Chapter XXVIII: Aftermath
Chapter XXIX: Mirror, Mirror
Chapter XXX: The Hollow in the World


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The Tempe Massacre dominated the voice of every radio talking head between segments of bad pop music during Vex’s drive down I-10. Speculation ran rampant via overplayed sound bites from Sheriff Joe Arpaio—promising four metal walls and a lumpy cot for the killers—followed by the current mayor of Phoenix overflowing with saccharine concern. Punctuating their commentary came further developments on the ever increasing heat, which had already managed to exceed one-hundred-and-ten degrees at only ten-thirty A.M. Now it didn’t matter that the A/C had been fixed, she had it on full blast anyway; killing her mileage all the way down the long, black road.

The more-talk-less-play stations entertained strange stories of increasing disappearances with the ever rising temperatures, but were quick to dismiss them with news of people actually leaving the city—taking summer vacations in mid-autumn. Traffic on the I-10 heading away from Phoenix did seem a bit more cluttered than usual. Rush hour had ended over an hour before and there were still a larger number of SUVs and family cars roaming the roads at ponderous speeds.

The long ride with no passengers appealed to her because it gave her some time to think. Especially if, like now, she had the dispatch radio off. Like the talk radio stations, her mind kept going back to the Tempe Massacre. She hadn’t expected that. There was no doubt it had some sort of magickal connection to everything else—perhaps directly to the college kids killed by that ritual. Normally things like that she saw coming. Not this time.

Three days now she’d ignored the event itself. Scouting around the periphery.

Any other day she could have visited the site already. Snuck through the police tape. Poked around the crime scene…but there was just something about mass deaths that made her squeamish. So many people had been murdered in one place there would be a great deal of spiritual turbulence—it would be difficult to keep the voices at bay in that atmosphere.

Hopefully Madame Summer would have insights into these events. And Vex truly hoped that those insights included something that would let her avoid visiting the ‘A’ on the mountain at least one more day.

She parked next to a beaten up, grey and beige Volkswagen in front of the Wanton Wand. Looking at it, she realized it probably belonged to Madame Summer’s husband, Nicu. He seemed an old Volkswagon kind of guy. The moment she opened the door to her cab, the door of the store cracked open and a smiling face peered out.

“So you got my message!”

Jenny flew down the steps with purpose; indigo, gold, and green fluttered behind her in an eye-wrenching cacophony of color as her dress flooded around her legs. Upon reaching Vex, she hugged her with a crushing embrace. The girl, Madame Summer’s grandchild, had grown what seemed almost a foot in the time that Vex had known her. And with her height so grew her strength. Vex hugged her back.

“I’m going to miss you, Madame Vexandra.”

“I’m not a Madame, Jen,” she murmured. “You can call me Vex.”

“Grandma is inside.” The girl released her carefully and stood aside. “I’m to remain out here until you finish talking. Then we go.”

“Thanks. Isn’t it a little hot to be standing out here?”

“I’ll be fine. Go on inside. She’s expecting you.”

Cool air from the shop shooed the hot rays of the sun from her arms and neck as she stepped into the scent of lavender and dragon’s blood.

“Good, good, goddaughter, you come.” Madame Summer sat on the floor, positively subdued compared to Jenny. She wore an outfit of pale pastel blue-grey with dapples of yellow like sunlight peeking between clouds. Her dark hair had been wrapped up in a single, carefully pleated traveling braid that hung over her shoulder. And her eyes, simmering blue, followed Vex as she walked into the room and sat on the floor in front of her.

“I—” Vex started to speak but Madame Summer leaned forward and put a hand on hers.

She took the hand and kissed the knuckles, then the wrist, and finally forehead. Vex held very still, not completely comprehending.

“Hush, child.” The tone of the Madame’s voice commanded with gentle authority. “The trito ursitori advise me to take our family and go. To travel. It is our way. Perhaps we shall return, this they did not say, but some of their message is meant for you.

“There is a hollow in the world where the old gods sleep. They rest like wax fallen to the bottom of a glass of water. Dabbling fingertips on the surface does nothing, but stir the water and they are disturbed. Someone tests that hollow—someone who has touched the stone you brought to me that night.

“The three speak proudly of you! Of course, they do because you are my goddaughter and because you have already decided to find this wicked person. Even though you don’t realize, you seek anyway. It is your nature.

“You have already found those foxed children who strayed too close to water’s edge. Have you not?

“But godmother… They’re all dead.”

“Not all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tell me of your broken plaything,” she said.

Broken plaything? Vex paused for a moment trying to figure out what she meant. It came quickly, there could only be one thing.

“The violin?”

A nod.

“Patrick bought me tickets to see a band I like at a club, that was last night. Some violin toting maestro with a penchant for hypnotic magick decided to crash the concert. Let’s just say she landed on my bad side. I broke her violin for her. Except that there’s nothing special about it.”

