Hypnerdic

You are getting nerdy…

Ruminations on Adulthood

I actually had to think about that title for a while.  I still have difficulty with the idea that I’m qualified to offer any sort of opinion on adulthood as a concept or an experience.  That’s ridiculous, really.  I’m twenty-four years old.  Sure, I’m not worldly and wise by any stretch of the imagination.  Not even particularly experienced in many areas, really.  But I think I ought to be comfortable with the idea that I’m an adult by now.

Circumstance probably plays a role in the perception, when I think about it.  I still live with my parents.  I make barely more than minimum wage.  I’ve got approximately a year’s worth of post-secondary education, with which I’ve gone nowhere.  All less than impressive to be sure.  But whenever I moan about such things – which is probably too often – whomever happens to be in earshot inevitably asks me why that’s such a big deal.  Apparently I’m at the sweet spot in life where, while it is encouraged, I’m not obligated to be a responsible, contributing member of society.  This, I think, affords a rare opportunity to really examine the meaning of this ephemeral concept we call adulthood.

It is important to note that “meaning” and “definition” are not necessarily the same thing.  There are multiple definitions of adulthood.  There are even varying parameters within certain definitions.  The easiest to explain is the legal definition.  Age of majority, as most first world countries call it (actual term may vary according to linguistic preferences).  The actual ages in question and rights afforded by this legally defined threshold will differ from country to country, and even within one country, there may be different rights afforded – or rescinded – at different ages.  Essentially though, the legal definition of adulthood exists to define what you can drink, what you can smoke, what sorts of vehicles and/or weapons you can own and operate, what political action you can take, and what sort of people you can and cannot fuck.  This definition also carries a host of new consequences for stepping outside the boundaries of the law, but with the frequency that kids these days are charged as adults, that’s not quite as meaningful as the drinking, smoking, driving, shooting, voting and fucking rights.

That legal adulthood can be so neatly summarised in a single paragraph clearly shows that it is the easiest definition of being an adult.  Much more difficult are the social and personal definitions, often the same thing, since so many people define themselves by the perceptions of others.  More on that later, I think.

How adulthood is defined personally is going to depend partly on perspective.  I (vaguely) remember being a teenager and seeing legal majority as the only important ideal of adulthood.  More generally, it was freedom from the oppression of childhood.  As an adult, I surmised, I could do whatever I liked and not have anyone telling me “do this” or “don’t do that”.  Of course, that comforting illusion was shattered within a year or so of my eighteenth birthday.

As I began to shrug off the conceits of adolescence, that ideal of freedom metamorphosed into another, more evolved concept: independance.  There are those who might ask what the difference is between freedom and independance, and I say it can be defined in one word: self-responsibility.  Freedom becomes independance when one recognises that it isn’t really free.  If I really wanted to be my own person, I would have to work for it.  I would have to accept someone telling me to do this and not do that.  This was the first stage in understanding adulthood, but not the last.  Self-responsibility, the recognition that I would have to earn the right to stand on my own.

Independance is, itself, something of a fallacy.  Here, I believe, is one of the hallmarks of real adulthood.  Independance becomes interdependance.  Self-reliance becomes responsibility above and beyond oneself.  To truly understand that we don’t live in a vacuum is perhaps the most important step in personal maturity that someone can take.  Unfortunately, not everyone takes that step.  We share the reality we live in with everyone else on the planet, and every action we take impacts someone outside ourselves.

It is possible that we can define our own lives by the roles we play in the lives of others.  To use myself as an example, I am a son, a brother, a brother-in-law, a nephew, an uncle, a friend, a potential partner, an employee, a coworker, a helpful bookseller, a customer,  a passenger, a witness, and more.  And those are just the positive roles I play in people’s lives.  I’m sure I could hammer out a few less complimentary if I thought about it.  But those are enough to make my point.

What I am, all of those things that define me, are dependant on others, the impact I have on their lives, and the impact they have on mine.  It is only as an adult that I have come to recognise this, that I am not an island.  We’re not defined by how others perceive us, as some people seem to believe.  We’re defined by the effect we have on the world, and the world is other people.  To achieve and adult state of maturity, I believe it is necessary to recognise this constant.  Interdependance.  We’re all connected, and so we’re all responsible for each other, even as we are ultimately responsible for ourselves.

Of course, adulthood isn’t all about peace and harmony with the world around us, it also invokes a bleaker understanding, equally important for its uncompromising reality.  The world owes us nothing.  There are no guarantees, and the only life we can rightfully claim to deserve is the one we’ve built with our own hard work and resourcefulness.  A sense of supreme entitlement is one of the cornerstones of a childlike thought process.  A toddler doesn’t know responsibility, or interdependance, or freedom.  It knows only “want”, “need” and “have”.  As we age, our understanding matures, and we are meant to grow out of this infantile perspective.

Adolescents represent a solid middle ground for this example.  Adolescence seems, at least from the outside (and from memory), to be characterised by desire and self-gratification.  This, of course, is why so many teenagers are so focused on the things they are not permitted do to, and the trappings of a self-serving lifestyle.  Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll is a concept that has always been synonymous with adolescence.  Though adolescents are typically aware of the idea of reponsibility and earning their lot, they don’t always care.  It is worth noting, again, that not everyone grows out of this perspective.

The fact remains, whether we recognise it or not, that we have no real entitlement.  Some people seem better off than others, and there’s no apparent logic behind it.  We do what we can, and take what we can get, for whatever purpose drives our actions.  Recognising this isn’t the only important step.  Many people recognise what they see as a fundamental unfairness of reality, and waste their time complaining.  The adult will see that this is the nature of the world, and will make peace with it.  Why bemoan what can’t be changed?  The adult simply makes the best of the reality he or she has been given.

As important as recognising interdependance and responsibility, as important as understanding the fundamental lack of entitlement, is the need to understand yet another immutable fact of life: no one is an adult all the time.  In the sense of our own imperfect nature, we will all lapse into immaturity and find ourselves acting selfishly or complaining when we don’t get what we want.  Nobody I can name is free of this.  But our childlike nature is not merely a flaw to be overcome.  There is our sense of wonder and imagination, our ability to laugh and enjoy the small miracles that life places constantly in our paths.

Too often people reach the age where law, or society deems them adults, and they abandon the simple joys of the child.  They cast childhood off as a thing of the past, something they’ve grown out of.  But childhood isn’t a chrysalis phase, remembered only as the empty shell we left behind when we became Real People.  Childhood is an important step, it’s who we once were.  Everything that we have been contributes to the sum of what we are.  To look back and say “those things don’t matter now, I’m an adult” is a betrayal of the self, and an unfortunate immaturity that is most pervasive in a society that so highly values labels and appearances.

The adult sees that the child he or she was is still alive, and understands that there is a time and a place to look on the world with unabashed wonder and indulge in innocent, carefree fun.  Just as there is a time and a place for sobriety and responsibility.  Rather than deny one and favour the other, the adult seeks a balance between the various extremes of the human condition.

Everyone will have their own idea of what it means to be an adult, based on their own definitions of the world.  For my own part, I seem to have found what I would call milestones of understanding.  The three critical facts of life that I must recognise in order to feel comfortable calling myself an adult:

1. I am not an island.  I am defined by the world around me, and the people I share it with.  I am responsible not only for myself, but for everyone whose life I touch.

2. The world owes me nothing.  Neither I, nor anyone else, is entitled to anything.  I deserve only what I am prepared to earn through work and sacrifice, regardless of what I or others have gained by good fortune.

3. I cannot always be an adult.  Childhood does not end where adulthood begins.  Everything that I was is a part of what I am, and I must embrace these facets of myself, and find balance among them.

I’m able to recognise these concepts, and put them into my own words.  It’s possible that I might even understand them.  That being the case, maybe it’s all right to call myself an adult, even if I don’t always see myself as one.

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January 16, 2009 Posted by | Random | Leave a comment

And I Took the Road Less Travelled By

When reading “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, the common perception is that the final two lines are the crux of the poem: I took the road less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.  Of course, the common perception is probably correct in that regard, but when I found myself accidentally reading the poem a scant few minutes ago, it was another line that grabbed my attention: And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler. For some reason, it seems to me that there’s a concept here that bears exploration.

The question that forces messily into my mind is: Do I have to be one traveler?  Can I only choose one identity, and remain stuck with it forever?  Well, obviously not, people change their identities all the time.  I’ve done it at least three times in the last five years.  No, the question has to be deeper than that.  Can I only have one identity at once?  If I can’t travel two paths as one person, why can’t I be two people?  The path is metaphorical, after all.  I don’t need an axe to be more than one body metaphorically, any more than married couples need crazy glue and stitches to be spiritually one.

Obviously, this line of thinking is riddled with flaws.  Well, one in particular.  There are decisions to be made in life for which there is no going both ways, and no turning back.  But that’s not universal.  What if the metaphoris applied in another direction?  If I tried to keep my mind on just one path, I would probably bleed something out of my ears.  Something extremely unpleasant and probably important, like my imagination.  I’m constantly going in many different directions at once.  It’s how I think, and how I come up with ideas.  My mind is pulling thoughts and notions and similar varieties of bullshit from all over the place.  Most of it doesn’t make any sense, but that hasn’t stopped me from posting this, has it?

Logic doesn’t really work here.  This is a flight of fancy.  But it’s free, in its own way.  Certainly, taking the road less traveled is the worthier option, if you have to choose, but isn’t it great to do both?

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Ramble | , , , | Leave a comment

The House of the Grey Circle, Chapters 11 through 15

Chapter 11
February 12th, 1935

Abigail and Daniel had remained in the hospital for most of the night, waiting for word on the man’s condition.  He had remained unconscious that entire time, while doctors and nurses did what they could for his malnourished vitals.  Finally, exhaustion and hunger had worn down their patience, and not long after sunrise, Abigail and Daniel went in search of breakfast and strong tea.
When they returned an hour later, feeling slightly refreshed, they were intercepted in the waiting room by one of the nurses they had spoken to earlier that night.  She looked decidedly distressed, which immediately set their nerves on edge.
“Is there a problem?” Daniel asked before she had said anything.
“He’s, um,” the nurse hesitated, “he’s gone.”
“Dead?” Abigail’s spirits fell.  She didn’t know him well enough to grieve for him, but she had taken responsibility for the man.
“No,” the nurse shook her head. “Gone.  One minute he was unconscious just like you left him, and when I came back from the nurse’s station, he was gone.  Just disappeared.”
“No one saw him leave?” Daniel asked.
“No, and I doubt he could have gone far in the state he was in.  Someone have surely noticed.”
“But no one did,” Abigail said, gazing steadily at the nurse. “Rather odd.”
“This was left behind,” the nurse stammered under Abigail’s scrutiny.  She held up a small, bronze-coloured loop.  Abigail took it and examined it.  It was a lock of reddish hair, braided and twisted into a bracelet.  The exact same colour as the locks on the man’s head.
“We should get back,” Daniel said quietly, “there’s nothing more we can do here.”

They began their work anew first thing in the morning, with a light breakfast to keep them going.  Selena immediately began poring through the bestiaries she had finally found last night, searching for anything on snake men or serpent gods.  Arthur’s task was geography, trying to find a source for the vision they had seen of the island city.  Warren and Evelyn teamed up to try and decipher the various symbols they had encountered.
Two hours after they began, Arthur suddenly looked up from his work, staring at the nearest window.
“Abby and Daniel are back,” he reported, his gaze distant.
A few minutes later, the two errant magicians descended the stairs to the common.  In response to questioning looks on their friends’ faces, they explained what had transpired at the hospital, placing the hair bracelet on the table so the others could see.  They passed it around, Evelyn taking it last.  She stared at it for a moment before slipping it on her wrist.
“There’s power in it,” she said, “I can feel it, now I’m wearing it.”
“Odd,” Selena frowned. “I couldn’t detect any enchantment on it.”
“It’s there,” Evelyn assured. “There’s no mistaking it.”
“Just who was that man?” Arthur asked futilely.
“There’s no use worrying about it now,” Daniel said. “Have you managed to figure anything out while we were gone?”
“Not a great deal,” Selena said. “The information is there, but sorting through it is interminable.  There are legends of repilian humanoids in nearly every part of the world.  Though I’ll admit some are less applicable than others.”
“What comes closest so far?” Abigail asked.
“The most consistent are the Naga,” Selena explained. “They’re worshipped in Hindu myth as divine beings, often associated with fertility.  They’ve been commonly described as half snake, half human.  The term ‘naga’ is used around Southeast Asia to refer to other beings.  Beyond that there are some rather outrageous claims by some of the theosophists of the last century that the world is secretly ruled by lizard men.”
“Anything confirmed by the bestiaries?” Abigail prompted.
“Nothing that matches what we saw.  Certainly there are reptilian creatures of all kinds.  Spirits, old monsters, there’s even evidence of dragons at some point in prehistory, but nothing I’ve read so far has depicted anything human on top and snake at the bottom, outside of myth.  There’s a book circulating around the Middle East that claims to be the lost Book of Jasher, an ancient Hebrew text, that supposedly describes a serpent race.  If they correlate, we might have something.”
“Okay,” Abigail nodded, “let’s put a pin in the Naga theory for now, we’ll see if anything connects to it later.  What about the monster we saw on the wall last night?”
“There are numerous instances of serpent gods in history,” Selena continued. “The Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl, and the Mayans had Kukulcan, both referred to as feathered serpents.  The Greeks had a number of partially serpentine beings in their lexicon, from Cecrops, the first king of Athens, to the Titans and the god Boreas.  But these were all only partially serpent-like, and none of them were water-based.”
“You’re leading up to something,” Daniel said with a knowing smirk.
“Of course I am,” Selena said with mock-irritation. “The most promising connection is Narayana, referred to by the Hindus as the two hundred and forty fifth name of Vishnu.”
“We’re back to the Hindus,” Daniel noted. “Is there a connection?”
Selena nodded. “In Thailand, the Naga are considered a symbol of Narayana.  So we might have something there.  Additionally, the most common description I’ve found of Narayana is a great celestial serpent, with seven heads.”
“That sounds familiar,” Abigail said, suppressing a shudder. “Have you found any artwork that matches what we saw?”
“No,” Selena said, “any depiction I’ve seen of Narayana is much more flattering.  But we could be looking at a separate belief system with a similar inspiration for its deities.  This is all the more likely if there really is a being like that out there somewhere.”
“It’s a theory,” Daniel agreed, “though nothing else we’ve found even vaguely resembles Hindu imagery.  We’ll come back to that.  How about that island?”
“I’ve given up trying to find an existing city like the one we saw,” Arthur reported. “It doesn’t exist, plain and simple.  I’m convinced at this point that, like Abby suggested, we were looking at something that used to exist, and doesn’t anymore.  Not where we can see it anyway.”
“A lost city,” Abigail said. “That’s what you’re talking about.”
“It sounds ridiculous, I know, but remember that crackpots like Le Plongeon were proposing whole continents, not tiny islands like the one we saw.”
“So what have you got?” Abigail encouraged.
“Okay, we’ve all heard the nonsense about Atlantis, or Lemuria, or Mu.  Big continents that couldn’t possibly exist.  But there are numerous accounts of much smaller landmasses, or accounts that don’t even go into scale, but still follow the same story: ancient island civilisation, far more advanced than any other that existed at the time, sunk beneath the waves by some watery cataclysm.  It can be safely assumed that the theosophists who were pushing Lemuria based most of their notions on these older ideas.”
“You have examples, of course,” Daniel said.
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour?” Arthur replied somewhat petulantly. “Starting back with the Greeks, then.  They had Hyperborea, supposedly the home of a race of extremely magical humans.  This place was the home of Boreas, so there’s a very thin connection to the lizard people there.  Next up is Thule, supposedly ‘six days’ sail’ north of England, according to the map-makers circa 300 BC.  It’s commonly accepted at this point that they were talking about Greenland, though there’s a whole occult society in Germany focused around it, that the new government over there is supposedly connected with.
“The Welsh legends talk of Cantref Gwaelod, protected from the sea by a dyke controlled by two princes.  Apparently that one sunk because one of the princes was a drunk and forgot to close the dyke.  We can scratch that off the list, I think.  Lyonesse is as close to home as we’ll be getting today.  A lot of people figure it’s just another word for Avalon, and will rise out of the sea when King Arthur returns.  Not bloody likely.
“Kumari Kandam is basically Lemuria without pretending to be scientific about it.  It’s supposedly just off the tip of South India, and sunk after two separate floods.  This is as close as I got to anything even remotely credible, based on what Selena’s said, because of the Hindu Naga legend.  Some of the stories say they lived on a continent in the Indian ocean before that sank.”
“Okay,” Daniel nodded, “we’ve certainly gone out on a limb here, but at least we’re seeing a connection.”
“I’m not sure I like the connection,” Abigail said with a frown. “At least, not what it’s reminding me of.”
“What do you mean?” Evelyn asked.
“You’ve all heard of Helena Blavatsky, right?”
She was met by a chorus of exasperated groans and rolled eyes.
“Right,” she continued, “nothing but a useless charlatan.  She’s mostly being used nowadays to promote ‘master race’ ideals, like that Thule society, and to stir up lunatic theories.  Her big one is Lemuria.  She wrote a book that claims that Lemuria was populated by ‘dragon men’ whose civilisation fell after they got into Black Magic.”
“Sounds similar,” Daniel conceded, “but we all know Blavatsky was full of hot air.”
“No doubt,” Evelyn agreed, “but we’ve never seen what she used for her sources, if anything.  She might have lucked into something real and not even known it.”
“It’s not terribly likely,” Abigail said, “but not impossible.  I suppose we’ll have to pick up a copy of The Secret Doctrine, though I hate bringing that trash in here.”
“We can toss it out when we’re done, if you like,” Daniel reassured her. “Meanwhile, what have we got on those symbols?”
“Not a thing,” Evelyn reported with a discouraged shrug. “They don’t match anything we’ve been able to find so far, and the circles could be just about anything.  We’re up against a brick wall unless we want to spend a year searching the library, or we pick up another clue.”
“Then I suppose we’ve done what we can,” Daniel said. “When was the last time anyone looked at the journal?”
“Not since we got back last night,” Warren responded.
“That sounds like a good next step then,” Daniel concluded. “Abby?”
“If all else fails,” Abigail trailed off with a shrug.  She fetched the journal from the far side of the table and opened it to the newest entry.

February 12th, 1935
I must confess that I’m no great fan of flying.  I like to think I take enough risks in my life that I ought to be absolved of the task of stuffing myself into a glorified missile and hurling myself through the air, held aloft by infinitely fallible mechanical engines.  The last several days have been a hardship, but I certainly haven’t had the time to simply drive everywhere.  I would be weeks behind!
Intercontinental flight is most certainly the worst.  The very idea of spending hours on end suspended over the Atlantic, thousands of miles from any sort of aid should this damned machine decide to fail, is more chilling to me than any monstrosity I’ve faced to date.  I swear I just heard the engine cough.  That cannot be a good sign.
All discomfort aside, this is unavoidable.  If I haven’t time to drive around Europe, I certainly don’t have the time for an interminable journey by boat.  I must suffer the hazards of modern technology for now, if my purpose is to be met.  I will most certainly be relieved when I feel firm earth beneath me again.  At least, from what I have heard, New York is worth the trip for the sights alone.

“He’s gone to America,” Selena inferred needlessly after Abigail finished reading.
“I suppose it was only a matter of time,” Daniel observed wryly, “with the way this tour has been going.”
“I am not flying a plane all the way to New York,” Arthur said flatly. “I don’t have the stamina for it.”
“No one’s asking you to handle an intercontinental flight, Arthur,” Abigail said. “We’ll take a commercial flight.  We should be able to survive first class, I think.”
“You’d think that,” Arthur replied, “but we don’t even know if Warren will fit in the seats.”
Warren glowered at Arthur, without any real malice.  Arthur mock-recoiled regardless.
“Hey,” he said, “can I help it if you’re a big fellow?”
“I drink my milk,” Warren shrugged.
“It will be fine,” Abigail said a bit snidely. “Now, I think we can expect to be across the pond for a while.  Does anyone know of any good hotels in New York?”

Chapter 12
February 13th, 1935

The Plaza Hotel in New York City earned the honour of being the second palatial locale they visited that week.  It wasn’t quite as palatial as the aptly named Palais Grand, but it lacked none of the opulence.  The service was up to par as well.  Considering they came in with no reservation and requested six rooms of fine quality, they were seen to with remarkable efficiency and excellent manners.  Money was better than magic, in some circles.
They were shown to their rooms by a team of extremely eager bellhops.  Thankfully they had exchanged for enough American dollars to provide the tips the young hotel staff were so anxiously seeking.  It wouldn’t do to ostracise the employees on the first night when they didn’t know how long they would be staying.
An hour after they arrived, evening already, they were settled into their luxurious rooms.  For some, Warren and Evelyn in particular, these trappings of wealth weren’t entirely comfortable.  Daniel simply found it strange, though his rooms above the bar were well enough appointed.  Not knowing how long it would be before they would find out what they needed to do next, they gathered for a quick meeting in Daniel’s room.
“He hasn’t written anything new yet,” Abigail reported after flipping through the Journal.
“So we don’t even know where he is,” Arthur said. “He could be on his way to the west coast by now for all we know.”
“But we don’t know,” Daniel responded, “so there’s no reason to worry about it yet.  It’s not as though we can’t afford to keep chasing him around.”
“So what do you propose we do?” Arthur asked pointedly. “Lounge around here until Malachi deigns to drop us another hint?”
“That is precisely what we’re going to do,” Daniel said with a sudden smile. “We’ve had no opportunity to relax since this whole thing started, after all.  What do you say we go get a drink?”
“I daresay that’s the best idea we’ve heard in days,” Abigail returned Daniel’s smile. “Shall we head down to the Oak Room then?  We can likely have our dinner there as well.”

The Oak Room was one of the finer bars in the city.  The décor was a combination of polished wood, gleaming brass and dark leather upholstery.  The bar itself occupied the centre of the room, a long oval of dark wood, polished to a mirror shine.  Along the walls, high backed booths afforded a degree of privacy, while the table scattered around the room added to the lively ambience.  At one end of the room was a small raised stage, on which a grand piano gave soft music, coaxed by a blond haired player in a white suit.
They took one of the booths and ordered drinks while they pondered their meal choices.  The quiet strains of the piano drifted around them, as they settled down to enjoy the first normal evening they had had in more than a week.  They chatted idly after their drinks arrived, in a manner they had been incapable of in six years.  Evelyn looked lazily over at the stage, and the piano player focused so intently on his art.  A tanned face furrowed with concentration and at the same time almost blissful.  Bronze coloured hair flowing down to his shoulders like a fiery cascade…
Evelyn nearly choked on her wine.  The man they had rescued in Peak Cavern looked up and directly at her, and winked, grinning playfully.  Without looking, Evelyn reached over and nudged Abigail, who was sitting next to her.  Abigail looked over at her with a raised eyebrow.
“The piano player,” Evelyn said quietly, without changing her expression, “does he look familiar to you?”
“Can’t say he does,” Abigail shook her head. “Why?”
Abigail looked at Abigail in mild disbelief, and then back at the stage, and her disbelief became rather less mild.  The blond haired young man sitting at the piano looked nothing like the man from the cavern, the man she had been staring in the face just seconds ago.
“How very bizarre,” she whispered.
“What are you on about, Evey?” Abigail asked with a small bit of concern on her face.
“I would swear that just a few seconds ago, he looked exactly like the man we took out of Peak Cavern.  The one who disappeared from the hospital.”
“It doesn’t take you much, does it?” Arthur smirked, looking at her barely touched wine.
“I’m serious,” Evelyn snapped. “He looked right at me.”
“Are you sure you saw what you think you saw?” Daniel looked at her rather seriously over his brandy.
“Don’t patronise me Daniel.  I’m not some flighty girl.  I am certainly not prone to seeing things.  And before you ask, no. I’m not tired.  I had a rather good nap on the plane.”
“It’s bizarre,” Warren said, “but not very important.”
“True enough,” Daniel agreed. “Unless something like that happens again, we’ll keep it filed under strange but random.  If it means anything, I expect it will repeat itself in some way.”
“At the very least,” Abigail added, “we can worry about it later.  For now, let’s just relax.”
“Very well,” Evelyn sighed, “but I intend to keep my eyes open.”

By the time they returned to their rooms, they were all much more at ease, and perhaps a little bit tipsy.  They parted company as they each retreated into their suites for an unusually good night’s sleep.  Abigail closed the door behind her and crossed to the large, unimaginably soft bed, sitting on it gingerly.  She felt oddly restless, despite her own suggestion that they relax.  She felt as though they ought to be doing something right now.
Her eyes fell on the journal, sitting atop the clothing in her open suitcase.  Without giving herself the chance to think about it, she reached for it and flipped it open.  The second she saw writing on the page that had been blank the previous day, she snapped the book shut.  Surely it wouldn’t do to read it alone.  She stood up and walked out of her room.  The others must still be up, it had only been a minute.
She knocked on each door quietly.  To each surprised and occasionally tired-eyed person who answered, she silently showed the book.  To their credit, they followed without argument.  She came to Daniel’s door last, the other four behind her.  Daniel answered, already clad in a housecoat provided by the hotel.
“Hello,” he said with some surprise. “Is something wrong?”
Again, Abigail simply held up the journal.  Daniel paused a moment, weighing the importance of the journal against the time and the brandy in his system, then sighed and held the door open.  They all piled in, gathering around Abigail as she sat on Daniel’s bed and opened up the journal.  In an unusually hushed voice, as though she expected someone to be listening, she read.

February 13th 1935
Phillips Maine is the sort of town that can only exist in a country as big as this one: quiet, utterly dull, and completely consumed by its own internal decay.  Though I’ve seen nothing especially interesting since I arrived, the whole place somehow instills a greater discomfort in me than the forest in Romania.  It’s an oddly benign miasma.  The combination of excessive homogeneity and a gathering of secrets too unpleasant for anyone to admit, even if everyone surely knows.  The house probably doesn’t help matters.
It seemed nice enough to the eye, when I drove past it on my way in.  The broken windows and tragically overgrown lawn were certainly telling, but even a fixer-upper can be nice.  If I had nothing more than my eyes to look with, I’m sure I’d think nothing of it.  But even the painfully normal people of Phillips have enough awareness about them to sense something wrong about this place.  To me, it radiates unpleasantness, almost visibly.  There’s a darkness in there as deep as the darkest places I’ve seen.  Surely something terrible happened there.  The place is so stained with trauma I can almost taste it.
I must admit, I’m a bit frightened to venture in there now.  It hadn’t occurred to me until now how much willpower this task will call for.  Now I must consider that this apparently minor bit of research might truly destroy me.  I’ve taken that risk more than once already on this journey, but never in a place so bizarrely contrary to that sort of risk.  I do hope my next stop will be more like Paris.

“That was rather ominous,” Daniel commented.
“Where is Maine?” Arthur asked. “I think we’re going to need a map.”
“We’ll worry about it tomorrow,” Evelyn said, “we’re all far too tired right now to work out a plan.”
“I’m sure it’s not too far,” Abigail mused. “We can probably get there easily enough tomorrow.”
“Enough,” Evelyn said with surprising authority. “To bed with you.  We all need sleep more than action right now.”
Under Evelyn’s watchful eye, everyone but Daniel shuffled out of the room and returned to their own suites.  Abigail sat alone again on her bed, wondering if she was going to be able to sleep, feeling as restless as she still did.

