“The only mercy you’ll get is a bullet from my gun,” Thomas said, looming over his target, and aimed his magnum square at the knee cap. “So what’s it gonna be?”
Beaten and bruised, the terrified man tried to scuffle back away from Thomas in the dusty, hard packed dirt. He was swiftly stopped by a well placed boot on his shoulder and a crossbow pointed at his face. Sweat dripped down his scruffy face as his wild eyes looked for a way to escape in vain.
Thomas holstered his magnum as he said, “I’ll ask again, where is Lynnette’s package?”
“I already told you,” the man said, “I don’t have it.”
Thomas combed his snow white hair with his gloved fingers as he eyed his partner. She laid back her cat like ears as she squinted in the hot sun. Her tail twitched three times and he nodded before adjusting his sunglasses.
“Do it Rhae,” he said as she tossed him her crossbow.
Rhae lifted the man up to his feet by the front of shirt and said, “Look, we don’t care much for liars.” She drew her combat knife out to tap his collar bone with it as his still held his shirt with her other fist. “But you fuckers are all the same. We have the money. Twice in fact than what was agreed upon.”
Thomas pulled out the pouch from his trench coat pocket in response to Rhae’s waving the knife in his direction. The man’s eyes widened. It was Thomas’ guess that this guy had never heard of how they do business.
“That’s how generous Lynnette is,” Rhae said, bringing the knife to the man’s jawline. “Half is yours just for keeping your end of the deal. But no, you have to be a fuck twat about this and lie to us for no damn reason. Thomas knows you have it because he can feel Lynnette’s seal on the package.”
“What?” the man said. He grabbed Rhae’s wrist and tried to pull his shirt free.
“No one told you about the magic seal did they?” Rhae said, pulling him closer to her. The sun dried the sweat in her red hair making it look like matted blood. “Only those of Lynnette’s direct kin can detect and track that seal. Doesn’t matter where you go or where you hide, Thomas can find it.”
The man gave Thomas a sideways glance to see him flash a broad grin. “So you’re just going to kill me now?”
“I can gut you like a damn fish right now,” Rhae said. “Or you can give us the fucking package, take the fucking money, and walk the fuck away.”
Still grinning, Thomas shook the pouch and said, “It’s your choice, buddy.”
“I’ll give you the package,” the man said, “and you’ll let me live?”
“What did I just fucking say?” Rhae said.
“Yes, you get the money and you walk away,” Thomas said. “But toss me the package first.”
With a trembling hand, the man reached inside his tattered coat and pulled out a small package wrapped in wax butcher paper. A large, pressed red seal held paper in place. He tossed it to the ground at Thomas’ feet. Thomas picked it up to check the seal. It bore the intertwined triple rings and phoenix symbol that belonged to his aunt. It still resonated with her power. He carefully tucked it into the dimensional pocket inside his trench coat. No one would be stealing this package from him before he got it back home. Some reason someone didn’t want Lynnette to have whatever this was. Thomas tossed the pouch of coins to the man’s feet and nodded to Rhae. She released the man and backed away towards Thomas with the knife still out.
Retrieving her crossbow from Thomas, Rhae said, “Now you’re going to let us leave in peace. Don’t think we won’t kill you if you try to mess with us.”
The man shook his head as he clutched the pouch before he took off running.
“Well that was easy,” Thomas said.
“That was bullshit,” said Rhae. “This shit is getting old.”
“Yeah I know. Let’s go.”
They start walking down the dirt road opposite the direction the man had run. The sun would be setting in a few hours. Hopefully by then they’ll be in town.
“No seriously Thomas, this is complete bullshit,” Rhae said, sheathing the combat knife and hooking the crossbow to her back. “This guy wasn’t even in town like he was supposed to be. We had to track him down. He was all the way out here in the middle of no where in this wasteland of a desert. And then he has the balls to say he doesn’t have the package like he’s supposed to?”
“I know, Rhae,” Thomas said, “It sucks.”
“Are you even listening to me?” Rhae said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Thomas stopping walking to face her. “What do you want me to say Rhae?” He kicked a rock across the hard packed dirt. “I hate this. Aunt Lynnie always sends us out on these stupid jobs. Fetch this. Fetch that. Fix this. Fix that. Why are you so useless? That’s all I ever hear from her. But she sure likes to use my gadgets. And who has to fix everything? But I’m useless. I can’t be trusted with the important jobs. Just once I’d like to be sent out with a real job. But no we’re stuck with bouncing between worlds playing mailman and handyman. It got old years ago Rhae and you’re only noticing now?”
“I’m sorry, Thomas,” Rhae said, rubbing arm. “I guess I’m just tired as shit.”
“Well you’re not the only one,” Thomas said. He slid his shades down to wink at her, revealing his one blue eye and one brown eye.
Rhae fought back a grin as she admired his white brows and eyelashes on that youthful face of his. Like his aunt, he too was born partially albino and had a full head of white hair before the age of thirty.
She pushed his shades back up as she said, “We won’t be back in town before dark if we don’t hurry.”
Thomas nodded and resumed his steady pace down the arid road. Her longer stride comfortably matched his as they walked in silence. The sunset greeted them with rich rubies and golds across the evening sky as they reached the hushed town.
“Doesn’t look like the people here have much of a night life,” Rhae said.
“They have a bar,” Thomas said.
“Same thing,” Thomas said with a shrug.
Rhae glared at him with her amber eyes. Thomas just grinned as he stepped onto the porch of the saloon to enter.
“Let’s get some rest before going home, okay?” he said, looking over his shoulder.
Rhae nodded and followed him inside.
“Why can’t every world just have running water already?” Rhae said.
Thomas looked up from cleaning his magnum. “Wouldn’t that mean every world be like Earth? Kind of boring don’t you think?”
“Not asking that every fucking world be like Earth,” Rhae said through the privacy screen, “Just asking that everyone has hot fucking running water for a damn change.”
“What me to ring for another bucket of boiling water?”
“Don’t bother it will be cold by the time it gets here.”
“Don’t need to be catty,” Thomas said, resuming his polishing task.
“I should gut your cock weasel ass.”
“Really?” Thomas said. He looked up to face the screen, “So I’m a cock weasel now? Last week I was a twat waffle.”
“Don’t forget fucktard,” Rhae said, walking out from behind the screen.
Her bronze face gleamed in light of the oil lamps, darkened only by her scowl. She was already dressed back in her leather pants and cotton shirt. Both were black of course. Thomas couldn’t remember a time she didn’t wear black. He turned his attention back to his gun before she yelled at him for staring.
Rhae had human features for a face but fangs for teeth in addition to the cat like ears and tail. No one ever told him what race she was or where she came from. They grew up together on Terran before Lynnette move them both to Earth. She’s always been his best friend and he pitched a fit when Lynnette announced their move. He wasn’t going to leave without her. His aunt was angry, called him useless for it and has ever since. Five years later him and Rhae were still inseparable. His life would be nothing without her.
She sat on the floor next to his feet and started sharpening her combat knife. “Did you get hurt?”
“A few scrapes and bruises. You?”
Thomas holstered his gun, checked his bullets and knife, and repacked everything.
“What’s wrong?” Rhae said, not even looking up from her knife.
“I don’t know. Something doesn’t feel right,” Thomas said. “It’s like Aunt Lynnie didn’t tell everything this time.”
Rhae put her knife down. “What do you mean?”
“Usually they ask for more money,” Thomas said. He paced quietly across the room. Sleep won’t be coming for him tonight. His mind was buzzing with too many thoughts. “But this guy was different. He kept saying he didn’t have the package. Didn’t ask for a bigger cut.”
“Well how is that different from any of the other guys?”
Thomas stopping pacing and looked at Rhae. “We kicked the shit out of him, Rhae. You threatened to gut him and even then he considered to stick to his story about not having the package until you told him about the seal.”
Rhae picked at her knife in thought. “Which means there was a bigger prize out there for him.”
“Exactly,” Thomas said, “but why? What’s in the package?”
Thomas walked over to Rhae and sat down next to her. She rested her head on his shoulder as he drew his knees up to wrap his arms around them. They sat there in silence as the questions lingered, unasked. An uneasy sleep drifted between them before the town’s bell tower rang through the night.
“We’re fucked aren’t we?” Rhae said.
“I hope not.”
Thomas strapped on his belts for his gear and his gun holster. He pulled on his trench coat as Rhae geared up as well. An eerie keening pealed over the town’s bells. Both Rhae and Thomas paused before they rushed out of the saloon with weapons drawn.
Though the moon was full, the sky was overcast. Lazy shadows from the clouds twisted the light over the shops and street. Neither of them knew what they were looking for as an uneasy hush drifted across the town now that both the bells and the keening had stopped. Thomas looked over his shoulder and nodded to the barkeeper. The frightened man silently shut the doors and locked them. Across the street was the stables and the station for the stage-coach. He couldn’t detect any movement through the darkness of the windows. Walking down the street he scanned the bank, the sheriff’s office, the grocer’s, the postman’s – all silent. Where is everyone? And what made that keening sound?
Still gripping his magnum, he scanned the rooftops for possible signs. The quiet of the night buzzed with a soft high pitch in his ears. He hated that. Something was out there. Something raised the alarm. Couldn’t it just make some noise? Even the keening was better than this whine. Rhae nudged him sharply with her elbow, interrupting his internal rant. He turned away from the rooftops to see fog roiling down the street towards them.
“Sweet Vesta,” Thomas said. He removed his shades and pocketed them.
The fog heaved against the buildings and lurched forward, almost as if propelled by an unrelenting will. In moments the fog swaddled the entire town. Thomas felt Rhae press her back to him as he caught darting movements of shadows weave around them. Tittering seeped through the fog and was swiftly answered with same keening they heard before. Moonlight broke through the cloud cover, causing the fog to glimmer with spectral luster. At the edge of town approached a person dressed in a gray yukata. Whomever it was stood about the same height as Thomas from what he could tell. A simple black cord at the nape of the neck held the flowing long white hair in place. The katana gleamed in the soft light but the stranger’s face remained expressionless as the keening quieted again.
“Who are you?” Thomas said. His finger was still ready at the trigger. “What do you want?”
Creeping through the fog, the shadows increased in number as the tittering grew louder. They were surrounded but he couldn’t tell what or how many. The stranger remained silent and motionless as if waiting for something.
One shadow got closer to Thomas and took shape. It was as if the fog created it. White became black. It appeared to be a malformed large dog of some kind. Ribs protruded from its sides at odd angles. Patches of hide dangled from its muzzle and under belly. The tail was just a collection of bare bone wrapped in tattered fur. Where the eyes should have been were now just glowing flickers of sickly green light. Claws and fangs all broken and dripped with something Thomas didn’t want to think about. Everything about this creature said dead and rotting but it had no smell and no aura. From what Thomas’ senses could tell, it was nothing. As if it could read his thoughts, it emitted the tittering sound they heard before. Once again, the keening followed through the fog. More pairs of the sickly green light appeared in the fog. Too many for Thomas to count. As the keening died down the clouds covered the moon, returning the fog to darkness.
“Lead the way.”
Thomas shot the dog thing in front of him, knocking it back with a skid. His shot thundered through the air but was barely heard over their keening. He watched it shake it off and lunge at him. He squeezed the trigger two more times as he back stepped into Rhae’s wake.
“This shit isn’t slowing them down.”
Thomas covered her as she continued to load and shoot her crossbow. One ripped through the sleeve of his trench coat as he reloaded the magnum with a speed-loader. It just barely missed his skin. He fell back in time for Rhae to take a shot right in its eye socket. She hauled him up by the arm and moved back the way they came. Thomas followed, taking care to watch behind them. He shot three more of the dog creatures before he noticed the stranger was now missing. The town had become deathly quiet and sunlight was starting to break the fog.
“Rhae,” Thomas said.
He turned to look for his partner. He found her held captive by the head of her hair in one hand of the stranger. Rhae’s body hung limp as his heart fluttered in panic. The katana was held ready in the other hand. A slight breeze drifted between them, carrying an odd scent vaguely reminiscent of burnt mint. He couldn’t quite place it.
“Don’t move,” the stranger said in response to Thomas aiming his gun.
Thomas realized the stranger was a woman. Rhae was taller than her but somehow she managed to overpower her. He heard nothing. Cursing himself silently, he lowered his gun. He was powerless. This was it. It was over. His friend was going to die and it was all his fault. Ten of those dog creature things flanked the stranger’s side. Their wounds were apparent but they seemed oblivious to them. Heart sinking deeper, Thomas couldn’t think of a way to dig himself out of this mess.
“Be gone demons!”
Gleaming shots struck two of the dog creatures. With a yelp they fell to the ground and melted into the hard dirt. The brackish goo bubbled with the stink of vomit, leaving behind two small white gold daggers in the puddles. Dropping Rhae, the stranger gripped her katana with both hands as she looked up at the rooftops. A tall woman, dressed in a dark red tunic and slacks, jumped down. She landed a few feet away from Thomas. Her skin was so black it was almost blue and her equally black hair was shaved pretty close to her scalp. Striking green eyes glared at the white woman as she threw two more of her daggers at the dog creatures, killing them.
“I will have what belongs to us,” said the white woman.
The remaining dog creatures tittered around her. The midnight woman smirked and struck another one down.
“Like hell you will,” the midnight woman said. She stepped in front of Thomas protectively. “Away with you or die like the hell spawn you are.”
The face of the white woman remained expressionless as she sheathed her katana. With a flick of her wrist what was left of the dog creatures faded away into smoke.
“Very well,” the white woman said. Placing two fingers vertically to her forehead she summoned a portal behind her. “But I will come for what belongs to us. We will not be denied.”
Thomas waited for her to step into the portal and for it to completely close before he ran to Rhae. Wrapping one arm around her, he checked her pulse. Her eyes fluttered open. Hugging her, he sighed with relief.
“Weirdo, let go of me.”
“Are you okay?”
Rhae sat up and rubbed her head. “My head is killing me, but I’ll live. You?”
“I’ll live,” Thomas said. He reloaded his gun and holstered it.
The midnight woman pretended not to pay attention to them as she collected her daggers from the puddles of goo and clean them. Sunrise had come now in full golden glory and the townsfolk were slowly peeking out to assure themselves it was indeed safe now. She cleaned the last dagger and sheathed it before coming over to Thomas and Rhae with dark look in her eyes.
“You know,” she said, “you’re lucky you’re not dead.”
Thomas groaned and helped Rhae to stand up. She fetched her crossbow and fastened to her back. With a sigh she set herself to the task of collecting whatever crossbow bolts she could recover.
“I realize that,” Thomas said, “what were those things?”
Before the woman could answer a shrill scream came from the bank’s alley way.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, what now?” Rhae said.
Thomas left the midnight woman behind to sprint toward the scream to find out. Rhae followed close behind. A small crowd had gathered around the end of the alley but they opened a path for Thomas and Rhae when they arrived. It seemed that the townsfolk had been watching them from the windows. Waiting for them inside the alley was the sheriff and the deputy. Both men were lean and a bit gray.
“This doesn’t look like the handiwork of those things, does it?” said the sheriff.
He stepped aside as Thomas drew close. The morning light shone on the broken body of their middle man pinned to the wall. A stiletto was spiked into each shoulder. Both of his legs had been smashed with a blunt object and his mouth had been stuffed with cloth to muffle his screams. Blood pooled at his feet. He had been tortured, that was for sure but Thomas could see that wasn’t what killed him. The poor man’s face was twisted in horror. Dark purple light emanated from his body like wafting smoke. His flesh had taken a transparent quality. Thomas could almost make out the bones underneath. A chill ran through him as he wondered if those dog creatures had done this to him. He never had a chance.
“How did he get back here when he ran the other way?” Rhae said.
“You know this guy?” said the deputy.
“We had business with him yesterday outside town,” Thomas said, “He ran like hell in the other direction though. Didn’t expect to find him here.”
“And sure as fuck didn’t expect to find him dead,” said Rhae.
“Well let’s get this poor man down,” said the sheriff. “He deserves a proper burial.”
Thomas nodded and pulled out his shades. Putting them on, he turned to exit the alley. Scanning the crowd and the street, he couldn’t find the mysterious midnight woman anywhere. It would seem that he needed to find his answers somewhere else. Rhae stood next to Thomas in silence as they watched the townsfolk drag the body out of the alley and lay him out on a wheeled bier in the street. Reverently they covered him with a white sheet. The women bring out white candles, hand them out, lighting them as they do, and each town member with a burning candle took a spot in the circle around the bier. A woman even brought Thomas and Rhae a candle to hold vigil for the dead man.
“Thank you,” they said.
Taking their place in the circle, they hear the soft tinkle of bells accompanied by steady foot steps. Thomas glanced toward the source of the sound. It was coming from an elderly gentleman wearing soft gray robes. Although yellowed from time, he was muscular and fit. The sun had long since weathered his skin to a deep tan. His sight seemed untroubled by the milky cataracts in his soft blue eyes. The bells were fixed to the head of his walking stick and they jingled each time it struck the ground. The crowd opened a clear path to the bier for this gentleman. With a sure and steady pace, this man made his way through the crowd but paused when he reached Thomas. Placing his hand on Thomas’ shoulder he fixed his gaze upon him for a moment. Thomas felt uncomfortable with the hushed murmurs this caused. He didn’t even know who this man was.
“You remind me of someone. A lovely woman,” the gentleman said. The crowd gasped as he smiled slightly. “Name was Lynnette. Do you know her?”
Thomas ducked his head. He wasn’t sure what to say exactly. It didn’t feel right to lie to this man. He looked up at him. “Yes, I know her.”
He patted Thomas’ shoulder. “I thought you might. You look just like her. Lovely woman.”
The gentleman walked away from Thomas towards the bier. One of the men provided him with a stool to sit on while another offered a small loaf of bread and a mug of ale. He set his walking stick down on the ground as he sat and accepted their offering. Solemnly he waved the bread over the body of the dead man before doing the same with the mug of ale. Next he ate the bread using the ale to wash it down. When he was finished, he stood up and placed the mug on the stool.
Placing his palms together in prayer he said, “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.”
“Amen,” said the townsfolk in unison.
As the town’s sexton wheeled the body away to the church’s graveyard for burial, the townsfolk extinguished and returned their candles. They dispersed to go about their daily business. The elderly gentleman picked up his walking stick and noticed the puddles of goo in the street. His face hardened with a stern intensity that both Rhae and Thomas stepped aside for. Resolutely, he stepped into the center of the mess. Rhae glanced at Thomas with a questioning glance but he shrugged.
Thomas just watched the gentleman grasp his walking stick with both hands and hold it up in front of him. He couldn’t quite hear it, but the gentleman muttered to himself as the breeze swirled around him. Thomas saw the same dark purple light from the dead body was now glowing from the puddles of goo. It was rising up like smoke and the swirling breeze caught it. With each drifting wisp snatched away, the puddles shrank until finally they disappeared completely. The breeze spun faster and faster around the gentleman. Those bells on his walking stick tinkled hard against it. Finally a bright light flashed and the breeze was gone. The gentleman lowered his walking stick and smiled. It was as if the puddles had never been there.
“Wow,” Rhae said.
“My work here is done. Time for me to return home. As should you. Give Lynnette my regards,” the gentleman said, stepping past them with a friendly wave. He paused for a moment to turn back to them. “Such a lovely woman. Be a shame if anything were to happen to her.”
They watched him load himself up on a horse-drawn buggy and leave town.
“Strange guy,” Rhae said.
Thomas only nodded as an unsettled chill struck him despite the already hot sun.
“It’s time to go home, Rhae.”
“You’re not going to stick around to figure out who skill our middle man?”
“I think those dog things got him,” Thomas said. He walked down the street towards the edge of town. Hopefully his bike was still safely hidden a mile away. “Besides, this isn’t our mess. We have a package to deliver, remember?”
“Right, business before pleasure.”
It was high noon before they finally found the pile of dry brush that Thomas hid his motorcycle in. Thomas was tired and by then his mood had grown darker than Rhae’s typically was. He ripped the brush free from his motorcycle with grunts and growls until sweat dripped from his hairline. Panting, he rolled the motorcycle out to the dirt road and dropped the kickstand. Rolling her eyes, Rhae found herself a large rock to sit on while he tinkered with knobs and switches on the bike he had modified it with. Various lights flickered to life throughout the machine. It was going to be awhile before they got home. The heat from the sun and the rock had almost lulled her to a comfortable sleep while she waited.
“Vesta be damned,” Thomas said. He stomped on the side of his motorcycle with the heel of his boot.
Rhae sprung up from the rock as the motorcycle topple over and crashed into the dirt. Luminous blue runes sprung from it, forming a large sphere centered from the engine.
“What is wrong with you?” said Rhae.
Thomas scratched his head. “This place. This town. Those women. That guy. Everything,” he said, “It’s all wrong.”
She just stood there and watched him straighten up the motorcycle. The runes remained, orbiting the motorcycle’s engine with a soft hum. Their light gave his hair a robin egg hue that always made him appear magical, but today he didn’t have his usual glee. Today his face was overcast with an uncharacteristic pensive frown. He tipped his head back to face the sky and groaned.
“And like I said before none of this mess is our problem,” Thomas said. “Aunt Lynnie gave us a job to do and she’s already going to be pissed that we’re late.”
He mounted the bike and rubbed his face with his hands before looking back at Rhae. She climbed on, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“Then we’d better go before you change your mind,” she said.
Thomas nodded and started the engine. They sped off into the horizon as a portal enveloped them. With a sizzling crack, they disappeared.
“God damn cock sucking son of a whore,” Thomas said. His boot stomped on the motorcycle as the engine spewed black oily smoke. “Every time we come to Earth. Every. Time.”
Rhae ignored him as she calmly walked up to the door in the paved alley way and rapped on the steel door. As she waited for the answer, she turned to lean up against the brick wall with her arms folded. Thomas continued to abuse and curse the melted engine. Didn’t seem to matter how he designed his trans-dimensional engine, it would always melt and compress around the embedded crystal whenever they crossed over into Earth’s realm. She didn’t understand the magic nor science behind the process but assumed it was either a flaw he was missing or something to do with the nature of Earth. The other thing she knew was his tantrums about it were getting mighty old.
“Fucking man baby.”
“What did you call me?”
“You heard me.”
“Well it keeps breaking every time we come to Earth.”
“Then fix it or figure out a different way to travel,” Rhae said. She dropped her arms as he stomped over to her. She poked him in the chest. “Either way quit throwing the fits. It’s bullshit. You’re smart. Figure it out. You’re better than that.”
Thomas took a deep breath. His usual calm returning he said, “Sorry, I’ve been an asshole.”
“What was that?”
“You heard me.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said, cupping her ear and leaning down a bit.
The door opened to reveal a very short man. He stood only about three feet tall. Freckles kissed his rosy cheeks and his soulful gray eyes sparkled with delight to see them. He tucked strands of his silvered blonde hair behind his ear as he grinned broadly.
“Rhae,” he said, “You forgot your concealer.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She fished out a choker from her pocket and fastened it around her neck. After fiddling with the locket that hung from it, her body appeared hazy for a moment before solidifying into human form.
“Ah that’s better,” their small friend said, “We can’t attract too much attention.” He gave Thomas a pointed glance and waved them in.
“Thank you, Galen,” Rhae said and stepped inside.
Thomas followed behind her and Galen scanned the alley before closing the door. Galen lived in the back portion of his pawn shop. Even back here it was a maze of curios from the floor to the ceiling. The air held a comfortable mix of dust, books, and herbs to breathe in. Old fashioned oil wick lamps lit the room here in favor of electric bulbs. Tension melted away from Thomas’ body with each step he took and Galen led them to the parlor. They were home away from home and it was good to be here. His favorite chair scooted towards him as a small girl bearing a resemblance to Galen materialized just behind the head of it. Her ghostly essence gleamed in the lamp light and gestured with one hand for him to sit. Thomas sank into the chair’s lush cushions with a deep sigh. Galen offered the matching chair to Rhae, which she took with equal gratitude.
“Thomas,” the girl said. Her face now peering up over at him, upside down and mere inches from his face, “you broke it.”
Thomas removed his shades and rubbed his eyes before saying, “I break lots of things, Nessa. What did I break this time?”
Nessa floated around to the front of the chair to perch in his lap. “Experiment Number Five,” she said. She held up her hand with all five of her fingers splayed out.
He looked at her hand, smiled, and ruffled her curls. “Well now, you need to be more specific. There are lots of those, remember?”
“The bike,” she said and jumped down to the floor. “You broke the bike. Again. Ka-boom.” She threw up her arms wide in the air, nearly falling over. “What’s wrong with you? We worked hard on that bike last time.”
Still grinning, Thomas toyed with his sunglasses. “I don’t know,” he said. “It happens every time we come back to Earth through the trans-dimensional portal.”
“He kicked the bike over just to get the runes to activate this time,” Rhae said.
“What?” Nessa said, dropping her arms to her sides. She glared at Thomas.
Thomas looked at Rhae and mouthed the words, “What the fuck?“
Rhae just shrugged. Clearly she enjoyed throwing him under the bus. Nessa was now scowling at him, arms folded and tapping her foot in silence. Thomas gave Galen a pleading glance.
“You’re on own son,” Galen said, “When it comes to women, you need to learn how to dig yourself out of the grave.” Wiggling his fingers in Thomas’ direction, he waltzed into the kitchen.
He sank deeper into the chair and stared at the ceiling. “Yes, I kicked the bike. The runes wouldn’t activate and we needed to leave that place right away before those dog things and that white woman with their fog came back.”
“The what with the fog?” Galen said. As he returned from the kitchen, he carried two large steaming bowls. The smell of the stew made Thomas’ stomach growl.
Nessa sat on the ottoman as Galen gave Thomas and Rhae each a bowl. Then Galen sat next to Nessa in a small rocking chair.
“Eat first and then you can tell us everything that happened over there,” Galen said.
“And now we’re here with a busted bike,” Thomas said.
