At this point they were stuck against what was left of the wall between the parlor and the kitchen. The moon loomed over them in the clear bright sky. Thomas scanned the wreckage of Galen’s old shop around them. The scant shadows offered little cover for them to duck into if they chose to run. Ryker’s scuffed shoes crunched through the rubble as he took a few unsteady steps closer to them. His gun continued to point in their direction.
“What happened Ryker?” Thomas said.
“You know damn well what happened,” Ryker said.
Something shifted in the shadows just around the corner beyond the parlor’s crumbled threshold behind Ryker. Thomas tried to lean a little to get a better view over his shoulder.
“I told you everything I knew this morning,” Thomas said.
“Look at me,” Ryker said. He jerked his gun at him for emphasis. “Don’t lie to me. I know what happened. She told me everything. I know she had you. Now hand over the beads.”
“The beads won’t heal anyone,” Thomas said.
Ryker pointed the gun at Rhae. “Hand over the beads or your girl gets it.”
Rhae glared at Ryker. Thomas saw her lips move but his ears rang too loud for him to understand. The pressure in his ears hurt as much as his heart and it was hard for him to breathe. Everything felt distant and slow as time mired to a near halt. He wasn’t sure what he said but he knew that his mouth moved and that Ryker heard him. Thomas watched him relax and lower his gun. Did he really just tell Ryker that he would give him the beads? The shifting movement in the shadows rippled through the light of the moon. His heart skipped a beat as he caught the glimmer of striking green eyes.
“Hit the dial now,” Thomas said, grabbing Rhae.
She hit the dial on the hilt of her knife and they dove for the crackling portal. They tumbled through gnarled tree branches before crashing into the rocky moss below. Thomas scrambled for cover with Rhae close behind as Ryker and Lisha landed in the trees. The portal snapped shut with a thundering crack behind them.
Thomas lightly brushed Rhae’s arm with his fingers and did the same for himself. A dull filigree design covered their skin. It wouldn’t last long but it offered some protection. They waited and listened for their opponents to show themselves as they readied their weapons.
Ryker trudged down through the branches like a blundering beast. He hadn’t done much better than they had if Thomas was honest with himself. There was no sign of Lisha in the murky light. It was uncomfortable here in the gloom of black trees with all its contorted trunks and tangled roots. The blighted rust colored leaves withered on the knotted branches. Thick ocher vines choked the underbrush, crawled through the roots, and climbed around the trunks. Even the moss and ferns growing among the rocks had a sallow hue. Fog creeped in through the recesses just beyond the shadows. The forest canopy ensnared the cloying scent of decay and hints of ash. Thomas crouched in the underbrush next to Rhae and strained in vain to hear signs of other life in the murk. The stillness was oppressive as it tightened his breath while Ryker hit the ground with both feet. He did a better job of getting down to the ground than they had after all.
“I know you’re out there Thomas.” Ryker aimed his gun at the shadows and slowly turned himself around.
Looking at Ryker’s tattered suit, Thomas knew they had more ammo than he did. They also had blades if it came to that. He had runes as well but he didn’t know if Ryker had any powers. What he did know was that Ryker had a strong silent ally lurking out there somewhere. They weren’t able to beat her and Rue failed to kill her. She might be injured, and even dying, but now they’re desperate. Neither of them had anything left to lose. Thomas thought of Rhae, Galen, Nessa, his mother, Rue, and even his aunt. He had everything to lose with nothing really to gain here all because of Peccant’s fucked up miserable life.
Thomas rubbed the beads on his wrist, praying for guidance. These beads have to go back to Peccant. If not, more people would die and the suffering wouldn’t end for anyone. That meant he had to kill Lisha because she stole them from Peccant in the first place. This will never end as long as she continues to live and desire the beads. To protect everyone, this had to end now. He had no idea how to make that happen. Rhae lifted his hand off the beads to show him that they had taken a rosy hue. They spread a comforting warmth through him, strengthening his protective runes on his skin.
