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Chapter XXII: David
Chapter XXIII: Korey
Chapter XXIV: Mary Beth

 
 
 




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The moment Mary Beth opened her eyes she knew something was very wrong.

Something else was in the room with her. She had awoken to the sensation of being watched.

The dorm room resolved from moonlight. The dim luminescence flooded through the open drapes of the window and fingered over the minimal furniture. It brought her school books into a sharp relief, where they sat on the desk haphazardly cluttered in front of her makeup, shampoo, and conditioner. The mirror above the dresser reflected the room with a blue hue, adding an ethereal quality to the walls and the reverse faces of the items on the shelf.

She had cast a ward across the threshold of the door. That should have stopped most anything from entering the room, but she couldn’t tell if anything had touched it off without first getting out of bed. She smiled at the thought. When she was younger and feared monsters in the darkness, she would pull the sheets and blankets over her head, close her eyes, and imagine that they could not hurt her as long as she stayed completely covered—for once the superstitions of childhood weren’t so imaginary. Unlike the sheets when she was a little girl, these sheets had been enchanted to do just that.

The presence shifted through the room with the moonlight, scanning about like a searchlight.

Mary Beth remained very still.

She had known that this day was going to come eventually. That her studies into the occult would draw attention and someone would come looking. A lot of what came in the books at places like Borders couldn’t compare to the reality. Putting together a small coven with David, Darlene, and Korey to do ritual magic had been the best thing she had ever done to further her understanding of the practice. The small stuff was easy enough: lighting candles, scrying like a voyeur into the lives and psyches of her teachers, hexing an ex with erectile dysfunction. “Try to handle that with Viagra,” she’d snickered as she burned his photograph with willow moss and eyebright.

And now someone noticed. It was good that Korey wasn’t in bed with her. For a moment she wondered where he was—she couldn’t remember what happened before falling asleep. She certainly had no complaints when it came to him and his performance. Sure, he was a bit on the dumb jock side, but it just made him a lot easier to mold into what she desired. The virility of his youth proved to be a powerful battery when she needed it. Still, it was good that he wasn’t with her.

She did not move a muscle until she was very certain the presence had passed entirely. And when she did, she moved only enough to adjust her panties—which had wedged uncomfortably during sleep—and grab a more agreeable bra from the chair and her nightshirt. After donning said items, she slipped catlike over to the window. There she evoked a spirit of motion and passed bodily through the wall and window to the outside.

Warm Arizona air and moonlight greeted her as she stepped out of the wall and her bare feet touched wet grass. The smell of the grass and outside air surrounded her as she looked across the street at the Denny’s, watching the shadows of people that moved within. Even this late at night, students still needed food. She tugged at the black fabric of her shirt and frowned; it fell only to mid-thigh, her panties were going to be visible if she needed to run.

Half-naked, standing outside of her dorm room window, and lurking behind a bush, Mary Beth evoked another spirit.

 

“She’s avoiding me,” Vex said. “This girl knows magick.”

This time was different: the lwa didn’t appear and they had also brought Megan. Only Vex had any substance to her body, looking basically like she did in everyday life, but the other girl appeared as hazy afterimages. Vex could sense Andre as she did before, the gentle hand holding the safety line that tied her back to the world of the living; when she focused, she could see the white skull of his face grinning redly back.

“Oh,” Megan said, her voice rasped like a radio broadcast on the edge of reception. “What does that mean?”

“It means she knows what she’s doing,” Vex said.

Shadows scuttled as she pushed the door open and stepped out into the empty night. Stars twinkled deep in the dark sky, crickets chirped, and the headlights of cars shimmered past as they whsshed down the nearby street. The scent of the tall bushes either side of the door reminded Vex of the ASU campus. It took a moment, but she quickly realized they were standing near Apache, outside one of the dorms.

“Stay close to me. This place could be dangerous to you. You’re not simply a bystander this time around.”

Megan’s specter nodded and followed like a hungry ghost. “So, what are you going to do when you catch up with her?”

