Forty-three – 01

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

There was am ambient buzz in the air, the unmistakable signal that magic was up and surrounding us. I could feel the faint vibration of it against my skin, stirring hairs and sending currently through my nerves, through my flesh. It set my teeth on edge though I knew most of the magic was ours.

“Archers ready!” The words came without my thinking about them, as if I was functioning on autopilot. Maybe I was by then and just didn’t realize it. Someone had to maintain command, though, and at that moment, I was the only one left available.

“You can feel it,” Seamus whispered, watching me as I lifted an arm to signal to the others who couldn’t hear me over the sound of the storm, the screams, everything that the battle had brought along with it including the rumble of the ground, the explosions out in the field before us. He gazed at me, one hand clutching an arrow that had gone straight through, holding it steady—or something—until we could get him down off the wall and deal with the wounds he’d taken protecting me and his cousin and Hecate and my brother—protecting his family.

I took an unsteady breath, letting my arm drop. “Loose!”

A swarm of arrows launched from our walls, punctuated here and there by the reports of rifles. For a second, I closed my eyes, only half a heartbeat before another explosion rocked the world. Phelan’s doing, I suspected, though for all I knew, it could have been Matt’s. I could still see them without looking, just as I could still see Seamus’s pale, rain-soaked visage without looking.

“We’re winning the battle,” Seamus said, his voice fading slightly, though the conviction that hung heavy in it somehow made it seem stronger.

“But what about the war?” I asked in a whisper.

My eyes blinked open again as I raised my arm. “Archers ready!”

“You know what needs to happen.”

“The only thing that needs to happen is that army on the other end of the field disappearing,” I snapped, then shuddered. For a second, it had felt like I was speaking as two people—one living and another one long dead. From the corner of my eye, I saw Seamus wince.

“You can feel them starting to retreat.”

I could, but starting to retreat didn’t mean anything until the battle was over. I let my arm drop. “Loose!”

This time, a mighty crack of thunder punctuated my order, a bolt of lightning arcing downward into the heart of what remained of the mists that shrouded the army Olympium had brought—one far smaller than what I knew in my gut they could have mustered.

This was nothing. They could have come with so much more. Next time they will.

I wasn’t a fool. There would be a next time—there would always be a next time.

Lightning sheeted through the mists as the ground rippled, vines and roots and power ripping open the earth, swallowing some, devouring others, letting the rest stand or fall or drop their weapons and run. Seamus was right. I could feel it, and the feeling was disconcerting, something I’d ever experienced before.

Not in this lifetime, anyway.

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Forty-two – 06

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

He called, and the lines answered. Magic swelled, the bloodlines of the earth responding to his call, using him as a conduit for its power. Phelan squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating on breathing, on channeling.

You have this.

You can do this—you have to.

Below the walls, the ground began to breathe as if it were a living thing. The mists continued to roll back, then stopped just in bow range. Over the sound of roaring in his ears, Phelan could hear Marin commanding the archers on the wall again. There was the barest tremor in her voice, one he honestly couldn’t—and wouldn’t—blame her for. He could feel Seamus leaning against him, a heavy weight already. It was something he’d have to address once this was over, and quickly.

First it needs to end.

Slowly, one hand uncurled from his staff, power flowing through the wood, through his veins and his flesh. He didn’t dare open his eyes, just concentrated on feel. Sight would be a distraction.

He reached deep, though not so deep as he had on the frozen lake months before. Power answered, welling into his mental hands, accepting guidance as if being coaxed by a beloved relative or an old friend. His senses ranged out, finding the cold darkness that he expected from and associated with Olympium, and he swallowed hard.

“Gods forgive me,” Phelan breathed, gathering himself. “And gods forgive them.”

Power shot through the lines he’d mapped, mixing and amplifying what Matt had called—and doing more. The ground ripped open, vines and roots erupting from the earth, wrapping, impaling, consuming what they found within the mists.

The sound of the drums faltered. The rain of arrows stopped. A keening sound rose from the far reaches of the mist, punctuated by a few blasts of the trumpet.

A retreat. They were calling a retreat.

Phelan didn’t dare let go, though, not yet.

Not until we’re sure they’re gone.

It was the least he could do.

The price he would pay for what he’d done didn’t matter yet, wouldn’t matter until later. There would be one, though.

There always was.

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Forty-two – 05

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

The drums sounded again once, twice. A horn echoed in the distance. Bile crept up into Phelan’s throat again and he rose slightly, leaning forward again and reaching for Marin’s arm.

“I think you need to get under cover,” he said, his voice hoarse and his heart beating too fast, mouth dry and stomach going sour.

