~4400 words, approx 20 min reading time
Things stirred in the Mist Wood. Things armed with claws and teeth and malice. Elligia Mistwood ignored them. Sunk her shovel into wet earth. Even in the dead of night, she was safe inside her family burial ground.
“Little help?” she said between huffs of exertion. “You came to me, remember?”
“Maybe this was a mistake,” Bexley squeaked, her own shovel forgotten in a white-knuckle grip. “Losing a necklace won’t kill me.”
The Mist Wood understood the implication. Fog tendrils twirled in delight at the terror flowing from the pampered townie. Bexley turned white. Not ghost-white, of course, because ghost-white wasn’t possible for the living to replicate and woe to anyone who alleged otherwise within earshot of the dead.
“Graveyard’s warded,” Elligia said. “What’s out there cannot get in here. We can dig up Mortan next to explain how he did it.”
The Wood crawled over endless rolling hills. It was older than the town of Heron’s Neck. Older than the Inn that predated the town. Older than Elligia’s family, but there was no telling townies that. They still believed the earliest Mistwoods had settled a sunny patch of meadow and conjured the Mist Wood to protect them. Superstitious dolts.
Two days ago, Bexley had chased down Elligia after school. Desperation cut unfamiliar frown lines on Bexley’s face. She asked if the Mistwoods had any powers to retrieve stolen items. Elligia wasn’t interested. Bexley was born one month after Elligia. In the fifteen years since, they’d rarely spoken. Not Elligia’s necklace, not her problem.
Bexley insisted the theft involved magic. How else could it vanish from the teacher’s locked desk? It had taken courage for Bexley to approach a witch with her problem. Elligia relented. She was dying to try the raising potion anyway. A part of her pointed out it would be nice to spend an evening with someone. She gave that part a withering glare until it hid.
Elligia threw a clod of dirt onto Bexley’s shoes.
“Sooner she’s awake, the sooner you’ll be out of here,” Elligia reminded her. “Start digging.”
That got the townie’s attention. She set the lantern closer. Eyes closed, she mumbled a prayer. Silly girl. Still, it appeared to fortify her. She began to dig.
Shovels thudded against a coffin. After she swept dirt from the lid, Elligia tied her white hair back. With care, she lifted a vial from a bag slumped beside the grave. Luminescent purple liquid sloshed within the corked glass. At least it looked right. This was the first time she’d made it herself; her parents were traveling. Again.
“Does that really wake the dead?” Bexley whispered.
“Last chance to back out,” Elligia said. “Once she’s up, she won’t return until her task’s complete. That’s how it works.”
Bexley sighed. Doubt and worry brushed her face, and Elligia snorted disgust. Two nice parents, lush brown hair, smart as anything; Bexley had never learned to hide how she felt. There’d never been any need.
“My uncle just made me that necklace. To be an heirloom. Someone stole it. I want it back.” She nodded at the tombstone. “You’re sure she’s the one?”
Mistwoods had been buried here for three centuries. For the case of the stolen necklace, Elligia had selected the older of two sisters still infamous decades after their deaths. Their graves huddled beneath a squat tree.
Consummate peacemaker. Negotiated quotas with the nightbeasts, dropping death rates to the lowest in town history. Traded with the Crow King to protect crops. Thrice victorious in trials accusing her of witchery.
Died at age 32, shot & killed by Sheriff Annadel Perch while warding the Mist Wood in what was absolutely not a hunting accident.
Inveterate revenger. Inspired the Axfall riots in response to a price-fixing scheme designed to bankrupt her uncle Axfall Mistwood. Lured a posse intent on hanging her mother to the Doompond where none survived. Ambassador to owls. Routinely escaped witchery accusations through acts of dark magic.
Died at age 29 in the same manner and on the same day as her sister. She remains furious in death.
The coffin lid opened with an unholy groan. The girls gazed down at Persuasia’s body. It wasn’t as decomposed as nature typically demanded. In the Wood, an owl hooted. Farther off, a nightbeast howled a lament..
“Oh, hush,” Elligia muttered. Give a girl a second to compose herself before the unpleasantness.Elligia pinched her nose and drank half the liquid. Fought back a gag. Her lips went numb. She poured the other half over her ancestor’s desiccated lips.
