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Chapter XL: The Burning Time
Chapter XLI: Into the Dark
Chapter XLII: Lay Me Down to Die

 
 
 




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Vex found the apparition of her mother standing in the path not far from the ‘A’. Her ghostly features faced away, looking down over the city which buzzed with the sort of excitement that an ant hill did after being kicked over—the headlights of cars led long strings of white and red, winding away into the diffuse umbral distance. Though no wind blew, the folds of her luminous white dress swayed as if in a breeze, coiling about her legs and curves with like a living thing. The smell of desert brush felt thick in the sticky air, mingling with sneeze-inducing dust and the exhaust stench of the thousand cars fleeing the city. Her mother made no indication that she noticed her daughter’s approach; the ethereal lines of her expression remained serene, caressed by the subtle hues of the diminishing twilight.

Seeing her mother’s image thus put a hollow in her stomach. It had been too long since she’d looked at a picture of her own mother. She wondered if she was beginning to forget, if the appearance of this phantom would someday obscure the image of her mother in living memory. She frowned at herself, escaping into sentimentality when there was work to be done. She dropped her hand into her pocket and her fingers found one of the Witch bottles.

The voices scratching at the back of her mind went abruptly silent, like birds in the forest startled by a large animal—then her mother began to speak.

We know you too well, our daughter,” the apparition said. She spoke without turning her gaze from the vista below. “We knew you would not heed us. Now it is too late for you to escape what comes. So we have delivered into your hands the one weapon that would provide proof against this enemy.

Steeling herself with rage, Vex balled her fist so tight that her fingernails cut into her palm. The pain and the anger gave her something to hold onto, something real. She’s not my mother, she reminded herself. A spirit’s pale imitation of her memory. And Vex needed her now, the specter of her dead mother’s memory or some unknown creature with its own designs—she needed the help, and she hated herself for knowing that.

Ordinarily, the sigil design around her eye would have kept her mother’s apparition at bay. The alterations she’d made to it back in the apartment left open a soft spot for her voice—and in this case, also appearance—to seep through her carefully learned defenses. This was the best way for Vex to talk to her, without the danger of one of the others interfering; although, her mother’s manifestation generally also quieted the other voices, like had just happened, it was best not to take anything in magick for granted.

“You know a lot more about what’s going down than you’ve let on.” Vex dropped her tone an octave into a strident growl. “Tell me how to stop this.”

There is no need to demand such countenance from us,” the phantom said. “We give it freely.

The ghost turned to face her, and Vex felt a fresh surge of bitter resentment—her hand curled around the Witch bottle. Her mother’s hollow eyes flickered up and down her body with a calculating look and a gentle smile twitched at her lips when her gaze settled on Vex’s pocket, and the hand within. As she moved, her body took on substance. Footprints appeared in the dust of the trial, her hand extended to stop inches away. Vex clenched her teeth and made a warning of her gaze; the specter did not seem to notice, but withdrew the offered hand.

“Good,” she said. “You will need those where you must go. Keep your reserve, however, some of this is illusion but some is not.”

She hadn’t brought the Witch bottles for her mother. They wouldn’t work, after all. She’d attempted the same gambit some time in the past, the spectral emanation that manifested as her mother didn’t have enough connection to this existence to be affected by them. The apparition had found the experience of Vex’s use of a bottle on it amusing; perhaps it tickled. The upshot of the whole encounter, however, betrayed to Vex that whatever this creature, it had so little to do with her actual mother that a Witch bottle made with several strands of her dark hair had no effect.

Dark hairs that currently fluttered along the shoulders of the ghost standing mere feet away—the same raven feather black that graced her own locks. Vex fought the sense of familiarity with an even deeper sense of hostility. This woman… This thing wasn’t her mother; it was the hand of some other power, that had reached out to her for years for whatever unknown reason. This wasn’t the time to dwell in the past, or in its strange machinations. Below, the city burned.

“Fine,” Vex said. “Show me.”

 

The back of Patrick’s jeep felt uncomfortable to Megan. Unlike Vex’s taxi, the seats poked into her thighs and the belt appeared to be made of some fraying weave that chafed against her legs even through her jeans. Patrick had taken the driver’s seat, of course, and Nathan demanded shotgun, hustling the girls into the back seat without a word. In the rear-view mirror they wore twined grim expressions. For the past ten minutes nobody said a thing over the sound of angry shouts, and blare of car horns. The image of Tiffany sitting between her and Darlene brought a silent chuckle to as she listened to the ghost-girl discuss what she could see simmering around the edges of the streets in empty houses. She didn’t dare reply to Tiffany except in barely audible whispers—which the ghost understood amazingly well—but sitting so close to the girl from the ruins made Megan feel exposed.

“Are you waiting for a text?” Darlene asked, gesturing to the cell phone. The violin bow in her lap rattled against the belt buckle as she moved; her hand clasped down on it to secure it again. “Family in town perhaps? If I had any family here, I’d be staring at my phone too…just to make sure that they made it out okay.”

“I…” Yes, she did have family in the city. Her mother and father would be at home right now, amid the birds, probably thinking of going to sleep. With all the fires and the mass evacuation of panicked people from the city, though, she wondered why her parents hadn’t called her to find out if she was okay. She felt a sinking feeling as if her stomach dropped out. “My parents are tough,” she said, more a reassurance to herself. “They’ll be fine… It’s important that we stop whatever’s going on.”