Another explosion rocked the ground, centered somewhere in the mists, but despite that, there was another sound, barely more than a whisper but unmistakable to those who had survived warfare centuries ago.

“Cover!” Seamus roared, twisting toward Marin, Phelan, Matt, and Hecate, throwing himself across them as arrows blotted what little light was visible through the storm Thordin had called. There was almost no time to react, no time to quite register what he’d shouted before it was almost too late. Arrows fell like lethal rain, many falling short of their goal, thudding harmlessly into the ground beneath the wall or shattering against the concrete and stone.

But not all.

Cries of pain began on the wall and Phelan cursed under his breath, feeling sick to his stomach.

Then Seamus gave a little jerk and grunted, squeezing his eyes shut.

Oh, shit. Oh no.

“Where?” Phelan asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Seamus said through clenched teeth. “Turn them back.”

Another explosion echoed off the walls. Phelan heard the drumbeats again and cursed softly, then carefully slid out from his cousin’s protective cover. Through the dim and the pouring rain he could see two arrows, both lodged in Seamus’s back, and knew they were deep enough that it wasn’t good, that it wouldn’t end well.

Trust him. That’s all you can do. Phelan’s lips thinned as he wrapped both hands around the haft of his staff. Energy crackled in the air, not just from the storm, not just what Matt was drawing.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Focus. Do it like you did the day that firbolg came—but bigger.

Despite everything, a faint smile curved his lips and the Taliesin began to sing.

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Forty-two – 04

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

“Phelan.”

Marin’s voice was low but urgent. His gaze slid toward her for the space of a heartbeat, long enough to see her widened eyes and the blood draining from her face.

“Look,” she whispered, jerking her chin toward the field.

There was a glow deep in the mists, an eerie, otherworldly light. The sight set his heart to hammering and he gulped in a breath, no longer daring to hold it for a second more.

“Is it Matt?” Marin asked. “Is he doing that?”

“I don’t know,” Phelan said, the words tasting like ash. “Probably.”

What the hell are you up to, Matt?

Another pop, then another. The skies twisted and the mists began to glow.

Far away, someone screamed. It wasn’t pain, it was terror.

“Shit,” Phelan breathed, rocking closer to the edge of the parapet, straining to see through the impenetrable, now-glowing mists. “Shit, Matt, what are you doing?”

Another series of pops rippled out, echoing and distant. Every hair on his body stood on end, the world seeming to crackle around him—around all of them.

Earth geysered sky-high at the far end of the field, the screams of terror beginning to mingle with cries of pain. On the other side of Marin, Phelan saw Seamus stiffen from the corner of his eye.

Déithe agus arrachtaigh,” Seamus breathed, his eyes widening. “It’s been an age since I saw something like that.”

“He’s protecting her the only way he can see,” Phelan whispered, his throat suddenly tight, raw. I pushed him too hard. Gods and monsters, what have I done?

“He’s protecting all of us,” Marin said, rocking to her feet, squinting through the wind and rain. “The mist is rolling back and I don’t see anything except bodies.”

Phelan swallowed bile, following her gaze. She was right, the mists—still glowing that odd shade—were retreating, recoiling, twisting back on themselves like the clouds above. His breath caught. There were bodies, some camazotzi, some human, and others things he didn’t want to identify—things he didn’t want to get close enough to identify. He looked at Matt again, evergreen and silver light twisting faintly around him and Hecate.

He swallowed hard.

None of us know what we’ve done here and that scares the shit out of me.

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Forty-two – 03

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

It began as a series of pops, soft and seemingly distant.  The hairs on Phelan’s arms and the back of his neck stirred and he swallowed the bile that suddenly rose in his throat, starting not out over the field as he perhaps should have been, but at Matt as the other man held Hecate tightly against his chest, his nose buried in her hair.

I don’t know what he’s doing.  I don’t think I want to know.  I just want it to work.

He could sense them now, the lampades skittering across the upper arc of the wards, waiting for a crack to open so the underworld nymphs could slip in and seek their former mistress physically.  They weren’t wraiths, weren’t truly ghosts—they were something else, something that was enough to send ice sluicing down his spine.

“What’s happening?” Marin asked in a bare whisper, glancing between the field and her brother and Hecate.  “I can feel him doing something but I don’t know what it is.”

“I don’t know,” Phelan said, the words coming a bit more sharply than he intended.  “Keep your eyes on the field.  Those bastards are still coming.”

“I noticed.”  She grimaced, tearing her gaze away and training it on the field.  Seamus had taken over directing the archers.  Above them, the clouds twisted and the rain kept coming down in sheets; Thordin’s control of the storm was nearly absolute, but Phelan knew it had to be coming at some sort of price.