Chapter 13
February 14th 1935

The town of Phillips certainly was a drab looking place.  No one could say from where Malachi had derived his talk of buried secrets and quiet discomfort, but he was surely right about the homogeneous dullness of the town.  They stared out the windows of the cars at endless houses of particularly boring design.  Everything seemed just slightly shabby, like the effort to keep it all up was being made, but the town’s heart just wasn’t in it.
Malachi had offered no indication of where to find the house of which he had written.  All they could do was drive aimlessly around town, looking at every house and hoping he hadn’t been exaggerating its obviousness.
He had not exaggerated.  When they found the house, there was no doubt of it.  The lawn was not merely overgrown, it was a jungle, the front walk barely even visible beneath the ridiculously long blades of grass that bent under their own weight.  The smashed windows hadn’t been boarded, but left as gaping, jagged holes into darkness.  What windows weren’t smashed were caked with what looked like decades of dust and grime, making them all but opaque.
The appearance of the house was nothing compared to how it felt.  It pulsated with evil, breathing unseen clouds of malaise out on the street around it.  This was not like Romania.  The woods had been dead, devoid of spirit save the one evil thing that dwelt there.  This place seemed to writhe with twisted life, none of it visible, all of it malicious, washing over the young visitors like a wave of quiet horror.
They all shuddered.  Arthur grimaced with apparent pain.  Warren looked as though he was about to vomit.  There was no question that this place was a site of atrocity to have gathered such a malign aura about it.  They stood on the street, staring up at this quiet old home that clearly wanted to devour them whole.  Setting his jaw in a hard line, Daniel pushed through the broken old gate and started up the front walk.  Reluctantly, the others followed, with Warren moving the slowest, in obvious discomfort.
The front door was warped, unpainted oak.  Despite its age and disrepair, it was heavy and quite sturdy.  It was also unlocked, a rather unexpected boon.  Evelyn suppressed the thought that perhaps the house was deliberately allowing them in, for its own dire reasons.  Warren did not suppress the thought.
Inside, the house was a wreck.  The wallpaper was peeled away almost to nothing, and any paint was chipped and pitted to the point of being little more than bits of colour lying about the floor.  Anything that still even looked vaguely like furniture was broken beyond usefulness.  Scraps and splinters that could have come from anything were scattered all over the floor, which was so thick with dust the intruders left footprints.  They weren’t the only ones.  Enough sunlight filtered in through the filthy, broken windows to reveal two additional sets of footprints: one that led from the front door up the stairs, and one than came down the stairs and ended back at the front door.
The stairs groaned threateningly under their feet, and they took them slowly.  The banister was almost totally gone, leaving only a few broken posts to signify that it had ever existed in the first place.  The house grew no more pleasant on the next floor.  They found themselves in a narrow corridor, lined with warped and chipped doors, a couple of which were hanging off of their hinges.  The footprints led to the end of the hall, to another far narrower stair, which led up into darkness.
Daniel took the lead again, climbing the stairs cautiously.  It was more reassuring than he cared to admit, hearing his friends behind him.  This house was entirely too creepy for anyone’s good.  The stairs led up to a cramped attic.  There was very little light by which to see, straining to make it through the one filthy window.  Even without being able to see, they could all feel that this attic was the epicenter of the horrible aura this house had.
Daniel crossed the room and struggled with the window for a moment, finally forcing it open.  Cold air and colder light trickled into the room, allowing them to take in the environment that somehow made this whole house reek of evil.  Ultimately, there wasn’t much to see.  The bare wood floor was as warped and broken as the rest of the house, and the walls were stripped almost bare of wallpaper.  Of interest was the lectern standing in the centre of the room.  More specifically, the thick, black leather bound book sitting on the lectern.
There was no mistake, the evil manifestations emanated from the book.  As they drew closer, they could all but feel it reaching out to envelop them, drawing them in as if to devour them.  Warren couldn’t even look directly at it.  He sat down heavily in the corner of the attic, looking horribly ill.
The cover was unmarked, offering no indication of what might be inside.  Tentatively, Daniel reached out to open it.  Arthur’s hand closed on his wrist before it got there, pulling him away.
“Remember what Malachi said about willpower,” Arthur said. “My mind has the best defenses out of any of us.  I should do this.”
Daniel nodded understanding and stepped away.  Arthur moved closer to the stand and flipped the book open.  Turning to the first page, he began to read.  Almost immediately, his eyes went wide, and he all but froze in place.  His breathing became shallow as the colour drained from his face.  He stared, unblinking at the book.  Evelyn put a hand on his shoulder, concern all over her face.
“Arthur?” She tried to look him in the eye. “Arthur, can you hear me?”
Arthur didn’t respond.  His eyes were locked on the book.  His hands gripped the lectern so hard his knuckles were white.  Evelyn shook him, futilely, and passed her hand in front of his eyes.  He gave no sign that it had even registered.  He was in another place, and from his face it didn’t look like it was a good one.  Even as Evelyn called Arthur’s name again, panic beginning to enter her voice, Daniel reached over and closed the book.
Arthur sprang suddenly back to life, falling backward and scrambling away from the lectern, terror etched into his face.  His breathing came hard now, and his face had regained none of its colour.  He stared wide-eyed at the closed book.
“Arthur?” Evelyn said, kneeling beside him. “Arthur, I need you to answer me.  Can you answer me?”
“I…I’m here,” Arthur said, his voice shaking. “It was…talking in my head.  It’s not even written in English.  It was reading itself to me.  It grabbed my mind…used my power against me.  I was wrong.  I’m more vulnerable than any of you.  I can’t go near that thing again.”
Evelyn held Arthur’s hand reassuringly, putting another soothing hand on his cheek.  Mental healing wasn’t something she had much practice at, but she willed what power she could through her hands to strengthen his wrecked nerves.  Arthur’s breathing slowed to something less panicked, and the colour started to return to his face, though he still looked traumatized.
“What did it say to you?” Daniel asked.
“It said ‘I am the history of the world, the perfect truth of all that has come before and all that will follow.  I speak for those banished from a world rightfully theirs, and offer words of their power and final return’.  Then it started talking about the beginning of the world.  It said something about these ancient beings making the world their own before anything intelligent evolved.  That’s when you closed it off.  Thanks, by the way.”
“Any time,” Daniel nodded gravely. “I’ll go next then, shall I?”
“Daniel!” Abigail looked at him askance. “That thing nearly destroyed Arthur’s mind!  You’re not seriously suggesting you should read it too!”
“Arthur said it himself.  It got to him so fast because he’s a psychic.  I should be able to last longer.  If we take turns, and are careful to pull each other out before we look too far gone, we should be all right I think.”
“I remember you being more cautious,” Abigail said reproachfully.
“That was before I started worrying about the end of the world,” Daniel countered.
“You think that’s where this is going?” Selena asked.
“With everything we’ve seen so far, I can’t see it going anywhere else.  Malachi’s chasing something truly nasty, and I’m long past starting to wonder if he’s gone in over his head.  We could all be out of luck if we don’t figure this out.  That means taking a few risks.”
“He’s right,” Warren all but groaned from the corner. “Something this bad is just sitting in a house on Nowhereshire, U.S.A, imagine what the things it’s preaching about must be like.  We need to know.  But it’s on the four of you.  I can’t even get close to that thing.”
“All right,” Abigail conceded reluctantly. “But we’re cutting you off the second you start to look like Arthur did.”
“Deal,” Daniel agreed. “Not a second before though.  I’d rather get this over with quickly.”
Abigail nodded, stepping out of Daniel’s way.  Daniel opened the book, and stared down at its pages.  The words were written in the same twisted script that had been around the cave mouth in Romania.  They meant nothing to him, but he could already feel the book’s own consciousness reaching out to his mind.  It wrapped around him, oozing into his thoughts, filling him with a cold futility and a sense of utter insignificance.  He was so very small.  So pathetic in the face of all the things that waited to consume him.  When he felt like he was almost ready to break, it began to speak.
I bore witness to the rise of those great enough to be called gods.  I witnessed their dominion over this barren world.  They trampled the worthless earth and reigned over the empty seas.  They were supreme, save for the one thing this world made despite their perfect dominance.  Life.  Tiny things grew and crawled over the world, and the great ones saw themselves outnumbered by insects.  They held no fear of them, these unevolved creatures, until the gods saw the birth of the race that would dare challenge their supremacy: Man.
It ended suddenly, as the book slammed closed.  Daniel stumbled back, insensate and unaware of the world around him.  He was stopped from falling by Arthur’s hands, and found himself rudely shocked back to reality when the flat of a small hand struck his face.  The sharp sting knocked his senses back into gear, and he saw Evelyn standing in front of him, hand raised in case she needed to hit him again.  He let out a shaky breath that almost turned into a sob, and looked around at the others.
“Who’s next?” He asked wearily.
“I’ll do it,” Abigail said without hesitating. “The rest of you be ready to pull me out.  I’d rather not end up in a heap.”
Now Abigail opened the book, and the cold fingers of its will wrapped themselves around her thoughts.  She shuddered visibly as it reached into her, and spoke its words directly into her soul:
Man alone had not the power to defy the great ones, primitive apes that men were.  But these useless mortal creatures had something all other creatures lacked: Patronage.  Something beyond the sight of the world bore a love for humanity equal to the great ones’ hate.  This patron gave the humans power.  This was the birth of magic.  The great ones sought to break humanity, and many of the filthy primates bent to their will, but there were too many who stood against.  They shared the power given to them by undeserved grace and drove away the rightful gods of the world.
The book closed, and Abigail all but fell into Selena’s waiting arms.  She shuddered again, as the tendrils were ripped from her mind.  Selena guided her to sit on the floor, where Daniel and Arthur were already seated.  Their eyes were closed, and one of Arthur’s hands rested on Daniel’s forehead.  As Abigail sat, Arthur’s other hand rose to rest on her brow.  She could feel his presence seeking entry to her mind.  She closed her eyes and allowed him in.  His mind was a soothing balm compared to the terribly consciousness that had occupied her seconds before.  She felt Daniel in there with them, their three wills leaning on each other for shared strength.
Even as she began to relax, she was peripherally aware of Selena dropping to the floor beside her with a heavy thud.  Instinctively, she reached out as Arthur had and placed her hand on Selena’s forehead.  She felt the shock of Selena’s mind as she joined their circle, and then the words came tumbling out, in a voice that belonged to none of them, but all had heard:
The great ones were banished, but they could not be fully expunged.  Their power is too vast to be taken utterly from the world.  Ever have they reached beyond their prison outside the cosmos to touch the fragile minds of the mortals who now believe themselves supreme.  For aeons they have guided the building of the gates, and in the twilight of humanity, their power shall gather at the gates to batter down the doors of the world and shatter the artificial world of Man.
They remained in this circuit for a long while, as their shared minds put the pieces of the story together.  After a minute, they felt Evelyn join them, her mind unscarred by the touch of the book.  She came in only as a spectator, and soon Warren followed.  They sat in silence, and shared the experience, easing the burden on four minds with the combined strength of six.  Even so, they felt Warren’s ill discomfort as he felt the full force of the house’s spiritual sickness.  Without words, they agreed that the time had come to leave this foul place behind.
The descended the stairs, Evelyn insisting on taking up the rear.  They had to help Warren get down the stairs after so long exposed to the dark spiritual power.  They left as quickly as they could without dragging Warren or falling down the stairs, and all breathed a small sigh of relief as they reached open air.  They did not truly feel that relief until the house was disappearing down the road behind them, and the awful miasma finally faded into the distance with it.  They didn’t even discuss spending the night in Phillips, Maine.  They simply drove directly to the airport to put as many miles as they could between them and the cursed house.

Chapter 14
February 15th 1935

No one woke early.  The trauma of the previous day had drained them so utterly that they had remained conscious only long enough to return to the hotel.  It was noon by the time any of them stirred.  They met for brunch, each sharing the same drawn look of one who hadn’t slept all that restfully.  Abigail brought the journal with her.
They were very quiet for a long time.  No one particularly felt like sharing the nightmares they had all experienced to some degree last night.  Evelyn was the only one not completely traumatized, and as such was the only one who could even pretend to be well rested.  There was little consolation she could offer.  She had seen the trauma in their minds.  Only time could heal that.  For now, what they needed was a distraction.
“Abigail,” she said, startling them all by speaking, “may I see the journal?”
With a sight that almost seemed relieved, Abigail handed the book across the table to Evelyn.  It was an odd contrast to hear Evelyn’s soft voice reading instead of Abigail’s more strident tones.

February 15th 1935
Colorado can truthfully be called one of the last bastions of untamed wilderness in our overcivilised world.  I’m not far from the Rocky Mountains, staying on a reserve occupied by a small clan of Navajo Indians.  These people have managed to hold firm to their traditions, and clearly take considerable pride in their adherence to the Old Ways.  Among those traditions, apparently, is a distrust of outsiders.  It took a great deal of talking to convince the elders to even allow me on their land.  When they learned of my purpose, I thought for a moment that they might kill me.  Curiously, it was the offhand mention of another’s name that spared me and saved my purpose.  A shared association, apparently.
They are quite insistent that I not venture out at night.  I am beginning to notice a pattern in these outings.  Apparently the welcome they have extended to me is unlikely to be shared by the spirits that occupy the wild forest I must venture into.  These spirits, apparently, are more active at night.  Nothing abhorrent like Baba Yaga, but rather dangerous regardless.  I have opted to heed their advice.  I suspect there is more they are not telling me, but I can only take so many of their secrets before they take offense.  I can only hope their advice and the myriad preparatory rituals they are insisting I undertake will suffice to protect me, even if they will not tell me from what I am to be protected.
This is a peaceful place.  There is a great store of quiet power in the land.  But I sense that peace is conditional.  Nature still holds sway here, and nature has always been prone to unpredictability.  Still, sites like this are unfortunately rare treasures.  I think that Warren would love it here, but I suspect that he already knows that.

“What does that mean?” Selena directed the question at Warren. “That you would already know?”
“He was telling us where he is,” Warren replied, “somewhat cryptically.  I don’t know why he’s being so secretive.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked. “How does that tell us where he is?”
“I’ve been there,” Warren said. “The reservation.  I was there for about a year, in ’32.”
“Is this a good thing?” Arthur asked. “This sounds like another dangerous trip.”
“I really don’t want any more evil spirits trying to eat me,” Abigail complained.
“We’ll be fine,” Warren said with a tone of finality. “I’ll look after you.”
Everyone looked vaguely nervous, except for Evelyn, whose face was unreadable, and Daniel, who put his hands on the table just hard enough to draw attention to himself.
“I’m convinced,” he said with stubborn cheerfulness. “From the sound of things, this is Warren’s home turf.  If he says we’ll be okay, we’ll be okay.  Right Evey?”
Evelyn nodded with conviction, and Warren raised an eyebrow at Daniel with a quiet respect.
“You’re starting to act like Malachi,” he said.
“Maybe someone ought to,” Abigail answered before Daniel could.  “And he’s right.  We should trust you.  We do trust you.  Whatever happens out there, you can get us through it.”
“Don’t rely on me alone,” Warren warned.
“Of course not,” Abigail nodded. “We’ve gotten this far by working together, haven’t we?  You’re just going to take centre stage this time.  We’ll be following your cues.”
“Agreed,” Daniel said. “Warren takes point on this one.  All in favor?”
Everyone but Warren nodded or voiced assent.  Daniel looked to Warren, whose usually expressionless face showed surprise.  He nodded.  Only Evelyn saw the gratitude hiding under the surprise.

“He noticed,” Warren said once Evelyn’s door was closed.  He packed light, and so Evelyn was only halfway ready when he had knocked on the door.
“Of course he did,” Evelyn chided. “He’s always paid attention to that sort of thing.”
“Has he?  I never realized.”
“That’s because Malachi always took the lead in the old days.  Daniel’s only just stepping into the spotlight.  Abigail too.”
“She’s been waiting for it.”
“Be nice,” Evelyn shook a playful finger at Warren. “She was only bossy then because she was worried.  She’s much easier to deal with now.  She’s grown up just like the rest of us.”
“She has,” Warren conceded, leaning against the wall with his arms folded. “Though I expect Daniel’s influencing that too.”
“They’re a team,” Evelyn said, “and a rather good one at that.  I don’t mind them taking charge the way they have.  They’re not going overboard about it.  They listen, and everything is still going to vote.  They’re just keeping us on task.  I think we need that.  It’s been so long since we were a team, seeing them work together like one is helping us remember how to do the same, I think.”
“I agree.  Don’t get me wrong about that.  I’m just surprised they took to it so naturally.”
“They’ve always had it in them. It’s just that, with Malachi around, they never really had the chance to show it.”
“True enough.” Warren nodded. “Do you suppose things will go back to the way they were when we find Malachi?”
“I wouldn’t imagine so,” Evelyn said. “We’re all rather different people.  We don’t need a big brother anymore.”
“I never thought of it like that.  I suppose that’s what he was.  Big brother getting us all into trouble and then getting us out in the next beat.”
“Fair enough for kids.  Not so good for serious business.  That’s how Daniel and Abby are treating this.  It’s serious and they’re not pretending it isn’t.  I’m a bit relieved, honestly.  It was always such a game when we were young.”
“Not now,” Warren said. “Just as you said, this is serious.  Too serious, if you ask me, for a bunch of novices.”
“I don’t think we should be thinking of ourselves like that,” Evelyn shook her head. “We’ve all shown we can handle ourselves in a squeeze.  I think it’s time we were rid of the kid gloves and called ourselves what we really are.”
“Wizards,” Warren finished. Evelyn nodded.
“Wizards.  Now, are you just going to stand and watch or are you going to help me pack?”
“Sorry.”

The nearest airport was in Denver.  From there they had to drive out to the reservation.  Warren took the wheel of the first car, leading the way down the highway, and eventually off of it.  The cars bumped along country roads that the passengers suspected most Americans didn’t even know of.  As they got further from the city the terrain became less rural and more arboreal.  It wasn’t quite a forest growing up around them, but it was a fair imitation.  As it grew dark, the whole trip was reminding them rather uncomfortably of the trip through Romania, and everything that had come with it.
The gravel road was starting to rise and fall as they got to hillier terrain.  Had it not grown so dark, they might be able to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance.  Warren had the courtesy to signal before he turned suddenly off of the gravel onto a nearly invisible dirt road.  This road led into thicker trees, signaling the outskirts of true forest.
They drove for only a few more minutes before Warren came to a stop.  As the cars’ headlights stretched into the darkness, a few buildings could just barely be seen.  Warren stepped out of the car and waited.  When the others had also stepped out, he took a few long steps forward, signaling with one hand that the others ought to stay back for now.
“Kill your headlights so we can see you,” a voice came from the darkness, accompanied by the sound of a shotgun being cocked.  Daniel and Arthur reached into the cars to oblige.  This situation was getting more similar to Romania by the minute, and not in a pleasant way.  When the lights died, they were left for a moment in total darkness, before the hoods were taken off of a pair of old fashioned oil lanterns.  Two men stood before them, their long dark hair tied back.  Each carried a shotgun.  Warren didn’t look concerned as he spoke directly to one of them.
“Good evening, Curtis,” he said. “Is John around?”
One of the men, presumably Curtis, lifted his lantern off of the ground and raised it higher, to get better light.
“Warren?” He asked in the near dark. “Is that you?”
“Of course it is,” Warren answered reproachfully. “Who else knows where you live?  Did you think I wouldn’t be back?  You still owe me five dollars, as I recall.”
“It’s a debt of honour, friend,” Curtis chuckled. “It will be repaid in whatever manner, and at whatever time, the spirits deem appropriate.”
“Then it’s time the spirits gave you a kick in the honour,” Warren returned the chuckle with his own deep rumble, which shocked even Evelyn.  He never did that.
“They move mysteriously,” Curtis shrugged. “By the way, you’re not the only one who knows where we are.  Another guy waltzed in here yesterday looking to enter the Walker’s territory.  He waltzed out this afternoon.  Guess he found what he was looking for.  He mentioned you.”
“Yes, that’s why we’re here,” Warren said. “He’s a friend of ours.  I didn’t tell him about you, before you ask.  I don’t know how he found you, but we need to find him.”
“This is serious, isn’t it,” Curtis said it like he already knew the answer.
“It may be deadly serious,” Warren confirmed. “May we speak to John?”
“Yeah,” Curtis turned to the other man. “Chester, go wake John.  Tell him it’s Warren and it’s important.  He won’t get too pissed at you.”
Chester ran off into the darkness, and Curtis sat down on a nearby stump, cradling the shotgun in his lap and resting his lantern on the ground.
“Your friends can come closer,” he said to Warren, “I’m not going to shoot them.”
“They’re just being cautious,” Warren answered, nodding to the others as he did, “you’re not the first person to point a gun at us this month.”
“Making yourself popular?” Curtis gave a small grin.
“In all the wrong places,” Warren said gravely.  The others gathered around him, showing varying degrees of nervousness and impatience.
“I hope this friend of yours is worth the trouble.”
“He’s family,” Warren replied simply.
Curtis nodded gravely, and didn’t ask Warren to elaborate.  Whatever customs the people here had, Warren understood them, and Curtis seemed to respect him.  The sound of approaching footsteps ended any conversation anyway.  Two shadowy forms emerged from the darkness, one of them still carrying a shotgun.
“Warren?” The other shadow called out in a deep, weathered voice. “Where are you, boy?  Raise that light, Curtis.  I can’t see a damned thing.”
Curtis lifted the lantern off of the ground and its light spilled a little further.  The two men walked into the circle of light, Chester staying at the edge and staring out into the darkness beyond like something might jump out of it.  The other man was an older, well-fed fellow.  His face was as weathered as his voice, but the wrinkles spoke of wisdom more than anything else.  His hair was just as long as Curtis and Chester’s, but his was a silvery grey, and left loose rather than tied back.  He gave Warren a stern look.
“This had better be important,” he said, “to be waking me up damn near the middle of the night.”
“It’s not even ten, John,” Warren replied, but there was surprising respect in his voice, “and this is as important as anything.”
The old man, John according to Warren, reacted as though he had heard their whole story in Warren’s voice.  He nodded gravely and signaled them to follow him with a wave of his hand.  The followed, and he led them to a long, low house.  Inside was darker than the outdoors, and no warmer.
“Sorry about the lack of amenities,” John said with no small amount of sarcasm. “No electricity out here.  Curtis, get the fire going.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Daniel volunteered. “Just show me where.”
Curtis shone his lantern into the single long room, and its light fell on an old cast iron wood stove.  Daniel opened the grate and found it already conveniently stacked with fresh wood.  He held a hand over it, and uttered his familiar latin.  The wood sprung alight, and the long house began to warm up almost immediately.
“Do all of your friends have the touch?” John asked of Warren.
“In some form or another,” Warren affirmed. “Daniel, there are a few more lamps around the room.  If you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course,” Daniel walked slowly around the room and, one by one, the lamps on the tables against the walls came to life.  Finally the room was well enough lit that everyone could see each other clearly, and warm enough to take off their coats and get properly comfortable.
“A useful friend to have,” John commented.
“They all are,” Warren agreed, “we owe each other our lives a dozen times over, at least.”
“Very good friends,” John looked impressed. “I should introduce myself, since Warren doesn’t have the manners.  My name is John Dancing Raven.  I’m the elder around here, which for you unfamiliar English types means I’m in charge.  I’m also the village shaman, which should answer any questions you have about why Warren knows me so well.”
“It does explain a lot,” Arthur said.
“Don’t interrupt,” John said bluntly. “Respect is a big thing here, son, and manners and respect go hand in hand.  You’ll know when it’s your turn to speak.”
Arthur opened his mouth to retort, thought better of it, and closed it again.
“That’s better.  And get out of my head.  You don’t need to read my mind to know what I’ll do if you get uppity.” He smirked at the surprise on Arthur’s face, and returned his attention to the group. “Chester told me why you’re here, mostly.  He said the other guy who was here yesterday is a friend of yours.  You plan on telling me what’s going on?”
“As much as we know,” Warren said. “Malachi disappeared on us a couple of weeks ago.  He left a journal he can write in from far away, and we’ve been using it to follow him.  So far we’ve been messed with by an old man on a mountain in Scotland, almost eaten by an evil spirit in Romania, did a favour for a ghost in Paris, took down a black cult back in England and got far too close to a terribly evil book in Maine.  We still don’t know exactly what he’s after, but we’ve figured out that it has something to do with some sort of ancient evil.  Something older than the natural spirits we know.  It was banished from the world in the earliest days of humanity, when the spirits offered their aid and gave us magic, and it’s wanted back in ever since.”
“It?” John asked probingly.
“Or they,” Warren shrugged. “We don’t really know.  We saw an image of something fairly horrible in the cult’s cave in England.  We figure it was a depiction of one of these ancient things.  Doesn’t look like any spirit I’ve heard of, or any monster our resident creature expert knows about.  It looked as though it was worshipped like a god.  A sea serpent taller than a tree, with a leech-sucker face and seven tentacles with human faces on them.”
“Doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard of,” John shook his head. “Our history doesn’t speak of such unnatural things.”
“How about snake men?  Body of a man, tail of a snake?  We saw one fossilized in Romania.”
“We have a few legends,” John said, “but nothing really worth mentioning.  We haven’t heard of anything like that around here since before my ancestors were born.  Why is your friend looking for these things?”
“We don’t know,” Warren admitted.  “We think it has something to do with the tragedy that brought me to you three years ago, the one I can’t speak of.  We think he may be chasing the thing he thinks is responsible for what happened to us.”
“I see,” John sat back, as though struck by a revelation. “These are the friends you told me of.”
“Yes,” Warren nodded.
“Then you are bound together by tragedy as well as love.  And this Malachi, he is one of you as well.”
Warren nodded again.
“You’re afraid that he’s in over his head,” John deduced. “I can tell that you’re afraid for him.  He’s family to you, and you want to save him, perhaps from himself.”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
“Family must stick together,” John declared. “Malachi is bound to you as much as I am to my own tribe.  I can do nothing but honour that.  Of course, I would probably have helped you anyway.  You’re still called friend here, Warren.”
“I’m grateful for that,” Warren said with respect, “and for your help.  Curtis said Malachi went into the Walker’s land.”
“He did,” John turned grave, cautious. “Your friend is very stubborn, and very convincing.  We did insist that he wait until morning to go, and we gave him what protection we could.  I think he used some of his own medicine as well, but I’m not sure it was enough.  He stayed past nightfall and came out of the forest running.”
“He angered the Skinwalker?” Even as the word escaped his lips, Warren seemed to catch himself, and looked apologetic.  John gave him a sharp look, but seemed to accept the silent apology.
“Maybe,” he said. “We gave him our best protection, and the Skinwalker isn’t the only thing to be afraid of in that forest anymore.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Arthur raised a hand somewhat carefully, “would you mind explaining this ‘Skinwalker’ business?”
Warren looked to John with a question on his face and, after a reluctant moment, John nodded.
“The Skinwalker is a spirit of the wild,” Warren explained. “There are a number of them in the world, though only the Navajo have many legends of them.  It is a spirit made of both animal instinct and human will.  It protects the territory it has claimed, with lethal force if it must, and it doesn’t welcome trespassers.  The one that protects this forest is a spirit of wolf and shadow.  The Navajo have always respected the Skinwalker, and it acknowledges their respect by tolerating them in its forest, so long as they continue to be respectful.  If Malachi went in with their blessings about him, that should have been enough to pacify the Skinwalker, unless he did something to anger it.”
“Malachi’s never been in the habit of making anyone angry,” Selena pointed out.
“Apparently there’s another possibility,” Warren said, turning back to John. “What else stalks the woods now?”
“Something far more dangerous than a Skinwalker,” John’s voice dropped to a whisper, as though he were afraid to speak the word aloud: “Wendigo.”
Warren was stunned into silence, while the others were silenced only by Warren’s reaction and their own confusion.  Finally, Warren spoke again.
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I would not joke about such things,” John said, his voice dire. “The cannibal spirit has come, and it has preyed on my kin, though we now hold it back as best we can with our own magic.”
“Why hasn’t the Skinwalker destroyed it?” Warren asked quietly.
“I don’t think it can,” John explained.  “The Skinwalker is now only spirit, barely able to take solid shape.  The Wendigo is spirit mated with flesh, and is the stronger for it.  None here have the power to face it.”
“You called it a cannibal spirit?” Evelyn asked.
“Yes,” John said. “The Wendigo is a spirit born of rage and the worst sort of excess.  It possesses those who succumb to their darkest unnatural urges.  Cannibalism, incest, blasphemous ritual, all these things can make a normal man into a Wendigo.  We don’t know how this one was made, nor where it came from.  As far as we know, its flesh was never one of our reservation.  But still it terrorizes us.”
“What does this mean for us?” Abigail asked. “We need to go where Malachi went, see what he saw.”
“I’ll give you the same advice I gave him,” John replied. “Go in the morning, and leave before dark.  The Wendigo comes out only at night, and the Skinwalker is unlikely to be about in the day as well.”
“No,” Warren said suddenly, unexpected anger on his face. “We go at night.  We will deal with the Wendigo.”
“Warren,” Daniel said with deep concern, “what are you getting us into here?”
“You said you trust me,” Warren said, “Yes?  You trust that I know what I’m doing.”
“Yes,” Daniel answered, rather helpless, “of course.”
“Then trust me now.  We were strong enough to escape Baba Yaga in her own woods, and overpower Sin at the height of his strength.  The Wendigo does not rule these woods, and he has no suffering on which to feed.  We can kill it.”
“You’re sure of this?” Abigail asked.
“I am,” Warren said resolutely. “We will take the day tomorrow to prepare.  If we are thorough, and take all advantages we can, we will have the strength to cleanse the forest.  The spirits will smile on us for it.”
Daniel gave Warren a long, hard look, as though he was trying to figure something out.  He hadn’t seen this sort of resolution in his normally aloof friend before.  This was clearly important to Warren, and it wasn’t difficult for Daniel to understand why.
“All right,” Daniel said, “if we’re all in favour of it, we’ll do it your way.  I’m in.”
“I am too,” Evelyn said without hesitation.
“I think we can do it,” Selena agreed.
“Well, we’ll need to stick together if there’s to be a chance,” Abigail said. “If you’re all in, then I am too.”
“I am NOT staying behind while you lot have all of the fun,” Arthur said, crossing his arms. “I’m owed that much after what I had to deal with in Maine.”
“We all had to deal with it,” Selena cajoled him, “you were just dumb enough to insist on going first.”
“Whatever, I’m in too.”
“Good,” Warren said with finality. “We will prepare tomorrow, and leave when it grows dark.  We’ll need every advantage we can get.  I don’t want this to end up like Romania.”

Chapter 15
February 16th 1935

Daniel found Selena in the long house, seated at a table with a scattering of small pieces of wood, a ball of leather string and a carving knife.  When he looked over her shoulder, he saw her carefully carving a magical sigil into one of the pieces of wood, which she had already carved into a convex oblong shape.  She looked up at him and nodded a greeting.
“What are you doing?” Daniel asked.
“Making talismans,” Selena explained. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this two weeks ago.  I don’t have the time or the resources to make anything fancy, but when these are done they should be able to store enough power to give us a bit of an edge without having to take the time to build up.  We’ve gotten awfully lucky so far given how long it usually takes any of us to get a spell off.”
“That’s a really good idea,” Daniel said encouragingly. “I wouldn’t worry about whether you thought of it before.  I’m just glad you’re thinking of it now.  We’re going in expecting a fight this time, and not against some demented magician.  Given how Warren and John were acting, I’d say this Wendigo is probably as nasty as Baba Yaga, and I get the impression it’s built to kill.  And then there’s this Skinwalker.”
“From what John said, the Skinwalker shouldn’t be as much of a problem.”
“I should hope not,” Daniel was silent for a long moment. “Are you all right, Selena?”
“What do you mean?” Selena asked. “Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
“You’ve been through a lot this past year,” Daniel said. “And now you’ve gone and uprooted yourself to wander all over and risk all kinds of unpleasant harm just because we asked you to.  I really feel terrible that I haven’t talked to you about this before.”
“You shouldn’t.  It’s not your fault you weren’t around when William died.  We had all scattered, and I knew that.  It wouldn’t have changed anything if you were there, really.”
“We could have given you some support.  That’s what friends are supposed to do.”
“We were hardly friends by then, Daniel.  We’d all seen each other once in five years, for an hour or two.  I certainly didn’t expect you to rush to my side when I didn’t even tell you what happened.”
Daniel heard Selena’s voice crack.  She kept her face turned away from him.  He walked around the table and sat across her.  She was holding back tears, her face set in a stubborn expression.
“We’re friends again now,” he said. “How you’re doing matters as much as any of us.  This is the first time any of us has even asked how you’re feeling, and I’m not okay with that.  We need to be there for you now, especially since we couldn’t be when it really mattered.”
Selena forced a smile, even as a tear managed to get past her stubborn façade. She looked down at the table, and the amulets she had just started working on.
“Since William died,” she said quietly, “I only really had my mother in law to talk to.  I had to be strong for the children, of course, and even with Gertrude I couldn’t really let myself break down the way I wanted to.  I learned the only way to really feel alone is when you’ve got people around you, and you have to hide right in front of them.  William was the only one I ever really felt close to the way we were all close years ago.  I suppose I really didn’t expect to ever have that sort of bond again, not after what happened.”
“And yet here we are,” Daniel said.
“Yes, we are.  Is it the same, really?  Are we what we were when we were kids?  Can we even be that close?”
“It’s not the same,” Daniel said with a bit of sadness. “It can’t be the same when we’ve all changed.  But I don’t think it would be the same even if nothing had happened six years ago.  People change, they grow up, and sometimes they grow apart.  What matters is that, even if we’re all different people now, what we had still matters.  We’ve been back together only two weeks, and I’ve already seen us starting to grow back together.  Evelyn and Warren act like they always have.  Abby and I are certainly back to our old tricks.  But you, you haven’t had a chance to really let yourself feel what you need to.”
“What about Arthur?” Selena asked.
“Arthur?  He’s always been a bit of a shit, hasn’t he?  It seems to me he’s stuck with us this far, he must be staying for a reason.  He’ll never really show it, but I think he still wants to be a part of the family.”
“Family,” Selena repeated the word. “I suppose you’re all the family I’ve got now.”
“Family sticks together, Lena,” Daniel said. “You can trust us to help you handle this, just as we’ve all trusted each other since this whole crazy escapade started.  That’s still there, the trust.  No one even hesitated to rely on each other for our very lives, and I think that says something about the connection that’s still there.”
“I suppose it does,” Selena wiped away the stray tear. “Thank you Daniel.  I don’t think I’m ready to share my feelings or anything quite yet, but it really does mean a lot, what you’ve just said.  I won’t forget it.”
“Good,” Daniel smiled. “Do you need a hand with the talismans?”
“Not yet.  This part I have to do myself, or it won’t work.  Once they’re ready to be properly enchanted, I’ll need as much power as I can get, so we’ll all want to get together.  I wish we had Malachi here.  This would work so much better if we had seven.”
“We do what we can with what we’ve got,” Daniel said. “Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll round up the others.”

They sat in a circle in the middle of the long house, any tabled in their way pushed over to the walls.  Six identical talismans of wood held in leather thongs sat on the floor in their midst.  For a moment, they looked around at each other.  Gathering enough power between six of them to be worth investing in the talismans would be time consuming to say the least.
Before they could actually begin, the door opened, and John Dancing Raven.  He saw them seated in the centre of the floor and raised a curious eyebrow, peering over them at the amulets gathered between them.
“Protection?” He asked.
Warren shook his head. “Power.”
“You won’t get much like this,” John scolded. “Come outside.  This is too important not to do it properly.”
He urged them all to their feet and led them out into the cold.  Presently, they arrived at a small fire pit.  John took a few logs from a pile off to the side and stacked them in careful formation.  He opened a metal box filled with old dry grass and twigs for kindling, but hesitated for a moment.  He looked at Daniel, who shrugged, and held a hand over the logs.  With his usual utterance, he ignited the dry wood, and very soon a small, cheerful fire was blazing.
John took the pendants from Selena and arranged them carefully around the fire, with the amulets themselves closest to the flames, though not too close, and the leather bands attached to them splayed out in six directions.  At his signal, they all sat around the fire.  John stood at the point where their circle finally closed.
“You’re not at your full strength,” he said.  “You’re one short of the strength of seven, which your missing friend would normally offer.  I’m not a part of your circle, but today I’ll offer my own strength to give you seven and empower your mission, if you’ll allow it.”
They didn’t even bother to discuss it, they simply shifted closer together, opening their circle for the older man to join.  Selena placed her left hand palm up on the palm of Daniel’s right hand, and he did the same to Abigail next to him.  This continued around the circle until Warren’s hand rested on Selena’s and the circle was closed.
As one, they closed their eyes, and concentrated on the power of the circle.  With six of them, it would take a great deal of concentration and ritual to build up enough power.  But with seven, the perfect prime number, the magic flowed more easily, and more abundantly.  Almost instantly, energy jumped around the circle, from person to person like lightning.  It didn’t take long at all for it to be more than enough.
Selena opened her eyes, and focused her gaze on the six amulets around the fire.  The fire was significant, it aided her focus.  Under the yoke her of concentration, the power they had gathered channeled itself into the centre of the circle, dividing evenly among the six talismans.  The simple necklaces took on a bright glow as the power filled them, and then quickly faded back to a normal appearance.
The others opened their eyes, and the circle disengaged.  John stood, while the young magicians each took one of the talismans.  The necklaces fairly vibrated with the energy they stored within them.  They stood, and all but Daniel and Warren started to shiver as the cold settled in on them again.
“That was a really good idea, Selena,” Daniel said. “But I think we should get back inside where it’s warm now.”
Without waiting, the others trudged off back toward the long house.  John stopped Warren before he could walk away.
“When evening comes,” he said, “just before dusk, come to me.  We will prepare you for your ordeal.  Whatever strength we can offer you, you will have.”
Warren didn’t speak, but nodded gravely, then turned and followed his friends.