Cold brushed her skin as Tiffany leaned closer, a light chill blew on her cheek. “When we stop, I can assist you in summoning a servant that can go check on them,” she said. “The right type could even herd them out of town and protect them. Like a sheepdog. It’s simple enough. I can find it for you. All you have to do is impress your will upon it, memory will do it, and then your parents will be looked after.”

Megan nodded in agreement—that would be good. She didn’t understand why she had to come along anyway. Between Patrick’s gun and Nathan’s muscular physique she doubted the group really needed her. Upon leaving the apartment, though, Patrick insisted that if Darlene meant to return to her ASU dormitory, then everyone would go with her. These were dangerous times in the city, after all, and nobody—especially an inexperienced girl—could go out there alone.

Although she felt the need to argue for waiting for Vex, Megan herself felt stir crazy about actually doing something.

So, now, here they were, driving into the hot night. All around them, other people had similar ideas, but perhaps ideas about leaving town. Cars jammed the roads in a perpetual gridlock, police flares appeared here and there with their fluttering pink glow around car accidents, ambulances and fire engines wailed in the distance. Even with the sun set, the fires still held apparent, wreathing Phoenix with a cologne of acrid smoke—red based columns of black smoke could be seen in every direction, blotting out the stars in the cloudless sky.

“Mom and dad will be all right.”

Darlene reached over—unknowingly through Tiffany—and put her hand on Megan’s shoulder. “You’re right, they’ll be fine.”

Megan hugged her cat backpack tighter against her chest.

“We’ll make sure they’re fine,” Tiffany said from the reflection in the cell phone.

“Take a look at that.”

Every head in the jeep turned to follow Nathan’s gesture. Patrick had taken to breaking out of the gridlocked streets and managed to find them some empty passage through residential streets as they got closer to ASU. The buildings of the campus loomed large in the distance, poking above the low built houses, but they tended to only magnify the strange sight. The jeep stopped at a mildly uninteresting intersection except that to one side one of the mountain buttes jutted up into the blank sky, a structure on the side burned furiously lending an evil glow to the ‘T’ on the side of the mountain.

Megan recognized it as Tempe Butte.

Directly ahead, the ‘A’ on A Mountain displayed a very similar effect—except, as far as she could tell, there were no fires. The ‘A’ itself seemed to writhe against the dark, straining against the very fabric of the space around it. Car lights and the stars in the sky paled against the afterglow surrounding the ‘A’ like a halo and it blurred slightly as if seen through a drunken haze. Then something else caught her gaze, something seemed a little off about the stars in the cloudless sky.

Tiffany put it into words first. “Should they be lined up like that?” she said.

Leaning hard against the window, Megan pressed her face near Tiffany’s reflection to look up into the sky. Even though she had the girl in her cell phone she didn’t want to roll down the window and lose the larger reflection of her; but Megan still wanted to get a good look at the stars. Indeed, they seemed a little out of place, or perhaps certain ones just appeared brighter. A string of them, like a glittering stretch, described an arc between the ‘T’ and the ‘A’ on the buttes.

“I don’t want to startle anyone,” she said, knowing nobody else could hear Tiffany. “But does anyone recognize those constellations? I sure don’t.”

Patrick glanced away from the eerie view of A Mountain and leaned forward to look up into the sky. Megan saw his eyes widen in the same fashion and he prodded Nathan whose expression followed shortly.

“Jesus Christ in Heaven,” Nathan said slowly, his jaw going slack. “Astronomy was several semesters ago, but that’s no natural formation. Not for this time of year. I should be able to see Orion there.”

“What do you think it means?” asked Darlene. Her head poked out her open window, allowing a breath of extremely warm air to flood into the jeep. With it came the forbidding aroma of smoke—it reminded Megan of the smell of forest fires, but far stronger—but underneath she could smell the city as well. And something else, something mixed into the smell of asphalt, desert plants, and burning buildings. Something that made her feel uneasy.

Patrick shifted the jeep into gear and turned the corner. “I reckon that’s a sign that we should get in and out as quickly as we can.”

Megan felt better when Darlene rolled her window up again.

Over the gentle murmur of the road, Megan could hear Nathan muttering something under his breath. He held a rosary in his hands. She looked at Patrick, his face steeled and expressionless as he drove, the light of the city passing over his features at uneven angles. He noticed her looking at him and spared a brief nod, but didn’t say anything. She understood: ASU wasn’t far and the bad traffic would require his attention. They way he gripped the wheel reminded Megan of a person preparing for the worst, but trying to do their best. Darlene had clasped her hands on her lap and collapsed into herself, she didn’t notice when Megan looked at her. The city lights reflected sharp lines in the girl’s glasses, which had become greasy from sweat, casting loops and colorful rainbows across her face. She appeared deeply engrossed in thought.

“I hope this girl is everything we expect her to be,” Tiffany said, voicing Megan’s on thoughts. “She’s arrived on the heels of one major grade A disaster. I think, when we get to her dormitory, we should spend some time in the bathroom and brush you up on your theurgy. You’re probably going to need it.”

“Maybe we should have waited for Vex,” Megan said aloud. “I would really feel more comfortable if she happened to be here with us.”

“For once, I agree with you about her,” Tiffany said.

Nobody else voiced their own opinion on the matter.

 
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