Seventeen – 02

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

Hecate tangled her fingers in his hair, pressing her cheek against his temple. She felt oddly numb, even as her throat grew tighter, her heart starting to beat a little faster. A tear tracked down her cheek.

Don’t retreat. Don’t. Stay. Stay with him. Stay.

“I’m here,” she said in a faint voice. “Matt, I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave.”

He held her tighter. She buried her nose in his hair, inhaling his scent.

“I promise,” she breathed. “I promise. I love you too much. We’ve both lost enough.”

Matt lifted his head from her shoulder and gently took her face between his hands. There was so much pain in his eyes that she was afraid her heart might crack in half. A lump in her throat threatened to choke her and she reached up, pressing one of her hands over his. His fingers were cold. Her heart seized.

No. Stay. Don’t retreat. You can’t. He needs you—and you need him.

“I love you,” she whispered, then leaned in to kiss him. His lips were warm, tasting of salt and faint traces of his morning coffee. Then his arms were around her again, holding her close, tight, as if protecting her. “I love you so much it hurts. I’m with you—to the end, if that’s what it takes.”

“Not the end,” he whispered against her lips. “It’ll never take that. I swear—never.”

He kissed her again.

Thordin cleared his throat a moment later and Hecate stepped back, wiping her eyes, her cheeks, more tears there than she’d realized she’d cried. She took a breath. “We should get back,” Hecate said softly. “The others need to know. Need to plan.”

“Yeah,” Matt agreed. “Yeah, they do.”

“We’ll beat them,” Carolyn said. “We’ll find a way. We always do.”

“She’s right,” Hecate whispered, wishing she had as much confidence and faith as Carolyn seemed to be mustering. “It’ll be okay. Somehow.”

Somehow.

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Seventeen – 01

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

                Cold shot through her.  The only warm thing was Matt’s hand, and it was hot, burning hot, a touchstone that kept her grounded, that kept her from completely dissociating.  Dimly, she could hear Thordin and Carolyn moving with them, could hear Carolyn’s voice as if coming through a tunnel, muffled by distance that only existed in her imagination.

                “Orcus?  Who’s Orcus?”

                “I’ll explain later,” Matt said.  “Short version is the next big bad to take aim.”

                “What did he want?”  Hecate asked, her voice faint.  “Matt.  What does he want?  Is he after Seamus and Leinth?”

                Matt stopped walking.  Hecate’s heart seized, climbing up into her throat.

                No.  Oh no.

                “Matt,” she whispered, her fingers tightening around his.  “He has her, doesn’t he?”

                He nodded, lips thinning as he stared at the ground.  No sound escaped him, but his shoulders got tense.  Hecate sucked in a breath, exhaled it shakily as she bore down harder on his hand, squeezing so tightly her knuckles went white.

                “What did he ask for in return?”

                Matt said nothing.  Thordin cleared his throat, only to have Matt hold up a hand to forestall his answer.

                “You,” Matt finally croaked.  “He asked for you and I said no.  I told him you weren’t mine to give or his to take, almost verbatim.”  He finally looked at her, tears shimmering in his eyes.  “Giving you up would gut me, Hecate.  I won’t lose you again.”

                It was hard to breathe.  On the one hand, if she did what Orcus asked, if she went, she’d save her friends—her family—from Orcus and maybe free her friend.  On the other, she knew what he would probably ask her to do and there were no guarantees that anyone would be safe, least of all her.

                And our baby.

                She wrapped her arms around Matt, holding him tightly.  He pressed his face to her shoulder, his arms encircling her, crushing her against him as he began to cry.

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Sixteen – 08

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

                Thordin plunged forward into the mists where Orcus had vanished.  Matt struggled to remember how to breathe, gasping in a pair of breaths before he reached for his friend.

                “Don’t bother,” Matt said, his voice shaky.  “He’s gone.”

                Thordin glanced back, brow furrowing.  “You can’t be sure of that.”

