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Authors: Leanna Renee Hieber

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The Strangely Beautiful Tale Of Miss Percy Parker

BOOK: The Strangely Beautiful Tale Of Miss Percy Parker
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The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker
L
EANNA
R
ENEE
H
IEBER

LEISURE BOOKS      
      NEW YORK CITY

Strangely Beautiful

Tresses of lustrous, snow-white hair tumbled from their cloth-bound imprisonment, streaming like a waterfall down the young woman’s back. In an effort to make his student more at ease, Alexi did his best to appear wholly disinterested as she carefully removed her protections with delicate, private ceremony. But then she turned to face him, clutching those items that had held her unusual features in mystery: glasses, gloves, long scarf.

“As you would have it so, Professor, here is your pupil in all her ghastliness.”

Though Miss Parker’s hands clearly trembled, her voice did not. Luminous crystal eyes held streaks of pale blue shooting from tiny black pupils. A face youthful but devoid of color, smooth and unblemished like porcelain, had graceful lines as well-defined and proportioned as a marble statue. Her long, blanched locks shimmered in the candlelight like spider silk. Upon high cheekbones lay hints of rouge: any more would have appeared garish against her blindingly white skin, but she had been artful in her application. Her rosebud lips were tinted in the same manner.

“You see, Professor, even you, so stern and stoic, cannot hide your shock, surprise, distaste—”

“Distaste?” he interrupted quietly. “Is that what you see?”

To Alan, the muse

P
ROLOGUE

London, England—1867

The air in London was grey. This was no surprise; but the common eye could not see the particular heaviness of the atmosphere or the unusual weight of this special day’s charcoal clouds: the sky was pregnant with a potent wind, for The Guard was searching for new hosts.

On to London they came, and that wind full of spirits began to course through the streets of the city; merciless, searching. Around corners, elbowing aside London’s commoners and high society alike, nudging their way through market crowds and tearing down dirty alleys, they sought their intended. A candle burst into flame in the window of a marquess’s house. The tiny cry of a young boy summoned his mother into the drawing room. Similar sounds went up in other parts of the city, confused gasps growing into amazed giggles before being subdued into solemnity. One by one the intended targets were seized.

Six. Five…

Where is Four? Ah…Four.

Now, Three.

Alone and unaccompanied, the children left their respective houses and began to walk.

And, Two.

Searching for the final piece, the greatest of the possessors paused, a hesitating hunter. Deliberate. And, finally…the brightest, boldest, most promising catch of the day.

One, and done!

A sigh of relief. The city’s infamous fog thinned.

Only a bird above espied the six drawing toward London’s center; weaving through a maze of clattering carriages, stepping cautiously over putrid puddles, a sextet of children looked about the cluttered merchant lanes and sober business avenues with new eyes and saw strange sights. There were ghosts everywhere: floating through walls and windows, they rose up through streets and strolled beside quiet couples! One by one, each transparent form turned to the children, who could only stare in wonder and apprehension. In ethereal rags, spirits of every century bowed in deference, as if they were passing royalty.

Drawn in a pattern from all corners of London, the six children gathered in a knot at the crest of Westminster Bridge. Nodding a silent greeting to one another, or curtseying, the youths found each other’s faces unsettlingly mature. Excitement tempered only by confusion crept into their expressions as they evaluated their new peers, in garb ranging from fine clothing to simple frocks, their social statuses clearly as varied as their looks.

A spindly girl whose brown hair was pinned tightly to her head kept turning, looking for something, clutching the folds of her linen frock and shifting on the heels of her buttoned boots. It was her tentative voice that at last broke the silence: “Hello. I’m Rebecca. Where is our leader, then?”

A sturdy, ruddy-cheeked boy in a vest and cap, cuffs rolled to his elbows, gestured to the end of the street. “Hello, Rebecca, I’m Michael. Is that him?”

Approaching the cluster was a tall, well-dressed, unmistakable young man. A mop of dark hair held parley with the wind, blowing about the sharp features of his face, while timeless, even darker eyes burned in their sockets. His fine black suit gave the impression of a boy already a man. He reached the group and bowed, his presence magnetic, confident…and somewhat foreboding. In a rich, velvet voice deep as the water of the Thames, he spoke. “Good day. My name is Alexi Rychman, and this has turned into the strang
est day of my life.” He glanced at the spindly brunette next to him, who blushed.

“Hello, Alexi, I’m Rebecca, and I feel the same.”

Alexi firmly met every child’s gaze in turn, prompting introductions.

“Elijah,” a thin blond boy said, his features sharp and his eyes a startling blue. He was garbed in striped satin finery that seemed rakish if not foppish on such a young man, and he was clearly the wealthiest of the lot.

