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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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.