Lisha kicked him out of the underbrush into the small clearing with Ryker. Despite the protective runes, it still stung. Thomas expected he would find a large bruise from that just below the ribs. He got up on his knees and found Ryker’s gun in his face.
“Drop your gun,” Ryker said.
His gun trembled slightly in his hands. A thin trickle of blood ran from the tiny puncture wounds on his neck. Had Lisha been drinking his blood? Is that why he looked like shit? Is that how she survived? Rhae collapsed on the ground next to him. Her shotgun was tossed to Ryker’s feet.
“Stay down,” Ryker said.
Rhae spat on his shoes and he kicked her in the face for it. Thomas got up to punch him but Lisha grabbed his shoulder as a fire was shot wild into the moss. Lisha clutched his neck with her one hand.
“Now be a good boy or your pretty little kitty dies.”
Her nails bit lightly into his skin as he watched Rhae wipe blood from her mouth. Judging from Ryker’s gun, his magazine probably held fifteen rounds. That left fourteen and however many magazines he might have in his pockets. For all he knew this guy had a dimensional pocket chock full of bullets. At this point he could throw in a couple of grenades in there too. Why the hell not? They were fucked. He needed to do something.
“Ryker,” Lisha said, “take the beads from him.”
“You can’t have these beads,” Thomas said. “They belong to Peccant.”
“You think a monster like Peccant deserves power like those beads?” Ryker said. “After everything he’s done?”
“These beads grant wishes Thomas,” Lisha said.
“Granting wishes? That’s what this is about?” Thomas said. “All of this bullshit for a damn wish?”
Feeling the beads getting warmer, Thomas channeled the energy into the runes on his skin. He let it all flow into each line until he felt like a live circuit. He was not giving them the beads.
“How could you possibly understand? You don’t know what it’s like to be neither human nor demon. No one wants you,” Lisha said. “Lynnette was right. You are useless. Ryker just take them already.”
Ryker lowered his gun and grabbed the string. He howled in pain as the beads flared bright red and seared his hand. Stumbling back, he dropped his gun to grip his smoking hand. Thomas watched Rhae inch over for their guns while Ryker continued screaming. As Lisha’s hold on his neck loosened and Rhae claimed their guns, Thomas shot out his charged runes in a fiery rain.
“These beads protect people,” said Thomas. “That’s it. That’s all they do.”
Lisha’s screeching joined Ryker’s as they broke through the trees. In the distance behind them a black cloud of birds exploded from the canopy. Their chaotic shrieks herald the roar of a wall of fire engulfing the forest with the force of a tsunami. Everything vaporized in its wake. Thomas and Rhae froze in horror as they watched the blazing sun bring down its wrath upon this forest. The wall kept coming with relentless inevitable doom.
“This way,” someone said, pulling them both down into a cave.
As the entrance was sealed shut, Thomas didn’t see what happened to Ryker or Lisha. Panting, Thomas leaned against the smooth rock to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Rhae hunched over with the guns in her hands, clutching them to her chest.
“What the fuck was that?” she said.
“Solar flare. Happens regularly.”
Thomas turned towards the voice of their rescuer as a small crystal lamp was lit. The young man stood about as tall as Rhae and appeared to be around the same age as Thomas. His blue-black hair feathered his wistful face as his weary violet eyes regarded them in quiet. Rich green robes wrapped over his broad shoulders and across his elegant blue kimono. Two people wearing black hooded robes hovered behind him. He handed the lamp to one of them before lighting another and giving it to the empty handed one. Thomas noticed their long twisted, black fingers.
“They won’t hurt you,” the robed stranger said, “as long as you don’t pose as a threat to our people.”
Rhae and Thomas put away their guns and shook their heads. “No threat,” Thomas said. “I’m Thomas and this is Rhae. And you are?”
“Don’t thank me,” Edu said. “Few leave here alive.”
“Where is here?” Thomas said.
