

The point of light expanded and revealed a procession of hooded men in front of her. They made the lovely music with their voices. Aware she walked among them, Edith peeked at the monk beside her, but his cowl draped too far over his forehead and she only glimpsed an aquiline nose.

Edith gazed at her hands, and startled when she saw the thick palms, heavy fingers, and wrinkled skin that clung onto the bone. One fingernail was black and, disgusted, Edith meant to fold the finger and hide the nail. Instead, the muscle twitched and sent a bolt through her body. The chants and the monks disappeared, and she was back in the yoga studio.

VISCONTI TAROT: XIX The Sun

Noir

The lighthouse orb carousels over the rocks, the ocean, the beach. 

It rolls through the window and casts shadows on the parlor floor, the wall, the ceiling. Embers glow in the fireplace, twinkling with the swiveling ray.

The heavy pendulum clock ticks against the wall. 

He sits in the armchair, still and silent.

Tick, tick, tick.

A merry-go-round, the beacon. 

Light, then shadow on the gaze of steel.

Embers crackle; the sputter of an automobile rolling up the drive.

Tick, tock.

The key turns in the door; the creaking mingles with the ticking clock.

And all the while the light goes around and around in the gloom.

Moonless, starless sky. 

The lighthouse sphere swirls on the placid ocean, the water like tar. Licorice fingers of lichen on the rocks. Pebbles roll with the waves upon the beach. 

Tick, tock.

A footstep in the hall. The soft tap of stiletto heels as weight rolls to the ball of the foot. 

Click, tap. Click, tap.

Keys shuffle and tinkle in the hand. She stifles them.

The ray shimmers through the sidelights and transom window and onto the walls.

Checkered shadows.

Dark house, but for the revolving beam. 

She creeps by the parlor; her silhouette large upon the wall.

She pauses, but why? 

A peek and she sees the armchair by the fire.

The embers glow red. 

The light beam wheels through the room; he has turned the chair around, she notices.

His scowl, raw. It freezes her.

The eyes glow red. 

White lightning thunders through the dusky night. 

A leaden thud; the crimson trickle on the spotless tile.

The acrid stench of gunpowder. 

Bitter the taste of revenge, but sweet the satisfaction.

Black and white the room, red the dying fire.

GOLDEN TAROT: Eight of Cups

The Magpie

The ruined building had stood at the corner forever; melancholy with the architecture of a bygone era. The roof remained, though the walls had long ago crumbled into piles of rubble, like a pie crumbles when sliced with a dull knife. It looked like a big gaping mouth.

Byron walked past it every day. He felt a strange connection to the ruins and often speculated what they had housed and who had built them. One particular mystery were the faded posters pinned to the fence which flapped in the wind; they also littered the rubble. A picture of a young girl named Maggie took up most of the paper; ‘missing’ printed on top, ‘reward’ at the bottom. She’d disappeared in 1974, and Byron wondered about her. 

One cloudy day, as Byron walked past the sun peeked through the pesky clouds that set the icy breeze on the world, and shone on the ruins.

A glint in the rubble caught Byron’s eye. A tiny shimmer of something glimmered in the subdued sunlight just before the yawning entrance into the belly of the building.

“Kids,” he muttered, supposing some had dropped a shiny toy while playing.

He walked two paces, then stopped and glanced back; the shiny object winked at him.

I must be part magpie; he realized he could not walk away without knowing what shone in the rubble. A memory floated up his spine, but Byron suppressed it. It involved a Hot Wheels, a glaring policeman blocking a toy store’s exit, and a can of whoop-ass his mom had opened at home. 

Byron realized not that he licked his lips and wrung his hands as the thing twinkled again. A quick glance; no one watched. Byron climbed the fence with the agility of a monkey. He trudged and traipsed through the stone crumbs toward the sparkle. 

A haze had fallen on the street and the air smelled like rain.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he grumbled as he almost turned his ankle on a precarious rock.

“But satisfaction brought it back,” he said when he reached the dark mouth of the ruins.

He scanned the ground for the gleam; his heart skipped when he saw it.

“Ha!” He exclaimed and picked it up.

He turned it in his hand and held it up to the glimmering light. It was an old coin; its engraving defaced by time and earth. Byron shrugged, and with a tiny ember of dismay, turned to go, when his eye caught another flicker further inwards. Beyond it, something else winked at him, and something else beyond that. 