Night was creeping into the parlor now, casting broader shadows upon the room. Galen’s face remained somber throughout the tale as he stitched the hole in Thomas’ trench coat. Everyone watched him examine his handiwork before he returned the coat and tidied up the sewing kit. Once done with that, Galen paced between a set of bookcases for a time. Eventually he stopped to face Thomas.
“Tell me again what these dog creatures looked like.”
“They were black,” Thomas said, “and rotting without a scent, no aura, broken fangs and claws that dripped with something, green flames instead of eyes, skin hanging from places, and bones sticking out randomly.”
Galen looked troubled but nodded. He turned back to the bookcase. With a steady hand he selected a worn tome and brought to the light. About halfway through the book he pointed to a particular page and showed it to Thomas.
“Is this what you fought with in the fog at Prasiyawa?”
Thomas and Rhae got up to lean over and examine the image sketched into the book. Hand drawn with ink and aged by time, it still threatened to leap off the page. Gingerly Thomas touched the faint signature. Galen drew this, but when? Eyes meeting, Thomas saw the worry in Galen’s face. He suddenly seemed far older than those rosy cheeks and freckles gracing his youthful face suggested. There was no denying it, the drawing depicted exactly what they fought back on that desert world.
“Well?” Galen said.
“Yeah,” said Rhae, “that’s what we fought. And they nearly beat us too.”
Galen sighed and sat back down in his rocking chair with the book. A profound disquiet settled into his demeanor as the rest of them returned to their seats. He ruminated with one hand on the page and the other absently twisting his strands of his hairs around his index finger. Thomas and Rhae exchanged glances but a dark glare from her told him not to break the silence.
“What is it, Papa?” Nessa asked.
Galen released his hair and shook his head, as if to free himself from some kind of spell. He closed the book and walked back to the bookcase to return it to its spot. Taking a ridiculous amount of care, he dusted himself off before sitting back down.
“Those are the Soul Eater brood,” he said, “and they are a special kind.”
“The kind that ate Mama?”
“Yes,” Galen said, “but that isn’t what makes them special.”
Thomas remembered their middle man and the condition he was found in. The air took on a chill as the shadows snaked tighter around the edges of the room. Light sputtered from the oil lamps but held steadfast. Night finally claimed her star jeweled splendor outside but she hushed the evening into reverent expectation. Not even a frog dared to sing. The thought of more creatures like these lurking throughout the cosmos unnerved Thomas. How were they different from the ones they fought? What kept any of them in check?
Rhae’s hand on his shoulder broke him from his thoughts. “What makes these things special Galen?”
Galen met Thomas’ gaze, making sure he had his attention. “Normally these things move in mindless packs and just feed. They just go where the souls are and move on when the souls run out. These,” he said, “the ones that you fought and killed my wife, don’t do that. They come and go. They’re organized. They won’t wipe out entire cities. I’ve heard that they’ll go so far as to hunt down and herd families to who knows where. I assume to eat later.”
“It’s like they have a boss,” said Nessa.
“Yes,” Galen said, “They do behave like there is a pack leader or master of some kind involved. I don’t think this boss runs with the pack though. Doesn’t matter how many you kill, injure, or run off. They keep coming back and they learn from whatever you’ve done before.”
Rhae pulled her hand away as Thomas gave her a look. They had a lot of work to do if they were to return to that world. Even if they didn’t go back, now that they knew those things were out there they needed to be ready for them. It’s possible they could run into the brood on any world considering that white woman could conjure a portal at will without a device. For them though, they had a job to do that needed finishing then they could focus on planning ahead for future jobs. His aunt always hated it when they were late. In fact, she should have called by now demanding where they were and why they were late. Suddenly Thomas remembered something.
Such a lovely woman. Be a shame if anything were to happen to her.
“We have to go home now,” Thomas said. He stood up and hurried to the door.
“The weird priest with his burial rite?” Galen said.
Thomas stopped at the threshold leading into the main portion of the shop. “Yeah. Aunt Lynnie hasn’t called either.”
“I’ll take you home, come on.”
Galen’s truck ambled along in the dark as he drove out of town. Due to his height it had been modified to accommodate his limitations. The gas and brakes were controlled by hand much like one would for a motorcycle. Thomas felt it was somewhat complicated with a wheel for steering, but at least cruise control simplified things. It was only a fifteen minute drive going the speed limit, but it felt like forever to him. No one spoke as they drove by the numerous trees. Thomas welcomed the change from the endless hot dirt and rocks. After a few more turns, Lynnette’s farm style house came into view.
“We’re too late,” Galen said.
The driveway was filled with an ambulance, the county sheriff’s car, and a handful of vehicles belonging to who Thomas guessed could only be busy bodies and looky-loos. Great, by tomorrow everyone and their brother in the four surrounding towns will know what happened here.
“Park in the grass if you have to,” Thomas said.
Galen shimmied up pass the cars, ignoring the stares and nodded to the sheriff as he parked in the grass. Thomas popped open the door and quickly jumped out, not waiting for anyone as he walked toward the sheriff.
“Where is Aunt Lynnie?” he said, “What happened?”
“Hang on, son,” the sheriff said. He held up his hands in an effort to get him to slow down. “We answered a call that your aunt was found lying on the floor and unresponsive. We’re sorry son, but there was nothing we could do.”
“Nothing you could do?” Thomas said.
Rhae tried to comfort him by placing her hands on his shoulders. The flashing lights of the sheriff’s car and the ambulance was disorienting. He knew people were talking. He could see their lips moving, but there was no sound beyond the ringing of his ears. The ground didn’t even feel stable. Nothing made sense. Yes, she was old. Yes, she could be mean. But she was all the family he had. Was he really all alone now?
“Take easy there, son,” the sheriff said, “Get me a paramedic over here.”
Thomas shook his head and pushed everyone away. “I’m fine. I’m fine,” he said. “Who made the call?”
“That lady over there,” the sheriff said. He thumbed over his shoulder in the direction of the ambulance. “Seems really shook up and insists her death isn’t natural. But there’s no wounds and no signs of forced entry. She’s talking to Detective Ryker right now. Dead ringer for Lynnette isn’t she?”
He scanned the area around the ambulance, seeking the woman mentioned. Not sure what he would find because nobody looked like Lynnette. Why would the sheriff say that? Then she turned and met his gaze. Her face was angry and for a moment, she did look just like Lynnette. The anger melted away as her eyes widened in recognition. Her eyes were just like his, just like Lynnette’s, and oddly just like the white woman’s. She pulled her hands out of the pockets of her black leather jacket and tucked her white hair behind her ear, fighting back tears. Lynnette never cried. This woman was softer, younger, and appeared somehow warmer. Before realizing it, he was running to her. The tears ran freely now from both of them. She hugged him just as tightly as he hugged her.
And though it was just a trembling whisper, Thomas still heard it. “My baby.”
Rhae and Galen stood by, making sure anyone around didn’t come too close.
“Look at you,” she said. She stood back, her hands planted on his shoulders. “So much to talk about, but now is not the time. There is danger and something is not right. You must believe me. You have to see this.”
She led him by the hand towards the house, ignoring everyone. The door she headed for Thomas saw was the door for the shed Lynnette had converted into an office for her business.
“Ma’am,” Detective Ryker said. He caught up to them from behind. “Miss Celeste Whitaker.”
Celeste spun around and glared at him. There again Thomas saw the hint of Lynnette’s icy countenance. The detective took a step back and fumbled with his notepad. He was a big man – the kind you’d call a bruiser. Yet here he was meekly smoothing his thick black moustache. Thomas needed to figure out this trick. How did the Whitaker women do that?
“Thomas needs to see his aunt before you people take her away,” Celeste asked. “Or is that too much to ask from you heartless people?”
“Alright,” he said. Tucking his notepad away he walked past them to the door. “Come on.”
“Be brave,” Celeste said and wrapped an arm around Thomas’ shoulders.
Thomas entered the office and nodded to the medical examiner. The aged man stood and shook his head.
“Far as I can tell at this point, it’s from old age. Heart failure most likely,” he said. “She must have been what, late eighties by now?”
Celeste and Thomas shrugged. Lynnette never celebrated birthdays and never spoke of her age. Far as he knew, she never saw a doctor either. He still noticed the dark purple glow floating up from her skin. Obviously the medical examiner couldn’t see it.
“I’m still required to perform an autopsy unless you wish to file an objection?”
“No objections,” Thomas said. His eyes never left his aunt.
“An autopsy will be fine,” Celeste said.
The medical examiner nodded. “I’ll let you know what I find, if anything,” he said, “I’ll just stand over here. I assume you wish to say your goodbyes?”
Thomas glanced up at the man but was lost for words. This was really goodbye?
“Yes, thank you.”
The man smiled softly and stood by the door. “I’m sorry I can’t leave the room. You understand.”
Celeste patted him on the shoulder. “It’s perfectly fine.”
Detective Ryker entered the office but didn’t meet Celeste’s evil eye. She squared her shoulders and swung around on her heel. Stopping two feet away from Lynnette’s body, she knelt down. Thomas tried to ignore the detective’s scrutiny as he knelt down next to Celeste. His aunt’s flesh was also transparent like the body of their middle man. Why was she attacked? How did that gentleman priest know her?
“Can you see it?” Celeste said.
Her voice was barely a whisper but the detective heard and quickly stepped over to the body.
“See what?” he said.
“I can see it,” Thomas said.
Celeste glanced over her shoulder to speak to the medical examiner. “Have they finished taking photos in here?”
“Oh? Yes,” the man said, “They have gotten all the photos they need.”
“May I hold her hand? For last rites?”
“Of course,” he said.
Gingerly Celeste picked up Lynnette’s papery hand into hers. She covered it with her other hand. Thomas fully expected his aunt to disintegrate into dust. The body seemed so fragile and delicate. Celeste bent her head down to rest her forehead upon her hand covering Lynnette’s hand. She remained that way for a minute, murmuring a soft prayer. With the prayer complete, Celeste reverently placed Lynnette’s hand on her chest and then place her other hand over it. She then resumed praying. Thomas noted the detective’s glower and decided to mimic Celeste’s pose, hoping he would go away. He didn’t. When Celeste finally rose, Thomas stood up with her and found Ryker waiting for them.
“What do you see?” Ryker said.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Thomas said.
Celeste left without them and the detective didn’t stop them. The medical examiner paid them no mind as he set to the task of placing Lynnette into a body bag. It was almost time to ship her to the morgue. Thomas tried not to think about that. He tried to focus on the detective and what this guy was fishing for.
“Relax, it’s fine.” Celeste’s voice said in his mind.
The detective leaned down a bit towards Thomas. “What do you see?” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of weird shit, so try me.”
Thomas shrugged. “Purple light and transparent flesh.”
The medical examiner barely paused as he zipped the bag.
“So you’re saying something unnatural did this to your aunt?”
“I’m saying people’s bodies don’t normally do that when they die,” Thomas said. “For all I know it could be glow in the dark paint, but she never was a painter.”
“Hey you,” Ryker said.
“Yes?” the medical examiner stood up from the bagged body.
“Did you see a glowing light from the body?”
Puzzled, the man turned as though to unzip the bag. “No, I didn’t. I can look again if you’d like.”
“No that’s fine. Check for it during autopsy,” Ryker said.
“I will,” the man said. Perplexed, he shuffled out of the office.
When the door shut behind the medical examiner, Ryker said, “You’re not the only one that can see it.”
The next two weeks blurred by for Thomas. It came as no surprise that the autopsy found nothing. Detective Ryker stopped by a few times to question him, hoping to learn more about the strange purple aura and transparent flesh. Since Ryker knew about the true nature of Lynnette’s and Galen’s businesses, Thomas told Ryker how they were sent to Parsiyawa to pick up a package for her. He told them about the creatures they fought there, what happened to their middle man, and how Galen identified the creatures as Soul Eaters.
When Ryker asked about the package, Thomas only told him that the middle man claimed he didn’t have it even as they tried to beat it out of him. As tired and numb as he was, Thomas still found it odd that the detective feigned a lack of interest concerning the package when with everything else he questioned him with intensity. It was just a random, casual question as he was leaving from his last visit. Like it was an after thought.
“So you have no idea what was in the package?” he said.
“No,” Thomas said, “Lynnette always required her packages to be wrapped in a self sealing container. The seal is her magical design and construct that can only be opened by her. So once sealed it doesn’t matter who has it, they can’t open it anyway.”
“That’s one way to keep nosy people out,” he said. “Well if you need me for anything, give me a call. You have my number.”
That was four days ago. Now he rode in the back of Celeste’s sedan with Rhae toward the cemetery. Galen drove his truck not far behind them. Overcast and threatening to rain, the sky matched Thomas’ dreary mood. For years he wished to be free from her and be out on his own. He didn’t want it to be like this. Did those things catch her by surprise? Was it quick and painless or did they torment her? He didn’t see signs of a struggle in the office. Over and over he told himself that her death was swift. She didn’t suffer. Yet the twisted face of their nameless middle man haunted him. Plaguing his dreams, it robbed him of sleep. Thomas wanted nothing more than to crawl in a hole and forget about the world right now.
“What’s wrong?” Celeste said in his mind.
“Can’t you read my mind?“
“I can’t probe a mind if that’s what you’re asking,” she said, “I can only send and receive thoughts. Seems you share this gift.“
Thomas sighed and leaned his head against the car window. Closing his eyes he sent her thoughts of the middle man, Lynnette, and the Soul Eater brood. He didn’t know how else to tell her.
“Wait, that woman with them,” Celeste said. The car veered towards the ditch a little but she quickly corrected it.
“Whoa,” Rhae said, “What’s wrong?”
“Thomas,” Celeste said, “show me that white woman again.”
He closed his eyes and thought hard of when she held Rhae captive. It wasn’t hard to recall the details of that moment.
“That’s enough,” Celeste said. She wiped away tears delicately with a finger. “You have to stop her Thomas.”
Thomas straightened himself up in his seat. “Why me?”
“Because I can’t,” she said, “and if you don’t those things will keep coming. More people are going to die Thomas.”
“I don’t know how to even kill those things,” Thomas said. He ran his hand through his hair.
“You’re smart,” Rhae said. She squeezed his knee. “You’ll figure it out and then we’ll kick some ass.”
Celeste pulled into the cemetery and stopped behind the hearse. This was it. This was their final farewell. Thomas struggled to hold himself together as he got out of the car. The will specifically stated that he was not to be a pall bearer, which stung. Oddly the will also stated that Celeste, her estranged niece, was to be the executor of the estate during the probate process yet she was not named for any inheritance from it.
Instead Thomas was named as the sole beneficiary of the entire estate. He didn’t understand that and his mother offered no explanation. She only stated that she would have her lawyer friend, Daemon, handle the entire matter from the inventory process to paying the taxes and any lingering debts. By Galen’s estimate it would probably take about six months just to catalog everything. Once the estate was officially his, he would have to decide whether to keep it or to sell it. Whichever he decided, he was promised that Daemon would help him with whatever legal paperwork he would need too.
Then again, his aunt had always told him his mother was killed by demons and that his twin sister had been carried off. Lynnette claimed that unfortunately she had been successful in rescuing only him. Her story never set right with him. The details were never the same twice and she always got angry when he asked about his mother. Deep down he held on to the hope that his aunt was wrong and that he would find them both. His mother is alive and well. What really happened then? Where did his sister go? Where has his mother been this entire time?
Thomas paid little attention as Celeste took one hand and Rhae took the other. They lead him along behind the pallbearers. Lost in thought, he tried to puzzle out the truth behind his past. They stopped at the freshly dug gravesite. The pallbearers placed the casket upon the rigging that would lower it into the grave when it was time. A celebrant presided over the services. Galen stood with Thomas as a family member, but there were a handful of others present. Various people that have conducted business over the years with Lynnette. Some came for natural medicines and others requested courier services, but all needed the paranormal and supernatural variety that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Thomas wondered if Detective Ryker had ever been a customer.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear. In with the crowd, Thomas found Ryker dressed in a black suit. He wasn’t surprised by this but what shocking was to see the midnight woman clinging to his arm. She wore a form-fitting knee-length black dress with a pair of black flats. Her hat sported a delicate veil to shade her face but it didn’t conceal her striking green eyes. Their eyes met briefly and Thomas broke away from her sly smile. What was she doing here?
“Would anyone care to share any parting words?” said the celebrant.
His chest tightened. He didn’t want to be here anymore. Before long Lynnette would be under six feet of dirt. She was gone as they know her forever. All that she was will return to the stream of life and renew again. This was the significance of the phoenix and their family heritage. She taught him that. He knew that. Still, it was hard to take. Why did she have to be gone?
“Thomas?” Celeste said. She gently squeezed his shoulders with her arm.
Thomas stepped forward and accepted an orange tulip from the celebrant. Taking his shades off and tucking them in the front of his suit pocket, he turned toward the casket. He stood there for a time as his chest tightened again and his vision swam. Diligently with steady breaths, he cleared his head before finding the words he wanted to say.
“Aunt Lynnie and I fought all the time. I even thought I hated her,” he said. The tears came, but he didn’t stop them. “I’d give anything for her to be here just to fight with her one more time.”
An uncomfortable chuckle rippled through the crowd as Thomas continued.
“You hear me you old wind bag? Why did you have to leave me like that?”
He placed the tulip on the coffin as he fought back the sobs. Rhae rushed to his side and guided him back to Galen. Celeste walked up to the celebrant with sure strides to take a flower. Thomas watched as her aura flickered like flame. He could see faint reds, golds, and blues shimmer along the edges of her body and take shape. Brilliant wings formed and spread wide behind her. Might this be why his mother and his aunt were estranged from each other? Could his mother truly be the Phoenix Avatar his aunt always coveted?
Celeste placed the tulip on Lynnette’s coffin. “May your afterlife be graced with much love, light, and laughter forevermore,” Celeste said. Her countenance glowed with the brilliance of sunlight as she bowed slightly to the coffin, but few noticed. “May you never know the anguish of hate again.”
As she walked towards him, her wings folded back and her light diminished. The warmth from her hand as she touched his face brought a sort of comfort and peace to his heart that defined the word sanctuary to him. In that moment, pain and despair was forgotten. Neither existed and thankfully for Thomas, the sensation lingered when she pulled her hand away. Celeste wrapped her arm around Thomas’ shoulder as they watched Lynnette’s casket descend into its grave. One by one, members of the crowd tossed a handful of dirt onto the coffin before offering their condolences to Thomas and departing.
The midnight woman smiled as Ryker shook hands with Thomas. “I’d like you to meet an acquaintance of mine,” he said, “This is Lisha Amaya. Lisha this is Thomas Whitaker, Lynnette’s nephew.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Lisha said, offering her hand to shake his.
“Thank you,” Thomas said, clasping her hand into his. “I mean that.”
“I had stopped into town hoping to meet with her,” she said. “The news of her death was devastating.”
“It was for a lot of us,” said Rhae.
“Yes well,” Lisha said, as she pulled her hand away, “I hope I can stop by for a visit some time?”
“Of course,” Thomas said.
Lisha smiled and walked away with Ryker.
“Of course?” Rhae said.
“What was I supposed to say?” Thomas said as they returned to the car. “You saved our lives but you can’t come into our house?”
“That is rude,” Celeste said.
“Well that’s what I thought,” Thomas said, “even if it is weird that she’s here.”
“I don’t care,” Rhae said as she got in the sedan and slammed the door shut.
Celeste offered to let Thomas and Rhae live at her place, but they declined. It was simply too much for him right now. There were too many questions and he had too much to think about. In way he felt as though his mother wanted to shelter him and let him forget it all if that’s what he wished. And wish it he did. A part of him did wish in the deepest core of his heart to run away and forget it all. Yet something called to him the way flames beckon moths. He had pieces of something that only partially fit and it would seem that his family was a part of it all for some reason.
Like he knew why his mother appeared to be in her early thirties while he was in his early twenties. It was because he grew up on Terran where time moved differently there than it does on Earth. What he didn’t know was the true circumstances of how he got there with his aunt, how his mother survived, and where his sister was now. Despite what his aunt said he knew she had to be alive just like his mother. The thing was his mother wasn’t volunteering information and somehow he felt that he shouldn’t ask. Thomas got the feeling that whatever happen was the reason his aunt and mother were estranged to begin with. If that was the case, then why forgive her at the funeral? What the hell happened?
Even more importantly, what did any of this have to do with the Soul Eater brood? They did attack their middle man. They came all the way to Earth to kill Lynnette too. Was this connected directly to his family as a whole or only to his aunt? That gentleman priest knew her and gave him the creepy omen he missed until too late. One thing Thomas knew for sure was that he couldn’t sit around and wait to find out. He needed to devise a means to kill the Soul Eater brood and stop their master.
The idea of killing a person didn’t sit well with him. It didn’t matter if this person ultimately killed his aunt. Killing wasn’t in his nature. Back when they spoke to their middle man, they lied. His aunt was never that generous. They were always the ones that coughed up the money to grease the wheels to get the job done. The end result got what she wanted but she called him stupid and useless for it. He refused to kill someone over a bit of coin. When you hire the desperate and the starving what can you expect? Most of the time that kind didn’t really ask for that much more, so why kill them? But when you hire the best of the best to get a job done and then try to pinch them by not telling them everything so you can contract for less it doesn’t go well. Thomas lost count of the times he and Rhae gave up their own pay to cover Lynnette’s bullshit. Maybe this master had an old score to settle?
Thomas scrubbed his face with his hands before resting his elbows on his knees. Curled up on the couch next to him was Rhae, sleeping. He envied her. Getting up, he grabbed his trench coat and shades. After putting both on, he walked through the kitchen to find his keys on the table. Then he quietly stepped out the door into the freshly minted night. The chill damp air greeted him as he closed his eyes for a moment. Feeling more than hearing the soft breeze through the spruce, cedar, and birch he knew autumn approached. Reaching into the waist pocket, he retrieved a pack of black filtered clove cigarillos. It was a rare guilty pleasure to smoke one. Oh how his aunt hated the smell.
He smiled at the full moon in contemplation over this. Lighting it up the spicy smell of it alone soothed the senses. A puff wasn’t necessary. Watching it burn and seeing the strands of blueish smoke curl away from it enchanted him. Of course the taste of it was worth it too and one he didn’t pass up. Sitting down on the step of the porch, he avoided looking at the entryway to Lynnette’s office. Her office used to be lit up all hours of the night. Not anymore. All the windows were pitch black, cold, and uninviting. It felt unnatural and ominous. He took a long drag and thought about all her clients. What will happen to them now? Who will they go to now? Just exactly what sort of business did Lynnette do anyway?
“Well if we’re breaking out the bad now we might as well go all the way,” Rhae said and handed him a bottle of hard elderberry cider.
“I thought you were sleeping,” Thomas said, taking the bottle.
Rhae sat down next to him with a bottle of her own. “I was but I could hear you thinking.”
“No,” she said and elbowed him, “I don’t know what woke me up.”
Thomas waved the pack to her. “Want one?”
She eyed him for a moment and then took one. With a sly grin Thomas lit it for her. Rhae took a deep drag off it.
“Wait you don’t -”
Then she blew the smoke in his face like it was nothing. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I hide it like you do, dumb ass.”
They sat in comfortable silence until both the cigarillos and the hard ciders were finished. A nice warm fuzz settled upon them both. Rhae leaned over on him and he wrapped his arm around her.
“So what’s the game plan now big hero?”
Thomas looked down at her face. Though her eyes were closed, she was serious.
He gazed out into the dark dooryard in front of them. “I’m not sure,” he said, “I think the first thing we need to do is get ourselves ready for the Soul Eater brood.”
Rhae straighten up and said, “You really think they’re coming back?”
“I don’t think they left,” he said, standing up. The gravel of the driveway crunched under his boots as he stepped towards the maple tree in the grass on the other side. Leaning against it he faced up at the moon. “My family is wrapped up in this somehow. I know it.”
Setting the bottles up on the porch railing, Rhae said, “Okay so what do we know about the Soul Eater brood?”
“My bullets won’t kill them.”
“My crossbow bolts don’t kill them either,” she said, striding toward him.
“Lisha’s daggers did kill them.”
“Made of white gold I think,” Rhae said. “Odd choice though seeming how soft the metal is.”
“No, it’s not the strength of the metal that killed them,” Thomas said, snapping his fingers.
“Experiment Number Five,” Thomas said. “I need to make a phone call.”
He hurried back inside the kitchen.
“Experiment Number Five for what?” Rhae said to the door. Shaking her head, she starting walking back to the house. “You’re not making any sense.”
“We have arrived,” Nessa said.
As usual she flew through the wall with exuberance, her arms out stretched. Her expressive joy on her face was as loud as her voice. Circling the kitchen table she giggled while Rhae rolled her eyes and plopped into a chair. The sound of the basement’s storm doors opening could be heard through the living room beyond the kitchen’s threshold.
“I take it the two of you are building something tonight?”
“Yup, yup, yup.” She beamed her best smile at Rhae as she daintily perched on the table in front of her. “Papa brought the bike.”
Rhae shook her head in wonder. Her ghostly form was always dressed in girly frills but clearly this child was the most tom-boyish wild thing she ever met.
Plucking at a curl in one of her ponytails, Rhae said, “I’m sure Thomas is going to need all the help he can get.”
“I’m the bestest help.”
“The bestest ever,” Thomas said, entering the kitchen. “You ready to turn the bike into a weapon?”
“Whoa,” Nessa said, floating up and around him, “What kind of weapon?”
“The kind that will make my gun kill the Soul Eater brood,” Thomas said.
“To stop them from eating people?” Nessa said. Her face grew somber as she set herself down next to Galen.
“That’s the plan.”
“I’d better get the coffee and crockpot started then,” Galen said. “Maybe bake some bread too, if you don’t mind?”
“Knock yourself out,” Rhae said. “I can’t cook and he’ll starve himself otherwise.”
The basement possessed little of interest. There was the flight of stairs leading up to the living room in the center of the room. From the far right of that were the stairs leading up to the storm doors. Straight ahead were a set of shelves with all of Thomas’ tool neatly arranged. Against the left wall stood his workbench, also neatly arranged and ready for use. Next to it was a large, beat up recliner. Tucked behind the center flight of stairs sat the oil furnace for the winter months and the electric water heater tank. Usually that’s all that’s found in here unless there is a project underway. Tonight, thanks to Galen’s generosity, Thomas’ bike was back down here in the left corner area between the workbench and the shelves.
