VOLUME INDEX



Chapter XXXI: The Shattered Violin
Chapter XXXII: They Just Walk Away
Chapter XXXIII: In the Heat of the Night

 
 
 




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ASU campus felt more vacant than even Mill. On the Avenue the storefronts at least seemed open and inviting—even those that had closed for the night—broad glass windows addressed wares for sale and asked patrons to return tomorrow. The campus, in sharp contrast, yielded buildings of bank brick, small, dark windows, and narrow doorways. Without occupants, passersby, or even the rustle of a nighttime breeze the air stagnated, cloaking the stern buildings in an grave quiet.

As they made their way further into the campus, Patrick guided Vex, offering descriptions of the classes he took in which buildings. The English building where he took a stuffy course in “Engineering Communications” that taught him how to write memos, sign letters, write instructions, and develop reports for work done. “Preparing for the corporate culture,” he griped. Then there were the Engineering and Mathematics buildings, almost towers really, one of which housed a giant geode and a swinging pendulum multiple stories tall. Closed and locked.

“Not much for after-hours visitation,” Vex commented.

“I guess not,” said Patrick, peeking in. “My last class would be getting out right now, if it hadn’t been cancelled.”

Very few people passed them as they walked, and when they did nobody dared the night alone. Groups of grim faced students watched Vex and Patrick without looking at them directly, hushing their conversation as they swept by. The mood was infectious, even the trees held their collective breaths; no rustle of leaves, nor chirp of birds to greet them as they wandered. Only the smell of dust and freshly watered grass—although, in wide swaths even the lawn had begun to brown and wither.

They crossed through the campus, eerie, cold, and silent. Except the chill that puckered gooseflesh on her arms had nothing to do with the weather—but the subtle, black mutterings that ached for her attention. Over here, they taunted, listen to us… Someone, or something, around ASU was pulling on the threads of reality, playing at trembling strings of magick. The voices found this development as thrilling as Vex found it unsettling and they raised their volume in sibilant crescendo.

She shut out the shadowy peanut-gallery by focusing harder on Patrick’s warm tone.

“Nope, locked,” he said after trying the doors to the Memorial Union. They had guessed it was closed long before reaching those doors.

“Fine,” Vex said. “Off to the library.”

“That’s probably also closed and locked,” observed Patrick.

Her hand fell to the scrimshaw athame at her side. “That won’t be a problem.”

They waited while another cluster of sullen students walked past. As they approached the trellised archway at the top of the stairs that lead down into the Hayden Library, Patrick glanced at the knot of students who continued on without looking back. Vex listened to him, scanning the murky glass doors and windows of the library below as they descended.

“There’s been a lot of reports of kidnappings,” he said. “Stalking incidents and then, of course, there’s the disappearances. Everyone is on edge.” He shrugged, a smooth motion that crinkled his leather jacket and brought a pleasant whiff of his scent. “And after today’s cancellations… Who can blame them?”

“Riddle me this,” Vex said, “is that why you’re packing tonight?”

“You noticed.”

She had, earlier when she hugged him next to the palm reader’s table. Even the thickness of his leather jacket couldn’t completely hide the solid presence of the gun at his side.

Even with the dark sky, the flat prism sculptures across the Hayden Lawn still flickered with color—but without the sun, they didn’t reflect blinding light. They stood out of the scenery, from behind the extinguished lighthouse in the center of the lawn, opulent and otherworldly.

“With everything that’s going on,” Patrick continued, “I thought it would only be prudent.”

“It’s okay,” Vex said, putting a hand on his arm. “I’m not judging you. It’s just that you could get in a lot of trouble carrying that on campus.”

He shrugged again.

“And,” she added, “the things that we might run into in there. Bullets probably won’t stop them.”

“I just feel a lot safer knowing that if we get into a tangle with something even partially flesh-and-blood I can contribute to our defense. I know you have your mantra about going it alone, but I’m no spring chicken when it comes to hostile situations. I promise you I won’t fly off the handle with this weapon—but when I grew up, I learned having one by your side can mean the difference between life and death.”

“As you wish.”

He watched wordlessly as she used the athame and a soft-spoken cantrip to unlock the door.

Heavy, cold air greeted them as she swung the door open; the sharp scent of air-conditioning and books defined the space. Dim lights spaced along the walls made it look a lot larger than it was, creating a brittle half-light that played over the floor and shelves, bleeding away their color. Somewhere in the depths of the building, a large machine rumbled to life. Chill air spilled out of the vents overhead and the temperature dropped again.

