Kindling 1.8

Kindling 1.8

August 16th 2014 – Molly

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The obsidian knife and the promise of tax-free money had gotten me to start talking, but Wrath actually wasn’t a half bad listener. I spoke uninterrupted for almost an hour. The car hummed along, I could feel us take the occasional turn, but for the life of me I couldn’t have told you what direction we were headed. It was actually kinda nice to tell someone about everything that had happened in the past few days. Wrath was still scary, but he really wasn’t actually all that threatening. He radiated confidence and power, and gave orders like he expected them to be followed, but he was almost hard to take seriously. He didn’t have the threatening demeanor and gravitas I’d come to associate with powerful people. He barely interjected until I got to the part where we landed in Atlanta. Then he was all questions. Wrath seemed to want to know everything shy of what color of socks I was wearing.

The incessant questions dragged on until I got to the fight bargain with Ruin. Then the criticisms started.

“Why the hell did you jump out the window? You had to know he’d just follow you onto the tarmac?” Wrath asked.

“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, the fire escape was blocked by the crowd!”

“You could have just run through security and headed to a corridor with a lower ceiling. Even an iron golem would have been slowed down by needing to continually plow through structural steel. And seriously? Making a spur of the moment bargain with a demon you didn’t bind? I probably should just kill you right now, it’d probably be a kinder fate.”

“I didn’t exactly have a plethora of choices. How about next time you try fighting off the major demon?” I retorted.

“Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I handled it with much more panache than you by the way, no broken bones or idiotic deals.” Wrath replied.

“Really? I find that hard to believe.”

“Yep, I also didn’t accidentally level an airport and get hundreds of people killed. I wonder how you’re going to explain that one to the Association.” Fuck. I hadn’t really thought about that.

“I’m sure there are provisions for self-defense against a demon. It’s not like the association can completely throw me under the bus, I’m the one who was just attacked by a demon.” I said.

“Molly dear, I’m pretty sure those provisions you’re talking about call for you to be given over to the custody of the Holy Church. And you’re not going to be considered a victim, technically you’re a warlock now. After all, you did make a formal bargain with a demon.”

Wrath sat quietly for a moment to let me think about that. Technically, he was right. It’s not like I summoned the demon, or made a true offering or pact, but trading an object for assistance was technically a bargain. Oh dear. If that ever got out, I definitely wouldn’t be making it to my eighteenth birthday. Warlocks and diabolists have a very short life expectancy, and that’s not just because they traffic in primordial evils. Talking to Wrath might not have been the best idea I’d ever had, I’d just handed him incredible blackmail material. And he still held that long obsidian knife, idly flipping it between his fingers. Just looking at it made me shiver. I considered taking a peek with the sight, it would certainly give me a better idea of exactly what I was up against. But that knife… Looking closely at something with an aura that dark could potentially leave me a gibbering wreck. It wasn’t worth the risk yet. Of course, if he actually decided to use it on me, I probably wouldn’t have time to give it a proper examination.

“Do you know where that slavic bozo you made a deal with ranks in the hierarchy of his choir?” Wrath asked.

“Uh… Not exactly… But he tore that golem apart, he’s clearly not small fries.”

Wrath snorted. “An imp, hell, even a mane, would be more than small fries dear. And probably more than you could handle besides.”

“Hey, I’ve made it this far haven’t I? I’m clearly not a total incompetent. And stop calling me dear.” I replied indignantly.

“Yes, such an amazing performance to date. You lost the relic you stole from an unguarded tomb, nearly burned down a bunch of unsuspecting villages, accidentally got a major airport leveled, made a bargain you don’t understand with a demon, then got captured. Brilliant. I bet the Association will be asking you to teach their next supernatural combat in-service!” Wrath deadpanned.

“I killed that Slaugh, priests have made their careers on less!” I objected.

“Hah! You got lucky, if you’d been facing anything that wasn’t deathly afraid of fire, or fighting anywhere less flammable, you would have been toast. Hell, if it hadn’t rained afterward, you probably would have been toast anyway!”

“I left a strip of scorched earth between me and the fire, there was no way for it to reach me. I’ve been working with fire for more than a decade, I know what I’m doing.”

“There’s this thing that sometimes causes fires to spontaneously spread, it’s called wind. Ever heard of it pyromancer?”

“It’s Ireland, if the weather is bad enough to be windy, it’s probably raining too! Besides, where the hell do you get off on criticizing my performance? How I do my job isn’t any of your fucking business!” I shouted. Okay, he might have hit a bit of a nerve there. I definitely could have handled Hartsfield-Jackson better, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to admit that to this asshole. He was right, but he didn’t have to be an ass about it.

For a few blessed moments, Wrath didn’t say anything. I leaned back against the wall of the truck, listening to the steady hum of the engine. I closed my eyes, it wasn’t as if I had any chance of winning a fight against my kidnappers anyway. Even if Wrath’s knife wasn’t as magically nasty as I suspected it was, even if he didn’t have the sort of supernatural speed and strength that typically backs up a weapon like that, there was no way I was getting out of here. Judging by the bumps in the road we were far outside of the city proper, and without a weapon I certainly had no chance against the shape-shifting, head-ache inducing monster that was apparently driving the car. It would easily outpace me if I tried to run, and without a lighter and a wand or gun I couldn’t hope to fight the thing on open ground. The only advantage I had in this situation was that I was still technically a member in good standing of the Association, they couldn’t just kill me and dump the body without some sort of consequences. The Association was full of ornery, brown nosing, assholes that any merciful God would have called to his side centuries ago, but damn did we take care of our own. Or rather, damn did we take care of anyone who messed with our own. And, technically a warlock or not, Wrath couldn’t prove anything, it was his word against mine.

Unfortunately, Wrath derailed that train of thought with a question.

“So, have you noticed any changes since making the bargain? A newfound thirst for blood? A desire to to urinate on Churches? Supernatural insight into the futility of the human condition?” Oh, shit. I suppressed the urge to flinch when Wrath asked me about the changes. Hallucinations and enhanced stamina? Yeah, there was no way those were unrelated. Had I accidentally given the demon permission to heal me? I couldn’t remember the exact words I’d used. And Wrath had to have seen my run from the hospital, that alone was enough evidence to convince a jury to have me examined by a priest.

“Nope. Nothing new, though I haven’t really checked. I’ve been a bit preoccupied since I woke up.” I tried to lie anyway. It’s not like I could get into any more trouble, he practically already owned me.

Wrath sighed. Yep, he knew. He had to, there was no way a human who had been injured as badly as I was could have run that far without magical aid. Maybe I needed to look into destroying the records at that hospital. I couldn’t remember the name, but if I found it again a little arson wouldn’t be too hard to get away with.

Wrath opened his mouth to say something obnoxious. Well, it probably would have been obnoxious, I never did get to find out. Before he could speak, something slammed into the side of the van.

I tried to brace myself, but there wasn’t really anything to hold onto in the back of the van. I first felt a crash as something collided with the van, then the world turned 45 degrees, as if the van was balanced on two wheels. For a long moment, the van held it’s precarious balance and I slid off the former floor down towards where it met the wall. Wrath reacted better, keeping his balance by planting one leg on the wall, one on the floor. Then, with another crash, the van tipped. The van rumbled along the road on it’s side, momentum carrying us onwards. I reached out, for something, anything, solid to try to hold onto through the as we slid along. I saw the hacksaw flying through the air, and narrowly managed to curl out of the way. For my trouble, something blunt and metal slammed into my face from outside my field of vision. I shut my eyes and tried to shield my head, but another impact knocked me off the floor. I hit a wall, or maybe the old floor. The van kept on sliding for a few more seconds before friction did it’s work.