They gathered as the sun was beginning to set.  The guests didn’t recognise anyone except for John, Curtis and Chester, as they hadn’t spent much time outside of their own company.  The Navajo had built a massive bonfire and now stood around it.  A low, wordless chant echoed around the circle, of which the English visitors were not a part.  They had no place in this ritual.
Warren stood in their midst, facing the bonfire.  He was stripped to his waist, but in the heat of the massive blaze, there was no room for a chill.  John and Curtis stood on either side of him.  Working with their fingers, they applied paint to his skin in patterns that Warren’s friends couldn’t see from behind him.  The chanting circle grew silent, but John and Curtis continued.  Their low throat singing could barely be heard over the roaring fire.
Gradually, the light of day was growing dimmer, as the sun sank below the horizon.  The light was halfway to vanishing when Warren turned around.  His torso was decorated with angular red lines, and a single red stripe divided his face horizontally.  Curiously, the area around his heart was untouched.  The circle of men took up their throaty chant again, and this time Warren joined them.
The chanting increased in pitch, growing louder and more insistent.  The spectators could feel the power gathering around the fire, ebbing and pulsing with the rhythm of the throat singing.  The fire was all but drowned out by the chorus of loud voices now.  Warren threw his head back, and his own voice soared to a wild crescendo as he bathed in the power of this people.
The last rays of the sun vanished as it slipped at last below the horizon.  The very second the light faded, the chanting stopped abruptly, leaving a sudden and almost deafening silence, apart from the fire.  The circle parted, and Warren stepped away from the fire.  John handed him a homemade looking leather vest, which he pulled on, carefully avoiding smearing the paint on his skin.
He joined his friends, looking quite grave and imposing in the firelight.  He looked out into the darkness of the woods for a long moment, as though listening.  Then he raised a hand and pointed into the blackness beyond the trees.
“We go that way.”
John handed out three torches, made from bundled wood soaked at the top in pitch.  Daniel, Arthur and Abigail took them.  With a gesture and a word, Daniel set them all alight.  John then handed Warren two shotguns.
“This is all we can spare,” John said. “I hope it will be enough.”
“It will be,” Warren replied with confidence.
Abigail and Arthur handed their torches to Evelyn and Selena and took the shotguns.  At this moment, they were as prepared as they had been for anything.  The amulets around their necks still buzzed with stored power, and Warren himself seemed cloaked in a quiet strength not his own.  Evelyn paused with surprise when she looked at Warren, her eyes drawn to the one area on his chest not marked with paint.  She reached out and her fingers traced four long, thin scars, like claw marks.
“Where did you get these?” She asked quietly.
“Here,” Warren answered simply, “the last time I was here.”
Evelyn looked concerned for a moment, but the calm resolution in Warren’s face seemed to settle her mind.  Without another word they walked out of the light of the fire and away from the small piece of civilisation.
The woods were very dark, but it was a natural darkness.  Moonlight and starlight trickled through the trees as it ought to, and the small sounds of nocturnal animals could be heard around them.  Warren led the way as though he knew precisely where he was going.  As far as the others were concerned, he probably did.  His absolute certainty was oddly reassuring to them, and they found they were beginning to share in his confidence.
They walked deep into the woods, following their large, silent friend.  When they came to a place where the trees grew thin, Warren stopped suddenly.  The woods were suddenly quiet, save for the crackling of the torches.  Warren waved at the others to step back, and as they moved away, he fell out of the light of their torches, standing instead in shadow.
He stared into the deepening dark, as though he was waiting for something.  The others squinted into the darkness, trying to see what Warren saw, but they perceived only shadow.  It was Arthur who suddenly perked up, as though he was noticing something as well.  The others understood.  Something in the darkness nearby had a consciousness Arthur could sense, and a spirit Warren could feel.
Suddenly, one of the shadows moved.  It was somehow darker than the very darkness from which it emerged.  Slowly, it approached Warren, and the others struggled to make out its shape.  It seemed to be some sort of animal, but at the same time it was undeniably humanoid.  As it came closer to Warren, its shape, such as it was, became easier to define.  It was definitely humanoid, but at the same time it was clearly not human, and possibly not even solid.  Its head, as much as they could see, seemed vaguely canine.  It had little apparent mass, seeming quite thin and most insubstantial.
Warren and the shadow thing stared at each other for a long, silent minute.  It raised what must be one of its hands, which gradually became clearer and more seemingly solid than the rest of its form.  The fingers could now be clearly seen to end in sharp points, like claws.  With this hand it touched Warren’s chest, right where there was no paint.  In a sudden, quick motion, it drew its claws across Warren’s chest.  He made no sound, and did not flinch.  Drops of blood could be seen to scatter on the snow at his feet.  Evelyn stifled a gasp.
The shadow being turned away from Warren and melted back into the darkness of the woods.  Warren turned as well and walked back into the light of the torches.  In the very spot where Evelyn had seen the four scars, there were now four identical open wounds, a light trickle of blood flowing from each.  Evelyn reached for the cuts, gathering power in her healing hand, but Warren stopped her hand and pushed it away.
“The wounds must bleed,” he said. “As long as my blood flows on its land, I am in communion with the Skinwalker.  It has given us welcome, with my promise that we will aid it in destroying the Wendigo.”
Evelyn nodded, and pulled her hand back.  The others were busy trying to stifle an unexpected awe in the presence of their old friend.  Daniel had been right the other day.  Warren was in his element here, and his strength in this place was palpable.  Warren turned again to face the darkness.
“This way,” he said, and continued walking.  Without question, the others followed.
The forest was like a maze.  Endless twists and turns around trees and huge formations of rock.  The snow crunched softly under their feet, a contrast to the hush that had fallen over the evening.  Unlike Baba Yaga’s woods, there was no strange distortion of time or space.  They knew precisely how long they had been walking, and it didn’t take very long before they had been walking entirely too long.  Their breath hung in the air in white clouds, and they felt the winter chill creeping in on them, excluding of course Daniel, who was dressed for early autumn, and Warren, who apparently didn’t feel the bitter cold on his bare skin.
There was no fear this time, at least not the unnatural fear that had been forced on them the last two times they had taken expeditions into nature’s glory.  Tonight they had only to contend with the perfectly natural fears of getting lost and freezing to death, and of being devoured alive by one of the primal evils of Navajo legend.  These fears, at least, they could attempt to quell by rationalizing them away.  The forest was huge, after all, and the chances of the Wendigo being anywhere near them were exponentially small.  Even if it found them, they outnumbered it six to one, and that had a proven effectiveness against homicidal supernatural beings.
Truthfully, the only thing that went any distance toward easing their concerns was Warren’s apparently total lack of fear or concern.  He strode confidently through the forest like he was walking the Manor grounds at midday.  Whatever he knew of the Wendigo, whatever fear had briefly touched his voice when he had spoken of it with John Dancing Raven, he was now apparently unafraid.  In fact, he had kept the same look of vague anger about him since their first conversation with John last night.  Clearly, the Wendigo’s presence here offended Warren more than it frightened him.
Quite suddenly, Warren stopped.  A scant few seconds later, the others realized why.  They could feel it.  Something in the woods that should not be there.  A dark power, seething somewhere out of sight, its sensation sickeningly familiar to that of Baba Yaga’s domain.  It did not approach, it merely waited wherever it was for them to find it.
“Wendigo?” Abigail asked in a hushed whisper.
“No,” Warren shook his head. “There is no spirit there, good or evil.  It is only power.”
“No mind either,” Arthur chimed in. “Whatever it is, it’s not a conscious entity.  If I had to hazard a guess, I’d assume it’s what we’re looking for.  From the feel of it, it certainly fits the pattern.”
“Shall we find out?” Daniel asked with forced cheer.  It didn’t convince him any more than it did anyone else.
They followed the sick feeling they shared in their guts, cutting between trees that grew gradually thicker, until they had to force their way through, and swiftly lost sight of each other, though most of them were noisy enough to compensate for that.  Warren slipped in between the trees like a ghost, like he knew exactly where to step, as though he had spent his whole life in this forest.
Finally, they broke through the trees into a wide clearing.  The terrain was wholly unremarkable.  Nothing but empty snow and scattered rocks from one end of the clearing to the other.  The jagged lumps of stone that dotted the landscape gave it the look of some long forgotten cemetery.  The whole clearing was perhaps twenty meters across, if that.  Above, the sky was obscured by a heavy bank of clouds.  The source of the dreadful unpleasantness that assailed them waited at the centre of the clearing.
The air and ground around it seemed to distort, warping in toward the inexplicable gap that hung suspended in space.  It was as though the natural world bent under whatever dark power emanated from it.  The hole was long, thin and jagged, as though someone had manage to stick a knife in the air itself and tear it open.  It measured approximately the size of a man, as best as could be judged the way it warped the perception of those who looked on it.  Within the hole was an impenetrable blackness, and those among them who stared too long into it were shocked to realize the darkness was moving, as though it was made up of thousands of inky black entities, all swarming to get out of the hole.
They were reluctant to approach it.  Most of them simply stared in shock at the impossible and deeply unsettling thing.  Warren glared at it with a slow burning anger that seemed to threaten to boil over at any second.  Abigail regarded the fissure with cold, clinical disapproval.  Slowly, she paced around the hole, giving it a wide radius.  No matter the angle from which she looked at it, it appeared the same.  It had no dimensions, and didn’t seem to truly occupy any space.  It simply was, when it should not be.
“Some sort of portal?” Daniel asked, looking at Abigail.  She was, among this group, the unquestioned authority on crossing the boundaries of worlds.  After giving the hole a long, hard stare, she shook her head.
“Not a portal, nothing so sophisticated.  This is far cruder.  It looks as though someone, something, rather, simply put an insane amount of pressure on the barrier between realities, probably from the other side, and just tore right through.  It would take a ridiculously huge power to even hope to accomplish anything like this, and even with the power of a god it would take centuries to get a rift of even this size.  An opening like this is extremely dangerous, as without the safeguards built into any portal construct, there’s nothing keeping the two realities from bleeding together at the nexus.  At this size, with the rate of emanation from the other side, it would take a long time for anything significant to happen, but if left unchecked, this could do horrible things to the land around it.”
“How horrible?” Daniel asked with some reluctance.
“Honestly?” Abigail’s face was grim. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Baba Yaga and her disgusting forest turned out to be the result of something just like this, left unrepaired for centuries.”
“I was afraid you’d say something like that,” Daniel said. “Where do you suppose it goes?”
“Someplace we really don’t want to get close to,” Abigail replied. “We can trade theories when this is all over, but after everything we’ve experienced in the last two weeks, I won’t be terribly surprised if we’ve all reached the same conclusion.  I need to close this immediately.  I’m going to need all of your help to do it.  This is going to take a great deal of power.”
“What do we need to do?” Selena asked.
“We must first encircle the fissure, closely enough to join hands.  I know, it will probably not be any more pleasant than our afternoon with the book from Hell, but we must fully enclose it.  After that, simply follow my lead.  With a lot of work, and a good deal of uninterrupted concentration, we should be able to seal it up.”
That was all the urging any of them needed.  The torches were stuck, burning end up, in the deeper parts of the snow.  With an effort of will on all of their parts, they gathered around the horrible hole in reality, and slowly closed in on it, stretching their arms out to join hands as soon as they were close enough.  They never got that close.
Warren sensed it long before the others could.  He turned suddenly away from the circle, staring out into the impenetrable woods with a shockingly wild look on his face.  The howl came from far enough away that none of the others could sense the creature that made it, though they could all guess at its origin.  It was not the sort of howl one would expect to hear from a true beast of the woods.  Though it was as savage and as primal as any predator, the voice that carried it bore a distinct inflection, a tone that fixed its description as an actual voice, and not simply an animal noise.  On some level, no doubt deeply regressed, the creature that offered the howling challenge was human.
Warren had begun a low, throaty and wordless chant, bracing himself as he stared into the woods.  Nothing moved out there, and for a long minute the only sound but for the torches was Warren’s deep voice making its own quiet, primal call.  Whatever he was doing, his friends all hoped with every ounce of their fear that it would be fast enough.
It was not fast enough.  The sound of snapping branches and shaking trees assailed them from the near distance, to the left where they were facing.  They all turned to face the oncoming threat, save Warren who was now lost in whatever magic he was weaving.  The cacophony of trampled landscape grew louder as the unseen nightmare drew swiftly near.  Arthur cocked his shotgun, and raised it, Abigail following suit.
The monster – it could not be called anything else – burst from the tree line with a roar that was at the same time shockingly human and utterly beyond humanity.  It was massive, surely nine feet tall at least, and absolutely overloaded with muscle.  Most of its body was covered with thick white hair, and where it was not, its chest and the palms of its hands, the skin was a steely grey and had the look of tough leather.  It was bipedal, and its hands were massive claws, its nails scything off of its fingertips at a length of two inches or more.
Its face was most horrifying of all.  The eyes were the first source of distress, as they still had a look of humanity to them, black pupil and brown iris in a white background, though quite bloodshot and wide as saucers.  The humanity in those eyes were jarring for the fact that they were set in the face of an inhuman monster.  The skin was the same leathery grey as its chest and hands, surrounded closely with the same white fur.  Its nose was a disgusting cross between a human nose and an animal snout, scrunched inward as though it had been smashed into the beast’s head.  And its mouth, good god, its mouth.  It bore a permanent, massive grin, literally from ear to ear, taking up half of the area of its face.  It was filled with teeth like long, jagged, broken needles.  When it roared, that mouth opened far wider than it ought to, like it was built to bite the head off of a grown man with a single swallow.
It bore down on the huddled group with unquestionable predatory intent, propelling itself with its hands like some sort of disfigured primate.  Most of them scattered.  Warren remained where he was, seemingly oblivious to the impending attack.  Arthur stood his ground and leveled his shotgun.  He fired, and the blast echoed around the clearing.  The pellets struck the Wendigo square in the chest, peppering it with speeding lead, but the creature didn’t even slow.  It simply howled its rage and hurled itself at Arthur, massive jaws gaping wide.
In a moment of fortunate quick thinking, Arthur threw himself back, angling toward the ground just before the Wendigo reached him.  The snapping teeth closed on empty air where Arthur’s head had been a brief second before.  The Wendigo did not continue on though.  With clear quick thought of its own, the beast ended its lunge abruptly, dropping its great mass overtop of Arthur, pinning his shoulder with his massive hands.  Claws that would have torn skin and muscle alike into ribbons narrowly missed his shoulders, digging instead into the snow.  Still, Arthur gave a cry of pain as the Wendigo put its terrible weight down on his shoulders, pressing him down.  Selena cried out in horror, Abigail raised her own equally useless shotgun, and Daniel and Evelyn started to run to his aid.
Arthur’s forearm forced itself up to his chest, and his fingers wrapped around the talisman of power given to him by Selena.  Clenching his hand into a fist around the amulet, and grimacing with pain and sudden exertion, he stared defiantly into the eyes of the cannibal monster.  The Wendigo’s scream of pain was as horrible as its howl of anger.  It reared back, clutching at its head, crying out in sudden distress and falling away from Arthur.  He scrambled back, and Daniel and Evelyn reached him just in time to help him to his feet and run with him back to the others.
“What did you do?” Daniel asked as they ran.
“Kicked it in the head,” Arthur answered breathlessly, “in a manner of speaking.  Gave its mind a good jab right in the pain centre.”
“It’s a good thing it can feel pain then,” Evelyn noted.
“No doubt,” Arthur agreed. “Damned difficult too.  I couldn’t have pulled it off without the extra power. Thanks, by the way Selena.”
“Don’t mention it,” Selena said as they were rejoined. “But I think it’s getting better.”
Indeed, the Wendigo’s agonized wails had subsided, and it lurched back to its feet, pure animal rage in those all too human eyes.  It turned on them, advancing more slowly now.  It had certainly not expected these human morsels to put up any sort of real fight.  Cautiously, it paced before them, drawing gradually nearer.  Daniel and Selena reached for their own talismans, preparing to unleash their own attacks, though they weren’t terribly optimistic about it.
Warren’s throat singing chant grew suddenly louder, ascending into a loud, wordless wail.  Power suddenly surged around him like a flare, catching the attention of his friends and of the unexpectedly sensitive Wendigo.  They all froze for a few tense seconds as the shadows danced in the light of the torches, seeming to surround Warren.  Far out of the radius of the torches’ light, another shadow moved of its own will.  The Skinwalker detached itself from the darkness of the woods and bore down on Warren with a whispering howl.  Warren’s chanting rose further in pitch until it was a howl of its own, and Warren threw his head back, his hands clenched into fists at his sides as he screamed at the cloudy sky.
The shadowy being seemed to tackle Warren, wrapping itself around him in a formless black embrace.  It sank into him, appearing to slip under his skin through the open wound on his chest.  As the Skinwalker vanished, Warren began to change, hunching over in sudden pain.  Most noticeably, his already large frame grew even more massive, towering suddenly in height as new muscled bulged and grew beneath his skin.  That skin was soon obscured as thick black fur sprouted all over his body.
When the change subsided, his bulk rivaled that of the Wendigo.  The fingers that now unclenched were tipped with vicious looking claws.  The face, when it turned to glare with animal fury at the Wendigo, was that of a predator, a beast.  Dark fur covered it lightly, and his nose and mouth had grown out into a canine muzzle.  Powerful jaws opened to reveal great, sharp fangs.  Even his ears had shifted to the pointed ears of a wolf.  But the eyes, though brimming with primeval rage, were still Warren’s, and the anger they bore was solely for the Wendigo.
The beast that was Warren howled a challenge, charging at the Wendigo.  The Wendigo roared in response, turning to meet him.  The two half-monsters met, and the force with which they collided was so great it elicited a clap of impact like thunder.  Warren’s hand gripped the Wendigo’s forehead, trying to force it back, as he raised his other hand to slash at its throat.  The Wendigo responded by raking its own claws across Warren’s unprotected stomach.  Crimson droplets sprinkled the snow, and the combatants broke apart.  First blood to the Wendigo.
More cautious now, Warren circled his opponent, a low growl rumbling in his throat.  The Wendigo turned in place, keeping its eyes on Warren as he paced.  With a speed the human eyes that watched couldn’t even process, the Wendigo lunged suddenly, bringing a heavy arm down to claw at Warren’s shoulder.  Warren’s own hand shot up with equal speed, catching the claws midswing, and he brought his other hand up to slash at the Wendigo’s chest.  Black blood joined the red on the snow, and they broke apart again.
Their strength and speed appeared equal, promising a protracted battle.  The spectators shivered, both with fear and cold as they watched the animal titans fight for both survival and supremacy.  The Wendigo charged, catching Warren in a powerful tackle. They fell, and as Warren’s back hit the snow he kicked up with his knees, forcing the Wendigo to continue on until it sprawled face first into the snow.  Warren sprung to his feet, pivoting to face the Wendigo, which scrambled back to its feet as well.  Their strength was equal, but Warren clearly had the superior mind.
The Wendigo was all but foaming at the mouth in its rage.  It screamed its bloodlust as it charged again, aiming to tackle Warren at the waist.  He simply stepped to the side and put his leg out as the white monster passed.  The Wendigo tripped over the outstretched foot and went careening to the ground, rolling across the snow to come to rest before the fissure still dominating the midst of the clearing.
Something happened.  A shockwave of tainted power emanated suddenly from the rift, spreading across the clearing and leaving a sick feeling at the pits of the spectators’ stomachs.  The Wendigo stood, its breath deep and ragged, and its horrible grin grew wider.  The distorted air around the hole seemed to part before the monster, which appeared to have grown slightly larger.  It hurled itself at Warren, and this time it was too fast.  It struck him in the chest with its massive shoulder, and Warren was sent sprawling across the clearing.
Before Warren could rise, the Wendigo was atop him, and its attack on Arthur played out again with horrifying similarity.  Like Arthur, Warren was pinned by his shoulders.  Unlike Arthur, the Wendigo’s claws found purchase in Warren’s flesh, and blood welled from gashes in his shoulders as the Wendigo bore its weight down on them, its slavering spittle dripping disgustingly in his face.  And, like Arthur, Warren reached for the pendant at his throat.  Like the Wendigo, his mass grew visibly, but only very slightly, not as much as the monster had.
It was, apparently, enough for now.  Warren placed his hands on the Wendigo’s chest and heaved, his muscles straining visible.  With a grunt of exertion, he shoved the cannibal beast off of him, rolling to one side as the Wendigo fell to the other.  Warren forced himself to his feet and managed to place himself between the Wendigo and the rift before his enemy recovered.  Recover his enemy did, standing to face Warren again.  Black streaks of blood marred its grey chest, and it fairly quivered with anger.
Warren stood his ground, eyeing the Wendigo carefully.  It was still stronger than he was, and faster.  He would have to be smarter.  Above all, he could not let it near the rift again, lest it grow even more powerful off of the horrible energies.  He planted his feet, locking eyes with the Wendigo.  He was not a fighter, and could only get so far on his wits.  Hopefully, it would be far enough, but he had no ideas so far.
The Wendigo did not give him time to think.  Snow was trampled under its clawed feet as it charged at Warren yet again.  As it approached, Warren ducked low, and caught it in the midsection with his shoulder.  Struck with the force of its own charge, the Wendigo’s breath escaped in a long, wheezing gasp.  Warren wrapped his arms around the monster’s waist, planting his feet and pushing back against the Wendigo’s weight.  When the Wendigo regained its breath, it roared and brought its claws down on Warren’s back.  The Wendigo was still stronger, but Warren had leverage.  They stood deceptively still, locked in a struggle in which neither was willing to give first.
The spectators, meanwhile, were growing sick of spectating.  They huddled in the cold, and an attempt at a plan began to form.
“We can’t just watch,” Abigail said tersely. “Warren’s losing!  We have to intervene, or he’ll die.”
“You’ll get no argument,” Daniel agreed, “but we can’t just throw haphazard attacks at that thing.  It’s too strong to risk wasting any power on it.  We need one solid, synchronized assault, something powerful enough to put Warren back on top of the game.”
“Got it,” Selena said after a moment’s thought. “Daniel, me and Evey will have to work together on this.  Full power, talismans, everything we’ve got.”
“What are we going to do?” Evelyn asked.
“You control water,” Selena answered, “moisture.  Daniel controls fire, heat.  I control air, and that’s where this is going to start.  We’re going to pile it all together in the clouds and drop a huge bloody bolt of lightning on that ugly thing.”
“You think we can pull it off?” Daniel asked uncertainly.
“Just follow my lead.  Arthur, be ready to warn Warren off.”
The three of them gathered together, each placing one hand in their midst, all joined together.  As one, they reached up and grasped the talismans of power.  The energy that jolted between them grew instantly.  As they concentrated together, the wind around them picked up, blowing the tops of the trees about wildly.  After only a moment, Selena raised her head to look to the sky, and opened her mouth.
Warren, Arthur called desperately into his friend’s mind, Get clear!  Now!
Whatever bestial influence may be on Warren’s mind, he understood the warning.  He raked his claws across the Wendigo’s back, causing it to rear back in surprise and pain. As it pulled away from him, Warren rolled off to the side, coming quickly to his feet to lope away.  Almost the second the two beast-men were separated, a long, echoing scream issued from Selena’s throat, crying out to the heavens.
The heavens replied, and thunder rolled through the dark grey clouds above them.  The Wendigo’s hair stood on end, a mere split second warning before a massive bolt of brilliant white lightning dropped from the clouds and caught the Wendigo dead on.  It was too bright to look on directly, and they were all forced to avert their eyes.  The accompanying thunder threw them from their feet and shook the needles from the pine trees around them.
When the thunder subsided, and the light dimmed, they looked up to see the Wendigo on its knees, its fur singed black or burned entirely away.  Its skin, too was horribly burned, and its breath came in a shallow rasp.  It struggled to rise, but could barely even stay on its knees.
Warren advanced on it with dire purpose.  The Wendigo stared up at him as he stood over it, defiant anger in its eyes even now.  Warren grabbed it by the jaw and pulled its head back.  His other hand was a blur as his claws slashed across the monster’s throat.  Black, tar-like blood flooded from the Wendigo’s throat, and it fell to the snow, its last breath a drowning gurgle.

And I will never touch this piece of shit story again.

November 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The House of the Grey Circle, Chapters 8, 9 and 10

February 7th, 1935
The Palais Garnier is a truly magnificent opera house.  It’s a shame I haven’t the time to properly enjoy its grandeur, or the fine productions on the stage within.  I do hope my next trip to Paris is not so mired in business, and that I might take the time to enjoy my surroundings a bit more.
A shame about Gaston.  I do wish I could have done more for him.  Hopefully, when I have a bit more freedom, I can return and uphold my end of the bargain.  For now, I shall have to trust his patience, and he shall have to trust my word.

Chapter 8
February 8th, 1935

They sat silently around the table, watching patiently.  All eyes were on Abigail.  She had in front of her a silver bowl, filled with water, and a straight pin with a round black head.  She closed her eyes for three seconds, forehead furrowed with concentration, and then opened them to stare into the water.  She allowed her eyes to lose focus, turning the water into a blur, as she reached for the pin.  The point pierced the skin of her hand, just below the palm, and blood welled in a small, bright red droplet.  Abigail held her hand over the bowl, and allowed three drops of blood to fall from her hand into the water.
The drops spread in the water like tiny red clouds, and Abigail, aided by long practice, focused on the clouded blood, without letting herself focus on the water itself.  She opened herself up, letting her own energy reach out and touch the rippling water.  When her mind touched it, a single ripple spread from the centre of the bowl out to the edge, and then constricted back to the centre.  The water became smooth and calm as glass, even as the blood danced and swirled under the surface.
An image began to form in the water, visible only to Abigail’s eyes.  It was slow to form, taking shape out of the writhing drops of red.  The foreground came first, a human silhouette.  It gradually became more distinct, beginning to take on colours foreign other than that of the blood and the bowl.  The figure was recogniseable, a slim, dark-haired man with silver-rimmed spectacles, but the background, wherever he was, was still an indistinct blur.
The image moved.  Malachi had been visible in profile, but now he turned and seemed to look Abigail directly in the eye.  Even as she wondered if he actually sensed her, the image suddenly became cloudy, as though someone had thrown dirt into the water.  Everything Abigail saw became dark and obscure, and the vision faded away.
Abigail looked up from the bowl at her friends sitting around the table.  Her surprise must have been obvious, judging from the reactions on their own faces.
“What happened?” Selena asked.
“He’s shielded,” Abigail said, “I barely even got to see him before something cut me off.”
“It looks like scrying him out won’t be an option then,” Daniel concluded.
“It seems not,” Abigail agreed. “Maybe if I were more skilled…”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Evelyn chided, “we’re all in the same boat there.  We do what we can with what we’ve got.”
“What we’ve got is an opera house in Paris,” Arthur interjected, “an no idea why it’s important.”
“We didn’t know what was important about Ben Mac Dhui,” Daniel pointed out, “or the woods yesterday.”
“We have one lead,” Evelyn said, “that Gaston fellow.  If we can find him, I imagine we’ll get some sort of answers.”
“At least we won’t have to sleep anywhere odd this time,” Selena added. “We can make this one a day trip, leave tomorrow morning and be back by evening.”
“I’ll head back into town then, shall I?” Arthur vaguely rolled his eyes.
“Be sure to rest well,” Abigail admonished, “we needn’t meet at the airport until at least ten.”