“Josephine,” added a soft French accent belonging to a beautiful brunette, olive-skinned and sporting the latest fashions. Two shocks of white hair framed her face.

“Michael,” chimed in the sturdy boy with a brilliant, contagious smile.

“Lucretia Marie O’Shannon Connor,” replied an Irish accent, shyly, and its owner stared at the cobblestones, dark blonde hair falling to veil her frightened face. Her plain calico dress bespoke modest means.

“Pardon?” Elijah’s drawn and angular face became even more pinched.

“I suppose you could call me Jane if that’s easier,” the girl murmured with a shrug, still staring at the street.

“I’ll say,” Elijah laughed.

Alexi’s eyes flashed with a sudden unfocused anger. “And here I thought all my life I’d be a scientist. It seems forces at large have other plans. I don’t suppose any of you has the slightest idea what we’re supposed to
do?

Everyone shook their heads, just as surprised with their new destinies as he.

“Then, let me ask a mad question.” Alexi’s tone was cautious. “Does anyone, all of a sudden…see ghosts?”

“Yes!” everyone chorused, relieved that if this were madness, they weren’t alone in it.

“Can you hear them speak?” he asked.

“No,” was the universal reply.

“Neither can I, thank God, or we’d never have another
moment’s peace.” Alexi sighed. “Well, I suppose we’d better get to the bottom of this. I…saw a chapel. But I’ve never been there and don’t know where it is.”

Rebecca, still blushing, pointed. “I…I think that raven can show us.”

Above, a hovering black bird was waiting for them. The new Guard looked up and nodded, then followed through the bustling heart of the city.

The crow stopped at an impressive edifice labeled
ATHENS ACADEMY
. The red sandstone building had appeared all of a sudden, nestled impossibly among several less-interesting lots. The multistoried construction was shuttered, clearly unoccupied by staff or students. It was the summer holiday, after all. Yet it was occupied by ghosts. And, as the wide wooden doors opened for the six children, these ghosts pointed the way toward an interior chapel, as if everything here had been waiting.

While the others walked ahead, Alexi lingered, studying what seemed to be a normal school, normal halls and stately foyers, hoping to find further clues. When he at last reached the chapel doors, the candles upon the altar burst into flame. The ladies in the group gasped.

Alexi lifted his palm—and the candles extinguished. He furrowed his brow. A young man of methods and proofs, he was; such happenings defied his knowledge of a more definite world.

The bright white chapel was of simple decor, with a painted dove high above a plain altar. A hole formed in the air before them, first as a black point but growing into a rectangle. This dark portal opened with a sound like a piece of paper being torn, surely leading to a place more foreign than the children had ever seen. They approached it in silence.

“This must be a sacred space for us alone,” Michael quietly surmised, peering into the void, seeing a staircase that led to a beckoning light below.

Alexi set his jaw, strode forward and descended the stair. The others followed.

The room below was circular, lined with Corinthian pillars but blurred in the shadows, as if this were a place at the edge of time, a dream. There was a different bird depicted in stained glass over their heads, not a dove but something great and fiery. A feather was engraved in the stone below the glass, with an inscription. Alexi read it aloud: “‘In darkness, a door. In bound souls, a circle of fire. Immortal force in mortal hearts. Six to calm the restless dead. Six to shield the restless living.’”

Immediately, a circle of blue-coloured fire leaped up. Everyone gasped except Alexi, who was looking curiously at the cerulean flame, wondering how on earth such a thing was possible: the fire remained in a perfect circle around them, at a height of a few inches, and gave off no heat.

“Alexi, look!” Rebecca cried, pointing to his hands. He’d been contemplating the possible chemical compounds inherent to the fire, not noticing the licking tendrils of that same blue conflagration emanating from his palms and trickling down to the circle. Another ripping sound tore through the room, this one far greater, and at a new portal threshold there suddenly stood an indescribable woman.

Alexi forgot the fire, and the fact that it was coming from his hands. He forgot his troubled, logical concerns. He could only stare, overtaken. His mind, body and heart exploded with new sensations.

The woman was tall and lithe, glowing with a light of power and love, with features as perfect as a statue and hair that was golden. No; it was lustrous brown. No, rich red…She shifted from one hue to the next, maintaining her breathtaking beauty but seeming to radiate all colours at once. Diaphanous material wrapped her perfect body, sweeping layers and transitioning hues like the rest. Her eyes were crystalline lamps, sparkling and magnetic. There was no other answer but that she was a divine creature.

She spoke. Her voice held echoes of every element; an orchestra of stars.