I opened my eyes as soon as I felt the van begin to slow down and tried to take stock of the situation. The cooler had tipped open and some point, the new floor of the van was covered with ice and vacuum wrapped plastic bags full of red stuff. Were they… Kidneys? I couldn’t tell without a closer look.

Closer to me, I saw the hacksaw that I’d barely dodged and the empty handgun that I hadn’t. My food was strewn across the floor, and Wrath’s half finished coke had spilled everywhere. Wait, where was Wrath? I could see the whole inside of the van, and he wasn’t here.

Had he gotten out of the van before we’d even stopped moving? I grabbed the gun and hacksaw and stumbled across the wet floor. The bottom half of the van’s doors were already open. I crawled through onto the asphalt into, well, a scene that looked like the unholy offspring of a Bosch triptych and a zombie movie. Yeah, it was that bad.

The Georgia night was warm and humid. We were far outside the city, surrounded by a thick forest on all sides. The waning gibbous moon and a few fireflies were the only sources of light outside of the truck. The narrow asphalt road we had been traveling down was in a pretty terrible state of disrepair, filled with potholes and being encroached upon on all sides by the forest. Wrath stood alone in the middle of the road a few yards in front of me. He was surrounded by a pile of human limbs and torsos. Most of the limbs weren’t attached to the torsos anymore. Neither the limbs nor the torsoes seemed to have realized that, they flailed back and forth with a violent rhythm. Wrath held an obsidian knife in each hand, the ebony blades glowing with a queer sort of black light. It flowed down the edges blade then drifted upward like smoke, dissipating into the thick air. The knives were beautiful and terrifying all at the same time. I wanted to touch them, to stroke their edges, to keep them forever, to take them away from their unworthy owner. And I wanted to run away screaming at the same time, yet they drew me like a moth to a flame, or an isolated teenager to a hungry fae. I knew deep down they would hurt me badly and I would never recover, but I wanted them.

Something deep and angry stirred inside my stomach. I couldn’t have told you why they I wanted them, or why I feared them, but I knew they were precious as surely as I knew that death was bad or that people were cruel. And with just as much certainty, I knew some day they would be mine.

I was so infatuated by the knives almost didn’t notice the faces between the trees. Or the twisted, misshapen bodies beneath those faces.

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Interlude – Ireland Part 5

Interlude – Ireland Part 5

August 5th 2014 – Molly

I woke up cold, wet, naked, and in the middle of a blasted wasteland filled with burnt corpses. All in all, it wasn’t the best morning I’d ever had. It also was only a morning by the most generous definition of the word, the sun hadn’t yet begun to peek over the horizon. I started to get up, but paused, wincing, when I discovered just how sore I was. I was laying across two head-sized boulders, and that definitely had not made for good rest. Nor had being rained on. I was soaked, but apparently the hillside wasn’t on fire anymore, so that was something. Gotta be thankful for the little things in life.

I was sore in parts of my body that I didn’t know could get sore. I stood up anyway, I had to get moving, sooner or later someone would be coming to investigate the fact that I’d burned half the hillside to ashes. Actually, upon further inspection, it was probably a bit more than half. There was a small circle of green around me, but beyond that about twenty feet of the hillside was charred black, save where it was covered by the grey ashes of vegetation. Corpses, including two that were clearly far too large to be human, dotted the landscape. Most of them were piled up like sandbags in a ring around me, but about two dozen lay lower on the hillside. Further down the hill twisting black lines were burned, marking where Guenwhyvar had passed during the fight.

Wait, where was Guen? Had the mob finally managed to bring her down? Did she dissipate after I passed out? I couldn’t feel any trace of the presence that had lurked in the back of my mind during the battle with the Slaugh.

I spent a moment just standing there, unsure if I wanted to spend my limited time looking for Guen or venture into the tomb to find whatever it was I’d come here for. So, I did the only thing that made sense. I got dressed and finished dinner. The tent had rolled over on it’s side at some point during the battle, but thankfully hadn’t caught fire. My clothes were laying on the floor, marginally dryer and less muddy than they had been last night. I put them on, shivering. I found my lighter and spent the last few dregs of butane to start a small fire in little circle of hedge around me. What was one more little fire after everything I had put the countryside through?

I found the rest of the roll of chocolate-covered biscuits at the bottom of the tent. They were pretty much dust, apparently I stepped on them at some point last night, but they were still delicious, covered with chocolate, and full of calories. I found the little package of precooked sausages I hadn’t been interested in the night before and took those out too. I didn’t have a grate or any sticks, so I just ate them cold and huddled around the little fire. A tiny expenditure of power kept it from spreading any farther. Now fully clothed and fed, huddling around my fire, I had to think about the elephant in the room. Or rather, the tiger that wasn’t on the hillside.

Guen was gone. I hadn’t had her for long, but she had been my cat damnit. Hell, she’d been a better person than any of the people I’d ever met. But she wasn’t coming back. I knew that cat would never have abandoned me just as surely and instinctively as I knew she would’ve burned me if I tried to pet her. If she wasn’t here, she wasn’t anywhere. And she wasn’t coming back. She must have… Fuck, my face was wet. From the rain, of course.

I turned to face the barrow, I’d come this far already, I’d see this through, no matter what. Not that I had much choice in the matter. Being homeless is bad for normal people, but it’s worse for mages. Homeless mages get eaten. I suppose homeless normals might sometimes get eaten too, but I’m pretty sure it’s less likely.

The barrow’s entrance was a slit in the hillside about one and a half times the height and width of an average man. Unfortunately, it was mostly blocked by rubble and greenery. Around the edges of the archway there were hints of what might have been intentional stonework, at least before the centuries of wind and rain. There was an uneven border, and what looked like a keystone near the top. Uniform scratches that might have been writing a very long time ago dotted the stones around the edges of the opening. I traced the writing with my fingers, feeling the smooth grooves. It was definitely old, but I had no clue whatsoever what it said. I could barely manage the most basic of modern Gaelic street signs, this was the domain of anthropologists and archeologists. I might not have an army of unpaid undergraduates with cameras, but I did have the sight. I opened my metaphorical 3rd eye and gave the entrance furtive a once-over.

It was a fear ward. I almost laughed. It’s not that it wouldn’t be an effective way to keep peasants and grave-robbers at bay, I was just expecting something more King-Tut curse and less Emo-Mage home security. I’d had plenty of experience dealing with these during my apprenticeship. My dear old master had used them as magical childproofing. I had been expected to push my way through similar wards every time I wanted to get into the kitchen for a snack. It took the better part of a decade before the bastard taught me how to actually dispel the damn things. He’d used a similar approach to teach me to deal with charm and enchantment, occasionally making halfhearted but still frighteningly effective attempts to charm me into doing nasty chores. And to make me do other things. He really hadn’t been a nice man.

But he had been an effective teacher. I climbed the pile of moss-covered rocks and broken beer bottles and shoved my backpack through the little hole that opened into the tomb. I went next, shimmying in backwards, feet first. I felt the ward take effect when I was about halfway in and paused for a moment. It started subtle, my heart beating faster than it should have. Then came the familiar pressure on my chest, the sweaty palms and the trembling fingers. The bitter taste in the back of my mouth, the pounding in my head. I closed my eyes, and focused on separating the symptoms I was experiencing from the emotions I usually associated them with.

And then I got on with shimmying my way through the gap. Knowing it was magic that was affecting you definitely helped, but there’s nothing like years of practice when it comes to pushing through magic designed to ensnare the mind. Well, actually some new research suggests that the sex, age, and personality of an individual are the best metrics for gauging resistance to various forms of mental magic. Personally, I just think they didn’t train their experimental group properly.

I found footing on the inside of the barrow and slowly lowered myself in. It hadn’t been too tight a squeeze, but a man, or someone with more sizeable… boobs, might’ve been in trouble.