Chapter 9
February 9th, 1935

The Palais Garnier, while not as old as it was designed to look, was easily as opulent as any theatre in Europe.  Its façade was all white marble and pillars, and within was a dazzling palace of whites and golds.  A massive stair led from the front lobby, branching out in two directions twenty feet up.  Its banquet halls and ballrooms were the very height of luxury, and the stunning auditorium was equal to the most extravagant productions.
All of this was largely irrelevant to the six young English visitors who stepped through the front doors of the Grand Palais that afternoon.  Guests were unexpected.  There was nothing going on now but rehearsals and stage preparations.  They were greeted at the main stair by a small, slightly nervous-looking man whose pointed features were exaggerated by his thin goatee and even thinner hair.  He offered them a slight bow and a reserved, practiced smile that looked ready to turn sour should these young patrons prove unworthy of his time.
“Bonjour, mes dammes et monsieurs,” he greeted them, ignoring or oblivious to their quiet conversation in English, “bienvenu au Palais Garnier.  Comment est-ce que je peux t’aider?”
“Good day,” Arthur replied, his voice taking that odd tone again, “you speak English, I assume.”
“Yes, of course,” the reserved smile faltered as the man’s voice dulled somewhat.  His accent was thinned by long practice. “Welcome to the Grand Palais.  How may I assist?”
“We’d like a tour,” Arthur kept his gaze steady on the smaller man, “please.”
“A tour,” the frenchman blinked, and then the confusion faded from his face, “of course.  A tour.  I would be delighted to oblige.  I am Monsieur DuPuis, m’aitre d’hospitalité.  And how may I address our fine young guests?”
“That’s not important,” Arthur assured him.
“Of course it isn’t,” DuPuis didn’t skip a beat, even as his voice briefly took that dull tone again. “If you will follow me, it will be my honour to show you the grandeur of our house.”
“I don’t like it when you do that,” Abigail whispered to Arthur as they followed DuPuis.
“Lighten up, Abby,” Arthur replied. “It’s not as if I was controlling him.  I just made a few suggestions is all.”
“Your suggestions are all too difficult to refuse.”
“Would you rather this take longer?  Let’s just keep our eyes open.”
They pretended to listen to DuPuis as he prattled on enthusiastically about the construction of the Palais, its short but grand history as a host of some of the finest operas in Europe, and its reputation among the upper classes the world over.  He showed them the many-chandeliered banquet halls, the cavernous ballroom, and finally the huge auditorium, with a stage that could support an invading army.  As DuPuis droned on, his less-than-rapt audience kept their myriad senses alert for anything out of the ordinary.
Just as they were leaving the auditorium, Warren stopped short, a look of surprised satisfaction on his face.  The others noticed, and watched him as he slowly turned his head to look in the direction of the stage.  To the side of the stage, in front of one of the cleverly camouflaged backstage doors, stood a man perhaps in his mid twenties.  He was dressed in the sort of clothing their grandparents might have worn when they were young.  Certainly not anything that any fashion conscious twentieth-century man of society would wear.
“One of the actors, perhaps?” Selena suggested without sounding convinced.  Warren shook his head.
“I don’t feel a mind there,” Arthur noted, “another illusion?”
“He’s no illusion,” Warren corrected, “he’s an apparition.”
“A ghost?” Abigail verified.
Warren nodded. “Quite dead.”
“Who wants to wager that our deceased friend answers to Gaston?” Arthur mused.
“Why don’t we find out?” Selena suggested. “He’s looking right at us.  We might as well say hello.”
“Arthur, can you keep DuPuis occupied?” Abigail asked.
“I might not have to,” Arthur said. “He hasn’t even noticed that we’re having our own conversation.
Indeed, M. DuPuis was still prattling on about the craftsmanship of the wall sconces.  He wouldn’t keep on under his own power indefinitely though.  That sort of mind control was rather taboo.  If they left him alone, he would eventually notice.  Arthur took a few slow breaths, centring himself and drawing up what power he would need, and then he tapped DuPuis on the shoulder.
“I don’t mean to alarm you,” he said when DuPuis turned, looking him straight in the eye, “but I’ve just heard that someone has vomited in the foyer.”
DuPuis hesitated, expressionless for a moment while Arthur’s words slipped past his rational mind and snuck into his subconscious.  Then his eyes grew wide as the shocking news finally registered.  He half-turned, looking quite agitated.
“I must beg your pardon, Mes Dammes et Monsieurs,” he said quickly, “there is something terribly urgent that I must address.  If you will follow me, I will show you out.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Arthur said smoothly, “we can find our own way out.  You gave us a tour after all.  You do what you need to do.”
“Yes,” DuPuis said dully, “you’ll be all right I think.  Turn left to reach the foyer, but be careful, there is a terrible mess there.”
Without another word, DuPuis turned and hurried out of the theatre, leaving them alone.  Mostly alone.  They descended toward the stage.  The apparition disappeared as they approached, fading into the backstage door.  They paused a moment at the door, pondering the legality of their actions, and then pulled it open and slipped behind the stage.
Whatever preparations were being made for tonight’s production, they apparently didn’t require the use of this portion of the backstage area.  The sound of workmen could be heard not terribly far away, but there was no one in sight.  What they saw were bare walls and a hard wood floor.  The stage itself was to their right, separated by an unfinished wall of wood and plaster.  This was all that kept them out of sight of the workmen possibly just around the corner.
The ghost faded back into sight, staring at them without expression.  Then it faded away again, this time vanishing directly into the wall between them and the stage.
“So much for saying hello,” Daniel murmured.
“He hasn’t gone far,” Warren whispered, “he’s still waiting.”
“Hold on a moment,” Abigail pondered quietly.  She advanced quietly on the spot at which the ghost had disappeared, and examined the wall.  After a second, he knelt, and her hand disappeared about two inches into the wall.  There was a click, followed by a low creak and, without pausing, Abigail crawled through the small recessed door she had just opened and under the stage.  Moving as quickly as they could without making too much noise, the others followed.
It was cramped and dusty under the stage.  Various and sundry props and set pieces were shoved against the walls, enough of them to crowd the limited space available.  The ceiling was low, forcing many of them to stoop to avoid hitting their heads; Warren nearly had to bend double just to walk.  Nearby, the sound of the workers was still audible.  There were at least two beneath the stage as well, and it was mch quieter down here.
The apparition was waiting near the far wall.  More accurately, near an abandoned piece of painted scenery against the wall.  After he had certainly caught their attention, he faded again, back into the set piece.  With a communal shrug, they followed.
The bit of landscape was not right against the wall, it was about two feet out from it.  It was entirely too dark to see what was behind it, so Evelyn, being the smallest of them, slipped into the cramped space, nearly vanishing from sight herself.  A moment later her hand stuck out into the open and beckoned the others to follow.  They too slipped; or in Warren’s case squeezed; in behind the set piece and found what Evelyn had discovered: an old, probably forgotten door, which thankfully opened inward.
They were equally thankful when the door closed quietly behind them.  The corridor on the other side was so dark that they couldn’t even see each other, nevermind where they were going.
“Daniel?” Abigail hinted.
She needn’t have bothered.  Even as she spoke she heard Daniel’s voice whispering briefly in latin, and a small ball of intense flame sprung up in his hand.  It was bright enough to light the passage for few feet on either side of them.  It was quite narrow, no more than five feet across.  The walls were made of bare drywall and wooden beams, and the floor was rough stone.  Daniel’s face betrayed effort, but he started walking, taking the lead.
The floor sloped downward at an easy angle for the first hundred feet or so, and then levelled off.  The passage itself wound around several corners, to the point that they were quickly grateful that they hadn’t seen any divergent paths to confuse them, now or when they were returning.  They walked through the twisting tunnel for roughly five minutes, before it finally branched off in three directions.  In one direction they could see a vague white light.  They followed it, and soon found themselves in a low ceilinged, but quite large room.  Large enough, at least, that the light of Daniel’s fire failed to show them its entirety.
“There are candles on a table ahead of you,” an unseen voice called from somewhere in the room.  It had a light French accent, and sounded oddly distant, like it was coming from back down the tunnel, though it was clearly in their presence.
Daniel walked forward, and the table came into view.  There were indeed several candles on the table, about a dozen in all, ranging from long, unused tapers to thick, squat candles that had seen hours of use.  Daniel passed his hand over the table and whispered again.  Concentrating on new magic broke his hold on what he had already cast, and the ball of fire in his hand flickered and died.  The room was pitch black for what felt like a rather long second, and then the candles sprung suddenly to life.  Daniel took a moment to take a pair of candles to each side of the room, until it was as decently illuminated as it was going to be.
The room was quite bare.  It held only the table at its centre, and a battered, ancient wooden chair.  The candled flickered on the stone floor.  The only difference here was that the wall on the far end of the room was red brick, instead of the stone and earth that the tunnel had eventually become.  A portion of the brick near the middle of the wall was a bit off-colour from the rest.  Standing in that spot, visible the moment Daniel put the candle down and not a second sooner, was the ghostly figure they had been following.
Daniel stifled the urge to jump at finding himself face to face with a ghost, and crossed the room as casually as he could to rejoin his reassuringly alive friends.  The ghost stared at them quietly, with an expectant look to him that suggested that he was waiting for them to speak first.  Warren, who had been looking in that direction even before the candles were lit, spoke:
“You are Gaston?”
The ghost nodded. “I am.  You are friends of Malachi?”
“We are,” Warren affirmed. “We’re looking for him.”
Gaston looked momentarily wary. “He didn’t sent you?”
“Not directly,” Evelyn answered this time. “We’re following his path. We haven’t seen him in more than a year.”
Now Gaston’s face fell. “So you’re not here to free me.”
“That wasn’t our intended purpose,” Abigail said, “but that doesn’t mean that we won’t.  Do you mind if we ask you some questions first, before we discuss that?”
“I don’t see why not,” Gaston shrugged, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Why are you here?” Daniel interjected. “What’s keeping you here?”
“I am here because I died badly enough to prevent me from simply moving on,” Gaston said with a hollow sigh, “and I am kept here by the fact that I’ve never been taken anywhere else.”
“What do you mean?” Selena asked.
“My body,” Gaston explained, “Is behind those bricks.  You see where they look different?  That is where they were removed so new ones could be put in place once I was behind them.”
“You were murdered,” Abigail concluded.
“Most astute.  Yes, I was murdered.  Left to starve or suffocate; whichever came first; by a rival for the affections of my fiancée.  It was an ending right out of the books of that miserable bastard, Monsieur Poe.”
“And,” Arthur continued for him, “if I’m following correctly, your remains need to be taken from here for you to be free.”
“Oui,” the ghost nodded. “I do not suppose I will be able to return to my maker until I am given a proper Catholic burial.  I suspect that even now the authorities would do it willingly, but no one know I’m here.  I’m not a very noisy ghost.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” Abigail said, her eyes betraying the sympathy her voice did not, “but first, how did you come to speak to Malachi?”
“Curiously, he sought me out.  I’ve never had a visitor before, and I certainly didn’t expect any.  Like I said, no one even knows about me.”
“What did he want?” Abigail asked.  Gaston paused a moment before he answered, as though calling up a memory.
“This tunnel connects to the catacombs under the city.  Deeper within, there is a single chamber, only bare stone but for a single plinth holding a stone tablet.  Your friend sought the tablet.  I can only assume he took it, as he asked to be alone.  He claimed he could find his way back on his own.”
“What’s on this tablet?” Daniel asked.
“Nothing I could decipher,” Gaston shrugged. “Old scribbles in some heathen language, some crude pictures.  I never cared to examine it very closely.”
“Can you take us to it?” Evelyn asked.
“I suppose,” Gaston said with a melodramatic sigh. “I haven’t got anything better to do.”
He led them back down the passage, his own form providing enough eerie light for them to see where they were going.  When they reached the fork in the tunnel, they took the side tunnel farthest from the one they had just exited.  This tunnel was much more serpentine, and branched off several times into small side tunnels.  Were it not for their spectral guide, they would have surely gotten lost.  Finally, the tunnel opened into the chamber Gaston spoke of.
It appeared to be a natural chamber.  The walls and floor were the same smooth, rounded stone, and bore the many irregularities of something not carved by human hands.  The room was indeed bare, save for a pedestal on its far side.  That, at least, was clearly manmade.  It appeared to be made entirely of gold, or something that looked like gold.  It was quite dusty, save for its top, where the aforementioned tablet had certainly rested.
“As you can see,” Gaston said, “he has taken it.  Just as I suggested.”
“We ought to give the pedestal a closer look,” Daniel suggested, “if it has any markings, they may give us some clue of the tablet’s origin or purpose.”
Gaston shrugged and walked closer to the plinth, so that his light would more clearly illuminate it.  They all gathered around to examine the golden stand.  It was largely unmarked, smooth gold, save for a symbol carved into the top.  The symbol comprised a set of thirteen concentric circles, about which were scattered small dots, in no apparent pattern.  Daniel pulled paper and charcoal out of his satchel once again and proceeded to capture the image.  None of them fancied trying to sneak a heavy gold pedestal out of the theatre.
Once Daniel was finished, he straightened and nodded.  For a long minute, they all looked at each other silently, save for Arthur, who stared off into space looking somewhat catatonic.  After a minute, Arthur seemed to snap back to reality, and Abigail turned to Gaston.
“Shall we?”
They returned through the passage to the room in which they had met Gaston.  Once there, they crossed immediately to the brick wall.  Gaston stood nearby in quiet confusion over their own silence as they acted.  Evelyn pulled her crystal pendant from beneath her blouse and held it in her hands, whispering softly as she stared at the odd spot on the wall.  Gradually, the mortar between the bricks grew dark with damp, as tiny rivulets of water ran through all over the odd spot.  This continued for a few minutes, and the water gradually began to take bits of the mortar with it.
Finally, Evelyn ceased her whispers and stowed her pendant, nodding to Warren.  The large man took a running start, and kicked the wall hard.  There was a groan and a few bricks shuddered loose.  Warren kicked it again, and the whole section of wall tumbled apart like the bricks weren’t held together at all.  As the bricks fell away, they revealed a quite dessicated corpse; remarkably preserved by the dry air; dressed in an equally ancient version of the suit Gaston wore now and tied about the arms and legs with badly degenerated rope.
Once the body was exposed, they all turned to leave the room.  With a panicked expression, Gaston put himself between them and the doorway.
“Is that all you’ll do?  Break down the wall so I must stare at the thing that traps me?”
“Calm down,” Abigail said firmly. “We can’t very well just walk out of the theatre with a mummified corpse, now can we?  That would raise all sorts of questions, and we haven’t the time to wait around providing the answers, nor the inclination to make them up.”
“And how does breaking the wall and leaving me here help?” Gaston asked with barely-repressed anxiety.
“Relax,” Arthur told him, “we have a plan.  You’ll be out of here by week’s end.”
Reluctantly, Gaston stood aside, and they walked out of the room.  A few seconds later, there was a flare as Daniel relit his fire.  Eventually, that faint light disappeared from Gaston’s view.

They managed to sneak out from under the stage without being noticed, and even managed to get out of the theatre before they were spotted by DuPuis.  He walked quickly up to them, looking quite flustered and a little annoyed.
“I was under the impression that you had left some time ago,” he said, a small hint of accusation in his voice.  Naturally, it was Arthur who answered, with that odd persuasive quality to his voice.
“We took a wrong turn, and managed to get ourselves lost.  We only just made it back to where we started.”
The explanation was, of course, ridiculous.  Big as the Palais Garnier was, one couldn’t get lost for an hour in its corridors.  DuPuis, however, nodded with a sympathetic smile.
“I apologise, my young friends.  I should not have left you alone.  Come, I will show you the way out this time.”
They followed DuPuis as he chattered about the curious circumstances of his prior disappearance.  Apparently there had been no mess in the foyer after all.  He couldn’t imagine why anyone would lie to him like that.  If he ever found…whoever it was who had spun the tale, the consequences would be dire indeed.  One smug corner of Arthur’s mouth turned up slightly.
When finally they reached the foyer, DuPuis offered a small bow and began to turn away.  Arthur stopped him with a touch on the shoulder and looked him in the eye one more time.
“When we got back to the theatre, we heard the workers talking.  They’ve found an old door under the stage that goes underground, and one of them is sure he saw something down there.  The left hand tunnel.”
DuPuis nodded vaguely and turned away, walking off toward the theatre with a vaguely dreamlike look about him, like he had just woken up.  His former charges turned and walked out into the chill February evening.
“You’ve probably done terrible things to that poor man’s brain,” Abigail admonished Arthur.
“I didn’t hear any better ideas,” Arthur shrugged. “And speaking of breaking brains, let’s try and keep things like that little conference we had down there to a minimum.  I have the worst headache now.”
“Quit whining,” Warren growled with a small smirk.

Chapter 10
February 11th, 1935
Daniel was seated alone at the stone table, going over the materials he had collected in Scotland, Romania and Paris, examining everything and carefully noting any correlations he observed.  Abigail stopped behind him, looking over his shoulder for a moment, before she sat down in the chair next to him.  He kept working quietly for a moment before he spoke.
“Something’s been bothering me about Romania.”
“You mean aside from the entire experience?” Abigail joked half-heartedly.
“You’re hilarious,” Daniel deadpanned. “I’m being serious.”
“All right, all right.  So what is it?”
“The cave wall, where the bit of the mural was missing.  Did you notice anything odd about it?”
“No,” Abigail said, “but you got a closer look.”
“I did.  It wasn’t worn away or anything.  I looked kind of like it had been smashed.”
“I’m not sure I’m following.  It’s obviously old.  Someone smashed it.  What’s odd?”
“The way it was smashed,” Daniel explained. “It was too precise, you know?  It looked like someone carefully chiselled away that particular spot, so it would be obscured.”
“That sounds like an awful lot of work,” Abigail observed.
“Not to someone with even a basic grasp of Geomancy.  Crumbling stone is one of the easiest things to learn.  Care to guess who told me that?”
Abigail was quiet for a moment. “Malachi.”
“Right, and why did he know that?”
“Because the last time we saw him, he had a bit more than a basic grasp of Geomancy.”
“Right,” Daniel said. “It was never his speciality or anything, but he certainly knew enough to pull off that little trick.”
“You’re saying he destroyed the mural,” Abigail concluded.  “So that we wouldn’t see it?”
“I can’t think of another reason.  It’s safe to assume he left the journal here on purpose, so he knows we’re following him.  He expected us to go into that cave.”
“Why would he give us the means to follow him, and then try to hide a part of his trail?”
Daniel shrugged. “For whatever reason, he doesn’t want us to know everything he know.  I don’t expect we’ll figure out why until he tells us.”
They heard the library door open, and low voices as the others chatted amongst themselves as they approached.  Daniel gave Abigail a meaningful look.
“Let’s keep this between us for now, okay?”
Abigail nodded, and looked up as their friends came around the stacks and descended the short stair to the common.  Abigail stood and walked around the table to her family’s place, and the others took up their own predesignated positions.  They had never discussed why they held to that particular tradition.  After they were all settled, they looked expectantly at Abigail.  As before, she took up the journal and opened it to the newest entry.

February 11th, 1935
Very few people know the recent history of Peak Cavern.  Of those who do know, fewer still are willing to speak of it.  The unexplained disappearance of the troglodytes and criminals who once occupied it has left the cavern apparently empty.  Just another impressive hole in the ground, as far as anyone is aware.  The truth, of course, is far more disturbing.
The explored sections of the cavern, safe and accessible to the public as far as the Inner Styx, are indeed empty.  Peak Cavern however, is far deeper than any modern explorer knows.  Once you pass the Five Arches, it is neither empty nor safe.  A cult has taken residence in the deeper caves, a group of degenerates and fanatics such as I have never before encountered.  They are flagellants, indoctrinated into the belief that their pain serves some vaguely defined “greater purpose”.
Acolytes have clearly been chosen for their weak wills and suggestible nature.  They have most likely been culled from the downtrodden, such as the lower classes and they very outcasts and criminals that once populated the Cavern, in whom desperation has replaced the sense of entitlement to which the more privileged are accustomed.  They are weak in every sense of the word, but they are numerous.  There are easily a hundred disciples, perhaps more.  I did not have time to count.
They follow a man who calls himself Cardinal Sin, a wholly repugnant and evil individual.  I had precious little time to observe him, but I believe I know his true nature.  He draws power from the pain of his followers, especially those most devoted who are “privileged” with receiving their agony at the Cardinal’s hands.  This suffering is served to fuel the “miracles” which serve as validation for the devotion of the cultists.  In short, Cardinal Sin is a practitioner of the worst sort of Black Magic, and a nauseatingly successful one at that.  In the depths of Peak Cavern he has no rivals, no challengers, and a source of nearly inexhaustible power.  He has taken damaged, miserable people and broken them further, leaving them utterly incapable of resisting him.
I cannot bring him down alone, and I haven’t the time to wait for assistance.  He must be stopped, but one young magician hasn’t the power to do it.  In fact, I barely made it out alive.  If his hidden existence within the cavern is revealed, it can be hoped that someone with the strength to end Cardinal Sin’s despicable reign will take heed and will venture into his dangerous private world and bring him his due judgment.

After Abigail set down the book, they looked nervously one to the other.  Unpleasant images were running through their heads.
“You know he meant us,” Arthur said, “with that last bit I mean.”
“It’s only safe to assume,” Selena agreed.
“Are we going to do it?” Arthur asked, looking at Abigail.
“Not my decision,” Abigail said, “but I think we should.  We need to know what he was doing there anyway.”
“Agreed,” Daniel replied.  Warren nodded along with him.
Evelyn’s face was dark with anger; a most uncommon expression for her; and her voice was carefully quiet when she spoke: “We go.”
Selena looked somewhat askance at Evelyn, and then slowly nodded.  Everyone looked to Arthur, who carefully avoided meeting Evelyn’s gaze.  He was feeling enough of her anger as it was without amplifying it with eye contact.  He nonchalance, unconvincingly.
“I guess we’re going then.  It’s not too late in the day, we should be able to get to Peak Cavern before they close it off to tourists.”

Peak Cavern was just a few hours’ drive north of the manor.  Evening was coming on by the time the cars pulled into the tourist lot.  They had spent a few minutes before they left discussing how they could get past the tour guides and into the restricted parts of the Cavern.  This time, Arthur had advised against using his method.
“It’s not as effective against everyone,” he had explained. “DuPuis was weak-willed and a bit stupid, so he was easy to manipulate.  We can’t rely on everyone we deal with being like that.  I can be persuasive, sure, but I can’t fog up every mind we need to overcome.”
The conversation hadn’t been concluded by the time they had split up into two cars, but when they got out at the cavern, Abigail had a look of resolute satisfaction on her face.
“Arthur,” she said, “we’ll need you to be persuasive after all.  At the very least, you can make it smoother.”
“And if that isn’t enough?” Arthur asked.
“It doesn’t need to be.  You’re just the insurance.  We’ll persuade them the old fashioned way.”
The ticket booth was just outside the entrance to the cavern itself.  It was a somewhat rickety looking wooden shack that was probably not heated nearly well enough for the season.  It was also dark, and clearly abandoned.  There was a wooden sign hung over the shuttered front window that read “Closed for the season”.  They stared at it for a moment.  Arthur scratched his beard.
“So,” he said, “any idea why we didn’t think of this?”
“We’re clearly not very bright,” Daniel replied sullenly.
“I don’t see how this is an issue,” Abigail pointed out. “In the worst case scenario, we deal with security instead of admissions.  The plan remains essentially the same.”
“I haven’t met many weak-willed security guards,” Arthur warned.
“We can work around that,” Abigail assured him, “trust me.  You know what to do.”
The management was apparently not terribly concerned about anyone trying to get into a remote cavern in the dead of winter.  Security consisted of a chain-link gate at the entrance of the cave, and a lone guard in a shack much like the abandoned ticket office, dressed heavily to ward off the cold.  He was a young man, of ginger countenance, looking quite bored and miserable.  His expression changed to one of startled surprise when he saw six people approaching him.  Arthur walked in front, a cheerful smile on his face.
“Hello there!” He called as he came close to the alarmed guard. “Maybe you can help us out. You see, we came out here for the tour and, well, it obviously didn’t occur to us that the place might be closed off in the winter.  But now we’ve come all this way, it would be a terrible thing for us to just turn around and leave.  You think maybe we could just have a quick look around?”
“The Cavern is closed,” the guard said warily, “for your safety.  I don’t even have a key.  I couldn’t let you in if I wanted to.”
“You don’t have to let us in,” Arthur’s voice grew steadier as he placed his hand on the edge of the guard’s window, “you just have to take a break for a little while.”
The guard looked down at Arthur’s hand.  When Arthur pulled it away from the ledge, it left a hundred pound note behind.  The guard boggled at the note, then looked up at Arthur, who stared steadily into his eyes.
“We won’t be long,” Arthur said reassuringly.
The guard took the hundred pounds from the ledge and, in a bit of a daze, stepped out of the shack and walked off through the snow.  When he was out of sight, they moved onto the gate.  It was held shut by a simple padlock.  Warren gave it a quick, firm tug as a test, and it held firm.  He stepped back and Daniel came forward.  He held his hand over the lock and spoke quietly, concentrating.  Everyone could feel the heat as the lock took on a bright red glow.
After a few moments, the loop on the top of the lock grew too soft to hold the padlock’s weight, and the lock fell off.  There was a wet hiss as the red hot metal hit the snow.  Warren pushed open the gate and they ventured into the cavern.
It was fortunate that they had brought torches, as the cavern was utterly dark in the off season.  This was a proper cave, not like the mostly manmade tunnels in Paris.  The air was damp, as were the walls where water seeped through cracks.  Stalactites and stalagmites cropped up randomly around them, and the walls curved and twisted with no apparent logic.  For a while, all they had to do was follow the obvious path left for the tour guides.  Eventually though, they found themselves at the limit of publicly accessible regions, and the unfamiliar cavern stretches off into darkness.
They paused, letting the electric light of their torches play as far as they could.  There were multiple passages that they could take, and no indicator than any one was more viable than the other.  Doubtless many of the tunnels and alcoves in this cavern led to dead ends or dead drops, and they didn’t have enough light to take many risks.
“Lights off,” Warren said, his voice echoing dully off of the stone around them.  The others gathered behind them, and the two torches switched off, leaving them in utter darkness.  Warren, blind as any of the others, knelt on the cave’s stone floor.  Closing his eyes, he placed the tips of his fingers on the damp wall beside him, and put his other hand flat on the ground.  Though they could not see him, the sound of Warren’s tuneless humming reached the others’ ears, quiet though it was.
The quiet pseudomonotone continued uninterrupted for five minutes.  When it finally stopped, the silence itself was cavernous.  After a moment, they heard the soft scraping shuffle as Warren stood.
“Lights on,” his voice was distant, sounding much like Arthur’s did when he manipulated a mind.  The torches flickered back to life, and Warren stood before them, looking strangely calm, and slightly disconnected.
“The spirits here are angered,” he said, “they will lead us to Sin, and in return they expect us to take him and his fanatics from this place.  His magic offends those that rightfully dwell here as surely as it offends us.”
With that last word Warren looked meaningfully at Evelyn.  She had been quieter than normal since they left the manor, and her face was drawn and severe, looking haunted in the dim light.  Warren turned and pointed down a barely visible tunnel. “This way.”
With Warren in the lead they walked steadily as he followed the voices of the spirits in the cavern.  The tunnels wound into a dizzying maze, and frequently sloped downward, taking them ever deeper into the earth.  They followed Warren for an hour, by that point wondering just how far from open air they had come.
They came across a side passage that offered its own meager light.  The flickering orange illumination that staggered from beyond their sight spoke of fire, something that had no place in an empty cave.  Warren nodded an affirmation they did not need, and they started down the tunnel.
The light, it turned out, came from torches set into rudimentary sconces in the walls.  They were spaced ten feet apart, alternating from one wall to the other.  They offered little light, but it was enough to walk by, and so they chose to save the power in their torches for their departure.  They did not speak as they crept through the tunnel, fearing they might be discovered before they found their mark.  Even their breathing seemed too loud, to their ears.
After several more minutes, they saw an opening ahead.  From their current distance, they could see greater light flickering beyond that opening. As they drew closer, they could hear a dull hum of dozens of muttering human voices.  They stopped a moment, and Daniel opened his satchel.  Warren, Arthur and Abigail withdrew pistols from the bag.  After a moment to ensure that the guns were loaded, they continued on.
The tunnel opened into the top of a massive cave chamber, stretching out before and below them.  A sloping path to their left led to the cave floor, thirty feet below.  The cave was nearly filled with people.  Surely a hundred, as Malachi had written, they were clad in tattered robes like filthy monks.  The knelt in rows before a raised stage on which their celebrant stood.  His own robe was dirty and torn, but not the threadbare brown cloth of his followers.  He wore deep red.  His hair was shaved to a dark fuzz atop his head, contrary to his beard, which was overgrown and stretched down nearly to his chest.  His eyes were glittering black pools, and his mouth was twisted into a cruel grimace as he looked down on his flock.
Behind him, seven naked human forms were bound to the wall.  They hung in rusty manacles, exhausted by pain and starvation.  Their eyes were covered with blindfolds, and their necks were bound with metal collars attached to chains that stretched to the ceiling.  From their angle, the magicians of the House could see the pulleys those chains fed into, and the two chains that came out the other side, leading down to the stage on either side of the celebrant, who must surely be Cardinal sin.
They followers’ chant was muddled by their number, and their likely exhaustion, but it quickly became plain what they were repeating over and over:
“Agony is ecstasy, pain will free me.”
A simplistic refrain, but repeated endlessly, with a fervour only a mob could generate.  It was enough to chill the bones.  Daniel shuddered. Selena barely managed to contain a gasp.  Evelyn remained perfectly still, staring directly at the self-proclaimed Cardinal.  Her face was completely without expression, but her eyes danced in the light of the countless torches on the walls.  There was something there none of them had ever seen.
Before they could even consider a plan, the Cardinal suddenly looked up at them, his eyes sweeping across them and taking them in.  The smile that spread across his gaunt face was no less cruel than the grimace that had preceded it.  He offered a raspy chuckle.
“This is what he sends?  I should have known a child would only call on more children.  You’re out of your depth here, magelings.  I can feel your power, and it is wanting.  But if you can make it back to the cavern before my disciples reach you, I might just let you leave alive.”
They were silent.  Arthur and Warren raised their pistols.  Daniel raised his hand, and began to gather his power.  Sin merely laughed again, louder and more horribly.
“Your courage is commendable children,” he called mockingly, “but I’ll tell you what I told your doomed friend: This isn’t your world, it’s mine.  Up there, you’d never know me, but down here, I’m Cardinal Sin.  I’m your worst nightmare made flesh, and down here, I am God!”
With his last word, Sin grabbed the two chains and yanked down on them hard.  The chains attached to the throats along the back wall yanked upward with even greater force, pulling the prisoners viciously to their feet.  The sickening cracks were audible even from the ledge, and rivers of blood gushed from beneath the collars, which must have been spiked on the inside.  The bodies, all surely dying if not already dead, slumped back down in their chains even as the Cardinal raised his hands, cackling.  The air around him began to darken.  His followers stood and began to advance on the slope, bearing slowly down on the six young wizards.
Sin’s cackle had become an indecipherable chant, and shadows began to swirl around him.  Arthur fired a shot, but it reflected harmlessly off of the shaded air around the Cardinal.  Warren dropped to his knees again, touching the earth and closing his eyes.  An inky black thing shot from the air around Sin, narrowly missing Selena as she ducked to the side.  The disciples, three abreast, began their trudging march up the slope.
“We need to break his concentration,” Selena shouted over Sin’s howl.
“I think I can do that,” Daniel called back.
“I can help with that,” Warren added, “what do we do after that?”
“Leave that to me,” Evelyn’s voice cut through the noise like a blade of ice. “Selena, get me down there.”
They all hesitated at the cold anger now almost radiating off of the normally mile Evelyn.  Her hard stare had not left Sin since they entered the cave.  After a moment, Selena nodded, with the same caution as when she had cast her vote earlier that day.  Arthur and Abigail stood side by side at the top of the slope, their pistols trained on the advancing cultists.  There were too many of them to take down, but if enough fell perhaps they would be discouraged.  Neither of them looked as though they believed that.  They held their fire, waiting until they had no other choice.
Selena’s rose in a clear wordless note, ringing across the cavern, and the air around them began to stir.  In a few moments, a small cyclone began to take shape on the cave floor below, dust raised from the earth giving it definition.  As Selena held the note, it grew, until it reached halfway to the ledge.  Even as Selena’s voice sounded like it might tire, Evelyn stepped from the edge, plummeting straight into the miniature whirlwind.  Her fall slowed when she hit the spinning cushion of air, and by the time Selena’s voice finally gave out, she Evelyn was close enough to the ground that the fall would do her no harm.  The cultists, it seemed, failed to notice her descent.  Sin turned his eyes to her, his eyes glittering with malice as he leveled a finger on her and prepared to unleash some torment.
Warren had begun a low chant even as Selena had begun her wind song, and allowed it to grow in volume, so that when Daniel cried out in latin, their voices seemed to merge in the air as two waves of invisible power coalesced in the air.  A burst of flame the size of a man erupted into being in the air mere feet from Sin’s position.  Rather than die out, as it ought to have, it burned only brighter, warping its shape into a vaguely humanoid form.  As Daniel’s voice died, Warren’s chant continued.  The spirit of fire rushed hungrily at Sin, wrapping its fiery arms around his dark shield.
Sin cried out in surprise, and threw up his arms reflexively to ward off the spirit.  It couldn’t have broken through the shield on its own, but the shock of its approach must have rattled Sin’s nerves as they had hoped it would.  The man made of fire exploded in a cacophony of fire and shadow as it sacrificed its own existence to overcome Sin’s defense.
When everyone’s vision cleared, and Sin lowered his arms, Evelyn was standing before him.  He raised his hands again, his mouth opening to unleash some spell, but Evelyn’s hand shot out and grasped his face, ever so gently.  A shuddering gasp was all that escaped the Cardinal’s lips as he went quite still, his eyes wide with horrified surprise.  As she held him in a fragile grip from which he could not break free, Evelyn leaned in and spoke to him softly.
“The great misconception about healers,” she said coldly, “is that all we can do is heal.  A strange myth, as we all know magic is never so arbitrary.  No, our magic governs the state of the living body in a much more general sense.  It is the magic of change.  Healers, like me, use that change to mend what is broken, but we are not so limited.  Do you see?  The same power that heals is the power to kill.”
Sin’s face had drained of all colour. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead as his face grew more gaunt.  His veins stood out and his eyes sunk visibly into bruised sockets.  His lips moved helplessly, as he couldn’t even gasp anymore.  His hands hung limply at his sides, and it seemed his legs only held him up because Evelyn held him near.  The others stared in utter shock as their friend slowly sucked the life out of the Cardinal.
Finally, Evelyn let go, pushing him dismissively away.  Sin stumbled and fell back, sprawling helplessly on the ground.  Barely able to lift his head, he gaped silently up at Evelyn.  She stared down at him, her cold anger no warmer for the punishment she had just inflicted.
“I just took a piece of your life,” she told him. “Be grateful I haven’t the heart to take it all.”
The followers had grown still when the man they worshipped fell before a slip of a girl.  They lacked the will for outrage, fear and confusion the only options available to them. They backed away as the others came down the slope, parting for their conquerors as they joined their comrade.
“Evelyn…” Daniel couldn’t find any words.
“He’s still dangerous,” Evelyn said. “We shouldn’t let him leave alive.”
“Do we have the right to kill him?” Abigail asked uncertainly.
Sin coughed, catching their attention.  A small spark of the mad fire had returned to his eyes as he glared up at them.
“You’re stronger than I thought,” he wheezed, “I guess the little bastard had powerful friends after all.  Not that it’ll really help.  You can’t save him you know.”
“What do you mean?” Abigail asked, her voice hard.
Sin forced himself up onto one elbow. “He’s in deep.  I couldn’t tell you what he thinks he’s playing at, but he’s sure as hell not winning.  Wherever he’s been digging, he’s come up reeking of something even I wouldn’t mess with.  You get too close to him, he’ll bring you down with him.”
“Enough of the cryptic crap,” Daniel snarled. “Be clear.”
“Why should I?” Sin glared up at him. “You’ve left me right fucked here, I don’t see why I should give you anything.”
“Enough,” Evelyn said quietly. “We don’t have time for this.”
She reached out her hand toward the fallen black magician, and he shied away from it, trying to crawl back.  He didn’t have the strength to get away, not yet, but ultimately he didn’t need to.  Warren’s hand closed around Evelyn’s wrist before she could touch Sin.
“You don’t want to do that,” he whispered.
Evelyn stared at Warren for a long moment, her face blank but her eyes a war of emotions.
“Yes I do,” she finally said, pulling her arm away.  She turned and walked away from the Cardinal. “And that’s exactly why I can’t.”
There was a single passage off to one side of the stage.  Warren paused for a moment when the others looked to him, seeming to listen to nothing, and then nodded.  They stopped to check on the poor souls chained to the wall, and were not surprised to find them all dead.  Warren stayed where he was, staring at the throng of pathetic followers milling about in confusion.  Then he looked down at Sin, and his mouth drew into a grim line.  He leveled his pistol at Sin’s head, and fired.
The shot echoed through the silent cavern, ringing off the walls for several seconds.  The followers stared at him in mute shock.  They did not advance or attack.  These people had killed their messiah, surely his humble disciples would be no threat.  Warren left the corpse where it was and joined his friends at the tunnel entrance, handing the pistol to Daniel.  He wiped his now empty hand on his trouser leg, as though the weapon had left a stain.
They were all staring at him, their faces carrying varying degrees of shock, except for Arthur who simply looked surprised, and Evelyn, whose face was a mixture of emotions and questions to which she could not find the words.
“Someone had to do it,” Warren said, deadpan. “Don’t worry, I didn’t enjoy it.”
He walked on into the dark tunnel, expecting the others to follow.  After a few steps, the light of the electric torches came on again, and they walked together in silence.  Before too long, they found themselves in another fairly sizeable chamber.  This one was bare, save for the far wall.  As their lights played over it, they found a tableau not terribly different from what that had seen in Baba Yaga’s woods.
It wasn’t identical.  The carved figures were more elaborate, for one thing, resembling hieroglyphs rather than cave drawings.  They were still bend in supplication, and this time the image hadn’t been damaged.  The young magicians could see the being that was the subject of worship.  The image depicted it rising out of a body of water.  The majority of it was a long, serpentine body, which did not seem to end with a head.  Instead it looked like a toothy sucker, like that of a leech, ringed with thin, reaching pseudopodia.  If the creature and its worshippers were to scale, then the thing was easily taller than a fairly tall building.  Coming out of the water on either side of it were what appeared to be seven tentacles, roughly half the main body’s length.  Each tentacle was covered in suckers, like an octopus, and each had what looked like a human face at the centre of its length.
Something about the image, carved in such great detail into the wall, was deeply unsettling.  Perhaps it was the very alien nature of its form.  Perhaps it was the worship that such a hideous thing seemed to inspire, much like the man the group had killed just minutes ago.  Or perhaps it was the terrifying notion that this creature might actually exist.
Above the image they saw the same emblem that had adorned the pedestal in the Paris catacombs.  Thirteen concentric rings, with a series of individual points scattered about them.  There was nothing else to offer any explanation of the symbol’s significance.
“It’s not the same,” Daniel murmured. “I can’t remember exactly, but the dots are definitely in different places on this one.”
“That’s too high up to take a rubbing,” Abigail said. “Do you think you can copy it down?”
“This’ll take a few minutes.” Daniel rummaged in the satchel and produced his pad of paper and a pencil.  He sat cross-legged before the mural, carefully reproducing the thirteen circles.  With painstaking care, he recreated, point for point, the pattern depicted on the wall.  Five minutes later, he finally stowed his pad and pencil.
“Let’s get out of here,” Arthur suggested. “I’m really starting to dislike this place.”
Warren had knelt while Daniel drew, humming softly with closed eyes.  Now he stood and gestured to the next passage.
“I’m told there’s another way out this way,” he said. “Quicker than going back, and probably safer.”
Daniel handed him his torch and they followed Warren along through the tunnels.  Not far down, they started seeing old, rusted manacles on the walls.  They weren’t so old that they could belong with the mural.  It was safe to surmise that they had been installed by Sin.  Unexpectedly, they came to another, much smaller chamber.  It was quite bare, save for a single set of manacles in the wall, from which hung a man.
He was nearly naked, his clothing mere rags, and he was emaciated from malnutrition.  His skin was a bit on the tanned side for midwinter, and his light auburn hair hung down to his shoulders.  He hung limp from the manacles, and only when they came very close could they see the shallow breathing that suggested he still lived.
The manacles were not complex.  Bolted rather than locked, they were simple enough to unfasten.  When the cuffs were pulled open, they revealed another horror.  The insides were lined with half-inch nails, which had bitten deeply into the man’s wrists.  The manacles, and his arms, were stained with blood, which still trickled weakly from the wounds.  Gently, they laid him on the floor and Evelyn knelt beside him.
She closed here eyes and laid one hand on his chest, while the other wrapped gently around his wrist.  Her face creased with effort as she worked, and a brief flash of concern crossed her features.  Gradually, the bleeding from the man’s wrists halted, and his ragged breathing became slightly more steady.  Evelyn opened her eyes and stood.
“He’s stable enough to move,” she said, “for now.  I couldn’t do much.  His body was actively resisting my healing.”
“I didn’t know anyone could do that,” Abigail mused.
“Neither did I,” Abigail replied. “He’ll freeze if we take him outside like this.  We’ve no idea how far we’ll have to walk back to the cars.  Abby, may I borrow your coat?  It’s the longest, and I don’t think he’s much taller than you.”
Abigail nodded and pulled off her coat.  Evelyn carefully wrapped the coat around the unconscious man, gingerly pulling his arms through the sleeves.  Once she had it buttoned over him, she looked up at Daniel.
“Can you keep him warm?” She asked.
“I think so,” Daniel replied, and reached down to lift the man off of the ground.  They walked on, Warren still in the lead.  The tunnel began to twist around again, but it was sloping upward, which was certainly a relief.  It was a long walk back to the surface, certainly as long as the journey into the Cavern.  Eventually, they felt a faint, chilly breeze.  After three more twists in the tunnel, the exit came into view.
They came out on the opposite side of the cavern from the entrance, through an apparently unremarked opening.  The exit was surrounded by very old trees, which might have accounted for the neglect.  It was likely assumed that no one would stumble across it, hidden as it was.  Night had fallen, the clear sky glittering with stars.  It was a five minute walk around to the parking lot, and by the time they reached the cars, both Abigail and Daniel were shivering; Abigail for the want of her coat, and Daniel because he had sacrificed much of his usual body heat to keep his battered burden warm.
They laid the unconscious man across the back seat of one of the cars, and Daniel took the wheel with Abigail riding shotgun.  Evelyn instructed them to take him straight to the hospital, and asked them to please remain long enough to hear his prognosis.  They assured her that they would, and the other four piled into the remaining car.  Both vehicles pulled out of the lot and began the long drive south.
Daniel and Abigail rode in silence for a while, Abigail occasionally looking back to make sure their charge wasn’t being jostled about too terribly by the bumpy road.  His face looked pained, but his breathing had become somewhat regular.  Daniel simply stared at the road, apparently deep in thought.
“What do you think?” He finally asked.
“About what?” Abigail turned her gaze from the back seat to her old friend.
“About what Sin said.  That Malachi’s ‘in deep’ with something nasty.”
“I’d like to think he was just pulling our chains, trying to mess us up.”
“I’d like to think that too,” Daniel said grimly, “but what do you actually think?”
“Pretty much what we already figured,” Abigail shrugged, “Malachi’s in trouble.  Why, what do you think?”
“I think we need to start wondering what sort of trouble he’s gotten himself into.”
Abigail gave Daniel a look of familiar concern.
“There’s more to it than that.  I can tell.  You still get that same look on your face when something’s really bothering you.  What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking about the things we’ve found, the places Malachi’s led us.  The runes we’ve been finding everywhere that none of us has even seen before.  Those circles that we’ve seen twice now; they must be significant.  But then there’s the really weird stuff.  Snake man skeletons and some sort of sea serpent god.  And the same scene depicted in Romania and England.  That just doesn’t fit.  I know my history, Abby.  No one in England ever used hieroglyphs like that.  How can this stuff be all over Europe and we’ve never even heard of it?”
“What you’re really asking,” Abigail said, “is ‘how old is it’?”
“It’s not that I’m wondering it,” Daniel corrected her, “it’s that I’m starting to get an idea.  This stuff is old.  Ancient, as in pre-civilisation.  I’m sure that cave was there before Baba Yaga, and she’s been there forever as far as those gypsies were concerned.  The scene in Peak was identical, but for the level of sophistication.  If that image wasn’t carved by the same people, they were at least related.  And in both places, look what sprung up around them.”
“One of the worst monsters in Eastern Europe,” Abigail said softly, “and a cult worshipping a black wizard.  You think the sites are attracting evil.”
“It’s just a hypothesis.  Twice could just be a coincidence.  It’ll need to repeat itself at least a couple more times before I can be sure.  But I have a feeling.  Malachi’s trying to dig up a mystery that’s been buried longer than people have been writing.”
“But what if it’s something that shouldn’t be dug up?”
“Exactly,” Daniel said with bitter triumph. “And what’s Malachi doing to himself in the digging?”
“It looks like we’re going to find out,” Abigail sighed, “because we’ve been right behind him, and we won’t catch up to him if we don’t keep on following.  We need more information.”
“That we do,” Daniel nodded.  He laid on the horn and flashed the headlights three times, and the car ahead of them pulled to a stop at the side of the road.  Daniel halted beside it, and Abigail rolled down her window.  The driver side window of the other car rolled down and Arthur poked his head out.
“We might be gone until tomorrow,” Abigail said, “you all ought to start into some research while we’re gone.  We need to start connecting the dots on some of this stuff.”
She picked Daniel’s satchel up from the floor at her feet and passed it over to Arthur.
“We need to know what those circles and the runes mean,” she continued, “where they come from.  And we definitely need to know what that snake man was, and the thing we saw on the wall tonight.”
Those in the other car nodded their assent, and the windows rolled up.  Daniel pulled ahead and the other car rolled back onto the road behind them.  The man in the back seat groaned quietly, and Abigail looked back at him.  He was mumbling wordlessly, but he didn’t look any worse.
“Do you think they’ll find anything?” She asked of Daniel.
“Worst case scenario, it’ll keep them busy until we get back.”
“Should we be keeping this from them?  I mean, it’s not like we have a right to keep secrets.  We’re not in charge.  Being the oldest doesn’t really mean anything anymore.”
“Probably not,” Daniel shrugged. “I just don’t want to start making accusations without anything solid to back them up.  It won’t help to get everyone thinking that Malachi’s fallen in with dark forces just because I’ve got a bad feeling.”
“That is what we’re talking about then,” Abigail nodded sadly. “We’re talking about Malachi falling.”
“We’ve got no grounds yet to talk about it,” Daniel said quietly. “Not even if we’re thinking it.”

