Twenty-one – 03

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

                “Well, it’s a nice dream, anyway,” Hecate murmured, then shook her head.  Her gaze drifted toward Phelan, her brow furrowing slightly as she studied him.  “You, sir, are very much not good.”

                He swallowed again, suppressing the impulse to shake his head.  The pounding in his head was growing stronger, but he was continuing to try to ignore it.  Maybe if he ignored it for long enough, it’d go away, like it had in the aftermath of meteorfall almost exactly a year ago.  “It’ll pass,” he muttered.  “Always has.”

                “What exactly is going on?” Marin asked, frowning as she looked at him again.  He knew what she saw—sunken eyes and a washed-out, slightly greenish cast to his skin, probably made worse by the shadows of the hall and the bright red of his hair.  “She’s right, you look like absolute hell.  This isn’t just a migraine.”

                Phelan didn’t say anything, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other instead.  His limbs felt heavy and for a second, he considered that maybe they were right and he should have stayed in bed.  He couldn’t, though, not with a looming crisis and his cousin already laid up.  It wouldn’t be fair.

                Beside him, Marin sighed quietly.  From the corner of his eye, he could see her shake her head.

                “I’ll survive,” he murmured.  “I’ve managed to this long.”

                “That’s been a minor miracle,” Hecate said, a trace of wry humor in her voice.

                Phelan choked on a laugh, one that sent a fresh spike of pain through his head and sent spots dancing before his eyes.  He stumbled a step and almost fell—would have, had Hecate not caught him.  Her voice got quiet.

                “Wanderer,” she whispered.  “You’re not well.  Please.”

                “I can’t,” he said.  “Just—just help me get to the fire and pour me some tea.  Then we’ll see.”

                “Will you make it that far?” Marin said, her gaze searing.

                He smiled weakly.  “I’m not going to give myself a choice.”

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Twenty-one – 02

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

                “Oh,” Phelan said, blinking slowly and trying to process what she’d just said.  “Well that…that seems like par for the course.”

                Marin heaved a sigh and shook her head, continuing to walk in the direction Phelan had come from.  He frowned slightly, turning to follow her.  A wave of fresh nausea crashed over him and he paused for a second.  Hecate put a hand out to steady him.

                “Are you sure you should be up?” she asked gently.

                “Are you sure that I shouldn’t be?”  He smiled weakly.  “Have we already had the war council?”

                “Do we ever really have one?”  Marin sighed.  “Some decisions are being made.  We didn’t get a vote in at least one.  There’s another we’re going to fight.”

                “Right,” Phelan said.  “Did you pick my cousin’s brain?”

                “That’s where we were coming from,” Hecate said.  “That’s how I know I can’t hide, not this time.”

                “Mm.”  His vision twined for a second, then narrowed back to single focus.  Phelan took a careful breath, swallowing some bile down.  He’d have to find something stronger to take than what Jacqueline had given him.  “The basics?”

                “Matt wants to take the fight to them,” Marin said.  “Before they can hit us here.  It’s an idea with merit if we can pull it off.”

                “And if we can secure everything here for the people who stay behind,” Phelan said, thoughts drifting.  Something about this felt familiar, but the why was elusive, evading his mental grasp even as he reached for it.  A silent sigh escaped his lips.

                Either it would be important, or it wouldn’t be.  It was probably some long-forgotten yesterday, and forgotten for a reason.  Despite appearances, he was old—and he knew that he was old, accepted it.  He had forgotten more things in his lifetime than many would ever know.

                Sometimes, that was a defense mechanism.  This could have been one of those times.

                It probably wasn’t important.

                “That is a concern,” Marin said.  “Do you think we can?”

                “We can try,” he murmured.  “That’s all we can do.”

                “Then we try,” Hecate said, shrugging.  “It’ll be nice to come home to something safe.”

                “Will it ever be that?” Marin asked softly, glancing at Hecate, then at Phelan.  “Will it ever really be that?”

                “You’re the Seer, Marin,” Phelan said.  “You tell me.”

                She didn’t say anything, just looked away.

                It was all the answer they needed.

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Twenty-one – 01

[This post is from Phelan’s point of view.]

                “Matt is not going to want to let this happen,” Marin was saying, her voice coming from somewhere behind him as Phelan stepped out his door, rubbing sleep from his eyes.  The hall was dim, which was welcome, because his unexpected nap had done little to help ease his thumping headache.  They came from time to time and they never boded well.  Jacqueline had given him something to help him sleep, both of them hoping it would help, but sadly, it had been to no avail.

                “While any other time, I would be more than happy to give him what he wants, this time, I can’t.”  Hecate’s voice was firm, though quiet.  “I love him and I respect him, but we can’t both be selfish about this.  If I don’t go, we’re at a disadvantage and I can’t afford to lose any of you or this place—and you guys can’t afford to lose this place, either.”

