“I-10 and I-17 have heavy congestion heading out of Phoenix,”
the radio said through a brisk and fretful static. “Emergency vehicles are
having trouble reaching hospitals and sites of flash fires. Authorities are
asking citizens not to visit fires as this causes unnecessary frustration for
ambulances and fire engines. I know when I was young my father and I would go
out and watch burning buildings from a distance, but right now less cars on the
road would help our emergency services a lot.
“Stay safe out there, my peeps. It’s almost nine in the
evening and the temperature is 101 degrees.
“Let’s cool down with some harsh melody by Linkin
Although the sun had set, the heat of the day still cooked
the night air. The exhaust from hundreds of cars hitting the streets mixed with
the smoke from the numerous fires around the Valley, bringing a bleak miasma to
every benighted thoroughfare. Cars with haggard and distracted drivers
cluttered the highways and byways of Tempe as Vex trekked her way from her
apartment down towards Mill Ave. An everyday trip that, on any other day, would
have breezed by in a matter of minutes took her almost half-an-hour to make
only three miles of odometer distance.
Frayed nerves and erratic driving shaped the traffic on
the streets, minor collisions were numerous as were reports of road rage—and
the odd account of strange phenomena. Callers into the radio station described
individuals involved traffic accidents as mysteriously going missing, most of
the DJs dismissed these stories as heat induced; but on her drive, Vex passed
at least one fresh crash scene police had cordoned off, and the only people
standing around wore uniforms.
Mill Ave appeared packed from end to end with flickering
brake lights. The exhaust fumes from all of the cars became so noxious that Vex
had to switch her ventilation off entirely and accept the sweltering heat while
she waited for a turn off into the narrow side streets. People seemed to be
ignoring them entirely, opting instead to run up and down Rio Salado and
University. The traffic jam on the Loop 202 bridge had become so tight that the
entire roadway appeared to have a cloud of smog hanging over it, illuminated
harsh red by the invisible line of cars.
The white walls of the Hayden Flour Mill loomed next to
the parking lot of the Tempe Mission Palms hotel. Its parking lot miraculously
empty of vehicles and its rooms possibly also empty of visitors. She hoped
parking her cab there wouldn’t attract much attention while she ascended the
mountain that stood adjacent. As she stepped out of the cab she felt the rush
of chilled air from her A/C spill past her legs and splash around her feet
displacing the sudden, stark heat of the outside air. But that only lasted a
moment; the bristling hot of the night air kissed her bare skin and filled her
lungs as she took a careful breath.
Something in the scent of it triggered a guttural chuckle
from a voice with a thick Russian accent. “All burnt offerings smell
different,” it said with a harsh rasp, scraping just barely against her
wards. “Fear the most palpable. A community against the grips of the
unknown, nostrils flaring like a panicked ox. It’s a scent that spreads like
fire. Great emotions create great powers—a power that can be harnessed,
directed… Molten fear can be as pliable as liquid metal and as quick to cast.”
Her fingers tingled—the air thrummed with that same power.
A great magickal working brimmed with potential as it drank in the flows of
anxiety, concern, and aggrieved worry of every motorist. It pulsed with a
living will, tugging at her with a skin-crawling sensation. It drew her gaze
towards the mountain—towards the great concrete A and its years of yellow
paint. Since the massacre, the floodlights that lit the A had been turned off
(possibly because the clean-up of the mess had not been completed yet.) Even in
the gloom of night, she could still make out the sharp angles of the sculpture
against the black of the mountainside.
Death always left an impression; violent death even more
so—many violent deaths could only compound the effect.
Even at this distance, voices that normally kept silent
began to awaken, murmuring dark deeds—necromancy, blood sacrifice, death
rituals, rites for the dying—some of them groggy, some thrilled by the
thoughts in her head, all trying to catch her attention like overeager students
and professors, swarming with mirth about their grim subjects. By dint of will,
Vex hustled them behind their door and locked them back away. She didn’t need
their distraction, and they would only become more ambitious as she advanced on
the site. The one single voice she wanted to talk to would be there regardless
of how hard she tried to push it away. It wouldn’t do to have that cacophony
interrupting her vis-à-vis session.
Behind her, the burning city, her city, her friends in
danger, Patrick and others…
In front of her, a hike up the mountain in the heat of the
night. There was nothing for it, she told herself. If stopping the events she
witnessed in those nightly terrors meant confronting her mother’s apparition
then that’s what she had to do.
Vex set her jaw, slipped her brass knuckles on, and set
her foot on the base of the trail that would lead up the mountain and to the A.
Cold eyes, clouded still with the vapors of death, watched the
back door to the Graffiti Shop from a vantage far enough away to be invisible,
but close enough to smell the rank incense that held her own soldiers at bay.
The little underground store became their hard place. The townsfolk proved
easy, distracted by their daily lives, going on autopilot. They fell to her
influence over the days previous—at least they that didn’t throw their lot in
with the evacuees—but those within, secreted in that quickly filled bolt hole,
continued to defy her.
It seemed trivial, but the defiance stuck in her side,
like a thorn.
They would not prove a worthy obstacle to That Which
Slept—that stirred even now beneath the soles of her bare feet. Each day the
heat rose, the air thirsted with deepening drought, and her master pulled ever
ponderously nearer to shrugging off that mantel of slumber.