It was difficult to really grasp just how big the manor library was, just by thinking about it.  Certainly, it was a very large room, and was quite full of books, but, as the four would-be researchers discovered, the sheer scale of it was difficult to comprehend until they actually tried to find something.  It probably didn’t help that they had no idea where anything was.
“I think I’ve found the Kinsbridge books,” Selena called from somewhere in the distance.  Arthur didn’t bother to answer.  He was still puzzling over whether he was amongst the books of magical history or more standard world history.  The line started to blur the further back things went.
Finally, he grew exasperated and fled the stacks entirely, returning to the common, where Evelyn had neatly laid out all of the materials they had gathered in following Malachi, placing like with like.  Copies of the runes were stacked atop each other.  The two sets of circles were side by side, where the patterns of dots were now clearly different.  The rubbing of the cave scene stood alone, but there was no forgetting everything it was connected to.  Finally, Evelyn had spread a map of the world over another empty spot on the table, drawing points to indicate where they had been, numbering them in order and drawing pencil lines from one point to the next.
Arthur dropped himself unceremoniously in the nearest chair, just as Selena returned with an old, leather bound book in hand.  She placed it on the table and rubbed at her eyes.
“I am so dreadfully tired,” she all but moaned.
“I think we all are,” Evelyn agreed.
“We ought to call it a night,” Arthur said.
“We should,” Warren said, coming down the stairs. “We won’t figure anything out if we’re exhausted.”
They didn’t need to say another word to settle their consensus.  Arthur and Selena trudged wearily toward the door on the other side of the stacks.  Warren stopped at the stairs and looked back at Evelyn, who still stood over the table, leaning on her arms, looking down at the map.  After a few seconds, her shoulder shook.
“I almost killed a man today,” she whispered, her voice catching in her throat. “I wanted to do it. I wanted to hurt him.”
“But you didn’t.” Warren walked back around the table and stood not far from Evelyn.
“No,” she looked up at him, and he saw the tears streaking her face, tears that she had been holding in for God knew how long, “you did.  You stopped me, and then you did it.  Why?”
“Look at how it’s affected you,” Warren said, “just thinking about it.  Almost doing it is hurting you badly enough.  Imagine what it would do to you if you’d actually done it.”
“I almost became as bad as him, right there.  I don’t feel that, I know it.  I wanted to make him suffer before he died, just like all those people he destroyed.  Why is it different?  Why are you all right with it?”
“I’ve spent the last six years living with spirits,” Warren said, “primordial creatures.  Their world isn’t as complicated as the one we’ve built around ourselves, especially when it comes to morality.  Death is a natural thing, and sometimes it’s necessary.  I’m sure I hated Sin just as much as you did, but that’s not why I killed him.  I didn’t kill him as punishment.  I did it because it needed to be done.  If he lived, he would just keep doing what he was doing.  No mundane authority could hold him, any more than they could hold one of us, if we had a mind to be free of them.”
“Pragmatism,” Evelyn grimaced as though the word tasted foul in her mouth.
“As important a sentiment as compassion.  I was able to separate myself from the act of killing Sin, because I saw it as a natural function I was fulfilling.  I wasn’t just avenging those he had killed, I was acting on behalf of the people he might have harmed in the future.”
“And me?” Evelyn couldn’t hold back a sob. “I wanted to murder him.”
“You were angry,” Warren said with uncharacteristic reassurance, “and you were right to be.  Anger is a powerful emotion, and useful.  If you hadn’t been so angry, we might not have stopped Sin at all.  But you can’t let it get out of hand.  The most powerful emotions are the most difficult to control.  You’re not accustomed to that sort of anger, so you didn’t know how to keep yourself in check.”
“You knew all along, didn’t you,” Evelyn forced a small smile. “You knew what was going on in my head, and you knew exactly when to stop me.”
Warren nodded gravely. “It was pretty obvious to anyone who knows you as well as I do.”
“Thank god for that.” Evelyn closed her eyes, and fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.  Warren moved quietly closer and wrapped one big arm around her petite shoulders.  She leaned against him, shuddering with quiet sobs.  Warren stood silently, a dear old friend holding her gently while her emotions ran over her.  Finally, she grew still, and pulled away from Warren.  With one hand, she wiped the stray tears from her cheeks, trying to regain her composure.
“Are you afraid it will happen again?” She asked.
“You are,” Warren answered, “which means it probably won’t.  That’s enough for me.”
Evelyn gave him a grateful smile. “I should probably get some sleep.”
“We both should.  We have a lot of work to do tomorrow, before Malachi leaves us another hint.”
“Do you suppose Daniel will be back in time to make breakfast?” She almost laughed.
“Probably not,” Warren offered her a rare smile, “but we’ll make do.”
“Warren,” Evelyn stopped him as he turned to leave. “Thank you.  Again. I owe you.”
“You don’t owe me,” Warren shook his head, “this just brings us a little closer to even.”

November 21, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The House of the Grey Circle, Chapters 5, 6 and 7

Chapter 5
February 5th, 1935

It was evening by the time they arrived back at the manor, and the sun was well into setting.  They filed into the library, stretching their sore and tired muscles.  They had all felt the effects of their mountain jaunt when they woke up this morning.  Perhaps not Warren, but it was impossible to tell with him anyway.  Without any discussion on the matter, they took seats around the table, and looked expectantly at Abigail.
Abigail set the journal on the table and flipped it open to the third page.  As they had hoped, there was writing there that hadn’t been when last they looked.  It was confirmed, then, that this journal was a proxy to whatever Malachi was really writing in, as Abigail had been carrying this one since they had first found it.  Picking the book up again, Abigail began to read.

February 4th, 1935
I am in the company of a band of Hungarian Gypsies who make their route along the largely untraveled roads between Szeged and Gyula.  Once a season, they break from their usual path and make camp at the edge of the woods east of Szeged.  I was fortunate to find them along their way, as those woods are my current destination.
Our reasons differ greatly, however.  Whereas I intend to venture into the woods, none of these Gypsies would dare consider such a thing.  I am told that these are “Baba’s Woods”, referring to the legend of Baba Yaga that is common in this region.  According to those that have been willing to speak to me, the Gypsies will spend a month here, taking measures of an undisclosed nature to prevent the cannibal witch from venturing beyond these woods.  I would typically meet such claims with a measure of scepticism, but there are those in this camp who are learned in arcane ways, and they assure me it is no mere myth they seek to contain.  They have done their best to convince me not to go.  Though I now consider the undertaking with a great deal more caution than I previously did, I still have no choice.
Just looking in their direction, I can feel the menace hiding behind those trees.  Even without the words of warning I have received from those more knowledgeable than I,I would likely be experiencing, at least in part, the trepidation I feel now.  There is no turning back, even if I truly wanted to.  The cave is hidden somewhere in the woods, and the secrets I have been promised wait within.  I will leave in the morning, as I am told that she is unlikely to be about in the daylight hours.  I will trust to hope that I will find what I seek without incident, and will not find Baba Yaga waiting for me.

Abigail closed the book, and gave everyone a moment to ponder before she spoke again:
“Any thoughts?”
“He mentioned being promised secrets,” Selena observed. “Someone is guiding him.”
“But we don’t know who,” Arthur pointed out, “and we don’t know their intentions.  They could be guiding him into a trap.”
“It certainly sounds like a trap,” Daniel said, “I don’t know much about Baba Yaga, but I’ve heard a bit.  Evil spirit of the highest caliber.  Some sort of fae monster.”
“She used to be a nature spirit of some sort,” Selena elaborated, “a forest guardian, according to the prevalent theories.  I didn’t have access to the right books to learn how, but she was corrupted a long time ago.  Twisted into a cannibal monster.  The forest she guarded is said to be devoid of life now.  Nothing but old, dead trees for miles.”
“How much of the legend is accurate?” Abigail asked. “What of the chicken legged hut, and the eating of children?”
“As far as I’m aware, those are largely true,” Selena continued. “Though I doubt terrible that she’d mind devouring, or at least slaughtering any adults she came across.  She’s among the worse beings to have made it into folklore.”
“So what shall we do?” Evelyn asked. “Do we follow him?”
“After yesterday, I daresay it’s imperative,” Abigail confirmed. “We need to know what Malachi’s on about.  And this time he might just be in real trouble.  The book says he’s not going into the woods until tomorrow morning.  We can’t make it to Romania by then, but we can follow as close on his heels as we can.”
“Well, I’m not going anywhere tonight but home,” Selena interjected. “I know this is important and all, but I’ve got to spare some time for my children, and I’ll need to explain to my mother-in-law that I’ll be disappearing for God knows how long.”
“All right,” Abigail conceded, “We’ll go tomorrow then.  Arthur, can you have us ready to leave by ten?”
“We’ll be fueled up by nine-thirty,” Arthur confirmed.
“Excellent,” Abigail said. “Now, since Arthur and Selena have a long drive ahead of them, shall we adjourn for the evening?”

Selena’s mother-in-law had the rather unique ability to make grown adults feel like out-of-line teenagers.  It was her look, the way she could narrow her eyes just slightly and turn her whole face into a mask of disapproval.  She was wearing that mask now, and Selena had to admit that she would rather be facing Baba Yaga than Gertrude.
“This is grossly out of your character, Selena,” Gertrude admonished sternly. “What, exactly, has possessed you?”
“It’s an emergency,” Selena explained with forced patience, “an old friend has disappeared, and we believe he may be in some sort of danger.”
“We?” Gertrude arched her eyebrows.
“Friends from my childhood,” Selena almost choked on her next words: “The others who survived the fire.”
“If your friend is in trouble,” Gertrude’s voice had softened somewhat, “why not let the authorities handle it?”
“What authorities should we call?” Selena asked somewhat crossly. “We’re not even certain what country he’s in.  No, this requires resources of a different sort.  The sort of resources available to individuals possessed of absurd intelligence and ridiculous wealth.”
“What sort of trouble is this?” Gertrude looked worried now.
“We don’t rightly know.  We only know that our friend was acting wildly out of character, and that he would not be doing so unless he was under some sort of duress.  Given that he has since vanished, the conclusion is obvious.”
“And if this search puts you in the same danger?”
“I’m not in this alone,” Selena reminded her mother-in-law, “my friends are all extremely capable.  I’ll not be facing any grave threat without a quite threatening group of my own.”
“Will you write?” Gertrude asked. “And stop in when you can?”
“Of course I shall,” Selena assured her, “I’ve not forgotten the importance of my own children.  I simply have an obligation of loyalty to fulfill, and a friend in need.”
“Well, I shan’t fault your loyalty,” Gertrude smiled sadly, “that was something our William valued so highly.  I think he would understand, so I’ll try to do the same.”
“Thank you Gertrude,” Selena almost had to fight back tears at the mention of William. “I must be off early tomorrow.  Do tell the children I love them and will be home as soon as I can, will you?”
“Of course, dear.” Gertrude’s tone turned into one of maternal authority. “Now get yourself some rest.  You’ve got serious business ahead of you.”
Selena couldn’t help but smile as she turned away.

Chapter 6
February 6th, 1935

They were able to take the plane as far as Budapest.  From there they were once again forced to rent cars and go the rest of the distance by road.  They drove steadily for more than one hundred and fifty miles until they reached Szeged, where they stopped for petrol.  It was another sixty-five miles to reach the approximate region near the Carpathian mountains where they had estimated they would find the Gypsy camp Malachi had spoken of.
The drive was long and tedious, and evening was wearing on by the time the road curved and the mountains that had long loomed ahead of them now enclosed them on their right side.  Between the cars and the mountains stood a deep, thick forest, stretching on for miles.  Since they had no definite location for the camp, they could only keep driving alongside the woods and hope for the best.
They drove on for another hour before their search finally bore fruit.  Up ahead they could see the flickering glow of campfires, and as they drew closer they saw the silhouettes of caravans, tents and trucks.  They pulled off of the road and parked on the grass roughly twenty metres from the camp.  As they climbed out of the cars, they knew quickly that they were not alone.  A number of obscure shapes moved in the shadows before them.  Arthur reached back into the car he had been driving and switched the headlamps on.
Ten men faced them, spaced evenly apart in a line that segregated the cars and their occupants from the camp.  Each of the men was armed, mostly with shotguns, a couple of them with pistols.  They all wore the same glower on their faces.  Warren quietly placed himself between the men and Evelyn, the others remained carefully still.
“We do not welcome visitors to our camp,” the man in the middle called out, his English heavily accented.
“You welcomed one just the other day,” Arthur called back, calmly.
“The Englishman,” the Gypsy confirmed. “He came alone.  You are many.  It is not the same.”
“We’re no threat to you,” Arthur assured him.  His voice sounded strange on the night air.  Soothing. “We’re not armed.  The Englishman is our friend, and we’re looking for him.  Will you help us find him?”
The gypsy’s gun slowly lowered.  His face had taken on a glassy-eyes dullness as he stared at Arthur, who returned the gaze intently.  Arthur opened his mouth to speak again when he was interrupted by a shout from the darkness behind the men.
“No more words!” A middle aged Gypsy man stalked into the light, pointing an accusing finger at Arthur. “No more words from you!  You bewitch my men and prey on their minds!”
“I’m just trying not to get shot,” Arthur replied coolly, but the odd quality had vanished from his voice.  He wasn’t prepared to risk trying his tricks on this one.
“And they are just trying to protect their families,” the older man’s English was clearer than the other gypsy’s. “What do you want from us?”
“We’re looking for our friend,” it was Daniel who spoke now. “We know he came this way, and stayed at your camp.  An Englishman like us, tall, dark hair, spectacles?”
“Yes, I know him,” the old gypsy nodded cautiously, “the foolish young wizard who dared Baba’s woods yesterday.  He did not return.”
One of the women gave a hushed gasp.  They all looked at each other, momentarily uncertain, but then Daniel spoke again, his tone unchanged.
“Where did he leave his car?”
“I saw no car,” the man answered, “he came to our camp on foot.”
“What do we do now?” Selena whispered nervously.
“There’s only one thing we can do,” Daniel muttered back, then he spoke aloud again to the old man: “We need to follow him.”
The man scoffed. “Into the woods?  You are as foolish as he was.  To enter Baba’s woods is certain death.  You cannot help your friend now.”
“We have to try,” Daniel answered with quiet insistence, “he’s family to us.”
The man sighed, shrugging as though he shouldered a heavy burden. “You will do what you must then, for family.  And you will surely die in doing it, as he certainly did.  But you will not go tonight.  No, there is but one thing I can do to perhaps save you from your stupidity, and that is to keep you out of the forest while night is fallen.”
“She’s stronger at night?” Selena’s curiosity was piqued.  Typical of a Kinsbridge when magical beasts were the topic.
“Your women speak for themselves?” The old man came close to sneering. “You English are strange in your ways.  Yes, woman.  She is strongest at night.  By day, she lies dormant, but not powerless.”
“What power does she have during the day?” Daniel asked.
“The woods belong to her.  Even as she sleeps, she can work her will on them.  There is no other life or power among those trees to oppose her.  When you enter, she will know.  The only path will be the one she allows you; the only escape will be the death she brings when night falls.  The forest will close around you and swallow you whole.”
Daniel nodded. “We understand the risk.”
“You do not,” the man snorted, “but you will not be dissuaded.  I see that clearly.  You will stay in our camp tonight, so we may keep an eye on you.  For our protection.  You will respect our ways while you are here.  You will take nothing you are not given, and your women will hold their tongues in the presence of our men.”
“That is acceptable,” Daniel acquiesced. “May we at least have your name?”
“I am Janos.  I guide this band.  Do not bother me with your names.  They will mean nothing by the end of tomorrow.”
Without another word, Janos waved them to follow him.  Arthur switched off the headlamps and they followed the gypsy, clustered closely together.
“What are we doing?” Abigail demanded of Daniel in a harsh whisper. “This is insane!”
“This isn’t the time to explain,” Daniel said in the same low tone, “but I’m not convinced that Malachi’s dead.  I’ll explain when we’re settled.”

They were set up in an extra tent, and instructed not to wander.  The tent was a bit cramped for six adults, but the furs laid on the ground softened the hard earth, and the oiled canvas kept the wind out admirably.  All save Daniel and Warren were bundled in their coats along with the fur blankets they had been provided.  Warren seemed all right with only his coat, and Daniel kept warm in his own way, as always.  He dared not try to share his internal heat, lest he burn the gypsies’ tent and shatter the fragile welcome they had.
Abigail wrapped her blanket firmly around her and gave Daniel a rather sharp look.
“You promised an explanation?”
“Naturally,” Daniel sat cross-legged on one side of the tent, where he could see everyone. “First and foremost, Janos claimed Malachi didn’t have a car, which is patently ridiculous.  It’s more than sixty miles from here to Szeged, Malachi couldn’t have taken that on foot.”
“You think Janos was lying?” Evelyn asked.
“No, I believe that Malachi approached the village on foot.  It’s a good way to seem non-threatening, and that’s something Malachi would be liable to think of.”
“So he left his car far enough from the camp to be out of sight and walked the rest of the way,” Arthur concluded.
“Precisely,” Daniel nodded. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I never saw a car abandoned by the road on the way here, and Malachi would surely have come along the same route we did.  There’s no other easy road.”
“Of course,” Abigail pointed out, “Janos could be lying.  For all we know these gypsies killed Malachi and stole his things, car included.”
“The journal suggests otherwise,” Daniel said, “and it runs counter to logic.  If they killed him, why not kill us too?  They had the opportunity the moment we arrived.  If they were going to do that, we’d by dead already.  I’m convinced Janos was telling the truth.”
“Then why are we going into the woods?” Selena asked.
“A calculated risk,” Daniel explained, “for the sake of certainty.  If Malachi did, in fact make it out, then we can too.  If he didn’t, then he may still be alive and need our help.  If he’s dead, we need to be sure of it, and we should find whatever it was he sought, so we can better understand what he was doing.  Regardless, out chances will be far better than Malachi’s.  We have the advantage of numbers.”
“Not the right number,” Warren pointed out. “There’s no power in six.”
“We may not have the strength that a full seven would offer us,” Daniel replied, “but our combined skills are still worthy, are they not?  We can’t let our numbers discourage us when the whole point of this search is to find our seventh member.”
“You had better be right about this, Daniel,” Abigail said threateningly.
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” Daniel said. “For now we need to sleep.  Even if all goes well, I imagine we’ve got a hard day ahead of us.”

Chapter 7
February 7th, 1935

They were up early, awakened by Janos shaking their tent.  The morning air was cold, and the sun shone without warmth in the icy blue sky.  They carried few supplies, just a single satchel containing a pair of electric torches and the means to record whatever observations they might have.  They had donned or pocketed whatever talismans of protection or power they possessed, and considered themselves as ready as they could possibly be.
Janos accompanied them most of the way to the woods, but stopped short of walking under the shadow of the trees.  He looked at them gravely, in a manner they all suspected he reserved for the dead.  It was less than reassuring.
“We will offer what magic we can to keep the hag from seeing you,” he said, “but I do not expect that it will be enough.”
“Thank you, all the same,” Daniel said with a smile he certainly didn’t feel.
“You’re all mad,” Janos whispered roughly.
“Yes, you’ve made that clear,” Arthur replied. “Shall we get this over with?”
To look at them from outside, the woods were forbidding and unwelcome.  When they crossed the threshold of twisted black trees, the sense of unpleasantness only grew worse.  The trees looked dead, their trunks gnarled and twisted into a mockery of natural shape, their bark as black as coal.  Not a single leaf could be seen, nor any blade of grass.  The ground was grey and bare, nothing but hard packed dirt and stones.  There was no sound.  No birds, no tree-dwelling animals, not even a breeze.  The forest was dead silent.
Warren shuddered visibly. “There’s no life here.  This place is devoid of spirit.  It’s as if it was drained of all things that make the world alive.  It’s all cold, and evil.”
Evelyn placed a reassuring hand on Warren’s arm.  His magic dealt in contact with the spirits of the natural world and beyond.  To be in a place where he felt no spiritual presence was like losing one of his senses.
There was no obvious path to the cave Malachi had spoken of.  The trees were thinner in some places, making the forest passable, but there was nothing to even tell them where they were going.  The canopy grew thick above them, despite the absence of leaves.  The network of gnarled branches allowed no clear view of the sky, letting only the most minimal sunlight through.
No one spoke.  In the unnatural silence, even their breathing seemed too loud.  The nervous glances that passed among them suggested a shared suspicion: that where the trees grew thick and impassable or sparse and navigable was not random.  They remembered Janos’ words of warning, of Baba Yaga’s power over the woods.  If they were being herded, then where to?
As they walked, time and distance began to lose meaning.  Were they inclined to speak, none of them would be able to say how long they had been in the forest, nor how far they had walked.  Every time Daniel checked his watch, the time it read made no sense in relation to the last time he had checked.  Once, he was sure it had gone backward.  As they became less and less certain of where they were, the eerie foreboding of the forest settled more heavily on them.
Finally, a break in the trees opened to a small clearing.  Here, they could see the daylight sky, though the sun was still out of their view, which suggested that it had sunk disturbingly low in the sky.  At the other end of the clearing was a squat hill, the side facing them marred by a round black hole.  As they drew closer to the hill, they saw that the opening was neither natural nor accidental.  The sides were smooth, made of dark grey stone.  Carved into the stone around the doorway were rune-like symbols, similar to the ones on the circle in Scotland, but somehow warped.  Without knowing what the symbols meant, everyone sensed that they were twisted, and somehow wrong.
Daniel drew the two torches from the satchel, passing one to Abigail.  He proceeded first, lighting his torch before he entered.  Before he set foot in the cave, they were all started by the first sound they had heard since they entered the woods: the harsh call of a crow.  The bird was perched over the doorway, staring down at them.  It spread its wings and let out another rasping caw, which sounded more like a horrid cackle than the call of a bird.
No one present was ignorant of omens.  Whether the crow was a warning or a threat depended only on who had sent it.  Regardless of intent, they all drew the same meaning from its presence: time was short.  Forcing his hand to stop shaking, Daniel stepped into the cave, and the others followed close behind.
The cave was pitch black.  The weak light of day was unable or unwilling to pass over the threshold, and so the torches provided the only illumination.  The floor was scattered with dark stains, and the beams of electric light passed over a myriad of bones.  Many were the bones of animals.  Some were clearly not.  Daniel stepped gingerly over what could only be a human skull, and directed his torch toward the far wall.
The wall was scrawled with crude pictograms, engraved in the rough stone, along with more of the strangely unpleasant symbols that had lined the entrance.  Daniel passed his torch to Warren and drew from the satchel a piece of charcoal and a roll of paper.  Carefully, section by section, he took rubbings of the engraved images and symbols.
The pictograms seemed to depict a scene of worship.  Rudimentary stick figures were bent in apparent supplication, all faced the same way.  What else remained of the etching appeared to depict water, but the rest of it, whatever image the figures were meant to worship, was lost.  The stone from that point on was broken away.  Not worn by time but cracked and crumbled as though struck by a great, and very precise force.
Daniel finished his charcoal rubbing just as Abigail trained her torch further along the wall.  No one was quite able to suppress a gasp at what her light revealed.  If the fossil was somehow faked, then it was a very convincing facsimile.  The skeleton was clearly human, at least from the waist up.  As Abigail and Warren played their torches lower, the torso narrowed.  There was no sign that legs had ever been present.  Instead, the skeleton tapered away, and the spine continued on down to form a long, serpentine tail.
“Selena,” Abigail could barely do more than whisper, “do you recognise this?”
“It’s not like anything I’ve read about,” Selena said just as quietly, “but I barely had a chance to get beyond the basics.”
“How much charcoal do you have, Daniel?” Abigail asked.
“Not enough to get that,” Daniel shook his head, “and it would take too long besides.  We’re running out of time.”
“We’re past running out,” Arthur said from near the entrance. “We are out of time.”
It couldn’t have been that late when they came in here.  They certainly couldn’t have been in the cave long enough for the sun to set.  But outside, no light remained.  There was only ominous shadow and the growing whistle of a wind that had been absent all day.  Daniel hurried to pack away his charcoal and paper, and reclaimed his torch from Warren, stowing it in the satchel as well.  The air was charged with a growing sense of panic as they ventured out of the cave.
The deep purple sky was scattered with clouds, obscuring the moon and leaving the entourage in shadow.  The path by which they had come into the clearing was gone; the trees had gathered close, sealing them in with a wall of gnarled black trunks and evilly rattling branches.  The trap was closed.
They felt it before they heard it.  A force of gleeful malice bore down on them, and they all sensed the intense hatred and deep hunger that drove it.  They heard it next: a rough scraping thunder, like a great boulder being dragged across the earth with the speed of a roadster.  Even over that rolling, crashing cacophony they could hear her laughter.  It was a rasping, broken cackle with nothing of humanity in it.  It was the shrieking, gleeful mirth of a child’s worst nightmare made flesh.  Old fears of the dark were remembered in that voice, which came closer with each passing second.
Directly ahead, the groaning of ancient trunks and the snapping of countless dead limbs signalled the parting of the forest.  The trees drew aside like grass bending in the wind, clearing a path not for the lost young magicians, but for the one who approached.  The clouds passed from the face of the moon, and its cold white light finally fell on the forest.  In that light they saw her, the ancient spirit of a ruined forest, the rancid harbinger of corruption.  Baba Yaga.
She was shrivelled and old, like an ancient crone who kept on ageing, but never died.  Her skin had the look of old parchment stretched over ill-fitting bones.  Her hair was a white mass tangled with twigs.  Her clothes were tattered scraps of skin, their origin not fit for speculation.  Her eyes were burning coals in sunken pits, and her nose was an unsightly, hook-like thing.  Her half-toothed grin all but split her face in two.
She road in a giant mortar across the forest floor, its rough passage the source of the thunderous noise.  The pestle was in her right hand, steering her course, and her left hand disappeared behind her.  She was not yet close, as much as they could judge distance in this warped place, but even if they had time to escape, there was nowhere they could go.  The only path lay on the other side of the old witch.  They could not go around her, only through her.
They retreated back into the mouth of the cave, their hushed voices piercing the inky blackness within as they tried to form a hasty plan.
“We can’t fight her,” Warren whispered, his voice clearly shaking, “I can feel her power from here.  She’s too much for us.”
“We don’t have to fight her,” Abigail hissed, “only get past her.”
“How do we do that?” Arthur asked sarcastically. “Jump?”
“Shut up,” Abigail snapped, “I’m trying to think.”
Baba Yaga’s laughter taunted them as they sat in terrified silence.  She was coming closer with each second that they waited.
“All right,” Abigail said at last, “I think I have an idea.  Evelyn, I remember you were learning your family’s water craft when we were young.  Do you still remember it?”
“I remember some,” Evelyn hedged, “I didn’t have time to learn much, I was more interested in healing.”
“Can you make ice?”
“Yes,” Evelyn said hesitantly, “yes, I think I can.”
“Good,” Abigail’s voice grew stronger as the plan formed, but still she spoke quickly.  “Daniel, Selena, the rest will be up to you.  Everyone else be ready to run.”
The whole conversation had taken only seconds, but now it seemed Baba Yaga was nearly on top of them.  She was less than a hundred metres from the clearing when the plan took action.  Evelyn closed her eyes and grasped in both hands a bluish white crystal she wore around her neck.  Her lips barely moving, she whispered something too quiet for anyone else to hear.  With the bottom end of Abigail’s torch, Selena scraped a circle around herself in the hard dirt at her feet, and knelt, closing her eyes and bowing her head, repeating the same three words over and over.  Daniel simply stared hard at Baba Yaga, speaking softly to himself in Latin.  Seventy metres.  Sixty.  Fifty.
Abigail screamed: “Now!”
Evelyn’s voice grew no louder, but she continued to speak as she opened her hands toward the opening in the trees.  Power, gathered in the crystal, flowed away from her, directed at the ground in Baba Yaga’s path.  The earth took on a sudden shine as a smooth sheet of ice formed directly in front of the speeding mortar.  Baba Yaga hit the ice and spun out of control, her mortar careening toward the trees beside her.
Daniel’s voice grew louder, the last phrase of Latin coming out in an almost gutteral shout, punctuated by an open hand thrust in Baba Yaga’s direction.  Again, power burst forth tangibly from the young man, given speed and purpose by his words and thoughts.  The trees toward which the hag’s mortar spun exploded into flames, the power of Daniel’s spell meeting with the bone-dry wood to create an instant inferno.  Baba Yaga struggled with her pestle to regain control before she hit the flames.
Selena’s mantra came to an end, and she raised her head to let fly a wordless banshee wail.  The wind that had blown aimlessly above them gathered itself around her voice and slammed into Baba Yaga, pushing her violently off of the path and into the burning trees.  The old hag’s shriek as she fell into the flames was as horrifying as her laughter.
“Go!” Abigail shouted, and they all burst into a desperate run, sprinting down the path Baba Yaga had left.  With a breathless shout, Evelyn dispelled the conjured ice before they reached it.  They ran past the growing inferno, following the straight path that they hoped fervently would lead to uncorrupted land.
They couldn’t say how far they had run.  Daniel’s fire was a distant blurry light behind them, and Baba Yaga’s shrieks could no longer be heard.  Ahead of them, they saw open snow at last.  Relief washing over them, they slowed to a breathless jog, freedom only a few metres away.
The cackling laughter echoed through the woods around them, and the trees cracked and groaned as they closed in front of the exhausted party, leaving only a rough dark wall, through which only hints of moonlight could be seen.
“No!” Abigail screamed, dragging herself to a halt before she hit the barrier.
They all stopped, an aching dread growing among them, save for Daniel, who slowed only to a stalking stride.  There was determination on his face, and anger.  He raised his hands as he advanced on the line of trees, and threw them out before him, his hoarse voice shouting one last Latin incantation.  The trees burst into flames, nothing so dramatic as the mad blaze into which they had thrown the hag, but still they burned.
No one was sure, but they thought they heard Baba Yaga’s approaching laughter falter as the barrier of trees was consumed by fire.  They went up quickly, with no moisture to resist the heat.  As the trees started to visible buckle, Warren took a running start and rammed his shoulder into the middle of the burning wall.  He continued on through, smashing the tortured wood and falling to the ground beyond, rolling across the snow to extinguish the flames that had caught his coat.
One by one, they scrambled through, Daniel going last.  They emerged to open snow and open sky, no trees save the ones they left behind them.  The woods shook with a horrible scream of rage that chilled them to their bones, even now that they had escaped from Baba Yaga’s grasp.
Not terribly far away, they could see the camp, exactly where they had left it.  From the same direction, they saw Janos approaching, flanked by two other men.  They appeared unarmed.  As they drew nearer, the three of them could be seen to be wearing a variety of exotic talismans, and each held a string of beads in his left hand.  Janos looked dumbfounded.
“You have done the impossible,” he exclaimed, “faced the witch in her own domain and lived to speak of it!”
“Teamwork,” Daniel said wearily, “I told you we were prepared.”
“Your survival is a good omen,” Janos declared, “we must celebrate it!  Come, you will eat and dance with us tonight.  Even your women!”
Selena and Evelyn glared at his back as he turned with his companions and led them all back toward the camp.  Abigail nudged Daniel in the ribs with her elbow as they walked.
“You knew it wasn’t going to be that easy,” she accused with a small smile.
Daniel shrugged. “I had more power stored up than I needed.  I figured it would be smart to keep it handy, just in case.”
“Thank god for that,” Abigail said sincerely. “When we get home, I’m buying you a drink.”
“You do know that I own a bar, right?”