Of course, the elevators were shut down, so they had to take the stairs.

“You still haven’t told me what was on the card,” Patrick said. “I don’t want to pry…but you’ve as much told me that I should when I felt the need.”

The stairs were steep and switched back often. With doors and glass sides along part of the journey, but the upper floors encased the staircase in grey cinderblock and solid metal doors. After taking two flights, not replying to him, Vex finally stopped, set her back against a door, and looked at him.

“It was about my mother,” she said.

“Your mother who’s dead.”

“Yeah…that’s the one.”

“You miss her a great deal, don’t you.”

“Extremely.” Vex bowed her head. She struggled with the desire to explain to Patrick the full breadth of her relationship with her “dead” mother but she really doubted he could handle that. Certainly, he handled everything alright, but that—it was different than anything else, especially for her.

Of course, Patrick, sweet Patrick, mistook the emotion for something else altogether.

“I have something I want you to have,” he said, removing a chain from around his neck. Glittering at the end of the chain, rattling metallically, dangled a pair of dog tags. Before she could react, he had them over her head and around her neck. “These belonged to my grandfather. As you can probably guess, he’s no longer with us.”

Vex took one of the tags between her fingers and looked at its shiny aluminum surface, etched with the name and serial number of a soldier who bore Patrick’s surname.

“Patrick,” she said, “we’re going steady already. You don’t need to prove it to me by giving me stuff like this—” He stopped her hand midway as she started to take them off again and shook his head.

“You grew up with your mother. Well, I grew up with my grandfather. When he died, my father gave these to me, and told me that he was watching over me from Heaven. I know what it’s like to lose someone very close to me and to be reminded of them constantly—after I first got them, I hid them in my toy box, on the very bottom. For months I tried to forget.

“Now, I wear them every day. Keep them. Something tells me that he wouldn’t mind watching over you as well.”

She let the chain settle back against her chest again.

“And Heaven knows we probably need it,” he said.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll hang onto these until you want them back. Alright?”

Patrick smiled when she patted him on the arm and turned to head up the stairs. His smile remained as he followed; yet the next few flights of their ascent passed with an unsteady silence.

“What do you think is going on?” Patrick said, breaking their wordless lull while Vex examined the lock that would open the door to a room she was becoming quite familiar with.

“Well,” she said, pausing. She lowered her athame from where it had been poised at the doorknob. “It’s big. Everything going down is big. Bigger than I first thought. And I think everything is pointing to this last girl: Darlene. Even what happened at the concert.

“When I came down here to find her, because she was playing her violin outside Coffee Plant, I got myself kicked in the nuts—metaphorically speaking. And when that happened, it felt like I’d been cold cocked by a musical tune. That same tune is what I heard her playing at the concert.

“So I returned the favor.”

Patrick moved out of a shadow, his face emerging into a ghostly half-light. “What about the massacre and the disappearances and the other kids?”

“All connected somehow,” Vex said. The door unlocked to her cantrip with a soft cluck inside the locking mechanism and swung open into the disused space. “All connected to this music…and if Darlene is pulling all those strings, I will find her. And if I have to, I’ll kill her.”

Patrick drew a flashlight and moved to enter first but she reached up and stopped him with a warning finger.

He obeyed, but not without a frown.

As she entered the room, Vex could tell that the warding circle still remained intact. Out of all the visitors who would have come into this room—ASU, the police, and the strange intruder who removed the other soulstones—none of them had disturbed the sigil and circle enough to diminish its power. As she moved around the diagram, she examined the lines of force and how they interacted with the floor, walls, windows, and ceiling.

Nothing had been touched. Even the bookshelves sat dusty and bare in the same places she recalled them; various discarded bits of equipment scattered about, and ugly rugs stored, leaning, against the bare concrete wall.

Vex waved for Patrick to enter. He slipped in behind her and nodded when she gestured for him to avoid stepping on the sigil or the hard waxy mounds that had once been candles.

“Alright,” she said. “Read me Brent’s e-mail again, please.”

He read from the e-mail:

There are seven points to the diagram occultus; but strangely there are only six cacodaemons written into the text. You can see them looking down at the lines straight down, look for the congregation of Enochian text on one side, curving like a bowl, and there you have your names. If this interpretation is correct, the missing name should be at the focal point of that curve. This means it’s written outside the circle. Get me that name and I may yet solve your mystery.

