VOLUME INDEX



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

 
 
 




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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 Park

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--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 One.

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 rescue.”

“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.

 
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