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Gathering Shadows – Part 5 February 18, 2013

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A tremor ran through the cavern, and the battle had begun. Tairwyn’s Mountain kin knelt down with palms flat on the ground, pouring out every ounce of energy they could muster to keep the Bore worms from collapsing the floor out from beneath the defenders.

In the darkened hallways, any flicker of motion was met with the thrum and whistle of arrows, as Aradann’s people unleashed a deadly rain into their foes. Grey stood next to Aradann, a spear held ready. He called out to his fellow Air kindreds, “Steady! Wait for a clear shot, make this count! Steady…”  The floor started to heave, and he could hear Tairwyn shouting, “Force ‘em up, lads!”

The whole cavern shook, and with a deafening roar the Bore worms burst out into the corridors. “NOW!” Grey bellowed, and as one the Air kin sang out war castings and sent their spears screaming down the hall. The worms recoiled from the impact, but let out a high pitched keen that dropped the Forest kin to their knees and sent the Mountain kin reeling.

“COUNTER STRIKE!” Grey ordered, and the Air kin raised their voices in a wall of sound that cancelled out the sonic attack beating down their allies. “READY SPEARS!” he said, and the second rank handed fresh weapons forward.

The hallway was filled with writhing, pallid forms.  The worms surged forward, rows of teeth undulating in their gaping, eager maws. Grey resisted the urge to step back, even though every instinct told him to run. He took a quick look right and left and saw the front ranks starting to waver. “Hold the lines, HOLD THE LINES!”  He took aim straight for the creature’s throat and sent the spear ripping down through its gullet.

A ragged cheer went up from the men around him as the worm jerked back into the tunnel. Their joy was short-lived, however, as they realized the creature was not retreating. It was being eaten whole by the other worms from the tail on up, each lurching gulp devouring another few feet of length. Soon enough, the hall would be clear of the carcass. Grey tried to pull in more Wind for another war casting, but the element wouldn’t answer his call. There were too many others trying to draw on the same dwindling resources.  The wyverns lurking outside the caves must have blocked the last of the ventilation shafts . “Second line!” he gasped out, hoping those behind him had saved enough Air to keep them going for a few more salvos.

Some of Aradann’s people had recovered, and fitful groups of arrows leapt from their bows. It did not stop the worms but Grey was desperately glad to see that it slowed them down. He took a quick look around to check on the battle lines. They were holding, barely. Some groups were already down to the third rank, however. “Galen, I hope you have that miracle!” he said.

“A few more minutes,” came the slightly distracted reply.

One of the Mountain kin cried out. “They’re going for the roof!” The cavern shook again, and chunks of rock started falling from the ceiling. “We can’t hold it!”

Aradann took his bow and jammed it into the floor. “We have you, brothers!” The other Forest kin followed his lead, and the bows sprouted up and up, branches spreading out to hold the roof and roots digging down, a whole forest created in the space of two heartbeats.

“Ah hah, I’ve got it!” Galen shouted, and a rush of cool, springtime air filled the room.  Grey looked back and his jaw nearly hit the floor. A huge portal, three times the size of any he had seen before filled the back half of the cavern, and on the far side was the city Zephyra.  Galen had done the impossible, opening a doorway to the far side of the world. The non-combatants were already streaming through, carrying the wounded and children on their backs.

Grey shouted out into the glorious fresh air, “Fall back behind the trees and hold!”

The battle lines shifted, and just in time. Fissures opened in the ground beyond the forest, and the ceiling collapsed in a landslide. The Bore worms backed off, burrowing away from the scorching sun that blazed down through the opening. Grey squinted in the sudden glare, shading his eyes with his hand.

The next attack happened so fast that it was all Grey could do to summon up a wind barrier in time to keep from being bitten in half.  A hiss and scrape of scales was followed by the crunch of splintering trees as the wyverns smashed into the lines.

Grey backed up a step, gathering his wits about him. There was plenty of air to fight with now but the flow was too chaotic with everyone desperately trying to save themselves.  If they didn’t start fighting together, they were doomed. “To me!” he cried out. “Form up on me! BARRIERS UP!”  He started singing out a cadence, his deep voice making the very stones hum in sympathy. More voiced joined to his and a solid wall of air formed between them and the wyverns. The Wind tribes slowly pulled together as they retreated back, step by step, dragging their dead and wounded along with them.

The wyverns would not give up so easily. They began uprooting the trees, wings straining as they beat skywards. At the apex of their flight they let the trunks go, dropping them down like the spears of giants. They hammered into the shimmering half-dome of the barrier, causing it to buckle. One by one, the defenders collapsed as their strength failed.

Grey could just see out of the corner of his eye the flashes of color as Galen’s brightly dressed people pulled the casualties through to safety. The wyverns must have seen them as well, because they were aiming now for the top of the air dome, where it met the edge of the portal. They battered away at it with boulders and trees, even the carcasses of dead Bore worms. Grey watched in horror as the barrier wavered and sagged. If it fell, the portal was large enough to let the beasts fly through into Zephyra. The peaceful enclave of healers would be massacred.

A strange calm settled in over Grey. He looked up into the hot, dry desert air, the silhouettes of the wyverns wheeling overhead against the sun like shadowy vultures. He could see the patterns they wove in the sky, swirling in one vast Air casting. “They’re summoning Air to aid their fight, like us!” he thought, and a grim smile crossed his face.

Any casting made can be broken.

He changed the cadence, and his rumbling voice gathering up all the sounds around him – the echoes of the worms tunneling in the caverns deep below them, the whistling shrieks of the wyverns, the cries of the dying and the moaning Wind that blew through the shattered trees. The war casting spiraled up into the sky in a mournful howl, sounding like a battle cry from Hel’s own hound. It ripped into the wyverns’ casting and exploded.  Grey rolled the concussive wave from the blast into the war casting and kept it going, tearing the beasts apart. At some point he realized the he was no longer singing out a casting so much as screaming his defiance into the sky, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, except the need to protect his people. He kept the maelstrom churning until the last wyvern fell.

All at once, the energy drained out of him and everything went dark.  The next thing he knew he was lying flat on his back amidst a pile of splintered trees and rock. He could hear voices, but they seemed so distant that he paid them no mind. Galen’s face swam into view. Grey felt a hand on his chest and his heart lurched as it started beating again, and his lungs filled with cool air.  Hands lifted him up and carried him, a strange tingling sensation running over his skin as they crossed through the portal. They set him down gently, and he saw Galen drawing energy from the casting marks around portal to close it.

On the far side, a wyvern covered in blood and gore crawled toward Galen. Its wings were broken and half its scales were ripped off, but its gaze had latched onto the old Air kin.  Grey tried to yell a warning, but the words only came out as a hoarse moan.

An oily black substance moved across the yellow orbs of the creature’s eyes, and it let out a bubbling shriek of pure hatred as it launched itself at Galen. The old Air kin dodged to one side with more speed and grace than Grey could have imagined, snatched up a sword and with one precise, surgical strike he thrust the blade straight into the wyvern’s brain. Galen stepped back, and with a pre-emptory gesture summoned enough Wind to blow the creature back into the cavern, and the portal snapped shut.

For a moment everyone stood motionless, stunned. Then a woodlark raised its voice in a buoyant trill, and a breeze sent the wind chimes and air flutes that adorned the city into a gentle lullaby. As Galen made his way through the crowds, spontaneous cheers broke out in his wake.  He knelt at Grey’s side and checked his pulse, his manner as calm as ever. But the look in his eyes was deeply troubled.

Grey coughed to clear the dust from his raw, aching throat, and croaked, “Was it just me, or did that thing recognize you?”

<–Gathering Shadows, Pt. 4

 

Gathering Shadows – Part 4 February 2, 2013

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Grey headed down the hall to the lower storage caverns with Cavall padding along at his side. The hound’s hackles were standing up, and a snarl curled his muzzle.  Grey put a hand on his head to quiet his growls. “Hush a moment. Let me listen.” Cavall looked up at his master, then went back to watching the hall with fierce intensity.

