The keening the brood emitted this time wasn’t the eerie haunting sound as the times before. It was urgent, hungry, and desperate. With their true master at the helm they had direct purpose. Peccant’s movements weren’t rushed but they were swift and confident. Thomas hurried out the door to follow them, but lost Peccant in the waves of the brood. There have never been so many. Rhae pointed Lisha out up on the rooftops running. Not far behind Peccant pursued in slow, long strides. He drew a long sword from his walking stick, casting the sheath aside.
“She’s going to die,” Galen said. His gray eyes grew dark with determination as he hefted a 15 pound cast iron skillet. Strapped to his waist were various jugs. “We have to do something.”
Thomas nodded and tossed a filigree rune at the skillet. “That will let you kill them, but it won’t last long.”
Galen grinned. “I have a few tricks of my own. Go and don’t die.”
Drawing their guns, Rhae and Thomas started to run. A shrill whistle cut the air and was answered by an unearthly growl. Thomas stumbled as he looked back. Galen laughed as he mounted a fearsome beast of fangs and claws. It appeared to be some sort of saber tooth tiger. The shoulders stood four feet high and it was about six feet long. A broken jug lay at its feet. Galen broke two more jugs on the ground. Each released brown clouds with shrill whistles. A giant lady bug the size of Galen’s head formed from one and a smoky blue mosquito twice the size of the lady bug formed from the other.
“I said go,” Galen said. With that he spurred his mount and leapt over them into the brood.
“We need to end this before the town wakes up,” Rhae said, activating her concealer device.
“Assuming they can see any of it,” Thomas said. “Focus on Peccant if you can.”
The brood swarmed around Lisha, herding her back toward the pawn shop entrance. She limped around the corner of the shop. Thomas and Rhae shot as many as they could, but they couldn’t prevent all of them from tearing away pieces of her essence. It didn’t matter how many they killed, more came from Peccant’s robes.
“What is he,” Rhae said, “a baby machine?”
“We can’t let her get pinned.”
More jugs splashed down on the pavement. A two foot armored crab releasing acidic bubbles cleared a path while a four-foot ram charged into the fray with bellowing bleats. Galen rode through, swinging his mighty skillet down in steady rhythm. The filigree flickered fast and faded as the brood overwhelmed the tiger.
“No,” Rhae said, taking shots to clear them from their friend.
Thomas emptied his gun and then ran. He prayed the cosmos would spare him this day. Desperate he pulled whatever runes from his aura he could and sent them into orbit. He needed Experiment Number Five. The real deal. Peccant advanced with steady grace. The white-hot flame of calm anger burned in his stance. Its heat rippled ahead of him in thick waves, burning away the beasts Galen summoned. The brood’s keening grew triumphant. A yard away from Thomas’ bike now, but he waited. Thomas needed him a little closer. Lisha collapsed to the pavement. Rhae picked up Galen.
“Run,” Thomas said. “Now.”
Thomas shot the entire orbit of runes at his bike. He didn’t see if Rhae got away, if they lived, or if he even got Peccant as planned. All he saw was a globe of white light and then a ball of fire. The pawn shop shattered too. Pieces, so many pieces, cut through the air. Ringing silence swaddled his head. Black ominous smoke blistered the sky. Thomas couldn’t remember when he ended up on his back. His heart lurched when he heard the high-pitched wails. The keening continued.
“Stay still son,” a man said, flashing a light in his eyes, “we’re here to help.”
He sighed. It wasn’t keening but sirens. “Rhae. Galen.”
“Don’t move,” the man said. “How many people?”
“Two women, a tall man, a short man, and myself.”
“Stay with me now,” the man said. “I need oxygen over here.”
“Ma’am, I said don’t move.”
“Thomas,” Rhae said, “don’t leave me.”
“Ma’am you need to stay clear.”
“Get your hands off me,” she said, “Thomas.”
Thomas reached for her but his hands failed to move. His vision blurred and the voices grew distant. Everything worked better in his head.
“Well you got lucky,” Celeste said. “Doctor said you took a hard knock to the head but somehow you suffered just a mild concussion.”
Thomas eased himself up in the hospital bed. “Somehow?”
“Somehow,” she said. A wry smile played her lips.
“Ah,” Thomas said. “Thanks.”
“I know I didn’t get to be there for you,” she said, “but I still worry about you. Everyday.”
“What really happened that day?”
Her face suddenly became blank. It reminded him of the white woman’s face. She blinked and took a ragged breath. Wiping back tears, she left the room.
“I wanted you to know that she’s not the master,” Thomas said, picking at the blanket.