It was dark and musty inside the barrow. A thin sliver of light crept in from the gap I had climbed through. Every time I moved I could see the accumulated dust of centuries dancing in the thin ray of light. The short entryway opened into a small burial chamber. A stone tomb on a raised dais dominated the space. The tomb had been roughly hewn from some sort of grey stone. It hadn’t been weathered anywhere near as much as the stonework on the outside and still retained it’s inscription. Not that I had any hope of reading it, between the dim light and it being, y’know, probably written in a dead language.

I kinda figured it was a few verses extolling the virtues of whatever poor fellow was interred here and the standard warnings of eternal damnation for grave-robbers. The usual stuff you’d find on a pre-christian tomb. I checked it for magic, it was clean. Well, it was slightly dingy. Everything in the tomb was very modestly magical, but nothing overtly threatening stood out about the tomb. So, I got on with what I was here for. I’d bought a crowbar shortly after landing in Dublin, seeing as I’m tiny and rocks are both heavy and inflammable. After a few tries I managed to find a spot where I could lodge the straight end between the heavy stone lid and the lip of the tomb. I had a hard time getting the lid to move, after several thousand years to settle it was practically glued to the tomb itself. Eventually I succeeded in wiggling the crowbar in deep enough that I could pry the lid far enough upwards for gravity and normal force to slide it a bit to the side. It was easier from then on, every inch I shifted the lid gave me more and more leverage. Eventually I had shifted the stone cover almost a third of the way to the side. I gave it one more good wedge upwards, and it started to fall.

The lid landed with a resounding, earth shaking, crash. Dust and soil rained from the roof of the cave. And the tomb lay open before me.

At that moment, what I was doing really hit me. I was about to defile that last resting place of someone who had been beloved enough that those who survived him had literally carved out a hillside as his final resting place. Or her, it was too dark to make out much about the mummy lying before me. The bones were a dark brown color, even more withered than the zombies outside had been. Everything in the tomb was covered with a gray-green dust, at least I really hoped it was dust. The body was taller than me, maybe six and a half feet, but I couldn’t tell anything about the build or gender of the mummy.

Most importantly, and disappointingly, there were almost no personal effects in the tomb. I say almost no, because there was clear evidence there had been some. There was a long thin piece of what had one been wood a very long time ago, which dissolved into bug-filled dust the moment my hand brushed up against it. It might have once been a stave for a bow or spear, but it wasn’t anything anymore. There were also piles of, well, organic matter, that might have once been clothing. And there was a piece of black metal, pitted with rust and roughly the length of my forearm. Maybe a spearhead, or part of a dagger. I didn’t know, and didn’t care. I put it in the bag.

Mission fucking accomplished. There was nothing else of interest in the tomb, and my employer had mentioned nothing about wanting bones or dust. I left the tomb the same way I came in, this time unmolested by the fear ward.

All this for a goddamn oversized nail. Fuck this country. As if in response to my unspoken curse, the grey sky above me rumbled. Every so often lightning flashed ominously in the distance. I threw my backpack over my shoulder and started walking. I really needed a drink. Or several. However many was enough to forget about the scabs all over my body and the cat that had almost been mine.

Fruit Baskets Part 2

Fruit Baskets Part Two

Date Unknown – Author Unknown

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The basket with the note in it really got the attention of the secret service. It was discovered by cleaning staff and removed before it could be seen by Jackie Kennedy. That fourth basket marked the beginning of almost four decades of effort by the service to identify the individuals responsible for delivering the fruit baskets. Records were searched, security was tightened, and some of the greatest forensic examiners of the time were consulted. And, pardon the pun, all these efforts proved fruitless. The baskets appeared at varying intervals, always in the Lincoln Bedroom. They always contained the exact same varieties of fruit, all of the highest quality, and always in season, regardless of the time of year. The baskets always appeared while the room was empty, even if it was left unattended for no more than a few minutes.

There were no fingerprints to be found on the baskets, or their contents. There was in fact no physical evidence to suggest that the baskets had not merely sprung into existence fully formed. First it was interesting, then it was frightening, then it was a state secret. The staff who had seen the baskets were slowly replaced, the rumors were discredited, and the records were sealed. To everyone outside the service, the baskets were wiped from the pages of history as suddenly as they had appeared. This secret was kept most of all from the first family. It simply would not do for the President to learn that the most competent security force of the most powerful nation in the world could not secure a room against a regular delivery of fruit. For the next eight years, two months after the previous basket had appeared, the service would regularly check the Lincoln bedroom between the hours of dusk and dawn, catching the basket before anyone else could. Eventually, after nearly eight years and thirty-one baskets, an agent was assigned to watch the room full time. This agent was the late James Francis Bell.

James Bell was, despite his position in the United States Secret Service, a remarkably ordinary fellow. He was born in 1934, tolerated his schooling, loved his country, and worshiped the memory of FDR. He ended up in the secret service not through any internal impetus or uncommon effort, but by the vagaries of fate and the friends of his father. In short, he was as average a man as can could be expected to be tasked with guarding a world leader. It was this overwhelming lack of interest or talent that landed Special Officer Bell with the unenviable task of guarding a generally empty room against hostile baskets.

When, after four months of continuous observation, a basket appeared on his bathroom break, Special Officer Bell took it rather personally. He astonished his supervisors by displaying, for perhaps the very first time in his life, an actual interest in his duty. He never allowed the room out of his sight for the next three months. He delivered reports at his post, and refused to sleep or relieve himself unless a replacement could be secured to watch the room. The basket appeared anyway, this time inside of a closed wardrobe. And Bell took it extremely personally, treating this eighth basket was the very physical avatar of all that was evil in the world.

For the next half decade, Bell organized an increasingly effective system of surveillance. Special Officers made random patrols through empty rooms, doors were given unobtrusive seals to keep track of when they were entered. It was completely ineffective. The baskets appeared in increasingly bizarre places, in bathtubs, beneath sinks, atop canopies. It was impossible to watch the entire house without alarming the ordinary stuff and the first family. And the increasingly worried and frightened leadership of the service steadfastly refused to even consider admitting the existence of the baskets to the President. To do so would be tantamount to admitting they could not hope to secure the White House against an unknown intruder.

This growing atmosphere of paranoia and insecurity culminated in the 1972 purchase of a system of security cameras that would cover the entire White House. Video surveillance was a relatively new technology at the time, and the cost of storing video for the entire house was almost prohibitive. The tapes were reviewed and wiped each night by whatever junior agent had the misfortune of being on his superior’s shitlist at the time. Or Officer Bell, if he was on shift. And sometimes when he wasn’t.

It wasn’t until 7 months, and three baskets, later that video surveillance bore fruit. At 3:14 am on January 7th, 1973, Lincoln Bedroom Camera #3 captured a short clip of a basket being delivered. A blurry figure crosses into the frame from a part of the room not covered by the camera. The figure wearing some sort of cloak, but clearly either a very small man or a child, crosses the screen, lays a basket produced from beneath it’s cloak on the bed, then turns and walks back out of the frame. The service spared no effort or expense in the analysis of this short video, the first real evidence they’d ever had in the matter of the baskets. All they determined was that there was no way the figure could have entered from the angle the camera suggested he did, at least not without being able to walk through walls. And that the figure was probably a short, young, effeminate, European man with long hair. And there was some dispute on that second fact, settled only by the certainty of senior officers that a girl in her early teens wasn’t regularly breaking into the White House.

In short, the video was all but worthless, though it did help some agents remind themselves that they weren’t crazy.

The service attempted to gather more information on the figure in the cloak for four more years. The baskets continued being delivered on schedule during that time. Usually the cloaked figure dropped them off, though several other “figures” were eventually seen. They included the well dressed man, the man dressed like a priest, and the woman in a mourner’s dress. White House rumor suggests that one was in fact delivered by a figure who bore a remarkable resemblance to traditional tales of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. I regret to say that I have not personally seen this video, and so am unable to corroborate this fact.