Grey could still hear the sounds of early morning activity behind him – quiet conversation mixed with the echo of footsteps moving back and forth through the big cavern. He blocked that out and focused on the other end of the tunnel. Gusts of air blew fitfully at the torches on the walls, making them snap and gutter, almost to the point of extinguishing. The hallway itself groaned and grumbled as if he were in the belly of some great stone beast.  Down the throat, and straight to the gullet I go, he thought, laughing quietly to himself. If father saw me jumping at the sound of wind in the tunnels, I’d never live it down.

They had just passed the entrance that led to the cisterns when Cavall let out a deep rip-saw of a growl. The ground beneath their feet started to rattle, and Grey had to put a hand out to steady himself. “What in Hel’s name is going on down here?”

The solid stone wall bulged outwards, and he jerked his hand away. The rattling continued, coming in even pulses, as if something were battering at the cavern walls from inside the stone.  Cavall started scratching at the wall, barking furiously. Grey grabbed his collar and pulled him back. “No Cavall! Heel!”

The words had no sooner left his mouth than the wall exploded outwards, throwing them back and showering the tunnel with razor sharp chunks of rock. Grey and Cavall both yelped as they slammed into the far wall. Grey picked himself up off the floor, head spinning, only to look straight into the face of a nightmare.

Something that looked like a giant millipede larva crawled out of the hole in the wall. It had milky white eyes set above a round maw, ringed with teeth. Hundreds of legs tore at the stone, and its pallid skin pulsed as it heaved the rest of its bulk out into the hallway. Grey put up an Air shield just as the worm lunged down, its teeth undulating as they tried to find purchase to bite through the shield.

“Bloody Hel!” Grey said, instinctively trying to scrabble backwards. Suddenly his joke about gullets wasn’t so funny. Cavall stirred next to him, letting out a plaintive whine as he struggled to get his paws under him.  The worm made a strange convulsive movement, and its maw stretched wider.

“It’s going to swallow us whole!” Grey cried. He reached out with his senses to summon Air to fight with, but the wind had died off. The worm bit down harder, its teeth sinking in, and Grey gagged as its fetid breath seeped through the shield and washed over him.  “Ugly and bad breath, just great…wait, breath…that’s it!”

Grey reached out again and summoned the only bit of moving air left – from the lungs of his attacker. He yanked the air out and the creature whipped its head back, flailing madly as it struggled to breath. Grey scooped up Cavall and put the hound over his shoulders with a grunt of effort, and ran as fast as his shaking legs could take him back up the hallway.

The ground started rocking beneath his feet again, and he heard the alarms being sounded as he burst out into the central cavern. “Bore worms in the lower caverns!” he gasped out. He leaned down to set the heavy hound on the floor.

Someone else ran in from the upper hallways. “Wyverns outside! I went to see what was cutting off the air flow through the tunnels and nearly got my head bit off!  The damn things are dropping rocks over the vent holes!”

One of the healers looked around with wild eyes. “We’re trapped. We can’t get out!”

Grey could see the panic spreading through the room. He grabbed a spear from the rack on the wall and BANG!  He hammered the butt into the floor. Every eye in the place turned on him. “We’re not done yet,” Grey said, his voice commanding. “While there is life, there’s hope. We need only take out the worms. The adult wyverns are too big to get in these tunnels. Tairwyn, can you keep the bore worms from tunneling under us?”

The Mountain kin nodded, his long mustachios bobbing. “Aye laddie, for a little while.”

“Good. Aradann, I need two of your archers at every hall entrance to provide covering fire.”

The dark skinned Forest kin nodded as well. He picked up a stout branch from the wood pile next to the fire, and it stretched out into a heavy, curved bow.  “You may count on us.”

Grey looked around what was left of his people, and at the huddled group of Galen’s healers.  “Everyone who can still fight, gather at the hall entrances, three abreast. If someone falls, pull them back and take their place. Everyone else, summon as much Air as you can for us to fight with. Galen,” he said. “I’m sure your people know what to do with the casualties.”

The elder Air kin looked up from where he was scribbling furiously on a scrap of parchment. “Of course. And I may have an idea that will help. But I will need a little time to pull it off.”

Grey clapped him on the arm. “I was hoping you could whip us up another miracle. We’ll buy you as much time as we can.” He turned back to the hallway and readied the few war castings he knew that could work on limited air flow. The ground started to shake again. “Here they come. Ready yourselves…”

—–

<- Gathering Shadows, Part 3

 

Gathering Shadows – Part 3 December 28, 2012

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Morning came to the caverns, heralded only by the change in the air – the damp chill of night was replaced with a dry heat as the sun rose. Aurengrey sat next to his father, both of them with their backs propped up against the wall of the cave. He quietly told Aurelius everything that had happened, over a simple breakfast of dried fruit mixed into boiled oats.

Aurelius set down his bowl. “The wyverns were bred to make war on Air kin?”

“More like engineered, if Galen is to be believed,” Grey said. “And Tairwyn agrees. It’s no wonder we’ve done so poorly, we thought we were just hunting beasts, not fighting a war. ”

Aurelius nodded. “The Mountain kindreds would recognize a war if anyone did. They don’t wear that armor for nothing; they’ve fought countless wars under the northern peaks.” He let out a humorless laugh. “I asked them once why they did something that senseless – they said it wasn’t about making sense, it’s about winning.”

“The wyverns are certainly winning,” Grey said, frowning down at his meager breakfast. “Tairwyn explained the tactics they’ve used.  The first wave of wyverns took out the hounds, like scouts knocking out perimeter guards. Then the next wave came in, taking land and holding it, forcing us to give up the more resource rich areas. And now we’re here, under siege.” He poked at his cooling, lumpy oatmeal. “They chased off or killed all the herds to starve us out, and when that didn’t finish us off they poisoned the wells with the carcasses of their own dead.”

Aurelius leaned his head back, his face drawn and lined and his voice was heavy with fatigue. “What could have bred such hate into an animal? What could make it go so far against its own nature?”

Grey gave his father a worried look. The poison seemed to have made Aurelius age decades in the week that Grey had been gone. He clenched his fist, the old anger burning in his heart again.  “I don’t know how it was done, but Galen told us who. As soon as we get the noncombatants to safety, I’m going to get some answers.”

Aurelius opened one eye and turned his head a little toward Grey. “Can I give you some advice, son? Don’t go north unless you’re sure it’s for the right reasons.”

“What do you mean?” Grey said, his brow furrowed.

Aurelius struggled to sit up straighter, and looked him in the eye. “I mean that vengeance isn’t a luxury we can afford. What do you think you’ll find up there, hmm? Someone with a “villain” sign hanging around his neck? And what would you do if you did find the culprits?”

Grey was taken aback by the sudden vehemence in his father’s voice. “I don’t know, but I’d do something!”

Aurelius gave him a hard look. “What exactly? Would you balance the scales by murdering an equal number of men, women and children to match the ones we’ve lost?

“Of course not, but – “

“- But nothing. Even if you could figure out who is to blame and exact some sort of vengeance, what would it accomplish outside of getting their full attention? We have barely survived their beasts, what would we do against the men who created them? You’ve seen how powerful Galen is. There is a whole nation of people like him to our north.”

Grey looked away, his fists clenching and unclenching in frustration. “We don’t know that. Galen thinks they were all killed off by their own monsters.”

“Which means the place is overrun with wyverns and you’d be flying off to your death,” Aurelius said. He gripped Grey’s shoulder and gave it a little shake. “I know you want something to fight, someone to blame, but you have to think beyond yourself. If you’re going to lead Cyclonis, you need to focus on what is best for everyone.”

“What do you mean, lead Cyclonis? You’re the chief.”

Aurelius let him go and leaned back against the wall again. “Not right now, I’m not. Eating breakfast tired me out, son. I don’t even want to think about wrangling with the council.  I’m afraid you’re it for the foreseeable future. But don’t worry; your old man will be around for a while yet to knock sense into your head when you get out of line.”  He reached over and ruffled Grey’s hair, like he used to when Grey was still a boy.

“Go on, Dad!” Grey said, but was grinning as he ducked away. The smile did not last long, though. “Do you think we’ll ever get the plains back?”

“I’d like to think so,” Aurelius said, with a tired shrug. “But who knows? If Galen’s city is as beautiful as you say, we might not want to. And there are girls there. You won’t find many your own age here.”