“Egentia,” Edu said.
He turned away from them, brushing pass the hooded pair. The pair stepped aside and bowed, waiting for Thomas and Rhae to follow. Thomas caught up quickly with Rhae close behind. The tunnel they walked through occasionally opened to other tunnels but their path never altered. Sometimes Thomas caught glimpses of figures that reminded him of the twisted people drawn in the leather-bound book. Sorrow, disappointment, and shame exuded from everything here. It mingled with the weight of the air, magnifying the pain.
As they entered a brightly lit cavern, mournful wails echoed through the tunnels. The sound ruffled the ornate tapestries but the shuffling people paid it no mind as they busied themselves with their work. For them as the forlorn cries of anguish continued it was all just another day. How could anyone disregard such hollow sadness? Thomas pocketed his shades as he tried to locate the direction of the sound. Edu grabbed him by the shoulders as he headed down a tunnel.
“Not that way,” he said. “No one goes there.”
“I have to go,” Thomas said. “Can’t you here that?”
Thomas shoved him away as another wail ripped out and he ran down the tunnel. No one stopped him. No one questioned him. When the sound stopped, Thomas stopped and waited. He ran when the wails came through the tunnels. Before long he found himself in the cavern with the underground lake like the one in the book at home. He slowed to a halt. The water was inky with swirling dark colors on the surface. Small dark shapes darted just below the surface. In the center of the lake, larger than any brood he had ever seen, wailed a near human like beast. Rhae ran up to the entrance of the cavern, but Edu stopped her from entering. The sound attracted the attention of the beast, but it was Thomas it saw. Diving into the water, it swam toward him at great speed.
“Run Thomas,” Rhae said.
It was too late, it was breaking out of the water at the shore line. He realized this beast was much larger up close than it seemed. Must have been at least ten feet tall in the shoulders. Unlike the other brood this one wasn’t rotting and it was obviously female. Her raging shrill shriek shook the cavern ceiling as she raised her talons high above her peaked crown of spines. Thomas stood before her in horrified awe. She struck the shore with her talons, digging deep into the rock, as she pulled herself the rest of the way out on to land.
“Useless boy,” she said, her dripping muzzle inches from his face, “why have you come here?”
Her fierce, piercing cold eyes still matched his own and he knew them from anywhere. Tears welled up and choked him.
“Aunt Lynnie… what?” Thomas said, “What happened to you?”
He slid his hands across her muzzle and touched her spines. This was not her plan. This was not what she had in mind. None of this was supposed to happen.
“I brought the beads,” he said. “But I can’t… I can’t fix this. I can’t make it better. I’m so sorry.”
Thomas pressed his forehead upon her muzzle and sobbed just like he had the day of her funeral. She closed her eyes as a soft light pulsed through her.
“No, no,” she said, “why do you cry for me? The fate bond broke. There’s nothing between us.”
He willed every warm memory he had of her to come. Every time she patted him on the head for a job well done, he swelled with pride. Whenever she made him tea to get better, he found comfort even if he didn’t like the taste. She offered safety within her home each day. There was peace, order, and routine he could count on and live by. Who provided these things daily like the pillar of the earth? Who built the solid foundation upon which he stood? She did every day. Fate bonds didn’t do that. Spells didn’t do that. No magic did that. It was the little things she did every day. Thomas hoped she could see all of it.
“Oh Thomas,” she said, “forgive me. Go now and set things right.”
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “He fate bonded Rue.”
“Do what you do best,” she said. “Break the rules. Blow something up. Talk to Edu.”
Thomas stepped back, wiping his face with a sleeve. She shimmered with a soft sheen of light now. The ceiling and walls of the cavern twinkled with starry light. Ripples of light pulsed through the inky water of the lake. In here shame and sorrow dissipated and perhaps hope sprouted. Lynnette stood proud in her new form. Her presence commanded the space as she towered over Thomas. However now there was a touch of warmth with her fierceness. She was the dark and terrible queen of the eternal night meant to be feared by all except one.