After four years of fruitless surveillance, there were many who regarded the videos and baskets as some sort of internal prank. Officer James Bell, did not share that opinion. During the 2nd week of July in 1976, Officer Bell reportedly claimed he was coming close to discovering the identity of the person or persons responsible for “Making a mockery of the sanctity of our nation’s highest office.”

The body of Special Officer James Bell was found on the morning of June 11th, 1976. Officially, James Bell was killed in a hit and run accident after finishing his shift the preceding day. Unofficially, Officer Bell was discovered some four hours after his death, in the Lincoln Bedroom. He was found standing over the bed, his wrists tied to the top of the front canopy poles with scraps from the curtains. All of Bell’s fingers and toes were removed, all of his toes and nine of his fingers were found scattered around the room. His eyes were gouged out sloppily and placed inside of a nearby vase. Bell’s chest had been cracked open, his ribs pried outwards, and his intestines were tied to the bedposts. On the far wall, facing the eyeless Bell, two words were written in his blood.

No peeking.

Every camera in the building had been wiped clean. The baskets were no longer generally regarded as an internal prank.

Three months later, a basket appeared at the foot of the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom. It contained two dozen bing cherries, three blood oranges, thirty five red grapes, five red-delicious apples, and four slices of red grapefruit. Another note was attached, lodged between two apples. It read as follows.

You don’t want to know. But you should never forget.

– O

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Interlude – Ireland Part Four

Interlude – Ireland Part Four

August 4th 2014 – Molly

Just one step though. It wasn’t like I was about to get in a wrestling match with an undead giant and his horde of shorter minions. I just wanted a better view of the hillside. Between my sweaty fingers, I could feel the little oaken statue that would be my trump card. If it worked. If it didn’t, I’d probably die horribly looking like an idiot. No point dwelling on that, either my craftsmanship was good enough or it wasn’t.

I filled in the spaces between the fires around the edge of the plateau, creating a solid half circle of flame. It didn’t take much power or time to spread the existing fire around, even in the damp hedge. Ireland was also a bit more magical than the states, I could probably throw around quite a bit of power here before I really started feeling the effects. Especially if I was able to draw out the battle, and avoid using too much mana in any one instant. A long battle was definitely in my favor here, the longer I went without dying, the thicker the ring of flames around me would get. Eventually it would be impassable to the undead, letting me lob spells at them with no risk of retaliation.

At least, that was the plan. Dozens of considerations rushed through my head in the moments before I acted. It was amazing how calm you could get when your life was on the line.

I swapped my lighter over to my right hand, squared my feet, and took a breath. Using untested magic against a bunch of undead giants. This is what I live for. I defy you to show me a drug that can match the high you get from literally holding your life in your hands. I could feel blood on my shin from where one of the zombies had grabbed my earlier. I rubbed the wet blood all over the statue, clenching my teeth through the sting. I could feel the blood between my fingers, filling in the cracks where I had carved runes into the little wooden tiger. Even without a circle, I could feel the connection forged by my blood, a sign I had enchanted the statue properly.

Feeding mana into the statue was like watching an impossibly intricate fountain get filled with water for the first time, or seeing a building constructed in time-lapse. It wasn’t as much a visual thing as a sense of a geometric shapes and complexity, of the lines of a diagram being drawn on an infinite plane just beyond your vision. It was a surreal experience that dragged on forever, yet ended in a moment, as the basic structure of the spell surged into life. The scaffolding, or the outline, waiting to be filled in. The targets steadily approached, the frontrunners of the horde were now less than a hundred feet from me.

I had chosen to use the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet because it was old enough to have metaphysical weight, but translated phonetically into English. It also had no curvy lines, which made it so much easier to carve into an uneven surface with a pocketknife than English letters. I had written, translated, and carved the spell myself. It wasn’t about precision, the enchantments on the statue already provided enough structure to shape the spell. The spell, the runes, the carving, the blood, all of it was to build a connection. Thaumaturgy is an art, not a science. I spoke aloud the words I had carved as I threw the statue forward towards the horde. It was less of a incantation than a prayer, but they were my words, and that was what mattered.

“I am the fire in the heart of the darkness”

The statue reached the apex of it’s flight.

“Torch, Aegis, Companion”

For a fraction of a moment, I thought I saw a flicker of orange light around the statue.

“My blood shall make your body, my strength will shape your form, and my will shall anchor your reason!”

On impulse, I added another line.

“Sic em Guenwhyvar!”

Hey, it’s another personal connection. A girl’s allowed to have heroes. And cats should have names.

I lost sight of the little tiger statue as it went tumbling into the night. I caught sight of it again, just before it touched the ground. It was glowing orange. I smiled, faith in my handiwork restored. As the little carving touched the ground in front of the horde, it burst into flames. A large part of the power fueling the spell came from me. I could feel the little statue draw strength from me through the connection between us. It wasn’t like the normal strain of working magic, it was more of a steady exhaustion. If burning out after a major working was like collapsing after sprinting a mile, then this was more like having weights attached to every limb, or being kept awake for hours on end. It wasn’t fun, but the drain on my strength was manageable.

The flames around the statue coalesced, shaping and reshaping until they reached a form the spell was happy with.

A tiger composed entirely of swirling flames stood between me and the horde. It’s fur and flesh shifted through every shade of orange imaginable as it flexed it’s muscles. It’s stripes were dark gray, continually shifting as if they were composed of bands of smoke. It’s eyes and claws were black embers tinged with crimson heat. It’s tail swished back and forth idly, igniting the hedge around it. Satisfied with it’s shape, the tiger turned to it’s, our, enemies. And it roared, the deep voice of a jungle cat mingling with the roar of a forest fire. The giant in front, the one animated by the spirit of the little girl, recovered from the surprise first. He, or she, I’m not really sure how gender pronouns work with possession, dropped into a crouch, and charged at my tiger. Worked for me, I had already decided to kill that one first.

Guenwhyvar retreated up the hill with blinding speed, leaving a trail of tiny fires in her wake. The charging giant threw itself to the side, avoiding any contact with the fire. I could feel Guenwhyvar in the corner of my mind. I didn’t have any real control over her, but I could dimly sense her mood. The giant and the tiger circle each other, each waiting for the other to move. Neither me nor the rest of the horde of undead intervened. We all understood that this wasn’t our battle. Yet. I had no problem at all with waiting, and letting the brush-fire spread further.

The giant moved first, clambering forward toward Guenwhyvar. He covered half the distance between them in a single motion, then swung his impossibly long arm around like a club. Guenwhyvar dropped back, easily dodging the massive arm.

Unfortunately, it was just a feint. At the apex of the swing, the giant opened it’s hand and released the rock hidden beneath it’s massive fingers. Off balance, the tiger couldn’t move quickly enough to dodge the heavy rock. The stone tore through Guenwhyvar’s fiery flesh, leaving a ragged gap above her right shoulder. I could feel pain and anger seeping through the link between us. I could hear a little girl giggling. The giant’s mouth wasn’t moving. I looked at the fires strewn across the hillside, trying to find a way to distract Guen’s opponent. It wasn’t necessary. The ragged hole was slowly closing, as the Guenwhyvar absorbed the magical fires she had set in the hedge around her.

Okay, that was fucking awesome. I needed to make another of those statues. The self-healing kitty made of fire was definitely my new favorite toy. I got a strangely mixed response through the link, a combination of pride, elation, and contempt. Was… Guenwhyvar upset at being called a toy? Could she hear my thoughts?

