Eighteen – 02

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

                “What are you going to say?”

                The question startled Matt, though he probably should have expected it, especially from Thom.  Still, hearing it was jarring, set his teeth slightly on edge.  A frown creased his forehead as he now finally glanced toward his brother-in-law.  “What do you mean?”

                “Well, you’re going to have to convince them,” Thom said.  “How are you planning on doing it?”

                Matt shook his head.  “Well, I figured once I told them who was threatening us and told them that we have the chance to stop him before he makes it here then I’d see how they responded and go from there.”

                Thom nodded slowly, looking thoughtful as he looked away, stared off into space as they kept walking—Matt slowly enough that Thom didn’t have to struggle to keep up on his crutches.  Matt knew his brother-in-law’s shoulders were still sore though he was fairly certain the worst of the deep gouges left by camazotzi claws were healed by now.  “That’s probably a good way to go about it,” he said after a long pause.  “Are you going to tell them about Seamus and Orcus and the connection there?”

                “I don’t think I’m going to have to,” Matt said quietly.  “They already know.  At least enough of them already know.  I’ll tell them Orcus is ten miles northwest of here and that we have three days—less than three days, really—to stop him in his tracks before he comes here.  We’ll have to scout out his forces, figure out how to beat them, then hit him hard—or, if we can’t figure out how to hit him before he comes, at least we’ll have an idea of what he’ll bring up against us.  At least it doesn’t seem like he’s got allies.”

                “Not that we know of, anyway.”

                “Right,” Matt said grimly.  “Not that we know of.”

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Eighteen – 01

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

                A ball of lead settled in his belly as he trudged away from the fire, heading for the Wild Hunt’s encampment.  Part of him reflected that the Huntsmen needed to start building shelters a little more hardy than their tents, since they’d need them soon enough when winter came.  It would probably be early, too, just like the year before—just like the winter after everything they’d ever known came crashing down and the world was utterly changed.

                “You don’t have to do this.”

                Matt glanced sidelong at Thom, frowning for a second.  “You’re the one who doesn’t have to do this.  You should’ve stayed with the others.”

                “Not a chance.”  Thom stared back at him, expression as grimly determined as Matt had ever seen it—an expression probably mirrored by his own.  “Someone needed to come back you up and I’ve been useless for long enough.”

                “You’re not useless,” Matt said, looking away.  “We’ve been over this.  Trust me on it.”

                “Yeah, well.  I still feel like it even if it’s not true.  At least this way I feel like I’m useful.”  He sighed quietly.  “Besides, it feels right.”

                “What does?”

                “Coming with you.”  Thom looked at him again, but Matt couldn’t meet his brother-in-law’s gaze, just kept staring resolutely forward.  “Don’t ask me why.  It just does.”

                The truth was, Matt didn’t want to ask.  He didn’t want his suspicions confirmed, that his brother-in-law’s Sight had urged him to come along, that some flicker or fragment of something had driven him to it.  All he could hope was that it wasn’t because something bad was going to happen on the way.

                I just hope that I can convince them somehow.  We need their help—if I’m right about what she wants to do, we’ll need them badly to make this work.  We don’t have the numbers otherwise, or the skills.  These are soldiers, men and women who have spent almost their entire lives at one war or another.  They know how to fight.  Most of us are still learning.

                A preemptive strike.  There was no way they could do it without the Hunt’s help.

                He just hoped he could secure it without somehow sparking more of a war than they were prepared to fight.

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Seventeen – 07

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

                Marin watched her for a few seconds before she nodded slowly.  “None of us would want you to go anyway, no matter what was offered.  What’re you thinking, plan-wise?  Sounded like you had the beginnings of an idea.”

                “I do,” Hecate said, waving for her to sit back down.  She found a spot to sit near the fire, drawing one knee to her chest as she gathered her thoughts and studied the faces of her friends.  Matt didn’t sit, he just paced, and for a few seconds she watched him before her gaze returned to Marin and Thom.  “I think we need to launch a preemptive strike.  Hit him before he comes after us.  We know what his timeline is and we have an idea of where he is.  If the Wild Hunt will help us, I think we can do it.  I think we can neutralize his army before it strikes us or anyone else.”

                “Do you think we’d be a target if he didn’t want you?” Thom asked quietly, his gaze steady.  There was no malice or suspicion in his voice or his eyes, but Matt still gave him a sharp look.

                Hecate shook her head.  “He’d come no matter what.  The fact that I’m here and he wants me buys us time.  If he doesn’t already know Leinth and Seamus are here, he’ll figure it out soon enough, and then there’s the matter of Cameron—he’s descended of their blood.”