Vex paused before replying. She watched a Chevy pickup turn slowly off the road a block away and drive into the adjoining neighborhood. This death-world seemed much more cohesive than Korey’s and far more accessible than David’s. Maintaining a corporeal presence here was easy, it took no energy for her to retain a shape and interact with the surroundings—like opening the door—but she could sense the darkness lingering just at the edges of her vision. It bided there, just beyond the periphery, like a tiger pacing the bars of its cage.

Yet for some reason it held back. Perhaps because Mamman Brijit willed it so, or maybe Mary Beth herself possessed enough strength as her spirit-self to hold it at bay. None of these things was certain, but Vex could not shake the sense that it was waiting. If nothing held it back it was keeping itself in check. Waiting.

“If she knows what she’s doing, she knows what happened.”

 

Throwing modesty to the wind, literally, Mary Beth ran with reckless abandon. The further that she got away from the dormitory the more memories returned to her. Recollections crashed in her skull like little headaches; they bloomed just below the skin and rattled around with the tenacity of angry bees. Once or twice she stumbled, her bare feet scraping against the ground. In her mad dash she passed small knots of students out for midnight strolls—nobody paid her much attention. The sight of a young woman running across campus wearing only a long black shirt apparently wasn’t that strange of an event.

She stopped near the chain link fence that surrounded the sports fields and looked back over her shoulder. Her curled red hair tousled about her shoulders and she had to brush it out of her eyes a few times. Amazingly, she hadn’t started sweating as normally happened to her when she ran this hard; she didn’t even feel winded.

The woman in black and her ghostly companion hadn’t followed.

Mary Beth noticed her outside of Hayden Dormitory five minutes earlier. The aura surrounding the woman in black spoke of extreme and violent magickal energy held just barely on the edge of control. Now, Mary Beth knew better than to believe that anyone searching for her would do so out of the goodness of their heart. This woman seemed a more likely an assassin than savior.

Also, there was something else going on. Mary Beth knew it but she couldn’t recall the details—a hole in her memory had not yet filled in. Even now she could only barely recall the last few hours of the night, but she did remember she had been in bed with Korey. The memories returning to her, in their headache haze, came from the ritual.

Something strange about the candles.

The woman in black appeared again, walking up the road a distance away. A less substantial entity dogged her heels, a ghostly younger girl wearing cat ears. Mary Beth couldn’t sense anything from the girl, but she got the sense that she would not be visible to ordinary people. Together, the two unerringly moved towards where she paused to catch her breath. She narrowed her eyes, but she wasn’t out of breath. She had stopped out of habit.

“Well,” she said, “if she wants to take me, she’s not going to do it without a fight.”

Mary Beth extended her hand and evoked a spirit.

“Yes, my lady,” it hissed in its whispering nonvoice.

“Guide me to my summoning circle.”

 

“She’s a theurgist,” Vex said to Megan as they walked past the Student Recreation Complex. “She’s been summoning and dismissing spirits and elementals to do the work for her. You could do the same thing if you learned to control your visions better.”

Megan looked at the tall, unbroken expanse of chain link fence that reared up next to them. The girl they were chasing must have stepped through it, but there was no opening. Her tiny figure was still visible in the deepening distance, white legs and arms sprouting out of an amorphously black shirt.

“Is that what the ribbon of smoke she’s following is?”

“It’s a servitor,” Vex said, “and I suspect it’s not the only magic trick she can pull out of her hat.”

The fence surrounded the fields, forcing Vex and Megan to go around. The murmur of power in the girl’s wake allowed them to easily follow even though she now had a head start.

The Law Library loomed ahead, taking the form of a light colored building that glowed with a tan light in the dark. The library’s strange architecture always made Vex imagine a fortification, with its tall, narrow windows and its boxy, bracketed towerlike sides. In front, a huge mound of round river rocks piled up, with cactus and brush around the bottom; bits of scree tumbled into an artificial arroyo on the far side. Large glass windows reflected the moon in the sky. Skirting around the outside, they found a door left invitingly ajar, propped open with a rock.

“She’s inside,” Vex said.