They’ll need to remove the melted engine and install a new one so it can be ridden again. After that they’ll need to extract the trans-dimensional crystal from the melted engine and figure out how to incorporate it into the gun. He wasn’t sure if it would work but he already made his own bullets for the magnum. It’s likely he will have to craft special ones for it to work. Thomas wished that Lynnette had been more willing to teach him runic magick back in the day. It took him longer but he can make it work. So what if runes were the only thing that naturally works best with what he does? Does that really make him useless?
“What’s wrong Thomas?” Nessa said. She floated around to his front and tilted her head to the side, her brow furrowed with concern.
Thomas smiled and took his shades off. “Nothing really. Just worried this won’t work.”
Nessa cupped his face in her hands and squinted her eyes. “We’ll make it work,” she said.
“We always do,” Thomas said.
“That’s the spirit,” Nessa said and flew off to the shelves to fetch the tools.
Hours flew by as chalked runes covered the floor and tools were laid out. Not a word was spoken between the two of them, they just knew what the other needed or wanted as they busied themselves with their work. The melted engine hummed as Thomas extracted it from the frame of the bike and set in the center of the runes. Nessa opened a box as large as she was and started fluffing up the packing peanuts into the air with glee. Thomas just shook his head before examining the contents of the box. Bless his heart, Galen gifted him with a new engine for the bike. Lifting it from the box with a grunt, he carried it to the bike and placed it down on the cement.
“I hope you like it,” Galen said.
Turning around, Thomas saw him coming down the stairs with two steaming mugs of coffee.
“I do,” Thomas said, “Thank you. It will be put to good use.”
“I have no doubt of that,” Galen said, reaching the bottom step.
Giving Galen a broad grin, he took a mug and gestured to the recliner.
Galen shook his head with a wave of his free hand. He said, “I won’t stay long. I don’t want to keep you from your work. I just wanted to make sure you were properly fueled and refreshed. Dinner will be ready soon.”
Thomas took a swig of the blonde coffee, sweetened exactly the way he liked it. Galen remembered everything. How did he do that? As if Galen read his mind, a tiny smirk played the corner of his lips.
“The work on the bike is coming along smoothly,” Thomas said, “but I haven’t quite worked out in my head how I’m going to get the crystal to work with my magnum.”
“That’s the plan?” Galen said and went over to take the recliner after all. “What do you want the crystal to do exactly with the gun?”
Thomas took a seat on his workbench and let his feet swing idly. “A couple of things I think,” he said. “Mainly I need the crystal to enchant my bullets so they’ll kill the Soul Eater brood and anything else that can only be harmed by magick.”
Galen nodded, staring into his mug. “The crystal should be able to do that if they are properly ensorcelled with runes. I have books and Lynnette probably does too back in her office if you’re willing to raid it. You may also need additional gemstones to strengthen and enhance the enchantment grid,” he said. “What else do you need it to do?”
“I still need it for trans-dimensional travel,” Thomas said, “but without melting my damn gun.”
“You know,” Galen said, watching his daughter busying herself with the process of installing the new engine, “the magnum is a simpler machine. It’s less complex and less likely to interfere with the mechanism of the crystal. It’s a shame we hadn’t thought of this before.”
Thomas followed his gaze and watched Nessa. He remembered the time before she was a phantom. She had just as much energy and gumption back then too, but that was before the accident. Galen sighed and took Thomas’ empty mug from him. He stood up and headed back for the stairs.
“Hey Galen,” Thomas said, “I’m sorry.”
Galen turned back with a perplexed expression. “For what?”
“You know,” he said, waving his hand toward Nessa.
He walked back to the workbench and set the mugs down. “Look at her Thomas,” he said, “She is having the time of her life now. Nessa will always be here. For you, for me, and for anyone and anything else she loves and cares about. What more could a father ask for?”
“Grandchildren?” Thomas said.
Galen chuckled. “Do really need more than one of her?” he said, “And who knows what the future holds, Thomas? We can’t worry about what could have been in life. All we can do is focus on the now, Thomas.”
“Plan for the worst and hope for the best?”
“Always,” Galen said, picking the mugs back up, “if we don’t we lose our way.” He returned to the stairs before looking over his shoulder. “I’ll bring down the books for you after dinner. Looks like the bike is just about done now.”
Hours, days, and a week tick by and Thomas continued to pour through the books and scrolls to find the runic grid design he needed. Crumpled sheets of paper littered the floor at his feet has he sketched and tested various schemas. Several scorched marks on the cement reminded him he still had much to learn. Occasionally Nessa came along to clean the clutter away. Once in awhile Galen or Rhae called on him for meal times. A steady supply of coffee rolled in and more often than not he slept at the workbench. Two more days passed before he lurched up the stairs and stumbled into the kitchen. Baggy eyes couldn’t hide the sparkle and delight as he waved the sheet of paper above his head.
“This is what I need Galen,” Thomas said, “Can you get it for me?”
Galen took the paper from him and read it. “Ametrine, amber, amethyst, hematite, jasper, opal, and red tiger eye. Excellent choices,” he said. “And yes I do have these in my shop. By why do you need a stone grinder?”
“I need them ground into a dust, mixed together, and then inlaid into the runes carved into the gun,” Thomas said, “I think.”
“That might take some time,” Galen said. “In the meantime, while you wait for that you should test your runes first using the stones. Preferably outside.”
Rhae snorted and Nessa giggled.
“Kaboom,” Nessa said and flew outside to the dooryard. Moments later she came back in. “We have company.”
“Who?” Rhae said.
Nessa shrugged before saying, “Some lady with super dark skin and no hair.”
Rhae rolled her eyes, got up from the kitchen table, and left for the living room to shut the basement door. “I’ll be in here. Holler if you need me.”
Thomas stepped outside onto the porch to meet Lisha in the dooryard. It appeared as though she had walked here. Quite the walk from town in either direction on this road, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Dressed in a pair of hiking boots, a sturdy jeans, and a light sweater she looked ready to hike a few more miles.
“Well hello there,” Lisha said.
Her long strides brought her to his side in short order. Thomas could see now why she could walk as far as she must have without being tired. His legs wouldn’t be able to take that without training. Maybe she had a combination of both long legs and training? Either way he found it impressive. What he didn’t find impressive was how close she stood next to him even though he took a polite step back.
“What brings you out this way?” Thomas said, deciding to ignore it for now.
“Oh I just thought I’d stop by and visit for a bit,” she said, tracing a finger along his collarbone. “Mind if I come in? It’s a bit chilly today.”
She should have put on a coat before coming out then, but Thomas opened the kitchen door and let her in. Her smile was warm but for some reason didn’t quite reach her eyes the way Rhae’s rare smiles did. He raised an eyebrow at the sway of her hips as she sauntered inside. Something felt off about all this, but Thomas couldn’t place it. Ruffling his hair, he sighed before entering and closing the door behind himself. He just didn’t have enough sleep to focus and deal with this right now.
Galen greeted them both with two steaming mugs of cider and a plate of fresh sugar cookies. Lisha was already sitting at the table and took her offered mug of cider appreciatively. Holding the mug with both hands, she closed her eyes and breathed in the vapors mindfully. Setting the mug down, she plucked a cookie from the plate. She took the time to examine it with a placid expression and then dipped it into the cider. Closing her eyes once more, she nibbled the dipped cookie until it was fully consumed. Thomas stood there at the door and watched her, almost transfixed. He noted how different she was from Rhae, who usually just barreled through everything. After giving Thomas a sideways glance, Galen silently excused himself to join Rhae. There was no sign of Nessa anywhere.
Hesitant, Thomas joined Lisha at the table. Clutching his mug of cider like a talisman, he stared into it as if to find courage or something. A cookie smacked him in the nose, bounced off, hit the rim of his mug, and landed on the table.
“I don’t bite,” Lisha said. Her eyes sparkled with an impish gleam. “Much.”
His brow creased as he sipped his cider. He didn’t know how to respond. Despite her politeness, it somehow came off rude to him. She didn’t know him at all yet here she was acting familiar with him.
“Oh lighten up little snow bunny,” she said. She stood up to walk around the table. “I swear to the gods I’m not here to eat you.”
“I didn’t accuse you of that,” Thomas said. Suddenly he found it difficult to meet her gaze.
She leaned over him from behind, sliding her hand down his chest. Her lips were uncomfortably close to his ear. He couldn’t pull away from her. The strong smell of apple blossoms clung to her and spun his senses. Shouldn’t he have noticed the smell before? He couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard her whispering as a finger traced its way back up along his ribs to linger at his neck. Feeling far away and dazed, his heart pounded in his ears as her velvet lips touched the crest of his jaw. His eyes closed as she tipped his head back, willing his body to move.
“Perhaps,” Lisha said, “this is what the snow bunny wants?”
Her lips were a mere breath away from his. Danger screamed through his nerves yet everything wanted it at the same time. Why couldn’t he move? Where was everyone?
“That bunny wants nothing from you,” Rhae said.
Lisha pulled away from him. The smell of the apple blossoms cleared away and Thomas opened his eyes. He stumbled from the chair, trying to clear his head. His lungs burned as he gasped for air. What was that scent she had him breathing in? Clenching his fists, he fought back the trembling too. Nausea hit him in waves as Rhae backed Lisha towards the kitchen door.
“I’m sorry,” Lisha said. She held up her hands in a soothing gesture. “I didn’t realize the two of you were an item.”
“An item? Fucking bitch,” Rhae said. She jabbed a finger in Lisha’s direction. “You fucked him up nine ways to hell and the only thing you care about is if we’re an item? Fucking twat, I’ll gut you. Sorry doesn’t even cut it.”
“So you’re not an item?” Lisha said, taking a step forward.
Rhae pushed her back and drew her knife. “Get out,” she said.
“I’m out,” Lisha said, hand on the door knob. “I wonder if he loves you just as much.”
The thrown knife missed Lisha head by two inches, sinking into the wooden door frame of the office door behind her. Melodious laughter filled the air as Lisha let herself out. Rhae kicked the door shut with a scream. Thomas couldn’t remember when he had collapsed into his vomit on the floor or when he vomited. He wasn’t able to lift his head up for that matter either. His hands shook and his limbs felt like jelly. Galen’s fingers pressed his forehead and temples.
“Let’s get him on the couch,” he said.
Rhae helped Thomas to his feet and with Nessa’s help guided him across the kitchen. As they passed the table, he looked where he was sitting. Where the tossed cookie had landed was now a crumbled mass of moldy leaves. Galen peered at it and wrinkled his nose.
“We need to call Celeste too,” said Galen.
Slowly, Thomas woke from his dreamless sleep. He vaguely he remembered his mother’s soothing voice and healing touch. Galen and Nessa came and went with the hazy time. Woven through all of that was the constant presence of Rhae. Usually angry, sometimes worried, and occasionally crying, she never left his side. Turning his head, he found her hunched over in sleep. Her arms pillowed her head on his bed with her fingers just in reach of him. Gingerly, he brushed a ruby lock of hair from her face. She really had been crying. The movement betrayed him, waking her.
“Thomas you bastard,” she said, punching his arm. She stood up and glowered at him. “You damn near died. You have any idea how scared everyone was? We had to bring you back.”
“You mean CPR?” Thomas said.
“Yes,” she said and started punching him again.
Thomas caught her wrists. “Stop. Stop,” he said. “I’m okay. You saved me and I’m okay now.”
Rhae collapsed on the edge of bed, sobbing. Her face buried in the sheets. “I thought I lost you.”
“Come here,” Thomas said, tugging her hand toward him.
She snuggled up on the bed next to him. The smell of her was clean and warm, like summer wind and sunshine. Thomas smiled into her hair, drinking in the comfort of her just being here. It felt safe to be here like this. It always did. This was home.
“You’re all I have Thomas,” Rhae said.
“I told you before,” Thomas said, “Everyday I live because of you. I’m not going anywhere. That hasn’t changed.”
“Because I fished you out of a river?” she said. Propping herself up on one elbow, she looked at his face.
“And poisoning now too,” he said, cupping her jaw and running his thumb along her cheek.
“So we owe life debts now?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. He smiled, dropped his hand to his lap and gazed out the window. “But that’s not exactly why.”
“Then why?” she said, pulling his face back to hers with her free hand.
“I live because of you,” he said. “You’re my everything. I promise. As long as you’re with me, I won’t leave you.”
Rhae nodded and rested her head on his chest. “That’s fair then,” she said. “Then you’re stuck with me forever.”
“I can live with that.” Thomas wrapped his arms around her.
“Galen said Lisha used a plant called Inlecebra Debilitas,” Rhae said, “It mimics the powers that are innate to succubus and incubus. She managed to slip it into your cider before you drank it, but most humans don’t react to it the way you did.”
“Why would she need to use that?” Thomas said.
“Perhaps Mr. Snow Bunny is sexy,” Rhae said.
“That’s not what I’m getting at,” he said. He knew this could go badly, but he needed to process this and he needed her to hear him out. “You’re not funny, I almost died.”
“Oh, so you wanted her to kiss you?” Rhae hopped off the bed and glared at him over her shoulder.
“No, now listen to me,” said Thomas. “None of this makes sense. Think about it. She’s a striking woman. Everything about her says she’s used to having men wrapped around her finger and getting what she wants.”
Rhae folded her arms but didn’t relax as she turned around. “I saw the way she clung to the detective,” she said.
“That’s my point,” he said, “and he’s not dead or we would have heard about it by now. So why did she show up here and use that on me during the first visit?”
“Why? I’m younger than the detective. In theory he should be wiser and more experienced.”
“And clearly she didn’t expect you to die from it.”
“The question is,” Thomas said, “what was she expecting?”
“To steal your first kiss from me you dumb ass.”
Surprised, Thomas’ face grew hot as he looked down at his hands.
Thomas sighed. He really meant what said by her being his everything, but did she understand that? Rhae had many suitors back on Terran. He lacked the courage to be one of them.
“What? You thought I didn’t know?” she said, “As much time as we spend together I know you have never courted a soul.”
“It’s not that,” Thomas said. “It’s just, I don’t know.” The words fumbled to a stop.
“Thomas if you are ever going to find a lady then you need to get out there,” she said. “Do you need me to give you time for the ladies? I can back off. It’s just you seem to attract the creepy ones.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t need time for the ladies.”
“Oh.” Rhae sat down in the chair by the bed. After a pause, she said, “Is it the pretty boys then?”
“Damn it Rhae.” He looked up at her. Now he had to say it and she was going to laugh at him. “It’s you. All this time. I want… you’ve been with… and… I can’t compete,” he said, hiding his face in his hands, “I don’t know how and I’m not ready.”
Rhae’s face softened as she took his hands into hers. “I didn’t realize you’ve been waiting for me,” she said, “and this whole time I’ve been angry with you for ignoring me. Now it’s my turn to wait for you.”
She combed her fingers through his hair, damp with sweat. He still wasn’t quite well and needed more rest. This was more than just an allergic reaction. Galen mentioned that it seemed the plant had been laced with a toxin of some kind but none like any he had seen. Once in a while Rhae could swear his pupils had faint red rings around them. A slick layer of sweat shined over his skin even though he shivered.
“I’m cold,” he said.
“Lay down,” Rhae said, “and I’ll wrap you up. I’ll ask Galen bring up some tea.”
Thomas opened his eyes, the red rings around his pupils were back. “Can you smell that?”
“What?” Rhae said. She tucked the blankets around him, carefully sniffing.
“Burnt mint,” he said, “It’s really faint, but it’s kind of like that white woman.”
Rhae froze. She could smell it now. Ripping the blankets off him, she smelled his chest and neck. He did smell a bit like her. Quickly Rhae put the blankets back on him.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “I will tell Galen.”
Thomas didn’t sleep. Inlecebra Debilitas was non-toxic, but Lisha mixed a toxin with it. Chances were Galen knew this and instructed Rhae to report anything odd. Rhae wouldn’t have left for any other reason. The loneliness echoed in his heart as his mind buzzed and swirled. Incoherent thoughts flickered by, teasing him. His mind reached for them, desperately as his chest tightened. What was he missing? What was he not understanding? At least now he knew for sure Lisha can weave enchantments. He knew she did more than drop a few leaves in his cider. She whispered in his ear. She traced something on his flesh. He was immobilized. With labored breath, he struggled to clear the cluttered brain fog. Everything was so sharp just moments before. Then like a ripcord, from head to toe, his blood felt like it went up in flames. A scream shredded his throat, begging for death.
“Thomas we’re here,” Galen said. He placed a steady hand on Thomas’ forehead.
“I have the rosewater right here.” Rhae set the bowl down on the chair and placed the towels on the bed.
“Rhae,” said Thomas. He reached for her blindly.
Rhae caught his hand and knelt next to the bed. “I’m here.”
“I need you out of the way,” Galen said.
She climbed up over Thomas to his other side. Since his bed was against the wall, it meant that she had to stay on the bed next to him. Glaring at Galen, she took Thomas’ hand into hers again. Galen didn’t question her. He simply nodded and began to fashion a compress with a towel using the rosewater to break Thomas’s fever. Celeste entered the room, gracing it with the light of her winged aura.
“I’m not sure because it doesn’t grow on Earth,” Celeste said, “but based on what you said, it might be Ruta Cremesin.”
“Talk later,” Rhae said, “heal him now.”
“I can only heal what I understand,” Celeste said. “If the toxins do not match the plant I’m talking about then I will fail again.”
Tears welled up in Rhae eyes. She cupped Thomas’ hand in both of hers now in prayer. “Don’t leave me,” she said, “You promised.”
“He lives,” Nessa said. She tried to make her voice ominous and dreadful, but failed. Joy threaded every note and fiber of that voice and face of hers.
Paler than normal but steady in gait, Thomas came around the corner of the stairwell into the living room. He rubbed the back of his neck as Nessa danced lightly in the air around him.
“Are you hungry?” Rhae said, standing up from the couch. “Galen is back at the shop right now but I can find something for you.”
Thomas weighed his options, feeling a bit trapped. Her cooking never caused a death, but sometimes when she got fancy it tasted that bad.
“I’m not really hungry,” Thomas said.
“Oh.” Rhae wrapped her arms around herself and walked into the kitchen.
Thomas sighed. He couldn’t think of all the names she normally called him, but he owned them all right now. Following her into the kitchen, he found her huddled by the sink. Tentatively, he placed his hand on the counter next to her. Assessing her mood, he realized how wrecked she looked. Her hair brushed her shoulders in unkempt, ruby waves. Her fatigue wrinkled the clothes she had slept in for who knows how many days now. This went beyond any desire to cook. Rhae desperately sought escape from feeling useless.
“You know,” Thomas said, “I could go for something really simple. Nothing fancy.”
Rhae leaned into him. “Just stop,” she said, “I know I can’t cook.”
He hugged her. “Then don’t cook. I’m sure we can fix up something together.”
“I wanted to do something nice for you,” she said.
“I know,” Thomas said, “I could use something work friendly. You know, quick and easy. Spill proof and not messy.”
Leaning back to study him, she smiled a bit. “Really?”
Shyly, he reached out to turn off her concealer device. The glamour flickered and faded away, revealing her true form. With a half smile he combed his fingers through his hair. He liked her better this way. For once, he allowed himself to stare. Her lost vulnerability melted away but her usual alert defensiveness didn’t return. Instead, she relaxed in a way that reminded him of when they were younger. She even smiled softly at him. Thomas hoped if this was a dream that he wouldn’t wake up.
“So,” Rhae said, “are we fixing food or you going waste the day gawking?”
Thomas blushed and turned towards the fridge. “Sorry.”
“Don’t you fucking do that.”
He froze with his hand on the handle of the fridge. “What?”
“Look at me and see me,” Rhae said, “I don’t play mind games and I never will. Not once did I ever say to you that you couldn’t look at me. You’ve never yanked my tail, pulled my ears, or raped me with your eyes. I will tell you if it’s not allowed, okay? And if you’re not sure ask, but don’t fucking assume shit.”
Had every date been one male version of Lisha in some fashion or another for her? Thomas felt sick. How did he miss that? He walked back to her and met her glare. Her anger shielded her. He saw he needed to be a better friend.
“Until this thing with Lisha,” Thomas said, “I had no idea what any of that was like.”
The anger gave way to compassion. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” he said, “I just think I’m a dick for not being a better friend.”
“A hedgehog dick scrubber,” she said, “that’s what you are.”
“That’s a new one.”
They both chuckled.
“So Thomas,” Rhae said, mussing his hair with both hands, “since we are being brave today, what are we in the mood for?”
Before he could answer, she walked to the fridge and opened it. He watched her open the crisper and pull out apples, strawberries, carrots, and celery. She presented them to him for approval.
“You’re asking the guy that blows things up?”
“Yes, because I burn water.”
“Oh I suppose a fruit and veggie tray would be safe enough for the both of us to make then.” He reached to take them from her so he could set them on the table.
His hand grazed hers. He placed his hand over hers. Not moving, he just lingered there. Food wasn’t important anymore.
“What’s wrong Thomas?”
“Nothing,” Thomas said, looking up from her hand. “Rhae?”
“Yes?” Rhae said, leaning down.
Her lips were close to his now. Should he ask? Should he just kiss her? Would she drop kick his ass? His heart pounding, he squeezed her hand and licked his dry lips. She was close enough that his tongue touched her lips slightly. It was all she needed for an invitation. Gently, she brushed her lips against his as he closed his eyes.
“Thomas I wasn’t able to get you the stone grinder, but I did hook you up with a jeweler,” Galen said, shutting the door behind him. He carried a package in his hands however and set it on the table. That’s when he noticed the two of them standing sheepishly at the end of the table. “Did I miss something?”
“Ah no,” Thomas said. “I just helping Rhae with a fruit and veggie tray for the basement.”
“He doesn’t trust my cooking.”
“Well we can fix that,” Galen said.
“That be great,” Rhae said, setting the items in her arms on her end of the table. She went to get a cutting board, knife, and a serving tray.
“So what’s this about the jeweler?” Thomas said, sitting down.
“Oh,” Galen said and handed him the package, “I got you an engraving kit for the gun. You’ll need that to set the runes. Once you do that I have a friend that will cut, grind, and inlay whatever you need.”
“At what price?”
Galen winked and patted Thomas’ shoulder. “Never you mind that,” he said. “Rhae not like that. You’re bruising the fruit.”
“Thanks Galen,” Thomas said.
“Don’t mention it,” Galen said. He nodded his head in the direction of the basement. “Got things covered here. Get back to work. You’ll feel better.”
Thomas grinned and left the kitchen. He wished he had finished that kiss, but he did feel better. His head had finally cleared and his spirits were lifted. Floating with optimism, he reached for the basement door.
“Thomas and Rhae,” Nessa said, “sitting in a tree.”
“Don’t start,” he said, heading down the steps.
“What’s the game plan?”
“Getting my gun ready,” Thomas said. “And we’re making one ready for Rhae too.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, removing it from the workbench’s long drawer.
He placed the shotgun on top of the workbench and then set his magnum next to it. The metal of both gleamed in the light as if speaking to him. Behind him the trans-dimensional crystal still hummed inside the melted engine. Studying the schemas he drew, he groaned and slumped into the chair.
“I can make a portal with this just fine,” Thomas said. “Better than fine. Go anywhere on Earth without the using trans-dimensional crystal to be honest.”
“Sweet,” Nessa said, “So what’s the problem?”
“I can’t test whether this will enchant the bullets as they’re being fired with the spell of choice on the fly without taking the risk of engraving one of these guns and actually shooting the bullets out of it.”
“And if it doesn’t work,” Nessa said, “you have ruined a gun.”
“Well,” Thomas said, “as long as it doesn’t explode it can still be used normally.”
“Why would it explode?”
“It shouldn’t,” Thomas said and then pointed to the melted engine, “but most of my stuff likes to.”
“Technically that didn’t explode.”
“Whatever it’s broke.”
Thomas stood up and dropped the schemas on the workbench. “I wish it didn’t.”
“It’s how we learn, Thomas.”
Scratching his head he said, “You know you sound like your dad?”
“It’s because he’s right,” she said.
He heard her sorting and laying out tools for extracting the trans-dimensional crystal. Nodding to himself, he rapped the workbench. Time to set aside doubt and get the job done.
“Don’t forget the lead lined box,” Thomas said, walking over to her.
“Who do you think I am?” Nessa said with a sly grin.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m paranoid.”
“I don’t blame you but I got it,” she said and pointed to the edge of the circle. Then she pointed to the middle shelf with the folded cloth and goggles. “Now don’t forget your safety suit and lock the doors.”
The suit was made of enchanted silver fiber lined with a protective layer of carbon fiber. Straps cinched at the wrists and ankles. Wearing it always made him nervous. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted the goggles snugly to his face. Then he laced up the steel toe boots and slipped his hands into a pair of leather work gloves.
“No,” Thomas said as he picked up the blow torch, tucked the box under his arm, and stepped into the ring of runes.
He knelt down next to the melted engine while Nessa placed her hands upon the runic ring. The runes flickered with a soft blue light while she chanted. Setting the box down, Thomas lit up the blow torch and cut into the engine with a steady hand. Piece by piece, chunks of the engine came off and were cast aside. Iridescent light pulsed from the engine, increasing in strength as each chunk of the engine was removed. When Thomas reached the heart of the engine, the energy burst free from the remains, knocking him back to crash into the edge of the circle. The light faded and the circle held. Thomas checked himself to find he still lived. Nessa continued to chant. There was more to do.
He sat up and carefully examined the fist sized clear crystal. It had formed in uneven spikes. Reaching into the suit, he dug out a small chisel, hammer, and a small bag made of the same material as his suit. Hoping to not trigger an explosion, he picked a spike and tried to chisel it off. Thomas sighed as the spike dropped to the cement without incident. He placed that into the small bag. Then he picked another spike to chisel off. It too came off without a hitch. He added it to the bag and cinched the bag closed. With that done, he placed the large crystal into the lead lined box and sealed it shut. Nessa released the chant and the runes went dark.