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The House of the Grey Circle Intro, Preludes and First Four Chapters

Introduction
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a number of so-called secret societies made less than secret claims of transcendent mystical knowledge.  Occultists and theosophists such as Eliphas Levi and Madame Blavatsky gave rise to collegial orders like the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn spawned occult iconoclasts like Aleister Crowley and his small legion of followers.  Each of these professed their knowledge of ancient metaphysical secrets long since lost to humanity.  Occasionally, they also claimed that the world is secretly ruled by subterranean lizard men and the greatest secrets of humanity dwell on a lost continent under the sea.  One of many signs that imagination and absinthe contributed more to their lexicon than actual mystic lore.
Of course, the first mark against the authenticity of the theosophical mystics was the simple fact that they were entirely too new.  All of the proper mystical cabals were established well before the eighteenth century began.  And even the youngest of these would claim no connection to these new sycophants of the occult.
The House of the Grey Circle was not the youngest of the true covens, but it was among the last to be established.  It was founded some time around 1612, though the specific date, and the particular circumstances around which the House was founded remain enigmatic.  In a subculture that prided itself on secrecy, the House was among the most secretive of all.  Hidden even from the supernatural community it was a part of, its existence was only revealed by the last of its members.
It is now known that in 1612, members of seven powerful British families came together somewhere north of London.  The precise date and reason for this first gathering is unknown, but is speculated to correspond with a brief but dramatic spiritual upheaval that was felt by magicians across the world.  It is known that this first meeting resulted in the initial concordance that ultimately led to the formation of the House of the Grey Circle, with that first seven at its head.
The House was ordered around the seven families that founded it, and only members of those families were admitted to the coven.  To be more specific, only those among the families who demonstrated an aptitude for the magical arts were even made aware of the coven’s existence.  Even among their own number, there were secrets.  The youngest of the House’s members were treated as students, and barred from the majority of the coven’s knowledge until they achieved full membership.
For a period of three hundred years, the seven families pooled their vast resources, both magical and material, consolidating their power while they delved into ancient mysteries.  After three hundred years, The House of the Grey Circle had become one of the most powerful and resourceful magical organisations in the world.
And in a single night, it was all but destroyed.

Prelude I
February 2nd, 1929
They began to arrive at eight in the evening, those who were not living in the Manor already.  They trickled in, a few alone, but most in groups of two or three, or even five or more at a time.  They did not knock, they needed no key.  The ring each of them wore on their right hands was key enough.  Everyone who came made for the library without pause.  Gathering gradually toward the great common in the centre of the room, they paused occasionally to exchange greetings and pleasantries.  These were respected colleagues, old friends and beloved relatives.  In the vast old library of their ancestral home, the House of the Grey Circle congregated.
The Seven stood already around the great round table of stone; One for each family, the wisest elders of the House; each stood at a point of the massive heptagram laid in silver atop the table, the seven pointed star that was the sigil of the coven.  They waited in grave silence as their kin milled about, waiting until all had arrived, and the perfect hour came.
Finally, the last of them was in the library; over fifty in all; and the clock struck midnight. Finally, the Circle of Seven stirred.  It was Abraham, head of the family Kinsbridge and eldest of the Circle, who spoke.
“The children?” He asked of no one in particular.
“Safe in the lodge,” the answer came from one of those gathered near the table.
“Very well,” Abraham nodded gravely, “we will begin with the Calling of the Circle.”
Quickly and silently, the members of the House took their places behind the elders of their families, surrounding the table concentrically.  The elders of the Circle each placed their right hands on the table, in the spaces between the names inscribed in an ancient dead language around the edge.  As if on a silent cue all gathered spoke in unison.
“My widsom, my voice, my life to the circle
My power to its purpose
Until we are no more”
As they spoke, the lines of the heptagram and the circle of names took on a quiet silver glow, growing in intensity as the chant reached its quick crescendo, and then faded back to dull metal on stone.  In the same perfect unison, the elders of the Circle of Seven sat around the table, and Abraham spoke again.
“The conclave has been called for the most critical of reasons,” he intoned. “Tonight, we perform our most vital task.  You all know of what I speak.”
Quietly, those assembled offered their assent, and Abraham nodded in turn, looking to each of his peers around the table.
“Then let us begin.”

Warren stared out the window, trying vainly to see the manor through the impenetrable darkness.  The hunting lodge was on the far side of the large games field behind the manor, nestled just at the edge of the woods that made the northern border of the property.  The night was moonless, and the stars offered far too little light, so the window was nothing better than a rectangle of black glass.
“I wonder what they’re doing,” Selena said to whomever would listen, without pausing her slow pace around the den.
“Something dangerous, probably,” Arthur responded lazily from the couch.
The seven youths gathered in the lodge were the youngest members of the House.  Too young and too inexperienced to participate in proper House business, they were barred from the library entirely until they completed their initiation.  They had never been barred from the whole manor though, and that was cause for curiosity.
Warren, son of the family Arkham, turned his chair away from the window to observe, if not necessarily join the conversation.  It surprised no one that he kept to himself.  His broad face appeared thoughtful, but those thoughts remained his own for the time being.
Abigail, daughter of the Whitewood family, had already taken Warren’s place staring uselessly out a darkened window.  She hadn’t yet offered her opinion, which led everyone to believe she hadn’t decided on one yet.  When she had an opinion, the young initiates would surely hear it.  Absently, she brushed a lock of auburn hair away from her face.
Arthur’s words seemed to drop a blanket of quiet tension on the group.  The youngest of the initiates, he didn’t often waste words, preferring to get to the point quickly, a trait common to the Corsair family.  As was frequently the case, he had merely said what the others were thinking, regardless of whether any of them wanted it to be said.  Selena scowled at him.
The great granddaughter of old Abraham Kinsbridge, Selena often liked to believe that put her in a position to be more knowledgeable than her peers regarding the affairs of the House.  The others allowed her to believe that, since she wasn’t as loud about it as Abigail was with her opinions.
“If they were going to do something dangerous,” she said testily, “they wouldn’t have kept us on the property at all.”
“You don’t think this is far enough?” Daniel asked, coming in from the kitchen with a fresh pot of tea.  Evelyn followed him with the teacups.  Daniel Hearthstone had been at the manor longer than all but one of the other initiates, and had some knowledge of the explosive consequences of magic gone wrong.  His blazing red hair was a rather appropriate hint at the spirit he kept hidden behind a wall of caution.
Evelyn kept quiet, as she almost always did.  A shy girl, even in the company of her closest friends, Evelyn Wreathe rarely offered her opinion on anything if she didn’t think it pertinent, and tonight seemed no exception.  Without a word, she handed out the teacups.
“I think,” replied Selena, “that they would want to be extra careful with our safety.  We are the next generation after all.  Don’t you think they would want to protect us?”
“I think they know what they’re doing.”  Everyone’s attention shifted to the corner by the fireplace as Malachi finally spoke up.  Malachi Ouros was the oldest of the initiates, and was less than a year away from his twentieth birthday, when he would be fully initiated into the House.  His opinion would often be the one that ended an argument.  It wasn’t that he was the oldest, or that he was the only initiate with a parent among the Circle of Seven.  When he spoke, the others listened.  His was a natural authority.
Malachi adjusted his silver-rimmed spectacles and put down his book, looking up at the other six youths.
“We’ll understand when we’re ready,” he said calmly, “for now we ought to trust them.”
The others nodded their understanding, and Malachi offered a smile, which faded from his lips almost immediately.  They all felt it at the same time.  They might have only been students of magic, but their senses were more than sufficient to register the surge of energy that emanated from the manor across the field.  There was power there, considerable power.  Perhaps the sort of power that might come from more than fifty experienced magicians combining their strength.
There was also darkness.  A thick miasma that followed close on the heels of that first surge of power and seemed to wrap itself around the initiates’ minds, leaving them with a sick feeling of dread.  Outside, nature responded to the sudden drastic shift in the energy around the manor, and the wind began to howl.  Branches from the close-grown trees of the forest knocked and scraped against the outer walls of the lodge, and the windows rattled in the sudden gale.  Still looking out the window, Abigail cried out in alarm, and the others gathered at the windows to see an eerie light shining through the blowing snow, coming from the direction of the manor.  The wind all but screamed and the lodge shook under the punishing storm.
Malachi returned to the centre of the room and pushed the coffee table over to the wall.  Rolling up the rug underneath it, he pushed it aside and pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket.  Breathing slowly to keep his hands from shaking, he drew a circle on the wood floor, and carefully inscribed a series of flowing symbols around its perimeter.  With a whisper and a wave, he gathered the others to him, and they stood together, huddled around the small circle.  As they all joined hands, Malachi began a quiet chant.  After two repetitions, the other initiates began to join in, until all seven were chanting together.
At their feet, the chalk circle took on a soft glow.  As the ward gathered power, the pervasive dread began to ease away from the young magicians’ minds.  The storm outside still raged as loudly as ever, but the lodge ceased its shaking and the room grew still.  The group parted their hands and pulled their chairs around the glowing circle as they might have done around the fireplace if the chill was in their bones rather than their souls.  There they passed the night, silently sharing their fear as unknown power burned outside.

Only with the coming of dawn did the storm of wind and magic finally cease.  If any of the initiates slept at all, it was only fitfully.  After what seemed an eternity, the cold winter sun shone through the windows of the lodge.  There was no sound outside save the singing of the winter birds.  With a weary groan, Malachi scuffed the chalk circle with his foot, breaking the ward.  All seven bundled into their coats without a word and began a silent trek across the snowy field to the manor.
The huge house seemed eerily quiet, even from outside.  The quiet thrum of power that normally permeated the place was so constant that they had all long since stopped noticing it, but now that it was gone, it was like a sudden silence brought to a loud room.  I was Malachi who finally stated the unnerving conclusion they were all reaching:
“The wards are down.”
With a new sense of urgency, they hurried inside.  Without pausing to remove their outerwear, they rushed to the library, stopping only at the big double door.  The ward on the library should prevent them from even opening the door, as it did anyone who hadn’t undergone the rite of confirmation.  After a moment of hesitation, Malachi turned the handle and pushed at the door.  It opened without resistance.  Someone tried vainly to stifle a gasp.  Their worry intensified, they made their way into the library.
At first, nothing seemed to be out of order.  The shelves were undisturbed, and not a single book lay out of place.  When they came in sight of the library’s centre, the illusion was destroyed.  Every one of the initiates was brought up short, paralysed by shock.  Evelyn buried her face in Warren’s shoulder with a quiet sob.  Abigail tried uselessly to choke back tears.  Malachi simply shook his head, a look of wordless anguish on his face.
The bodies lay around the stone table in concentric circles, as though they had simply fallen where they stood.  Each one of them had been burned beyond recognition, leaving only a charred black husk that barely resembled anything human.  More than fifty magicians, all of them experienced and powerful, more power in one room than any initiate could even grasp, and something had slain them all so brutally that the seven young witnesses could not even identify their own parents among the carnage.
There were no words.  The horror the initiates faced was more than their young minds could bear.  Silently, they fled the library; fled the manor itself; and stood outside, shaking, weeping and cowering in their grief.
It was a long time before anyone said anything.  Predictable, it was Malachi who finally spoke.
“We can’t stay here,” he said shakily, “I’ll figure out what to do about…about this.  But we need to go.”
“Where can we go?” Selena asked mournfully. “This is our home.  We don’t have anywhere else.”
“We have money,” Arthur said, his voice numb, “there’s enough money here.  We can find somewhere to stay until we can claim the estate.”
“How can you be so cold?” Abigail demanded of him. “Those were our families in there, and you just want to run off with their money!”
“He’s right, Abby,” Warren finally spoke up, his voiced barely more than a choked whisper. “We’re going to need it.  And Malachi’s right too.  We can’t stay here.  I know I can’t.”
“Go to London,” Malachi instructed, his voice regaining a bit of strength. “Arthur’s right, there should be enough money in the safe to last us until we can sort out the estate.  I know the combination, and it’s probably not warded now either.  Take rooms at the Landmark Hotel.  I’ll catch up to you there.”
“What are you going to do?” Evelyn asked in a quavering voice.
Malachi gazed sadly at the house. “I have to deal with this.”
No one said another word.  Still fighting their tears they filed into the house and up to their rooms to pack.

Malachi listened to the two cars as they pulled out of the garage and turned down the drive that led to the main road.  The open window brought a chill into his room that set him shivering, but he didn’t close it.  He sat on his bed, staring at the letter from his father that he had found on his pillow.  The instructions were clear enough, and he understood the necessity, but the task itself overwhelmed him.  For the first time in years, he felt like a child, lost, confused and angry.  He felt the weight of the burden settling on him, and he didn’t know if he could carry it.
With an effort, he pushed his feelings aside.  He didn’t have time to feel, not now.  The House needed him, and his friends needed him.  He could grieve after the wound had been cleaned, but responsibility came first.
With a hollow sigh, he went about the work of closing the House.

The Times
Tuesday, February 5th, 1929
Fire Claims Horrific Toll on Wealthy Families

Seven of England’s most prominent wealthy families were all but extinguished in a blaze that destroyed a country home jointly owned by the affluent clans.

The well known families of Ouros, Kinsbridge, Arkham, Wreathe, Corsair, Whitewood and Hearthstone, well connected in business and society, were attending a reception at the country estate when a fire reportedly spread from the kitchens through the house, quickly growing out of control.

Speculation suggests that the attendees were unaware of the danger until the fire had already spread through much of the house, and were unable to reach exits before the house was consumed.  The final death toll counts a horrifying fifty-seven killed by the inferno.

In the aftermath of the disaster, there were only seven survivors; the youngest members of the families, segregated from the blaze in another building on the grounds.  The youths have declined to comment on the tragedy, and requested anonymity.

Prelude II
January 4th, 1934

Arthur traced the large chalk circle onto the rough stone of his cellar floor.  Within it he drew a second, smaller circle, leaving just a few inches of space separating the two white rings.  Inside the second circle, he drew the long, seven-pointed star.  At each point of the star, in the space between the circles, he placed a single white candle, never before lit.  Working carefully, and drawing largely from memory, he inscribed the seven names in their ancient script in the spaces between the candles.  Satisfied with the painstaking work, he stowed the chalk in his trouser pocket.
Stepping carefully, so as not to smudge the chalk lines, Arthur moved around the circle, lighting the candles one by one.  Finally, he returned to the centre of the star, settling cross-legged in the empty space at the nexus of the lines.
Drawing a deep breath, which only shook a little, he closed his eyes and placed his hands, palms up, on his knees.  With a practised effort of will, he released a portion of his own energy into the confines of the sigil.  The ritual was a simple one, but he was long out of the habit, and he had no one to tell him if he was doing it correctly.  He could rely only on the instructions in his old primer, and hope he remembered the basics.  Slowly exhaling, he took another breath, and spoke in a whispered chant.
“My wisdom to the Circle
My heart to the Circle
My strength to the Circle
As I am bound, the Circle sets me free
Until I am no more.”
Arthur felt the energy he had released swirling within the circle, reacting to the power of the simple chant.  As the last word rang in the air, he felt that power rush to the outer edges of the sigil, and at that moment the candles flared brightly.  Their flames consumed them utterly in the space of a second, and continued to burn down the lines of the star.  As the fire reached the centre, it surrounded Arthur in a burning ring that grew in intensity, but did not harm his skin, nor singe his clothing.  The flames simply grew higher and brighter, until Arthur was sitting in the middle of a white-hot pillar of flame.
As suddenly as the spectacle began, it ended.  The dazzling hot tower collapsed and all flames faded.  Arthur felt the energies that had built up around the ritual coalescing around him in that instant, and after a brief rush of power that penetrated him to his core, they too vanished.  The only trace left of the power Arthur had gathered was the tingling of the ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which was engraved with the same seven-pointed sigil he had drawn on the stone floor.
Arthur stood and scuffed his foot across the two circles, smearing the chalk and breaking their power.  Then he went upstairs to have his morning cup of tea.  It was the morning of his twentieth birthday, the day he became a full member of the House of the Grey Circle.
For all that was worth.
Though his house was well appointed, and clearly demonstrated his wealth, Arthur had no servants.  He preferred to manage his own affairs.  So one of the wealthiest young men in London boiled his own water and brewed his own tea, and with teacup in hand he went outside to gather his own mail.
Nestled in amongst the usual bills and newspaper was a curious envelope.  Curious for the fact that it bore no stamp and no address, only the name Arthur Corsair in a somewhat familiar flowing handwriting.  Even more curious for the fact that it was sealed in old fashion with wax.  A not entirely welcome suspicion crept upon Arthur, which left him reluctant to examine the device of the seal.  When finally he let his eyes rest on the symbol pressed into the red wax, it was with no great surprise that he found it to be the very same emblem that was engraved in his ring.
They all had the same ring, of course, given to them when they were first brought into the House.  But the sigil was only used in this manner when the correspondence was official, allowing letters to reach the intended House members without reliance on the post.  Such magics were not used frivolously.  Arthur was certain of the handwriting on the envelope now, even reading what he already knew the letter would contain would offer him no insight into the motivation of its sending.
Why now?

Selena gave her young daughter’s bonnet a firm tug before tying it.  No use letting the blasted thing be loose after all.  Caitlyn squirmed, but Selena’s firm hand had the bonnet straight before the tiny girl could crawl away from her.  Selena scooped Caitlyn into her arms before the baby could get very far, and all but sauntered out of the nursery.
William came out of the room next door at nearly the same moment, towing Carter along beside him.  At two years old, Carter already disliked being carried.  The child loved to run, and his parents saw no reason to discourage him.  Selena met William halfway to the stairs with a quick peck on the cheek.
“We’re going to be late,” William chided, without losing his smile.
“Nonsense,” Selena said, “We’ll be at your mother’s well before lunch, just as we always are.”
“Nana!” Carter squealed excitedly, as he always did.  They visited William’s mother for lunch every Friday.  Selena insisted on it.  For his part, William understood his wife’s need for such a ritual.  It was just one of many ways she eased the grief he knew she still hid behind her warm exterior.
They had met nearly five years ago at an art gallery.  Selena had still been new to her loss then, and longed for a distraction.  William had been nothing more than a constable’s son looking to broaden his education with a taste of the arts.  He couldn’t remember a single painting from that evening, only the sadness he had seen in the eyes of a seventeen year old girl standing alone in a crowd, shivering in a dress not fit for the season.  He’d offered her his coat, and later dinner.  The rest was history; William was smitten instantly, and drawn to care for this heartbroken girl; Selena was charmed by William’s compassion.  They had married the next year.  Four years and two children later, their marriage felt as new as it had the day they took their vows.
Selena led the way down the stairs, and William followed close after, picking up the protesting Carter to carry him down.  He left Selena to bundle the little ones into their coats while he popped out to grab the mail before they left.  There wasn’t much, just the newspaper and a solitary envelope.  William gave it a puzzled look.  It wasn’t stamped or addressed, it just had a name written across it in a graceful script.
“Selena,” he called back to the foyer, “there’s an odd-looking letter here for you.”
Still smiling, Selena met him at the door, but her smile faded as her gaze fell upon the envelope in William’s hand, and the expression that replaced it put a stone in his heart.

Daniel came into the pub through the back, unlocking the heavy door and locking it again behind him.  He passed through the small kitchen and out into the tavern proper, grabbing a rag from behind the bar as he went.  The pub was already as clean as it was going to get, but Daniel found this ritual comforting.  There was, he had decided, a certain magic in the opening routine.
The pub was his, legally speaking anyway.  As far as true ownership went, Daniel knew it really belonged to Maggie.  It was her dream, Daniel had just fronted the cash to finance it.  She would never have got it off the ground otherwise.  Caring for her father had consumed all the money she made before Daniel came along.
He had met her not long after his return to London.  He had taken to wandering the city aimlessly in the first months after everyone had parted ways.  The absence of purpose in his life after the loss of the House had left him apathetic.
One day, in an unusual circumstance, he had found himself drawn into conversation with a sad-eyed shopgirl.  She had told him of her sick father, and her dream of an establishment to call her own.  He had told her of his own loss; as much as he could say; and the ennui that had followed him since.  It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together and come to an agreement.  Two weeks later, he had bought this building and told Maggie to do what she liked with it.  His only concession to himself in the arrangement was that the top floor of the building was his, which he had converted into an apartment.
Maggie and her father had moved closer to the pub, with Daniel’s assistance, and so had begun a partnership which offered Daniel something to fill the hollow space he had carried in him.  He found in Maggie the sense of kinship he had lost when his family died and his friends scattered.  Along with her father, she had become family to him; the older sister he never had.
Daniel heard the sound of a key in the front door.  The lock clicked and the door opened, letting the midafternoon sun in for a moment.  Maggie followed it in, the fiery hair which even made her look like Daniel’s sister blazing in the light.  She offered Daniel a quick smile by way of greeting as she shuffled through the stack of envelopes from the mailbox.
“You’re early again,” she observed.  Her Irish brogue had gotten lighter in the last couple of years.
“I live here,” Daniel pointed out.
“All the more reason not to be early.  You don’t actually have to go anywhere.”
“Maybe I like beating you here,” Daniel suggested.
“Then I’ll have to start sleeping in the kitchen,” the countered, holding up an envelope. “Something for you here.”
Daniel strode over and took the envelope from Maggie’s impatient hand, turning it over to read the front.  He hadn’t forgotten the handwriting that carried his name across the cream-coloured paper.  He certainly hadn’t forgotten the sigil that sealed the wax.  He broke the seal with a little more excitement than he had expected, and smiled to himself as he read the letter within.
“It’s about time.”

For reasons Evelyn could not explain, there was no magic in the world that could ease a sore foot.  At least not if the foot was hers.  She could ease just about anyone’s pain if she tried hard enough, but after a long day running around the hospital in these godawful heels, there was no spell or cantrip that could cool the fire that burned from her ankles on down.
There were those who wondered aloud; often quite loud in fact; why a rich young woman of Evelyn’s breeding would take on the nurse’s vocation.  When she bothered to answer, she would generally say it was a calling.  People needed help, and she felt compelled to help them.  That was mostly true.  She didn’t generally mention that her calling was motivated by the need to make worthy use of a skill that let her mend broken bones in minutes.  She didn’t expect many people would be understanding of that detail.
She came to the door of her townhouse, somewhat resentful of the number of stairs she’d been forced to endure to get here, and let herself in.  The house was modest, by the standards of her station, but Evelyn had never been particularly interested in the trappings of wealth.  She decorated in soft, warm colours, making it the sort of place that felt like home the first time one walked in.  It suited her.
With a great sigh of relief, Evelyn deposited herself on the loveseat just off of the foyer.  She could go farther when her feet didn’t feel like they were going to fall off.  This would be just fine for now.  For a brief moment, she pondered disproving her notion of sore feet being immune to her magic.  Just like every day, she talked herself out of the idea.  It simply struck her as wasteful.
A light flapping sound caught her ear, and she turned her eyes back to the front door just in time to see a small envelope fall through the mail slot.  It took a minute, but curiosity ultimately won out over the desire for comfort, and she forced herself up to examine the envelope.
Evelyn hadn’t seen an envelope like this in a number of years, and she had to fight off a wave of painful memories at the sight of the seal that held it shut.  She wondered briefly why he had so suddenly decided to send it, but memory dawned on her.  Of course, Arthur’s birthday.  She’d sent a card just the other day.  They were all of age now, that must be why he sent it now.  They were all proper members now, inasmuch as there was a House to be members of.
But why send it at all?

The little cabin was tucked into the woods so well it was almost invisible when the early evening sun slipped behind the trees.  The canopy dipped low enough to all but conceal the roof, and the logs that made its walls would have matched the surrounding trees perfectly if they were standing upright.  Even in the bright midday, the small house looked as though it had grown out of the forest instead of being built.
The soft crackle of a fire filled the little clearing in front of the cabin, followed closely by the rich smell of wood smoke.  The fire was built within a ring of stones, which had been cleared of snow.  It was built high, casting its warm orange heat in a broad circle around it, much to the relief of the man sitting cross-legged in front of it.  He wore no coat, only a buttoned flannel shirt and denim trousers.  He’d heard of shamans who did this naked, without the benefit of a fire, but he had long since decided to leave that to the professionals.
Warren took a deep breath, managing not to shiver, and focused his gaze on the dancing flames.  There was chaos there, in the erratic jumping sparks and sudden pops.  Warren wasn’t interested in the chaos, nor in the heat.  What he sought in the fire was something organic, the method behind the madness.  There was a will buried at the heart of it that Warren wanted to contact.
His breathing slowed, and the cold was forgotten.  To his eyes, the fire seemed to slow in its mad dance as well.  Its movement became steady, rhythmic.  Like breathing.  At the heart of the fire, its light shone brightest; waxing and waning with the rhythm of the flames’ movement.  Warren could feel its consciousness, wild and overwhelming.  Keeping his breathing steady, he reached out his own will to contact that primal mind.
Touching the spirit of the flame felt like setting his own brain on fire.  The heat of it, the raw primeval hunger that bore down on him was impossible to fathom, let alone contain.  Warren tried desperately to hold onto the contact, but he could feel his own mind beginning to burn away in the process.  As the heat turned toward agony, he severed the contact, all but falling away from the fire in front of him.  The fire, in turn, flared up beyond the borders of the circle of stones, roaring its defiance before settling back to its normal size.
Warren’s breath was that of a man who’d just run a marathon.  He realised he was sweating through his shirt, in spite of the cold which was only now beginning to bite him again.  The sun had dipped noticeably in the time he’d been out here, and the shadows were beginning to lengthen.  It was well past time to go inside.  He left the fire to burn itself out.  It would do no harm where it was.
He hadn’t bothered putting a lock on the cabin.  What need was there?  No one would come out here anyway, and any bizarre fool who did come seeking trouble would find more than he bargained for.  Warren pushed open the door and shut it behind him, letting the security of the four walls calm his seared nerves.  He took several deep breaths before he went to light the lamps.
He was a bit reluctant letting fire into his house after what had just transpired, but he knew well enough that one such spirit would not carry the grudge of another.  Besides that, it would be just in cold inside as out if he didn’t get the wood stove going.  The soft orange light added to the light of the lanterns in the corners of the room to fill the cabin with a warm dim glow.  As Warren crouched by the stove, letting its warmth ease his frozen joints, he noticed something on the floor by the door.
Walking over to examine the unfamiliar thing, he found a simple white envelope with his name written across it.  Flipping it over, he saw the seal and nodded with interest.  He hadn’t known these messages could be sent so far from civilisation.  Curious that he would send it now, after so long.