                Oh, I don’t like the sound of this at all.  Phelan massaged his temple, turning toward the sound of their voices.  “What’s the matter now?”

                There was a silence where the two women looked at each other in the dim before Marin finally answered.  “The other shoe dropped.  Where have you been?”

                “In bed,” Phelan said, moving slowly toward them.  “Migraine was making me nauseous.  Jac thought maybe laying down would help.”

                “Did it?” Marin asked.

                “No,” he said, careful not to shake his head.  “Not enough, anyway.  Sleep helped maybe a little to take the edge off, but it’s still there.  Stomach seems like it’s back under control for the moment, though.”  Still, he didn’t think he’d be eating anything anytime soon, just in case.  “So the other shoe dropped how?”

                “Well, that diffuse bad feeling we all had this morning turned into a threat and an ultimatum,” Hecate said.  “Now I have to go convince my husband that he can’t stop me from marching into war with the rest of you.”

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Twenty – 06

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

                Matt seemed surprised to hear that from him; Thom could tell from the wide-eyed, slack-jawed look he shot him as he stood stock-still in front of the fire.  Thom swallowed and shook his head.

                “Are you going to tell me I’m wrong?” he asked softly.

                Matt took a few deep breaths, his jaw tightening for a few seconds before it relaxed.  It was only afterwards that he finally shook his head.  “No.  No, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong but dammit, I wish you were.”  He started to pace again, back and forth, gaze focused on the fire.  Anslem watched him with an impassive expression, leaning back slightly with arms crossed.

                “The Hecate question aside for now, who do you think will muster beyond the men and women on the Hunt?”  The question was simply stated, quietly asked.  Anselm kept watching Matt as he paced—and the pacing continued without so much as a pause.

                Matt stayed silent, thinking, pivoting to change direction before he answered after a few minutes of silent consideration.  “Thordin and I in the front,” he said.  “Marin, Leinth, probably Tala.  J.T. and maybe Carolyn and Jacqueline.  Definitely Phelan.  Beyond that, I’m not sure.  I don’t know if Sif’s ready and we already talked about Cameron—Neve won’t go because someone needs to stay behind with Seamus, especially if Leinth and Hecate both come.”

                Anselm nodded slowly.  “And any other volunteers.”

                Matt nodded in agreement.  “Yeah.  Any other volunteers.”

                Anselm may not have picked up on it, but Thom heard the hesitation and uncertainty that was buried in Matt’s voice.  He wasn’t sure who else would volunteer to help with this plan beyond the people he’d named.  Thom couldn’t blame him for not being sure—not entirely—but he suspected that the others would surprise him.

                It was, after all, their home they were talking about.

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Twenty – 05

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

“In all brutal honesty—which in part I think you’ve come to expect from us—I do think that you need to seriously consider the possibility of including her as part of your plans, Matthew.” Anselm stared at him steadily, watching Matt’s face as the much younger man’s face contorted, his expression shifting to something that was a mix of alarmed and concerned with hints of anger. “Stop thinking with your heart for a moment and start thinking with your head. Trust me, I know that’s hard and it’s an instinct that you have to fight, but at least try. Think. You know her. You know her talent and her power.”

“I know he wants her,” Matt said, a tremor in his voice. “I can imagine part of why—and some possibilities based in who he might be working with.”

Thom swallowed. I understand his fear on a lot of levels, but Anselm’s right. He’s right. He’s right that Hecate will want to fight and he’s right that we’ll probably need her against Orcus and his army. Whatever their scouts can tell us isn’t going to change any of that.

“You’re worried that if she fights alongside you, then she’ll be vulnerable. But I’ll tell you this, Matthew: if you leave her behind, she will be just as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable than if she was at your side.”

Matt stared at Anselm for a few seconds more, then stood up, starting to pace. He paused after a moment and looked at Thom. “What about you? What do you think?”

“You already know what I think, Matt,” Thom said. “Do I really need to say it?”

Matt cursed softly and started to pace again. “I hate it.”

“Everyone does,” Anselm said. “But then again, any time people we care about are in danger, we hate it. It’s part of being human—something we all understand.”

“I don’t want to risk it,” Matt said.

“Sometimes, we don’t get that choice.”

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Twenty – 04

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

In truth, despite his smile, the idea of actually doing it made him sick to his stomach, filled him with more dread than he’d felt since that first day when the sky fell in on them—since everything had come to a crashing, screeching end.

We were the lucky ones that day.  At some point, though, our luck will run out and we have to make sure we’re ready with contingencies.  Sometimes those contingencies are going to involve doing things that we don’t like, that we don’t want to do.

But sometimes, you just don’t have a choice.