Dead breath wheezed. Dried lungs crinkled like bellows in the ruins of an abandoned hearth. Bones crunched against the coffin’s sides, and glowing purple eyes opened.
“Good evening, cousin,” Elligia said. “I need your help.”
Lanterns lit the cobbled roads of Heron’s Neck. Heavy iron things that hung from posts in every yard. Townies, fools that they were, thought light kept away what lived in the dark. Tonight, it served to highlight the difference between two girls flush with the pinkness of life and the tall, sharp-featured dead woman beside them.
The road ended at spike-topped gates. Two stories of dark windows and blood-red brick loomed in the darkness. Shadows arced overhead, crows circling on silent wings. Persuasia’s brow crinkled. Bexley flinched.
“A prison?” the dead witch asked.
“Yes,” Elligia said as Bexley corrected, “It’s the school.”
Persuasia inhaled and frowned. “The theft took place here.”
“My necklace was locked away when we went outside for exercise class. It was gone when we got back.”
“I will need to see its absence. It is possible I can trace it.” Persuasia’s voice was breathy but strong. Her arms and legs stuttered once or twice before she ascended the steps.
Elligia frowned. That wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d followed the family recipe to the letter. Making a mental note to check her work, she tugged on the dead woman’s cloak.
A patchy field passed for the schoolyard. Houses huddled beyond a rickety fence. A dog barked, then light filled an upstairs window. Elligia hurried to the basement door. Persuasia took a jerky step toward the house, and the barks strangled into silence.
The basement door was secured by a heavy iron chain and lock. Elligia pressed a hand to the cold metal and asked it how it liked being a lock (“It’s ok,”) and did it always want to be a lock (“Well, no, bit yeoman for my tastes,”) and what it dreamed of being (“A sword in the hands of a crusader.”). Elligia started to protest, Mistwoods being well aware of what it was like to watch armed hordes descend upon your home over and over again, but Persuasia pinched her arm. Elligia asked the lock how it would feel to be a sword (“Like glory in sunshine,”) then asked if it would show her so it raised up its arm in a victory pose. The lock clanked open.
They entered the dark basement, and Persuasia led them through the pitch black to the stairs. The girls took over from there. A minute later, they stood in a classroom.
“Open a window,” Persuasia said.
Elligia obliged, throwing up glass and pushing open one shutter. The dead Mistwood stood grave-still beside the desk. The girls followed her lead. For a while, no one moved. Bexley whispered to Elligia.
“Is she dead again?”
A crow soared in through the window. At inhuman speed, Persuasia snapped a hand around the crow’s feet. Wings beat panicked flaps, but the Mistwood’s grip was inescapable.
“Open,” she instructed. The bird’s beak popped open, and Persuasia dragged her finger over its tongue.
“Crow saliva,” she said. “Expert thieves, crows.” She opened her mouth and dragged the saliva finger over her own tongue.
Elligia looked away. “Gross.”
“I might vomit,” Bexley said. She gagged and bent forward. “Or extra vomit.”
Persuasia took no notice. Crow flapping like mad in her unforgiving grip, she drew the ghost of a necklace onto the desk with her double-spitted finger. It began to glow. She beckoned Elligia to the desk. Oh, please, no.
“A trace of dead marks what’s lost.”
“A trace of life marks what’s left,” Persuasia finished. She grabbed the crow’s beak and held it open.
Elligia dragged her finger over the crow’s tongue. She dragged it over her own. Witchery always insisted on being vile. Bexley disappeared behind a desk. Elligia ignored the sounds of retching and traced the glowing necklace outline.
The light flared then faded. Footsteps appeared on the floor in the same weak glow, like moonlight reflected off the eye of a hunter. One at a time, ghost-feet lit then vanished. They led out the door.
“Follow them,” Persuasia set off in pursuit.
“Bexley, we have to go.”
A hand appeared from behind the desk, one finger raised in request. A dry hack, a wet spit, and a post-release groan. Bexley reemerged. She wiped her mouth.
“Let’s get this over with.”
A living witch, a dead one, and a girl with an empty stomach walked through town as it slept. Firelight and shadow splashed them in uneven rhythms. Footsteps flared then faded. It didn’t take the odd trio long to arrive at a small bungalow.
Marsh grass grew tall around a squat house. Mismatched shutters guarded the windows. The whole thing slouched to the right. Water whispered nearby, just out of sight. The bungalow was built too close to the water, and it was sinking. The ghost-feet padded up a gravel path and vanished through the front door.