“We did it?” she said.
“We did it,” Thomas said, removing the goggles and tossing them to the floor.
“Woo hoo,” she said, “time to party.”
She started dancing around the basement floor. Thomas sat there watching her as he trembled from the relief. Having and using that crystal was incredibly important for what they do, but it didn’t change how dangerous it was. He didn’t care what Galen said, he could never forget what happened. Forgetting meant risking the same mistake. Mistakes cause accidents and then people die. Nessa happened to get lucky in a tragic way.
“Is it safe to come in yet?” Rhae said through the door upstairs.
“Yes, hang on.”
Thomas took the stairs two at a time to unlock the door. Nessa flew past him.
“We did it,” she said. “We cut the crystal.”
“So no explosions?” Rhae said, “No missing limbs?”
“No missing limbs,” Thomas said as he stepped out of the basement.
He noticed that she had freshened up and dressed up. Her concealer device was still shut off, even though she still wore it. She used the sliver hair clips he gave her last year for her birthday to pull up her ruby curls. Tonight she wore a little black dress with flats. Feeling his cheeks flush, he tried to recall when she looked this endearing.
“What’s the matter, Thomas?” she said, “Cat got your tongue?”
“I don’t know what the occasion is,” he said, “but I’m underdressed.”
“We are celebrating you not being dead,” she said. “You are fine the way you are.”
“Okay,” he said.
Rhae took him by the hand and lead him to the kitchen. There a fine beef pot roast dinner waited for him. Mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, onions, celery, and of course the roast beef graced the table in steaming dishes. Her fruit and vegetable trays were colorfully arranged on the countertop. His stomach growled.
“There you are,” Galen said and offered him a fresh mug of coffee. “I know how nerve wracking that process is for you so I thought we should follow it with something cheery.”
“But we never,” Thomas said, stumbling over his words into silence. So much has changed since Lynnette’s passing.
Galen nodded and nudged his elbow. “Now we do.”
“All the joys and all the sorrows,” Nessa said, pointing up in the air, “we share together.”
“Well everyone,” Nessa said, circling the room with a dramatic spin, “I shall take my leave of you this evening.”
“Happy haunting,” Galen said.
Nessa blew them a theatric kiss and flew out the kitchen window.
“Where do you think she’s going?” Rhae said.
“Oh probably the abandoned church on the other side of town,” Galen said. He settled himself into a chair and looked up at them. “Shall we eat?
Thomas offered Rhae a chair and then sat across from her. Although quiet, the meal remained merry. Every exchange included a smile. The house had never felt this happy before. He hoped the days of mirth and warmth here continued forever. Once they cleaned up after dinner, Galen took his leave as well. Thomas returned to the basement to clean up and start his work on engraving.
He had just put the goggles back in the place as she had come down. The basement was all cleaned up and ready for the next project. Thomas walked over to the workbench.
“I want to show you something,” he said.
Rhae came over to his side. “Oh,” she said, lightly touching the shotgun.
“I’m going to enchant it for you,” he said. “It should be faster to reload than the crossbow. I was going to give it to you later this year, but it can’t wait.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder with a soft smile. “That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said. “Thank you.”
Then she headed for the stairs. Thomas furrowed his brow. What did she come down here for? Did he do something wrong?
“Wait Rhae,” Thomas said, reaching for her. “Should I enchant the crossbow instead?”
Pausing at the bottom step with her hand resting on the railing, she said, “No, the shotgun is a better choice.”
“Then what is it?”
Saddened, Rhae shook her head. “You came down here to work. Important work,” she said, “and I came down here for selfish, distracting reasons.”
His heart skipping, he scratched the back of his head as he studied the floor. He knew he’d likely mess this up but he needed to chance it. “Then distract me?” he said.
Silence ticked away between them. He waited. When she didn’t answer, he looked up and found her standing in front of him. Mischief sparkled in her eyes as she slowly lifted the hem of her dress along her left leg.
“Now wait a minute,” Thomas said, “that’s not exactly what a meant.”
She revealed her combat knife strapped to thigh with a chuckle. “Can you enchant this?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. Turning around to rest his on the workbench to catch his breath. “But you take it off.”
She gently placed the knife still in its sheath with its twin belts next to the shotgun. Embarrassed, Thomas stared at the wood grain of the bench. Rhae slid her arms up under his to squeeze his shoulders. Resting her forehead on his neck, she waited for him to say something. He didn’t know what to say. Why couldn’t they be the way they were before? He knew what to do then.
“I shouldn’t have teased you like that,” Rhae said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I don’t know what to do,” Thomas said.
Rhae hugged him and kissed his neck right at the hairline. He felt her smile against his skin as his breath quickened for a moment. Leaning into her, he looked up at her face. She stroked his cheek with her finger. He closed his eyes with contentment.
“You’re smart. You’ll figure it out,” she said. “You always do.”
“And if I disappoint you?”
“Then I beat your ass and you try again.”
Thomas snorted and sat up on the workbench. “That’s all? Just beat my ass like always?”
“Yup, nothing new,” she said, her face even with his now.
“Okay,” he said, trying not to swing his feet since she was so close to him. “So now what?”
Mischief returned to play in her eyes. He was in trouble. She rested her hands on his thighs and stepped between his knees. Now she was right up against him. His unsteady breath quickened as he gripped the edge of the workbench with both hands. A lazy desert heat spread through him as he saw her aura glow with hazy golden earth tones. Normally it was sharp and cold, but in this moment it beckoned. His heart fluttered with the invitation. He desperately wanted to keep it. Others earned it and wrecked it. He feared becoming one of them.
“These are the rules,” she said, “pay attention. If someone resists then stop. If someone says stop, then stop. No games. No bullshit.”
“Rhae,” Thomas said. He hesitated.
“What?” She threaded her fingers through his hair.
By the gods that felt good and Thomas found himself wrapping his arms around her tightly. He wanted more, for himself and for her. Hiding his shame, he buried his face into her neck.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.
She absently stroked his feathery hair. The heat he felt continued to build as he breathed in her summer scent. “What would you like to do?” she said quietly.
Without moving, he said, “I’ve always wanted to touch your ears.”
Her hands returned to his thighs. “You can touch them,” she said, “but don’t pull or pinch them.”
Anxiously, he reached up with each hand to stroke an ear. She twitched away from him a bit.
“That tickles,” she said, closing her eyes, “not so light.”
The short ruby hair on the outside was soft like crushed velvet. He took care not to rub it the wrong way, not daring to find out if she was like a real cat. Gently he ran a thumb along the inside of her ear. The longer white hair was silky smooth. Rhae let out a quiet sigh against his lips as her nails dug into his thighs. His hands slid down her back as he kissed her. He intended for it to be a chaste one, but her hunger and need quickly changed that. The desert heat smoldering within him ignited into flames. Even with his eyes closed he could see the ever shifting hues of her golden earthy aura. It washed over him, claimed and beckoned him. He was hers – then, now, and forever. Fear and doubt evolved to awe and joy. He couldn’t believe this was happening right now in the basement.
“Not in the basement,” Thomas said, trying to stand.
Trying to keep him from falling while still tugging him to the stairs, Rhae laughed along the way. It was a bright, clear hearty sound that lifted his soul. Thomas smiled as they stumbled up the steps together. Her true, unrestrained laugh was his favorite sound in the world.
He should be tired. How was he not tired? That’s how it usually worked for guys, wasn’t it? They have sex and pass out. Thomas didn’t know a woman who didn’t complain about the habit. Yet here he was, down in the basement buzzing with energy. As much as he wanted to stay next to Rhae, he couldn’t. He had to come down here if she was to get any rest.
Each time he closed his eyes, his own aura glowed with the impossible color of moonlight. He felt alive and connected to life, the universe, and everything all at once. The desire to run, dance, and shout overwhelmed him, yet all he could do was bask in the quiet joy of his soul. His mind raced with so many thoughts. He couldn’t catch them all. They flurried before him like snowflakes. Creativity sang through his veins. His blood begged him to design, build, and create. So here he was, engraving entirely new schemas into the metal as conscripted by the cosmic forces whispering in his ear.
Everything finally made sense and came together as he filled in the missing parts of the runic grids. He was able to design Rhae’s in such a way it could be operated automatically without effort, no magick talent, and respond to either his or her touch only. The magnum required a more complicated system. It would respond to Rhae in times of need but he also designed it to become more fluid for his needs his hand. When finished, the weapons were works of art. Each one decorated with fine engraved filigree embedded with runes. The gemstones at this point would further enhance the work, but were no longer critical.
The runes no longer felt alien or foreign to him. In fact, more came to mind that he didn’t remember reading. Studying his hands, he saw the runes float in his moonlight aura. Could he pluck them out and use them? He had to test this out. Grabbing his trench coat, he headed outside.
From the bedroom window upstairs, Rhae watched Thomas light up the darkness around him as he cast one runic spell after the next. Defiant pride swelled in her heart. Sometimes he flung a rune out from thin air like a card. Other times he drew them with his finger in trailing lights. With a quick flick of the wrist, he could even have them suddenly appear around him in orbiting rings like they did with the bike. All of his efforts were fluid and graceful.
“You did it, Thomas,” she said, “You finally figured it out.”
Placing her hand on the glass pane, she smiled sadly. She knew that now he had awakened, the would be kings and gods of the cosmos would come for him in time. Like Lynnette and Celeste, he too was of the Phoenix bloodline. An awakened child such as he was always a target. It was unavoidable.
“I’m going to protect you,” Rhae said, turning away from the window as the phone in the kitchen. “I’ll die before harm comes your way.”
Thomas reached the phone before Rhae did. He wrapped a comfortable arm around her waist as he answered it.
“Hello, Thomas speaking.”
“Ryker here,” he said. Keening ripped through the background. “I need you here now. They’re here, chasing a ghost child.”
“Where?” Thomas already knew, but he had to be sure.
“We’re coming,” Thomas said.
The trans-dimensional runes worked flawlessly to bring them on the bike well beyond the other side of town. They cut a twenty-minute drive down to five. Thomas still felt that it left them will little to spare. Fog roiled the street, angry and hungry for them. Leaving the bike behind, the two of them sought the direction of Nessa’s shrieking over the keening and tittering. Rhae fired two shots at a pair of incoming brood. White light exploded from them, leaving behind spatters of melting parts in brackish goo.
“It works,” Rhae said.
“Okay,” Thomas said, drawing a rune of light on her forehead. “Seems they can see us through the fog anyway. No sense running blind in this.”
“I’ve got you,” she said as he drew the same rune for himself.
Thomas turned in time to fire runic charged shots at three, but had to duck down so Rhae could shoot the fourth one leaping at him. Twisting around, he shot another behind her. Casting the orbital runes wide, he cut through the fog to clear the street. They found Ryker and Lisha fighting off a swarming pack. He picked off the two closest to them before reloading while Rhae covered him. Each pair worked in synch as they made their way towards the middle.
“My gun is useless,” Ryker said.
Thomas held two fingers up, pressed together, to his forehead for a moment. Quickly he made a flicking motion with that wrist and Ryker’s gun lit up with a blue filigree design similar to the one on Rhae’s shotgun.
“It won’t last,” said Thomas, “so make it count.”
“Right,” said Ryker.
“Where’s Nessa?” Rhae said, scanning through the fog beyond the orbiting runes.
“We lost her,” Lisha said.
“What do you mean you lost her?” Rhae said, spinning around.
“Those creatures separated us,” Ryker said.
The keening faded to a deathly quiet as the fog receded. Thomas dropped his orbital runes and scanned the street for the white woman. She was there, standing in front of the church. Next to her, in the claws of a pack of brood was Nessa.
“I will have what belongs to us,” said the white woman.
Like the last time they met, she stood motionless with her katana drawn. Even porcelain dolls were made with more expressive faces than hers. What was wrong with her?
“You get nothing from us,” shouted Lisha. “Release the ghost child.”
“Now hang on,” Thomas said.
“We will not be denied,” the white woman said. “I have come for what belongs to us.”
“Like hell,” Lisha said.
“Wait,” Thomas said.
Ignoring him, Lisha unleashed a flurry of daggers. Each one struck true. Four of the brood fell into a pool of its brackish slime. The white woman signaled with a slight movement of the hand and the remaining brood began to tear Nessa apart. They ripped and snapped pieces off her like taffy. Her screams tore through the night and his soul.
“No,” Thomas said, running towards them.
He shot all six of his rounds, but it was too late. With ten of them upon her fighting for a shred, it didn’t take long. Her essence faded before he reached her. There was nothing left. Not a ribbon or scrap to bury. Dropping his gun, Thomas grabbed the white woman by the front of her yukata. Four of the brood tittered around them, waiting for orders. The white woman just stared at him blankly.
“Why? What is wrong with you?” he said, “She was just a child.”
Suddenly an image of his mother filled his head. Sounds of babies crying and keening surrounded him. The katana hit the pavement with a metallic clatter. Her eyes that matched his widened and blinked. Grasping his wrists, she forced him to let go. Scooping up her katana, she ran. Thomas fumbled for his gun and tried to follow her. However, the fog swirled around her and quickly reclaimed the street. By the time the fog cleared, he found himself at the edge of the woods with his quarry no where in sight. Cursing himself for losing her, he headed back to regroup with Rhae.
He found the three of them waiting for him. Thomas shook his head at Rhae and walked past her. It took three short strides to bring him straight to Lisha.
“What the hell was that?” he said. “You got Nessa killed.”
“I was trying to save her.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Thomas said. “You seem to know what she’s looking for.”
“Easy there pal,” Ryker said, stepping between them. “Aren’t most demons and ghost a bit crazy and misguided?”
“Nessa wasn’t,” Thomas said. “And most of them don’t go across dimensions looking for lost items either.”
Ryker’s face suddenly took a clouded expression. “That’s true. I knew that,” he said. “Nessa was Galen’s daughter, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah, I’m going to head over to the shop and let him know,” Thomas said.
Still looking troubled, Ryker patted him on the shoulder. “Let him know I’m truly sorry,” he said. “I need to fill out a report on this. I’m never going to here the end of it.”
“I’ll follow you over there Thomas,” Lisha said. “It’s the least I can do.”
“It’s probably for the best,” Ryker said. His eyes squinted at her, but then he shook his head and walked to his car.
“You keep your hands off him,” Rhae said.
“I heard you the first time, Tiger Mama,” Lisha said. “No petting the Snow Bunny.”
In a flash of runic light, Rhae sliced Lisha’s face with her combat knife. She had the knife sheathed before the paper thin cut began to bleed.
“Call him that again and I will kill you,” she said, walking away towards the bike.
Thomas didn’t even spare Lisha a glance as he followed in Rhae’s foot steps.
They parked the bike outside the front of the pawnshop. It would be dawn in a few hours and knowing Galen, he would up already prepping for business. The bell rang as Thomas opened the door. He found Galen sweeping up broken glass near the wall.
“Oh Thomas,” Galen said, “strangest thing happened. Less than an hour ago all the framed Kincade paintings crashed to the floor.”
“Nessa’s collection,” Thomas said.
Galen stopped sweeping and studied Thomas and Rhae. “Where’s Nessa?” he said.
“I think you should sit down,” Rhae said.
“No,” Galen said, dropping the broom. He rushed over to lock the door but Lisha arrived to enter.
“I’m sorry Galen,” she said, “We did everything we could to rescue her from the brood.”
Crestfallen, he looked up to Thomas for confirmation. “Thomas?”
Thomas glared at Lisha. “I think some of us could have tried harder,” he said.
“There will be no contention here,” Galen said. “Not in Nessa’s name. I trust everyone did what they thought was best at the time.” He gave Thomas a pointed look as Rhae rolled her eyes.
“You weren’t there,” Rhae said.
“And good thing too,” Galen said. “My judgement would have been clouded and I too might be dead.” He sighed, rubbing his chest. “Who’s up for some ice cream?”
“At a time like this?” Lisha said.
“Yes,” Galen said, heading for the kitchen. “Nessa deserves a proper wake and children get ice cream, not booze.”
“How much are you willing to bet he made that up?” Rhae said, walking past Thomas.
“Just go with it,” he said, following her, “He ate ice cream last time too, remember?”
Thomas slid the ottoman to the center of the parlor before sitting into his usual chair. Rhae found and placed a vase of fabric flowers on the ottoman. Next to it she placed the small painting of her with her mother from years ago. The door’s bell rang again but who would be calling this early? Ryker hadn’t said he would be meeting with them and surely he couldn’t have finished with his report so soon.
“I’ll get it,” Galen said, handing them each a pint of ice cream. “Wait for me.”
“I heard the news Galen and I came to offer my condolences.”
“News travels fast,” Galen said, “I only just heard myself.”
Rhae exchanged looks with Thomas. The voice was a bit muffled through the wall, but it was clearly the gentleman priest from Prasiyawa. Lisha stood up and quietly stepped toward the kitchen and lingered there.
“I’m apologize my friend,” the gentleman said, “I haven’t given you proper time to mourn.”
“No need to be sorry,” Galen said. “Come join us. We are holding a wake for Nessa as we speak. You are welcome here.”
“That’s kind of you. What spirits are we partaking?”
“Of course, Nessa was a child after all.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Rhae said. “What world does that come from?”
Thomas shrugged. “No idea.”
Galen and the gentleman soon entered the parlor. With his usual grace, Galen offered a place for him to sit. This time he unearthed a small cushioned bench.
“Peccant, I’d like you to meet Thomas and Rhae,” he said. “Thomas and Rhae, this is the traveling Sin Eater, Peccant.”
“Sin Eater?” Rhae said, raising an eye brow.
Peccant bowed his head. “I perform services for the dead,” he said. “It is my job to take on the sins of those that have passed as my personal burden so that they may travel into the after life freely.”
“That’s an odd custom,” Thomas said.
“It is a dying art,” Peccant said, a corner of his mouth turn upward wryly. “But, it is necessary for those that have burdened themselves gravely. A soul like that will never find its way and roam in a path of destruction otherwise. It must be tamed and returned to order.”
Galen offered Peccant a pint of ice cream as well, which he accepted. As Galen sat in his rocking chair, he said, “Some say that the Soul Eater brood are the lost dark souls seeking to fill the emptiness inside themselves.”
Rhae licked the ice cream off her spoon. “Do you believe that Galen?”
He ate his ice cream thoughtfully for a time before answering. “I don’t know what to believe to be honest,” he said. “There are so many stories, and this is only one of them.”
They fell silent as they finished the ice cream, sharing their sorrow together as Nessa would have wanted them too.
“So young Master Thomas,” Peccant said, “I wish to offer my condolences to you as well.”
“Excuse me?” Thomas said.
“Lynnette,” he said. “I truly wished her no harm. She was a lovely woman.”
Galen gave Peccant an uncomfortable sideways glance and then stared at the bottom of his ice cream carton.
“Thank you,” Thomas said, “It was an unexpected death.”
“Did anyone service her passing?”
“A celebrant presided over the funeral,” Thomas said.
Peccant gave him a shrewd eye. “No my boy,” he said, “did someone clear her of sin.”
“Oh,” Thomas said. He recalled his mother’s odd behavior at the funeral. Now it made sense. “Yes, Celeste Whitaker.”
“Of course she had,” he said. “She burned it all away with her light.”
Pondering the news, Peccant stood and paced the room. Galen got up to collect the empty pints of ice cream and spoons. Thomas and Rhae handed over theirs as they sat quietly in thought. They could hear Galen busy himself in the kitchen.
“Thank you,” Lisha said.
Peccant froze. “Who is that?”
“Oh,” Galen said, “I completely forgot to introduce my client here. Her name is Lisha.”
The Sin Eater strode into kitchen, fuming. “You,” he said, “I will have back what is mine.”
“Burn in hell,” Lisha said. She popped open the back steel door of the kitchen and ran off into the breaking dawn.
“Thief,” Peccant said, stepping out the door. “I will have what’s mine.”
Like an inky black cloud, the Soul Eater brood began to pour out from his robes.
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.”
“It will be a day or two for them to finish their investigation,” Galen said, hanging up the phone. “Then I can come and collect whatever remains they said.”
“I’m sure they’ll say it was some freak accident,” Thomas said.
“Most likely,” Galen said, taking a chair at the table. “No one reported hearing any shots or keening.”
“Must be some effect from the brood,” Rhae said, “or Peccant.”
“Is that possible?” Thomas stared into his coffee mug.
“Well,” Galen said, “emotions have a powerful impact on the brain’s capacity to lay down memory to begin with, so yes. Evoke an emotion with high enough intensity, the brain will prevent the memory from being created in the first place.”
“So no suppression, therefore no recovery?”
“Correct,” Galen said. “You can’t recover what isn’t there.”
“There was no magick involved to do that,” Thomas said. “Now hear me out. The brood isn’t from Earth. Compared to many of the worlds we’ve been to Earth is…”
“Sleeping,” Galen said.
“Unprepared,” said Rhae.
“Right,” Thomas said, “so how much would it take for an encounter with the likes of the brood for an unawakened, untalented Earthling mind to deny its existence and just simply not create the memory? I’m mean to preserve sanity?”
“No effort at all,” Galen said. “Happens every day in fact with far less.”
Thomas leaned back in his chair. “Shit.”
“What are you thinking?” Rhae said, sliding her hand across the table towards him.
Lacing his fingers through hers, he stared off out the window behind her. “Who’s protecting these people?”
“What people?” Rhae said. She placed her other hand over their intertwined fingers.
“The normal people,” he said, feeling the beads on his wrist grow pleasantly warm, “and people like Nessa. Who’s protecting them from people like us that would do them harm?”
“There are small bands of people, like us, all over this world Thomas,” Galen said, “each doing their part, in their own way, what they can.”
“We could join your mother,” Rhae said. “I’m sure she would welcome us.”
“No,” Thomas said, pulling his hands away. “If she is the Phoenix Avatar, then she is fighting different battles. We’ll help her when she needs it.”
“But you seek a different calling,” Galen said.
Thomas folded his arms. “You know,” he said, “I have no idea what exactly Lynnette did.”
Galen’s face grew grim as his thumbed the rim of his coffee. “Even the occult and paranormal has its black markets.”
Rubbing his face with his hands, Thomas groaned. “How could I be so naïve?”
“This is why we were told next to nothing.”
“And you,” Thomas said, “did you deal in it as well?”
Galen rolled his eyes with a light shrug. “How much product did you bring my way?”
“I’m not dealing in that.”
“And if you noticed you haven’t received a request for it either.”
“What do you mean?”
“People know that Lynnette owned the business,” Galen said. “They also know that you got the business. When you decide what to do with it, the clients will return.”
“Just like that?” Thomas said, resting his elbows on the table.
“Just like that,” Galen said, “and by turning the business beacon back on of course.”
“Of course,” Thomas said, looking at the office door.
“So no black market trade,” Galen said. “What exactly do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “I just want to help people.”
“Very noble,” Galen said, “and how do you intend to do that?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, pounding his fist on the table. “I build things with my hands. Even the runes. I just build with them. I build things.”
“You also think,” Rhae said, looking at the freshly made puddle of coffee from her mug. “You’re smart, Thomas. You’ll figure it out.”
“Well Galen can set up a new shop in Lynnette’s old office,” Thomas said.
“No way,” Galen said. “That office is all yours. You were the only one that opened Lynnette’s seal. I’m willing to bet she placed seals all over that office.”
“Fine,” Thomas said. “Maybe we can build something out here for you then?”
“For what?” Galen said, smiling.
“Legit product. Whatever. Supplies we need.”
“Right,” Galen said. “You realize there isn’t a lot in the way of the true occult and paranormal on Earth that is legit as you define it?”
“Okay fine, I realize there is a lot of gray area,” Thomas said, “but I’m done with dishonest dealings and theft. That’s what got us in the mess we’re in right now.”
“The only reason I did business with Lynnette was because of you two. I imagine plenty other folk feel the same. I can get what you need honestly without stealing, Thomas,” Galen said. “Oh, that reminds me. Do you still intend to set the gemstones and the trans-dimensional crystal into your weapons?”
“It will only strengthen them,” Thomas said. “Are you sure your jeweler friend can work with the crystal safely?”
“Yes, my friend has worked with such crystals before,” Galen said, a note of sorrow tainted his tone.
“But you can no longer pay this friend of yours?” Thomas said.
“The books he wanted are likely destroyed,” Galen said.
“But you have something else he wants you don’t want to give him?”
“Nessa’s sword, Astrum Kotero. The Star Cutter. I was going to give it to her for her birthday,” Galen said. The pained expression on his face made Thomas wince.
“Don’t give him that. Keep it,” Thomas said. “What else is there?”
Galen spread his hands out across the table with his palms up. He shook his head at a loss. Then he folded his hands behind his mug, pressing his lips together.
“Look if I can get it I will,” Thomas said. “Within reason.”
“His wife and son are currently enslaved by the goblin horde.”
“Fuck nuggets,” Rhae said. Her tail twitched in annoyance. “We can’t rescue anyone while with the brood out there.”
Thomas rapped the table thoughtfully. They did have something for payment and it would be beneficial to this family too. His mind set, Thomas headed for the basement. He collected the bag of gems and the pouch of crystals. Returning to the kitchen, he gave both to Galen.
“Tell your friend to keep the crystals to save his family,” Thomas said. “If he isn’t able to by the time we’re finished with Peccant then we’re willing to help.”
Galen’s eyes widened as Thomas set his holstered gun on the table in front of him. “Are you sure Thomas? The crystal has a lot of power.”
“Family first,” Thomas said firmly. “Setting the gemstones should be enough for now.”
Rhae nodded and got up to collect her shotgun. Then she placed it and her sheathed combat knight next to his magnum. “Family first.”
“I will let him know.”
They carefully wrapped and packed the weapons to be loaded into Galen’s truck first thing in the morning.
Galen hung up the phone with a sigh. “Well the fire marshal has declared that it was a faulty gas line leading into my home,” he said. “My insurance at least should cover most of the losses.”