That knowledge came in equal parts from this life and the one he’d lived as Finn—that much he knew for certain.

“I don’t know about you, Matt, but I want my son to grow up,” Thom said quietly. “And I’m pretty sure you and Hecate want to meet your baby.”

Matt winced.  Anselm’s brows went up.

“Well,” Anselm said, his voice soft.  “That does add another dimension to this mess, doesn’t it?”

“It just means I have more to fight for, that’s all.”  Matt stared at the fire, at the kettle, his jaw tightening.  “And I have to keep her out of it.”

“She may not let you,” Anselm said.  “What will you do then?”

Matt’s head snapped up and he stared at Anslem hard, his eyes narrowing slightly.  “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said,” he said softly, evenly.  “Hecate might not let you protect her from this—she may insist on fighting.  I’m not certain why that would surprise you, considering her record.”

Matt looked at Thom, his eyes growing wide.  “Do you think she would?”

“Let me put it this way,” Thom said.  “There are some things I can’t ask your sister to do no matter how much I might want to.  Asking her not to fight to protect what and who she cares about is one of those things.”

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Twenty – 03

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

Matt stared at the two of them like each had just grown an additional head.  “What just happened?”

“A logic train,” Thom said, then smiled weakly.  “One that Anselm was trying to make sure you were on before we went further—unless I’m mistaken.”

“You are not,” Anselm said, then stood, fetching a kettle of water and settling it over his small cookfire.  “Cíar was once one of us, Matthew, but you are far less experienced than he was when he came to us.  You may have his soul and many of his memories, but you do not necessarily have his experience—just the memory of it bound into the fabric of his soul.  That’s different than actually living those experiences in this life.”

A chill crept down Thom’s spine.  Doesn’t help when it still feels like you’ve lived it, sometimes.  He grimaced, rolling one shoulder carefully, trying to stretch it without pulling too much on still-tender, still-healing wounds.  “It doesn’t,” Thom agreed.  “But he does have a host of different experiences which have left him stronger for it.”

Anselm inclined his head slightly, clearly loathe to argue the point—regardless of whether or not he agreed.  He settled back down into his seat again, watching Matt and Thom with a thoughtful gaze.  “There is a great deal of truth in that statement,” he said.  “Now.  Suppose that when I send men to scout out where Orcus is encamped and what forces he has martialed that we learn that his army is far larger and more powerful than we fear.  Will we still go forward with a strike?”

“That depends very heavily on what the Hunt finds out,” Matt said, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I’m worried that’s what you might find, but if it is, at least we’ll know how we’ll have to rig our defenses.”

“Or if we need to evacuate.”

Now Matt really did look at Thom like he’d grown a second head.  Thom glanced away, quiet for a few seconds before he looked back at his brother-in-law.

“We would be fools to imagine that’s not a possibility,” Thom said after a few seconds of silence.  “We both know it.  We’ve held out against a lot, sure, but we didn’t have much of a choice.  If Orcus has a force that’s too much to withstand, we might have to run, and quickly.  If we head south, we might be safe for a time.  Maybe we’ll even be able to come back afterwards.”

“I think you’ve finally lost your marbles,” Matt said.  Concern was etched in every line and curve of his face, worry heavy in his voice.

Thom just smiled.  “Sometimes you have to make the hard call to live another day.”

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Twenty – 02

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

“Things,” Anselm echoed softly.  “When you say that, you mean we have people he wants.”

“To us, they’re people,” Matt said.  “To him, they’re things.  My wife is a weapon as far as he’s concerned.  Leith is an object that he’s wanted to possess for almost as long as she’s been alive.  And Seamus—”

“Seamus is an obstacle and a thorn in his side, an embarrassment that needs to be dealt with,” Anselm finished.  He leaned back for a second, his eyes half-lidding.  “Seamus and I have a long association, Matthew.  I know what happened.”

Matt looked away.  Thom frowned, still watching Anselm.

What did happen?  “If you know what happened,” Thom said slowly, “do you have any insights on how we can make Matt’s plan work?”

Anslem inclined his head slightly.  There was a directness to his gaze that sent a chill down Thom’s spine, though somehow it seemed to allay some of the chaos going on in his gut.  “I am sure there are holes will need filling, but that’s the point of asking us to gather information, isn’t it?”  The ghost of a smile curved the Huntsman’s lips.  “Though I imagine that Cameron would be equally skilled in information gathering, if one were to ask him.”

Thom glanced at Matt, his brow arching.  Matt winced slightly.

“I just—I don’t feel right asking him,” Matt said.  “I don’t feel right sucking him into this.  He never asked for any of this.”

“None of you did,” Anselm reminded him.  “This was something that happened to you, just the same as it happened to him.  In a lot of ways, he had more choices than all of you.  He didn’t have to come here, now did he?”