“I love you,” Thomas said.
“Useless boy,” she said, “get out of here before I change my mind and eat you.”
Smiling, Thomas exited the cave to join a stunned Edu and a relieved Rhae. A new sound rang through the tunnels. Bright, clear joyous laughter caused everyone to paused in their work. As the musical tones struck the stone walls of the tunnels and caverns, the luminescent life awakened. Every shadow was chased away with no corner left darkened. Whispers stirred among the people about the blessing from the Brood Mother and He Who Healed Her.
“I didn’t do anything,” Thomas said.
“You reconciled with her,” Edu said. “Redemption around here is… hard to come by.”
Thomas picked at his mushroom stew in thought. Edu studied him as he stirred his own bowl absently.
“You know she used to be just like you,” Edu said.
“Who?” Thomas said, glancing up at Edu.
“Rue,” he said, setting his unfinished bowl on the bench. “When she was younger, she had this warmth about her that would light up these caves the way the laughter did today.”
Edu shook his head. “The final coming of age rite went wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every one here goes through three rites. The final one involves a mutual fate bonding with the gods,” Edu said. “You exchange something – a secret with the Keeper of Secrets – and in return you are matched and mutually bonded so your powers are awakened.”
Thomas set his bowl down next to Edu’s bowl. “You mean to tell me that Daemon knows Rue and knew her all this time?”
“You’ve met him then?”
“I spoke with him just before coming here.”
“We believed he was dead after Rue’s rite,” Edu said. “Peccant found her near dead and Daemon had vanished. He never returned. Rumors floated around that she had attempted to fate bond with him.”
“How many fate bonds can one person have at a time?”
“A master can have as many as the spirit can sustain but,” Edu said, “it’s generally believed that a bonded can only have one upon them.”
“Peccant bonded Rue at infancy,” Thomas said, “so what would happen if she attempted this rite and tried to mutually bond with someone else?”
“Exactly what happened but she should have died,” Edu said, “but both lived so it worked?”
“Why would they mutually bond when the custom is to bond with the gods?”
“Maybe her exchange warranted it?”
They both looked at each other and said, “Feelings.”
“That’s what changed in her after the rite,” Edu said.
“As old as Daemon is I’m sure he’s gotten jaded by now,” Thomas said.
“She wanted to get rid of them.”
“And he wanted to gain them.”
“Right, but there’s more,” Edu said. “Normally the rite is a private matter but Peccant was there. Why?”
“Well it is his fate bond and his investment,” Thomas said. “Maybe he was trying to stop it before it started and got there too late?”
“Can we not talk about Rue like she’s chattel please?”
Both of them picked their bowls back up and finished their stew in silent thought.
“So… after all this, the magic question of the day is?” Edu said.
“How do I break a fate bond without killing someone?”
“That can’t be done,” Edu said, touching the palm of Thomas hand. “You would need something that could spiritually pass through and dissolve the chain. Nothing does that. Assuming you could even see it.”
Thomas clenched his fists against his jeans, feeling the tiny gift Edu passed to him. He knew this was the real answer but he also understood that Edu could upset the social balance by speaking it aloud. It was a risk doing this much.
“In Rue’s case it becomes more complicated,” Edu said. “If she has two chains, there’s a good chance their tangled. Even if they’re not, how do you tell them apart? Break the wrong one and she loses whatever gifts she gained from the mutual bond and she’s still stuck with a master.”
He stood up, shoving his hands in his coat pockets, and scuffed the stone floor with his toe. “Good chance that both fate bonds are tangled together to the point that the mutual bond can’t be undone at will either,” Thomas said.
Edu pointed a finger at Thomas. “Quite true. It’s likely that through Rue that Daemon is bonded to Peccant now too.”
“Maybe that’s why he fled to Earth when he did?”
“Well,” Edu said, “I’m sure it’s also to help with the exodus too.”