Grey let out a huff of laughter. “I had noticed that, thank you Dad.”  He got up and picked up their empty bowls. “Do you want anything else?”

“No, but I’m sure you do. I can hear your stomach growling from down here.”

“That wasn’t my stomach,” Grey said. He looked around and saw his hound, Cavall, staring intently down the passage to the lower storage caverns. His hackles were up and a rumbling growl bubbled up out of his throat. Grey put the bowls back down and traded them for the sword he had borrowed from Tairwyn. Aurelius struggled to get up, but Grey gently pushed him back down. “You just retired, remember?  Let me get this one.”

“Huh, using my own words against me,” Aurelius grumbled, but he still reached over to grab one of his hunting spears. “Watch your back.”

Grey nodded, and motioned for Cavall to come to heel. “What’s wrong, boy? Show me.”

The hound’s sensitive nose twitched as he scented the air, and with another warning growl he led his master down into the dimly lit passageway…

<- Gathering Shadows, Part 2

Gathering Shadows – Part 2 December 14, 2012

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“It was my own family who created these horrors.”

Galen watched his words hit, like a pebble tossed in still water.  The ripples spread out, taking shape in the uneasy mutters and the intense stares of those who had watched their world fall apart. Three whole tribes shattered, countless thousands dead and the last few remnants left to huddle in caves, all because of a war they knew nothing about.

He looked over to where Grey sat slumped against the cavern wall, exhausted from helping to heal his father. Tairwyn had joined him – the brawny Mountain kin stood with a hand on Grey’s shoulder, though whether to support his friend or to keep him from doing something rash remained to be seen.

“You know of the continent to the north?” Galen asked them.

Tairwyn gave him a nod. “Aye. We used to hear stories from the traders about the infighting amongst the northern tribes.” He let out a gravelly laugh. “They said it was both good and bad for business, depending on what they were selling.”

“True enough, though we did not call ourselves tribes,” Galen said, “Over a thousand years ago we settled into towns and cities, and the ruling families founded the Great Houses. We soon turned on each other, each Lord taking whatever scrap of power he could grasp, but no one House held sway over another for very long. It may well have continued that way for another thousand years, if not for my cousin, Kurick.”

Galen paused, old memories bringing a sad smile to his face. “He was a great man. He knew the value of honor, and loyalty, and encouraged it in those who followed him.  I was proud to serve as one of his knights as a young man. Kurick forged all the Houses together into one kingdom and he became the first Lord of Air. For a while, it almost seemed like he would keep the peace – although he had to live by the sword to do it, for the Houses did not give up power lightly – but it was a peace, nonetheless.”

Galen had to stop again, his words catching in his throat. He shook his head slowly. “Kurick died by the sword, while putting down a stupid dispute over stolen cattle. With no heir to claim his legacy, all the Houses fell back into fighting for a piece of his kingdom. Eventually, two claimants to the throne came to power and all the north was split in a civil war.”

Grey shifted to sit up a little straighter, a frown creasing his brow. “This doesn’t answer my question, Galen. Explain the wyverns.”

“Patience, my friend,” Galen said, making a temporizing gesture with his hands. “Some stories need to be told from the beginning to be fully understood.”

Tairwyn let out a guffaw. “You’ll have to excuse the laddie. He’s a man of few words, and has no patience for those of us who like the sound of our own voice. Keep going, what ye’ve said so far matches up with the rumors I’ve heard. I’d like to know the rest.”

Grey crossed his arms and his frown deepened, but indicated Galen should keep going with jerk of his chin.

“I will try to be brief,” Galen said. “Where was I? Ah yes, the civil war. By the time the fighting settled down to two sides, I had long since put aside the sword and founded House Zephyr. We stayed neutral, offering healing and sanctuary to any who sought it. We prospered while all else fell into chaos  – which, in hindsight, made us a tempting prize.”  Now it was his turn to frown, all the old bitterness coming back to light. “I was given an ultimatum by both sides. Choose who to serve, or be destroyed.”

He leaned forward, a determined glint in his eyes. “I chose a third way. You see, I had studied much more than the healing arts. I built the first portal, and fled with my people to the north and east. We built new portals as we went, ripping down the old ones behind us, and eventually we crossed the frozen sea.  The Ice kindreds helped us and I met my wife in those hostile climes, amongst a group of Air kin who tamed the winter winds.”

Galen noticed Grey getting impatient again, and gave him an apologetic look. “Well, the answer you seek lies not with those of us who fled and later founded my city, Zephyra. It is with those who stayed behind. You see, there were some of us that felt they could not in good conscience leave the other Houses without proper medical care. So they drew lots, and divided themselves between the two warring sides. They paid dearly for their compassion. Their knowledge of the anatomy of both man and beast was turned to creating better soldiers, and more deadly weapons.  A few of the refugees who slipped away on merchant ships told us horror stories of the torments my people suffered. They were broken down until they had no choice but to obey their new masters’ demands.”

The room was silent now, every man, woman and child listening to him. “The refugees came in a flood as the war rolled on. For years they snuck away by the boatload…and then they suddenly stopped. The merchants told of towns razed, city streets drenched in blood and fell beasts roaming the lands. Finally even the hardiest of the ship captains refused to go back, and we lost all contact with our kin.”

Grey’s face was half-hidden in the flickering shadows cast by the fire. “Fell beasts. Wyverns. Let me guess. That was ten years ago.”

Galen gave a weary nod. “Yes. I can only guess that the creatures my cousins bred for war turned on their masters. The creatures must have moved south then, searching for more ‘enemy’ Air kin to conquer. And they found them,” he said, looking out at the battered survivors scattered about the room.

Grey gave him a hard look. “You guess this, but you don’t know?”

“It is an educated guess, and one I am sure is close enough to the truth,” Galen said.

“But you don’t know.”  Grey stood up, and looked out over the remnants of his tribe. “If we are ever to gain our home back, we have to know if the wyverns came by themselves, or were sent here. We need to know who we’re fighting, and how many of them we are up against.”  He gave Galen a bleak smile. “Well, I have crossed two continents. Why not add a third? If you can provide me with maps, I’ll leave in the morning to find out.”

“That would be madness!” Galen said. “You need to rest. Your people need you here. Listen, please! I can offer your people sanctuary. All of you,” he said, catching the eyes of the Mountain and Forest kin.  “Stay as my guests, regain your strength and then, when you are ready to return I will lead an expedition north myself. If my kin are still alive you will need me to make introductions. They are not so easy in their dealings with strangers as I am.”

Galen waited, holding his breath and hoping Grey would make the right choice. There was no doubt the others would follow his lead, despite his youth.  He couldn’t blame Grey for hesitating. He knew well how difficult it was to leave your ancestral home behind. But to stay here was to choose a slow and certain death.

Grey leaned one arm against the rough-hewn mantle over the fireplace and stared down into the flames. “You will make a portal here, so that we can come back?”

Galen let out his breath and got up to join Grey by the fire. “Of course,” he said, with a relieved smile.

Grey still looked bleak. “I will hold you to that.”

<- Gathering Shadows, Part 1  ~~~|||~~~  Gathering Shadows, Part 3

Bloodlines – Part 9 December 12, 2012

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Virgil wrapped his arms tight around Linda, shielding her with his own body as the haunt loomed over them. “Don’t look at it!” he said. Linda was still screaming, her head buried against his chest.  He yelled in her ear, “The eyes are the windows to the soul! Don’t look, Linda!”

“Get rid of him,” the entity rasped.

Spheres of brilliant amethyst light flew out of Honora’s necklace, taking on the ghostly silhouettes of a dozen old women. Their withered, claw-like hands gripped his arms and a biting cold sunk in all the way down to the marrow of his bones. Virgil tried to pull away, but his limbs had gone numb. “Sophie, need some help here!”

“My niece will not be able to oblige,” one of the women hissed.

Virgil caught a glimpse of Honora’s ghost and had just enough time to think, “Oh, shit.” The ghosts ripped him away from Linda and threw him out of the room.  He landed badly, banging his head against the wall hard enough to see spots.