“Bad Kitty! Stay dead!” The giant shouted with the voice of a little girl. Oh dear, it was developing a sense of humor. And learning from it’s mistakes. The giant had rocks in both it’s hands now, and was keeping Guenwhyvar outside it’s massive reach. Every time the tiger threatened to pounce, the giant gave ground and swung one of it’s long arms inward, forcing Guenwhyvar to retreat.

I turned away from the stalemated fight and took stock of my more immediate surroundings. The ring of flames had expanded both toward and away from me. Now the barrier was several feet wide and getting dangerously close to my tent. I reached out to the fire and pushed it away from me. It took much less energy than expanding or creating flames. After the fire slid a few feet towards my enemies, I had a nice semicircle of ashes that would prevent the flames from growing back towards me again. Unfortunately, the horde took that as a signal to join the fight. Two of the human sized frontrunners headed towards me, leaping across the barrier of flames. One’s legs gave way as he tried to jump, and he fell short. Right into the ring. I ignored him, turning my attention to the one that had actually cleared the ring. I brought my wand to bear as he got up from his crouch.

“Fuego!” The wand blast caught him near the top of his chest, sending him tumbling backwards into the ring of flames. I kept watch on him out of the corner of my eye, but the spirit animating him didn’t have the presence of mind to try a suicidal charge at me. I swung my wand around like a conductor’s baton, moving it between the zombies standing just outside the ring of fire. The two zombies who had fallen into the fire screamed in their death throes. Even after the charred bodies stopped moving, the voices of the ghosts continued to scream into the night sky.

A flash of concern from Guenwhyvar tore my attention away from the mob on the far side of the circle. Half of the zombies, and the other two giants, had headed for Guenwhyvar instead of me. Two of the giants used their incredible reach to prevent her from closing to melee range, the rest of the mob threw stones at her. Most of the stones fell far short of their target, and the ones tossed by the human zombies didn’t have very much force behind them. Unfortunately, Guenwhyvar’s fiery body wasn’t very solid. Every stone that hit gouged deep tears in her flesh, and each new hole was slower to close than the one before it. The third giant, the one that had first engaged her, kept itself positioned to prevent Guenwhyvar from retreating toward me and the ring of flames.

Guenwhyvar gave ground freely, brushing against plants wherever possible. The undead weren’t able to safely touch even small fires, and were forced to spread out, preventing them from flanking Guen. It wasn’t enough. The damage caused by the stones was adding up faster than she could create new fires to replenish her body. If she tried to get close enough to do deal damage, the horde would bury her under the sheer weight of bodies.

She hadn’t been around for long, but she was my flaming kitty damnit! The mob chasing Guenwhyvar was too far away for me to easily reach with fire magic. The blasts from my wand would reach them, but they would barely be a distraction against so many. I needed to take down the giant between us, if Guen could get to the ring of flames she’d be able to replace the flesh she’d lost. I think. I felt approval and agreement through the link, apparently she agreed. Guen’s remarkable healing ability hadn’t been an intended part of the spell, neither had her apparent sentience. I sure wasn’t complaining.

“Fuego!” I launched a blast of force at the giant, catching him between his shoulders. He stumbled forward, but otherwise appeared unharmed. Living giants were supposed to be pretty resistant to magic, apparently that applied to dead ones too. Fortunately, that was all the distraction Guen needed. As the giant stumbled forward, Guen pivoted to the right, turning to face him. She leapt, shifting into a blur of flames as she crossed the distance between her and the giant in an instant. Guen stuck to the giant’s chest as she landed, digging in with her clearly solid claws. She tore and raked at the giant’s flesh, starting small fires as she thrashed around. The giant brought one of it’s arms to bear but Guenwhyvar shrugged off the blows. The giant changed tactics, falling forward to try to catch and smother Guenwhyvar between itself and the ground.

Guen was far too fast for that, and slid forward like an oiled piglet as soon as the giant tried to turn on it’s stomach. With the giant that had been in her way sprawled on the ground, she bounded up the hill, easily outpacing the rest of the horde. As Guenwhyvar reached the ring of fire, the flames started to flow out towards her like a liquid flowing downhill. The new fire snaked up Guen’s legs, seeking and filling the holes in her body. In a few moments, she was good as new. She padded over to stand beside me. I almost tried to pet her, before remembering that heat rises. I settled for standing a comfortable distance away from her side.

The rest of the mob was slowly making it’s way over to the far side of the ring of flames. The giant that Guen had savaged had recovered and as leading the horde. The magical fires barely found purchase on the giants withered body. As soon as Guenwhyvar had retreated, the flames had begin to die down. There was clearly some damage, black burn scars crisscrossed the giant’s torso, but nothing serious. I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the innate magic resistance of the giant itself, or the greater power of the spirit animating it. Either way, the giants would be more formidable foes.

Giants are unusual. I’m sure you knew that, since I doubt you’ve seen one in real life, or know anyone who has, other than me I suppose. But that’s not entirely what I meant. While primary sources on giant populations are obviously hard to find at the best of times, it’s generally agreed giants have been pretty uncommon since before the birth of Christ. Almost every pre-christian culture has stories about them. There are even some credible stories of giants in the northern wilds and the far corners of Asia and Africa as late as the fall of the Roman Empire. However, since the Renaissance, giant sightings have been almost unheard of. Giants were the first group of supernatural humanoids to fall into decline with the rise of the modern world. There are a bunch of theories about why, ranging from giants being dependent on high densities of ambient magic to survive, to them just being too large and warlike to hide from the growing human populations. The one thing everyone agrees on, is that they pretty much dropped off the face of the earth well before people started telling their kids stories about magic beanstalks.

To find the corpse of a giant is impressive, that’s a rare find on the level of a mundane archeologist stumbling upon a perfectly preserved T-Rex. But to animate one, to restore unlife to something that lived and died back when the world was a much wilder place, that takes power. That took the sort of power that hasn’t been common among ghosts for a very long time. This was starting to look less like an unfortunate run-in with a greater undead, and more like someone deliberately sent me on a suicide mission. Meh. At least I could blame them if I was accused of setting a horde of zombies loose on County Sligo.

With Guenwhyvar closer to my source of fire I was feeling much more confident about this battle. My particular brand of magical combat really isn’t what you’d call subtle. Creating fire on the fly takes a lot more power than a comparatively novice elementalist like me usually has on tap. As a result, I typically need to rely heavily on magical tools and mundane weapons. It’s a real treat to be able to let my hair down like this, so to speak.

I reached out to the fire surrounding me. It was, for lack of a better word, famished. I could feel the fire’s, or rather, the spirits within the fire’s, overwhelming hunger. As an element, fire is rarely predictable or placid, but the undead are pretty much it’s favorite food. It might sound like I’m giving an inanimate object too much credit, but even small and fragmented spirits like you’d find in an untended fire really do have a mind of their own.

All they needed me to do was provide the means for them to act.

I raised my hand in front of me, curling my my pinkie and ring finger inward. I bent the other two fingers and curled my thumb in along the edge of my palm. I always liked this gesture, it feels like something a witch from a Grimm fairytale would do right before she cursed someone. Sensing my intent, Guenwhyvar slowly walked into the ring of flames. I pointed my scrunched up claw of a hand at the little girl in a giant’s body who had started this whole mess.

“I almost wonder what happened to you so long ago, that you still can’t let it go. What made you need an army of monsters to feel safe at night.” I said.

The giant with the soul of a little girl responded by picking up a rock. Yeah, that wasn’t going to lead to any sort of meaningful dialogue. It’s not like I’m some kind of ghost-therapist or something, but I know when negotiations have broken down.

I twisted my hand upside down, and swiped it around in a little half-circle. I finished the gesture by flourishing my two extended fingers upward. There was some complicated magicking that went along with hand motions, but I won’t bore you with the details.

