Prologue: A Cordial Invitation
The letter was presented to Jared Filch exactly one week after the fires burned down his house; that should have been enough to strike him as odd, but he was more stunned by the individual who delivered it. The man was lean and too well-dressed to be a Post Man, wearing a smile that was thin, but with a practiced kindness to it. He introduced himself as Jonathan and left his hand extended with the perfectly crisp white letter in his palm. “It’s for you,” he told Jared, unperturbed by the makeshift lean-to his wife had built near the wreckage of their home.
The farmer grunted and frown. “Ain’t expectin’ no letter.” Jared was too prideful to admit he couldn’t read, but he accepted the letter with a degree of reverence that the man must have recognized; Jonathan’s smile inched up just so.
“It’s an invitation,” he remarked politely as Jared tore open the letter with his dirty hands, watching the wax seal fall into the snow.
Jared squinted at him. “Ain’t expectin’ no party neither.”
“It’s not for a party,” Jonathan explained and offered a perfect smile. “It’s for your new life.”
The farmer pulled the letter out from the envelope, his eyes tracing the words he could not read: You are Cordially Invited to The Grove…
The roads froze over sometime in the evening, but Jared did not get out of his caravan until after the dawn for fear of the dead nails scratching at the door. By the time he was brave enough to investigate, the back wheel was sunk deep into the muddy, frozen earth and the spokes had cracked. His wife, infinitely more clever on matters mechanical, had told him the caravan was bearing too much weight and he cursed her out before he left town – not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. But Jared was a practical man, a hard-working man, even in his own folly, and so he began to dig.
The first caravan passed him on the road an hour into his work, but it did not stop for him; the only window was barred and the caravan driver’s eyes seemed to hold no consciousness even after Jared hollered out a greeting. He had better luck with the second caravan, a family of distillers from past Baytowne who stopped to share watered-down hooch and salt cod from their stores. Their matriarch poured him a tin cup full of alcohol as her sons helped reinforce the broken spokes on Jared’s caravan.
“Wiped out,” she sighed and toasted to the memory of it. “Whole damn place. Zed came pourin’ through like a damn flood after the walls of the compound split. We didn’t stand a chance of staying.”
“Right shame,” Jared muttered, lifting his glass right along with her sadness. “Real right shame that is, miss. Ain’t it unkind to have to lose your roots like that?”
She smiled gratefully for his words and followed it with a nod. “True words about that – but you’ve felt your share too, haven’t you? Fire, you said?”
“That’s right, miss. Droughts were real tough on us.” He chose not to tell her of the strange rumors that spread across the farms and the laughter of children; if he was lucky enough, it would fade away in his dreams. “You’re quite a lick out on the roads, though. What brings you out this far?”
The brewer set her cup aside and reached into her sleeve. “Oh, we got this nice letter in the mail from a woman in white. Would you look at that? It seems like a real nice place.” She extended him a folded letter in a plain white envelope, bits of a gray seal still attached to the edge.
Jared Filch could not read, but he remembered seeing the artfully constructed letters, the swirl of a printer’s hand that he was beginning to suspect had written the same words a hundred times before:
You are Cordially Invited to The Grove…