The ghosts surrounded him, shrieking with laughter as they grabbed him by the hair and dragged him down the hall. Then they flung him down the stairs, and it was only thanks to a bit of training in stunt work that he managed to avoid breaking his neck. Even so, he landed at the bottom of the stairs in a heap and was picked up again by the cadre of hags. They swung him around wildly, smashing him into every chair and coffee table that lined the foyer. The front door flew open, and he was pitched head first onto the porch.

He lay there, stunned, looking up at the heavy pile of snow and ice that coated the eaves. The snow creaked and started to slide.

“Woah!” Impending doom gave Virgil the jolt of adrenaline he needed to finally get his limbs moving. He kicked off with his feet and rolled down the front steps just in time to avoid getting impaled by the icicles that smashed down. A ton of snow followed like a miniature avalanche, blocking the entire entryway.

More screams came from inside. Virgil scrambled to his feet and yelled, “SOPHIE!” He looked around, but the storm windows were all nailed shut. “Dammit, dammit… Wait, the side porch. Hang on, I’m coming!” He sprinted around back, remembering at the last second to jump over the ice-coated porch steps. He skidded across the wet boards, slamming his aching body into the door. He yanked it open and ran inside before the house could drop anything else on him.

The room was peaceful, a small bubble of calm amidst the psychic turmoil in the house. Whatever Sophie had done earlier to clear the room was still holding. Virgil didn’t have time to enjoy it though. He dumped Sophie’s bags across her bed, and let out a short, borderline hysterical laugh as a small bell rolled out. “Of course she packed a traveling kit. She even put color coded labels on everything. Bless her anal retentive little heart.”  He shoved the bell and a few other items into his pockets, and took a deep breath to steady his nerves. “Show time.”

He ran out into the foyer and up the stairs, taking them two at a time, the bell jangling with every step. Alex, Desi, Bryant, and the boys were waiting for him in the upstairs hallway, each of them controlled by a ghost that hovered just behind them. The hag’s shadowy fingers were buried deep in their descendants’ skulls, and they leaned forward to whisper in their ears. The family lurched forward as one, with a collection of blunt objects raised in their hands as weapons.

Virgil crossed his arms and shook his head. “Bad move, ladies. I may not be much good with ghosts, but the living? They’re my specialty.”

For the first time since setting foot in the house, Virgil let his full powers cut loose. Normally he’d be more careful with a civilian’s mind but he could hardly do more damage than the hags. He slipped his thoughts between the ghosts and the living, making his attack as razor sharp as a scalpel. He cut the entities out with brute force and wrapped his will around the living minds, frog-marching everyone into Desiree’s room. “Sleep,” he commanded, and they slumped into a pile at the foot of the bed.

The ghosts were thrown into confusion by being suddenly cut off from their energy source, and Virgil took full advantage of it. He reached into a pocket and flung a handful of tiny poppy seeds at them. “Have fun, ladies,” he said.

The ghosts hesitated, casting their empty eye sockets back and forth between him and scattered seeds. But in the end, they couldn’t resist the bait. They were old world ghosts, from an era where everyone believed that the dead could not resist counting something left out for them. That belief stayed with them after they died, burned into their faded psyches. They wouldn’t be able to leave off counting till the sun rose.

Virgil threaded carefully past them, taking care not to touch them again. The door to Linda’s room was jammed shut, and he knew better than to waste time trying to force it open. The haunt would just laugh and let him wear himself out. Instead, Virgil lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke all around the door jamb. The missing occupants of his first pack of smokes had ended up in Sophie’ kit. He didn’t care how. All that mattered was that tobacco was a prime ingredient used in cleansing ceremonies for centuries by cultures around the world. Virgil was betting that the haunt was from one of them, and had given Honora a phobia about smoking to protect itself.

Virgil immediately sensed when the tension broke, and he kicked the door open. The haunt had Sophie pinned, her back arched across the bed, and she was fighting to keep its hand from her throat.

Virgil rang the bell. The sound sent ripples through the air, and the entity jerked its head around to look at him.

That was all the break that Sophie needed. She plunged her hand deep inside its chest, and started the words of a banishing rite. It howled, and Virgil rang the bell again. It tried to pull away from Sophie, but she gritted her teeth and held on.

The necklace slipped from its fingers. Virgil raised the bell one last time, and smashed it down into the purple gem. The bell rang, and the whole house shuddered in sympathy. The entity let out a rising shriek that must have set dogs howling for miles around. Virgil wrapped his will around every mind in the house to keep the haunt from possessing them, and Sophie ripped her hand out of it, removing its anchor to the living world.

“I will come back,” it snarled, and vanished.

“No, you won’t,” Sophie said, and finished the last words of the rite.

The whole house seemed to let out a collective sigh. The ordinary sounds of pre-dawn crept back in, birds chirping and the distant sounds of the highway. Sophie held Linda like a child, rocking her and letting her sob all over her shoulder.

Virgil sat down heavily on the hope chest at the foot of the bed and sucked the last bit of life out of his cigarette, his hands shaking so hard he could barely hold it. “This makes us even now, right?” he said, giving Sophie a lopsided smile.

“Maybe. I’ll have to check my notes, you’ve run up quite a tab,” she said, and they both started laughing.

Later…

Virgil and Sophie stood together in the parlor where Honora’s body lay, forgotten in all of the madness. Sophie placed the pieces of the necklace in the coffin by her Aunt’s side. She had made sure to pulverize the stone, and broken every link on the chain.

“The crystalline matrix of the stone was like a primitive silicon chip.” Sophie said, her face pale and drawn. “The haunt broke their minds, arranged things so that they worshipped it, and when they died it stored them in the crystal just like we do in computers.”  She brushed the last bits off her hands and looked away from the body. “I would have been next, if the Agency hadn’t recruited me. I always thought my mother ran away to marry my father. Turns out she was just running away.”

Virgil gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Lucky for us the precognitives saw a better place for your Talents.”

“Lucky for me, maybe, but not my relatives,” Sophie said, looking out at the stairway in the hall. The rest of the family was still sleeping upstairs. It was better for them to do that, until the case workers from the Agency arrived.  “When I left, she moved onto them”

Virgil nodded, but didn’t say anything. Their outrageous behavior made perfect sense now.  Desi’s nymphomania, Alex’s belligerent paranoia, Bryant’s thirst for the power he would never possess—even the boys’ bullying was a symptom—and poor Linda, who almost got what she thought she wanted. The mind does not react well to being tampered with, and Honora had not gone easy on her relatives. It was going to take a lot of work to give them back anything like a normal life.

Sophie shook herself and squared her shoulders, putting on her business face. “Well, I had best start clearing the whole house, from the bottom up. I intend to make sure that haunt doesn’t come back.”

“Did you ever find out who it was?” Virgil asked.

“It was so old it had forgotten everything, except the need for more power,” Sophie said. “I’ll have to do some digging through our family tree to figure it out.”

“Well, if you need any help, I’ll be here,” he said.

Sophie gave him a weary smile of thanks, and headed down the hall to the root cellar to get to work.

Virgil waited till she left, then lit up a cigarette and blew the smoke down toward Honora’s face. There was no reaction. He gave a satisfied nod and looked more closely at her pinched, pallid visage. There was no sign of the bruises around her neck. It had all been an illusion to manipulate him into retrieving the necklace. Honora’s ghost had shown no sign of her psyche being broken, either. The other ghosts had been a pack of shrieking lunatics, while Honora’s every move was planned and rational. She must have worked willingly with the haunt. But Sophie didn’t need to know that.

Virgil leaned over and whispered in her ear. “I hope they have a nice, hot corner of Hell waiting for you, lady,” he said. “You messed up a lot of lives.”

Then he shut the coffin lid and walked outside to wait for case workers.

~Finis~

<-Bloodlines, Part 8

Bloodlines – Part 8 December 5, 2012

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Virgil took the lead and checked the hallway before heading up to the second floor. A moth-eaten runner carpeted the stairs, its faded flowers muffling their steps. He glanced back down to where the door to the root cellar should have been. It was still veiled, but he could hear the poltergeist’s guttural growl coming from somewhere inside. It was restless, pacing; it wanted to be let out.