“Who lives here?” Elligia asked.
“I don’t know her name,” Bexley said. “She just moved here. From the Springs.”
A low fence surrounded the overgrown yard. Bexley pushed on the gate. Elligia grabbed her arm.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting my necklace.” Bexley spoke with the puffed-up energy of the vindicated.
“In the middle of the night?” Elligia raised an eyebrow. “From a possibly magical thief?”
Bexley’s fire cooled. Elligia shook her head. Rich kids never considered consequences; they’d never had any need.
“No crows around,” Persuasia said. “I’ll go in myself.”
A shadow crept among the overgrown yard. A tail pointed straight up. It weaved among tall grass and feral shrubbery.
Elligia crouched. In mews and gargles, she spoke to the yard. She held out a hand. A grey cat emerged and rubbed against her outstretched fingers. Finger crooked, she beckoned Bexley down. The cat sniffed at Bexley’s knees and purred acceptance.
“There’s something in there that smells like her,” Elligia dug bits of dried fish from her pockets. The scales were stained unnatural orange, but cats never cared. “Can you get it for us?”
The cat took the treats in two big bites. Its pupils grew huge. Without a sound, it scurried through the underbrush. In the light of the bungalow’s only lantern, its eyes shimmered orange. It disappeared around back.
“You can talk to cats?” Bexley asked.
“Yep.” Elligia said. Persuasia raised a disapproving eyebrow. Ruin all my fun, cousin. “Magic treats help.”
Enchanted cats were as skilled hunters as the ordinary sort. The stray emerged after only a few minutes. Head held high and proud, the necklace jangled in its jaws. Bexley took it and shoved it into her pocket. Beaming in delight, she reached down to pet her thanks. The cat hissed and bolted.
“I better get home. If my parents realize I snuck out, I’ll be dead.” She blanched and looked at Persuasia. “Sorry.”
“Keep your sorrys, child. I have no need of them.”
“Plus you can use them later to blow stuff up,” Elligia added. She was eager to try that spell herself.
Bexley started back down the dirt road, toward the brighter lights of the town proper. She paused and turned back.
“Thank you,” she said. No grudging note beneath it. “I’m glad you agreed to help.”
Before Elligia could manufacture a suitable quip, Bexley hurried off into the night. The young witch tried and failed to stop her heart from warming. She motioned for her cousin to follow. It was a long walk home.
“How do you think the woman did it?” Elligia asked.
“Bent the light around her body. Forgetting Frost. There are ways.” Persuasia wheezed an acrid breath. Elligia tried not to gag. “I will take to the library. It is wise to understand who has come to Heron’s Neck before you bury me again.”
For the rest of the walk, neither spoke. The road curled through the trees and under a huge wooden gate. It ran aground against the circular green that centered the Mistwood estate. Half a dozen cabins, dark and boarded up, surrounded the green. A manor house loomed at the end of a lantern-lit drive.
They entered through a side door into the manor. It had been a long night, and Elligia was eager to clean remnant crow spit out of her mouth and climb into her warm bed. But an energy thrummed in her chest, and when she passed the hall mirror, a big smile stretched over her face.
The next evening, as Elligia sweated over a pot in the kitchen, a deep knock boomed through the manor. Two kittens, one black and one white, sat watch nearby. As soon as Elligia stepped away from the thickening stew, they leaned forward, eyes on the simmering food.
“Absolutely not.” She grabbed one under each arm and marched to the front door. With a huff of frustration, she nodded. The door opened itself.
A tall woman dressed in fine traveling clothes stood on the porch. She flashed the coldest smile Elligia had ever seen. Around her neck hung Bexley’s necklace. Oh no.
“Hey, kid.” The woman had a lilting, throaty voice like a songbird that had been up all night. “Your mother home?”
“How’d you know?” Elligia didn’t bother with appearances. There was no need to lie when she was already caught.
The woman’s smile never wavered. She glared through hunter’s eyes. Hungry and calculating. Her gaze ignored Elligia. The white kitten hissed. Elligia dropped him.
“It’s always the Mistwoods. Your mother should not have stolen from me.. I’ll wait in the parlor.”