“No,” Matt said.  “No, he didn’t.  But he did and I’m not sorry he did, but I just—”

“He’d be a target,” Thom said quietly.  “If Orcus figured out who and what he was?  He’d be a target and everything we’re trying to do—the scouting run, our preemptive strike—would be tanked.  It’s a risk we can’t take.  Not on this one.”

Anselm smiled, nodding slightly.  “Now you’re thinking.”

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Twenty – 01

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

Anselm smiled.  “You’ve grown bolder,” he said, leaning back and studying Matt with an appraising gaze.  The smile suggested that he’d agree to whatever plan Matt proposed, but watching his eyes, Thom found himself uncertain.  There was just something tugging at him, setting his guts churning.

He hoped against hope that he’d be wrong.

Matt inclined his head slightly.  “There’s a lot to lose if I hold back,” he said, his voice quiet.  “Things I can’t afford to lose—things that none of us can afford to lose.  If we don’t do this and if somehow we do things wrong, we’ll still lose.  That’s why I need you and the Hunt on board with this.”

Anselm nodded slightly, still watching him.  “So you need all of our fighters as well as more information.”

“More information to start,” Matt said.  “I have to hope that a preemptive strike is feasible.”

“And if it’s not?”  Anselm’s brow arched.  “What then?  What do we do?”

“We bunker in,” Matt said.  “We martial everything we can muster to meet them and hopefully turn him back.  The only problem is that I don’t think he’ll stop.”

“Others did,” Anselm said.  “What makes him different?”

“We have things he wants.”  Matt’s hands curled into fists on his knees.  Thom swallowed hard, watching him.

I have a bad feeling.  God, do I ever have a bad feeling.  This isn’t going to go the way Matt hopes it will—that he expects it will.

He almost laughed at himself, swallowing the bitterness that welled up.  So what else is new?  I always have a bad feeling about something.  Thom almost—almost—shook his head.  I could be wrong.  I have to be.

Instead, he stayed still, watching Anselm’s face.  His expression had barely changed.

Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

His heart said one thing while his gut said the other.

Thom kept on hoping his gut was wrong.

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Nineteen – 08

[This post is from Seamus’s point of view.]

“Worse,” Marin echoed, her brow furrowing. “Okay. Are either of you going to elaborate on that?”

Seamus grimaced, swallowing against a dry throat. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, trying to put order to the chaos of his thoughts. Just breathe. Think. Focus. Damnation, just focus. It was easier said than done. There was something coiling at the back of his mind, just beyond his reach in the maelstrom. The words came slowly, dredged up from somewhere deep where he’d kept them locked away for a very long time, never expecting to dredge them back up to the surface.

“Orcus has nothing to lose at this point,” he said. “Everything to gain. He’ll take whatever steps he feels are necessary in order to make sure that he wins this time. If that includes driving a hard bargain with Aietes, then he’ll do it. I don’t know that he realizes what he’s playing with when he’s getting into making bargains with Aietes, but that’s neither here nor there at this point. We have to assume that’s the bargain he’s made, and that makes both of them quite a bit more dangerous, now doesn’t it?”

Hecate nodded slowly. “Much more so,” she said softly. “That bastard will stop at nothing to get me back under his control. He knows how to manipulate me, too, if it comes to that.”

“All the more reason to make sure that we don’t lose,” Leinth said, crossing her arms. Her gaze took in all three of them, a storm breaking in the blue-gray of them. “Though I doubt that Matthew’s going to be very happy about what we might have to do to win.” Her gaze slid toward Hecate, who took a deep breath and swallowed hard.

“No,” she admitted softly. “No, I doubt he will. He’s already said there are some measures that aren’t necessary but I don’t agree. If it means everyone is safe, there are some risks that are worth taking.”

“Risks like what?” Marin looked at her and Seamus could tell from her tone that she already suspected the answer.

Hecate shot her a tight smile. “Seizing control of things like the lampades and the dirae and maybe even the camazotzi if he’s managed to call them. Cariocecus might be able to pull off that last one, but I doubt he’d want to try at this point, considering power to command them has been wrested away a few times now and he is certainly not at his best these days.”

“Are you?” Seamus asked softly before he could stop himself. He regretted the words as soon as they left his lips. Hecate just looked at him and smiled faintly.

“Far better,” she said, her voice equally quiet. “In some ways, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, Matt’s worry notwithstanding.” She sighed, glancing sidelong at Marin. “I have something to fight for that I believe in more than I’ve ever believed in anything. That matters—that matters so much.”

Marin slid an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tightly. Seamus exhaled a shaky breath as he watched them.

“Right,” he said softly. “So I take it that we’ll be marching to war within the next day or so, then?”

“Without a doubt,” Hecate said, then smiled. “And we’ll win.”

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