“Are you hearing that?” he whispered to Sophie.

Sophie nodded and raised a trembling hand to her neck. The bruises from where the haunt had tried to strangle her stood out, livid against her skin.  “I still can’t hear any of the other ghosts, but that one is loud and clear now.” She let her hand drop, visibly pulling herself together. “Where is everyone else?”

Virgil let his senses sweep through the house. Fear hung thick in the air, like a cloying fog. “They’re in their rooms. No one is sleeping though,” he said, “It’s like they’re all just lying there, waiting for something to happen. Except for Linda. She’s having a nightmare.”

“Night terrors, emotional outbursts, that’s what’s been fueling the ghost! The attacks were involuntary!” Sophie said. “If so, that changes everything. No premeditation means she gets therapy instead of jail time.”

“Maybe,” Virgil replied doubtfully. Something about this still didn’t seem right. He ran a hand across the door to Linda’s bedroom. “She may come up swinging. Keep an eye on that poltergeist.”

The door wasn’t locked. The room inside could have belonged to a child; there were piles of stuffed animals on the bed, glittery stickers on the ceiling and photos stuck in the frame of a mirror. Dirty clothes were strewn about the floor and spilling out of a closet, the piles dotted liberally with candy wrappers. Virgil had seen teenagers with cleaner rooms.

An even bigger shock was Linda herself. She lay on her bed, still fully clothed, and curled up in the same fetal position Virgil had gone into to defend himself from the poltergeist. She even had her arms up to protect her head and neck. She was talking in her sleep, a pitiful, desperate litany. “I don’t want it. I don’t want it anymore. Please don’t do this. I don’t want it anymore.”

Virgil eased quietly into the room, not wanting to wake her yet. He took a deep breath and let it out, preparing himself for the unpleasant task of going into an unbalanced mind. Sophie closed the door behind them and stood on guard.

Linda started to thrash about, as if wrestling an opponent who was trying to pin her down. The similarities to his own attack were too many to ignore. Virgil took another deep breath and slipped into her nightmare.

They were back in the hallway that led to the root cellar. Honora beckoned to them, and they walked eagerly to the trap door. This was what Linda had waited thirty long years for: the day her mother would finally show her the secret to her family’s power over ghosts.

Honora walked slowly down the stairs and took off her amethyst necklace. “It is time for you to meet your ancestors, my dear.”

Linda hesitated at the top of the stairs, a vague fear settling into the pit of her stomach. She had never liked the root cellar; it had an ugly feel to it. A sour smell of rot wafted up at her, but her mother was still calling to her.

“Come down, Linda.” Honora held out the necklace. ”You wanted power, and I can give it to you.”

Linda ran down the stairs before she could think better of it. She reached out and took the necklace.

A cold smile touched Honora’s withered lips. “Hold it up to your eye, dear. Tell me what you see.”

Linda looked through it, and ghosts appeared all around, bathed in amethyst light. Generations of women, all with a strong family resemblance: brown hair, a motherly physique like Linda’s though some were a little taller, and all of them had the gift for working with ghosts. Whoever held this necklace would have a wellspring of knowledge to draw on that ran back centuries.

Then she looked closer, and saw what lived in the dark.

Virgil recognized it. Anyone who worked with ghosts knew there were malevolent spirits, old ghosts that wanted nothing more than to keep a hold on the world of the living. They could bend other, lesser ghosts to their will and use that gathered power to torment anyone unfortunate enough to enter their domain. The necklace worked just like the specially insulated microchips the Agency used to transport ghosts. The crystal must have had a similar structure to silicon, storing all of the ‘data’ of a person’s psyche. Who knew how long the old haunt had lurked in its depths?

Linda only knew that it terrified her, and she kept reliving that first, traumatic contact.

She ran up the stairs with her mother close on her heels.

“You must seal yourself to the well of souls, Linda!” Honora shouted. “Look through the gem, and let the spirit consume you! Our bloodline made a deal, and the pact must be kept!”

Linda ran, but the entity flew out of the cellar and landed on her back. It clawed at her, trying to reach the necklace she held clenched in her hand, and force her to look through it.

Honora hadn’t counted on her daughter fighting back. Desperation gave Linda the strength to send a telekinetic blast down the hall, and her mother fell backwards, down the stairs, and hit her head. The entity shrieked and retreated after her.

Linda threw the necklace down the stairs and locked the trap door. Then she ran out of the house… Later, after her mother’s body had been removed, she did everything in her power to trap the evil presence in the cellar, even veiling the doorway so no one could wander down there and get caught by it. But it kept getting out, and every time she failed, her fear made it a little stronger…

She woke up, sat bolt upright in her bed, and screamed.

Virgil was physically thrown back, but he managed to keep his hold on her mind.  He scrambled back onto the bed and grabbed her hands, forcing her to look him in the eye. “Linda, listen to me. It’s over. We know it was self-defense. I need you to calm down.”

Outside the room, the entity howled and battered against the bedroom door, setting Linda into a fresh bout of screaming.

Sophie had her shoulder braced against the door, and Virgil could feel her straining to shield the room against it. She yelled out, “It’s gotten too strong! I think it’s feeding off the rest of my relatives. I’m going to need some ghosts to combat it.” She pulled the necklace out of her pocket and held it up.

Virgil and Linda screamed in unison, “NO!”

The entity’s howl turned triumphant. It burst through the door and knocked Sophie into the wall. A stench of rot filled the room, and the entity stalked over to the bed. “Time for you to join your ancestors, Linda…”

<–Bloodlines, Part 7  ~~~|||~~~  Bloodlines, Part 9 ->

Gathering Shadows – Part 1 November 30, 2012

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–Interlude–

A breeze blew in through the window, warm and heavy with the promise of a summer storm.  It ruffled the pages of a leather bound journal, so that the paper brushed against the broad, scarred hand that lay flat across it. Grimm blinked, brought out of his trance, and looked down at the words that slowly wrote themselves across the page.

The old knight smiled, pleased to see how well the enchantment was working. The story flowed out from his memories and wrote itself, just as Galen’s notes said that it would.  The secret to pscyho-reactive ink was a secret no more.  Nox would be thrilled – this meant that, blind or not, she could continue her studies of technomancy. Her ideas, his hands to build whatever contraptions she dreamt up.  Not a bad compromise, he thought cheerfully. It would be good to do something that did not involve bloodshed. He had seen too much of it in his long life.

Grimm flipped through the pages of the journal, wondering what Nox would think of it all. It was easy to see where his memories ended, and Galen’s began. The crafty old enchanter had found a way to record his memories within the Key to Winds. He had given the key to Grimm, and it recorded his memories as well. And Grimm had been possessed by the Shadowkin, for two thousand years.

His smile faded as he looked at the blank pages that still waited to be filled. What came next would, by necessity, tell their tale as well. Grimm shuddered at the thought. It had only been a few months since the spirits of the Shadowkin were destroyed, and he was not looking forward to hearing their voices in his head again. It took him a long while, as the moon rose and set, to work up the courage to go on.

Finally, Grimm shut the window, cutting off the humid breeze just as the first drops of rain started to fall. Then he placed his hand back on the journal, and let the memories flow slowly out onto the pages.

“Sometimes you choose the path you are on. Sometimes it is set before you. I had no idea, when I helped Galen heal someone for the first time that my whole world was going to change. Every single thing, right down to my name…”

—————–

Gathering Shadows

Grey kept a firm grip on Galen’s hand. His father lay between them, his breath coming in short, painful gasps, and his skin had taken on a bluish pallor.  Grey had seen too many people die of wyvern poison not to recognize the symptoms. Aurelius was on the way down. “Hurry Galen, please.”

The elder Air kindred grimaced. “Don’t interrupt. A healing this complicated requires a lot of juggling.”

Grey looked at him, perplexed. Galen hadn’t moved a muscle. He could only assume the man was working out something in his head.

After an eternity, (which was probably only a few moments,) Galen smiled, and gave a satisfied nod. “I have it. Brace yourself; this may feel a bit uncomfortable.” He sketched a few casting marks in the air, and they whirled around the three of them in a dizzying spiral. The marks gained in speed, rushing past in the familiar roar of a cyclone, before collapsing in on top of them.