“Aren’t the propane tanks for the kitchen in the back of the building?”
“Yes Thomas,” Galen said, picking up the weapons they packed last night, “and it’s best we leave well enough alone at this point.”
Thomas and Rhae watched Galen carry the load out to the truck.
“So who altered the scene?” Rhae said.
“Peccant probably did,” he said.
“Why would he do that?”
Thomas shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. “Because they’re friends,” he said. “Ultimately he’s the reason Nessa is dead. Chances are he didn’t plan for that. I’m also guessing he’s the reason Galen’s wife is dead too.”
“How do you apologize for that?”
“You can’t rectify something like that,” Thomas said. “You can either run from it or spend the rest of your days in atonement, but it still won’t undo the iniquity.”
“Who is suffering more?” Rhae said, wrapping her arms around him. “Peccant who is still trying, or Galen that understands?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, hugging her back.
Galen shuffled back inside and quietly shut the door. “Well the truck is all loaded,” he said. “We can swing by my place first and pick through what can salvaged first. Shouldn’t take long. Then I’ll stop by the jeweler’s to get your weapons commissioned.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Thomas said, grabbing his trench coat.
The wreckage was soul crushing. What hadn’t burned took either smoke or water damage. Only the parlor hadn’t been left in complete blackened crud and glop. Some of the books here could be rescued. A bit scorched and damp but they were still readable. They were carried to the truck. The chairs and ottoman smelled of smoke, but fixable. Those too were loaded up. Rhae found the painting of Nessa with her mother. Galen tucked that away with care. Digging through soggy, crumbling black books and scrolls he dragged out a scorched two foot chest.
“Ah, here it is,” Galen said, relieved.
He opened the chest to examine the contents. Inside were a pair of baby shoes, a white infant gown, a small blanket, a rattle, and a foot long box. It was this box Galen removed and closed the chest. Softly he stroked this box as tears slid down his cheeks. Clutching the box to his chest, he began to sob. Rhae and Thomas knelt to either side of him in silence. Today would have been Nessa’s twentieth birthday. When the sobs slowed to weeping, he wiped his eyes and faced Thomas solemnly.
Handing him the box, Galen said, “Take this.”
“I can’t,” Thomas said, trying to push the box back.
“It’s what Nessa would have wanted,” Galen said. “All the joys and all the sorrows.”
“Together,” Thomas said, accepting the box.
Releasing the latch, Thomas lifted the lid. “Sweet Vesta.”
“Behold the Astrum Kotero. The Star Cutter. Some say that this is a true astra. A living weapon in the proper hands. In your hands, it just might be.”
The ornate hilt bore filigree runes similar to the ones he engraved on their weapons. Tiny opal and amethyst jewels were set at key points in the design. Simplistic in its elegance, it flowed across the steel with life. Shining from the hilt was the blade made of something other than metal. Thomas could almost see through its shimmering iridescent material. Color shifted constantly along the edge of this blade. Where did it come from? Who crafted it and why? How did Galen come by it and at what cost? He looked up at Galen to ask all these questions but saw the wry smile on his face. There would be no answers today.
“Thomas doesn’t know how to sword fight,” Rhae said.
“The blade lives,” Galen said. “If he is willing to trust it, it will guide him.”
“This was your sword,” Thomas said.
“My wife’s actually,” he said, gazing far away. “Her name was Luann and with that blade she could dance like no other. The blade sang in her hands. She was magnificent.”
“Why give it to me?” Thomas said, feeling the burden of the legacy.
Galen smiled warmly. “Because you believe as she does, as Nessa does,” he said, “and by the gods you might have saved me from losing sight of that. Now stand up and let’s get the sword belt strapped on you.”
“It feels weird,” Thomas said. “I’m glad I draw the magnum from the other side.”
“Why else do you think I put the sword here,” Galen said. “Don’t worry, with enough practice this will all become second nature to you. Just like the gun.”
Thomas adjusted his trench coat and found that it easily concealed the newly acquired blade. “Thank you, Galen.”
“No need to thank me,” Galen said. “I should be thanking you.”
Galen picked up the chest and carried it to the truck.
“So,” Rhae said, “what are we going to do while we wait for the weapons to get back?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said. “We ought to lay low and steer clear of trouble.”
“You love birds could try going on a date,” Galen said. “If fact, why not now? I’m about ready to head for the jeweler’s since I’m all set here for today.”
“Let’s meet up here at the end of the day shall we?” Galen said, waving.
“What a little conniving ferret,” Rhae said, kicking aside rubble as Galen’s truck rumbled away.
Thomas fiddled with a button on his trench coat. He kind of liked the idea of spending time with her alone. They haven’t had the time to do that much in forever. Granted they did get that one really nice night. A smile warmed his face at the memory. More time like that would be greatly welcomed.
“What are you smiling about?” she said, pointing a finger in his face.
“You. I was smiling about you,” he said, grasping her hand and kissed it lightly. “I want to spend time with you.”
She yanked her hand away and rubbed it. “We have things to do.”
He threw his hands into the air and then dropped them to his sides. “Like what? Find Peccant? My sister? The brood? Without our weapons?” he said. “We’re sitting ducks, Rhae.”
“So we’re just going to parade around town like a pair of fucktards?” she said, glaring. “Might as well stick neon signs on our heads too, shouting we’re over here.”
“Well I don’t have neon signs,” Thomas said, sliding his hands into his pockets while struggling to keep a straight face, “but if you want we can run naked down Main Street.”
Rhae stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m sure it will get somebody’s attention.”
His grin creeped through and earned him a hard punch in the shoulder. She reached into his coat to hold him tight. Her forehead rested against the side of his neck. Clutching his back, she squeezed him before pulling away.
“I don’t like this,” she said, crossing her arms. “We’re defenseless.”
“Here take the sword for now,” Thomas said. He unbuckled the belt and offered it to her.
“Take it,” he said. “The blade is only a little longer than your knife. You should be able to use it in a pinch. I have my runes. We’re going to be okay.”
Rhae accepted the belt and strapped it on. “It does feel weird,” she said. “I’m used to having it on my leg.”
“When you get your knife back we can practice together.”
“I won’t go easy on you.”
“Okay boyfriend,” she said, playfully wiggling her fingers in the air, “where to?”
“You’re asking me?”
“I planned the last date.”
“That was a date?”
“You got dinner and sex,” she said, teasing him with the promise of a kiss before walking away. “Do believe that counts.”
“Great,” Thomas said. He stared up at the lazy clouds floating by in chill blue sky. “How the hell do I compete with that?”
“You’re not going to cut me any slack are you?” he said, shaking his head at the mute sky.
Thomas turned to join Rhae on the sidewalk as he mulled over his options. Traffic was just heavy enough that teleporting wasn’t exactly practical. The nearest movie theater was a fifteen minute drive away. They were walking and it was only open at night so that’s out. He supposed they could just walk down Mill Street together for a time until he figured things out. There was no harm in that.
Even though still in late summer, the crisp autumn winds whispered across the pavement. Rhae stepped along the curb in stubborn indifference. Her hands gripped her elbows, shielding her from the world. She always fought to stand on her own, and Thomas respected that. Now Thomas realized it was isolating her. No one can live in a vacuum and thrive. It’s true that the most beautiful flowers bloom in adversity but they still need soil, rain, and sun to grow. He didn’t know which of these he was and he guessed it didn’t matter much so long as he became better at it.
“Hold up, Rhae, and put my coat on,” he said.
“I’m fine,” she said, walking backwards.
“I know, but it will hide the sword.”
“Oh, good point.”
Since she was taller than him, it was a little awkward helping her put it on but they managed. He tenderly buttoned it and cinched the belt.
“Was that really necessary?” she said bending down to rub noses.
“Yes,” he said, closing his eyes as he caught a whiff of her summer scent.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
Thomas sighed. He didn’t have a clue but wanted to not sound like a dork. Taking her hands he said, “I’m already where I need to be.”
“On the corner of Mill and Main?” she said. “It’s not exactly a romantic hot spot.”
“I have you with me,” Thomas said with some hesitation, “so it doesn’t matter where I go. As long as you’re by my side it’s the perfect spot.”
“And if we’re in the depths of hell?”
Thomas chuckled. “Okay fine, I promise you if for some reason we are in the depths of hell I will still kiss you,” he said. He hugged her. “I’ll do whatever it takes for us to be okay.”
“Even if I looked like some kind of chopped up Lovecraftian monster?”
He scrunched up his face and groaned. “I don’t know,” he said. “That might be a deal break breaker. I mean who wants to make out with something built like a sucker fish bat named Zh’motskel?”
Rhae stomped on his foot. “Wrong answer,” she said, “and for all you know such a thing exists, it heard you, and now its feelings are hurt. It will hate you for life.”
“Please do not hate me for life,” Thomas said. “I swear I was only yanking her chain. I meant no offense.”
Praying that the majority of demons possessed a sense of humor, and not entirely at his expense, Thomas hurried after Rhae. Perhaps if Zh’motskel, or sucker fish bat demons for that matter, did exist they would at least grant him some mercy. He landed himself into enough trouble on his own. He didn’t need any assistance from whatever cosmic forces that be on this one. Thomas begged the Fates to allow him to salvage today and not completely spoil Rhae’s mood.
Lacing his fingers with hers, he smiled up at her. “Hey I know,” he said, “how about we head up the street? Have some coffee and brunch together?”
“I could go for that,” she said, giving him a shrewd smile.
“But?” Thomas said, raising an eyebrow.
Rhae squished up her cheeks with her hands to make a fish face with her lips. Then she said, “You have to give your girlfriend a kiss first.”
“Ew, no.” Thomas put his hand on her forehead as she leaned in while making sucking sounds. “Weirdo, get away from me.”
At this point Rhae was struggling to hold the face through her laughter. “What’s the matter Thomas,” she said. “Come on big boy give me some sugar.”
“Do you have any idea what you look like?” Thomas said. He made the face back at her. “You look just like this. Now isn’t that the sexiest thing ever?”
“Okay, okay,” Rhae said, grabbing his hands. “You’re right, that’s weird. We never speak of this again.”
“You’re the one that started it,” he said. “I can’t unsee that. I’m scarred for life.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” Rhae said, rolling her eyes with mock drama. “How can I ever make it up to you?”
“You can’t,” Thomas said, feigning anguish. “Not even kisses will make the pain go away.”
“Not even kisses?”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Rhae said, “I guess we better get going then. Don’t want to miss out on brunch.”
“Oh come on, I’m dying here,” Thomas said.
She deliberately walked up to him in slow, measured steps. A small smile tugged his lips as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. His fingers splayed across her back as she combed hers through his hair. Rhae’s lips barely grazed his before her hazy earthly aura enveloped him with warmth. He sighed into her as she deepened the kiss. She followed through with a light peck on each eye brow.
“There,” she said, “all better now.”
He felt as though he’d float away if she hadn’t held his hand the rest of the way. With an untroubled and upbeat pace, they reached the coffee shop long before mid-morning. They missed the morning work run and had gotten there before the lunch time slam. This was good because Thomas hated the lines and thought that the tables were too small for a place like this.
“I’ll have a single latte please,” Rhae said.
“I’ll take a flat white please,” Thomas said. “What are you eating, Rhae?”
“We come to a coffee shop and all you ask for is a regular blonde cup of coffee?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “What are you having to eat?”
Rhae scrunched up her face and shook her head before turning back to the lady at the counter. “I’ll have an egg and sausage muffin sandwich and two glazed donuts.”
“I’ll get the same sandwich,” Thomas said, “but I would really like the pumpkin muffins.”
They take the table nearest them next to the window and sit across from each other. In Thomas’ opinion, the table was barely big enough for one person’s coffee yet the table had two chairs.
“What’s the matter?” said Rhae, over the rim of her cup.
“This place is so cramped,” he said. “They make all places like this now. Even in Galen’s old place you felt like you had space to breathe without knocking something over.”
Rhae chuckled. “That’s a lost art right there.”
She rolled back her head to stretch her neck. “I wonder what that old ferret is up to right now.”
“Well,” Thomas said, “the day is still young so it’s likely he’s with the jeweler’s still.”
“The day is dragging,” Rhae said, resting her chin on her fist.
“You don’t like having me all to yourself?”
“Make no mistake,” she said, “I always have you to myself.”
She gave him the knowing look that all women everywhere seem to have mastered. Thomas wondered if every female was just born with it and figured they were.
“Even if we were in the depths of hell?”
“Rest assured, Thomas,” Rhae said, her face taking on a stern bearing, “if we are ever in the depths of hell I will be the only thing that exists to you.”
Thomas clasped her hand in his. “You’re the only thing that exists to me now.”
They finished their brunch in comfortable, albeit cramped, calm. He didn’t mind that the day ambled along in long slow ticks. The slower the better as far as he was concerned. Who knew what sort of contention tomorrow would bring? Thomas didn’t even want to consider the possible death count to come if they didn’t resolve this soon. So for now, today was a day for rest and dreams. They would have to wake up soon enough to answer the battle call.
“Well,” she said, standing up. “What’s next?”
“What’s next?” Thomas said, looking out the window and read the sign next door. “Candlepin bowling next door. Should be open now.”
“Just like ten pin,” Rhae said, “only different.”
“That’s what you keep telling me,” Thomas said, watching his ball go right into the gutter.
“Too much spin on the ball.”
“They have ten-pin lanes here.”
“The balls for ten-pin are too heavy,” Rhae said.
“You don’t like the fact I can beat you in ten-pin,” Thomas said.
“You don’t like the fact you suck at candlepin,” she said.
“We could play duckpin.”
“Fuck that shit.”
Thomas snorted. “Come on,” he said, “it’s the best of both worlds.”
“Hell no,” she said. “Besides, there’s no lanes for that here.”
“You’re no fun.”
“I’m plenty fun,” she said. “You’re just being a snot maggot.”
“Now wait a minute,” Thomas said. “I can’t be one of those.”
“And why not?”
“Because you’re kissing on me all the time.”
Rhae considered this for a moment. “You’re right. I rescind my insult,” she said. “I’ll have to think of another.”
“Now just a second,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“Think about it,” he said, “any insult you come up for me, don’t you think will also reflect upon you too? I mean, since we’re a packaged deal.”
Rhae raised her eyebrows. “Whoa, I think Thomas just won the game,” she said. “Fair and square.”
She gently rolled her ball, a little larger than a baseball and much heavier, down the lane. It kept itself straight but only punched through the center pins.
“You play better than I do.”
“That’s because you hammer the ball down there,” she said. “This game needs more finesse than that and I need more practice.”
“You need more practice?”
“I didn’t get a strike did I?”
“No,” Thomas said, “I guess a little practice never hurts anyone.”
“Looks like the afternoon senior leagues are coming in.”
“If you want someplace quiet,” Thomas said, changing his shoes, “we can hit Barrows Point. People might be there but they shouldn’t bother us.”
“Twenty minute walk from here isn’t it?”
“About that,” Thomas said. “It’s another thirty minutes or so from Galen’s old place if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“We have three hours left.”
“So we have time.”
Rhae nodded and didn’t argue when Thomas helped her put his trench coat back on. This time he didn’t touch the buttons or belt. They returned the bowling shoes, paid for the lanes, and left the building holding hands. Stopping at the gas station, they picked up two sub sandwiches and hard ciders for their visit at the lake. It was gratifying to walk with her along the street. Even though they didn’t speak, he felt connected with her.
Most of the people at Barrows Point were out on boats or on the docks fishing. Thomas was able to find a small private cluster of trees for the two of them to sit under for their picnic. The fresh breeze off the water warmed their skin as they ate their sandwiches. Serenity enveloped them both as they cracked open the hard cider and lit up the clove cigarillos. He propped himself up against the white birch as Rhae stretched out in the grass with her head in his lap. Cigarillos had been butted out long ago as the sun set in rosy hues. Reluctantly they knew it was time to go. Summoning the will to move, they stood, stretched, and lingered longer than they should.
Finally Thomas wrapped his arms around Rhae in the waning light. “Thank you for today,” he said.
Rhae smiled and kissed him lightly before pulling away. “We should get back,” she said.
Hand in hand, they reached the sidewalk before freezing to the sound of tittering.
Fog ulcerated the ground around them. Forming a circle, it grasped towards the clouds as if to claim the heavens. Thomas sensed the fog shielded them from the rest of the world somehow. Still holding hands, they backed away from the sidewalk onto the grass where it was clear of the fog. The tittering filled the wall of white surrounding them. Rhae unsheathed Astrum Kotero. The sound rang out with a high clear tone, silencing the brood. Warily they stepped out to the edge of the grass. A pair to flank each side of the white woman.
She stood rigid before them with her hands to her sides. Her katana remained sheathed in her black obi. “I have come to parley,” she said.
Rhae scowled and shifted herself in front of Thomas. “Who are you?”
“I am Rue,” she said, “daughter of Peccant.”
Thomas placed his hand on Rhae’s shoulder and nodded. “I am Thomas,” he said, “son of Celeste and nephew of Lynnette.”
Rhae glared at Thomas and sheathed the sword. “I’m Rhae,” she said. “Child of none.”
Rue glanced down to each pair of the brood before walking towards them. The brood took watch at each cardinal point at the perimeter of the fog. Despite what she said, Thomas remained sure that this woman was his twin sister. Her eyes matched his and though her face carried a peculiar lack of emotional quality, she resembled his mother. With ethereal grace, she knelt on both knees into the grass when she reached them. Her hands folded into her lap as she gazed ahead. Rhae exchanged a glance with him before they sat down with her. They waited for Rue to speak in the unmoving air. Moments ticked by without a word.
“Look you came to us,” Rhae said, “we can’t read your mind.”
“Rhae,” Thomas said. He shook his head at her. They didn’t have the weapons to fight here. They needed to keep the peace.
“Forgive me,” Rue said, “I am unsure of myself.”
Thomas wanted to reach out and comfort her, but somehow felt this was not permitted with her. Instead he said, “Take your time.”
Rue closed her eyes and nodded. After taking a deep breath, she gazed directly at Thomas. She said, “I came for that which belongs to us.”
“What belongs to you?” Thomas said, “Something Lisha stole? I can help you.”
“The Spirit Beads. They belong to my father,” she said. “But they have chosen you.”
Thomas pulled back his flannel sleeve. “These?” he said. “Here take them back and give them to Peccant.”
“Thomas,” Rhae said.
“Trust me,” Thomas said. The beads glowed softly against his skin. “Lisha is the one that doesn’t understand.”
“The beads have been purified,” Rue said. “How?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said.
Rue stretched out her hand to pull the beads off him. When her fingers clasped the string, they were both reeled away to another place and time in a vision the beads gave them.
Wind and tree, flame and sea, I beckon thee
mighty gods of peace, death, and life
bear witness and aide as we journey through this strife.
Oh gods of fearsome death, still thy hands
in this place of sacred life,
give peace unto those who enter our lands.
Heaven above and earth below,
land and sea, fire and wind,
protect outside and guard within.
Infants cry for the first time in the world. Their newborn voices bright, clear, and glorious rang their arrival. Fluttering light from white candles filled the cozy room.
“Twins Celeste,” a woman said. “A boy and a girl. Beautiful twins.”
Thomas couldn’t see much of anything well. Everything was too bright and hazy around him. The blanket swaddled him snugly. He felt safe and secure. A face framed in sunny blonde hair loomed over him. Her white forelock tickled his nose. Eyes like his shimmered at him with an exhausted smile which warmed his heart. He tried to call her, to reach out to her, to tell her he knew she was his mother, but his arms stayed firm in the blanket with a meek gurgling coo.
Keening shattered the windows as shadowy forms broke through, bringing in the rain. Thomas wailed, as did the other infant. He couldn’t see her from where he was. There was so much shouting around him. His mother screamed into the keening as he bounded from one pair of hands to another. Shadows fleeted across him and he was moving quickly somewhere.
“Not my babies.”
Thomas wished he never heard the sound of a mother’s soul being torn from her as the wail ripped through the night.
Firm hands lifted him up to show him another pair of eyes matching his. The aging face frame in white chuckled. “Hello Thomas,” she said. “Where’s the other one?”
Carried through the night, away from the fleeting shadows, Rue tried to make sense of what she saw. The keening and tittering grew louder. Crackling flashes of light blinded her as she was clutched tighter against his bare chest. As much as she wanted to she couldn’t stop her wailing. She understood that this was a vision and that she wasn’t really here. She was stuck helpless in the arms of an incubus. Why would the likes of him help a human infant escape the brood? Red light surrounded them as the incubus was pulled to the broken ground. She rolled free from his arms, cushioned by the swaddling she was wrapped in.
“What have we here?”
Gentle hands lifted Rue up from the brush. An old fatherly face peered at her. “Speak now demon while you still can,” he said. “Who is this child?”
“May you rot in hell.”
“A special child then? Very well then,” he said. “I came to forge a special sword. Give me a name for you to serve.”
“Celeste have you decided on the names for your twins yet?”
“Thomas and Niobe.”
“The names mean twin and tears. Why pick tears?”
My name is Niobe… tears…
“Happy tears silly.”
“Then pick a happy name to go with it so you don’t curse the baby.”
“Kaye means joy.”
My name is Niobe Kaye… but tears…
“Do you hear me demon?” the old gentleman said. “Hurry now before my spell completes and crushes you into a blade.”
“Her name is Rue.”
“A name for regret?” he said. He traced a finger along her neck, whispering an invocation. A delicate chain formed around her neck and his wrist. “I do not regret finding you, little one.”
My name is Niobe Kay Rue… tears are for the weak… only the strong survive…
Red light flashed brightly, the incubus screamed in agony, and darkness returned. Kneeling down, the man picked up an ornate broadsword.
“Nor do I regret creating you,” he said. “Goreblighter.”
Gasping, Thomas opened his eyes to find himself back in the circle of fog. Rhae held him tightly. She watched the brood closely for signs of betrayal but they didn’t move. Disoriented, Rue wiped away tears from her stone like face.
“I am Rue. I am strong,” she said, “and Peccant is my father. He wouldn’t do this.”
Thomas stomach churned. “No,” he said, “but our aunt would and she did.”
“Who?” Rue said. Her hand rubbed her forehead as she tried to stand.
“Take it easy,” Rhae said.
“Lynnette,” Thomas said. His head spun with questions and anger rose. “If you didn’t kill her with the brood then Peccant did.”
“Why?” Thomas stumbled to his feet and failed. “Because she hired Lisha to steal the beads.”
“And I’m here to take them,” Lisha said, landing lightly on the grass.
In swift succession, she struck each of the guarding brood with her flying daggers. Her giant bat wings spanned out wide behind her as her lightly barbed tail coiled at the ready. Tiny razor-sharp horns gleamed at the hairline of her forehead. Thomas wondered how he could have missed her concealer device or if she had been using some other form of glamour this entire time. Rhae stood up and drew Astrum Kotero with fluid motion. Her protective stance kept Lisha in front of her with the other two behind her. Thomas grabbed Rue by the waist as he struck out orbital runes around them.
“Stay with me Rue,” Thomas said, working hard to stay behind Rhae.
Lisha charged in with a running leap. Rhae punched upwards with the hilt, connecting with her shoulder. Ducking down to dodge the slashing barbed tail, Rhae rolled to the side as Lisha hit the ground. Three small missiles of light sent clouds of dirt and smoke into the air at Lisha’s feet. She didn’t have time to glare at Thomas as Rhae came at her with the singing Astrum Kotero. The blade cut through the night, leaving tracers of light behind like blinding ribbons. Shrieking, Lisha took wing high above Rhae and showered her with daggers.
“Rhae,” Thomas said, letting go of Rue. The beads on his wrist glowed brighter.
His orbital runes shot out, puncturing Lisha’s wings and dropping her to the ground. Thomas reached Rhae in a few strides. A dagger pierced Rhae’s shoulder and another pierced her calf. Lisha charged at them with her limp, useless wings trailing blood. Instinctively, Thomas grabbed the sword and parried Lisha’s strikes. Rhae dragged herself out of the way as Thomas bobbed and weaved around the whipping tail.
Astrum Kotero absorbed every rune he gave it and breathed life into it. The blade flowed like water, spoke like wind, illuminated like fire, and held like earth. It lengthened and shortened according to his need. Rippling for illusions and hardening for deathly strikes, this blade was his to command. As he cut off her tail, he realized that this sword was the perfect tabula rasa.
Thomas dropped to his knees in shock, staring into Lisha’s striking green eyes. He cursed himself for becoming distracted. He yelled in pain as she twisted her dagger deeper into his shoulder. Astrum Kotero fell from his hand. Trying to yank himself free from her and she pushed down harder, his ears rang.
“Ah, the Spirit Beads,” she said, “I’ll be taking these now.”
She grabs his wrist as he attempted to shove her away. Her grip held firm though as she reached to pluck the beads free with her crippled hand. Rue kicked her away from Thomas and brought her katana down on the crippled hand. Lisha screeched and twisted around with her last dagger. She wide swing missed. Rue pointed her blade tip at Lisha’s chest.
“Peccant is my father but you are my brother,” Rue said. “Take your friend and go.”
Thomas nodded, collected his sword, and crawled to Rhae. Holding her hand, he drew the runes he needed to teleport to Galen’s shop. With a crackling flash of light, they vanished.
Lisha sneered up at Rue as blood spurted from the stump of her wrist. “You think you’re better than me?” she said. “You think your precious father will spare you?”
“He never does,” Rue said, looking at her without seeing her.
Her katana slid into Lisha with a sick sound. The midnight woman slumped over as Rue withdrew her blade. Turning, she walked calmly into the fog and disappeared.
“There they are,” Galen said. “Celeste, help me get them in the truck.”
Thomas lurched on the ground, but couldn’t stand. Nausea threatened to take him. His vision swam and his ears buzzed. Everything hurt so much that he just wanted to close his eyes and quit. He clung to Rhae but couldn’t tell how she was doing. He needed to know she was okay.
“Thomas,” Celeste said. Her hand caressed his forehead.
“Mom,” Thomas said, tears welled up in his eyes. “Rhae.”
“Everything will be okay,” she said.