Abigail had been staring at the letter for most of the day, and she still hadn’t decided whether to answer or just burn the thing and be done with it.  There were rules, she knew, and obligations.  She had taken the oaths and fulfilled the Rite of Confirmation, as she was sure everyone had.  But what were those rules worth now?  Who was going to enforce them?  No one had even tried to keep in touch for nearly five years; could they hold it against her if she had moved on?
The argument sounded hollow in her mind.  She hadn’t moved onto anything.  Perhaps she wanted to forget and live a new life, but what had she done in five years?  Gone to a concert here, a benefit dinner there.  The word people used to describe her now was “philanthropist”, but what was that worth, when all it meant was that she threw money at someone else’s problems so she could forget her own?
The letter sat on the coffee table like an accusation.  It brought questions with it.  Would the others show up?  Of course they would.  Abigail had looked in on them several times.  It wasn’t difficult.  Evelyn and Warren were still actively practising, Daniel certainly wasn’t letting himself forget, and Arthur and Selena still used it on occasion.  They hadn’t let go any more than Abigail had, much as she might claim to, while spying on her old friends through a bowl of water.
She missed them, though she might only admit it to herself lest she crack the façade of strength she had so carefully built.  They were the closest thing she had left to a family in this world.  She hadn’t married, like Selena.  She didn’t have a calling like Evelyn.  Her charity work was more of a distraction.  Even Arthur had his fancy social circles.
Of course, she did still have her obligations.  This would keep her from attending the Policeman’s Ball, and she knew well that her absence would not go unnoticed.  That simply would not do.  She picked up the letter, meaning to toss it in the wastebin and finalise her decision.
What if they needed her?  Her hand stopped just short of the bin.  What if they aimed to do something dangerous?  Certainly the notion seemed foolish, but she’d been certain nothing dangerous was afoot that night as well, and she had been fatally wrong.  If they meant to get into some sort of trouble, six might not be enough.  There was no power in six.  Her absence could doom them.  If they came to harm because she wasn’t there…
The letter returned to the table, and Abigail went to her phone.  Ignoring the fact that her hand was shaking, she dialed Roger’s number.  Roger handled all of her charitable finances and helped her keep track of her events.  She had set up a side account that she gave him access to, one that didn’t lead back to the House accounts.
Roger picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Roger, dear,” Abigail was always extra nice to him when she needed to ask him to do something unpleasant, “I need you to cancel my appearance at the Policeman’s Ball next month.”
“Is something wrong?” Roger’s voice took on a note of concern.
“Just a small emergency,” she reassured him, “nothing too dramatic, I’m sure.  Some unexpected business to finish up relating to my family.”
“I see,” despite the brave face Abilgail kept up about it, Roger was always cautious of that subject. “You’re sure nothing’s wrong?”
“Not that I know of, but I appreciate your concern, as always.”
“You know you’re going to burn a few people by not showing up at the ball.”
“I know.  Do what you can to smooth it over for me, would you?  Add a little something to my donation.  Whatever you think will do the job.”
“All right,” he sounded reluctant, but Roger was sure to do what he was asked, “you let me know if you need anything, okay?”
“Of course, dear.  Thank you.”
As she hung up the phone, Abigail let the smile that had never reached her face fade from her voice.  Roger was a darling, and always so very concerned.  She half expected him to propose to her sometimes, and was never quite certain she’d say no.  But there’d be no room to think of such things now, she expected.  There was no chance that this was small business.
With a sigh that she wouldn’t dream of letting anyone hear, Abigail went to fix herself a drink for her nerves, and spent the rest of the night wrapped up in unpleasant memories.

My friends,

I hope this letter finds you well, and I apologise that I haven’t been able to keep in touch these past few years.  I must apologise again, for this is sure to bring up memories we’d all rather leave forgotten.  But the past must not be ignored, or I fear the future will be no better.
As of today, we are all of age, and I expect you have all undergone the Rite, as I did.  It’s time we came together again, as I believe the affairs of the House are not yet in order.  I ask that you meet me at the manor on February the second.  Rest assured, despite what you may have seen in the papers, it is still standing.
This will be an official conclave, with all the usual expectations.  I trust we will all remember our oaths, and that I will see you all again soon.

Your friend as always,
Malachi

Chapter 1
February 2nd, 1934

It was midafternoon when the first car arrived.  Malachi heard the rumble of the engine from the front parlour, and took a look out the window before going to greet the first arrival.  It was a Model T pickup, not exactly new from the look of it.  Not quite what Malachi had expected.
The driver door swung open, and Warren stepped out, looking like some sort of mountain man.  He had grown rather broad of frame in the past five years, and his shaggy light brown hair was now matched with a beard that concealed half of his face.  He wore heavy worker’s boots and blue denim slacks.  Underneath the padded leather coat, Malachi fully expected to find plaid flannel.
For his own part, Malachi had changed little in the intervening years.  His suits were nicer, certainly, but he still kept his dark hair swept back, and he still wore the same silver frames for his spectacles.  Age was the only thing that had changed him, and he found that did more inside than out.
He met Warren at the door, offering a warm handshake.  Warren returned the gesture, though his face wasn’t quite as genial as his handshake suggested.
“Malachi,” he said by way of greeting.
“Warren,” Malachi returned, somewhat more pleasantly, “It’s good to see you.”
Warren simply nodded, and Malachi stepped aside to let his old friend precede him in.  He was somewhat relieved to see Warren remove his boots.  Whatever corner of the world he’d vanished to, he had at least remembered some of his manners.  The flannel under the coat was a solid blue, rather than plaid, but flannel nonetheless.  He hung his coat and went straight for the largest chair in the parlour.
“I suppose you’d rather wait until we’re all here to tell us what this is all about,” he said.
“It seems simpler than repeating it,” Malachi shrugged, “something to drink while we wait?”
Warren shook his head, and Malachi returned to his own chair.  The next half hour was mostly silence, interspersed with occasional attempts on Malachi’s part to strike up conversation.  It seemed time had served to make Warren more taciturn, rather than less.  Malachi hoped this was not a sign of things to come.
The driveway crunched under the weight of another car, and both men looked to the uncurtained window at the same time.  The simple blue car was even more modest than Warren’s truck, if not quite so rugged.  Neither of the two was surprised to see Evelyn climb out.  She had developed into a picture of demure beauty.  She dressed sensibly, with a long blue wool peacoat and a matching hat and gloves, and her soft chestnut hair was held back with a single blue ribbon.
Warren gave Malachi a meaningful look, and Malachi nodded in agreement with the unspoken suggestion.  Warren stood to meet Evelyn at the door.  The two were always quite close, and the evening might go better if it began with the reunion of dear friends.
They met at the door with a smile and the fond embrace of friends who’d been too long out of touch, and Warren escorted Evelyn to the parlour once she’d stowed her winter things.  The long grey dress she wore suited the personality Malachi remembered.  He stood to greet her and received a hug of his own, though not quite as heartfelt as the one Evelyn shared with Warren.  She lookd around as though shocked.
“I thought this place had burned.  I saw the pictures in the paper!”
“An illusion.  It seems our families were prepared for what happened in more ways than one.  It’s been too long, Evey,” Malachi said with a smile.
“I hope the others think the same,” Evelyn’s smile faltered enough to betray the concern that went with her words.
Malachi could only nod as he showed her to a chair.  She accepted a cup of tea, and the day began to take on a friendlier tone as conversation was finally possible.  The next hour or so was much more cordial, and small talk continued until they finally heard the third car approaching.
A black roadster pulled up beside Evelyn’s car and killed its engine.  With the top up, its occupant couldn’t be seen, but the smartly dressed young man who stepped out took only a moment to recognise.  Even if he had changed more drastically, Arthur’s youth gave him away.  He had finally trimmed his curly brown hair, and the vandyke beard he had grown to match it gave an edge of maturity to his soft face.  He didn’t seem as well-fed as he had been when he was young, but there was still a certain softness to his silhouette that suggested he still preferred leisure over labour.
Greeting Malachi at the door with a simple “hello”, Arthur was soon among the small gathering in the parlour, lounging on the nearest chair to the door.  He accepted a scotch and soda at Malachi’s offer and sipped it quietly, eyeing the three seated with him.
“So,” Arthur finally said, “Do we get to know why we’re here?”
“When the others are here,” Malachi assured him, “I imagine they won’t be long.”
“If they come at all,” Arthur said dryly.
“You came,” Warren pointed out.
“I had nothing better to do.  Can’t say the same for Selena at least.  And I’m sure Abby’s got some sort of party she has to attend.”
“They’ll come,” Warren said with quiet finality.
As if on cue, the waning sun reflected off of another approaching windscreen.  Another sensible car, good for a family.  It made Arthur’s roadster look even more out of place.  Selena’s brown coat contrasted her blonde hair, pulled into a bun.  She came to the door with a somewhat stern look on her face, which only grew sterner when Malachi met her there.  She spoke before he could say hello.
“This had best be important, Malachi.  You have no idea how difficult it was to convince my husband to let me come out here on my own.”
“I assure you, Selena,” Malachi’s voice was warmly reassuring, “this is of the utmost importance.”
A brown dress matched the brown coat, making Selena look every bit the housewife and mother she wanted the world to believe she was.  Her greeting to the others was much friendlier, with a warm hug for Evelyn, and pleasant smiles for the gentlemen.  She declined a drink, and sat in one corner of the sofa.
The conversation had reached the level of pleasant chatter, and the sun was well into setting when the second to last car arrived.  A rather nice grey Ford Coupe eased its way in among the other cars, and Daniel unfolded his wiry frame from the driver’s seat.  His fiery red hair was neatly trimmed, and his pinstriped brown suit spoke of understated class.
Daniel took the front steps two at a time, and had opened the door himself by the time Malachi got there.  He greeted Malachi with a cheerful handshake and moved on into the parlour to meet the others.  Daniel had no coat.  He generally didn’t need one.  There were some perks to their rather unique educations.
Daniel had barely sat down when the last car arrived.  Rather similar to Daniel’s, it parked next to his as well.  Abigail, in a long mink coat, came to the door looking less than cheerful.  Her demeanour didn’t change when she saw Malachi, nor when she met the others, though she did share pleasantries, she seemed to be forcing herself to do so.  When she doffed her coat, she was wearing a sensible but flattering dress of dark red that matched her auburn hair well.
Conversation didn’t last much longer after that.  The small throng of voices gradually died down, and everyone looked expectantly at Malachi.  It was Daniel who first spoke.
“So, what’s this about?”
“Yes,” Abigail said with a sense of weariness, “let’s just get this over with.”
Malachi nodded somewhat regretfully. “Very well.  If you’ll all join me in the library, we can begin.”
“Can’t we just stay here?” Selena asked imploringly. “I doubt any of us really wants to see the library.”
“At a gathering such as this,” Malachi explained, “there are certain things we must do.  One of those is the Rite of the Circle, which must be performed in the library.”
“The Rite?” Arthur raised an eyebrow. “That’s for the Circle of Seven to do.”
“Who do you suppose that is?” Warren’s monotone was oddly meaningful.
Everyone was quiet for a moment.  No one wanted to say the obvious, until Malachi finally spoke again.
“Precisely, Warren.  Whether we like it or not, we are the Circle.  We are the House.  That, in essence, is why we are here tonight.”
He gave them all a moment to mull over his words before he continued.
“Please, join me in the library.”
Slowly, they all stood and followed Malachi to the centre of the manor.  Presently, they reached the double doors that, five years ago, had opened on the worst sight of their lives.  As they approached the threshold, they all felt a slight tingle in the air, and a little bit of resistance.
“Yes,” Malachi confirmed, noting their reactions, “the wards are back.  They were apparently not completely sundered, only exhausted for a time.  They recharged some time while we were away.  That is partly why I waited until now to call this meeting.”
He saved the rest of his explanation until they had reached the centre common, and the round stone table.  With some reluctance, each of them took the place reserved for their family.  There was a moment of silence as the magnitude of what they were about to do combined with the hard memories that had stained each of their lives.
Malachi watched them, keeping his concern to himself.  Everyone here had a choice to make.  Malachi had already made it, but he had had more time to ponder it.  If they went through with this, and performed the Rite of the Circle, they would essentially be reopening the House, and the old wounds that came with it.  This was, in Malachi’s mind, the moment of truth.  Silently, he placed his hand in the empty space to the right of his family name.
Most of them hesitated.  A couple did not.  Daniel’s hand was in place almost immediately after Malachi’s, with Evelyn’s not far behind.  Warren hesistated for a moment after Evelyn, but inevitably followed suit.  Selena’s hand hovered above its space for a few seconds as an indecisive look passed across her face, but finally she brought it down.  Arthur waited, but didn’t hesitated as he took his place in the circle.  Only Abigail remained apart.  Everyone looked to her.
“What’s the point of this?” She asked, her voice hollow.
“What was the point when our ancestors did it three hundred years ago?” Malachi asked in return. “What was the point when our families did it five years ago?”
Abigail flinched at the last question, and glared at Malachi for a split second.  The pain on her face didn’t fade as quickly.  Malachi spoke more softly:
“There must have been a point then, Abby.  Whatever that purpose was, it’s ours now.  We don’t honour them by ignoring the task they left us.”
For a moment, Abigail looked like she might cry.  She wasn’t alone in that.  Malachi’s face held the same emotion.  The others, save the stone-faced Warren and the disaffected Arthur, reflected a measure of the same.  With a final few seconds of hesitation, Abigail put her hand on the table.  Malachi nodded approval, and looked to everyone in turn to see that they were ready.  With another nod, he began to speak, and the others spoke with him.
It was a chant they had never spoken, but they had all read it, and heard it in their lessons.  They felt the power radiating around them as they spoke, and felt it pulled toward the centre of the table.  The familiar sigil took on its bright silver glow as the energy gathered in its bounds.  When their voices faded, so did the light, as the power was sucked away as though by a sponge.  All seven shared looks of brief confusion.  They had never seen that happen before.
As they all sat, Malachi remained standing.  He leaned on the table for a moment, for a moment looking quite weary.
“I feel like I should welcome us home,” he said, “but we’ve all got new homes to return to, so I suppose I ought to make this quick.”
There were a few nods.  This was all proving far more awkward than Malachi had hoped.
“I called you all here,” he continued, “because, whether we want to or not, the death of our families must be addressed.  We were young when it happened, and not ready to face such a tragedy.  I think we’ve all grown enough, and distanced ourselves enough to give it due examination now.
“Their deaths were no accident.  You’ve all reached the same conclusion, I’m sure.  These were skilled and experienced magicians.  None of them would even risk making an error with such devastating consequences.  No, they were killed by a deliberate force.  Murdered.”
“I’ll ask the obvious question then,” Arthur spoke up, “What could do that?”
“We all felt something,” Evelyn said with sad thoughtfulness, “another presence mixed with their magic.  Something foul.”
Malachi nodded. “My thoughts exactly.  We all recognised that such an evil power could belong to the House.  Whatever it was we felt that night, that was the thing that killed them.  Something so powerful and so evil that it burned the life out of fifty-seven potent magi at once.”
He gave it a moment to sink in.  After half a minute, Selena asked the obvious question.
“Why?”
“I’ve given that a great deal of thought,” Malachi replied, “and I’ve tried to find some answers here.  I spent the last year poring through this library, but without knowing where to begin, and with so many books to look through, it has been a daunting task.  I have a theory, borne out by a few scraps of information I’ve found here and there.
“I’ve found only a little evidence to support this, but based on what we witnessed, I have come to believe it.  There are beings of terrible power somewhere beyond the veil of reality.  Things that don’t belong in this world.  I believe our families faced such a being five years ago.”
No one said anything.  Daniel fished a cigarette out of his pocket.  A spark flared from his fingertip as he lit it, inhaling deeply.
“Again,” Warren said, “why?”
“That is difficult to answer conclusively,” Malachi answered, “Did it come seeking them, or did they force the confrontation?  For what purpose did they engage it?  What seems most likely to me, if my prior hypothesis is correct, is that they fought it to prevent its entry into our world.  If such beings do exist, they could do terrible harm to our plane of reality.”
“And how much evidence do you have of these ‘beings’?” Abigail asked archly.
“Bits and pieces, I’m afraid,” Malachi concluded. “It would seem that whatever our predecessors knew of such things, they preferred to keep such information well buried.  Without their guidance, it could take years to sort out the information in this library.  But I believe it is important that we do so.”
“Why?” Abigail demanded.
“Because what little information I have found began with an anecdote from the earliest history of the House.  Our founders came together to ward off an evil that dwelled ‘beyond the sight of men’.  Something so terrible it took seven of the world’s most powerful magicians to seal it away.  The House of the Grey Circle was founded to keep such horrors sealed away.  If seven of them fought it off then, and fifty-seven fell to it now, what does that say of its strength?  What will happen in another three hundred years, or one hundred, or fifty, or ten?
“I believe that, five years ago, the seal our founders established was broken.  Nearly the whole of the house died to ensure that it was resealed, and they left us to continue the vigil.  If we abandon that responsibility, what fate might befall the world?  We may be the only thing that stands between humanity and annihilation.”
“That seems a bit melodramatic, Malachi,” Selena said.
“Perhaps, but I think it’s safest to assume the worst in this case.  Regardless, it’s imperative that we prepare ourselves.  We must learn more of what it is we are expected to face, and we must be ready to face it.”
“What, the seven of us?” Arthur scoffed. “You saw what it did here.  Fifty-seven real, powerful magicians died here.  We’re barely more than children compared to them.”
“You’re quite right,” Malachi agreed, “we’re all out of practise.  We’ve spent the last five years trying to get away from this.  I’m sure a few of us have tried to keep up the practise, but I doubt any of us have really learned much.  That is what we must do.”
“What do you suggest?” Daniel asked.
“I suggest we take one more year apart, to each hone our skills a little further.  Find teachers if you can, or else just keep working at it.  We left the House years ago as mere students.  We must return to it as fully fledged magi.  We must rebuild the legacy our families left behind.  Are you with me?”
One by one, they voiced their assent, some more readily than others.  Evelyn and Daniel agreed without hesitation.  Warren nodded gravely after a moment of thought, and Arthur shrugged and said “why not”.  Selena hesitated while some inner conflict settled itself and then nodded resolutely.  Abigail had so far remained silent.
“Abigail,” Malachi asked again, “are you with us?”
Abigail was quiet a moment longer before finally giving a sad smile.
“If it’s unanimous,” she said quietly, “then I suppose I am.”
Malachi nodded quietly offering her a sympathetic look before he swept his gaze again across the entire assembly.
“The matter is settled,” he pronounced. “One year from today we will gather here again.  In one year we will begin rebuilding the House that our families built.”

Chapter 2
February 2nd, 1935

It was a long drive from London to the manor, but Selena hardly noticed.  She wasn’t fazed by much these days.  The last thing to get a real emotional response out of her had been the arrival of a sad-faced constable at her door, eight months ago.  A man she had known for two years, and she had never seen such a look on his face.  He had told her of an accident that afternoon.  A constable had been struck by a careless driver.  He had held her as she wept, gripped by merciless sobs.
She’d had no time to feel at the funeral.  She had to comfort the children; give them something strong to hold onto while they watched their father go into the ground.  She’d wept bitterly that night too, once Carter and Caitlyn were tucked in bed, exhausted by their own tears.  After that, she seemed drained of emotion.  She put on a face for her children and their grandmother, but her heart might as well be dead.
And still she came tonight.  Her sense of duty, it seemed, was stronger than her apathy.  She still felt loyal to these people, none of whom had been there.  Selena couldn’t really blame them.  Most of them had been out of the country by then.  Only Daniel had actually been in London at the time, and he hadn’t learned of the accident until after the funeral.  He’d sent a letter, offering what comfort he could, but they had all drifted apart so much by then that there wasn’t much more he could do.
William’s death had advanced her studies, to a degree.  There was some insignificant comfort in that.  Selena had devoted much of her effort to reaching across the barrier between life and death, hoping to contact him.  That boundary was a difficult one to breach.  Less than a year wasn’t nearly enough time to accomplish that goal.  Privately, she had already admitted to herself that she was coming tonight as much in the hope that the others might help her as for their actual purpose.
There were five cars already parked in the garage by the time she arrived.  She pulled in next to Warren’s truck and killed the engine.  Absently, she looked out at the already dark sky and felt a twinge of concern.  There was little to worry about.  The children were with their grandmother, and Selena had advised her that she may be gone all night.
The others were waiting outside, which was curious.  It certainly wasn’t a warm night.  The unspoken question must have been on Selena’s face, because Daniel opened his mouth to speak as soon as she was in conversation distance.
“We thought we might all go in together this time.”
There was a moment of rather awkward silence as nearly everyone tried to politely avoid Selena’s gaze.  So they had heard.  Evelyn, ultimately, couldn’t contain herself.
“Oh, Selena, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there!” She all but rushed to Selena’s side, her face awash with guilt. “If I had only been there –“
“It wouldn’t have been any different,” Selena cut her off gently. “He was gone by the time I found out.  There was no way you could have done anything.  But I’m grateful to know that you would have, if you could.”
For a moment, Evelyn looked like she might cry.  But she straightened, and her face cleared of anguish.  She had learned some inner strength.  Of course she had, she was a nurse.  She couldn’t handle that sort of job without a backbone.
Arthur, who was closest to the front door, stood aside meaningfully.  Taking the cue, they crowded politely inside.  The manor was dark, and not as warm as it ought to be.  The boiler had only been turned on recently.  The dark, silent mansion, combined with the presence of only six cars in the garage, led to the conclusion which Abigail ultimately voiced.
“Malachi’s not here.”
“Maybe he’s running late,” Daniel suggested, “I’m sure he’ll be along.”
“Not him,” Arthur said, “he’d have been here hours early, to make sure the place was ready.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been staying here.”
“No,” Evelyn observed, “the boiler’s only just been turned on.  It can’t have been running for more than a day, by the feel of it.”
“Then he was here,” Abigail concluded, “no more than a day ago.  And he left.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Selena said flatly. “This is a conclave, right?  An official meeting?  No one skips a conclave, the person who called it least of all.  And we all know how seriously Malachi takes the rules.”
“Maybe we should go to the library,” Arthur suggested, “before we make any assumptions.”
He offered no explanation for that suggestion, but they had all long since learned to trust Arthur’s intuition.  They filed into the library, which was just as dark as the rest of the house.  The lights worked just fine, of course.  This far out of the city, they couldn’t rely on electricity.  The lights didn’t run on electricity any more than the boiler actually ran on water.
As they had already surmised, Malachi wasn’t there either.  They reached the centre common to find it deserted, but not empty.  On the table they found an envelope and a curious looking book.  Its cover was red leather, embossed in gold with numerous curling symbols unfamiliar to the group but obvious in their magical significance.  Dominant was a single curved sigil which took up a quarter of the front cover.  The book fairly hummed with power.
“The letter first,” Arthur instructed, a somewhat disconnected look about him.
Abigail slid the single sheet of paper out of the envelope.  The handwriting was unmistakably Malachi’s.  The letter was brief, and Abigail read it aloud:
“My friends, I apologise for my unseemly absence.  I have found myself embroiled in matter from which there is no departing until complete.  Rest assured, my actions serve our agreed-upon purpose, though I regret that I am unable to explain them at this time.
“Please proceed in my absence, all the resources I know of are at your fingertips.  I will rejoin you when I am able.  Until then, I remain yours.  Malachi.”
Abigail put the letter down on the table, its rustling seeming unusually loud in the silence that followed the reading.  A long moment passed as everyone processed the unusual message.
“This isn’t right,” Daniel said at last.  Warren nodded in agreement.
“Nothing trumps the House,” Selena reminded them, though they didn’t need it. “It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, the House comes first.”
“He knows that,” Evelyn added. “It seems to me he holds to the old rules more strongly than any of us.  I can’t imagine a pursuit that he couldn’t put on hold or conclude before today.  He ought to be here, unless –“
“He’s in trouble,” Arthur finished.  Another moment of silence followed.
“The letter didn’t mention the book,” Evelyn said quietly.
Abigail picked up the book and flipped it open to the first page.  It looked to be a journal, the words on the page handwritten on the lined yellow paper.
“It’s Malachi’s writing,” Abigail confirmed what they already knew.
“Can we get a fire going before we do any more reading?” Evelyn shivered. “It’s frigid in here.”
Everyone looked to Daniel, who nodded.  He found the two fireplaces on either side of the common had already been stacked and made ready.  Over each he held his hand and spoke a single word in Latin.  Flame sprouted in the midst of the dry wood and quickly spread, becoming two large, merrily burning fires.  Daniel rejoined the group at the table, and Abigail began to read again.

February 2nd, 1935
I find myself in Aviemore, Scotland; a quaint litle village at the base of the Cairngorm Mountains.  My research has led me to believe that I will find something at the summet of Ben Mac Dhui, the tallest of the peaks.  The nature of what I might find is as yet unknown to me, and I have only the most maddeningly whimsical of clues: “look to the stars”.  It sounds like the charlatan nonsense of a back-alley fortune teller, but I must assume that it will make sense at the appropriate time.
I will set out at dawn.  I can take the majority of the journey by car, until I reach Glenfeshie Lodge.  From there I must go on foot.  This is certainly not the appropriate season for such a climb, but, with the volume of work still ahead of me, I cannot afford to wait for spring.  Regardless, I have made appropriate preparations, and do not anticipate any untoward risk.
Something to research when I have time: Several of the locals have attempted to discourage me from this undertaking, citing the threat of something they call “The Grey Man”.  Not likely to be more than local superstition; the Scots do love their monster tales; but  as always, it could be something more.  I shall have to consult the Kinsbridge bestiaries when I have the opportunity.

“Well,” Arthur said when Abigail had finished, “that didn’t make any sense.”
“Not much, no,” Abigail agreed, putting the journal down. “It’s dated today.  He couldn’t have written that in Scotland, returned it here and still had time to be gone before any of us got here.”
“Unless he wrote it in Scotland,” Warren suggested, “and the book was already here.”
“Is something like that possible?” Evelyn asked.
Warren shrugged. “It doesn’t seem too outrageous.”
“So why leave this here for us to read it?” Daniel wondered. “He wants to share his results?”
“He wants us to know where he’s going,” Selena said. “He wants us to know how to follow him.”
“If that’s the case,” Daniel returned, “why not just bring us along?”
“We’ll just have to ask him that when we find him,” Abigail said with an air of finality. “Anyone know how soon we can charter a flight to Scotland?”
“You’re serious,” Arthur said, “you want us all to pack up and go to Nowhereshire, Scotland just because Malachi wrote it in a journal?”
“Have you got a better idea?” Abigail cocked an imperious eyebrow. “Besides, we can all tell that the book is enchanted.  Warren’s hypothesis has merit.  We may as well check it out.”
“I can’t just run off to Scotland,” Selena said reproachfully, “I have children to look after.”
“Who’s looking after them now?” Warren asked.
“Their grandmother.”
“Can she continue looking after them?” He pressed.
“You’re saying I should just abandon my children?” Selena fumed. “Why?  Just because the House says so?  The House that consists of nothing more than a bunch of novice wizards not out of their twenties?”
“You’re going to come,” said Arthur, his voice a bit distant, “you’re not even considering staying behind, so you might as well stop acting like it.”
Selena’s righteous anger deflated, and she glowered dully at Arthur. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
Arthur shrugged. “You were wasting time.” He returned his attention to the group: “I can have a plane chartered by morning.  I’ll head back to London and take care of that.  Meet me at the airport no later than eight thirty tomorrow morning.”
Abigail nodded, looking to each of the others in turn. “Are we agreed?”
Each of them offered their agreement, though Selena did so with a last bit of reluctance.  Daniel stepped away from the table and again spoke a single word in Latin.  Both fireplaces went dark, and the warmth in the room diminished.  They all filed out of the library, but Daniel caught up with Abigail before she could leave.
“You’re trying to take charge again,” he admonished her.
“No one else was going to do it,” she replied, “not with Malachi absent.”
“That’s not the real reason, is it.”
Daniel and Abigail had first arrived at the manor around the same time, being around the same age.  For whatever reason, there was a correlation between age and the manifestation of magical talent.  As result, they knew each other a bit better than the others, perhaps excluding Malachi.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on you lot for six years,” Abigail said quietly, “you think I’m going to stop just because I can actually see you?”

Chapter 3
February 3rd, 1935

The first thing Evelyn noticed when she woke up was how quiet the manor was.  When she was young, the manor had always been full of people, about at all hours.  All of them had learned to sleep through muffled footsteps on floors above, or the occasionally noisy effects of high level magic.  Today she woke  to silence, and found it the most foreign thing.  Even her own townhouse creaked and settled now and again.  The manor was simply…dormant.
Returning to her old bedroom had been a strange experience for Evelyn.  It looked exactly as she had left it.  Not even dust had settled in her absence.  That was expected, though.  A society consisting entirely of extremely focused magical scholars was not the most reliable group when it came to keeping things clean, so the House had long ago implemented permanent magics to take care of such mundane tasks as dusting and scrubbing.
They had all packed what they expected to need for their impromptu journey already, so leaving wouldn’t be an issue.  Evelyn dressed simply in a modest brown dress.  Proper clothes for mountain climbing were in her suitcase.  Wondering if anyone else was up yet, she wandered out of her room.
Halfway down the stairs, she was hit by the smell of bacon.  A little further, and she was sure she could smell eggs too.  She followed her nose to the kitchen, there she found Daniel all but flying around the room.  It was a large kitchen, designed to feed as many as seventy people in an evening.  Daniel had taken one corner and turned it into a breakfast paradise.  On one grill, eggs were being fried, scrambled, poached or boiled.  On another, enough bacon to feed a small army was sizzling merrily.  There were pancakes, of the conventional and potato varieties, tea was steeping, coffee was brewing, and Daniel was just in the midst of slicing fruit.  He looked up when Evelyn walked into the kitchen, though he couldn’t possibly have heard her over the cooking noises.
“Morning,” he smiled, “you like your eggs over hard, right?”
“Yes,” Evelyn was taken a bit aback, “I’m surprised you remembered.  Where did all of this food come from?  It couldn’t have already been here.”
“I went and got it from home before I went to sleep.  I couldn’t imagine us hopping a plane without breakfast, could you?”
“You drove all the way back to London just to get breakfast?”
“Can’t have us going hungry,” Daniel shrugged.
“That can’t be all there is to it,” Evelyn said cautiously.  She didn’t want to push.
“What can’t it – Ow!” Daniel hissed as his hand slipped, and the knife bit into his thumb instead of the apple it was supposed to.  He pulled his bleeding hand quickly away from the food, cradling it as he sought a towel.
“Here, let me see.” Evelyn took his hand in hers and examined his thumb.  The cut was fairly deep, and blood welled eagerly from it.  Evelyn placed two fingers on the wound gently and whispered a few quiet words.  They both felt the slight tingle that jumped from her fingers to Daniel’s hand, and when she released it, the cut had vanished completely, leaving unbroken, though bloodstained skin.  Daniel reached for a towel to wipe away the blood, nodding gratitude.
“A good thing you kept in practice,” he said with a chuckle that sounded rather false.  He turned his attention to the eggs, while Evelyn took over the fruit, tossing out the bloodied apple and fetching a new knife.  The worked in relative silence for a minute or two.
“The truth of it,” Daniel said suddenly, “is that I was hoping this might help.”
“Help?” Evelyn asked encouragingly.
“You saw how awkward things were, both last year and last night.  We haven’t seen each other in years, and now it’s like we don’t know how to act like friends.  I was thinking maybe a nice breakfast together would help things feel more…you know…”
“More like they used to be?” Evelyn finished for him.
“Well, yes, if I want to be simple about it.” Daniel shrugged helplessly.  “We’re not kids anymore, Evey.  We all know things will never be like they were.  But we don’t have to all keep each other at arm’s length like this.”
“It isn’t easy, Daniel.  I don’t think most of us have really taken the time to work through what happened.  Right now, everyone here is just reminding everyone else of what we all went through.  It’s like being dragged back and forced to face something we all just wanted to forget, even if we chose to come back.”
“I know we all had our reasons to come back,” Daniel started pulling the bacon off of the grill as he spoke. “Selena and Abigail are treating it like an obligation.  I can’t blame Selena for not wanting to be here, not with what she’s been through, but Abby’s holding something back.”
“You know her better than the rest of us, Daniel,” Evelyn reminded him, “you’ve got the best chance of figuring her out.”
“I know.  It’s really just those two I’m worried about.  Arthur doesn’t seem all that different, and Warren’s pretty much Warren, if a bit bigger and hairier.  And you seem all right enough with being here.”
“As much as I can be,” Evelyn agreed with a hint of sadness. “And what about you?  What’s your reason?”
“Me?” Daniel shrugged. “I never wanted to leave in the first place.  You lot are all I have left of my family.  I never liked the idea of letting that go.”
“Well, that explains breakfast.  You just want us all to get along.”
“It’ll never be the same as it was,” Daniel said, “I’m too smart to think otherwise.  But I think we can still help each other.  We’ll all be much stronger in facing this if we do it together.”
“I agree,” Evelyn assured him, “absolutely.  The question is whether the others can come to the same conclusion on their own.  We can’t force it, Daniel.”
“I know.  This is just an olive branch.  We’re pretty much done in here.  Everyone ought to be up by now anyway.  Could you let them all know while I get this mess plated?  I’ll meet you in the small dining room.”