 

 

The summoning circle had been left exactly as she remembered: floor, walls, and ceiling painted with blood and outlined with charcoal. Mary Beth could feel the power she had infused in it with her own life force and it reacted to her presence as she walked into the room. Every sigil on each circle—floor, ceiling, and two walls—connected together in a forever traversing spiral, like an extremely intricate cursive document. Every line of geometry and pattern connected back into the script. Not a single iota of any circle could be separate from any other.

The latest memory to pierce her skull like an ice-pick had been the most disturbing—it involved eyes. They were in the candles around the ritual circle that had been used that night in Hayden Library and they stared at her with menace and interest. They also stared at David, Darlene, and Korey. There were more eyes, waiting at the edges of the circle, beyond the protective barrier. Patient and watching.

Mary Beth had seen those same eyes before. She had seen them outside her summoning circle, but she could not remember what they meant. Not yet. It was rapidly eroding, filling up like a goblet of wine, but the hole in her memory still remained.

Whatever memories had been taken from her, there had to be a purpose for it. If this woman in black and her ghost companion were really coming after her, perhaps they took those memories. Maybe what remained to remember contained the key to defeating her. The woman in black would be walking through the door soon; Mary Beth knew that she had to be ready.

She would have to stall her—stall her long enough to regain that final memory.

 

Vex smiled. The girl, Bethany, had warded the door so tightly it would have made a safe maker weep with joy. The whalebone athame cut through the ward and the door with equal measure in a single, savage swipe. The door sheared through the middle and collapsed with a metallic crash at her feet. Megan jumped away; Vex blew imaginary dust off of her hands.

“When I studied wardbreaking I didn’t go half way,” she said into the empty room.

Beyond the ruined door, waiting in the middle of a brownish sigil painted across the floor, Bethany did not look altogether that impressed by the show of force. She stood, legs spread apart, and arms casually at her sides. The expression on her freckled face seemed pinched and shadows played about the orbits of her eyes, created by the agitated glow of several servitor spirits that circled her bare legs like cats.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said, puffing her chest out. “I’m ready to fight.”

Vex didn’t recognize the incantation circle painted on the floor but simple instincts warned her that it was quite dangerous and very intricate. There were similar circles on the ceiling and two of the walls—this setup certainly looked serious. That and it was strange that the girl was still capable of summoning spirit servitors. They might only be illusions in this death-world, but still, there was no reason to take chances.

It would probably be best to go the straightforward route with this one.

She waved a dismissive hand. “We need to talk,” she said. “Your friends… David and Korey are both dead. The thing that killed them is waiting outside as we speak.”

Megan peeked around opening left by the ruined door, but otherwise stayed out of the way. Mary Beth looked at her and frowned.

“How can that be true?”

Vex took a step through the door. “Don’t tell me you can’t feel it.”

The girl standing in the invocation circle shrank away as Vex moved into the room. She walked as far as the outer edge of the circle and stopped there, crossing her arms. Several incense sticks smoldered nearby, glowing in the corners of the room; the sweet tang of Dragon’s Blood mixed with the smell of moldy concrete.

“Please don’t come any closer,” Mary Beth said. She held a hand up. Her words were polite, but her voice commanded. It was the voice of a girl who was used to having her commands taken seriously.

Vex stood her ground and kept her arms crossed. “What were you doing Wednesday night in the Hayden Stacks?”

Mary Beth shivered and hugged her bare arms around herself. Not to protect herself from the chill of the basement, instead she seemed to be warding away a memory.

“Academics spell,” she said. “A variation on a prosperity ritual… Korey is dead? What happened to him?”

“I don’t really know,” Vex replied. “He was taken by something. Something that I think you kids let through the veil when you did that ritual. Whatever you did, it was really stupid, and I need you to tell me exactly what you were up to.”

Mary Beth straightened angrily. The haughty lines of her face stood out and she lifted her chin to look at Vex down her nose. Her eyes followed Megan as the ghostly girl moved into the room, picking her way over the ruin of the door.

“What’s going on with the ghost?” Mary Beth asked, indicating Megan.