Grey was in no way prepared for what happened next. The marks seemed to grow as they fell, burning bright before his eyes so that he could see them even when his eyes were shut.  Every hair on his body stood on end as the marks sunk into him, moving through him like the blood through his veins. He could feel something inside him changing, a door being opened – and the world rushed in.

Every smell became more sharp; the damp, earthy scent of the cave, the sour, fevered sweat on those still afflicted by the poison, the resinous scent of pine boughs added to the fire. His hearing sharpened as well, bringing sounds up from the lower caverns, hound pups whining for their mothers and healers chatting as they drew water from the cistern. Every dropped spilled from their buckets was like the roar of the ocean on the beach, every footstep and avalanche of sound. Grey reeled back, his senses overwhelmed.

Galen was shouting something. “Can’t…too wild…Aurengrey, let go, I’ll handle the backlash!”

Grey shook his head to try and clear it, the sound of his own hair blowing about as loud as trees roaring in a gale. Hadn’t Galen said letting go could be deadly?  He could feel Galen’s hold starting to slip.

Grey changed his grip and held on, the corded muscles in his arm standing out as he fought to steady them both. He could feel the energy swirling through him, swinging wildly, wobbling like a cyclone about to collapse into its center. Comprehension dawned on him like a thunderclap. Galen had tried to whirl the Wind around from the outside and gotten caught in its wake. A cyclone could only be controlled from within.

He ignored Galen, who was shouting at him. He shut out the sounds, the smells, all of the information the Wind was bringing to him and pushed it out, away from him so that he sat in its center.

The silence in the eye of the storm was pure bliss.

Grey felt his heart pounding in his chest and calmed himself, taking deep, slow breaths. Then he reached out with his senses and brought order to the storm, taming its motion and letting it flow around him.

Galen still sat across from him, a look of surprised relief in his eyes.  “Remarkable,” he said, and gave Grey a rueful smile. “That was very nearly my last mistake. Thank you.”

He watched Grey for a long minute, and nodded again. “Hand the energy back, if you would. I have the knack of it now.”  Galen sketched a new set of marks on Aurelius’ forehead with his free hand, and gently took control of the Wind.

It was only when Grey let go of the Air casting that he realized they had an audience. All of the healers crowded in around them, watching Galen intently.

The energy funneled down and spread across Aurelius’ body, forming little whorls of turbulence all across his skin. Galen placed a hand over each spot and extracted a tiny spine, no thicker than a hair. “See here,” Galen said. “The wyvern poison in the spines disrupts the flow of the elements, and without that the body’s systems begin to shut down. Remove the spine, neutralize the toxins and the body will begin to heal itself. Do not,” he said, looking around to catch every one of their eyes, “attempt a transfusion of energy as I am doing here. I mean it. If this were not such an extreme case, even I would not attempt it.”

Grey thought of how close they had come to having the casting implode, and agreed with him whole-heartedly. He was already feeling a bit woozy from the amount of energy draining out of him, but he forced himself to stay upright. “If there is another extreme case, I’ll be the donor. I know what to expect.”

“Let us hope it is not necessary,” Galen said.

It took an hour to get the last of the spines out of Aurelius. Galen dropped the last one into a glass jar with all the others, and let go of Grey’s hand.  He held the jar up, squinting at its contents. “Pernicious stuff. I’m not one to tack imprecise labels on things, but I’d say this is as close to pure evil as I’ve ever seen.”

Grey let himself sag back against the wall, feeling as empty as a cloth sack. “What’s so imprecise about evil? Seems pretty straight-forward to me.”

“Life is seldom so black and white, my young friend,” Galen said. “But there can be no good reason for something like this to exist, no excuse for it. It should never have been made.”

Grey sat up a little. “That is the second time you’ve implied that these things weren’t natural. You promised an explanation.”

“I did,” Galen said, and let out a tired sigh. “You most certainly deserve to know what caused all this. I only hope you will forgive for not telling you sooner, for I feared you would not trust me to come help your people if you knew the whole story.”  He closed his eyes, lines of fatigue etched deep in his face. “You see, it was my own family who created these horrors…”

—-

<– Back to the first half of Grey’s story, The Wanderer’s Tale – Part 10

Bloodlines – Part 7 November 27, 2012

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Virgil found Sophie curled up on her bed with a book. She glanced up as he shut the door behind him.

“I still can’t get through to HQ… Oh my god, what happened?” she asked, jumping to her feet.

“Time to put your game face on, babe. This just turned into an official case,” Virgil said, and eased himself gingerly onto the cot. He ached everywhere from the mauling the ghost had given him, and the scratches on his arms were throbbing.

Sophie grabbed the blanket off her bed and wrapped it around him. “I think you’re right. Something has cut me off from the ghosts here.”

“Not something. Someone. I just don’t know who yet.” He rolled his head from side to side to work out the knots in his neck and back. “I did a little poking around, to see if I could stir something up. And boy-howdy did I. Our strangler is a class four malevolent haunt, and I’m pretty damned sure it’s being controlled,” he said, giving his partner a cautious look. She looked as composed as she was going to get, considering the circumstances. “I don’t know of any good way to say this, so I’m just going to say it. Your aunt was its first victim.”

She sat down slowly, her face a mask of grief. “She was a skilled Medium, Virgil. Better than I am. How did it get to her?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe it caught her nodding off, like it did with you.”

She brushed away the tears gathering in her eyes. “Who are the suspects.”

“Everyone in the house, excluding you and me. Your entire family has the gift. Although I may be able to rule out most of them.”

Sophie took a deep breath and let it out, visibly trying to push aside her grief. “Fine then, let’s work the case. If we shut down the k…killer, and the haunt goes away. Give me your impressions.”

Virgil took a moment to think back over every contact he’d had with her family—handshakes, unintentional bumping of hands or feet at the table, or, in Desi’s case, completely intentional contact. He started with the least likely candidates.

“I think we can safely count out Alex’s three thug-lings,” he said. “I give them a year before they move on from tormenting neighborhood pets to bullying their school mates, but they don’t have a scrap of brains between them; certainly not enough to control a malign spirit, even if they worked together on it.”

“Desiree wants whatever she can get away with, and she has the Talent. But both attacks were too calculated and controlled for someone with impulse issues. That, and she’s terrified of ghosts.”

Sophie nodded in agreement. “You can’t control what you fear.”

“Mmm-hmm. Alex is already redecorating the house in his mind. So much for a son’s love,” Virgil said, making a face. “But he’s a minor talent, and as subtle as a wrecking ball. Whoever is setting up all the veils around the house has skill and a light touch. Which rules out Bryant. He has some power and wants more, but he’s clumsy, a poser.”

Sophie’ eyes widened. “Linda.”

“Only one left, though I almost ruled her out,” Virgil said. “She must be good enough to veil any talent from me, and keep you from connecting with any ghosts.”

“She never moved out. That would give her close ties to the spirits here,” Sophie said. “She’s been nearby and gotten upset every time the poltergeist acted up: the lights going out in the entry hall, the china breaking. And she would have felt it when I tried to talk with my Aunt’s ghost. The attack there came almost immediately. The only one that doesn’t add up is the attack on you.”

Virgil held up the necklace, and Sophie gasped. “That’s my Aunt’s! She used it to commune with the spirits in the house.”

Virgil gave it to her. “Linda was veiling that hallway to the root cellar where I found it, so she must be afraid or ashamed of what happened there. Her mother’s ghost went straight back there. I got to feel the re-enactment of her murder first hand.”

“They said she fell down the stairs,” Sophie said, cradling the gaudy gem in her hands.

“Nope. I ended up out by the front door when I was caught in that memory loop. Honora fought it, and tried to get away,” Virgil said. He rubbed at his sopping wet hair with a corner of the blanket.  “The thing I want to know is, why go after her?

Sophie wrapped her arms around herself. “Power doesn’t make sense with Linda. She already has access to all the energy in the house, and she could have simply stolen the necklace. Unless my Aunt locked her away from the ghosts for some reason?”

“Or wrote her out of the will,” Virgil pointed out. “She was pretty testy with Alex, and people have done worse to get their inheritance.”