Guenwhyvar leapt, and the flames followed her, twisting outwards and upwards like a solar flare. She landed directly on the chest of the little girl giant, and immediately started trying to rip her arms off. The tongue of fire that extended out from the ring decomposed around her, flooding out with a vengeance. The flames actively sought out zombies, clinging to every undead thing within a few yards of the embattled giant. I could feel the strain of the working beginning to set in, but I kept up the attack. I swung my hand horizontally, bringing up a wave of flames the engulfed the first few ranks of zombies. They charged and leapt en-mass, the desperation of the Slaugh compelling them to ignore even their mortal fear of fire. The first few fell far short of clearing the now massive ring. One especially athletic specimen leapt nearly six feet into the air, high enough to easily clear the ring. As he began to come back down, I dragged the fire up to meet him. He came down in a flaming, thrashing, heap.

I dealt with the next few waves of jumpers in a similar fashion. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

“Get the hell off my hillside you damn ghosts!” I shouted. I could hear a little girl screaming in the distance, the sound brought a smile to my lips. Guenwhyvar was holding her own against two of the undead giants, using the fire she’d carried from the ring to control the flow of the fight. She danced in and out of the patches of burning hedge, forcing the giants to risk immolation every time they tried to attack. Both the giants were badly burned, one of them seemed to have lost part of it’s arm.

A rock bigger than my head whizzed by, missing my face by inches. That wasn’t good. I brought my wand to bear, ready to blast or dodge the next one. It must have come from the third giant, who had retreated to a safe distance and was alternately lobbing rocks at me and Guen.

The tide had begun to turn now, with the battlefield was engulfed in flames I was able to easily keep the horde from getting close to me. Guenwhyvar was having similar luck, using her speed and the spreading flames to prevent her opponents from fleeing or landing a decisive blow.

They should’ve ignored the cat and rushed me while the ring was still manageable. Or they should’ve just left me alone altogether. Either way would have ended better for them, the attrition and theatrics the Slaugh would normally use to bring down it’s prey had given me the opportunity to get my defenses up and running.

From here on out it would be smooth sailing.

Hah, famous last words.

As Guenwhyvar finally managed to cripple down one of the giants and fully turned her attention on the remaining one – the apparent ringleader with the voice of a little girl – the entire horde went berserk. Sensing that their master was in danger, zombies rushed headlong into the flames, trying to reach me or smother Guen. Most of them didn’t even have the presence of mind to jump, they just ran into the flames, scrambling across the bodies of those who had gone before them. For a moment, it looked like they might smother themselves a path with sheer numbers. Then I turned up the heat. Actively fed, the wildfire raged higher than before, reaching dozens of feet into the night sky. Zombies caught light from the flames around them even as they crawled across the charred bodies of their predecessors. Black began to creep in around the edges of my vision. I got lightheaded, my fingers tingled, and what I could see started changing colors.

I kept up the wall of flames, praying to someone, anyone, that the horde would run out of bodies before I ran out of power.

Heh. Someone was going to have to explain to the local media why this hillside was filled with dozens of burned corpses. And three dead giants. Wait, where were the giants?

I tried to find them, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the wall of flames. A few moments later, I could barely see the flames, I just felt that my front half was warm and tingly, and my back half was just tingly. I don’t know when I stopped standing, but I could feel something hard beneath my shins.

My last thought before I passed out, was that someone was definitely going to try to blame me for this…

Fruit Baskets – Part One

Fruit Baskets

Date Unknown – Author Unknown

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The President of the United States of America is generally considered the most powerful man in the western world. Most sitting Presidents, as frustrated at they might be with the limitations of their office, would agree with this assessment of their relative authority. This delusion is only maintained at great cost to the men and women of the United States Secret Service. You could say this is a story about that cost. You could also say it’s a story about the nature of power, or about the things that go bump in the night. But more than anything else, it’s a story about two dozen bing cherries, three blood oranges, thirty five red grapes, five red-delicious apples, four slices of red grapefruit, and one black wicker basket. And one unfortunate young man who looked a little bit too closely at the shapes moving in the darkness.

I was not present for the entirety of the events of this story. I took my allotted turns at the task, but I was not in attendance that fateful night. The material for this account is drawn both from my own experiences with the baskets, and from written materials left behind by others involved. It is my hope that this tale will prove enlightening, but failing that, perhaps it will at least serve as an entertaining caution. I will not burden the reader with any additional preface, now begins my tale.

Nobody is quite sure when the baskets began appearing in The Lincoln Bedroom. The first entry in the ledger kept by the service is dated September 8th, 1962. There wasn’t a ledger at first of course, though the original report on the incident was pulled from official records in the late sixties. The report noted that on the morning of September 8th, a maid found a basket of fresh fruit, tastefully arranged, had been left on the bed of The Lincoln Bedroom. The maid brought the basket to the attention of the Chief Usher because the room was currently empty. Robert Kennedy had stayed in the bedroom during the preceding week, but he had left Friday night. The room was empty Saturday and Sunday, so the maid didn’t know who the basket was for. The Chief Usher made exact note of the basket and it’s contents, and after being unable to discern who the basket was intended for, distributed the fruit amongst the staff of the White House. The basket contained two dozen bing cherries, three blood oranges, thirty five red grapes, five red-delicious apples, four slice of red grapefruit. If any of the staff became ill after consuming the fruit, no report of it was ever made. This was the first confirmed incident.

There were earlier mentions of baskets of fruit in the Lincoln Bedroom, however none of them are confirmed to be the same basket. The earliest suspected incident occurred in 1940, when one Winston Churchill made note in his journal of receiving a “Most considerate basket of sundry fruits” shortly after arriving in his room. The existence and delivery of this basket are not mentioned any any White House records.

After the first incident in 1962, baskets exactly matching the one delivered on the 8th appeared several times. Initially, they all appeared in the Lincoln Bedroom, roughly one basket every three months. The Chief Usher at this time, James B. West, did not bring the baskets to the attention of the Secret Service until mid 1963, when the 3rd identical basket was found. Both the service and the Chief Usher were initially of the opinion that the baskets were a prank left by a staffer. Though the baskets were not considered threatening, security procedures for the receipt and accounting of foodstuffs were still tightened. It was assumed that there would be no further baskets. And there weren’t, until five months later.

On November 22nd 1963, a fourth basket was discovered shortly after dusk. This basket was the first to be delivered to a location other than the Lincoln Bedroom. It was found at the foot of the bed in the President’s Bedroom on the 2nd floor. It contained two dozen bing cherries, three blood oranges, thirty five red grapes, five red-delicious apples, four slices of red grapefruit, and a note. A single piece of parchment, folded in two, with a scant five words written on it in red ink.

We’re sorry for your loss.

 

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Interlude – Ireland Part Three

Interlude – Ireland Part Three

August 4th 2014 – Molly

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After some fumbling, I managed to get my combat gear out of my backpack. It was a lot harder to gear up naked. I didn’t realize just how much stuff I usually keep in my pockets until I tried to hold it all in one hand. I generally tinker around with my armaments a fair amount, and I hadn’t brought any especially heavy weaponry to Ireland, what with airport security being what it is. There are probably a few practitioners gifted enough to charm their way through an entire security checkpoint, I’m not one of them.  Aside from my age, my utter lack of skill at enchantment was the main reason I wasn’t a full member of the Association. That meant I hadn’t brought anything metal with me. On the bright side, most of my toys were wooden anyway. One of the perks of being a pyromancer.

In my left hand, I held my still burning lighter, and a small wooden statue of a tiger. The statue had runes carved into almost every part of it’s surface other than it’s face. In the firelight, it gleamed crimson as if was painted with blood. Which made sense, because it was painted with blood, mine in fact. I held my favorite wand, a thin stick of maple older than I was, between my teeth. In the firelight, I could see the shambling silhouettes grow larger as they approached my tent.