A rumble started to build, like the beginnings of rolling thunder that never quite reached its apex.  A chill swept through Phelan and his throat constricted.  He groped for the edge of the wall and the fingers of his other hand tightened around the haft of his staff, seeking comfort in the solidity and strength of both.  He stared at Matt, not quite able to sense what was going on but knowing his friend was up to something—something big, as seemed to be the norm.

“Nothing by half measures,” he breathed, the words lost to the wind and rain.

The pops grew closer, sounding like explosions underwater.  The ground shivered.

Phelan held his breath.

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Forty-two – 02

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

Matt squeezed his eyes shut, reaching in.  Steady.  She’s not going to leave you.  This is the chance you both waited for and it will not be squandered, not after all this time.  The deep, dark well of magic buried inside of him responded to his call, surging upward in a torrent he was barely able to get a grip on before it raged beyond his ability to control.

No, no.  Focus.

For a few seconds, it was like trying to catch a stream of water with both hands and hang on, washing through his fingers and away.  It shifted a few heartbeats later, his grip firming, then solidifying into something he could use, something that felt real.

Just hang on.

He swallowed hard, trying to steady himself even as he held onto his power.  His senses reached for the thin connection between be and Hecate, the one that had been growing stronger day after day but now seemed too thin, too fragile.

Stay with me.

He followed that line, diving deeper.  Shadows swallowed him and cold began to seep into his flesh, down deep to the bone.  His teeth began to chatter but even the sense of that felt distant, nearly beyond his reach.

But he could feel her, and she was down deeper still.

Stay with me, mo chroí.  Stay with me.

There were red lights in the darkness, tiny pinpricks in pairs, ones that grew larger and more defined the deeper he went, the nearer he got to her.  Sounds began to echo in his ears, otherworldly and strange, not quite screams, not quite sobs, nor voices, but something different, something beyond his ability to adequately describe.

He knew those sounds, those voices from another when.

“You can’t keep her,” he whispered.  “I won’t let you.”

He let his magic fill him like a vessel, then, as the faces of the dead came into focus, let it run over like a pot left to boil over.

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Forty-two – 01

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

Hecate’s hand went limp in his and Matt’s gaze jerked from the sky to her face.  His throat constricted, air choked off by sudden panic.  He realized a split second too late that something had gone terribly wrong.

“Shit,” he whispered, then again, more loudly, “shit.”

“What?”  Phelan tore his gaze from the mists—mists that were moving now, slowly rolling across the field despite driving rain and volleys of arrows.  His eyes widened as his gaze lit on Hecate’s face, her complexion suddenly the color of ashes.

“It was a trap,” Matt blurted, the words born of instinct as opposed to any sort of rational thought.  He wasn’t sure how he knew, nor did he precisely care how he knew—he just did.  “It was a trap.”

“What’s going on?”  Marin seemed to suddenly realize that Hecate was there with them on the wall, her eyes widening a fraction.  “What is—”

“Nevermind,” Phelan said, cutting her off in mid-question.  “Matt, you need to pull her out of it.”

“Me?  I don’t—”

“Don’t tell me you can’t,” Phelan snapped, “because you are the only one who can.  You’re connected to her.  The rest of us aren’t.  Do it.  You have to or we’re going to lose her to them and I think we both know that’s the last thing she’d ever want.”

It’s the last damned thing I want, too.  Matt swallowed bile, his grip tightening on her hand.  If I’m the only one who can save her, then I guess I’m the only one.  Damnation.  He exhaled a shuddering breath and drew Hecate into his arms, against his chest.  She felt like ice against him, her lips blue and flesh pale and bloodless.  A chill swept through him unbidden.

Please.  Please don’t leave me, mo chroí.  Please.

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Forty-one – 06

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

Matt’s gaze darted upward, toward the invisible curve of his sister’s wards, eyes moving as he sought their shadows against the stormclouds.  When his breath hitched for a second, she knew he’d seen what she had.

“It’s not possible,” he breathed.

“Except it is,” she said, her voice thick.  “Except it’s happening.”

“Can you—?”

“I haven’t tried.”

His gaze snapped to her.  “Why not?”

Hecate stared at him askance for a few seconds and then shook her head, swallowing bile.  “Because I had to warn all of you before I took that risk.”

Matt took her hand, fingers lacing through hers and squeezing.  A jolt of energy shook her, then the feed mellowed into a current flowing through both of them.  She swallowed again, staring at him.

“Try,” he whispered.  “We need all the help we can get.”

“You’re not spent.”  She stared at him, her heart in her throat.  She wasn’t sure what he’d called, but she’d felt his working and known it was powerful.  How is that possible?

“I know,” he said, squeezing her fingers again.  “But I’m not sure what to think of it.  Makes me nervous.”