Sophie stared at her Aunt’s necklace, which dangled from her fingers. “We’re going to have to question Linda to find out for sure. All of this is still circumstantial. There might be someone else we’re not aware of.”

Virgil doubted it, but he wasn’t going to argue with her. People weren’t always rational about family. “All we have to do is get past her killer poltergeist, top-notch veils, and anything else she can do that we don’t know about. Piece of cake.” He tossed off the blanket and dug through his suitcase for the the pistol he always kept in a hidden compartment. “I know she’s family, but we have to go in assuming she’s armed and dangerous. If you can’t stay detached enough to handle that, we’ll have to run into town to send word to HQ, and get someone else run the investigation.”

“No,” she said quickly, “I can do this.”

Virgil gave her an encouraging nod. “If we move fast we can shut her down before anyone else gets hurt. I’ll lock down her mind; you keep the haunt off my back while I question her. If we’re lucky, we’ll catch her sleeping and have our answers before she wakes up.”

Virgil tried not to get twitchy while he waited for Sophie to get dressed again, with limited success. Something about this whole situation still didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. That was the problem with being the canary in the coal mine; no one figures out what’s wrong till the bird keels over…

<-Bloodlines #6     ~~~|||~~~   Bloodlines #8 ->

Bloodlines – Part 6 November 20, 2012

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Honora’s ghost floated next to Virgil, still wringing her hands. She looked harmless enough, but he wouldn’t be the first Agent to think that about a spirit, only to end up getting shoved down a flight of stairs. He eyed up the rickety wooden slats that descended into the root cellar. The dim glow cast by his zippo gave him just barely enough light to make out a packed dirt floor at their base, but not much else. A sour, rotting smell wafted up at him.

He stood up and backed away from the opening. “Chivalry be damned. No more games, Auntie. Either you tell me what you want down there, or I go back to bed and call it a night.”

Honora floated closer, and pointed down the stairs.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Virgil said. He pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket. “Here. Drain the battery and speak through it.” He tapped the screen with his thumb to turn the volume up, and held it between them.

She reached out to touch it, and a dry, papery voice whispered out of the speaker, “Seal the well.”

A breeze made the flame of his lighter flutter, sending light and shadows dancing around the stairs. Something glittered on the bottom step. The ghost floated over to the stairs and beckoned again, pointing to the object.

It wasn’t that far, but the stairs were steep enough that falling down them would hurt. Still, if it got the old biddy to leave him (and his cigarettes) alone, it might, maybe be worth it. “Virgil, you’re an idiot,” he muttered to himself, and dashed down to pick it up. It was a necklace, and the clasp was snagged on a nail.

He held up the lighter and took a quick look into the darkened room. The darkness looked back into him. And then it started crawling towards him.

Virgil yanked the necklace free and ran like hell back up the stairs. He kicked the trap door shut and slammed the bolt home.  Then he leaned against the wall, his heart pounding and a prickle of sweat all over him. “What were you messing with here, woman?” he said, holding up the necklace to get a better look at it. As far as he could tell, it was just costume jewelry—a dark purple stone surrounded by smaller white ones, all set in a gaudy gold filigree. “This is it? All this fuss for a piece of junk?” he said.

Honora floated closer and placed a hand on his arm.  A chill, splintered glass sensation ran through him as the ghost drew more energy from him. “Seal the well,” she whispered.

He narrowed his eyes in annoyance at the apparition. “Could you be any more cryptic?”

“Seal the well.”

“And Sophie wonders why I hate working with ghosts,” Virgil grumbled. He stuffed the cheap necklace in his pocket and glared back at the trap door, just in time to see the bolt slide open.

“Oh, crap.”

He took off down the hall at a run. Virgil hadn’t survived working for the Agency this long by ignoring his instincts. Whatever was down there would play for keeps. The hallway stretched out endlessly in front of him, and nothing looked familiar. “Crapcrapcrap spatial distortions…” He sent out a quick, psychic blast to try and stun whatever rudimentary mind remained in the haunt. It growled, low and guttural, and something slammed into his back. He went sprawling to the floor and tucked into a roll, using his arms to cover his neck and head to avoid getting strangled. Fingernails raked at his forearms, and a weight pushed down on him.

It growled again, right in his ear, and started shoving his face into the floor. Virgil let out a muffled yell as he tried to wrestle free. Something cold slipped into his hand, and he yelled again until he realized it was the necklace.

As soon as it pressed against his palm, he knew exactly what Sophie had done to tear apart the ghost that had attacked her. He reached up into the haunt and tried to grasp the core of energy it used to manifest itself, but it shrieked and pulled away. The shadowy figure retreated down the hallway and collapsed in on itself, and Virgil heard it slam the trap door shut behind it.

He sat up, shaking from head to foot. Somehow, he had ended up halfway out the front door of the house with a dusting of snow covering him. He dragged himself back inside and shut the door, leaning back against it while he brushed the snow off and inspected the scratches on his arms.

That was when the next attack came, swift and silent. It was textbook one-two punch – soften up your target with a ghost, then hammer their defenses with a psychic probe while they’re down.

Virgil was hurt after the mauling the ghost had given him, but they didn’t call the Agency a Tactical Unit for nothing. There was no way in Hell he was going to get taken down by a goddamned civilian. He held onto that anger, built it up into rage, and turned it into a white hot, mirrored surface. The attack was reflected back, and he magnified it into a needle-like lance that blew past his assailant’s attempt to hide behind a veil. The house shuddered around him, and Virgil turned the heat up even higher to burn through the dark so that he could see who was behind the attacks.

They wrestled back and forth; an invisible struggle between two minds, all of it happening in the space between eye blinks…

…and it was abruptly cut off as someone opened the door behind him.  He fell backwards, tripping up the person coming in, causing them to land on top of Virgil.

The new comer scrambled to his feet, and Virgil found himself looking up at an older man. He was tall, his brown hair peppered with silver, and he wore an expensive tailored suit that he brushed off and set to rights. Everything about him proclaimed “successful family patriarch.”

“Good god man, are you all right?” the man asked.

Virgil ignored him for a moment and tried to reconnect with his assailant, but the presence was gone. He wanted to howl up at him, “You let it get away!” but thought better of it. For all he knew, this guy was the killer. Better to play it smart. “Yeah, fine, I just slipped on the ice. You’re Uncle Bryant, right?” he said, trying to look nonchalant as he lay there shivering and dripping melted snow onto the carpet.

Bryant gave him a paternal smile. “And you must be Sophie’s co-worker. Desi was all aflutter about you,” he said. “What were you doing outside at this hour?”

Virgil held up one of the knotted cigarettes, “Your dear departed sister does not approve of smoking.”

Bryant laughed. “My apologies. Virgil, was it? I was in the same pickle myself. Went to light up a cigar, and every one of my matches had the head cut off. Spent the last half-hour scouring the house for another pack, until I remembered I had one in the car.”

Virgil watched him as he talked but didn’t get much off of him, except that he was actively veiling his Talents. If he was the murderer, he was one cool customer. Virgil felt as wrung out as a dishrag, and this guy didn’t have a hair out of place. He had even given himself an alibi for not being on watch over his sister’s coffin. Damn. There was only one good way to find out for sure.

Virgil held out his hand and braced himself for another assault. “Give me a hand up?”

Contact. Virgil was skilled enough not to give anything away other than annoyance, but to his surprise, Bryant was an open book. No sharp, controlled probes; just the usual babble of thoughts and emotions he got from everyone.

::POWERhes’gotpowerWILLheSharetheSecret?Bitch/sisterNeverSHAREDdamnedWOManGoingONaboutfemaleBLOODLINESandITSherHOUSEnotMineMaybethisGUYcanMakeLindaGIVEmeHOUSE::

Virgil broke the contact as soon as he was on his feet. Bryant had talent, but it wasn’t enough to even make the bottom rung of what the Agency would find useful. It was no wonder they hadn’t recruited him along with Sophie; he didn’t have the chops for it. He certainly didn’t have the skill to power that haunt.

Which meant the culprit was still somewhere in the house.