                “Like a lot of us are from the princes of the Áes Dana or other lines,” Marin murmured.  She leaned back, laying a hand on Thom’s thigh as she stared at nothing for a few seconds, lost in thought.  “We’ll have to talk to Seamus to see if he can get the Hunt to help us.”

                “Seamus might not need to talk to them,” Matt said, looking his sister in the eye.  “I can talk to them.”

                Hecate looked at him, her brow furrowing slightly.  “Do you think they’ll listen?”

                “I know they will,” Matt said, then wet his lips.  “I’m just not sure they’ll like what I have to say.”

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Seventeen – 06

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

                There must have been something to the look on her face when they arrived back, because Marin’s smile—she had been talking to Tala and Thom about something animatedly, and apparently had been enjoying it—immediately faded and she stood up, steadying Thom as she did.

                “What is it?” she asked, her voice quiet.  “What’s happened?”

                “It is Orcus,” Matt said.  “And he’s given us three days.”

                “Until some kind of inevitable showdown?” Thom asked, irony heavy in his voice.  He leaned back against the log behind him, Lin nestled against his chest, sleeping.  “Got to admire his flare for the dramatic.”

                “It’s more than that,” Hecate said.  “He told Matt and Thordin that he wanted me.  I have three days to turn myself into him and then presumably, he leaves you all alone—at least, I suspect that’s what he’d want you to think.  With Seamus and Leinth here, though, I think we all know that’s off the table.”  She glanced around.  Both Seamus and Leinth were gone—she’d probably taken him back to bed sometime while Hecate had been gone.  As far as Hecate was concerned, that was good.  Bed was where Seamus needed to be, resting and recovering.  She hoped they wouldn’t need him for the coming fight.

                Something in the pit of her stomach told her that they would.

                “So what do we do?” Tala asked softly.  She was already making more coffee.  The woman was a saint, no matter what she believed.  “Batten down the hatches again?”

                “We might not have to,” Carolyn said, moving to help Tala.  “He made a mistake.”

                “A mistake?” Marin’s brow furrowed.  “What are you talking about?”

                “He told your brother and I roughly where he is,” Thordin said.  “Ten miles northwest.”

                “Along the lakeshore,” Marin said, frowning.  “And we have three days?”

                Matt nodded.  “He didn’t give a more precise time or location.”

                “But he might not have needed to,” Hecate said quickly.  “We might be able to leverage this into an advantage, hit him before he hits us.”

                Marin watched them all for a few seconds.  “There’s something else that you’re not saying.”

                “He has Persephone,” Matt said.  “He said he’d give her to us if we gave her Hecate.  We—I—said no.”

                Hecate took his hand and squeezed, hard, even as her heart contracted painfully.  “We said no.  I love her as my sister, but I can’t do that.  Not again.  Not ever again.  We find a way and it’s not me going with him.  We find a way.”  She stared at Marin.  “This is my home, my family.  He’d turn me against you in any way he could and I am not going to risk that happening.  Not now and not ever.”

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Seventeen – 05

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

                Hecate squeezed Matt’s fingers again, her mind already starting to race even as she worked to keep her thoughts from tangling.  It was starting to be a little easier than it had been before, or maybe she’d just started to adapt again.  There was an odd clarity, though, one that she hadn’t really experienced for longer than she could remember.  The fog was gone.

                “Do you think the Hunt would be able to scout the area?” she asked as they crossed the bridge.  “Assuming they don’t already know the territory.  They’ve been riding patrols all over the area for months.  They’ve likely covered the ground already, but we’ll need to know where, exactly, Orcus has laid his camp and what his army actually looks like.”

                Matt stiffened, twisting to blink at her.  She smiled crookedly and shrugged a little.

                “We can stop him before he shows up at our door,” she said.  “For once, we can do that.  I feel like we should take the chance.”

                “You think we can do it?” Carolyn asked softly.  There was a thread of hope in her voice.  “Stop them before they march on us?”

                “I think it’d certainly be better for our walls,” Hecate said, then smiled wryly.  Her stomach didn’t drop at the idea, though, which meant she was either suffering some kind of break with reality again or she actually thought they could do it.  The fact that she was able to think clearly suggested it was the latter.  “Possibly our morale.  Certainly for the children.”

                But maybe not ours.  She swallowed a sigh.  She would need to be with whatever force they sent against Orcus whether Matt liked it or not—not that he’d ever let her go without him.  It would be dangerous for certain, but it would also be worth it.

                From the corner of her eye, she could see Thordin shaking his head slightly, though he was smiling.  She arched a brow.

                “What?”

                “I knew you were dangerous,” he said with a faint smile.  “Now everyone who ever tried to use you will realize why.”

                “Is that a compliment?”

                He grinned.  “You know it is.”

                She grinned back, nodding.  “Well, don’t think that gets you out of planning.”