Hecate’s lips thinned and she squeezed back, her gaze flicking skyward again.  “Hopefully we won’t have to figure out what it means, not yet.”

She caught his response dimly as she reached out with her own magic to touch the dark nymphs above them.  “Hopefully.”

Then, she stopped hearing anything around her, sucked in and under as she came into contact with the nymphs.  Song filled her thoughts, a dirge sung sweetly, a song of mourning and loss raised by a thousand voices.  Cold swept through her, setting her teeth chattering and her toes curling.

Focus.  Damn you, focus.  You’re the one who used to command them.  You can do it again.

The cold only pressed down harder and it became harder to breathe.  Her vision dimmed until she didn’t see Matt’s face or the sky or anything else, only darkness.  Her throat felt like it was constricting, as if ice-cold fingers had wrapped around her neck, talons digging into her veins.

Fight this.  You have to fight this.

It was just so hard.  A chill like ice crept through her, spreading from her neck through the rest of her body, as if she was being slowly encased in ice.  Perhaps she was, despite it being the height of summer.  She couldn’t feel Matt’s hand around hers anymore—couldn’t feel him at all.

It was only another heartbeat before the shadows that had encroached on her mind swallowed her whole.

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Forty-one – 05

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

Breath burned in her chest and throat as she flung herself through the rain toward the wall, casting glances up toward the sky, tracking what she’d seen.  Bile slicked the back of her throat and her tongue, stomach roiling.

They were supposed to be gone when it all came apart centuries ago, even before I managed to flee.  How are they here now?  And who are they answering to?

They had been her maids, once, a thousand thousand yesterdays ago in another place, another time.  They had been her heralds and her companions—the shadowed, nameless nymphs of realms beyond and below where she’d dwelt for long centuries under the thumb of her Olympium masters.  Now someone else held their tethers and it frightened her.

What’s their plan?

Her breath hitched.  Would the wards hold?

I can’t know one way or another.  Even Marin wouldn’t have known, she was certain of it.

The rain was frigid and she could barely feel her fingers as she dashed past the watchtower where Paul perched, rifle trained beyond the wall.  She could hear the screams of dying dirae and more now, could hear the echo of drums and the sound of Marin’s voice guiding the archers on the wall.

Steady.  Her gaze swept the rampart, landing on Matt as he stiffened and twisted.  Blood drained from his face even as she scrambled up to join him, the still-healing wound in her side itching and burning at the same time.

“I thought I—”

“Thom saw something,” she blurted, breathless and gasping as Matt and Phelan pulled her up to the top, the latter sliding a little further down the rampart to make space for her next to Matt.  “Said you would need me and he’s right.  They have the lampades, Matt.  The dark nymphs are here.”

“What?”  He blinked rapidly.  She could see the traces of magic in his eyes, swirling and twisting in his irises.  His power was still up and he didn’t even know it.  “Where?  How?”

“Look up,” she whispered, fingers tangling in his sleeve, nails digging into the flesh of his arm through the fabric.  “I don’t know how they’re here, but look up.”

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Forty-one – 04

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

Hecate exhaled.  “Thom.  What did you see?”

He squeezed his eyes shut, cradling his son closer to his chest and bowing his head, as if to avoid her gaze.  “Just go,” he whispered.  “Hell, Hecate, please just go before it’s too late.”

“I don’t see why you’re making this so difficult.”

“That makes two of us,” he fired back, head coming up with eyes blazing.  “Hecate, go.  They’re going to need you.  Trust me.”

“I do,” she said, swallowing bile.  “That’s why I want to know what the hell you saw that’s sending me there when Matt wanted me here and out of danger.”

“If you’re not there, he’s not going to see it coming.  He needs you—they all need you.  Go, Hecate.  For the love of everything holy and sacred, go.  I can’t lose them—and neither can you.”

Her breath caught and her eyes widened.  For a split second, she wanted to ask what they wouldn’t see coming but at almost the same moment realized that it didn’t matter because she’d know when she saw it—and only she would know when she saw it.  The bottom dropped out of her stomach.

Run.

Ice sluiced through her veins at the sound of Persephone’s whispered voice, heard for the first time in centuries.  She was off like a shot, running toward the wall.  Rain soaked through her shirt, her capris.  She slipped in the mud and nearly went down, caught her balance and kept going.

There was no time.

Shadows moved against the sky, against the clouds above, beyond the reach of Marin’s wards.  Hecate’s heart shot upward, lodging in her throat.  Her step faltered for a moment as she breathed a curse, then started moving again, faster.

No, no, no.  It can’t be.  They’re all supposed to be gone.  They were wiped out.

Except they weren’t, and now they were here, and Thom was right—no one else was going to see them coming.

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