He felt them tugging his arms off of her. “Rhae.”
“Let her go, Thomas.”
“No, Rhae,” Thomas said.
The tears flowed as he struggled weakly to hold on to her. Darkness claimed him as he was carried to the truck.
Thomas didn’t know where he was, other than he floated in a world of dreams. The only thing of him that existed here was his mind. He just drifted in the obscure miasma of colored darkness. A moment of panic swelled as he wondered if he was dead. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
The miasma thinned graciously, spilling into the tall grassy edge of an abandoned garden. Statues of various materials, shapes, sizes and poses populated the wild overgrown flora. Neither stars nor moon shone overhead but everything glistened with surreal light. Motes drifted in the air, spinning forgotten dreams and enchanted memories. Halting at the fallen stone gate, Thomas discovered a broken cobblestone path.
Following the path, he wove his way around and through the statues. It led to a crumbling stone keep. The wooden doors had long since rotted free. Clinging to every crack, vines grew across the surface. The stone seemed to shimmer with life as he entered. Lit by only the phosphorescence of the stone, the once grand foyer greeted him in silence. Vines crept along every surface as motes clung to the still air. A great balcony with a sweeping staircase took the center stage of the room. He drifted behind the staircase.
The granite relief loomed before Thomas from behind the balcony’s stairway. Vines didn’t grow on this, but grew around it along the wall. The broken wings spanned the wall as its blindfolded neutral face drooped down. Many thick chains wrapped this angelic woman. Flowing hair swirled and swooped down around her long billowing gown. One hand pulled at the chain across its chest as the other swung wide at her side, wielding a slender sword. Blood beaded and dripped from the chains but never struck the marble floor.
Thomas didn’t understand what he was seeing or why he felt drawn to the exquisite craftsmanship of the granite relief. Who or what was showing this to him and why? The blindfold began to crumble into dust before him. Each grain of dust flittered away and dissolved as dread slithered in his chest. It left behind a pair of perfectly closed eyes. The head lifted up slightly towards him and the eyes opened. She stared right at him with eyes that matched his. He gasped and pulled away back into the colored darkness of miasma.
Oscillating, the miasma funneled him swiftly through shifting lights. It vaporized with a jolt a familiar hard packed dirt road. Zooming down the deserted main street, Thomas flew into the white washed church. Inside Thomas found Rue, stripped of her yukata and draped over the altar, with her back exposed and bleeding. Relentlessly Peccant cracked down the barbed cat o’ nine tails on her torn flesh. Each strike sprayed blood onto the walls, floor, and Peccant’s bare chest. Not once did she cry out, but her face betrayed her exhaustion. Finally spent, he tossed the whip to the floor.
“You belong to me and you will do as I command,” Peccant said. His voice reverberated through the church. “Amunetta would never have chosen anyone other than me.”
He grabbed her by the hair and forced her to look at him. Thomas saw the thin, delicate gold chain around her neck. It matched the chain around Peccant’s wrist.
“But she did,” Rue said. Her eyes didn’t focus on Peccant, they focused on Thomas. “She did choose Thomas.”
He kicked Rue off the altar. She tumbled to the floor like a limp, wet doll. Peccant followed Rue’s gaze. He stared for a few panicked moments for Thomas. Then he turned to pick up his robes and put them on.
“Then he will have to give the Spirit Beads back to me,” he said, looking back up at Thomas, “or I will have to kill him.”
Thomas woke up with a gasp. The gentle hands of his mother eased him back down on his pillow. She smoothed his hair with a kind smile.
“Slow down,” she said. “You’re safe. Rhae’s safe. Process what you saw.”
“How?” Thomas studied her face.
“Our family has gifts,” she said. “This one isn’t one that you can control.”
He sighed, sinking into the pillow deeper. “He beats her.”
Thomas raised his wrist to examine the beads, closing his hand into a fist. “He’s the master and like the brood she’s loyal to him,” he said, “but he’s just breaking her.”
“Because of the beads?”
He looks at Celeste, dropping his fist to the sheets. How could he tell her this? Tears welled up in his eyes. He stared at his hand. Thomas decided he wouldn’t tell her yet he knew for sure that Rue was her daughter.
“No Mom. I saw the scars on her back,” he said. “Peccant has been whipping her for a long time.”
“Whipping?” Celeste said, “You have to save her.”
“I don’t think she can leave him.”
“Sure she can. You just take her and go.”
“I saw chains on them both. I saw him make them,” Thomas said, directing his gaze back up at her. “I don’t know what they are but I think it makes her stay.”
“So if you take her, she would just go back?”
“I think so,” Thomas said. “Unless those chains are broken.”
Celeste sat quietly on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall across from them. He waited for her to collect her thoughts on this. She took a deep breath before turning back to him.
“You know before Aunt Lynnie died,” she said, “I looked for you and your sister. I did. I used everything I had to try to find you both and your aunt. Nothing. Not a whisper. Not until that night. Then this house lit up like a beacon for me.”
Thomas pressed his lips together and picked at the sheets, avoiding her gaze.
“Which means someone else out there is hiding my baby girl from me,” she said, tears running down her face. “But they can’t hide her from you, can they?”
“Mom,” Thomas said, taking her hand. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“I know. It’s fine,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can save her, Mom.” Thomas said, “I don’t know how.”
Celeste hugged him tightly. “I don’t know either.”
They sat there together and cried, mourning the loss of family they never got to cherish. When the tears were spent, Celeste kissed his forehead gently before leaving the room. He felt a little guilty to have this small comfort. What about Rue? Did anyone tend to her wounds? Who comforted her, if at all? Given how Peccant just walked away like he had after tearing her flesh open, Thomas doubted it. Cringing inside, he sighed. Compared to her, he lived in the lap of luxury and a sea of emotion. The tears threatened to flow again when Rhae snuggled up against him.
“Hey,” she said, “what’s wrong?”
Thomas wrapped his arms around her, welcoming her summer scent. His hands wandered as he tasted the skin of her neck.
“Whoa, you just return from the dead and this is all you can think about?”
He squeezed her as he tamed himself. “No,” he said, “my mind is too full of other things.”
“Then tell me,” she said. “Tell me all of it.”
Holding her close, he told her of the garden with the statues. How he came to the ruined keep. The chained granite relief that bled and opened its eyes. Finally he told her how he witnessed Rue’s flogging by Peccant’s hand. He even told her about the chains he saw around her neck and his wrist. His tears flowed freely again, but he kept silent. He didn’t want her to think he was weak.
“Thomas,” Rhae said, brushing his cheeks dry with her thumb, “I’ve known you forever. You’ve always had the softest heart. Cry about this now. It’s fine because later I’m killing that bastard.”
He didn’t argue but he didn’t think it was possible. Instead, he allowed himself to be comforted by her while he fell into a disquieted sleep.
The morning greeted them with brisk splendor. Leaves hinted at rich autumn hues while the sky adopted its wintry blue two months early. Though the air was chilly now, the sun promised to warm the day for the clouds were sparse and the breeze was light.
Malaise gnawed at Thomas despite the beauty of the day. None of it felt quite real to him as he sat there at the breakfast table. He picked at his food while Galen and Rhae occasionally exchanged troubled glances. Celeste had gone home in the night. Knowing he wasn’t to blame for her sorrow didn’t make him feel better. His mother had been robbed the fundamental right of motherhood. Years had been stolen. It must have been one thing for her to find him relatively alright, but to know a child is in harm’s way and to be powerless to do a damn thing about it? As much as it bothered him, he knew it couldn’t compare to how his mother felt. What could he do when he couldn’t even get to her without using the trans-dimensional crystal? Without Nessa’s help he didn’t have the means to construct another device. Thomas felt defeated before he began.
“Oh great,” Rhae said, looking out the kitchen window as Ryker walked up to the door, “what’s he doing here?”
Ryker stormed in with an avid gleam in his eyes. The door swung shut behind him absently as he paced for a moment as if lost. Sweat beaded his unusually pale forehead. Deep anguish twisted his face and then he noticed Thomas standing up from the table. Pausing, his distraught hands attempted to compose his disheveled hair and suit.
“I know it was you,” Ryker said.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Thomas said.
“Don’t lie to me,” Ryker said, slamming his hand on the table.
Galen hit the floor in surprise and Rhae jumped to her feet. Pools of coffee spread across the table and onto the wood below.
Thomas held up his hands, palms forward. “Apparently you know something that we don’t,” he said. “So why don’t you have a cup of coffee and talk with us.”
“Right. Fine.” Ryker sat down. His face now was dark as he hunched over the table.
Rhae and Galen hurried to clean up the mess while Thomas poured everyone fresh cups of coffee.
Once everyone was seated Thomas said, “Okay. Start from the beginning.”
“That’s my line kid,” Ryker said and then sighed. “It’s Lisha. She’s… She snuck out of the hospital last night. And I found her. She was all chopped up. Blood everywhere. The thing is… she’s… she’s not…”
“Not human?” Thomas said.
“You knew?” Ryker said. He scrubbed his face with one hand. “It’s more than that. I don’t know what the hell she is.”
“Half human,” Galen said, “half succubus. From the sounds of it, she was the offspring of the higher order.”
Trembling, Ryker gripped his mug to steady his hands. “So you knew?” he said. “And you just let me…let me…”
“We only found out last night,” Rhae said. “She tried to kill us.”
“Why the hell would she do that?” Ryker said, slamming his fist down on the table.
“I don’t know,” Rhae said, leaning way up on the table. “Why did she try to poison Thomas with an Aphrodisiac a few days ago?”
“She didn’t use poison,” Ryker said, standing up to tower over her. “She said she was just going to ask Thomas about the Spirit Beads.”
“She mixed Ruta Cremesin with Inlecebra Debilitas,” Rhae said. “So what the fuck do you call that?”
Stunned, Ryker collapsed back into his chair. Confusion clouded his eyes. “She used crimson regret with paralyzing seduction? That makes no sense. Where did she even get it?”
“What?” Thomas said. “What makes no sense and what is it?”
“Ruta Cremesin is so rare few know where it comes from,” Galen said. “Fewer still can use it without paying its terrible price.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Thomas said. “What’s it for?”
Galen shrugged while Ryker shook his head. “Food of the gods. That sort of thing.”
“What does it really do?” Thomas said, tapping his thumb on the table.
Ryker stared at his coffee. “It seems to make people high,” he said, “but if Lisha really did use it then you’re the only person I know of that’s lived.”
“How many people?”
“Two since I’ve started working.”
“And how long has that been?”
“Thirty years ago kid and both of them were together so it was ruled as a cult suicide,” Ryker said, sipping the coffee. “So that shit doesn’t come around here very often.”
“You knew them, didn’t you?”
Ryker gave Thomas a sharp look. “Yes I did. He was my brother and a pal of his,” he said. “That’s why I know what it was and why it wasn’t a suicide.”
“And why you know he got high?”
He looked down at his coffee and nodded. “I know I should have stopped him, but he was my brother. And we don’t have laws for that supernatural shit.”
“Well,” Thomas said, tracing his thumb along the rim off his mug, “Earth wasn’t ready then and it isn’t ready now. It needs to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“Well I’m getting too damn old for it,” Ryker said. He finished his coffee with a swift swig and slammed the mug down. “To hell with this world and all its pretending.”
Ryker stood up from his chair with wobbly feet. Fatigue and sorrow aged his face. Absently, he stroked his mustache as though he were trying to grasp at wayward thoughts. None of the others dared to speak or move. Finally with a deep breath Ryker smoothed his jacket, nodded to them, and shuffled to the door.
Pausing with his hand on the doorknob he said to Thomas, “I really did love her you know. I hope you realize that.”
Before Thomas could say a word, Ryker rushed out to his car. Thomas stood up and watched him drive away. He wished he could tell Ryker that he did understand. The world comes to an end when something comes between you and your everything.
“So Rue killed her?” Rhae said, wrapping her arms around him from behind. “One less bad guy to worry about.”
“When have you known Rue or Peccant to chop anyone up?”
“Are you saying he’s lying?”
“Not lying,” said Thomas, leaning his arm on the window frame. “I cut her tail off. Rue cut her hand off. So define chopping up. At what point did he say she was dead?”
“So why the fuck come here?”
“Because he was looking for something,” Thomas said. He ruffled his hair with a sigh. “I don’t know, Rhae. She could be dead. She could be alive. Would you tell anyone if you don’t know who to trust even when you need help?”
“That’s why he came,” she said, “to get help?”
“No one comes to this house for nothing,” Galen said, clearing the table.
This was true. Thomas couldn’t recall a time of anyone coming to pay just a simple visit to his home, even as a child. Everyone who came had a purpose and a reason for being there. No one ever came just to chat, hang out, check in, or play. The household of Lynnette Whitaker was always one of business. Would this shroud of decorum and formality be his legacy and follow him too, or could he change that? Thomas wanted to be more than just business to the people around him. Yes, he wanted to help them but he wanted to be a part of them. He wanted to connect with and belong to the world he had been born in. He promised himself that from now on he would reach out and welcome warmth, friends, and family into his home. He just needed to figure out how to do that.
“Well,” Galen said, touching up his hair lightly with his fingers, “I think I will pay a visit over to the jeweler’s and see how things are going.”
“Right,” Rhae said, sliding her hands away from Thomas to cross her arms. “What’s her name?”
“What?” Galen said, his cheeks flushing, “I am going to see the jeweler.”
Thomas chuckled. “So who’s the girl next door or across the street or whatever?”
Galen groaned. “Oh leave me alone,” he said. “I’m just a dirty old man with no chance in hell, but I can dream can’t I?”
They both watched with amusement as Galen flounced out of the door and into his truck. He spun the tires a bit as he backed out of the driveway before peeling off down the road.
“Think we pissed him off?” Rhae said.
“I think we might have embarrassed him a little.”
“There’s nothing wrong with girl watching.”
“I think he has a thing for the jeweler actually,” Thomas said, turning away from the window.
“Okay, you have never seen them together so how do you know?” Rhae said. “More of this new psychic bullshit of yours?”
“Nope,” he said as he got himself another cup of coffee. “It’s just he’s made a point of not letting us meet the guy or know his name. But he was willing to pay the price for the work himself. He goes to see him in person to strike the deal. When he can’t make the payment anymore, it’s a personal crisis.”
“So? He cares about people,” she said, sitting down at the table.
Thomas sat down next to her with a wry smile. “Sometimes it’s more important to pay attention to what isn’t being said than what is.”
“What the fuck’s that suppose to mean?”
“Often times people will go to a lot of effort to avoid things as a way of hiding it,” Thomas said. “Kind of like a mother bird avoiding her nest while pretending to have a broken wing. Like Ryker focusing on Lisha being chopped up but not saying whether she’s alive or dead. And Galen pretending not to pine for someone unattainable. That’s what you need to pay attention to. It’s not just what they’re talking about or what they’re doing, but what they’re avoiding.”
“So you’re a bullshit whisperer now? You just get your nerd mojo on and call people out on that shit from a mile away?” She got up, grinned, and put her hand on her chest. “I am the bullshit whisperer. I can smell your lies from here,” she said. “So don’t you be bullshitting me now.”
“No that’s not how it works,” he said, propping his chin up with one hand while leaning the other on the table. “That’s not even remotely close to how it works.”
Rhae raised an eyebrow at him and chuckled. “Then why don’t you show me how it works, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
“Well,” he said, pausing to take a slow sip from his coffee to hide his smile. “You need to stick an etheric cable up your ass.”
“Bullshit,” she said, slapping his arm.
“And see? You did it,” he said. “I just showed you how it’s done.”
“Fine,” she said, sitting back down next to him. “You win. Bullshit whisperer.”
“I don’t whisper to bullshit,” Thomas said. “That’s kind of gross.”
“Only kind of gross?” Rhae said, squinting at him. “I hope you know I’m just messing with you.”
He kissed her forehead. “Always,” he said. “The day you stop messing with me is the day you die.”
“Damn right and don’t you forget it,” she said. “So what are we going to do with ourselves while we wait for our gear to get back?”
Thomas raised both eyebrows as he examined the bottom of his empty cup. “A pretty girl like you all alone with a guy like me,” he said, “and you’re going to ask a question like that?”
“Why yes, yes I am,” she said, leaning in closer to him.
“I know what we could do,” he said. “We could build a trebuchet out here and launch milk jugs across the field. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Rhae sat back with a scowl. “Only if I get to launch you with it too.”
“What, you don’t like that idea?”
“Why the fuck would I want to do that?”
“Actually it makes for really good target practice,” Thomas said, while rubbing his face, “but we need our guns for that.”
“Doesn’t look like any of that matters right now,” said Rhae.
They both watched a sleek black van pull into the driveway. Four men wearing matching overalls got out. Two of them assisted a man wearing dark shades, a sleek black suit, and a delicate red tie out of the van. This man relied heavily on his cane as he approached the kitchen door.
“Who the hell is that?
“My guess it’s the appraisers and maybe the debt collector for probate,” Thomas said.
Four men, two from the front and two from the side sliding door, wearing matching denim overalls and leather work boots got out of the van. Two of these men assisted another man, dressed in a stark black suit, out of the van. He wore a black wool overcoat with a white silk scarf draping his broad shoulders and leaned heavily upon his walking cane despite appearing young. Even as he leaned on the cane, he towered over the four men. A pair of wire rimmed glasses with dark lens hid his eyes. His raven black hair was pulled tightly back at the nape of his neck. Discomfort paled his otherwise olive skin.
Thomas opened the door to greet them in silence as they came. Reaching the porch, the man in black stopped merely to pull out an envelope from the pocket of his overcoat to offer. Thomas accepted it and waved them in.
“Please sit down,” Thomas said. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Tea if you have it,” the man in black said, sitting down in the chair nearest the door.
His voice carried with a rich rolling baritone. It felt old somehow. Not old as in dying, but timeless. Even after he was done speaking his voice lingered with patient weight. It wasn’t what Thomas expected, but he wasn’t sure what exactly it was he expected as he watched this man fold his long slender fingers together on the table.
None of the men in overalls sat. One of them said, “We’re just here to take inventory and to collect whatever might be of value to auction off for probate.”
The man in black raised two fingers to silence the man. “Read the letter Thomas.”
Thomas sat down at the table with the envelope as Rhae got out the teapot. The envelope was made of true vellum, which was a rare thing here on Earth today. He looked up at the man in mild surprise. The man’s face maintained a similar stillness to Rue’s lack of emotion. Thomas wondered what was with people lately before turning the envelope over to examine its wax seal.
The design was a filigree Oroboros surrounding the Tree of Life with the words secreta custos scripted along the inside curve of the snake’s body. It too felt old and timeless. He gently lifted the seal without breaking it. Something inside him didn’t want to damage the wax design. The letter inside was also made of true vellum. Thomas carefully set the envelope on the table to unfold the letter. He found a plain slip of paper with a list various vases, paintings, and books clipped to the bottom of the letter.
The message was penned in ink with flowing, elegant cursive script. What type of pen was used to write this letter? Thomas imagined a quill dipped in an ink bottle. Who has the time and patience for that anymore? It was probably some old pretentious man with a stick up his butt that had nothing else better to do with his time. He caught the wry twitch of a smile from the man in black from the corner of his eye. Unsettled by this, Thomas tamed his thoughts and focused on reading the letter.
My Dearest Thomas Whitaker,
It is with my deepest regret that I am unable to greet you personally in less formal and tragic of times. As you are aware your mother, Celeste Whitaker, was appointed as the executor of the estate during the probate process. At her request, I am managing the final financial matters that remain upon the estate at the time of Lynnette Whitaker’s passing. However, I have always been tasked with the financial management and book-keeping of this business.
Galen Ordell has disclosed to me your budding interests and desires. I wish for you to consider me an ally and business partner. You do have the financial means to achieve what you are considering. The investments are there in Lynnette’s office sealed away from prying eyes behind runes. Unlock only the mundane items to clear her debt. I have enclosed a list of the appropriate items. Unlock nothing more than what is on this list for the safety of the appraisers. There are many secrets kept in that room not meant for the unawakened eye. This will clear Lynnette’s debt, secure the estate for you, and provide you with a modest nest egg. Nothing too generous mind you for we do not wish to raise suspicion.
Now I have a gift for you, Seeker of Light, since you have grown to be such an honest young man. Look for where the Hall of Sorrows hangs. Behind its wall you will find the answer to a troubling question. It is quite likely you will find many more secrets than you care to find in there, so be careful with how deep you look. Lynnette always hid more than she should. This was her undoing. Your aunt truly was a lovely woman once upon a time. I share this with you in the hopes that you do not end up taking the same dark path. Do not get lost in the rabbit hole she left behind.
Thomas folded the letter back up and slid it into the envelope, but left the list out. He studied the man at the table carefully who hadn’t moved the entire time. Rhae was still busy preparing tea the old-fashioned way. She knew just by looking at him that a tea bag just wasn’t going to cut it with him. Hopefully rolled oolong tea would be good enough. The man nodded slightly as if he read Thomas’ thoughts. Again this unsettled Thomas and it set him to drumming his fingers on the table for a bit.
“Mr. Kai,” Thomas said, as Rhae served the tea, “you waited this long to come because of my mother, didn’t you?”
“Please, call me Daemon,” he said and raised his cup to smell the tea slowly before sipping from it. He set the cup down gently without sound. “To answer your question, yes I did wait this long due to your mother watching you since your aunt’s passing. How do I explain to her that I worked for Lynnette?”
“Because of me?”
“Yes, because of you,” he said. He waved a graceful hand in the air. “A Keeper of Secrets though I may be, it does not give me infinite knowledge of everything.”
“But my mother expects you to,” Thomas said. “You didn’t know I was her son?”
“The older I get, the more I realize I do not know,” he said. Daemon bridged his fingers under his chin. “I certainly do not know all the shadows your aunt lived and died with. Unlike you, I was never brave enough to seek or ask the things I should.”
“So why are you here now?”
“Right now your mother is busy with other matters,” he said. “Take advantage of the distraction and make ourselves acquainted. By the time her attention returns my familiarity will not appear inappropriate, especially considering my gifts.”
“Oh, so you can probe minds then?”
Daemon laughed with a cough behind his kerchief. “No, no, nothing like that dear boy. Your thoughts at times are very loud and bright. Hard to miss,” he said. “I wrote the letter with a fountain pen if you must know. I do have better things to do with my time. A quill would take forever.”
Thomas chuckled. He took a swig of the tea, scrunching up his face. The soapy quality of it always got to him. Why did tea have to be like this? Even black coffee tasted better.
“The first run of the leaves are not as good,” Daemon said. “Tea is always better after the leaves have been steeped at least three times. Save the leaves for another cup. It will be better.”
“Oh, I didn’t know,” Rhae said. “All this time I’ve been throwing out the leaves.”
“Depends on the breed, but if using Chinese breeds like these leaves, it’s best to steep multiple times,” he said. “If you wish to make great tea, take the time to study tea culture from around the world. You will learn many things from types of tea, brewing, to serving.”
Rhae frowned. “I’m guessing then I used the wrong cups.”
Daemon suppressed a smile. “Normally one does not use coffee cups to serve Chinese tea,” he said. “However, we make the best of what we can with what we have. Your hospitality is unparalleled and a welcome change to how business is conducted here.”
“Speaking of business,” Thomas said and pointed at the four men in overalls. “I think these guys are still waiting to do their jobs.”
“Ah yes,” Daemon said. “Shall we get on with that then?”
Thomas led the way to the office door in the kitchen. He paused there for a moment. This door hadn’t been opened since the funeral. The room has been left cold, dark, and undisturbed this entire time. Technically this was his office now, but he felt like an invader.
“Take your time Thomas,” Daemon said. “Lynnette once felt the same many years ago when she inherited the estate from her great-grandfather, Avner.”
He stared at the door. “I don’t feel like this place will ever belong to me.”
“Even as we speak, the Whitaker Estate is shifting to adjust to your will and desire,” Daemon said. “In time this room will speak to you.”
Doubtful, Thomas swung the door open. A hush hung over the room as he clicked on the light. He stepped into the office towards the desk, feeling the weight of its emptiness. Lynnette used to spend all her time in here. What she did with her time in here exactly Thomas didn’t know. He wasn’t allowed in here unless she called for him. When he did come in, she was always at the desk.
Usually she would have a book laid out in front of her and always she would be in a foul mood. The book was absent from the desk today. This meant she had been closing up for the night when she had been attacked. The bookcases to the left of the desk were still standing and neatly lined up in their rows. Each small table with their vases remained in the corners of the room as they’ve always been. Not a single painting was crooked. Even the paisley drapes hanging behind the desk were still pulled tightly shut.
Nothing in the office had been disturbed. This meant Peccant knew that she didn’t have the Spirit Beads when she was killed. Not one unawakened soul would ever suspect murder here, but something troubled him about it. Why go to so much trouble so quickly? If Peccant had been willing to wait, his prized beads would have been brought here.
“What’s wrong?” Rhae said.
“I’m missing something important,” Thomas said, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Whatever that it is that’s avoided here.”
Daemon remained quiet as he leaned on his walking cane. He tried to hide his discomfort as Thomas continued to study the room. Rhae gave Thomas the stink eye as she pulled out and offered the desk chair to Daemon before leaving to the kitchen. Amused, Daemon rested himself in the chair. Using the cane he propped his hands up under his chin as he watched Thomas wander the room.
It didn’t take much for Thomas to break Lynnette’s runic seals with a touch. It saddened him to know it was because of her death. The seals she used in here incorporated the will of the estate and it was he that inherited that will. Each item he unlocked was carried out silently and loaded into the van. None of it had any emotional attachment for him nor did any of it have any potential use to him. Thomas appreciated Daemon’s insight and sensitivity. How many times had Daemon assisted the Whitaker family with this process?
“I have watched your family many lifetimes,” Daemon said. He rubbed his chest with a pained expression. “Some might say I have gotten too involved at times.”
“Do we share blood then?” Thomas said.
Daemon sighed, nodded, and walked over to Thomas. “Perhaps a little,” he said, “but that was lifetimes ago. Long before your family found refuge here on Earth.”
