Autumn – Chapter 7 – 03

                Once they hit the bottom of the ravine, J.T. unslung his claymore from its harness across his back.
                “We’re expecting trouble, aren’t we?”  Matt asked, nervously putting a hand on the hilt of his borrowed blade.  “Shouldn’t we have brought a shotgun with us?”
                “At close quarters, we’d hit Phelan.  They worked pretty well when we were just going up against the damn Greys, but trying to shoot Vammatar with one would probably do more harm than good.”  J.T. shook his head, starting to pick his way along the stream’s muddy bank.  “Pistols would be different, but I’m not sure how much good one would be against her.”
                “Because it’s not iron?”
                J.T. glanced over his shoulder at Matt.  “Yeah, that’s it.  How’d you know?”
                “Something Phelan said to me a week or two ago, while we were starting to get the forge set up.  Things—supernatural things—tend to be sensitive to iron and iron alloys.  Steel’s effective, but not as effective as iron, but iron’s too soft sometimes and too brittle other times to be a whole lot of good in the long run.  Something like that.  I can’t say I completely understood him, but I figured I should take his word for it since he’s got a lot more experience than I do.”  Matt glanced across the stream to the other side, brows knitting.  “How far do you think they could have gotten?”
                “No idea,” J.T. said.  His gaze flicked up toward the rim of the ravine.  No sign of Carolyn yet.  Maybe we’ll find him before she finds us.  I’m not sure that’d be a bad thing.  “I couldn’t see much past the Greys throwing themselves against the lines.  Did you?”
                Matt grimaced.  “I saw them go over, if that’s what you mean.  Phelan caught her at the hip and she threw him off, then she went over the edge and he chased her.  I half expected we’d look down and find them at the bottom where they went over the edge.  I guess the fact that we didn’t means there’s a chance Phelan’s still alive, right?”
                It also means there’s a chance that Vammatar’s still alive and that she killed Phelan.  J.T. bit down hard enough on his tongue that he tasted blood.  There were still moments when Phelan made him vaguely uncomfortable—that was thanks to the damned dreams that hadn’t stopped, he ones about a past life he could only remember in fragments—but he didn’t want anything to happen to the old bastard.
                “Right,” J.T. said, crossing the stream at a narrow point.  Matt hopped across the bank after him.
                They both froze at the sound of footsteps splashing through the creek.  The sound echoed off the ravine walls, making it hard to distinguish which direction it was coming from.  J.T. turned around and breathed a sigh of relief, lifting his hand to wave to Drew.
                “Carolyn’s coming,” he said.  “She was grabbing your kit, Jay.  Said she’d only be a minute after me.”
                 I shouldn’t have asked them to send her down.  J.T. nodded slightly.  “We’ll wait, then.”
                “Hope we won’t need that kit,” Matt said, shifting his weight from one leg to the other.”
                “We will,” J.T. said.  “Didn’t you see the knife?”
                “Knife?”  Drew and Matt asked in the same voice.
                “What knife?”  Matt continued.
                J.T. shook his head.  “Vammatar got Phelan in the shoulder with one.”  He fished around in the pocket of his heavy cargo pants and came up with the rag-wrapped blade.  “I grabbed it before anyone could step on it.”
                It was a beautiful weapon.  Oxidized silver wire wrapped a sharkskin covered grip.  The cap was a black opal the size of his thumbnail and the guard was narrow, just a shade wider than the blade itself, which looked like some kind of blackened or blued steel.  Bare traces of runes marked the blade.  Drew held out his hand.
                “May I?”
                J.T. nodded, shivering a little.  Something about the blade made him uneasy despite its beauty.  “Rory might have a use for it,” he murmured.
                “Why Rory?”  Matt asked.
                Drew and J.T. exchanged a look.  Drew took the blade and handed it to Matt.
                “What do you feel?”
                Matt weighed the weapon in his palm, checking its balance, running a fingertip along the flat of the blade.  His brows knit as he frowned slightly.  “It’s cold,” he said quietly.  “But it’s not cold.  I put my finger on it and it’s just as warm as my hand, but holding it in my hand, it just feels cold.”
                Drew glanced at J.T., who just nodded slightly.
                Same way it feels to me.  A muscle in his jaw twitched.  I don’t like it.
                “Everything okay?”  Carolyn asked, jogging up behind them, J.T.’s bag banging against her hip.  Greg was behind her, a canvas bundle under his arm.
                J.T. snatched the knife from Matt’s hand, hastily wrapping it and shoving it back into his pocket before Carolyn could see it.  Matt shot him a puzzled look and he shook his head quickly.
                Just keep your mouth shut, Matt.  She doesn’t need to know about that part yet.  He turned and smiled lopsidedly at Carolyn.  “Took you guys long enough.”
                “Yeah, well, we needed to strip the canvas off one of the camp beds,” she said.  “Greg’s idea, in case we needed a stretcher.”  Her lips thinned briefly as she unslung the bag and offered it to J.T.  “I just grabbed the whole thing.  I wasn’t sure what you’d need, so it seemed like a better idea to grab everything.”
                “Good call,” J.T. said.  I’m not sure what I’m going to need, either.  That should scare the shit out of me.  But he wasn’t scared—not as scared as he thought he should be.
                He was perfectly, eerily calm.  That was almost enough to unnerve him completely.
                They got moving, heading deeper into the ravines.
                “Are we sure they didn’t go the other direction?”  Carolyn asked as they  worked their way closer to the river.  “Shouldn’t we have found him by now?”
                “Are we sure they didn’t just fly away somehow?”  Greg muttered, looking around as if he expected something nasty to pop out of the brush along the creek.
                J.T. couldn’t blame him. He could feel a strange tension in the air, setting his hair on end and his muscles tense.  Carolyn’s hand found his and squeezed.
                “I don’t think so,” Matt said slowly.  “We would have seen it, right?”  There was an unasked question in his voice.  He didn’t know how they could have flown away—mostly because he’d never seen Vammatar do it.
                Of course, that could have just been tricks on their eyes that night by the burial mounds.
                They crossed through the marsh and down along the old jogging trail that split in two directions—one headed toward the crew’s boat launch north of campus and one headed into the thicker tangle of woods that made up a good quarter of the university’s property along the riverfront.
                “Right or left?”  Drew muttered.
                Carolyn let go of his hand and started walking, cutting left, heading north.  “This way.”
                “How do you know?”
                She looked back over her shoulder at Matt and smiled weakly.  “If you’d come down here with your sister, you’d know why.  South is a nexus.  Phelan wouldn’t try to draw someone in that direction.  He’d fight every step of the way to keep Vammatar away from it.”   She nodded toward the path she’d chosen.  “They went this way.  Trust me.”
                “I didn’t know that she’d ever brought you down here,” Drew said quietly.
                “Only a couple times,” Carolyn said.  “Mostly hiking.  It’s pretty down here.”
                It was beautiful to look at, with the ravines a blaze of autumn color.  It was also quiet and still, which made J.T. a little queasy.
                It shouldn’t be so quiet.
                They hit the place where the trail widened, a few feet from the edge of the river.  The crew launch was only a few hundred meters ahead, beyond a kink in the river.
                J.T. could see something beyond Carolyn.  He put his hand on her arm and motioned for the others to wait, taking a few extra steps forward and squinting against the glare of sunshine on the water.
                “Oh, shit.”

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