                “And yet, I am.”  Matt swallowed hard, his other hand tightening around the haft of his warhammer.  “Why is it always three days, Thordin?”

                “What?”  Thordin turned fully, moving back to where Matt stood in the drifting, chill fog.

                “It’s always three days,” Matt murmured, then shivered and shook his head.  “Damn.  I—damn.”

                “Matt?”

                He squeezed stinging eyes shut.  How do I tell her?  How can I tell her that her friend’s life hangs on what she does next—something I can’t let her do, for all of our sakes?

                The fog was starting to lift.  He could hear her footsteps alongside Carolyn’s, moving toward them through the clearing mist.  He sucked in a breath, squaring his shoulders.  Thordin reached out, grasping one.

                “Matt,” he said gently.  “I can tell her.”

                “No,” he said.  “No, it needs to be me.  It needs to come from me.”

                Thordin’s hand fell away.  “As long as you’re sure.”

                Not by a longshot.  “I am.”

                He turned toward the sound of his wife’s voice and started walking.  Hecate and Carolyn came into view a few seconds later as the mist continued to thin.  Matt’s throat got tight all over again.

                She’s going to see it written all over your face.

                The worry was already there, though, even before he and Thordin came into view.  Hecate let go of Carolyn, moving toward him quickly, reaching for his hands.

                “What is it?” she asked.  “What’s wrong?”

                Matt’s jaw tightened.  He caught her hand, answering as he kept walking.

                “We have three days before Orcus comes here with an army.  We’ve got work to do.”

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Sixteen – 07

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

Matt swore quietly, starting to move faster toward the shadow. Thordin stayed on his heels, axe in hand, though the crackling of energy around the other man had abated—at least a little, at least for now.

Keep it together.

The edges of the shadow grew clearer, more distinct—a woman in a cloak, kneeling amidst the grass. Matt’s heart seized, leaping up into his throat. His voice came as a croak. “Persephone?”

Her head snapped up, eyes luminous in her hood. “No,” she breathed. “No, no, please, run.”

Matt blinked, struck by the urgency in her voice, the panic that welled up. “But–”

“It’s a trap.”

He wheeled. Thordin had already turned, gone a step, and stopped in his tracks, facing a man at least twice his size. Matt’s heart lodged in his throat as he stared up at the figure, a dark-bearded, dark-eyed hulk of a man in a coal-dark cloak.

The man’s lips twisted into a smile. “Ah,” he said. “You.” His dark-eyed gaze slid toward Thordin for a moment and the smile grew a little wider. “And the Odinson. Isn’t this a lovely surprise?”

Matt swallowed bile. Orcus. He couldn’t say how he knew, only that he did. This was the fear that had been named—the fear that Seamus had predicted would come.

His mind raced. Is he really here? Is this our chance? What about his armies? Is there an army? He risked a glance back toward Persephone. Is she really here?

“I want the witch,” Orcus rumbled, and Matt’s gaze snapped back to the huge man. “I need the witch.”

“She has a name,” Matt snapped, instantly regretting the words. Bile slicked the back of his throat, sour on the back of his tongue.

Orcus leaned down, eyes narrowing. The temperature dropped a few degrees. Matt suppressed a shiver.

Next to him, Thordin’s hand tightened around the haft of his weapon.

“The Hecate,” Orcus said, his voice quiet, deadly with a razored edge. “I want her. You will relinquish her into my custody.”

“No,” Matt said, his voice steady, firm. “She is neither mine to give, nor yours to take. You will not have her, no matter what you want. Your desire is irrelevant.”

“Is it, now?” Orcus smiled, straightening. It was a cold smile.

He snapped his fingers. Behind them, Persephone gave an anguished cry and Matt spun, looking at where she’d been. There was nothing but swirling fog.

“Where did she go?” Thordin demanded, lifting his hammer. “What did you do with her?”