Vex examined the arcane sigil as he spoke, spotting immediately the curvature of names, with a single name set away from the others, but it was obvious it wasn’t the focus of the curves. Her eyes traced a line that led all the way to a far wall. Several heavy, moldering rolls of carpet leaned against it. The beam of Patrick’s light played over them, flashing splashes of illumination between them and chasing numerous small insects from hiding places.

“They look heavy,” he said, rolling his shoulders and flexing his arms. “But I can handle it.”

“No need. I got it.”

The manipulation of air, and thus things that could be moved by it, happened to be an extremely simple magickal effect. Vex reached into her memory to find a spell that some, long forgotten, wizard had once used to rake leaves, extended her hand and spoke. “Ik’et-el chichich ch’aach’.”

Then, with a sweeping gesture, a tame wind gathered itself into life, battered against the rolls and flung them out of the way. They clattered against the far wall, smushing together with dry creaks, before finally settling into a new pile next to another empty bookcase. In the indirect light cast from Patrick’s flashlight the dim outline of a looming figure could be made out, painted on the wall in black.

“Taking over the heavy lifting?” Although the look on his face was one of amazement, he still managed a pout. “How else am I going to prove that I’m a big strong man?”

She patted his muscular arm and smiled coyly. “Oh, you can prove it in other ways…”

He blushed. “I reckon… What did you say anyway?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I think it was in Mayan.”

“How can you not—”

An uncanny wind rattled the windows behind them, eliciting a guttural almost-whisper from the vibrating panes. As soon as it came, it passed, leaving the room once again in a pregnant hush. Both glanced in the direction of the windows, but they saw nothing but the cloudless night sky twinkling with stars.

“That was very creepy,” he said.

“I agree… Let’s get a look at this so that I can take a picture.” She fished her camera out of a pocket.

The flashlight beam revealed a giant pictograph and not an Enochian name, as Vex had expected. Instead of letters in the Angelic alphabet, there stood a giant image composed of one fat line of black paint, intersected with repeated “legs,” and terminated by a bulbous head sporting twinned antlers or antennae. She narrowed her eyes, backing away slowly. A throbbing malevolence emanated like a sour exhalation from the wall.

“I’ve seen that before,” Patrick said. “Someone’s been drawing them around campus. Like aro—”

Abruptly paranoid, he stiffened as another noise moaned up from the dark. This time much closer. This time from the painted wall. The centipede figure bulged, twisting and canting, warping in all manner of unsavory, eye wrenching ways. The room shuddered like it had swallowed something bad; a foul stench, acrid and stinging, filled the air.

Patrick’s gun came to his hands, the muscles in his arm rippled under his jacket as he aimed the weapon at the motion behind/through the wall. The barrel snapped from side to side as he tried to determine where the threat was coming from, dancing the circle of torchlight from head to legs of the centipede pictograph.

With an equal alacrity, Vex drew her scrimshaw athame—without even a whispered word, its blade ignited with a cool, purple blaze.

“Pat,” she growled through her teeth, grabbing his jacket with her free hand. “Back up. Keep backing up.”

“Jesus-fucking-Christ,” he hissed. “What is that?”

Vex pulled harder on his jacket, drawing him backwards step-by-step. She could feel the intangible brink of the warding circle prickling at her back—and the ghostly whispers of the voices in her head hedged into a guttural climax of advice, guidance, and commands. None acceptable—though all formidable and welcome. With every scintilla of willpower she could, she reached for wards, palisades, and bulwarks to stop whatever the hell would come through. And here, Hell hath crossed the threshold.

“Just. Keep. Backing. Up.”

Then, within the space of a heartbeat, it happened—the wall ruptured like a rotten tomato.

DOWN!

Adrenaline fueled fright surged through her muscles as she hauled Patrick off of his feet, throwing him, unbalanced, over the edge of the warding circle. As he crashed down, Vex hammered her hands together, bracing against the onslaught with everything she could muster. She could feel the makeup around her left eye flare as something inexorable and glacial slammed into the shield. A chill shot through her as the black-nothing parried off her wards and its chitinous mass tumbled into the room.

The thing whipped about wild and fast, especially for its bulk, brutally destroying shelves and bits of walls alike as it attempted to right itself. From her coat pocket, Vex pulled a canister of air-freshener; its top came off in her teeth, white fog gushed from the gaping hole. The monster, which appeared long and sinuous, uncoiled itself at her like a striking snake. Vex summoned fire. The canister, already mid flight on target, exploded. The beast ate red-hot shrapnel—but kept on coming.

