VOLUME INDEX



Chapter XXXVII: Darlene
Chapter XXXVIII: Splitting Decisions
Chapter XXXIX: Up the Mountain

 
 
 




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Vex paced the threshold between her apartment’s kitchen and living room like a tiger at the bars of a cage as she watched Darlene—the girl who had emerged from the Hopi ruins—who fingered through the shattered remnants of the violin taken from the spooky concert at the Bash on Ash. The girl didn’t look like Vex expected. She didn’t have the demeanor or countenance of a bristling evil sorceress bent on destroying Phoenix, vanishing most of the population, and bringing horror and devastation into the world.

She looked harmless almost. Lost and worried. The one thing that she had in her possession—a violin bow with an eagle’s feather and beads—poked out of Vex’s waistband. The item could have readily been a wand or weapon, there was no sense in letting her keep it. The bow resonated with power when Vex took it, but she doubted that Darlene would have known what to do with it. Even in the most academic sense, the girl didn’t have clue one about evocative thaumaturgy, let alone much more than simple cursory knowledge of the Enochain ritual magick used by her cadre in the Hayden Library Stacks.

Their best candidate for the ringleader of the doom hanging over Phoenix didn’t seem like a ringleader at all.

Still, everyone in the room kept her at arm’s length. Patrick and Nathan flanked the table, warily sitting on the edges of their seats as they waited for Vex to pose the next question. The conversation felt tense—actually, the entire day since Darlene’s appearance at the ruins had been tense. Even the ride back into Phoenix didn’t deliver much solace or closure for anyone. The only person who appeared remotely relaxed was Megan, who stood next to a picture on the wall in the living room and often glanced at her own reflection, betraying a deep sense of boredom.

Vex serrated her tone with frustration over the circumstances; but every time she bit into Darlene for more detail, the girl shrank back into herself. The interrogation had made no headway over the past hour. Outside, the sun was almost set, vivid crimson light angled through the front curtains—a dazzling sunset created by smoke from a nearby wild fire. Even the air-conditioning couldn’t totally exclude the smell of burning desert and dust.

“I don’t understand…” the girl said, setting a larger piece of the violin back down onto the table. “My friends—they’re all dead?”

“Sure as I’m standing here,” Vex said. “Now, tell me again, what were you and your friends doing in the library that night? What books did you read, how did you decide on the sigils and significants? Please be detailed. ”

“Is this like a police shakedown thing? Where you ask me to tell my story over and over again for hours on end?”

“I think she’s tired,” Megan said abruptly. “I know I am. We should really get something to eat.”

“I agree,” Patrick said. “It’s no sense starving her to death and I don’t see why we’re still treating her like a monster. No offense, ma’am, but you don’t look like you could hurt a fly.”

“Thanks.” Darlene hugged herself. “I just… It’s hard to hear that my friends are dead. Really dead. I can’t believe that we got ourselves into this.” She swung her gaze from Patrick to Vex, her eyes almost pleading. “Is this really my fault? Did my part in this really get them killed?”

Vex gestured toward the fridge with her chin. “She can have water. Megan?”

The cat-eared girl jumped in surprise at the sound of her name as she glanced away from the picture on the wall. After a moment realization passed over her face and her expression softened. “Oh right,” she said. “Sure.”

As Megan made her way to the fridge, Vex put her hands on the table and leveled a penetrating gaze at Darlene.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I need you to tell me again, in as much detail as you can recall—what happened at the end of your little ritual.”

Darlene took a bottle of water from Megan, twisted off the top, and gulped down several swigs. She burbled a thank you before nodding slightly. The girl’s cheerful mood from when she first emerged quickly faded after the hours of questioning and long taxi cab ride. It took longer for the rest of the group to relax somewhat about her arrival; her presence added yet another mystery to the tangled set of clues and occurrences.

“We’d practiced the entire thing a few weeks before, dress rehearsals in Mary Beth’s dorm room,” Darlene said. She fingered another one of the shattered remains of the violin almost forlornly. “We duct taped a circle on the floor about the right width for the inner area so we could get used to where to stand and I would play through with the chanting. Each time, I thought that I could hear a sort of resonance in the harmony, as if the music I was given matched the voices almost perfectly. Like an orchestra performance.”

She had told this story almost three times now. The girl had gotten to the point where she was almost rote reciting the event. The sudden darkness. The explosion of howling and moving shadows. Except now, with her finger sliding against one of the strings of her old violin, the touch seemed to trigger a memory.

She shivered.

“That night… That night when I played it felt like my fingers had come on fire with the music—and at the end, when everything went black, I thought that I could hear the violin music echoing back to me.

“‘Stay inside the circle!’ That was Mary Beth, David almost freaked out right then—well, heh, he kinda grabbed onto me. I didn’t really mind…” She adjusted her glasses demurely. “But I had to yank him back from trying to run for the door. In the roaring dark, something sang the music back to me. I brought this up to everyone else when we ran off to IHOP, but nobody else heard it. Mary Beth brushed me off when I brought it up to her later.

“She told us that the candles relighting was merely a paraffin flare and the rest of it must have been in my head. David agreed with her so ardently that I didn’t feel like bringing it up again. But, I’m still not sure that’s exactly what happened. The echo of the music didn’t just come from outside the circle, I could see it in the candles.”

Patrick leaned back in his chair and said, “This Mary Beth sounds like she was the real leader of this project. Except that we know she’s dead now. That doesn’t leave many options, does it?”

“No,” Vex said. “It doesn’t. Maybe we’re looking at a case similar to demonic possession. Mary Beth had actual magickal talent and training. She may have been taken by something else, used to set up this elaborate ritual with—” She gestured to Darlene. “—you all. The ritual must have cracked some sort of barrier allowing the soul shards in those candles to make a link between this world and the next, powering the sigil on the wall.