“My beloveds. I’ve not much time, but I must inaugurate you, as I have done since your circle began The Grand Work in ancient times. You won’t remember those who came before. Nor has what’s inside
overtaken
you. It heightens you. You are heroes of your age. The Guard picked you six because your mortal hearts are bold and strong.

“There has never been a more crucial time than this century, this city. Your world is filled with new ideas, new science, new ideas on God and the body…and most importantly, spirits. There’s never been such talk of spirits. You are the ones who must respond.”

She turned to Alexi, and he felt himself stop breathing. Her gemlike eyes filled with tears that became rubies, then emeralds, then sapphires as they coursed down her perfect cheeks and tinkled to the stone floor before vanishing. Unconsciously, Alexi reached out a hand to touch those tears, though the woman remained beyond his reach within her portal.

“Alexi, you are the leader here. Inside of you alone lives what’s left of my true love, a winged being of power and light—the first phoenix of ancient times. Murdered by jealous Darkness, he was burned alive. His great power was splintered but not destroyed. This fire from your hands is your tool. It was the weapon used against you long ago, but now you control the element and are born again within it. My love lives on in you, worthy Alexi, and you will fight Darkness by bearing the eternal flame of our vendetta.” She turned to the others, and breath stole back into Alexi’s lungs.

“The power that inhabits the rest of you comes from great beings in those days—Muses, forces of Beauty that chose to follow our broken phoenix as votaries, to keep chaotic Darkness from infiltrating this world. Together you are the new Guard, and this task is yours.”

“The Guard?” Rebecca piped up, confused.

“That is what you will do: guard the living from the dead wandering the earth, whom you now see but cannot hear. Your Grand Work is to maintain the balance between this world and the one beyond, beside. Darkness would run rampant over your great city and beyond—and will, unless you silence his emissaries. Hold fast, for the struggle will worsen. Darkness will seek to destroy the barrier pins between worlds. And to fight this, a prophecy must be fulfilled. A seventh member will join you. She will come as your peer to create a new dawn.”

Suddenly, their oracle winced as if struck. Alexi rushed forward—to protect or comfort, he did not know—but the divine apparition put out a hand that stopped him dead. “But you must understand that once the seventh joins you, it will mean war.”

The group couldn’t help but shiver, even if they didn’t understand.

“Who
are
you?” Alexi asked, unable to hide the yearning in his voice.

She smiled sadly but did not answer his question. “I hope you will know her when she comes, Alexi, my love. And I hope she will know you, too. Await her, but beware. She will not come with answers but will be lost, confused. I have put protections in place, but she will be threatened and seeking refuge. There shall be tricks, betrayals and many second guesses. Caution, beloved. Mortal hearts make mistakes. Choose your seventh carefully, for if you choose the false prophet, the end of your world shall follow.”

“A sign then—surely there will be a sign!” The boy named Michael couldn’t hold back a string of desperate questions. “And
when
will she come? And how will we know how, and what, to fight against?”

“You’ll be led to fight the machinations of Darkness by instincts within you. But you shall not always be fighting. You are also as you were—your mortal lives and thoughts
remain unchanged, though they are augmented by the spirits inside you. Each of you has a specific strength.”

She looked to Josephine, then, naming her “the Artist,” turned to Jane, “the Healer;” then to Rebecca, “the Intuition.” Michael she named “the Heart,” and Elijah, “the Memory.” Then, finally, Alexi: “the Power.”

“As for a sign when she has come, your seventh, look for a door. A door like this”—the woman gestured to the portal in which she stood—“should be your gauge. But don’t go in,” she cautioned, glancing around herself woefully. “You wouldn’t want to come here.

“You’ll see this threshold together, all of you, I’m sure, when it is time. As for when your seventh will come…I cannot say. I’m powerful, but only the great Cosmos is omnipotent. Time is different where I am and we are in uncharted waters. But she
will
be placed in your path. And once she is, you won’t have much time. Then, a terrible storm.”

There was a disturbing sound from the darkness behind her. The woman glanced back, fearful.

“What is your name?” Alexi insisted, desperate to know more.

The woman smiled sadly, and her glimmering eyes changed hue. “It hardly matters. We’ve had so many names over the years—all of us.” She surveyed the group before her eyes rested once more on Alexi. “Especially you, my love: please be careful. Listen to your instincts and stay together. A war is coming, and it isn’t what you think. Hell isn’t down, it’s around us, pressing inward. And it will come. But your seventh will be there when it does, or she will have died in vain.”

BOOK: The Strangely Beautiful Tale Of Miss Percy Parker
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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