The woman tried to enter but claws shredded her skirt. At her feet, the white cat, now fully grown, growled and swiped again. The black cat, newly adult with tufted ears and voluminous fur, primed herself in Elligia’s arms. Back legs tensed. She locked eyes on the woman’s throat and hissed.
“It wasn’t my mother.” Elligia straightened her back. . “How’d you get the necklace back?”
Those awful eyes finally focused on Elligia. It took all she had not to flinch.
“I propose a trade. You Mistwoods have something I need. I have the girl.”
Footsteps creaked on aged steps. Persuasia rasped a curse then a spell. Elligia blinked, sucked in a huge breath. She felt dizzy.
The sun was setting. An hour had turned in a moment. The stranger looked just as confused, but she recovered faster than Elligia.
“Not just rumor, then.” The woman studied Persuasia’s face. “The Mistwoods really can raise the dead.”
“It’s been thirty years. Why aren’t you old?” Persuasia asked. “Or dead?”
The woman winked. “Magic.”
“Getting dark.” Persuasia smiled with a coldness to match the stranger’s. “The Mist Wood isn’t safe at night.”
“Precisely why I’ve returned to Heron’s Neck,” the tall woman said. “You dropped something when last we met. I’ve rationed it well, but I’m almost out. Make more, and I’ll spare the kid’s friend.”
“Mistwoods don’t have friends.” Elligia meant to sound unflappable, but she could hear her own bitterness.
Persuasia spoke with a stilted cadence. “We can come to an arrangement. Strike a bargain. There’s a happy ending here for everyone.”
Elligia was convinced. Negotiate and agree. Obvious, really. She didn’t realize Persuasia was working a spell until the stranger spat onto the ground.
“Still trying to build bridges over hungry rapids. You never did learn.” The woman pointed toward the Wood. “Bring it to me before sunrise. That spot by the old birch. You remember.”
Smug assurance dripped from the woman like viscera from a vulture’s beak. She laughed, and Elligia’s blood boiled. Warnings groaned in her mind. This woman was dangerous.
With a sarcastic bow, the stranger walked away. She passed onto the road through the wooden gate, head held high like she was in no danger at all. Tentacles of mist uncoiled from the trees. Even at a distance, Elligia could hear cackles of hungry delight. At her feet, the white kitten arched his back, hackles spiked along the ridge of his spine.
Mist swirled around the woman but didn’t touch her. The laughter faded.
“How’d she do that?” Elligia asked.
“My sister and I were warding the Wood at the property line. By the old birch. We’d only just started. She must have taken the potion from our bodies. It’s kept her safe all this time.”
Chills swarmed Elligia’s body. Goosebumps bloomed on her skin. The black kitten mewled discomfort and leapt from her arms.
“Was that really…?”
“Sheriff Annadel Perch, as violent and selfish as ever.” Persuasia closed the door. “If we’re to save Bexley, we have a lot of magic to do and only one night to do it.”
Rotten metallic stink cut with the perfume of newly bloomed flowers clung to Elligia’s clothes. The crisp freshness of pine needles coated her nostrils. Feeling had been sapped from her lips and fingertips. Her head swam from the sensations. Also, the blood loss.
“What is in this stuff?” she asked while trying not to breathe.
“You really should have learned this by now.”
Elligia and Persuasia stood at the edge of their family land. Darkness coated the Wood. They’d lit fires, but the light couldn’t banish the mist. At the edge of vision, the white bark of a huge birch tree stood out from the canvas of shadow. An unseen owl hooted in the canopy.
“Survivors,” Persuasia said. “What lives in the Wood feeds on fear first and flesh second. The warding potion gets its power from things that survive. Perennials, evergreen trees, Mistwood blood.”
The older witch thumbed a corked vial of green liquid. Deep in the woods, wary eyes glowed between the trees. Nightbeasts never stood this far back for Elligia. Then again, maybe they didn’t for Persuasia either.
“We ward young things, things that will last. Saplings. Adolescent deer that will grow new antlers year after year. It protects but not forever. Nothing does.”
The mist drained away. A moment later, two figures coalesced in the night. Bexley appeared unhurt, but her face was haggard and her eyes, red. Probably spent the day terrified and crying. Perch walked behind her, careful to keep her hostage between herself and the witches. Fury shoved aside Elligia’s unease.