“I know one who will find the owner of your violin for you,” Madame Summer said. “You find her on your very own Mill Ave. Tonight. She can unravel the most tangled lines and does so for a price. While most don’t actually have their lives written on their palms, her talents with her hands do not stop there.”

Dark things had been stalking the nights the past few days. Mêlée tried her best to sleep during the day, and spent the long nights with friends inside their run-down houses and apartments. Alcohol and company chased those monsters away surely as any hidden nook between concrete barricades could. Rumors were filtering in about more street rats and transients gone missing. Entire squats went vacant, gear and backpacks left behind. Often those camps were cannibalized by others when the owners didn’t return, but people started to wonder: why would anyone leave a perfectly good backpack behind anyway?

People told stories about the police cracking down harder on loitering than ever before. The security guards around Mill also acted a little more paranoid than usual—a thing Mêlée kept an eye out for after that ProGuard guy chased her down an alley. The deaths on the mountain made everyone edgy, but this seemed worse. Sometimes they would just stand on corners, watching. The sun cooking everything in sight, but not the guards. They didn’t sweat.

She didn’t trust people who didn’t sweat.

A few people gathered in Graffiti Shop to watch the TV from the stairs, leaning against glass cases. Most of them were well tread veterans of Mill Ave. Lawrence himself sat heavily in a chair and gazed, frowning, at the television that hung from chains—it was strange for him to open the shop so early on a weekday, or any day for that matter, but a lot of strange things had happened lately.

He kept a regular commentary about the scenes flickering past on the screen. Shouting and cheering on pitched gun battles and flashing explosions. The patrons sitting around seemed to enjoy his play-by-play even more than the video itself.

“Then the orders from the Emperor came and the lieutenants signaled us to move through a break in the trees,” he said, raising his voice over the shouting and pitched battle. “The sound. The only sound. It was like dry thunder, rolling over and over from one side of the horizon to the other. Les canons. They split the sky with their roar and filled the air with the stench of burnt powder. In that crush of men and gunfire, we marched—”

Though enrapt by the story, something sinister caught Mêlée’s eye. A marking on the floor.

A crooked line drawn with dark magic-marker, jaunting angles split with broken lines. It was one of those bug-like images that she’d seen scratched into walls around the city, but incomplete. It reminded her of a ladder almost or perhaps a stick-figure earwig.

She waited for a quiet moment.

“Who drew that?”

Lawrence leaned slightly over the glass counter. “Some asshole,” he said after a moment. “He had an attitude. It’s good he left when I told him I’d get the cops…”

“Is it…alright if I drew over it?”

“Sure thing, babe.”

A thick marker twirled into her hand. She smiled.

“As long as you’re wearing those tight pants, you can draw on my floor any time you like.”

Malevolent eyes watched the back door to The Graffiti Shop.

The gaze swept through the air, moving from eye to eye as it made its way around Tempe. Very few people were susceptible to its will, but those she could became her spies in the city. After spending a few moments at all the places she could not yet gaze into she returned herself to her own mind and opened her own eyes.

Eyes whose pupils had clouded, the hazy white of settled vitreous fluid, the dread stare of corpses days old. Yet the vital breath still moved her lungs, and her heart beat, albeit slowly, circulating sluggish blood. Awakening in the morgue had been a strange experience after that death—but she would never have to die again.

She had forgotten her name, but names didn’t matter. Only service to the One Who Bides mattered now.

Killing the other students had not been hard, but dying herself had been a sacrifice. A test of faith. Faith resolved, loyalty rewarded. Yet, she still lacked resources she had promised the One Who Waited. The bloodletting on the mountain had gone as planned, with only seven thralls she had overcome the supplicants there—it was amusing they brought candles to their own funeral—enough blood to leak like acid into the shutting wards that held the coffin of the One Who Bides like nails.

Now those spikes weakened and rusted.

“Two souls will have to do,” she said aloud. A murmur of reply issued forth from her thralls who gathered at tables in the disused diner. Since the bloodletting she had gathered to herself a force of fifty and it grew every day with each mind that succumbed to her presence.

The One Who Waited would not have to sleep much longer.

“They have a champion,” she said to the group assembled in shadow.

Days now she had sought that final soul, which had slipped through her fingertips. The champion had taken the stone that contained that essence and other old ones—not as old as the One Who Bides—had spirited it away from her grasp. Now their champion had come looking.

Fifty thralls would have to do. For now.

Too early to risk another direct encounter as had happened the night before at the concert. Without the violin it would not be easy to find the last soul—her ultimate link had been stolen. Clever, the Old Ones, to send a champion who could see through her guise so effectively. She did not think they had it in them.

Phoenix had been so metaphysically dead for so long it seemed unlikely any of the meager mages who littered its urban waste could best her.

…but she would not be denied.

“I will deal with this champion.”

The One Who Waited would awaken.

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