“She then started to hunt down and sacrifice everyone involved in the ritual to release the energy pent in those soul shards to enlarge the crack. That explains the godfrag that Patrick and I ran into. The possessing entity apparently needed to also kill her to get the whole wheel turning.”

“Why me?” asked Darlene.

“The violin,” Vex said, picking up a particularly large piece; strings swung and twanged discordantly as they twisted against one another. “Lots of magickal rituals tap into the innate talents of those involved: Hermetics often use masterful mathematics and engineering, Ecstatic magick involves talented control over the body and memory…so perhaps whatever Mary Beth needed required a talented musician. You.”

Darlene exhaled a slow, considering breath. “The People Who Sing,” she said. “It makes a lot more sense now! Chief Tall Trees gave me the violin bow because whatever you need to fight this thing off needs music. My music. If I was part of bringing their enemy out into the world, maybe that means that you’ll need me to put it back again.”

Her eyes dropped to the broken bridge of the violin; she reached up and took it from Vex, then set it carefully back down on the table.

“Just not with this,” she said. “This instrument will never be played again.”

 

“Do you trust her?” asked Patrick.

“About as far as I could throw her,” Vex said.

That reply elicited an amused sound from the boy on her bed, probably because he compared the phrase to exactly how far he realized she could throw someone. Still, Darlene’s story could have held up. Her explanation of where she’d been over those missing few days since she’d been taken stretched the imagination; but in the vast sea of possibilities they didn’t strike Vex as totally implausible.

Darlene had been somewhere else, that sensation felt palpable enough.

Patrick lounged while she washed her face and reapplied her makeup—the heat of the day combined with the stress and frustration of being thrust another seeming dead-end in her investigation had done a number on the design. Even the shield sigils surrounding the apartment didn’t fully cement the cracks in her personal ward and the voices had begun to seep in like cold air under the door. Although still soft spoken, she could nearly make out some of the dark muttering, echoing words of wisdom about how to tear the knowledge and power she needed from Darlene. The girl very nearly radiated the otherworldly and while she herself certainly didn’t know how to use it, Vex certainly could.

…and it would be so easy”, one of the voices echoed in her memory. “The girl is a mere vessel for a greater force, a tool—a pawn—being moved by players who dwarf the world as a man dwarfs the chessboard. But a chess piece made of gunpowder. Why move her when—with the proper application of blade and magick—her place in the plot can be juxtaposed for yours. Let me tell you about the time I took the life of a widow’s daughter and used her to…

Vex shook it off.

“She’s exactly how my godmother described her.” She finished a delicate sweep with the eyeliner brush, depositing a curving line of black over an already drying line of grey. The design would have to be more intricate this time—she needed the additional protection for the next excursion. “A gaucho and her violin. Taken from my hands and just as abruptly returned. Perhaps her story about the Native American hideaway is true, it certainly fits recent events and the information we’ve gathered. It just feels…like it fits too easily.”

“I must admit, it did seem rather convenient, her popping up like that.”

“Someone’s been manipulating our movements,” she said. “Giving me just enough of a glimpse of the overall plan to move forward each time. It could be whatever prime mover-and-shaker is bringing all this down, it could be the servant of the thing behind the godfrag, it could even be that girl’s spirit friends. I don’t know. And I don’t like it when things fit together so well without offering another answer.”

“You don’t like when things get handed to you on a silver platter?”

Vex opened her mouth to speak. Her reflection froze mid-word, lips withdrawn slightly showing a clear row of teeth, the eyeliner brush paused. Not when my mother is involved in handing me that platter, she almost said. Sure enough, listening to that voice rarely led her astray—the information given was never false, but it also never came without a price. Merely listening to her in the bookstore could have grave consequences; an aftermath that she full expected to come back and bite her in the ass sometime soon.

Sometime very soon.

Especially because the next step of the plan she’d fomented anticipated seeing her mother again.

“Pat,” she said. “I need you to trust me on this one. We know by now that something ugly is going down and even if this girl isn’t at the center of the shakedown, she’s definitely a major player. I’ve got a really bad feeling about her involvement and—” I saw something terrible in that dorm room next to yours and I need to go make certain she’s not connected to that.

A rustle at the bathroom door caught Vex’s attention. Patrick stood there. Large as life, attractive, good-smelling, all the things she’d come to find comfort in. The lines of his face rippled with appreciation as he looked her up and down and she nearly felt her heart sink. A moment later, he was in her arms, and—in total indifference to her still wet makeup—she buried her face in his shirt. She’d been fighting the feeling during the entire drive home.

If events were to continue to transpire as they had, she would need to send him away. And if she must, it would have to also happen very soon.

She allowed the momentary vulnerability to pass and stepped away from him; he let his arms stay raised for a moment, it reminded her of a penitent, pleading gesture. Steeling her expression and her emotions, she shook her head slightly.

“In order to verify the girl’s story, I am going to have to do something really dangerous,” she said. Patrick’s lips stirred but she put a finger on his lips. “You cannot come with me. I cannot protect you. I am about to walk into fire—you understand.”

His arms fell to his sides and she withdrew the finger. “But I don’t have to like it.”

“This isn’t the time to go protective boyfriend on me,” she said. “I think I’ve proven that I can take care of myself on my own terms by now. I have something hard to ask you to do, and I need you to do as I ask.”

Patrick’s expression became unreadable. “Alright.”

“If I am not back by daybreak, I need you to take everyone, get in your Jeep, and leave Phoenix.”

 
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