Byron grinned, unaware he did so, and a greedy sparkle shone in his eye. The memory of him shoplifting returned, and with it a feeling, a wish he’d buried that day, awoke. The Magpie stirred deep inside his body and compelled him to move, kneel and collect all the tiny shiny things scattered among the rubble.

It absorbed him, and before he knew it, he’d entered the deep guts of the building, never wondering how it could continue for so long and so deep.

As he picked up the last of the defaced shimmering coins, he glanced up. Darkness surrounded him, cavernous and tomb-like. The dense and musty air stifled him, and Byron’s first thought was I need to leave now. Yet, how? His eyes could not pierce the pitch dark.

A cold, ominous draft blew from within, and the surrounding walls rumbled with a deep groan. A terrifying thought snaked through his mind. The beast is awake.

***

Torn and yellowed posters pleading for the whereabouts of Byron Elster clung to the rusty fence as Rob’s eyes flickered with yearning for the winking trinket by the derelict building.

THE GODDESS TAROT: XIV Balance —Yemana

Wishing for Solitude

Dear Stella,

I have followed your advice column for years, but never had cause to contact you until now.

My family has owned Wraith Manor for two centuries, and, in it, I have enjoyed a most quiet existence.

I love the cold, drafty rooms and ancient halls. I spend my happiest moments in the solitude of home. At night, the stars peek through the old casement windows and the soft breeze blows through the dark hallways, dripping with the musk of my mother’s roses.

I am free to roam my domain at will; yet, now and then, infestation appears, like the biblical locusts.

In the past, I have removed these plagues with little effort, but now, try as I might, I cannot get rid of them. My tried-and-true tactics—footsteps, moving objects, torpedoes, wails, moans and slamming doors—no longer work. 

Worse even, the new vermin have taken my family portraits off the walls and installed pesky fireflies that light up with the flick of a switch.

I love fireflies as much as the next, but these little bugs, instead of blinking soothing green, light up in garish hues of white and yellow that glare and crackle.

Gone now is the moonlight wafting through the windows. Gone now is the sleepy silence of the hall, kitchen, ballroom and bedrooms. Instead, there is a constant chatter of voices by day, and a relentless buzzing by night. 

I have done my best to spook these pests away, but to no avail. I even reached out to my cousin at Canterville Chase, but he could not offer much help.

What can I do?

Spectrally yours,

Wishing for Solitude in Eternity

GOLDEN TAROT OF THE RENAISSANCE: VIII Justice

The Ancient Cemetery

The forest had swallowed the ancient cemetery until all that remained was the stone angel projecting from the undergrowth. The name on the tomb had vanished and moss and dead leaves covered the statue’s feet. Lichen clung to its wings. Twining plants wound and twirled around the statue’s legs, and Spanish moss hung from its outstretched arms. The right hand clutched a sword ready to strike. The left hand held an uneven balance scale with empty pans, their weights lost in the sands of time. A thin mist always hovered as a ghostly reminder of the long-forgotten names interred there. 

Miranda and Maureen had visited this place since their youth; the twin sisters had loved to meander around the mounds of earth, moss and protruding partial headstones. They’d loved to gaze at the stone angel with facial features smoothed out by time and the encroaching forest. Tall trees surrounded the burial grove and a break in the topmost branches allowed a tiny ray of sun to shine its feeble light on the statue. For decades, every Saturday, the sisters had taken the narrow and nigh invisible path to the ancient graves. Then had sat on a rock before the stone angel to enjoy a picnic of sandwiches, chips and soda. 

Birds trilled in the trees as Miranda traipsed through the path, broken and uneven by the thick roots of the tall oaks that lined it. Once Miranda approached the grove, all sound ceased and the perennial thin mist hung low about the ground. Here she found the solace and comfort she needed from the oppressive burden of loss. She missed her twin sister’s following footsteps and sometimes felt the warmth of her body beside her. But when she turned her head, Miranda saw only the rainbow caused by the feeble sunlight through the spectral mist. 

Miranda sat on the rock and wept. Maureen would never visit this place again; those happy picnics gone forever, ripped from her by a careless teenager from the prestigious boarding school on the outskirts of town and his fancy fast car. Miranda took out a black-and-white picture of the sisters in their younger days with their beehive hairstyle, strapless gowns and coy smiles. In their prom picture Miranda and Maureen were as young as the boy with the flying red car who had plunged Miranda into a life of one. 