“So this really is Dark Terran then?” Thomas said, “Both worlds are really dying?”
“Yes,” Edu said. “Some day another great cataclysm will come. Hopefully by then our people will be safely relocated.”
“If you need help let me know,” Thomas said.
“Depends on how this mess of yours plays out whether I can or not,” Edu said.
“Fair enough,” Thomas said.
“Come,” Edu said, “I’ll take you to my private quarters so you can rest up before you go.”
They followed Edu out of the dining commons down a tunnel to his private chambers. Inside they were greeted by hooded robed attendants with bows. Edu waved them away with a hand. He pulled a small book from a shelf and placed it down on a workbench that was busy with beakers, bottles, and burners.
“I hope you find everything you need and to your liking,” Edu said, spreading his hands to them. “If not tap this glass globe to summon my attention. Don’t call upon anyone else. I have other matters to attend to otherwise I’d stay. Trust nothing and no one.”
“Thank you,” Thomas said as Edu left the room.
Thomas sealed the door way with a filigree rune. He motioned to Rhae to watch as he inspected the workbench. Spinning the orbital runes out around him and the table, he cloaked himself. Inside the small book Thomas found the fate bonding spells he found before back home. This book also included details of the ritual Edu described. The pages after chronicled Edu’s research on the bonds. He explained how to heal damaged bonds. There were pages describing the methods to repair broken bonds between a master and a strong willed bonded. Thomas began to wonder if Edu was somehow involved with the slave trade with all these notes.
Finally, Thomas found the page he needed on dissolving any existing fate bond. The book gave him the runes, explained the process, but didn’t give him the catalytic agent. Thomas paused from his reading to triple the concealing orbital runes around him. Then he retrieved the gift Edu gave him from his coat pocket. It was a crumbled wad of leaf. Sniffing the faint burnt mint smell, Thomas’ heart sank. What the hell was he going to do with this? Lynnette’s notes on Ruta Cremesin indicated that to get an ounce you needed to distill tons of these leaves.
He remembered the thimble sized vial and stuffed the wadded leaf back in his coat pocket to dig out the vial from his pants pocket. He examined the crimson liquid in the vial. There was only enough in there for one attempt at crafting a single bullet. Once the bullet was made he would need to engrave the runes into it. Thomas studied the equipment on Edu’s workbench and determined that everything he needed was here.
Hours later he was inspecting his perfectly crafted bullet. He had successfully crystallized the plant’s distilled sap and then engraved the runes he needed onto it. After that he took apart one of his other bullets to grease, load, and case this one. He decided to name it the Ruta Special. Tucking it safely away into the dimensional pocket of his trench coat, he dismissed his cloaking orbital runes. Rhae stood up from her chair and nodded to him. She looked tense and a bit tired.
“Ready to do this?” Thomas said.
“Yeah, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Rhae said.
“Use the crystal on your knife should take us back to the shop,” Thomas said. “Then we can jump from there.”
Rhae opened the portal and they stepped through into the back alley behind Galen’s shop. Thomas adjusted the dial on his crystal and locked it in place. When the portal to Egentia closed behind them, Thomas pressed down on the crystal to open a new portal to Prasiyawa. Together they stepped through onto the hard packed dirt, right into a screaming sand storm. Immediately Thomas threw out shielding runes to orbit around them as they knelt down beside the nearest boulder.
“Fuck this shit,” Rhae said, “I wasn’t ready.”
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said. He wrapped his arms around her, trying to include her in his coat to keep her out of the stinging sand.
He couldn’t tell her he didn’t feel ready either as he listened to the howling winds whipping around them. Thomas instead clutched her to his chest and buried his face into her ruby hair. He refused to look at the moving shapes in the whirling biting sand too closely. If Peccant’s brood came for them, then fine he would deal with it but he wasn’t going to worry about until then. For now he would just try to focus on surviving the now with her in this nightmare shit storm of sand.