“She is where she has been for weeks,” Orcus said. “With me. If you wish to see her alive again, you will deliver the witch-queen Hecate to me within three days. Ten miles northwest, near the shore.”

“No,” Matt said again. Orcus held up a hand.

“If you don’t,” Orcus continued, “I will simply have to come and take her from you with my army. Three days, Druid. You have my word.” That smile returned and ice sluiced down Matt’s spine. He stepped back into the swirling fog and vanished from sight, though his words echoed back to them through it, cold and heavy with promise. “And unlike many, I always keep my word.”

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Sixteen – 06

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

                They’d gone three steps before Thordin leaned toward him and muttered, “Where would she be trapped?  There’s nowhere around here for that, is there?”

                Matt shook his head.  “Nothing physical.”

                It took Thordin a second to catch his implication.  The bigger man nodded slightly.  “Right.  Right, good call.”

                “I thought it was,” Matt said, gaze roaming, searching for the source of the keening and the voice.  The fog swirled around them like a living thing.  Even only a few steps away, looking back over his shoulder he could barely make out Hecate and Carolyn.  A fresh chill crept down his spine, one he tried to ignore as he looked around again.  “See anything?”

                “Just this damn fog,” Thordin muttered as they pressed on.  “It’s not natural.”

                “Tell me something I didn’t know,” Matt said, squinting at the shadowy outline he could see in the fog.

                Light flashed, dazzling him.  Matt swore, throwing an arm up to shield his eyes too late.

                “What the hell was that?” Thordin asked, blinking and shaking his head as if to clear it.

                “Don’t know,” Matt said, rubbing at his tearing eyes.  There were spots dancing in his vision, but it was coming back.

                That was when he noticed that the keening had stopped.

                “Help me.”

                “Matt?” Hecate called from behind them.  “Are you okay?”

                “Fine,” he called back.  “Stay there.”

                “Have you found anything?”

                “Not yet.”  He glanced toward Thordin, still blinking, then shook his head.  “Come on.”

                They kept moving, deeper into the fog.  The smell of damp, fresh earth grew stronger even as other sounds started to fade away as they moved.  The shadow was still there, indistinct, but there.

                “You see it?” he asked Thordin in a low voice.

                “I see it,” Thordin murmured.  Energy crackled in the air and Matt gave him a sharp look.

                “What are you doing?”

                “Getting ready,” Thordin said, taking a slow, deep breath.

                “Help. Please help me.”

                Matt sucked in a breath.  The voice sounded closer and the shadow seemed closer, like it was standing still and they were closing in on it.  He hoped it was her.

                But if it was, why wasn’t she coming toward them?

                I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

                He could hear the faint sound of sobbing, now.

                “Please,” the voice pleaded.  “Help me.”

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Sixteen – 05

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

Hecate’s fingers dug hard into the flesh of his arm, so hard that he made a noise in protest.  She didn’t seem to hear, her eyes wide and staring out into the mists.

“Did—did you—?” the question came as a bare, reedy whisper, almost too quiet to hear even as her fingers tightened even more in the fabric of his sleeve.  The keening grew louder and the chill in the air deepened, accompanied by the scent of freshly turned earth.  Matt tensed.

Has something been digging out here?  Is that why this is happening?

“I heard it,” Carolyn said, her voice just barely louder than Hecate’s.  “Who is it?  Do—do we know?”

“It’s Persephone,” Hecate said weakly.  “I would know her voice anywhere.  But—but I don’t understand.  If he’s got her, how is she here?”

“If who’s got her?”  Carolyn asked in confusion.  Thordin just cursed softly under his breath.

“Does it matter?  She’s asking for our help.  Where the hell is she out in this damn fog?”

“Breathe, mo chroí,” Matt whispered to her.  “Focus.”

The keening grew louder.  They didn’t hear the voice again—if Persephone was still out there, she either hadn’t spoken again or the wails drowned out her voice.  It was hard to tell which was more likely, harder still to tell if there actually anyone or anything else physically out there with them or if it was just magic being flung from afar.