                “Planning?” Thordin’s grin widened.  “Lady, I’ll be with whatever army we put together on that field, one way or another.  You’ve got me.”

                “Good,” she said, nodding.  “Now we’ll just need a plan—and for that, we need the others.”

                She led the way back toward the edge of camp, now roused for the day, some of them scattering for their daily tasks.  That was fine.  The ones she needed would still be by the fire.

                That much, she knew.

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Seventeen – 04

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

                “What do you think his plan is?”  Carolyn asked.  “I’ve never heard of him before you guys brought the name up today—except for, like sounding like something from a D&D game.”

                Thordin snorted.  “It would be nice if it was something that simple.”

                “With us, it never seems to be.”  She smiled weakly.  “Maybe someday we’ll get lucky and it will be.”

                “Maybe,” Thordin echoed, then shook his head.  “He’s one of the old forgotten ones.  In a way, we’re lucky.”

                Hecate snorted.  “Lucky.  You mean because we know who the hell he is in the first place before he just shows up on our doorstep?”

                “That would be it, yes.”  He shook his head again.  “He also might have overplayed his hand.”

                “What do you mean?”  Hecate looked at him, brows knitting.  There was something in his tone that caused her heart to bounce a little even as her stomach sank.  “Overplayed how?”

                “He gave us three days and told us where to send you.  His army’s probably there.”

                She stumbled a step, caught herself, swallowed hard.  “Either you think he’s foolish or overconfident.”

                “I would err toward the latter,” Thordin said, glancing at Matt, whose lips thinned.

                “Thordin might be right,” he murmured.  “He might have handed us the advantage we need.  He might not know that the Hunt’s on our side.”

                “But he must know that we have Seamus,” Hecate said.  “Maybe Leinth, too.  We can’t assume that he doesn’t—and we can’t assume that he doesn’t know that we have the help of the Hunt.”

                Their footsteps echoed on the pavement.  Gray clouds hung low in the sky, as if to promise rain, and soon.  It wouldn’t have been a surprise at this point—the surprise would have been the skies clearing and the sun to shine.  Summer had been strange.

                All the seasons in the past year had been a little strange.

                “I don’t think we’re wrong about him being overconfident, though,” Matt continued, his voice low.  “But at the same time, I’m not sure I know how to leverage that into a victory.”

                “That’s why we have a lot of friends with a lot more combat experience, Matt.”  Carolyn squeezed his shoulder.  “We’ll figure it out.  After all, we’ve got three days.  How far away are they?”

                “Ten miles,” he said quietly.  “Closer to the lakeshore.  North of us.”

                She nodded.  “All right, then.  That gives us something to work with, doesn’t it?”

                “Something,” Matt agreed, then sighed.  Hecate reached up to squeeze the hand he’d wrapped around her shoulders.

                “She’s right,” Hecate said.  “We’ll come up with a plan—and it’ll work.  Everything will be okay.”

                “At some point, our luck’s going to run out,” Matt said.  “We all know that.”

                “It will,” she said softly.  “But this time won’t be it.  I promise.”

                “I’m going to hold you to that,” he said.

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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Seventeen – 03

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

                Carolyn came alongside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, giving her a quick squeeze before letting go.  Matt’s arm settled around her shoulders again, drawing her tight against his side, as if he was somehow suddenly afraid she’d vanish into thin air.

                Hecate had no intention of doing that, not now and not ever.  Her hand strayed unconsciously toward her stomach, her lips thinning.

                I want a life.  That’s all I’ve ever wanted.  I want a life, something close to a normal life.  I have a family now, friends.  She leaned into him, her arm sliding around his waist.  “We’ll have to pick Seamus’s brain.  Leinth’s, too.  It’s not going to be easy.”

                “It wasn’t easy for you to talk about Olympium,” Matt murmured.  “You still did it.”

                “I did,” she agreed.  And in a lot of ways, both of them are much more mentally stable and in a better place emotionally than I am.  Seamus is a little bit of a physical mess right now, though.  “Did he say why?”

                Matt startled.  Thordin was the one that answered.

                “He just said that he wanted you,” Thordin rumbled, voice soft like distant thunder.  “Hell.  He said he wanted the witch.”

                She snorted softly, feeling a pang somewhere deep, though it didn’t hurt as much as it might have once.  “Well, that’s not necessarily an inaccurate way to refer to me, is it?”

                “Well, you’re certainly powerful,” Carolyn said.  “You think he wants you because of that?”

                “I don’t have much doubt of it,” Hecate said, then shrugged slightly.  “I seriously doubt he’d just want me to be a companion to Persephone.  He has a plan for something and he needs to be able to command my power so he can accomplish it.”

                “We don’t always get what we want,” Matt said.

                “No,” Hecate said softly.  “And he won’t.”

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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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