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
Vex gestured toward the fridge with her chin. “She can have
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
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
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.
“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
“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
“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
“…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
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
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
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
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.”