“Potion ready, fires lit, and an hour to spare.” Perch grinned. She looked like a lion after a kill. “You always were the reasonable one.”
“Simple trade. Your words. Let the girl go.” Persuasia again spoke in a stilted pace. “And the potion is yours.”
“Give it to the kid,” Perch said. “And stop casting.”
She pulled out a revolver. Ebony wood and charred metal. Even at a distance, Elligia felt spellwork waft off the weapon. Guns could be enchanted? What had Perch done, what had she learned, in her time under stolen Mistwood protection?
Persuasia handed Elligia the vial. She approached, eyes on the gun.
“It’s alright, Bexley. This is almost over.”
Elligia stopped just beyond Perch’s reach. She strained her ears. No bugs chirped, nothing rustled among the autumn leaves. Even the glowing eyes had gone.
“Why did you kill my cousins?” Elligia asked.
“I was the law. Witchcraft’s illegal.” Perch shrugged. Remorseless. “The town required justice.”
“Here.” Elligia extended the vial. “Let her go.”
“Take it,” Perch ordered, poking Bexley with the gun.
Bexley took the vial. Her eyes told a grim tale; fear and confusion and a sliver of relief. Rich kids never thought it could get worse because it never had. She handed the potion to Perch. The former sheriff popped the cork and inhaled.
“That horrible stink really is so sweet.” She let out the happy sigh of a wolf laying down with a belly full of deer.
She grabbed Bexley and began to back away. Elligia yelled. Persuasia frowned.
“Can’t give up my protection until I’m out of town. See you again in a few decades, Persuasia.” Perch nearly sang with triumph. “Give my regards to your sister.”
The fires went out. No moonlight shone through the branches. Utter blackness swallowed them. An owl cooed alarm.
“Consider your regards rejected,” someone said. Her voice was high and musical. It wavered with unbreakable surety and unrepentant menace.
Perch cursed. A clack and a shout. Something crashed into Elligia and knocked her to the ground. A whoosh overhead. The nearest fire burst back to life. Bexley; Perch had shoved the girl into Elligia, and they’d both gone down.
Uphoria Mistwood stood atop a cracked tree stump. She looked just like Persuasia, the same sharp lines on her face, the same serious gaze. Unlike her sister, she was short and wiry. An owl sat atop her shoulder. She was better preserved, as if spite had kept her whole.
Perch whirled her gun and fired. The owl beat its wings and the bullet thudded into the stump. It caught fire. Uphoria laughed and stepped unhurt out of the flames. Her movements were fluid and graceful, and Elligia swelled with pride. That’s the potion done right.
“The town requires justice, Anna,” Uphoria said.
Another whoosh overhead. An owl swooped, talons extended. Perch ducked, fired, missed. Another flash from the trees. Another owl, another near miss. Perch hopped away from the fire. She kept the others in front of her.
“I killed you both once.” Perch fired again. The bullet screamed off into the night. “I’ll do it again.”
Between the flicker of the fire’s light, Persuasia and Uphoria vanished.
Elligia grabbed Bexley. They ran away from the fight. The property line was so close. Perch’s pistol cocked. They weren’t going to make it. Elligia shoved Bexley forward and leapt between her and Perch just as the gun banged.
A wet thump and a screech. Elligia fell onto her face inside the wards. She braced for the horror of gunshot pain. Seconds passed, but nothing came.
“Oh no,” Bexley sobbed. Elligia rolled over.
An owl lay dead. A pained cry rang out. Beside the body, a shadow unfolded and spit out Uphoria. More owls swept down from the trees. Talons dug into Perch’s shoulders, her back. She shot and retreated until she stumbled over the birch’s roots.
Persuasia, crouched on the big tree’s lowest branch, snapped off a branch. She threw it to her sister. Uphoria sang to the night in an owl’s coo, low and sorrowful. Persuasia layered below it the discordant call of a crow.
Perch pushed herself to her feet. She turned to run to the safety of anywhere else.
Branches came to life with a horrific creak. They swept toward Perch. She dodged the first. Another caught her chest and dragged her inward. The trunk split into a barred gate. It swung open. Perch screamed threats as branches shoved her into the tree. The bark-gate slammed shut. For a moment, it looked just like a jail. Then the trunk folded over itself and Perch. The night fell silent.