The street urchins and castaways didn’t matter to that
They only mattered to her.
In her smoldering daydream she began to feel a shift
beneath her once again, a palpable yawn. Someone moved—someone else. The
champion she met in the Bash On Ash meant to ascend the mountain to her
master’s crypt. Did she mean to try her hand at hammering the nails to the
coffin tighter? Like a carpenter striking metal against wood, not understanding
the extent of the corrosion. The cloudy eyes shifted towards the mountainside,
the ‘A’ beckoned her.
She could go. Lay waste to the Old Clan’s champion before
she could do further damage or—
Another string tugged. A far away vibration, like a fly’s
leg testing spider’s silk. Yes. The violin player! The girl she’d missed. Taken
from her by the Old Clan and hidden in the world of That Which Slumbered, the
place its body stretched to like a living bridge—linking her world and that
land of ghost and spirit. So they’d sent her back. A vessel of their will.
She’d given up looking.
The champion would keep; the Old Clan’s vessel meant a far
more promising prize.
The crowd inside Graffiti Shop only kept getting thicker as the
sky darkened with the falling sun and the closing smoke. Lawrence skipped out
some few hours earlier to truck a new supply of glassware to the store—before
the general hysteria set in around Phoenix. He left James, a gruff but playful
young man who traded cigarette singles for jokes (instead of the regular 25¢, a
price for friends and pretty girls.) He watched the milling groups uneasily in
the mirror at the side of the store. So many people had come in for refuge the
racks of shirts had to be shoved over to one side of the shop. A couple of the
quieter kids had been given places behind the counters to sit on stools and
chat with their friends. Inside: In spite of the increasing number of people,
the atmosphere felt comfortable. Safe.
Outside: Tempe and Phoenix tore themselves apart with
smoke and fear.
Mêlée prowled the crowd, patting shoulders and holding
quick, harsh conversations with various rats about others who hadn’t turned up.
Anyone who went back out again did so with three or four of their best friends,
or she insisted they stay indoors. News of dark things lurking had been
filtering back all day. People collapsed from the extreme heat. Others spoke of
hallucinatory images seen but briefly in the wavering air like mirages: people
and things reaching for them, asking questions, beckoning.
“Tear open a new pack of incense sticks,” Mêlée told
Amish. “We need more of them around the outside… The ones we have are starting
to go out.”
He pulled a lighter from the folds of his ragtag
Renaissance outfit and headed up the stairs with the new box. The smoldering
ruin of past sticks formed a moat of pleasant anti-miasma surrounding Graffiti
and the storefronts inside of the brick-and-mortar courtyard in a protective
circle. It held the hoary odor of decay and death away.
She could smell it. Not smoke from the fires. Not fear
precisely. Not the tension the city must have bowed under. Madness on the wind.
She frowned. People had found more of those inscriptions around and near the
store, at her direction they were obliterated with rocks and anyone who tried
to draw them chased away. Street rats told stories about seeing the drawings
shift—Nightshade told a story about how one sang to her as she passed by.
The street outside could have been empty for all the
people who wandered along Mill Ave. Though cars choked the road with their
metal bodies and filled the air with exhaust fumes, nobody said a thing, no
music played; people would not get out, or look around. They wanted to leave
town. Even police cars appeared strangely absent from the slowly moving
gridlock. Mêlée had given up watching the people drive by slowly without
stopping. It felt strange sitting at the bus stop knowing there were no busses,
watching the cars passed at walking speed while the drivers and passengers
totally ignored her.
A trio of street rats arrived by the back door and wove
their way down the stairs through the clique of punk kids standing there
peering at the posters on the wall. In the lead, Corpse with his short-cropped
hair and intense gaze, sought out Mêlée and patted her on the arm.
“There’s another fire,” he said. “That’s what all the
sirens are about. A few houses further up near Priest are burning. The fire
engine is having trouble getting to them, I think. We didn’t want to go look.
We didn’t find anyone else out there.”
Next to him, Demon mopped his forehead with a handkerchief
that he normally used as a do-rag. “Plus, it’s fucking hotter than a naked
chick out there. I’m going to grab some water.”
“I don’t know about you,” Corpse said, “but I don’t think
we can crash here. I’m going to head back to my house. I’ve got some extra room
if you wanna take it off at my place.”
Mêlée made a motion with her lips that flexed her metal
whiskers. She couldn’t leave. “I’ve got to stay here. I have a feeling
something big is about to happen. I want to see it.”
“Have you looked outside lately? You don’t want to be
sleeping out there tonight when Graffiti closes. Shit… The cops hassle everybody
they find on the street. I guess they figure if you’re not driving, you’re
trouble.” He shook his head. “You act as if you expect someone to come to the
“There is someone,” she said. “I know she’ll be near the
heart of all this.”
“Do you think you can find her?”
“You’ve had the dreams. She’ll find us.”
“Some of us don’t dream.” With that, Corpse shrugged and
turned to walk away into the crowd, looking for some other fun.
“James,” Mêlée said. “Could you turn the music up just a
tad? I like this song.”
The musical harmony made her feel better.