Rhae walked in with a troubled expression. “Hey,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
“I think the white woman is my sister.”
“Your mother said that?”
“No, but I asked her what happened. She got that same look on her face and then left in tears.” Thomas stared at Rhae as if seeing beyond her. “People say my mother looks just like Lynnette had back in the day. And I can see that all the time. This woman, there’s something off about her but for a moment, in that moment when I asked that question, my mother looked exactly like her.”
“What are driving at?” Rhae said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“If she’s really my sister,” Thomas said, plucking at the bed sheets again, “it means that someone, or something, has really hurt her bad.”
“And your mother,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said.
They sat in silent for a time. Rhae knew he wondered about the why and how come. She also knew that Lynnette taught him about his heritage and its importance. She wondered though if he fully understood it.
“It’s the would be kings and gods,” she said, finally breaking the churning of his thoughts.
“Your bloodline,” she said. “Those seeking power will come for it. They’ll come for anyone with awakened powers.”
“It’s why it’s a good thing you are finally awake and mastering yours,” Galen said. “It’s easier to siphon or manipulate a slumbering talent.”
“How are you Galen?” Thomas said.
“Thanks to Celeste, I’ll be good as new,” he said, tapping his concealer. “Can’t have them poking around now can we?”
“How is Lisha?”
“It’s best if you see her for yourself,” Galen said.
After getting dressed in the fresh jeans and flannel Celeste had brought him, Thomas decided to pay Lisha a visit. His trench coat had seen better days, but he put that on too. It was starting to feel like psychic battle armor to him. Today he needed it for the questions he planned to ask.
Entering her patient room, he found her resting listlessly in the bed. Her left arm just below the elbow down had taken the same translucent sheen as the previous brood’s victims. Her left ankle and foot had done the same as well. Even Celeste’s healing arts could not undo this damage. Lisha would not recover from this. She had lost the use of her hand and foot. Thomas steeled himself against the pity he felt. He couldn’t allow himself to be derailed from the task at hand.
“So you’ve finally come,” she said. “Here to gloat have we?”
Thomas walked to the bed rail and stopped. “Why?”
“You know I wasn’t trying to kill you back then,” she said, “only seduce you.”
“I realize that,” he said, “but why?”
“I was the thief behind the middle man,” she said. “I was promised twice what Lynnette paid.”
She was lying about the payment, Thomas knew that. They always ended up paying double whatever Lynnette offered but Thomas remained silent. It was unusual for a thief to come back demanding more. This meant that Lynnette pick out a high-caliber thief for something particular that couldn’t fail. He thought of Peccant. Lisha hadn’t failed it seemed and the backlash was far-reaching with an exceptionally deadly price. What the hell was in the package?
“But Lynnette is dead so why seduce me?”
Lisha gave him a demure sideline smile. “You’re such a cute, clever boy,” she said, “surely you can’t blame a girl for wanting to join you?”
“Join me?” Thomas said. “You lost me.”
“The brood is out to get me,” she said, “who better to protect me?”
“Right,” said Thomas. He knocked on the bed rail with a frown. “You saved us the first time, remember? Then you tried to seduce me shortly after my aunt dies. At what point did I show I was a good protector in all that? Why don’t you try again?”
Lisha rolled her eyes and turned her head away from him. Angry, Thomas fished around in the dimensional pocket of his trench coat. He pulled out the package and waved it in the air to get her attention.
“This is what you’re really after?” he said, “This is what this is all about isn’t it? Why you really tried to seduce me and why Peccant is after you?”
Lisha’s shocked face told him everything he needed to know. Without even realizing it, he popped the seal open and yanked the box top off. All that was inside as a set of elegant black pearl beads on a string. Lifting them out with a finger, Thomas’ blood boiled.
“This is the cause of all the fighting and the killing?” he said. “This is why my aunt died? Why Nessa died?”
He fought back the tears. His aunt may have known what she was getting into, but Nessa didn’t ask for any of this. He ran his thumb across a pearl and watch flakes of black drift away and vanish. Shimmering light shone through. Nessa was only a child. He gripped the beads as he tried to push the memory of her destruction out of his mind. This had to end.
“To serve and protect those we love,” a tender voice said in his mind. The beads slid and entwined around his wrist as more of the black flaked off. The single largest bead rested itself just under his pulse point.
“What the hell?” Rhae said.
“Don’t listen to the voice,” Lisha said.
Thomas was already gone, lost to the vision the beads gave him.