Bexley was ok. A few bumps from the fight, still terrified, but Perch hadn’t done her any physical harm. Elligia’s leg bled from her fall. Persuasia stepped inside the wards. Uphoria lifted the owl’s body with tenderness.
“She’s dead?” Bexley asked with hope.
“Jailed,” Persuasia said. “Two murders, two life sentences.”
“Three,” Uphoria corrected.
She pulled something from the dead owl’s curled talon. The necklace. She gave it to Bexley, who took it with a grimace.
“She has the vial,” Elligia said. “Won’t that keep her alive until the spell wears off?”
Persuasia shook her head. “The potion protects. That is all. What spell kept her from time’s grasp was not ours.”
“Whose then?” Elligia asked.
“Fool child.” Uphoria said. “Do you think the Mistwoods the world’s only witches?”
Oh. Elligia blushed, half anger, half embarrassment. She hadn’t given much thought to the world away from Heron’s Neck. Her parents traveled all the time. She’d spent her life alone in a town that hated her. She spent so much energy trying to survive, she had none leftover to wonder.
“She hated Mistwoods,” Bexley said. “She hated you. Why did she pick me?” Confused and angry and resentful.
“The necklace,” Elligia said. She’d thought about how the wards worked. “Because it was new, and it would last.”
Bexley hadn’t deserved what happened. She looked hurt, and someone deserved blame. Maybe it was always like this. Maybe Mistwoods would always get blamed for Heron’s Neck’s problems because it was easier than accepting that sometimes the world was dangerous, that some birds’ beaks were sharp enough to draw blood.
Elligia didn’t know what to say. What can you say to a girl who was robbed then kidnapped because of your family and its history? Because of who you are?
It was a shock when Bexley wrapped her arms around Elligia and squeezed. Elligia couldn’t remember the last time she’d been hugged. She clamped her arms onto her friend. Was that what Bexley was now? Could Mistwoods have friends?
“That awful woman,” Bexley said with a sob and then a laugh. “That awful, awful, woman.”
Persuasia sighed. She lifted something; Perch’s gun.
“We have mementos,” she said. “We must return to our graves before sunrise.”
Elligia nodded and stepped out of Bexley’s hug.
“Come on.” She started toward the graveyard. “I’ll bury you both.”
“Get two shovels,” Bexley said.
Elligia looked at her in confusion. Bexley tried on a smile. It was bright and lively. How did she manage it after the day she’d had? Elligia snorted. Rich kids.
“You had to dig them up for me,” Bexley said. “What kind of friend would I be if I let you bury them alone?”
Ashland East likes stories about raising the dead, defending the living and keeping a sharp eye on those in-between. He started writing when he was young, but didn’t really go for it until he was less young. Even at (insert age here), you gotta start sometime.
Author of “Never Just a Necklace”
What inspired you to write this story/poem?
I like stories that start in graveyards. I’ve written several that start with digging up graves for whatever reason. What sort of lunacy is this story that it STARTS at digging up bodies? Also, October. The run-up to Halloween is my favorite time of year. I love casual comfort with the macabre – whatever the thing is that powers Tim Burton and Bod Owens and The Addamses is the thing I am here for.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Once I’m done writing it and someone reads it, my part ends. Each reader is going to feel whatever his/her/their unique experience allows. What I got out of reading the final draft was the sense that generations of Mistwoods have all handled their Otherness in different ways. All 3 that we meet seem hurt by that Otherness, but none are broken by it. Maybe someone else will take away that it would be pretty handy to have a sister who speaks to owls and convinces trees to punish murderers.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
It started as a flash piece of about 800 words. It was rejected a few times. But I liked Elligia and the shape of her world, so I stuck another person in the graveyard to see what would happen. That 1st longer version didn’t have a villain and suffered for it. So this is the 3rd major revision. Plus a few rounds of ordinary edits in each version. So that’s a long way of saying 10-ish edits.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
For related, fun-with-the-macabre vibes, the Johannes Cabal series & stories by Jonathan L Howard. Cabal is an anti-hero all-timer. And if you haven’t played 80 Days from Inkle, make that move. Paid mobile game (no ads!) about a steampunk 19th century mostly free from European colonialism. Exploded airships, proto-AI flying lion statues, Sherlockian mysteries on the high seas. Meg Jayanth wrote something like 700,000 words for it, and they’re all great.