Virgil brushed the last of the snow off his shirt. “Thanks, Bryant. I think I’m going to call it a night before your sister decides to tie me into a knot as well.”

Bryant chuckled, but looked a bit disappointed. “Maybe we can talk in the morning? I’d be interested in getting your professional opinion on a few things.”

“Yeah, sure,” Virgil mumbled, and hurried back to his room before Bryant could start digging for the “secret” to psychic powers. There wasn’t any, but he doubted anyone so obsessed with power would believe him.

Virgil paused outside the room, his hand hovering over the door knob. He was not looking forward to telling his partner that her Aunt had been murdered. This night kept getting better and better…

<-Bloodlines, Part 5  ~~~|||~~~  Bloodlines, Part 7 ->

The Wanderer’s Tale – Part 10 November 17, 2012

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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The Air kindreds waited to one side, silent spectators as the Forest kin buried their dead. There was no time for ceremony – Aradann and his people called the trees, and their roots wrapped gently around the bodies and took them down into the earth.

Grey was the only one to break ranks and pay his respects alongside the Forest kin. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Aradann. In that moment, despite having only just met, years of living with the same terrible grief made them close as brothers.

Grey looked out over the brown, fresh turned earth as the trees moved away. “If you want, I can use a cyclone to bring enough stone to cover the graves,” Grey offered.

Aradann gave him a sad smile. “Thank you, but there is no need. The wyverns will not touch them. We eat berries that are harmless to our kind, but make us lethal to them.” The smile ran away from his face as he looked at the newly settled grove. “So now they simply kill us, rather than eating us.”

Grey thought of all the shattered bodies, obviously dropped from a great height. He gripped the Aradann’s shoulder in sympathy. “I’m sorry.”

“We knew the risks when we came down to the plains from our stronghold,” Aradann said. “Come, we should keep moving. Your own people still need help, and if we tarry too long these brave souls will have died in vain.”

Grey got everyone aloft in minutes. Galen had taught him the trick of lifting so much weight, and while he did not have the older man’s finesse, the tornadic winds he summoned moved them much faster.  The miles fell away beneath them, tree-clad slopes giving way to rolling plains, and then to dry rocky ground as they reached the near end of the canyon. The closer they got, the more tense Grey became – for all he knew, he might well be coming home to a tomb.

The main entrance to the caverns was set mid-way up the canyon wall. Grey flew in first, dismayed to find there was no Wind barrier over the entrance. He darted through the entry cave, only to be brought up short at its back by a solid wall of granite. His fears were coming to life – it looked like the Mountain sealed up the bodies of his kin, to keep the wyverns from digging them up.

He started to pound frantically on the rock. “Tairwyn! Anyone! Open up!”

Cavall pushed through the crowd gathering behind him, barking and jumping up to scrabble at the wall.

Galen shouted at him over the noise. “Is there another way in?”

A gravelly voice answered them. “Not anymore.”

The wall melted away, revealing a worn, haggard looking Mountain kin. Grey could just make out the long, drooping mustachios the man wore, and let out a whoop. “Tairwyn!  You’re still alive!”

“Stones below, it’s good to see you laddie!” Tairwyn said, pulling him into a rough hug and pounding him on the back. “I live, though there’s less of me now than there used to be.” He let Grey go and looked curiously at the group waiting behind them. “Who are your friends?”

“I brought help, healers, and more medicine,” Grey said. “Where are the others? How are they?”

Tairwyn herded everyone into the passageway and sealed it up behind them. “Right where you left them. We had to close the entrances, not enough of us left standing to keep guard day and night. Most of my folks are recovering, but I’m afraid we’ve lost some of yours,” he said, shaking his head. “The poison won’t get out of their system. It’s like it was made to kill the Wind tribes.”

“It very well might have been,” Galen said, his expression bleak.

“You’ll explain that to me later, right?” Grey asked, and waited for Galen’s nod. “All right then. Let’s get to work.”

They say the character of a man can be seen through how he treats others. Those were Galen’s thoughts as he labored over the grievously ill members of the Wind tribes. It would have been perfectly natural for Aurengrey to want some immediate answers.  Or to rush to his parents side, and demand that they be treated first. And yet, he had calmly accepted Galen’s promise and patiently helped to organize everyone so that those in the direst need would be healed first. He worked tirelessly, refusing to rest despite having just fought a battle and flown their entire group for miles. He teased a little girl to make her smile, and cajoled a temperamental elder to cooperate with the healers. It was obvious the warriors of the Mountain kin respected him. The Forest kin had accepted him without question.

Galen was more than a little impressed himself by this quiet young warrior. He had watched Aurengrey throughout the journey – he fought like a demon, but took no joy or pride in it. He was selfless, earnest, and had a depth of compassion and wisdom that belied his youth. If the greater Houses of Air had not fallen in their civil war, Galen would have sponsored him to become a Wind Knight.

Galen had long since put aside his own sword, but he had never given up on the ideals that were the foundation of the order, nor stopped searching for one he felt worthy to carry on their legacy.  There was little doubt in his mind that in Aurengrey, he had found what he sought.

The question was, would he want anything to do with Galen when he found out why his people had nearly been destroyed?

Galen finally settled down by Aurengrey’s parents.  Aurelius slept fitfully, his breath rattling in his lungs. Merina was awake, but delirious. She reached out and gripped the hem of Galen’s robes. “Where is my Aurengrey? My sweet little boy? Please, tell him to come home. You will, won’t you?”

Grey hurried over and held her gently in a hug. “I’m home, Mom. I haven’t been little for a long time though,” he said, laughing quietly.

Merina looked up at him with feverish eyes. “Don’t tease, papa. Have you seen my son?”

Grey let out a choked sound. “She always said I looked like my grandfather.” He clenched a fist in frustration. “I feel so useless. I can snap a wyverns’ bones like they were twigs, but I can’t do a thing to help her.”

“Don’t belittle your efforts,” Galen said. He waved for Xenobia. “See to her, please. I am afraid Aurelius will need all of my attention.”

“Of course, my Lord,” Xenobia said. She sat by Grey and placed her hands on Merina’s head. “Hold her still.”

Galen did the same for Aurelius, placing a hand on either temple. He summoned Air, and let it course out through him. His House was Zephyr, a far gentler wind than the ones used by Cyclonis, but he had to hope it would be enough. He let his thoughts sink down, working the Air into patterns and setting them loose. He lost track of time, his whole being focused on this one, singular task. Find the poison, and neutralize it.

Aurelius was not responding. The poison had spread everywhere. Galen’s entire body went taught, as if he were straining against a great weight. His own breathing became labored, coming out in short gasps. Finally, he let out a sharp cry and slumped forward, feeling as if all the life had drained out of him.

“Not enough,” Galen croaked, his voice gone hoarse. “I can’t channel enough of the right sort of Wind to reach him.”

Grey looked over at him in panic. “I’ll channel any kind of wind you want. Just tell me how!”

Galen sat back wearily and shook his head. “Too dangerous. Healing comes from within, and you have no training. It would kill you both.”

“There has to be a way!” Grey said. “Can’t I give the energy to you somehow?”

Galen rubbed a hand over his face. “Maybe. A transfusion of his own element…Yes, it just might work.” He sat up straighter. “Give me your hand.”

Grey thrust his right hand out to him. “Take whatever you need. As much as you need.”

Galen took Grey’s outstretched hand, and clasped it firmly. “Whatever you do, do not let go. All three of our lives depend on it.”

“I won’t falter,” Grey said, as calm and steady as Galen could have wished.

The healing was going to be tricky. He had to take enough of the element from Aurengrey to learn its ways, but not so much that it drained the boy and overwhelmed his own system. Then he would have to share it with Aurelius, and hope that his strength didn’t fail. And all of this had to be done soon. Aurelius would not live to see another hour, let alone another day. There would be no second chance.

But situations like this were exactly why Galen had become a healer. He gave Aurengrey an encouraging smile. “Let us begin…”

NEXT WEEK -  Grey’s story continues in GATHERING SHADOWS, Part 1.
Sometimes you choose your path. Sometimes it is set before you. The dark road that Grey took in becoming Grimm was a long one, but herein lies the first steps…

<- The Wanderer’s Tale, Part 9

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