A forest valley lay long forgotten, entrenched in a steep mountain range. Shafts of light pierced through the forest canopy, embraced by the darkness and marinating the lush foliage. Motes floated and twinkled in these shafts but when disturbed by the occasional gust of breeze, they danced around in lazy swirls. The wind whispered in the leaves as the branches swayed. It felt timeless here among the trees.
“Amunetta,” a dark hair boy with bright blue eyes said, “this way.”
Thomas followed the boy departing the thick canopied forest. Sunshine bathed the flowers blooming in the tall waving grass as a breeze swept the mountainside. Birds flew in the clear sky across the eastern plains as a vast sea shimmered on the western horizon. A steep winding trail lead to a small village nested between the cliffs and beach below. Atop their hillside view stood a lone bare tree, marking an entrance to a cave.
“Peccant wait for me,” Thomas said, running as the boy dashed into the cave.
He knew this was a dream or vision, or something, but he knew this cave. Rhae showed him this cave when they were little. They would play in here for days on end. Sure enough, Thomas watched the young Peccant carve the worn crude drawings he had become familiar with. The sun and moon overlooked the Tree of Life which nested the Cosmic Phoenix. Everyone knew the tale. It was the Phoenix’s job to oversee the balance between chaos and order. It was the Avatar’s job to rebirth the Phoenix.
As the sun started to set, Thomas raced behind Peccant down the winding path into the village. It was not the same village Thomas remembered. These were mud huts with grass thatched roofs. The paths between weren’t cobbled and were thick with mud and slop. An ominous green moon rose above the village. Unease creeped into Thomas. When the light struck young Peccant, he collapsed into the mud. Clutching his head, he screamed.
“Peccant,” Thomas said, “what’s wrong?”
“It hurts. I’m sorry,” Peccant said, tears streaming down his face, “I can’t stop it.”
A torrent of wind surged around Peccant, pulling Thomas to his knees. Death cries, shrieks, and howls from all around the village filled the air. Soul after soul whipped through the tide of air only to be suctioned into Peccant’s body. Didn’t matter if the life force was human, animal, or plant. It was all ripped free by the shredding winds. Fog seeped from the ground in bubbles. Keening reverberated from the mountainside. Thomas felt his own soul being torn away.
“Peccant stop,” he said. “Stop.”
“I can’t. Amunetta,” he said. Peccant curled himself up in the mud. “Help me.”
“I’ll save you, brother. I’ll protect you,” Thomas said, “I’ll protect everyone.”
Struggling to stand, he set his soul free into the keening winds. He saw his slender girlish body crumple back to the ground. Resisting the pull of the winds, he willed himself to shatter. The pieces flew at Peccant and formed a collar of pearls. A wave of light washed over the village, stilling the winds and silencing the night. All that remained was Peccant, sobbing in the mud wearing the black pearls, and a handful of villagers.
Thomas gasped as he groped the air before him. Rhae wrapped her arms around him.
“I’m here. I’m here,” she said. “You’re safe now.”
“Where am I?” he said, waiting for his head to clear.
“Still at the hospital,” she said, “in Lisha’s room.”
“Those Spirit Beads are an ancient artifact of great power,” Lisha said.
“I know what they are,” Thomas said.
“I don’t think you do,” Lisha said. “They say they amplify the powers of anyone who possesses them.”
Thomas studied the beads which now shone bright and clear. “I know what they are,” he said, “Amunetta showed me.”
“Who?” Galen said.
“His sister. These beads are her soul,” Thomas said, standing up from the chair. “And unlike you, she gives a shit. I’ll destroy these beads before they’re used for harm again.”
Lisha glared at him. “Lynnette wasn’t the only one that sought those beads Thomas. Others will come for them so be careful what you wish for.”
“I will do whatever it takes to protect people like Nessa from monsters like you,” Thomas said. “I’m done here.”
Thomas left the room with Rhae and Galen close behind. Ryker tried to head them off in the hallway.
“I hope you kids don’t plan on doing anything reckless,” the detective said.
Thomas pursed his lips and shrugged. “Only plans we have at the moment,” he said, “is to get Galen here settled in over at our place.”
“That’s kind of you,” Galen said.
“You’re family,” Rhae said, “it’s the least we can do.”
“Can we go now?” Thomas said.
Ryker glared at them as they walked on by to the front desk. They ignored him as they signed all the required paperwork. Enduring his scrutiny, they exited the hospital. Thomas slipped his shades on as he scanned the tree line for a private spot to cast a portal.
“The next thing we’ll need to do after we get home,” he said, “is figure out how to find Peccant before he finds us.”