“The sign flashed ‘walk’ and he didn’t stop! Oh, Maureen!” Miranda cried, and her voice broke the eerie silence. Her blood boiled as she recalled the police dropping the charges the moment the boy’s father had opened his checkbook. An unfortunate accident, they’d ruled. 

Now, the ritual comprised tears over a fresh grave in a proper cemetery, then a melancholy picnic before the stone angel. The boy zoomed past her as Miranda left the graveyard. She walked through the town center on her way to the forest; the bright red car parked on the street. The boy and his friends sat at a cafe’s outdoor patio, laughing and joking, not for one moment heeding the sad old woman with the quivering lips. Miranda hung her head and, with leaden steps, trudged to the ancient burial ground and its funereal serenity. 

On the rock, Miranda put her face in her hands and sobbed, her wails shaking the tree leaves, yet muffled by the mist. 

“Justice! What justice is that?” She lamented. 

“Miranda,” a voice whispered and Miranda glanced up. 

The trees rattled and a figure emerged from the statue. First the feet surfaced, then the tunic and the arms with the scale and sword. The face took on radiant and benevolent features and at last, the pearly glimmering wings materialized. 

The angel stood before Miranda and smiled. He showed her the balance scale. On the heavy plate, she saw an image of her sister’s grave, while on the lighter plate the image of the rich boy appeared. He was at the café as she’d seen him moments before, still laughing and joking. 

The angel swung the sword and Miranda smelled the metal as it swooped by her. The plate with her sister’s grave rose while the other lowered. The scale clicked into place. 

Miranda watched the principal expel the boy from school. The scale tipped and the once-generous over-protective father threw the boy from his house. Again the scale clicked into place and the boy, with blood-shot eyes and tattered clothing, stood on a street corner and leaned into the window of a black car. 

With each tip of the scale, the boy became a man. By the seventh click he was homeless and freezing in the driving snow of an unnamed street; the scales almost balanced. 

Miranda watched with bated breath as the scale tipped one last time. The homeless man stood on a street corner. The ‘walk’ sign flashed; he stepped off the curb. A bright red streak hit him. The speeding car did not stop for the vagrant dying on the street. 

The plates leveled on the angel’s balance scale and Miranda’s eyes filled with tears. 

“Thank you,” she whispered and wiped her eyes with her fingers. 

The angel vanished and the sun shone its single beam on the nameless grave with the stone statue. Wind gusted through the trees and lifted the oppressive sorrow from Miranda’s heart.

TAROT DRACONIS: V The Hierophant

Cat-O’-Nine-Tails

The abbess knocked on the door. The sounds of a flogging whip shook the darkened corridor; she received no reply. Starlight shone through the arched Gothic windows that lined the passage. 

She knocked again. 

Should she enter? The young novice needed the last rites. 

The abbess knocked a third time and gave the door a slight push. It creaked open. 

The bishop stood with his bare back to the door, and in the dim candlelight the abbess saw streaks of gooey blood marring the skin. 

A whip cracked and a wound opened. 

What great sin could he be repenting? 

Another crack and the pieces fell into place. As blood poured down the wounded back, images flowed through the abbess’s mind. With each lash, she recalled every visit the bishop had made to her abbey and the events thereafter. 

The young novice; the stillborn.

Sister Elizabeth; the drowning.  

Her eyes widened and the dreaded thought flashed like lightning: not coincidences but consequences. 

“You!” The abbess exclaimed; the bishop whirled around and glared.

She stood in the doorway, old, wrinkled and yet so innocent, but her wide eyes betrayed her horrible realization. The cat was out of the bag, his secret sins exposed. 

He advanced towards her with such violence that she turned and ran; her frail steps booming with the guilt of his crimes. He followed down the narrow window-lined corridor, starlight and shadow alternating with each step. He caught her just as she reached the winding stone stairs. 

They struggled; she scratched him. He tried to pull her back to his chamber, but she fought hard. To control those flailing arms, he pushed her. Her slight frame lifted off the floor, and, in an instant, she flew out the window. 

The bishop glanced at the broken abbess pierced by the thorny briar and surrounded by shattered glass sparkling in the starlight. He returned to his chamber. A cat wailed in the night. Hurried footsteps. 

***

Lillian gazed up from the book Derek had placed before her; eyes filled with fear and wonder. It had been blank, then little by little, the horrible scene had appeared within its pages, each moment ripped out of Lillian’s mind like tangled hooks.

Derek took the book from her and wrapped it in its towel. 