I finished unzipping the door moments before the first zombie arrived. I call it a zombie, but it wasn’t really. The remains of what had once been a large man leered at me from the darkness. His skull barely was covered by the shreds of leathery skin pulled impossibly taut against it. The rest of his wasn’t much more than a skeleton held together by strips of sinew and dried flesh. His left arm was missing below the elbow, not much more than a sharpened nub. In his right hand, he held a hatchet that looked like it predated the Roman Empire. With every shambling step he took, his body crackled so much I half expected him to collapse into a pile of limbs.

I leveled my beat up old wand at the zombie’s head, and carefully pronounced the command word.

“Fuego”

You’d be amazed how many idiots assume a magic wand with the command word “Fuego” is going to shoot some sort of fire at them. I might really like fire, but I’m not a one trick pony. In this case, the zombie didn’t appear intelligent enough to try to counter my attack anyway, but you can never be too careful.

The blast of pure force that hit the zombie’s head sent it flying. Or it might have outright obliterated it, it was hard to tell in the darkness. I didn’t feel any bits of gore splatter against me, so I assumed it went flying. In either case, the zombie-thing staggered backward, cleanly beheaded. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear inconvenienced in any way by the loss of it’s head. With the same awkward, stumbling gait, it kept moving towards me. I slipped out of the tent, taking advantage of the distance created by my wand. Once I got outside, I got a better view of just how screwed I was. My tent was pitched on a small plateau outside the entrance to the barrow. I could see shapes in the darkness moving towards me from every direction, slowly climbing up the hillside towards me. They weren’t moving all that fast, I could probably make a break for it and slip between two of them. However, I’d already underestimated the Slaugh animating these bodies once tonight. I weighed the possibility of escape against the possibility of being dismembered and eaten alive.

After a moments reflection, I decided to play it safe. I’m pretty numb to danger, but the thought of a mob of rotting corpses gnawing my limbs off gave even me pause. While I wasted time imagining my gruesome death, the headless zombie had closed the distance between us.

He lifted the hatchet in his functional arm above his head, preparing to swing at me. I didn’t let him follow through on the strike. I brought my still burning lighter between, and fed the flame a burst of mana. The little fire flared into a short lived burst of light and heat between us. I mentioned earlier that there are certain rules about the supernatural world that usually hold true. Another good one to add to that list is that if living things like it, dead things don’t. I’ve never met a vampire or zombie who wasn’t at least uncomfortable around light, fire, homes, running water, thanksgiving dinners, holy magic, and the like.

The headless zombie shied backwards, reflexively turning away from the light and heat. I stepped in as he retreated, following up with a snap kick to his chest. Beneath my foot, his chest felt oddly light and springy, like it was made of green wood. The zombie gave ground freely, trying to keep his balance. When he finally got his feet back under him, he had fallen back nearly half a dozen steps. The little plateau I had pitched my tent on wasn’t that large, there were barely a few inches between him and the incline behind him.

“Fuego!”

I helped him over the edge with another blast of force. The hillside wasn’t that steep, it was maybe a 50 degree incline at most. It was a royal pain to hike up, but not exactly hazardous. Unfortunately for the zombie, once he started rolling down the hill, he didn’t have the coordination to stop himself. I lost sight of him after he fell off the lit plateau, but I could hear him roll down the hill until he crashed into something solid.

I crept closer to the edge, trying to get a good luck at just how many of the animated corpses were climbing the hillside. Even just an hour after sunset, the hilly landscape around me was swathed in darkness. The uneven terrain cut down on the amount of artificial light that filtered in from nearby towns. Behind me, the hill was steeper, almost an unclimbable rock face, broken only by the entrance to the barrow. To the other three sides, the shallower hill extended as far as I could see. Which really wasn’t that far, the light cast by my lighter extended barely a dozen paces into the blackness. I couldn’t clearly see very far, but I could make out at least a dozen patches of moving shadows. I was considering spending some power to get a better view when I felt something brush my ankle. I could almost feel my heart in my throat as visions of dismemberment danced through my head. I leapt back on instinct, but the withered fingers locked around my ankle and held fast. I fell backwards, and found myself face to desiccated face with another zombie.

“Fuego!” I shouted, pointing my wand hand at the zombies face. Nothing happened. For a terrible moment, I thought my wand had gone dead. Then, as the zombie started to crawl toward me, I realized my wand hand was empty. I kicked with my free leg, trying to buy time, but the damn thing just ignored the hits. The zombie was incredibly light, closer to a mummy really, age had stripped it of most of it’s flesh. Unfortunately, it was durable enough to shrug off my kicks. The more I struggled, the more it’s bony fingers cut into my leg. I couldn’t see my wand in the tall grass, and didn’t have time to feel around for it. So I used the only other weapon at my disposal.

I took a deep breath, as much to calm myself as to bring in air. I held it, drawing magic in from the air around me. I hated using this trick, without words it didn’t really count as a spell, there were so many ways it could go tragically wrong. I suffused the breath with as much power as I could muster. With one hand, I braced myself, keeping steady. With the other, I brought my lighter up in front of my face.

I pursed my lips and made like a dragon. There’s a lot of technique that goes into breathing fire with kerosene or ethanol, and it’s even harder with magic. I suffered some truly nasty burns on my lips and inside my mouth before I mastered doing it with mana. As the charged breath left my mouth, it expanded into a glowing cone of flames. My body was, for the most part, below the fire, sparing me from horrible burns. My assailant wasn’t so lucky. He scrambled to get back the moment the fire left my lips, but he wasn’t nearly fast enough. The flames clung to him as he fled, the dry ribs crackling like pine needles. He tore at his skin, ripping chunks off in an effort to extinguish the flames before they consumed him. The fire spread quickly, engulfing his arms and torso. As his flesh started to crumble into flakes of ash, the zombie began screaming. It was an eerie sound, I could hear the deep, cracking voice of the body, and the scream of an adult woman mingling together. Even though it had been trying to kill me, I felt like I was intruding on something intensely personal.

As the screaming body fell apart, the spirit animating it was destroyed. There’s a reason even powerful and incorporeal undead fear fire. It’s not just physically destructive, it’s cleansing, purifying, and powerfully aligned with life. My enemy, the Slaugh, was an entire host of spirits, together they formed a powerful and near indestructible monster. Slaugh aren’t like normal ghosts, they aren’t bound to a cause, a regret, a place, or even to the memory of one person. They’re as close to alive as something undead can ever get, free to roam across the countryside, growing and changing as they spirit away the infirm and impious. In other words, an absolute bitch to fight.

To something like this zombie, or rather, to the fragment of the Slaugh animating it, even mundane fire is dangerous. And magical fire like mine, which can’t be extinguished short of jumping in a river, is terrifying. This was the first time I’d done real damage to the overghost itself, rather than just forcing it to expend energy. Unfortunately, considering the number of voices I’d heard talking earlier, I was probably barely making a dent. I’d just have to convince the ghosts that eating me wouldn’t be worth the casualties.

I gathered my wits and my things before another zombie could reach the plateau. A few small fires had started in the damp hedge, marking where the zombie and tossed it’s burning scraps of flesh. I reached out to them, feeding them enough to overcome the damp and become self sustaining. I let my lighter finally go out, it was probably nearly empty by now. If I let it get empty that would cut down on my offensive options until I got back to my room at the hostel. With the light from the new fires, I easily found my wand jammed between two rocks. I crept back to the edge, much more carefully this time, and took another look around. The shadows were massing halfway up the hill, closer to twenty of them now. Some of the newly arrived shadows were massive, if they were human, they must have been larger than NFL linemen in life.

One of the massive shadows stood up. I realized it wasn’t huge man, the zombie was actually pretty skinny. He was just around ten feet tall, so he looked huge crouched down. I wasn’t sure what to make of this anymore. I knew Ireland had stories about giants, but even back centuries ago they weren’t exactly common. And there were three of them standing on the hillside, each almost twice my height. Where the hell was the Slaugh finding all these bodies?