Her wards met its version of wards and they batted her aside like a rag doll. She hit the concrete floor and rolled.

“Oh fuck.” She spat blood on the floor and struggled to stand. Breathing deep, she filled herself with fury, ready again. In their last brush, she had learned something about it. The entity wasn’t fully formed—a hack, a simulacrum of astral stuff breathed to life. It was armored: very tough, but not invulnerable.

The monstrosity launched itself at her again, venomous fangs extended—she bared her own teeth. If it didn’t know a more dangerous predator than itself, then it would suffer for it.

Suffocating dark surged up. Hungry death reached at her from all directions and Vex denied it.

With a stomach-wrenching abruptness, a hand grabbed her and yanked her clear. Over the protective circumference of the warding circle. And into Patrick’s shielding embrace.

A beat later, the thing slammed into the wards around the circle. Fangs shattered, limbs snapped.

The creature recoiled, mouths working and legs twitching as it bounced off then smashed through a narrow window. The sound of shattering glass resounded with two sharp cracks that sounded like someone hitting the inside of her skull with a ball-peen hammer. She looked up, ears ringing, to see Patrick squeeze off another shot. Another window exploded as the bullet passed through and struck the creature.

It uncurled like a ribbon of legs and teeth, sailing around to come at them again.

Stop that!” Vex screamed at him. “You’re not hurting it!” Then, after looking into Patrick’s hard eyes, she glanced at the gun. A fickle thought crossed her expression and she held her hand out. “On second thought, give it to me.”

He hesitated; then, with a small shrug, he turned the weapon over in his hand, flicked the safety, and passed it to her grip-first. “As you wish.”

She thanked him and looked over the gun, trying to figure it out. He watched stoically, schooling his features, trying to look as collected as he could while the monster smashed out more windows, sending further glass flying. Shards the size of fists bounced off of Patrick’s jacket as he turned to shield her from them; chitinous tendrils deflected from the quickly failing shield circle.

She looked up at him shaking her head and offered the gun back. “No. I mean, give me the bullets.”

“Alright,” he said, taking the weapon. With a motion of his thumb, he freed the magazine from the pistol’s grip; it slid heavily into his hand. She snatched it from him the moment it was loose and dropped to her knees.

Incanting subvocally, she ran her finger down the row of bullets pouring all of her anger and hostility into them. A shimmering afterglow followed her touch. The energies fused into them and faded away, leaving the bullets looking ordinary—but empowered with devastating fury.

He took the clip back and slotted it back into the gun just as the ribbon of ravenous dark heaved at them again. The building shook again, cracks began to appear in the floor…if even one of them transfixed the circle, the wards would fail. Patrick could see the concern in her eyes as he hefted the gun.

“Close your eyes when you fire!” she shouted over the noise.

“How the hell do I hit it if I can’t see it?” He squared his shoulders and aimed.

Crack! Gunpowder flashed, the gun fired; Vex could smell the sharp smoke.

Something had gone wrong. The beast shrugged off the bullet.

“Shit!” Vex said. That should have worked! “Give me the gun again! I’ll fix it.”

“Chambered round!” He aimed again and squeezed the trigger.

Vex covered her ears and turned away just in time to catch the edge of the flash and Patrick suddenly wished he’d closed his eyes.

KROOM! Will-forged wrath hurled from the barrel with a thunderous report, carrying a muzzle flash so blue and brilliant that it registered into the ultraviolet. Heat and hatred slashed across Vex and Patrick where they stood, cutting through them, and hurled the bullet into the very heart of the looming monster. The impact vaporized the head—if it could be said to have such a thing—and punched a hole all the way down its throat.

Mindless, the body lost control and began to fall; but like a locomotive suddenly without an engine—it did not lose any momentum. An instant later the dead husk collided with the library stacks a floor below, smashed through a window, and plowed into some shelves. Vex winced, thinking about all the books that probably just bit the dust.

Patrick had other things on his mind as he lowered the gun. He leaned a little bit forward, as if trying to see the crash site, but unwilling to leave the warding circle.

“What did you do to the bullets?”

Vex carefully controlled her breathing as she tried to take account of her bruises. “I gave it a taste of my anger—and it choked on it.”

“Remind me to never piss you off.”

 
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