“Does this book show you your nightmares?” Lillian stammered. 

“I don’t know,” Derek mumbled, “does it?”

OLD ENGLISH TAROT: Ten of Cups

Under a Crimson Moon

The fire crackled and sparked in the stone fireplace and lit up the dim room; the ornate grandfather clock ticked. Claire stood by the casement window as the sun glittered over the valley beyond the grounds. The castle lay atop a hillock and the gleam of the setting sun gave the shimmering landscape an air of magnificence. Xavier read his book. 

As the sun dipped into the jagged horizon and cast one last ray of light, Claire distinguished the three crosses silhouetted in the distance, their long shadows like ghostly fingers reaching for the castle.

The clock chimes mingled with the seven peals of the church towers beyond the gates. 

“Xavier, do you know the story behind those three crosses?”

Xavier, taciturn, rather than ask which crosses she meant, closed his book and joined her at the window. 

“Hmm,” he grumbled, “I don’t remember, but I believe they were three merciless bandits.”

“Strange someone would bury them and mark their graves,” Claire commented; Xavier shrugged. 

She glanced at her husband, his handsome features eerie in the dim firelight. Claire didn’t resent their move to this place. It wasn’t Xavier’s fault he’d inherited it from an estranged uncle. She would have preferred her modest old house, in her old village, yet they must take the golden opportunity. 

The castle needed much repair and Xavier had inherited the property and everything in it, but not the means to restore it. Now, they lived with parts of the majestic home closed. They meant to inhabit the castle, repair it little by little and turn it into a fancy hotel. Yet their savings were all but gone and the project not advanced enough to generate an income. 

Claire pulled up a chair by the casement. Darkness cast itself over the land and Xavier retired for the night. The full moon rose crimson and cast copper beams over the landscape. The stars poked through the inky black one by one. 

Charlemagne, their German shepherd, sat at Claire’s her feet. Claire’s eyelids drooped and her head nodded forward, then jerked back. She resolved to go to bed and cast one last glance at the glistening valley; the fire glowed dim. 

Charlemagne rose and gazed out the window, his ears perked and alert, listening. Claire followed his gaze. Under the rusty moonlight, three hooded figures rose from the three graves. Claire could not distinguish their features in the dusky night, but felt no fear, as if the figures meant no harm. Gliding, they approached the castle and faint moonbeams caught the crucifixes twinkling on their chests. 

“Monks, not bandits,” Claire murmured. Charlemagne gave a low whimper. 

The figures entered the grounds and stopped by the large weeping willow whose leaves drooped over the murky moat. The figures glanced around, then disappeared under the dangling boughs. 

Hoofbeats trampled the moonlit silence; the monks emerged from beneath the willow. Horsemen appeared and stormed the castle. Claire, with a hand over her mouth, let out a muffled shriek. The monks stood stoic as the horsemen slew them. 

Charlemagne growled; a cloud covered the blood-red moon and plunged the valley into darkness. The wind swept the dusky clouds away and the moon, now white, shone upon the land. All figures had vanished, though a silver moonbeam shone on the weeping willow. 

Claire grabbed a light and leashed Charlemagne. Xavier watched from the bedroom as the moonlit figures of his wife and dog crossed the grounds and approached the willow. They passed through the gnarled limbs. 

Charlemagne sniffed around the massive trunk; Claire followed his movements with her light. The German shepherd, resting his front paws on the trunk, stood on his hind legs and barked. Claire shone the light upwards, and in its soft glow, saw a tree hollow several branches overhead. 

Charlemagne yipped and wagged his tail as Claire climbed the willow. When she reached the tree hole, she dipped her arm in, wary of waking its tenant. An owl hooted as Claire’s fingers touched smooth metal. 

“Did the monks hide something?” Xavier called from the ground. 

“You saw them too?” Claire answered. 

She sat precariously on the branch, and hesitating, stuck her other arm in the hole. She pulled something from the tree hollow.

“Catch!” 

She dropped a box into Xavier’s extended arms. Surprised by the weight of the box and the cold metal, he dropped it. It clanged onto the tree root and flew open. Claire clambered down from the tree. 

“What is it?” Claire asked when she noticed Xavier’s gawking expression. 

Scattered over the twisted tree roots, sparkles of ruby, emerald, sapphire, gold, and silver glimmered in the thin rays of moonlight that passed through the heavy leaves. 

“It’s our financial salvation,” Xavier exclaimed.