She was trembling against him, her fingers gripping tight enough to bruise.  Matt didn’t care about that part—not about the bruises—but the look in her eye left him cold.

“Hecate.”

She blinked and finally looked at him, some of the panic leaving her gaze as she focused.  “I—sorry.  Sorry.”  She swallowed hard.  “I just—I was—I can’t—”

“Focus,” he said again.  “Please.  Is she here?  Can you tell?”

Hecate stared up at him, chest heaving as she sucked in air like someone drowning.  She was at least trying to calm down, which he hoped boded well.  “I don’t know,” she whispered.  “I can’t think.  I can’t—I can’t focus enough to tell.”

Matt swallowed hard, then gently disengaged her fingers from his arm.  “Stay with Carolyn.”

“What?” Hecate blinked at him.  “What are you doing?”

“Stay with Carolyn,” Matt said again, unslinging his hammer.  “Something’s wailing out there, and she might be trapped nearby if she’s calling for help.  Thordin and I will just have to find out.”

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Sixteen – 04

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

Matt’s heart threatened to beat right out of his chest as his arms closed around Hecate, holding her tightly against him.  Carolyn huddled close to both he and Thordin, her eyes wide.  Matt caught sight of a glimmer of white and blue—one of Carolyn’s sprites, if he wasn’t mistaken.

“Care, have they seen anything?”

“Nothing that’s making sense based on their explanations,” she said, a thin tendril of fear threated through her voice.  Otherwise, she seemed remarkably steady, her hand drifting up to touch whatever was perched on her shoulder—whoever was perched on her shoulder.  “Something about singing the songs of the past.”

“That could aptly describe this wailing,” Thordin growled, peering out into the fog, his gaze scything from side to side.  “Though I can’t say it reads as a song to my ears.”

It felt could and seemed to grow colder.  Matt could swear he saw his breath steam, but it was hard to tell as the fog kept thickening around them, pressing in, pressing close.  There was the faint sense of magic to it, but nothing that felt inherently offensive or dangerous.

That on its own was almost more unnerving than the rest of the situation.

The fog seemed to swirl around them, as if it was somehow centered on them, as if it was coming from them.  It wasn’t—Matt knew that for certain—but he was equally certain that It meant something knew they were there, had maybe even been waiting for them.

Then a voice came through the fog, spectral, wavering, barely audible amidst the keening wail.

“Help me.”

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Sixteen – 03

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

 

                A fog rose around them as they ran, chill, almost electric, setting Matt’s hair on edge.  Part of him wanted to risk a glance at Thordin, a glance that would have contained a question, but he didn’t risk it.  Part of him was afraid of what he might see in Thordin’s face, another argued that looking would slow him down and that was the last thing he needed.

                Neither paused as they reached the Shakespeare Garden, simply charged on without hesitation.  The fog was thick around them, and muted flashes of light reflected through it.  They could hear it now, the keening wail.  It was almost but not quite a song.

                Matt’s heart seized.  It can’t be a bansidhe.  It can’t be.  It’s not that.  “Hecate!”

                “Here,” her voice called back.  “Down here.”

                He and Thordin were already charging down the hill.  The torches were glowing a bright blue, though faint, as if they were in danger of burning out.  That sent Matt’s heart slamming up into his throat.

                Fog swirled around them and the keen grew louder, though didn’t tip into howling.  Matt’s throat tightened as he plumbed the fog, half-blindly seeking Hecate.  She hadn’t made another sound since answering his call.  Now, as the fog thickened and the keen grew closer, Matt found he was worried about calling out to her again, about making any sound at all.

                There was a glow somewhere in the fog, something that was light and dark all at the same time.  It was close and growing closer, Matt could tell.