The sound of the drapes being opened behind them causes them to turn. One of the men in overalls was standing there looking at a painting of a stone keep in shock. Daemon dismissed all the men with a wave. They nodded to him walked to the door leading to the kitchen.
“Now why would anyone put drapes over a blank wall?” one of them said, shuffling away. “Drapes are for windows.”
Thomas went over to the painting as the men left the office. This was the first time he had seen it. The drapes have always been pulled tightly shut. In the foreground of the painting was a stone gate leading to a cobblestone path that winded its way through a lush stone garden. The background featured a grand stone keep with vines climbing its walls. Times have changed, but he was there. In his dream, he had been there.
“What is this place?”
“It was the birthplace of your family and mine,” Daemon said, stepping up to join him, “before the great cataclysm that tore the world apart. Almost destroyed the fabric of the cosmos too.”
“Were you there?” Thomas said. “What happened?”
“The Tree of Life birthed a child,” he said. “A sapling which sent ripples through space and time. It altered much of how things operate in the cosmos.”
Daemon leaned himself back against the desk and tapped the cane lightly on the floor.
“That tore this world apart?”
“No,” Daemon said. “As you know the Tree of Life is accompanied by the Cosmic Phoenix.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, “and it’s the task of the Avatar to rebirth the Phoenix.”
“Are you aware of how that is done?”
“No,” said Thomas, shaking his head.
Daemon clasped his hands sadly around the head of his cane. “A Phoenix Avatar collects and houses within them as many souls as they can gather until they reach their pure potential. At that time they make their journey to the Tree of Life to bear witness to the passing and to immolate the ashes with their own life.”
“So they become one? The Avatar dies?”
“Yes and no,” Daemon said. “The Avatar is reborn as the Phoenix and leaves the mortal plane. If the psyche of the Avatar is strong enough, they retain their consciousness otherwise whichever psyche is the strongest becomes the dominate personality.”
“What does this have to do with the cataclysm?”
“In the beginning there was only one Avatar at any one time,” Daemon said. “One family, one bloodline, and one awakened soul but all that changed with the sapling. At first the changes went unnoticed but as the sapling grew the number of awakenings increased.”
“Yes but only one can rebirth the Phoenix. Nature’s balance demands this,” Daemon said, rubbing his knuckles with his thumb. “The weaker ones were consumed by the stronger ones and so it went until only two remained. Neither yielded to the other.”
“So it was a standoff between them?” Thomas said, leaning on the desk next to him.
“Yes.” Daemon stood up and tapped at the garden in the painting. “They say that in the frenzy of their battle, they ensnared and brought down the Phoenix to this garden. They were determined to prove their dominance by claiming the Phoenix as their own.”
“But they both claimed the Phoenix?”
“Indeed,” said Daemon, “and in doing that neither of them could claim dominance and neither of them could break free. It tore the Phoenix apart. It destroyed our world. It gave birth to millions of worlds. Changed the cosmos forever.”
“Ah, no one taught you that?” Daemon said, turning around. “There is a Phoenix of Light and that tends the Tree of Life. That is the one you seem to know. There is also a Phoenix of Dark that swims the Sea of Chaos. Together they hold the balance of the universe.”
“So it just obliterated our families’ home world?” Thomas said.
“It ruptured it,” Daemon said. He tapped the painting. “The heart of the world is lost somewhere between space and time. It is ever changing and shifting now. The rest is fragmented and dying. It is tethered together by a weakening soul that cannot heal.”
“Terran,” Daemon said as he sat back down in the desk chair. “Some day soon that world and its dark sister will pass.”
“And there’s nothing we can do about it?”
“Nothing,” Daemon said. He sighed. “Nothing other than mass exodus. Which has begun. Why else do you think Lynnette returned to Earth?”
Thomas studied the painting. It made sense. Lynnette had no other reason to come back to Earth if she was hiding him from his mother. “But there are so many other worlds to choose from, go to, and hide in. Why choose this one?”
“Out of all the worlds out there to hide in,” Daemon said, “why did she choose the dying one to begin with?”
“There are only so many worlds you can call home?”
Sadness draped over him as he thought about the home he grew up in. How much time did Terran have left? Daemon said Terran had a dark sister world he had never seen. That bothered him somehow. Assuming he survived this mess with Peccant, maybe he could visit before it was too late.
“Earth reminds me in many ways of the old Terran,” Daemon said, standing up. “If you are willing to forgive its restrictions.”
Thomas smiled. “Earth has a lot of those, doesn’t it?”
“That it does,” he said as he headed for the office door.
“Hey Daemon,” Thomas said, still staring at the painting, “did I pass your test?”
“My test?” Daemon said, pausing at the door.
“Yea, I don’t know what you’re testing me for but,” Thomas said, looking over his shoulder, “you did try to just pass yourself off as a letter.”
Daemon suppressed a smile and nodded his head. “You must have made Lynnette very angry much of the time.”
Thomas stared at the floor. “She called me useless every day.”
“Far from it Thomas,” Daemon said. “Quite the opposite actually.”
He looked back at Daemon to find him grinning broadly at him. “Then why did she get so angry at me all the time?”
“Answer me this Thomas,” Daemon said, his face becoming serious, “of all the people you have met in all the worlds you have been to what type of people get angry with questions?”
“People who don’t want you to pay attention to what they are avoiding,” Thomas said. He stood up to examine the painting closer.
“Remember what I said about the rabbit hole,” Daemon said.
Turning around Thomas said, “Did you love her? Lynnette, I mean.”
“I did once,” he said while opening the door, “but she didn’t choose me.”
Thomas watched him leave before turning back to the painting. Who did his aunt choose over Daemon? Considering how cold and bitter she was while he was growing up, he assumed it hadn’t ended well. He combed his fingers through his hair. Sighing, he left the office to get a cup of coffee.
“Did you figure it out?” Rhae said, pouring him a cup of coffee.
“No,” he said and slumped down in a chair. “I haven’t figured out whatever it is Lynnette is hiding from me. I just know it’s tied to this whole mess.”
“That Daemon guy didn’t tell you?” she said, handing him his coffee.
“No but he told me the story of origins of the twin Phoenix which is the birthing of the worlds as we know it,” he said. He tapped his thumb on the table. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with Lynnette, Peccant, the brood, or the beads.”
Rhae sat across from him. “Wait there are twin Phoenix?”
“Yea, one for Order and one for Chaos,” Thomas said. “And apparently on occasion now there can be more than one Avatar awakened.”
“Hold on,” said Rhae, “so each Phoenix has its own Avatar?”
Thomas stared at Rhae. “I don’t know. Daemon didn’t specify but you know,” he said, “no one has ever said how often a Phoenix needs to be reborn either.”
“You’re right, nobody ever talks about that in the teachings.”
“Daemon said nature demands that only one Avatar can rebirth a Phoenix so when there were multiples of them, the stronger ones were consuming the weaker ones.”
“Were they eating each other like the brood eat the souls of people?”
“I don’t know. Kind of makes you think so, doesn’t it?” Thomas said. “Anyway, when only two remained they tried to rebirth the Phoenix at the same and a cataclysm occurred. It ripped the Phoenix apart.”
“So have either of these twins been rebirthed since then?”
“No idea. He just said that they now keep the balance between Order and Chaos,” Thomas said.
“And that’s all he told you?” Rhae said, “He just came to take some stuff to sell and told you a really old bedtime story?”
“That and once upon a time he loved her but she chose someone else apparently.”
“That old hag fell in love?”
Thomas shrugged. “He didn’t say who.”
“And you didn’t ask?”
“It didn’t seem important?”
“What do you mean it didn’t seem important?” Rhae said, poking his arm. “The hag of all hags fell in love. The world needs to know who the hell it was that defrosted that heart.”
“Or who broke it.”
“Daemon said she wasn’t always like that,” Thomas said, “and if you remember even Peccant said she was a lovely woman.”
They sat in silence as they sipped their coffee, thinking about this.
“How weird would it be,” Rhae said, “if it was Peccant that she had fallen in love with and he was the one that broke her heart?”
Thomas set his mug down and stared at her, shocked. “No, what if… what if it’s more tragic than that?”
“What is more tragic than a broken heart?”
“Which would hurt you more?” Thomas said, “Being rejected or… being loved in equal measure but denied a life with that person?”
“You know the answer to that.”
Thomas faced the office door. “What were you willing to do to obtain the life you wanted?”
He took a deep breath, scrubbed his face with his hands, walked to the door, and went down the rabbit hole.
Thomas stood in the center of the office and scanned the room. Daemon’s letter said to look for where the Hall of Sorrows hangs. His heart grew heavy as he noted how empty the room felt with the loss of the vases and paintings. Well, save the one painting. The appraisers didn’t see the painting behind the drapes and Daemon didn’t instruct him to remove the concealing runes from it. They didn’t see the painting at all. They only saw a blank wall. Thomas walked over to the painting and carefully lifted it from its mountings.
Behind the painting was just a metal plate with a complex fading rune. It had no handles or dials. Thomas gently placed the painting on the desk so he could touch the rune. Flickering to his touch, it faded completely away. He pressed the metal plate in and it slid downward to reveal a small cubby hole filled with leather-bound tomes, stacks of letters, thick books, scrolls, and a thimble sized vial of crimson liquid.
Absently, Thomas pocketed the vial as he sat down with the stack of letters first. All of them had been penned on vellum, none of them addressed or signed, apparently read multiple times, and were very old. Some had to be handled with great care for Thomas feared they would crumble in his hands. In the beginning the letters were very passionate, declaring undying devotion and eternal loyalty. There were even long letters describing acts that made Thomas blush.
He thought sexting was a new thing of the times, but it would seem technology has only made it faster and with photos. Who would have thought his aunt had at one time been so wild and risqué? The thought made him chuckle. She would have killed him in a heart beat to find him here reading all this. The letters however started shifting in tone. Her suitor, whomever he was, demanded proof of her devotion. In the last letter, he rebukes her for failing to properly dispatch the Whitaker family. She couldn’t possibly love him enough if she wasn’t able to reap all their souls. The Avatar and one other survived so therefore she would be punished.
Inside with this letter were newspaper clippings reporting a tragic Christmas fire at the home of Applegate Orchards that claimed the lives of the entire family. Avner Whitaker, his son, Ethan, and wife, Blair, their three-year-old daughter, Celeste, his daughter, Mina, and her twin five-year-old sons, Xavier and Weiss, were all killed in that fire. Lynnette Whitaker inherited the Whitaker Estate while a friend of the family, Quassia Newton, inherited what was left of the orchard. His mother lived at the orchard now, presumably with this Quassia. Thomas set the stack of letters down next to the painting. He could wonder all day who this other survivor was, but he sensed that wasn’t the heart of this matter.
Thomas pulled out the scrolls next. Each scroll was crafted in a different material and penned in a some other language he had never seen. He did recognize his aunt’s scrawling notes all over them. Based on her notes, she was researching Ruta Cremesin for her own purposes. Used in its raw form the plant was a powerful stimulant with incredible healing properties. However the sap was addictive and if care wasn’t taken in its use, it became toxic to the blood.
All over the scrolls she had calculations for distillation and titration of this sap. She was in the process of figuring out how to remove the toxin from the sap, but from what Thomas could tell it required a ridiculous amount of the plant just to obtain one ounce of liquid. She had a bigger goal in mind, but the notes didn’t say what. At least it explains why Rue smelled the way she did when they first met. Was Lynnette healing her or has Rue been doing that herself? Where did the plant even come from?
He set the scrolls down neatly next to the letters and studied the vines growing on the keep in the painting. Wouldn’t it make sense for a plant this odd and rare to grow in a place lost between space and time? Thomas scrubbed his face with his hands and ruffled his hair to clear his head. He couldn’t get lost in the rabbit hole, asking the wrong questions. He sensed that all this with the Ruta Cremesin wasn’t the heart of the matter either.
Turning back to the cubby hole, he examined what was left. Two leather-bound tomes and three thick books waited for him. The first thick book was a book of poetry written by an author not from this world. There was a loving note scripted inside the cover by Daemon wishing her the best in life and a happy birthday. So Daemon had loved her like he said. Clearly a part of her did too, but she aged and he hadn’t. Surely she felt some regret in the choices she made. Thomas pressed his lips together and placed the book down next to the scrolls. Lynnette’s entire life appeared to be one of reaching and regret.
Thomas reached for a thick leather-bound tome. He had no idea what the pages were made of, but they had an icky oily sensation to them on his fingers. Page after page contained one dark spell after the next. Bindings, summoning, pacts, rituals, sacrifices, and creations of doppelgängers diagramed in intricate detail. The blocky utilitarian designs lacked finesse and in some rare cases Thomas could see they were chaotic and broken. If Lynnette tried to use those, disaster could occur. Where the hell did she get this book?
Two pages in this book were ear marked, well-worn, and heavily annotated. The first page was the one on doppelgängers. He didn’t understand the language the notes were written in, but comparing with the penmanship of the last letter written he could see it was the same hand.
The other ear marked page was on creating fate chains between two people. Lynnette’s handwriting was all over this page, but he thought of the shared vision he had with Rue and the chains he saw. This bond created a psychic link between the pair depending on the type of bond. There were two types. One was the mutual bond created between a pair in agreement and could be broken at any time at will by either of the pair. The other type was created between a master and the bonded. It was best done upon those with weak souls or the very young because those with strong wills could break the bond. Otherwise the only way to break the master’s bond was by the will of the master or by the death.
Thomas noticed that there were angry notes of irritation from his aunt on the page about the spell being wrong somehow. She kept referring to the useless boy being empty of power and how he continued to defy her commands. He slumped into the desk chair as he read this. This was why she got angry when he asked questions or when she sent him out on those stupid jobs. He technically did serve her the way she needed and always got the job done, but it was never exactly the way she wanted. Based on these notes, the reason for that was because of his will pulling at the chains. She was afraid he would break them.
Setting the leather-bound book down on the other side of the painting he thought about the implications. Why did she need to bind him? Why did Peccant bind Rue for that matter? Maybe they needed the psychic link, but for what? Lynnette complained about his lack of power in her notes. She repeatedly called him useless his entire life. She wasn’t talking about his skills or his mind, was she? She wanted his power and that’s why she needed the link. Whatever it was she needed it for, apparently he didn’t have enough.
He took out another of the thick books. This one also had a note inside the cover penned by Daemon. Once again the book wasn’t authored by anyone from Earth but flipping through it Thomas found that it chronicled the great cataclysm Daemon had already told him about. He was going to put it down until a page opened up with a picture of a sacrificial scene. It seemed that some individuals were either able to awaken their Avatar blood or strengthen it by sacrificing those who were gifted with the bloodline as well. A chill ran through him as he picked up the news clippings again. Was his aunt trying to awaken her Avatar blood by sacrificing her family? He set the news clippings back down and placed the book on top of the other.
Sliding his hands in his pockets, he stared at the desk. Did she truly love this man that much? Had she become that blind to the path she had chosen? He looked up at the door leading to the kitchen and thought of Rhae. How far would he be willing to go for her? Would he be like Lynnette and be willing to throw away the world, his soul, and everything because of his love for this one person? Was that really what happened here? Why was being the Avatar so important? Why was this man goading her into it?
There were easier, safer, and quicker ways for her to obtain power so there’s something else missing in this. Thomas stared at the ceiling. Besides, what would this man possibly gain from her obtaining power? He chided himself for asking the wrong question. She needed the power for the end game. It was also no secret between them it was needed that power to prove herself worthy of him. Two things were never discussed. Why she needed to prove it and why she kept failing.
Thomas grabbed the second leather-bound tome. The pages were made of true vellum and penned in ink. All of it was written in a language he didn’t understand but the pages were written with the same handwriting as the letters. There were hand drawn images of twisted barren landscapes, foreboding forests, dank swamps, and deep caverns. Thomas lingered at an image of an inky underground lake with brood swimming in it. Was this a place that the artist had been to or had envisioned? Another page depicted twisted people appearing to have been crossed with the brood. The last page displayed an image of the Tree of Life with the Phoenix of Life nesting in the branches but tangled in the roots, like a prison, was the Phoenix of Dark. Why would the caretaker of Chaos be imprisoned? Thomas sighed as he closed the book. This book was given to Lynnette to tell her the truth. Her suitor wanted her to know what really happened after the cataclysm. Could it be possible he was trying to tell her who he really was and what his fate would someday be?
Everything pointed to Peccant now and there was only one thick book left. Placing the leather-bound book on top of the other one, Thomas scratched his head. Did he really want to look at the final book? Shoving his hands in his pockets he walked back to the cubby hole and stared at the lonely book. It seemed like a modern blank journal from Earth with those faux leather covers. Compared to everything else found in here, it was pretty new. Apprehensively, Thomas took the book out but didn’t open it yet. He sat back down in the desk chair. A quick flip through the book showed him that most of the pages were blank. Those that were written in had his aunt’s handwriting on them. Nothing was dated so Thomas just started from the beginning.
The plan was perfect and he promised that with his help I would have both twins. He lied to me. Those beasts of his only brought me Thomas. I know I did everything right this time. It was perfect. Now I can’t find her. I can’t find Niobe Kaye. Not a trace or inkling anywhere. It’s not even like the time when Celeste and Xavier survived and went missing. I could sense them but not find them. I can’t even sense her. And judging by the depths of Celeste’s despair it can only mean his beasts killed her. How could he do this to me after all I have done for him? I have worked so hard for him. He’ll blame me for this, you watch. I’ll be the one punished. Damn him. He knows I needed the blood of both twins for the final stage of awakening. How else does he expect me to join him for all time and eternity? The blood of one alone is not enough. At least not this powerless, useless child as he is right now. Now I’m stuck with fate bonding with the child and hoping I can absorb his awakening when and if the time comes.
Useless, useless, useless. The boy is useless. Mostly. Takes him forever to cast a spell. Asks too many damn questions. The questions are endless. Can’t survive a day without a damn question. Can’t work an herb to save his life. There isn’t a single green thumb on the boy anywhere. And I’ll be damned if that boy doesn’t twist my directions somehow. Yet, he is the first person I trust with the most important jobs. I know beyond doubt if I give him medicine and tell him it must be delivered, or someone must get somewhere safely, or something must be brought to me, come hell or high water that boy makes sure that somehow that it gets done. He’s smart. He figures it out. He makes a way. Doesn’t matter to him if it means breaking my rules or not following my directions. All that matters to him is getting the job done. He is both completely useless and indispensable to me all at once. Should have killed him before I cared. Now I can’t.
I’m old, ugly, and weak now. He doesn’t even come for me now. Not a word or gesture of kindness. This is what I deserve. I don’t have the strength in me anymore to keep reaching and he has abandoned me. I suppose at this point the only thing keeping me alive is the boy. I could just break the chain, die where I sit, and free him but I have other plans. I’m stealing Peccant’s power. Those beads of his will be mine and he will come for me one last time. Either I take him, or he takes me. Doesn’t matter, I don’t care. In the end we’re together forever. For all time and eternity.
Tears dripped onto the last page he read as he closed the book. Thomas wiped his face with his sleeve. Collecting himself with a deep breath, he started picking up the books and returning them to the cubby hole. Lynnette murdered her family for the sole purpose of gaining power to become an Avatar so she could be with Peccant for all time and eternity. She also kidnapped him with the intent of sacrificing him for that same purpose. When she couldn’t, she fate bonded him instead to leech his power from him. In the end, Peccant rejected her and probably because he fate bonded Rue. So this entire mess he was dealing with right now was because his aunt had gone on a suicide mission that went all wrong. Thomas hung the painting back in its place and shoved his hands back in his pockets.
Thomas thought about the beads, the vision of Peccant’s awakening, and wondered how long would it be until another catastrophe like that one occurred again. He assumed it couldn’t be much longer. If Peccant really was the Dark Phoenix Avatar then killing him wasn’t a good option either. Killing him, if he succeeded, meant that someone else somewhere out there anywhere in the cosmos potentially would awaken. In the moment of that awakening, a catastrophe would occur. There’s no guarantee that person would have someone like Amunetta to help them. What then? From what he saw Peccant became the spiritual equivalent of a black hole. Do they just keep sucking in spiritual matter until reaching full potential and then seek out the Dark Phoenix for rebirth only to start the cycle over? This Avatar business really didn’t sound like much of a party and maybe the beads gave Peccant the only chance he had at any kind of life at all.
The problem was, Peccant still had Rue. Would this man be willing to break her fate bonds in exchange for the Spirit Beads? Judging on how much agony he saw Peccant suffer in the vision, Thomas was willing to make a gamble.
“I’m back,” Galen said, “with the weapons.”
“That was fast,” Thomas said and pulled the drapes tightly closed.
He walked to the door leading the kitchen and paused. Looking over the room, it no longer felt heavy to him. Somehow it was brighter and welcomed him. A peaceful feeling settled upon him. He wondered if the estate really did have a soul of its own as he shut off the office light and shut the door behind him. All he had left to do was make amends with Peccant by fixing the mess Lynnette made. Hopefully he could bring Rue home in the process.
Galen met him at the table and handed him the pouch that contained the trans-dimensional crystal pieces. “My jeweler friend says a little goes a long way. So he keep one shard for himself and used the other for your weapons,” Galen said. “He looks forward to doing business with you again.”
Thomas unpacked the weapons and examined each one. None of the gems had been powdered the way Thomas had been thinking. They all had been cut, polished, and set with finite care. Some were so tiny a high-powered microscope had to have been used to perform the work.
“There are still more gems in supply available so if this isn’t up to your liking my friend said he will rework it until it is.”
He rubbed a hand over the inlaid magnum. Runes orbited the gun smoothly with bluish light. “This will do,” Thomas said and waved the runes away. “Your friend is a true artist.”
“Okay,” Galen said and beamed. “Now for the trans-dimensional crystal. He said you have been very lucky to have had the few mishaps you’ve had so far.”
“Yes, seems it can be a lot worse than what we’ve seen,” Galen said. “Anyhow, each world has its own resonance, flux, or something you have to compensate for. He designed a dial for that here and it links up with the return on the other side here.”
He watched Galen point to each side of his magnum. “It locks in place after you set it too,” Thomas said. “Very nice. I see he did the same for the shotgun and combat knife as well.”
“He said if you ever decide that you want the same for your sword he would be happy to see what he could do.”
“Not right now,” Thomas said as he strapped the holster on. It felt good to have it back. “We have bigger fish to fry at the moment.”
“So you figured it out?” Rhae said. “The thing you were missing?”
“Yea, long story short,” Thomas said, holstering the gun, “Lynnette stole the Spirit Beads to spend all time and eternity with Peccant.”
“This whole mess is because she wanted to commit suicide?” Rhae said.
“I told you it’s a long story,” Thomas said, scratching his head.
“Love makes you do some crazy things,” Galen said.
“The problem is he got to her before she got the beads. So now her soul is exactly where she wants it, but he doesn’t have the beads,” said Thomas. “Without them he’s a walking time bomb. At any moment he could start sucking in all life around him.”
“The beads seal that away?” Rhae said.
“Yes that’s all they were ever meant to do,” Thomas said. “They are the will of Amunetta, his sister. She wants to protect him and those they loved.”
“That must be why she helps you,” Galen said. “You both want the same things. Don’t lose sight of that.”
“Do you even know where to find Peccant?” Rhae said, strapping her combat knife to her thigh.
“The dream I had last night remember?” Thomas said, “They were in the church on Prasiyawa.”
“That awful place again?”
Thomas shrugged. “I didn’t pick it.”
“Well they had better be there,” Rhae said, pointing her finger at him sharply. “I don’t want to be on some wild goose chase in that gods forsaken hell hole for nothing.”
“What’s so bad about Prasiyawa?” Galen said.
Thomas rolled his eyes and just pulled on his trench coat.
“Dirt and bugs and more dirt,” said Rhae, “and they don’t have running water. And it’s really, really hot. Did I mention they have a lot of dirt?”
“I believe you did,” Galen said, raising his eyebrows.
“And bugs,” she said. “The little tiny creepy kind you can’t see that bite you in the worst places.”
“It’s not that bad,” Thomas said, slipping his shades on.
“It is too,” she said and strapped on the holster for the shotgun to her back. “It’s not my fault I just taste better than you.”
Thomas pressed his lips together, shoved his hands in his pockets, and ducked his head down. Silence ought to keep him alive in this moment. She caught his movement. Galen palmed his face. He was dead.
“What?” she said.
He might as well bury himself at this point. Still staring at the ground he said, “I can’t blame the bugs for having good taste.”
“I hate you.”
“I love you too.”
Rhae came around the table in a few strides and gave him a tight hug. He hugged her back and lingered for a moment. Her summer scent was comforting after being in the musty office all day.
“We need to make sure we have enough bullets and whatever else we need before we go,” she said and messed up his hair with both her hands.
Thomas nodded and they all headed for the basement. With their preparations complete they turned to say goodbye to Galen. He gave them each a mini first-aid kit for their belts.
“It’s not much but it will do in a pinch,” he said, “and better than nothing. Better to have and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
“Hope for the best, plan for the worst.”
“Always,” Galen said. “Now don’t die on me.”
“Don’t worry,” Rhae said. “He’s got me with him.”
“We port to the old shop and then to Prasiyawa,” said Thomas. “We’ll come back the same way.”
“I’ll be watching,” Galen said. “Now remember getting Rue home for Celeste is great and all but it should not come at the cost of your lives. You hear me?”
Thomas nodded and opened a portal leading to Galen’s old shop. Rhae and Thomas stepped through. As the portal closed behind them, they found themselves staring down the barrel of Ryker’s gun. Both Thomas and Rhae raised their hands cautiously and stepped back from him slowly. Ryker’s skin had taken a sick, waxy pale sheen in the moonlight. His wild wide eyes darted from shadow to shadow. Shallow hard breaths puffed small clouds from his mouth. Blood stained the collar of his shirt while it crusted around the two tiny wounds on his neck.
“I thought I’d find you two here eventually if I waited here long enough,” he said.
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.
“I have sand in places I don’t even want to think about,” Rhae said.