“Okay, that’s actually kind of terrifying.” I said, to nobody in particular. The tallest of the giants, the one standing in the center of the undead horde, chucked in response. It was incredibly eerie how smoothly the voice of the massive man, and the ghostly young girl animating his body, merged into one.

Okay. He, or she I guess, would die first. For a few all too short moments, everything stood still. I knew the horde was waiting for me to move, to run, to fight. As soon as I did, they would swarm me. Well, I wasn’t going to disappoint them.

I tightened my grip around the small oaken statue I’d kept clutched in my left hand. It would only work once, if it worked at all, and it had taken me nearly a week of work. Of course, I didn’t have that many cards left to play.  The whole reason I brought the statue was to deal with a situation like this.  I’d hoped not to need to play my trump card before I’d even entered the barrow though.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” I asked the giant-zombie-girl. She didn’t reply. I reached out to the fires around me, willing them to spread.

The moment I started drawing magic, the horde began rushing towards me. Some of them leapt half the distance in a single bound, others marched or crawled. The three giants lumbered towards me at a stately pace, covering yards with a single step.

I smiled, and took a step forward, closer to the oncoming horde.

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Interlude – Ireland Part Two

Interlude – Ireland Part Two

August 4th 2014 – Molly

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At first it was just one man’s quiet moaning. Then a second, younger, voice joined in. The third voice was a little girl, giggling at a joke only she could hear. With each new voice, a shadow flickered across the tent in front of me. In one moment, the shadow of a man the size of a bear loomed over the entire tent. The next, the silhouette of a young girl with pigtails stood facing me. With every rise and fall of the shadow’s chest, I could feel a cold wind, her breath, on my neck. A cold breath coming from behind me. I swung around, bringing the tiny little flame between us, but she was already gone. She giggled again, at me this time.

More and more shadows poured into the crowded little tent. They came from all walks of life. Some spoke English, others Gaelic, and still others languages I couldn’t hope to identify. They clamored, desperate for attention.

“Why do you hide little girl?”

“Join us.”

“Nil me saille.”

“Where’s Seamus?”

“Don’t be afraid, I love you.”

With each new voice, the world around me seemed to get darker and colder. The cozy little tent seemed to grow as more and more spirits poured in. The shadowy corners of the tent loomed in the distance, and the door seemed impossibly far out of reach. Even though the walls were far out of the reach of the lighter’s little flame, they were still illuminated by the warm light. And more and more shadows danced across them by the moment.

“Swear fealty to Connacht!”

“Don’t trust them, they’re all liars!”

“Tawm ngra leat.”

“What did you do to Seamus!”

“I won’t hurt you little one.”

The voices shouted over each other trying to be heard. The noise was deafening, and the warped world within the tent had grown large enough that their cries had begun to echo. I shut my eyes, I didn’t know what to do. The voices just got louder.

“Feall ar tu an laochra de na Fianna!”

“I loved you like a brother!”

“Seamus!”

“How dare you! Do you know who I am?”

“Don’t worry, you can trust me.”

I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Shut Up!” I screamed. And they did.

I could hear my voice echoing through the vast expanse my cozy little tent had been transformed into. The shadows vanished from the walls. After a moment, even the echoes of my voice faded. In the vast space, the silence was oppressive. The tent was freezing now, I could see my breath in front of me. My lighter flickered, struggling to stay lit in the darkness. I bolstered it with magic, feeding the tiny flame scraps of mana through my fingertips. I didn’t know what would happen if it went out, but I had never been so terrified of the dark as I was in that moment. I huddled naked beneath my blanket, holding the fire close to my chest. I felt like a little girl, but the monsters weren’t under my bed anymore. They were all around me, circling, even if I couldn’t see them anymore. The light on the walls began to fade, the darkness closing in all around me. The massive space became a void, even if I had dared to move, I could no longer see the floor more than an inch in front of me.

When they spoke again, they spoke in unison. I heard, loudest among them, my own voice.

“We won’t hurt you little one. Join us, cast off your chains. Run the nights with us. You will never be cold and hungry again. Forget what you were, forget where you came from. We will be your family, we will defend you, we will avenge you against the world.” The chorus of voices said. And it pissed me off.

“If you think I want to forget who I am, you clearly don’t understand me half as well as you think you do. I went through Hell to get here, and I’m not about to give up my identity to run around this backward-ass country with a bunch of ghosts who lack the fucking decency to haunt a single place! You think I’m cold and hungry? I’ve got cookies, something you idiots will never have again. As for the cold…” I gave the fire more power. In a moment, it had grown too large for the lighter. I transferred the nascent fireball into my right hand. “Why don’t I show you just how hot I can make it!”

I threw the fireball down onto the ground in front of me. The fire surged into a circle around me, following the lines of power I laid out for it.  Then I let loose.

I poured every drop of power I had on tap into next burst of mana. The circle didn’t just expand, it exploded outward in a storm of flames. The massive warped space around me was thrown into lurid relief by the light of the fire. The canvas on the floor twisted and melted where the flames burned hottest, the impossibly high ceiling sagged under the heat. I kicked the flaming blanket by my feet into the fire. I twirled around for effect, the reflected light from the fire coloring my pale skin.

“Is this the best you can do? I’ll burn your pathetic little world to ashes!” I shouted. Then I gave them my best insane cackle. It wasn’t half bad, I’ve had a lot of practice.

Unfortunately, the world didn’t collapse. I really hoped that the Slaugh wasn’t actually reshaping the world or pulling me into a demesne. I probably couldn’t break the latter, and I shouldn’t even be trying to break the former. At this point, I was committed to the committed to my initial plan though. I drew more power in from the space around me. I started to sweat, and not just from the heat. My eyes began to water from the strain, and I began to lose feeling in the tips of my fingers. The human body wasn’t meant to draw in power this quickly.

I fed the fire every scrap of magic I could find, the flames climbing to impossible heights. The tent had to be an illusion, no pack of scavenging ghosts had the kind of raw power it took to remake the world like that. And there was only one way to beat an illusion, to deny it. I’d burn it to the ground, or knock myself out trying.

I could feel my body giving out under the strain of channeling this kind of power. There was no longer a world beyond the circle of ground I kept clear of the flames. Scraps of the impossibly massive tent crackled and twisted all around me. I couldn’t see anything other than the fire, there was no longer a tent, there had never been a world outside the tent.

Black crept in around the edges of my vision. I didn’t know if it meant that the illusion was breaking or if it meant my body was. The pleas and whispers of the ghostly host had devolved into a cacophony of screams. I didn’t have the energy left to think anymore. I fell forward, and the last thing I saw before my vision went black was the fire blackening my numb flesh.

With a jarring snap, everything changed. I was back in my tent, which was no longer large enough to fit an entire circus. Nothing was burned, I wasn’t utterly drained of magic. In short, it was like nothing had happened. Well, not quite.

I sat in the middle of my tent, the unburnt blanket around my shoulders, cookie crumbs in my lap. I still held my lighter in my hand. My shadow flickered on the wall before me. It was cast in the wrong direction. I remained sitting. It stood up.

“If you will not join us, you will feed us.” The shadow spoke with my voice. Even in the tiny, real, tent, it’s voice echoed. This was no ordinary swarm of wandering ghosts. It had ignored the runes on my tent as if they didn’t exist. It had created an entire separate world that had nearly killed me.

This wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Round two was coming, and I might just be in over my head. I scrambled through my bags, looking for something, anything, that might help me fend off the Slaugh.

My shadow laughed at me. Behind it, a host of silhouettes gathered. And I had a sinking feeling that these shadows were cast by some very real bodies.

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