                His pace slowed.  Thordin bumped into him gently, but he, too, had slowed in the fog.  Matt could barely see his friend’s face, but somehow Thordin’s eyes were plainly visible—wild, bright, and somehow afraid but not afraid.

                Matt’s breath caught as he realized his own gaze must have mirrored Thordin’s.

                A hand caught his and squeezed.  Warmth shot through him, panic abating for only a second as he drew Hecate toward him, drawing Carolyn behind her.

                “What’s going on?” Carolyn whispered.  “Who is this?”

                “I’m not sure,” Hecate breathed.  “But I have my suspicions and some of them aren’t good.”

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Sixteen – 02

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

                Matt slung the hammer across his back and headed for the bridge.  Thordin fell in behind him, barely half a step behind.  Birds still chirped in the trees, a breeze still rustled leaves and branches above.  Matt could feel the faint pulse of power that came off the wards—not denoting anything amiss, simply the usual ambient magic woven into them.

                And yet, there was something that almost felt like screaming in the back of his head, something that felt like the shiver that went up his arm when he brought the hammer down against metal and the anvil wrong.  The feeling in his arm usually dissipated after a few moments, though.  This wasn’t showing any signs of abating anytime soon.

                “I’ve never felt anything like it,” Matt murmured, breaking into a jog as they got nearer to the edge of the wards.  “Have you?”

                “I don’t know,” Thordin said.  “Maybe in a yesterday I can’t remember.”

                Matt snorted humorlessly.  The answer could apply equally to him.

                Their steps echoed hollow on the bridge.  The unheard sound seemed to get stronger as they crossed, unmuffled by birdsong or the sound of the creek down in the ravine below.  Something coiled in Matt’s belly—not quite dread, not quite fear, something else.  Apprehension, maybe?  It was a feeling without a name, something he knew he’d felt before but could never quite quantify or fully describe.

                Thordin was abreast of him by the time they reached the far side of the bridge, and neither broke stride as they continued on, up the shallow incline toward the plaza, with its flaking blue archway and crumbling buildings.  Matt’s throat tightened, though not so much that it got hard to breathe, just enough that he noticed the sensation.

                “Okay.  Now I’ve got a bad feeling.”

                “Yeah,” Thordin said.  “Me too.”

                They kept going.  There was a strange play of shadows and light beyond the ruins of Superior, beyond the Shakespeare Garden—near where the barrow lay.

                Matt’s heart seized for a moment and then he began to run faster.

                Thordin said nothing, just kept up with him even as he picked up the pace.

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Sixteen – 01

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

It was a sound more felt than heard.  It sent a shiver through his bones as he climbed the hill toward the forge.  Smoke already rose from its chimney—Thordin must have been there already, either already working or just getting things warmed up for his inevitable arrival.

Sipping from his third cup of coffee—worrying and wondering had proven to be thirsty work—Matt had been trying to shake the feeling of unease that plagued him, trying to convince himself that whatever happened was well beyond his ability to affect, at least in the short term.  He didn’t think he was wrong.  Not this time, anyway.

Then he felt it, the unheard something that he somehow still knew was a sound, and paused a dozen yards from the forge.  He looked around slowly, swallowing hard against the bile that suddenly rose in his throat.  Above him on the hill, Thordin stepped into the morning light, a strange expression on his face.

“Do you feel that?” Matt asked him.

Thordin nodded, his jaw tightening briefly.  “Yeah.  You too?”

“You’d better believe it.  Where’s it coming from?”

“I don’t know,” Thordin said, turning to duck back into the forge for a moment.  He emerged seconds later with both of their weapons in hand.  He lofted Matt’s warhammer toward him.  “But I think we’d better find out.”

Matt caught the weapon by its haft and nodded.  He drained his coffee and jogged the last few steps to the forge to leave the mug there.  “What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know.  But we’ll find that out, too.”  Thordin clapped a hand to his shoulder, squeezing for a second.  Matt smiled grimly.

“No doubt.  Come on.”

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