Thomas shifted himself over in an attempt to put her between him and the boulder to shield her better from the storm. He didn’t dare open his eyes in this mess. At least it felt like the storm quelled to some extent. He could hear her complaining so that was something. He hoped it ended soon. His muscles ached and his mouth was dry. They needed water and a safe place to rest. The sun rose higher as the winds finally died down. Rhae scowled at him as he helped her to her feet.
“We need to find water and a place to hide in,” he said. “Then we can rest.”
Although the sun beat down on them with vicious heat, the clouds churned in the sky. Their angry shapes pitched festering shadows on the ground. No birds flew in the horizon like they had during their last visit. No signs of small animals either. Rhae didn’t mention any bugs. Thomas wondered if it was because of the sand storm or if it was because of something else. He tried not to worry about this too much while keeping an eye out for plant life, particularly cacti, and potential caves. All the while they continued moving toward the town. About an hour from their arrival point, Thomas found a small cave with a generous patch of cacti that reminded him of prickly pears from Earth. They found a small spring inside the cave too. He wished now that his dimensional pocket was better equipped for survival. Raw cactus and water was better than dehydration and starvation. Giving her his trench coat to use as a blanket, he let her sleep first. He didn’t think he would sleep any way.
Gazing at Rhae while she slept, he stroked her arm gently and noticed that the beads had turned almost a dark red. Wondering why the beads kept changing color, Thomas watched the sun set in agitated hues of scarlet, rust, and copper. Lethargy crept upon him by inches as his mind worried with his thoughts. What was he going to do when he did finally find Peccant? Lynnette told him to do what he did best which was break the rules and blow stuff up. Blowing stuff up he understood. Breaking the rules though was a bit more complex when he wasn’t sure what the rules were in the first place. What was the one thing that pissed his aunt off the most? When he didn’t do what she expected him to do. What did she expect him to do here exactly?
He hadn’t realized he had drifted off to sleep until the tittering permeated the cave from outside. Thick fog banked the desert horizon and dark shadows swam through it. The fuzzy moon glowed in the thick clouds. Rhae placed her hand on his shoulder and thumbed to the back of the cave. Quietly, Thomas sealed the cave entrance with a filigree rune screen and followed her to the back recess. They could still see the entrance but at least it gave them some cover. She draped his coat over his shoulders to let him know it was his turn for sleep but he doubted that sleep with come now. Resting his head in her lap, he kept his eyes on the screen. The beads tingled on his wrist and gently warmth spread over his body. Worries and fear drifted away and sleep returned once more.
“Thomas,” Rhae said, nudging him awake.
He searched the shadows and saw that just outside the fading filigree screen the brood sniffing around at the ground. They sought their location and when the runes drop, the cave entrance would be exposed. Thomas slipped his trench coat on and readied his gun. He crept to the entrance of the cave and counted the brood stalking outside. There were at least six of them in the low moon light and there could be more beyond. Rhae took a position across from him and nodded.
Dropping the runes, he took two shots at the brood nearest to the entrance. The other four came charging at the cave as expected, their keening filling the night air. More would surely come to the call. Thomas exited the cave, keeping the wall to his back. Rhae strafed the other side of the entrance and blasted two more of the brood. He picked off two more before Rhae shot down the last. Reloading their guns, they heard tittering in the distance. They needed to move and keep moving.
Staying off the road but keeping it in sight, Thomas and Rhae made their way for town. It had taken them half the day in good conditions last time they were here to get there. The conditions were far from good and it felt like even the stray blades of grass were out to kill them. The unnatural fog remained as the sun rose, creating a sticky sauna as the rocks and hard packed dirt heated up.
Keening ripped through the fog as another pack of brood found them and charged in. Thomas barely had time to shoot the first one leaping towards his head before Rhae shot another lunging at his calf. Keeping their backs to each other they watched the fog. Two bolted in from both Thomas’ flanks as a third pounced Rhae from head on. Rhae dropped down to her knees as she fired at her assailant. Thomas managed to shoot one but was tackled by the other. He blocked its dripping fangs with his magnum before Rhae shot it off him. Thomas almost didn’t see the sixth one behind her in time to kill it. Not bothering to stand up first, he just shot it while still laying on his side. Rhae helped him to his feet. They listened for more as they reloaded their guns before moving on.
Heat from the afternoon sun converted the fog to steam. The hot damp glued their muggy clothes to their skin. They reached the town and found it lifeless. Not a single person walked the streets or peered from the windows. Darkness cloaked the buildings and streets here despite the sun. Fog ebbed, flowed, banked, and crested like the tide here in the town. Shadows loomed long and hard, shifting with the rippling fog. Silence weighed the air down with expectation.
Thomas knew there was a good chance he would find Peccant at the church. He also knew that the church wasn’t on the main street of town. With this fog, they could end up walking in circles if they weren’t careful. They followed the main street until something on the porch of the saloon caught Thomas’ eye.
The doors were partially open and something dark fluttered listlessly at the floor. On closer inspection from the bottom step of the porch, Thomas saw that it was the tattered hem of a pant leg. A shoe propped the door. Rhae stepped softly up the steps to nudge the door wider. The grim set of his jaw prompted him to follow. He saw that the body at the door belonged to the bar keep. His flesh had become translucent with his face frozen into an eternal scream. Looking up into the saloon he saw that the fates of the patrons inside had been the same. They were about to leave until quiet movement and weeping in the far back corner caught their attention.
“Hello?” Thomas said.
Silence answered them. Holding his gun ready, Thomas made his way to the back. He carefully stepped over the bodies. Walking around overturned chairs and tables, he reached the small stage and saw to the right a hunched over, hooded robed figure. Hesitantly he approached the figure.
“Hello?” Thomas said, “Can we help you?”
The figure twisted around with a start, tipping over a few jars at its feet. By standing up, the figure revealed the body of what had been a saloon girl. With delicate precision, her face had been removed. The eyes and tongue had been carved out too. Her bodice was ripped aside with her chest cavity cracked wide open. Dripping from its long twisted hand, her heart filled its palm. It gripped a sharp blade in its other hand. Through the hood Thomas saw a despondent face equally gnarled as its hands but the eyes were clearly human.
“You can’t help me,” it said. Its papery hollow voice rasped with pain. “I can’t help you.”
Before Thomas could question the figure, keening filled the air.
“Run,” the figure said, collecting its jars, and scurried away.
Four of the brood broke in through the windows as two more plodded in through the doors. Rhae spun around and began firing. Her first shot went wide but her second shot got its mark. Thomas took down the one she missed and turned down on his knee for the two at the door. She swung her shotgun over his head to get the remaining two coming in from the windows. They fired in sync to take them down. The keening hadn’t stopped so they quickly reloaded and ran out to the street. Keeping close to the buildings, they went down a side lane, hoping to find the church quickly. A herd of six brood barreled down at them from the street.
“The fuckwits are coming from behind too,” Rhae said.
Thomas looked over his shoulder to see six more coming in at high speed. Charging up and readying his runes, he nodded to Rhae. “Don’t die.”
He shot three and heard two shotgun rounds go off before the brood were upon them. Thomas fired off his runes. It didn’t kill them but they flew back, wounded. Quickly they picked them off with their guns, reloaded and moved on. There was no time to rest for the keening didn’t relent.
As they came to an intersection, a rage filled shriek cut through the keening. On the street to the left towered a wretched, contorted beast like creature. The mangled monster reminded Thomas of Lynnette’s current form. Twelve brood surrounded it. Twelve more crouched at the ready on the street to their left. A brief glance back told him another twelve loped up behind.
“Fucking maggots,” Rhae said.
“Don’t look. Just run.”
The giant beast screamed, blowing fetid breath and spittle on them.
“I fucking looked.”
“Run damn it.”
The tittering and keening crowded out his thoughts as he willed his legs to keep going. Every muscle burned with a fire. Fuck this noise. Fuck this shit. Fuck all this running. They needed a better plan. Thomas saw some slanted metal cellar doors at the side of a house, grabbed Rhae, and ran for them. He prayed they opened. Able to wrench one of them open, they stumbled down the steps and slammed the door shut just barely in time.
“It’s not going to buy is much time,” he said as they went down the rest of the way.
The brood pounded and clawed at the doors as shrieks, keening, and tittering wove in the air. Judging by the tremors of the house above them, the giant beast was attacking the building.
“Worst plan ever.”
“We can fight better from cover than out in the open.”
“We can’t fight them if we’re buried alive Thomas.”
Dust and dirt fell from the cellar ceiling as the house above them groaned and shook. Thomas pointed to a large sturdy bin filled with tubers.
“Let’s dump it and push it to the corner there,” he said. “We’ll hide in it.”
They tipped it on its side and pushed it to the corner as they heard the tearing metal of the doors. Thomas just pushed Rhae into the bin as the house collapsed into the cellar with a bellowing groan. Somehow he survived being buried by the beams but he was pinned under them. Their weight made it hard to breathe. He could barely see through the spaces between them. The giant beast fished Rhae out of the bin with its wicked talons. It glared at the piles of beams with fiery red eyes and sniffed around. Shrieking, it lumbered away with the brood in tow. Thomas listened to the tittering and keening fading with them. Stuck there under the beams, rage and panic swelled and then blossomed into resolve.
They had Rhae. They had his everything. Now he understood his aunt and why she was willing to do anything to get it back.
Exhaustion threatened to consume Thomas as he tried to shift the weight of the beams off of him. One wrong move and the whole mess would crush him. It was the worst game of pick up sticks he ever played. Dirt, debris, and cobwebs sprinkled down in his face as he inched another beam aside. Finally a wider swath of light broke through, gifting him with fresher air.
Thomas took a moment to rest and catch his breath. He was still stuck but he had one arm free and could breathe easier now. Hope urging him on, he pushed the next beam over with creaking protests. The steady shuffling of approaching feet tightened his chest as his heart began to race. He eased the beam back as he lay in wait for his fate. Scraping and thudding, the weight upon him grew lighter as someone or something dug through the wreckage. A gasp betrayed him as debris tumbled downward around him. Silence followed as Thomas tried to control his breathing. The mangled face from the saloon peered into the crevice.
“You do live,” it said. “I can help.”
Night had fallen by the time Thomas was freed from the wreckage. The fog had chilled again and returned to its eerie bluish silver light.
“Thank you,” he said while checking himself for injuries. Just scrapes and a few deep bruises. Dusting himself off he knew if he could keep himself going he’d be fine, but if he slowed down, everything would catch up with him.
“Run away,” its said. “Run while you still live.”
The figure shook its head, hunched down, and shuffled up the wreckage. It slipped into the fog and vanished. Thomas assumed it must have come to harvest his organs like it had been doing in the saloon. He had no idea why it was harvesting the organs, but he appreciated its compassion. Prepping layers of runes against his skin, he sent out additional runes out to orbit around him. Giving them a slow steady charge to keep them ready without draining himself, he set out to search for the church. Peccant had to be there and with him Thomas hoped to find Rhae and Rue.
Pacing himself at a steady clip, Thomas eventually concluded he needed to find the brood to find Peccant. He remembered how the last time they fought the brood poured from his robes like brackish waters. Find them at their thickest and he’d find Peccant. Drawing his magnum, he listened for the tittering and increased the speed of his stride. At first he feared he was going in circles. The tittering remained faint and it was difficult to determine which direction it was coming from. As the moon peaked in the sky, the tittering finally grew louder and got easier to pinpoint. Coming around the street corner he found a large pack of thirty lingering down the way.
He shot all six shots without stopping, discovering the silencing runes didn’t work. The rest of the herd barreled toward him. Crouching, he fired off the orbital runes into the pack to bring down ten more as he reloaded. Half the pack left and they were half way there. He emptied his gun again before they were upon him. Switching to his sword, he unleashed the first layer of charged runes on his skin. He finished off the remaining stunned seven with the sword. Reloading his gun, he reset the orbital runes. Two layers of runes remained on his skin. He increased the their charge and hurried down the street.
Keening filled the air as another pack of brood dropped down from the rooftops to the right of him. He emptied the gun, ran for the right turn in the street, and shot off four runic arrows at the remainders of the pack. Ducking down behind some crates, he reloaded his gun. Their keening changes things a bit, but he just needed to pay attention and go where they came from. If they come from more than one direction then he’ll just pick one and pray it’s the right one. His body protested but he forced himself back into motion. The muscles loosened up again as he jogged down through the fog.
Coming to another intersection, he paused to listen for any sign of more brood. Silence taunted him. Searching through the thick silvery mist, he noticed the vague silhouette of a large building in the distance that rose above the others. Its shape suggested a spire and hoping that this meant it was the church, Thomas took the nearest street heading in that direction. Which turned out to be a dead end with a small cluster of houses. Cursing his luck, Thomas trudged around the house. Better to keep going straight than go back he thought as he went through the dried up and wasted flower beds.
Two crouching hooded figures busied themselves with their work behind the next house. They placed organs into clay jars meticulously until Thomas approached. Twisting to face him, they froze with their long daggers clutched in their hands. Remembering the one that helped him, Thomas kept his gun pointed down and skirted around the entire back yard. He didn’t want to see what was left of that family anyway. The front lawn of the house greeted another street but it ran parallel to his target silhouette. The fleeing robed figures alerted him to incoming trouble and Thomas ran to a nearby porch for cover.
A pack of ten brood rounded the corner of the street, opposite where the figures fled. Thomas counted twenty total as they saw him. He took the leading six down with his gun, following up with ten runic arrows from his orbital array. Ducking back into the doorway from the porch, he drew his sword and struck down the remaining four as they tried to come through. Now he knew where he was headed. Reloading, he noted how little of his ammo remained. Cursing his poor planning, he reset the orbital array and left the house to retrace the pack’s path.
Their path brought him close enough for him to confirm that the silhouette belonged to the church. It also brought him close enough to see that the giant brood creature guarded the entrance with twenty brood at its flanks. Hiding in a building was a bad idea before and Thomas didn’t think fighting this head on would pan out well either. He scanned the surrounding houses, taking in their layout and proximity. Gazing back at the church, he knew he couldn’t just storm in. He needed to draw them out and hoped that he could use these buildings for cover.
Charging the orbital runes, he crept through the fog to get closer to them for better aim. He fired them all off at once, aiming for the entire cluster of smaller brood at the giant’s feet. The runic arrows exploded on impact, taking down twelve of them. Shrieking in pain from its wounded flank, the giant creature loped towards him with the remaining eight right with it. With his gun, Thomas shot down six more of the smaller brood and broke into a run between the houses. Grateful that he had prepped the speed loaders, he reloaded his gun on the fly with panicked fingers. The giant creature met him at the end of the alley with a screech. It was too big to fit down it as it tried to reach for him. Twisting to break for it back the way he came, Thomas found the remaining two brood sprinting down.
Thomas shot two rounds, stopping them cold and spun around to take a shot for the giant’s eye. It didn’t hit his intended mark but it hurt. The scream ripped into the night as Thomas bolted back through the alley. He heard the rooftops collapsing as the giant beast pursued him from above. Crashing down upon his escape, it swiped out with its wicked talons. Thomas fell to the ground, feeling the near miss. He brought up his gun and aimed at the other eye. Its tortured keening tore through him. The glancing shot wasn’t a killing blow but it blinded him. If Thomas could keep to its left flank, he had a better chance of survival. The beast would have none of it and began tearing at the houses nearest to it in an attempt to reach him. Desperate Thomas shot again at its eye and along with a final shot to the chest. A guttural wail came from it has thrashed upon the house. Debris exploded up from its blows and rained down as the beast finally dropped into the remains of the house.
Slumping to his knees, Thomas caught his breath. He survived. By all rights he shouldn’t have but he did. Calming himself, he reloaded his gun. After this he had only six prepped speed loaders left. If he had thought to pack a box of rounds with him he could have prepped the speed loaders again before going in, but he didn’t do that. Who loads themselves up like a walking armory anyway? Thomas decided that if was going to do this for a living then he would be from now on. It’s better to have the bullet and not need it than to need the bullet and not have it.
This was the beast that took Rhae which should mean she should be in that church. He took a deep breath to clear his head. The sun should be rising soon and with it the heat. Not liking the idea of fighting in the muggy fog, Thomas added another layer of runes to his skin and reset the orbital array. Before his resolve could waver, he was crossing the street.
Silvery fog shrouded the church ahead of him with its whitewashed walls and carpenter goth trimmings. Dim light diffused from the stained glass windows. The tall spire spiked into the night sky as the wide steps sloped down to meet the street. Ordinarily this building would be a welcoming place but tonight held a leering air about it as if it intended to lure in the unsuspecting.
It rankled him that Rhae was inside with Peccant, knowing what he had done to Rue. He just didn’t know how he was going to get them out. His aunt told him to break the rules and blow things up. Here he was and he still had no idea what the rules were other than not to die. Him dying wouldn’t solve anything nor would him just standing there. Ruffling his hair, he guessed the only thing he could do was go in with the first plan he had but switch it up for Rhae. Beyond that he was flying blind. Nothing really new there he thought as he took himself up the stairs and let himself through the door.
Rhae’s gun rested on the altar straight ahead. Off to the right of that, against a pillar was Rhae with her hands tied above her head. She appeared unconscious but otherwise unharmed. Thomas took a few quick strides towards her but stopped when Peccant stepped out from behind the left pillar, his sword already drawn. Rue joined him at his flank. Her katana was held down at her side.
“Return to me the Will of Amunetta,” Peccant said.
“Return to me my friend, Rhae, and my sister, Rue, first,” Thomas said.
Mild surprise on Peccant’s face quickly converted to a dark glare.
Rue quietly positioned herself between Thomas and Peccant. “I will not leave my father.”
“You heard the child,” Peccant said. “No trade. Hand over the beads.”
Thomas ears buzzed as he gazed at Rhae with an aching heart. Rue’s bonds may be too strong right now. That’s fine. He’ll focus on protecting Rhae.
“No,” he said. “You forgot Rhae. Let her go first.”
“Oh, you mean this poor girl over there?” Peccant said. “Such a pretty little thing. I can understand your fondest of her. Would be a shame if something happened to her.”
Thomas pointed his gun at Peccant’s face as his heart raced. “Don’t you dare.”
“Oh my how bold we have become,” Peccant said. “How wrong Lynnette was about you.”
Refusing to take the bait, Thomas stared him down over the barrel. Peccant’s look of expectation became one of disappointment as he nodded slightly. Thomas’ eyes widened a bit as he heard Peccant repeat the often said line from his childhood.
“You know the rules, now do as you’re told Thomas,” he said.
Thomas understood. He was done being told what to do. Time and again he had proven to his aunt he had the answers. The beads warmed against his skin and the energy from them pulsed through his blood. He had the answers now too if he could buy himself the time to find them. Seeing the revelation on his face, Peccant moved in to strike.
Thomas fired his gun three times yet he missed with every shot. Peccant didn’t appear to dodge. He didn’t appear to be moving very fast at all. Yet his backhand swing connected unexpectedly to Thomas’ face which sent him sprawling to the floor. Thomas scrambled to his feet and ran for cover in the back behind the pews. How did that man move so fast? He hurled himself around the back pillar hoping to come around for another round of shots only to discover Rue waiting for him.
Her blade swung in at him and desperately he blasted her back with his first set of stunning runes. She skidded back towards the altar, hitting the floor. Twisting around Thomas sought for Peccant with barely enough time to duck his blade. Fuck this shit. Thomas dove behind the pews and holstered his gun. Fuck this noise. He unsheathed the Astrum Rotero and scripted filigree runes across the blade. Fuck this guy. Peccant kicked the pew Thomas was hiding behind across the aisle. Oh just fuck all this shit.
The runes and the beads almost burned on his skin as Thomas brought his blade up in time to parry. Kicking Peccant in the knee, he got him to back off enough so he could stand up but he came right back at him. Peccant jabbed, swung, and chopped at him relentlessly. Thomas focused everything on the movement of that sword. Nothing else mattered. Pews splintered under his blade any time Thomas tried to gain reprieve. At one point Rue did try to cut into him but this time he shot out two layers of his stunning runes in the hopes of getting Peccant as well. Rue was thrown back into the pillar Rhae was tied to. Her head struck hard and she slumped down with her eyes rolling back.
Lunging in with his sword, Peccant sneered. Thomas parried but the sword sliced into his coat. Remembering his fight with Lisha, he called upon the spirit of Luann to guide his hand. Sliding his finger across the blade, the filigree runes took on a rosier glow to match the beads. Tracers followed the blade with his counter-strike, cutting a thin line across Peccant’s cheek as the man pulled back. He would not do as he was told. He would not die this night. Tonight he would dance with the blade and blow shit up. Stepping boldly in, he planted his free hand on Peccant’s chest and launched the final layer of charged runes on his skin. Thomas felt more than heard the thunderous crack as Peccant flew back into the pews. He didn’t wait for Peccant to stand back up so he was charging into the debris.
Peccant parried as he stood up in his tattered robes. A grim smile played his face as sweat beaded his skin. The tracers multiplied into ribbons of singing light. Adrenaline coursed through Thomas as a white cold flame of rage pushed him forward. He used his aunt, abused his sister, and now he toyed with his friend and him. He wouldn’t let him win and continue to spread his misery to others like this. The beads flashed a deep reddish purple as if to answer his thoughts. Peccant’s movements felt slower and heavier to him now. Feeling triumphant, Thomas increased his attacks with vigor.
Falling back, Peccant held his hand up to his forehead in a gesture Thomas didn’t recognize but sensed it meant trouble. He attempted a lunge to interrupt whatever his opponent had planned but it was too late. The ground shook and broke apart, throwing Thomas back. Stumbling, he struggled to stay on his feet as Peccant roared with laughter. More hand movements and shards of rock flew at him at high speeds. Dropping to the ground, Thomas heard their high whistling before they crashed into the wall behind him. He glanced up to locate Peccant to find the man moving toward the altar for cover. The man was still too slow. Sheathing the sword and drawing the gun, Thomas shot three times. This time he saw the bullets reaching him but they were crushed in his aura. That’s what happened. So that’s how it was.
Thomas twisted around to hide behind a pillar as Peccant dipped behind the altar. He reloaded his gun and considered the runes he needed to penetrate that aura. A few light taps at the right points and charging up the correct corresponding grids would give the bullets an aether coating. He had better chances with the sword than the gun but with the chasm Peccant created he had to figure out how to get across first. For now this would have to do. Closing his eyes, he layered his skin with more runes and reset the orbital array. He charged them all with everything he had. This needed to end.
“I’m waiting boy.”
“Well let’s dance then.”
Thomas turned around the pillar from the left, he used one layer of runes to shield himself from the stone arrows Peccant fired at him. He counter fired with his orbital runes while running towards the chasm, but Peccant ducked back behind the altar. He came back up to fire another volley of stone missiles at Thomas. He expended another layer of runes to defend himself. Reaching the edge of the chasm, he shot his gun as fast as the trigger would let him. Every shot hit Peccant but no where like he wanted it to: two in the left shoulder, one in the right shoulder, two in the right thigh, and one in the left calf. He ducked behind the next pillar to reload. It’s not like he really wanted to kill Peccant but he was sure he had taken better aim than that.
Wind swirled around inside the church walls. It was slow at first but picked up speed. The building groaned as the air currents howled. Pressed against the pillar from the force, Thomas peered around to see Peccant clutching his head with one hand in pain. The walls shook and the ceiling trembled as the pillar across the chasm to the left of the altar came crashing down. Peccant stumbled forward with unsteady steps. Rue struggled to reach him to lend him aid. The life forces being sucked in from outside healed his wounds but the pain he felt overwhelmed him.
“You did this,” he said. “This is your fault.” He launched his sword like a spear at Rhae.
“No,” Thomas said.
Forever lived and died in this moment. Everything moved too fast and too slow all at once. Thomas fired off all his remaining layered runes at the sword to deflect it away from Rhae. Rue swung around to shield Rhae. The blade sank into Rhae. With Rue in the way, he couldn’t tell if it hit her in the chest or the shoulder. With shock and horror, his soul bottomed out as Peccant collapsed to the floor. Fury welled up into him. He was sick of all this bullshit. Thomas pulled out the Ruta Special from the dimensional pocket and loaded it into his gun as Rue twisted toward him. Ripping off the dark reddish purple beads from his wrist, he tossed them up in the air. He was done with all of this shit. As the largest bead lined up with Rue’s fate chains on her neck, he fired his gun.
Dropping to his knees, fighting the pull of the keening winds, he saw the bullet shatter the string. Thomas focused on the bullet as it drove the largest bead into the fate chains, untangling them as Rue tried to dodge it. Rue caught the bead as it buzzed past but the bullet dissolved the chain. Thomas hoped it was the right one as he felt his soul pull away. Some of the beads were caught up in the torrent of the wind. A few struck Rhae and dissolved. Most disintegrated in the air while the rest were crushed by the force.
None of that mattered to Thomas as he watched Rue yank Peccant’s sword from Rhae’s body. Rue trudged to Peccant, dragging his blade and dropped to her knees. She opened her hand near his neck to offer the lone large bead to him. It floated to the hollow of his neck, forming a new collar of pearls. A great wave of light pulsed from the beads. The wind died down and the fog lifted. The pearls reverted to midnight black.
Thomas ran across the fallen pillar to reach Rhae. Rue stood and collected her sword. She cut Rhae down from her bonds and eased her to the floor. Thomas cradled Rhae into his arms. Rue’s face remained emotionless as she returned to Peccant’s still body. Supporting Peccant under the shoulder, she raised her hand to summon a portal but paused.
“Thank you brother,” she said, “but I have to go back. The people need me.”
“I understand,” Thomas said and watched her depart through the portal.
The wound Rhae sustained was in the shoulder. Relief washed over him to know that she survived. Praising Galen’s thoughtfulness, Thomas patched and wrapped the wound the best he could to stop the bleeding. As he did, three small reddish purple beads rolled free from his coat sleeve. Plucking them up from the floor, he wondered if he could make a new bracelet with them. It would be a new kind of Experiment Number Five. One that didn’t involve blowing things up. Something to forever remind him the need to serve and protect the ones he loved to honor the Will of Amunetta.