Megan looked down at herself and then back up again. “I don’t know… I didn’t come all the way through, I think.”

“Are you dead?”

“Actually, you are.” Vex said. “This world isn’t the real one; it’s been created by your memory of it. You died.”

The look that crossed Mary Beth’s freckled face looked to be one of astonishment. Shock and disbelief punched deep fissures into her expression—but just as quickly as they appeared, they passed. She winced hard and moaned, falling to her knees. Her hands shot up and pressed to the sides of her head, tears leaked from her eyes.

Both Vex and Megan surged forward and across the ritual circle. Megan’s hands passed ineffectually through the girl, but Vex managed to catch her before she collapsed.

“You’re right. I can feel it watching. I don’t know what it is…but it’s everywhere,” Mary Beth said, “and it’s coming.”

The room darkened considerably. The only illumination came from a dangling light bulb and the feeble glow of the servitor spirits. The spicy smoke twirled in languid curls in the light cast from the bulb, but the ember glow of the smoldering incense was no longer visible in the gloom. Only the circle on the floor still held any significant light; beyond the edge of the circle the world lost its distinctness. The darkness emanated from the threshold of the shattered door, moving like a living thing.

“Megan, stay close to me,” Vex said; to Mary Beth she said, “If you are ever going to escape from this with your soul intact you are going to have to tell me what you were doing that night.”

The redheaded girl winced again, her eyes widening afterwards. This time she did not fall.

Her hands did not go to her head. A sense of strange recognition lit behind her eyes and she turned to look at Vex. The smile that crossed her lips seemed terrible and hungry at the same time. “We were walking the dark paths,” she said. “I should have realized what they were up to. The candles, the sigil bearing symbols and angles slightly different than those prescribed.”

Her voice had changed. It sounded certain now, unshrinking.

“You stupid kids,” Vex said. “Were you and the other girl trying to steal the magickal potence from your boyfriends? Is that why I found soul stones in the candles?”

“Oh no, nothing like that,” she said. “I couldn’t remember before…but now I know. You should not interfere. Now, because you came after me, all of us are going to die here… Maybe I could have escaped from this on my own, but you’ve led it to me.”

The blackness began to fill the room, a surge of murky miasma that sprang through the door and slithered around the circle. All around them eyes glowed in the ribbons of black that twirled through the air, tightening and turning, spiraling. And from each pair of eyes there sprang a pair of legs, chitinous and black; they scrabbled at the air like thousands of spiders trying to reach within. In the darkness a roar uprose, filled with screams and weeping—and seductive whispers.

Megan screamed.

Mary Beth had circled around and grabbed the cat-eared girl in spite of her lack of substance. One of her hands was thrust deep into Megan’s body.

“If I’m actually dead then I need a body,” she yelled over the roar. “And it wants a soul!”

Vex hit her like a steamroller. The punch sent Mary Beth flying across the circle and she crashed into the ground, blood gushing from her nose. Megan sputtered and fell to her knees, racked with pain. Vex grabbed Mary Beth by fistfuls of her shirt and hoisted her up. Another punch landed, rocking her head violently back.

“Wait!” Megan yelled—a sound that barely registered over the howl. “What are you doing?”

“It wants her,” Vex said. “It can have her.”

“No! Don’t!”

In her vicelike grip the girl felt like a ragdoll. Vex lifted and heaved her bodily into the boiling torrent of hunger and malice. Mary Beth’s eyes went wide a moment before she struck the wall of the wards, and they shattered, exploding like a broken mirror.

 

Thunder without sound. The world crashed back into place with a hollow, crunching, silent boom. The lightless windows of the Secret Garden resolved themselves out of the white walls of West Hall, the green grass and its fresh smell returned; even the crickets and late night birds resumed their chorus of chirping and distant songs.

Vex placed a hand on the warm concrete just to prove to herself that this world was real. Three pairs of eyes looked back at her. The vision had ended.

Everyone around the circle sat, shocked into dumbness, except Megan, who stared at Vex accusingly. “You killed her!”

“Get over it,” she snapped; “she was already dead.”

 
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