They took two cars, to keep anyone from feeling crowded.  The sun was still working on coming out when they arrived at the airstrip on the outskirts of London.  Arthur was waiting at the gate.  He straightened when he saw them approaching, just in time for Evelyn to shove a warm paper bag into his hands.
“What’s this?”
“Breakfast,” Evelyn answered cheerfully, “Daniel kept it warm.  Are you coming?”
Arthur paused for a moment and unfocused his mind, letting himself absorb the emotional ambience emanating off of his five companions.
“Okay,” he said, “you’re all far too cheerful.  Who are you and what have you done with my friends?”
“Daniel made breakfast,” Abigail explained helpfully.
“Of course.  That explains everything.”
“I’m a very good cook,” Daniel pointed out.
“Fine,” Arthur said resignedly, “don’t tell me.  Just get on the plane already.”
“Eat before flying,” Evelyn instructed him. “I don’t want to have to deal with a hungry pilot.”
“Arthur’s flying the plane?” Daniel asked with mock-incredulity. “Maybe we should just walk…”
“Just get on the damned plane,” Arthur growled.
It wasn’t a long flight to Edinburgh, but they had a few hours’ drive ahead of them to get to Aviemore.  They acquired two cars in Edinburgh and took to the road in the early afternoon.  By the time they reached Aviemore, afternoon was starting to turn into evening.  Obviously, they wouldn’t try to take the mountain until morning.
They found a cozy little inn that looked nicer than most of the other places in town.  On the outside, it had the look of a large old Victorian house.  When they went inside, they found the common room to be done mostly in dark wood.  The room smelled of warm food, cold lager and rich wine.  Many of the tables were occupied, and the radio was drowned out by the friendly carousing of a respectable looking crowd of rowdy working men.
Warren went to the desk to secure rooms for them, and the others found a table in a relatively quiet corner.  For a few minutes they sat silently, watching the cheerfully raucous activity in the room.  Finally, Warren came to join them.
“Malachi was here,” he said flatly.
“That answers the first of our questions then,” Abigail nodded.
“I take it we’ll be going up that mountain tomorrow then,” Selena sounded less than enthused, “no doubt of it.”
“That seems to be the only course open to us,” Daniel affirmed.
“We’ll leave at dawn,” Warren suggested, “we want to have enough time to get back down before dark.”
“Let’s get something to eat then,” Abigail said, “and make an early night of it.  Tomorrow won’t be easy.”

Chapter 4
February 4th, 1935

They began the drive out to Glenfeshie lodge at six in the morning, loaded down with everything they expected to need for a winter climb up a mountain.  They reached the lodge at seven-thirty, and unloaded the cars.  They took an hour to make sure their packs were secure, and the sun was finally in the sky when they began their hike up the mountain.
Warren carried the heaviest of the packs, shouldering its large bulk with apparent ease.  The day was thankfully clear, and the wind was calm.  Warren and Daniel had studied the map closely last night, and so they took the lead, Daniel dressed decidedly less heavily than everyone else assembled.  Warren was most accustomed to this sort of terrain, so he made sure to keep them on a relatively even path, avoiding areas of deep snow.
As they hiked, they kept their eyes open for signs of Malachi’s passing.  If he had left any sort of sign, the mountain wind had already erased it.  There was no footprint, no disturbed stone, no manmade item discarded to mark Malachi’s passage.  They trudged on, following the trail Warren blazed.
If any of them felt the climb too demanding, no one was willing to admit to it.  They walked in silence for hours.  Finally, when the sun had just past the middle of the sky and begun its journey west, Warren reported that they were near the top, and this was as good a place as any to stop for lunch.
“There’s nothing to build a fire with,” Selena bemoaned.
“Daniel?” Warren looked to the smaller man.
“It won’t be easy,” Daniel hedged, “but I’ll see what I can do.”
He sat cross-legged in the middle of the relatively flat space they had found and closed his eyes.  His face became tense with concentration as he mumbled something no one else could hear.  Gradually, he took on an orange glow as an aura of fire manifested around him.  The warmth spread over the open area, banishing the mountain chill.  Daniel’s face was twisted with effort, but the fire remained steady.
Warren dropped his pack and began to dig out foodstuffs, passing around wrapped packages and cans.  This wasn’t Daniel’s cooking by any stretch of the imagination, but it would keep them going for the rest of the day.  Daniel, of course, remained as he was, and the others huddled around him, talking quietly.
Conversation ceased suddenly, as a strange howl pierced the quiet air.  It faded into an ominous echo, leaving the silence much more tense than it was a moment before.  They all looked at each other in quiet alarm.  Daniel’s flames flickered momentarily.
“What was that?” Selena asked of no one in particular.
“Some kind of wolf, maybe,” Arthur suggested.
“No,” Warren said bluntly, “no wolf sounds like that.  I’ve never heard anything like that before.”
They fell silent again, looking around them in varying degrees of apprehension, listening for any sort of approach.  The howl came again, from below this time, instead of above.  A cold fear started to creep in on them, invading their minds unbidden.  Each of them found themselves fighting the urge to run back down the mountain, heedless of safety.  The orange glow faded as Daniel’s fire faltered and died, his concentration broken.  But that was not the only light to fade.  The sky above them grew darker than an afternoon sky should, though the sun still shone coldly.
Arthur closed his eyes and forced his shallow breathing to turn calm and steady, trying to bring his ragged nerves back under control.  Warren knelt and placed his hand on the snow covered stone, closing his own eyes and chanting something incoherent to the others.  Evelyn gave a sudden, startled cry and pointed fearfully toward the top.  On a rocky ledge they saw a huge dark shape looming over them, no more than fifteen metres away.  Everyone tensed, Daniel placed himself between the group and the unidentified figure, and they all hoped they were ready for their first clash with something supernatural.
“There’s nothing there,” Arthur interrupted, his voice the dull monotone of a trance.
“What?” Abigail responded, her own voice a breathless whisper.
“There’s nothing there,” Arthur repeated. “No mind.”
“No life either,” Warren confirmed, his eyes fixed on the looming creature, his hand still on the cold ground. “There’s no spirit there.”
“An illusion,” Abigail understood.  She had dabbled in illusion herself, years ago. “And this fear?  It feels to great to be my own.”
“Your mind is being influenced,” Arthur confirmed. “There’s a will behind this, I can feel it. But I can’t pinpoint it.”
“Arthur,” Warren called, “Abigail.  Join hands with me.  We have a greater chance working together.”
The three magicians joined hands.  Arthur closed his eyes again, his face losing all expression as he retreated away from physical experience.  Warren resumed his low, throaty chant, drowning all other distractions from his mind. Abigail looked to Daniel.
“I’ll need a focus,” she explained, “can you give me a flame?”
Daniel nodded and held up his open hand, speaking a short phrase in latin.  A small ball of flickering fire sprouted above his palm.  He kept his gaze intent on the flame as it floated from his hand to hover in front of Abigail.  She nodded gratitude and stared into the fire, her eyes losing their focus, as though staring at something far away.
They remained that way for a long minute, Arthur deep in his trance, Warren murmuring his wordless chant and Abigail gazing at something not in front of her eyes, while the sky grew darker still and all assembled were assailed with a fear and melancholy that wasn’t their own.  It was an effort of will for each of them not to simply flee.  But they were not simple minded folk, they were magicians.  Inexperienced, perhaps, but trained and conditioned nonetheless.  They remained where they were, tensely awaiting a verdict.
When it came, it was sudden.  Warren, Arthur and Abigail broke their human circle and pointed as one to a seemingly impenetrable cluster of rock, shouting in unison: “There!”
Selena whirled and thrust her open hand toward the boulders, a piercing, but oddly melodious cry escaping her lips.  The wind picked up behind her, turning from a chilly breeze to a frigid gale in seconds.  The others drew quickly away from Selena, and from the path her pet wind was taking.  The boulders were hammered with wind, pelted with snow and bits of ballistic stone.  As they all watched, they realised that the pile of rocks was somehow becoming less distinctly visible.
The illusion broke all at once.  The sky regained its proper light, the eerie howling ceased, and the boulders Selena was assaulting ceased to be entirely, and in their place was a human figure being bowled over by the storm of wind directed at him.  The unnatural fear faded as everyone’s minds became their own again.
All together, they advanced on the fallen figure, who was still trying to right himself.  When he was no longer obstructed by his own flailing, the figure was revealed to be that of an old man dressed only in a sheepskin smock.  His whispy white hair and beard were overgrown to the point of obscuring his face altogether, and his slight frame had the look of dried leather draped over a coat rack.  As he looked up at his apparent captors, his face took on a look of resigned anguish.
“Oh, hell,” he moaned, “not again.  Haven’t you people got anything better to do than bother me?”
“Who are you?” Abigail demanded.
“Of course,” The old man muttered, “interrogate the prisoner while he sits naked in the cold.  My proper name is Fear Liath More, and I’m supposed to be alone on this mountain.”
“Why did you try to bewitch us?” It was Selena who posed this question.
“Didn’t I already make that clear?  I’m supposed to be alone up here.  That is my burden: to keep this mountain free of the curious and the opportunistic and the foolish.  Which are you lot?  Opportunists I’ll bet, like the last brute who tossed me about.  He didn’t interrogate me, at least.”
“The last one?” Daniel asked. “Another like us?”
“Yes, just like you,” the old man replied testily, “a wet behind the ears wizard seeking knowledge not meant for him.”
“Where did he go?” Evelyn asked.
“The same place I expect you mean to go.  To the top, the very place I’m supposed to keep you from reaching.  Oh, they won’t be pleased about this.  Twice in a week, not good at all.”
“Who put this on you?” Warren quieried. “Whom do you serve?”
“Oh, I think not,” Fear Liath More folded his arms defiantly. “They’ll punish me severely just for failing today.  I’ll not incur further wrath by revealing them to a bunch of upstart children.  Just leave me be, you’ve defeated me already.  You’ll gain nothing more from me.  Just get on to the top and be off with you.”
They exchanged glances, taking a silent vote.  In the end, each of them simply shrugged.  They turned away from the old man and prepared to continue.  Warren restuffed and closed his pack, hoisting it back onto his broad shoulders, and they hiked on.
It was no more than half an hour before they were approaching the top.  They found themselves at the base of a natural formation of rock that looked like a miniature mountain built on the real thing.  There was no easy path up the formation, but its ascent was gradual enough that they could climb it without great trouble.  Hand and footholds were plentiful, and even Warren had an easy time of it, despite his massive backpack.
Daniel reached the top first, and when the others joined him they found him staring uncertainly at what must surely be their goal.  They were on a plateau, from which they could see the whole of the Cairngorm range and beyond spread out before them.  But the view, breathtaking though it was, was not the centre of their interest now.  At the centre of the plateau was a small circle of stones, a metre across and certainly not natural.  It was made up of three rings of standing stones, much like the arrangement at Stonehenge, only much smaller and more elaborate.
As they approached to examine the circle more closely, they found that each of the stone formations that composed it was inscribed with a single rune, of a script familiar to none of them.  Daniel, being the most comfortable without gloves, dug in his backpack and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen, and began to copy down the runes and sketch out the formation itself.  Abigail knelt down for a closer look.
“They’re not fixed,” she observed, “the stones can move.  It almost looks like they’re on rails.”
She pushed one of the cairns in the outer circle to demonstrate, and the whole circle turned smoothly.  Arthur and Warren joined her in kneeling and examined it quite closely.
“There must be a reason for it,” Evelyn pondered, “some method in the turning.  I wonder if Malachi figured it out?”
Arthur closed his eyes and placed a hand on the standing stones.  His hand ran over the stones slowly, and his face held concentration, as though he were trying to read a badly faded text.
“Malachi was here,” he finally said, “he touched these.  I think he figured them out.  Hang on.”
Slowly, stopping occasionally as though to double check what he was doing, Arthur turned first the outer ring halfway around, and then the middle ring one quarter of the way, and finally shifted the inner ring by just a few degrees.  There was a low vibration in the hill of stone, and everyone felt the sudden build up of magical energy.  Arthur stood and stepped back, looking down at the rings.
In a sequence that seemed random to the onlookers, the runes on a few of the stone cairns took on a silvery blue glow, the magical tension in the air growing steadily with each illuminated rune.  Finally, the power reached a breaking point, and the entire circle lit up with a blinding flare of white light.  When their eyes had cleared, the group looked again to see the circle filled in the centre with what looked to be a rippling pool of silver.
“A scrying pool,” Abigail breathed, “I’ve never seen one so complex!”
The silver pool gradually cleared, and through it they saw not the snowy stone beneath it, but an endless expanse of blue water.  The occasional gull flapped across their view, and the white-capped turmoil of the water suggested to them that they were looking at the ocean.  The view panned swiftly over the choppy water, and soon it was soaring over what looked like a city, but no city that any of them had ever seen.  The buildings were of smooth white carved stone, making the whole city look as though it had been sculpted from marble rather than built.  The architecture had a look of antiquity about it, but at the same time appeared far too precise for any ancient structure.  At the centre of the mysterious city, a white tower stood above any other building, looking out over the city and across the ocean like a darkened lighthouse.
Their view pulled back further, as though they were rising high into the air, and they could see that this remarkable city occupied a small island on which it was the only civilisation.  The island seemed isolated in the middle of the ocean, though the view wasn’t high enough up to see how far away the next landmass might be.  Before they could achieve such a point of reference, the view became clouded with wispy white and grey, as though they had literally passed through a bank of clouds.  After another moment, the view darkened entirely, and the pool returned to silver, before fading away entirely, leaving just an empty circle of elaborate stones again.
“What did we just see?” Daniel asked into the quiet air.
“Whatever it was, we can safely assume Malachi saw the same thing,” Selena said.
“But what does it mean?” Evelyn pondered. “A city on the sea, all of white stone.  I’ve never seen such a place.”
“I don’t think a place like that exists,” Arthur said, “Nowhere I’ve travelled anyway.  Warren?”
Warren shook his head. “I’ve never been anywhere like that.”
“We can theorise, then,” Abigail interjected authoritatively, “that this city does not exist.  At least not now.  But it is possible that it did exist at some point.”
“What makes you think that?” Daniel asked.
“Scrying pools can certainly look into the past,” Abigail explained. “At least, powerful ones can.  This is most definitely a powerful circle.  More powerful than anything I’ve ever used.  Besides that, the city looked like something that might have been built centuries ago, and yet it was unweathered by time.  That suggests to me that we were either looking at something in the past, or at a conceptual representation of something that once existed.”
“Is that possible?” Evelyn asked. “Figurative representation in scrying?”
“I’ve heard of it,” Abigail replied, “but I think it’s fairly rare.”
“That still doesn’t tell us what it is,” Arthur pointed out, “or why it’s important.”
“We can only hope to gain another clue from the journal,” Abigail said.
Daniel finished copying the runes and stowed his pad and pen back in his bag. “We should head back down before it gets dark.”
“Yes,” Warren agreed, “It will get very cold up here once the sun goes down.  We should have just enough time to get back to the lodge.  We can head back to the manor tomorrow.”
“I must admit,” Selena said, “now that I’ve tried it, I’m not a great fan of mountain climbing.”
“Don’t worry,” Arthur assured her, mild sarcasm in his voice, “it’s much easier going down.”

November 13, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I suck. Really.

It seems I can’t maintain a blog.  I’m simply incapable of it.  Every time I start one I’ll post in it a few times and then vanish for years at a stretch.  Ah well, the joys of being both lazy AND absent minded.

For now, I have a purpose.  Since we’re in the midst of that madness-inducing period known as NaNoWriMo, I think I might post what I’ve written up to now of my so far utterly terrible novel.  For those who choose to read it, be warned: I haven’t written this badly since high school.  It’s really, really bad.

November 13, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Forbidden Kingdom: Joseph Campbell’s Kung Fu Is Strong

The other day, a friend of mine randomly called me up and convinced me to go see The Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li team-up. Naturally, it didn’t actually take much convincing. Why is this? I will reiterate: Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie. If that isn’t a recipe for the most awesome martial arts throwdown you’ve ever seen then you need a new cookbook. I will admit though, besides the aforementioned best team-up ever, I really wasn’t expecting much from this movie. My reasons for this are twofold. First, the last time I drooled over the combination of two action stars under one title was War, the Jet Li/Jason Statham match-up, and that turned out surprisingly unexciting, leaving my expecations forever lowered. Second, what little I knew of the plot to The Forbidden Kingdom was unsettlingly reminiscent of another Asian-inspired fantasy movie, the preferably forgotten Warriors of Virtue.

For those of you who haven’t seen or even heard of Warriors of Virtue, and I understand there are a lot of you lucky bastards, the movie concerns Ryan, a young, physically disabled misfit who does something stupid to try and fit in with the stereotypical arrogant jocks who apparently make up 99% of the adolescent population of his school. This act of stupidity results in the young lad being washed away by a whirlpool (it sort of makes sense in context), and he wakes up in the mystical land of Tao, which happens to share its name with a manuscript given to him by a kindly Asian wise man of his acquaintance. Here is where my twelve year old self began to have a problem with the movie. Throughout the film, every single member of the cast mispronounces the word “Tao”. It doesn’t take much research to find out that it’s pronounced “Dao”. But that’s a minor quibble. The fact that the movie has nothing to do with the actual principles of the Tao and appears to be misusing the word in its entirety might be a bigger issue, but probably only to me.

Apparently the land of Tao is a magical place, where Ryan is no longer disabled, and the forces of the evil Lord Komodo (I wish I was joking), are held at bay by the mighty protectors of Tao, a group of warrior kangaroos. Again, I wish I was joking. The five kangaroos each embody one of the elements (if I recall correctly, the fifth element in this case was “metal”, in keeping with eastern definitions, as opposed to the usual “heart”). Each of the kangaroos had a distinctive personality to go with their archetype, of course, but they were bland enough that I only remember that the metal kangaroo didn’t speak, because he was too metal, and the water kangaroo was a sullen brooding outcast on account of having killed someone once. Now, I know this is a kids’ movie, but considering how much creepy violence and death was in the movie anyway, you’d think they’d allow the protectors of a whole world to take the occasional life for the greater good without going to live in the forest like an emo Yoda.

Long story short, Ryan learns a valuable lesson about being himself, helps save the world with his magical book and the weepy water kangaroo gets his mojo back in time for the final disappointing battle. The movie left a very distinct impression on my young mind, to the extent that any movie which reminds me of Warriors of Virtue automatically makes me wary and drops my expectations like a stone. So when I learned that The Forbidden Kingdom was about a modern American teenager who gets transported by a magical artifact to an Asian fantasy world, presumably to learn an important lesson about himself and fulfill a great destiny, I was immediately afraid that my awesome Kung Fu team-up was going to be ruined by patronising ignorant crap. It was a great relief to find that I was deeply mistaken.

The Forbidden Kingdom does share a similar plot to Warriors of Virtue, in much the same way that it shares a similar plot to Star Wars. The unfortunate connection in my mind to Warriors of Virtue was probably inspired by the Asian setting. The common threme shared by these three stories, and many others, is the monomyth, as described by Joseph Campbell. Rather than transcribe the entirety of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I’ll just describe the very basic steps of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey:

  1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
  2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails
  3. Achieving the goal or “boon”, which often results in important self-knowledge
  4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail
  5. Applying the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world

This outline and a more thorough description of the hero’s journey can be found on Wikipedia.

While the monomyth is a fairly standard and oft-repeated storytelling format, it makes no gaurantees of quality. Stories based on the hero’s journey can be very good (Star Wars), or very bad (Warriors of Virtue). With The Forbidden Kingdom I found myself pleasantly surprised.

The plot revolves around new-in-town teenager Jason Tripitakas (Michael Angarano), whose entire life seems to revolve around old Kung Fu movies. He frequents an old thrift store in Chinatown, where he trolls for bootleg DVDs. On one such visit, he notices a golden staff, which he remembers dreaming about. The shop’s elderly proprietor says something cryptic about the staff, and then distracts Jason with a deal on Bruce Lee movies. After leaving, Jason gets into trouble with some local thugs, which leads to a confrontation back at the shop. During this confrontation, Jason finds himself whisked away to a land that might be ancient China, awaking with the staff and new, era-appropriate clothes.

Soon Jason finds himself at odds with the forces of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who wants the staff to prevent it being used to bring back the Monkey King, who will surely kick the Jade Warlord’s ass for turning him into a statue. Jason finds himself press-ganged into returning the staff to the Monkey King, and is aided by Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a drunken warrior scholar, the Orphaned Warrior, Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young lady who likes throwing sharp objects at people, and the Silent Monk (Jet Li), who isn’t all that silent, but never gets another name. Along the way, Jason learns Kung Fu. Much badassery ensues, leading to a climactic burly brawl of a final battle.

The major shortcoming of The Forbidden Kingdom is predictability. There’s nothing surprising about this movie. Part of that can be attributed to the aforementioned monomyth being so ubiquitous in just about any storytelling culture, but even accounting for that, the filmmakers could have pushed for a more original presentation of the story. That said, the predictability didn’t ruin the movie for me at all. Some people, who aren’t as easily satisfied by choreographed violence as I am, might take greater issue with the lack of plot infrastructure, but action movie fans should be able to let it slide without any difficulty. Beyond that, as cliche as it is, the movie is so beautifully presented that a few cliches here and there don’t seem like such a big deal. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and everything is rendered in vibrant colour, with a principle theme of green and gold throughout.

As always, I was afraid the acting and/or dialogue would make me cringe. Thankfully, I was once again proven wrong. The actors made a fine ensemble, and the dialogue, while a bit melodramatic here and there, was organic enough to keep me engrossed in the story. The comedic elements of the movie (Jackie Chan’s in it, there’s bound to be a bit of comedy), were subtle enough and witty enough that they didn’t drag down the seriousness of the story itself, even though there were a couple of truly hilarious moments, including almost every interaction between Chan and Li. Thematically speaking, I might have a bit of a bias, as the movie appeals directly to my personal taste in mythic fantasy. High action, immortal warriors, magic permeating the whole of existence and god-like battles all make me a very happy filmgoer.

Of course, what really matters is the action. With two of the greatest Asian action stars of the last twenty years together in one film, expectations are high. Does The Forbidden Kingdom deliver on this unspoken promise? Oh, hell yes, it delivers. From the almost slapstick combat of Chan’s Drunken Immortal character (yes, he’s giving us another Drunken Master), to Li’s typically balletic violence, every piece of the action meshes together into a deeply satisfying whole. The film manages to transition between calm storytelling and all-out brawling fairly smoothly, and sticks to the rules of fantasy violence which state, and I quote: “damn right four people can take on a whole army. They know Kung Fu!”

The inevitable sparring match between Jackie Chan and Jet Li deserves its own paragraph, even if it’s a short one. That fight was fucking awesome. The filmmakers did nothing to downplay the fact that two of the best brawlers in movie history were duking it out before my eyes. It was a work of kinetic art, and would have been worth the cost of a movie ticket even if the rest of the movie had been Warriors of Virtue bad after all.

One little plot detail which I personally appreciated was the way the main character, Jason, evolved from useless crybaby to Kung Fu badass, specifically the time frame. There were a couple of subtle indicators that Jason didn’t just pick up his ass-kicking skills in a week or so. That was a nice bit of unexpected realism that should satisfy the sort of viewers who loudly question how Luke managed to become a Jedi so damned fast.

The Forbidden Kingdom is certainly not a perfect movie. It has its faults, as all movies do, especially action movies and fantasies. Perfection, however, is not the point. This is a movie that doesn’t need to be perfect. Perfection is for drama, for movies designed to inspire deep thought and analysis. The Forbidden Kingdom is better than your average action movie, and better than your average fantasy (Lord of the Rings may have set the bar high, but most fantasies fall far short). It seeks only to inspire one thought: “Hell yes”, and that’s as deep as it needs to be. And maybe that’s deeper than you think.

April 24, 2008 Posted by | Movies | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comic Books and Video Games: What DC Should Do

Those who know me well know that I have a great love of video games and comic books, and an even greater love of combinations of the two. That love, however, is conditional on said combinations actually being good. Unfortunately, I often find myself disappointed. Since the first bulky arcade cabinet rolled off the assembly line, the comic juggernauts known as Marvel and DC have been trying their respective hands at the challenging art of video game adaptation. Over the years, very few of these attempts have been particularly impressive (I won’t say none, because my memory isn’t that long, plus I heard the NES Punisher game was pretty good for its time).

In recent years, the determined folks at Marvel have stepped up their efforts and released some truly excellent games. Their first success came when they took sandbox-style gameplay and applied it to something other than stealing cars and assaulting prostitutes. Spider-Man 2 remains the only tie-in game to my memory that actually matches the quality of the movie it was based on. The same model was applied to the second of two Hulk games, with equal success. Turning New York City into one big playground through which we could swing or smash to our hearts’ content was a brilliant idea, and brilliantly executed.

Perhaps knowing that they couldn’t satisfy the video game market with just one style, Marvel went on to put out X-Men Legends and its sequel, the unpredictably titled X-Men Legends 2. Capitalising on the team dynamic and countless diverse characters for which the X-Men titles have always been well known, these two games allowed players to tackle the various missions they were sent on with any combination of characters and powers they saw fit. The formula was enough of a success that they followed it up with the logical next step: Marvel Ultimate Alliance. No longer restricted to the X-Men roster, now players draw from all corners of the Marvel universe to build their dream teams. The game even included the option to build a custom team complete with whatever badass team name the player wanted. Marvel Ultimate Alliance cemented Marvel Comics as a successful video game license.

I could continue the list of Marvel’s successes in the video game arena, but I’ve already mentioned all of the titles which will be relevant to this article. Besides, Marvel is not the focus here. I want to look at the other major publisher. Just what has DC been doing to compete with Marvel on the video game market? The answer, sadly, is not a whole lot.

DC’s video game contributions have been few and far between. In the mid-90s they released Justice League Task Force, which was a pretty decent fighting game, for the time. A couple of years before that, they released a game based on the Death of Superman storyline which, again by the standards of the day, wasn’t terrible, but was pretty generic. When the Nintendo 64 came out, DC tossed out a Superman game to go with it. I remember dropping that one after the first level, the controls were so terrible. But since I’m only judging Marvel’s most recent entries, it’s only fair that I do the same for DC.

In the last two years, DC has publicised the release of two games: Justice League Heroes and the tie-in to Superman Returns. I know there were one or two other games, because I saw a copy of Aquaman in a bargain bin once. For the purposes of this article, JLH and Superman Returns are the most relevant.

Superman Returns was apparently an attempt to cash in on Marvel’s success with free-roaming game environments. As Superman, the player could fly around Metropolis at his or her leisure, which should have been a really cool experience, since flying around indiscriminately is unquestionably awesome. Unfortunately, the developers decided to put city-shattering crises approximately once every block and a half, so the free-flying fun ended up taking a backseat to the constant battles against increasingly impossible enemies. Essentially, for a free-roaming setting, the game was far too rigidly structured, and also far too frustrating. As a result, Superman Returns was just another rent-it-and-forget-it title.

Justice League Heroes was another attempt to piggyback on Marvel’s accomplishments, this time mimicking the X-Men Legends. The game centered around the eponymous Justice League as they battled an elaborate villainous conspiracy that ultimately consisted of a guided tour through the DC Universe. Fairly typical for the format that X-Men Legends set down, so one might assume that the formula ought to work. The game, while fun, fell short of being impressive. It seems to me like the developers rushed the production of the game so they could release it in time to compete with Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which was released at almost the same time. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the game is lacking some of the things that make Marvel’s versions special.

The first major failing of Justice League Heroes is the absence of choice. There are a few levels in which you can choose which two (not four, two), heroes you will take into action, but for at least half of the game your duos are predetermined. The freedom to build whatever team the player desires is one of the major appeals of X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance. Another major appeal is the variety of powers that could be acquired and upgraded nigh-indefinitely. Justice League Heroes, on the other hand, equipped their heroes with just a handful of powers each, and only afforded a few levels for each power. Finally, the game lacks the wide variety of playable characters that Marvel’s games offered. Sure, I could play three different Green Lanterns with identical powers, but other than getting to play as Kyle Rayner (who sounded like he was trying to be Batman the whole time), none of the unlockable characters were really worth the effort. Ultimately, Justice League Heroes was a mediocre effort when compared to its competitors.

These failures are made all the more disappointing by the fact that neither of these games are all bad. In both games, the controls were easy to understand and fun to use, the powers were cool, and the graphics were excellent. Justice League Heroes had an excellent voice cast, and a better script than X-Men Legends or Ultimate Alliance, whose dialogue often make me cringe. The games aren’t bad, they’re just, well, half-assed. Either the executives over at Time Warner don’t see the potential market for a good DC video game, or they’re just rushing their games too much. Either way, the only feedback I can give them is Needs Improvement.

I can think of one example of a game that I would buy and play to death. I’m going to stick to the X-Men Legends formula, and suggest drawing from the area where DC has consistently dominated Marvel: cartoons. I propose Justice League Unlimited, the video game. The setting comes with a massive stable of characters built in, so many that it would be impossible to fit them all into one game. Additionally, it has a built-in fan base, as the JLU cartoon is popular among young adult comic book geeks, the same geeks who loved Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Finally, the setting has a distinctive style and an opportunity for some excellent storytelling.

This hypothetical game would be designed and animated in the same artistic style that was the signature of DC’s animated masterpieces for a decade. A cartoonish, cel-shaded approach would help differentiate the game from Marvel’s properties. This would also allow for colourful, flashy powers which would draw in younger gamers, because we all know kids love shiny things and bright colours. And wholesale destruction. But let’s not stop at visually approximating the cartoons, let’s go all the way: bring JLU’s writing staff onboard to write the story and script. That will give us a guarantee of no cringe-worthy dialogue. Cinematic sequences can take the form of cartoon animations, making the whole game into one long, viewer controlled episode of Justice League Unlimited. Be sure not to skimp on the gameplay elements though. We want lots of powers, fully customisable, four-hero teams, and enough action to keep us playing the game over and over and over again.

I have no doubt that this idea would be expensive to produce, but I believe the cost could be turned into profit. It’s effortlessly marketable. Just advertise it in DC’s own comics and sales are all but guaranteed. Further publicity and sales can be gained by taking further advantage of JLU’s massive variety of characters. The X-Box 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii all have online marketplaces. Downloadable expansion packs and patches are already a reality. It would be almost too easy to release the occasional “character pack” of four five new heroes to further expand the players’ team-building options. Sure, the well will eventually run dry, but if the releases are carefully coordinated they could make a mint by the time they run out.

I’m sure this idea has a number of flaws that real game developers could spot, but I’m equally sure that these flaws could be corrected without sacrificing the basic appeal of the game I’m suggesting. The point remains the same regardless: if the companies developing games for DC would step up their efforts, and really try to release a masterpiece, we could see some fantastic games set in the DC Universe. With a little cash, and a little elbow grease, the possibilities are endless.

Next time: How DC can capitalise on the free-roaming environment.

April 21, 2008 Posted by | Games | 1 Comment

A New Toy For The Trend Resistant

I was a latecomer to the Mp3 bandwagon. My first gizmo was a generation 2 iPod Nano, purchased for me in September of 2006. Even then, I didn’t wholeheartedly join the flock. What use had I for these newfangled video iPods? 4 gigs was plenty of space for my music, and I saw no reason to venture into the territory of those multimedia monstrosities.

More than a year later, my iPod was starting to show its age. Battery life was gradually getting shorter, and 4 gigs didn’t seem like that much to me anymore. It was around this time that a friend of mine introduced me to a little-known brand called Archos. I was immediately interested. Not only was this product cheaper by the pound than an Apple product, it was shiny. I immediately resolved to acquire one as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” proved to be several months away. I am not renowned for my affluence, nor for my money managing skills. And so it wasn’t until I got my tax return for 2007 that I could get my hands on one of these shiny gizmos. Three hundred and some-odd dollars at Best Buy later (Best Buy jacks the price of the Archos for some reason), and the Archos 605 Wifi became mine two weeks ago.

Technologically speaking, this thing is pretty much a handheld computer. I got the 30 gig model, but the 605 goes up to 160. It still blows my mind that they can make a pocket sized device with a hard drive the size of my computer. It comes with all the bells and whistles, too. Music player, file storage, wifi, video player, browser….okay, most of the bells and whistles. Here’s my first complaint about the Archos, and really the only major one. After buying the device itself, I had to shell out another $50 for a video plug-in and web browser. It made the original price of the Archos seem deceptive. The added cost, however, wasn’t a deal breaker.

Price is a big selling point for the Archos, if one is comparing it against its most obvious competitor, the iPod Touch. Even after the above-mentioned software costs, my total cost for the 30 gig Archos was about $420 after tax, or $375 without tax. That’s only about $6 more than Best Buy charges for the 16 gig version of the iPod touch. To get an iPod with the same functions and hard drive space as my Archos you would need to spend $500 plus tax. By sacrificing brand-name appeal, I got nearly twice the bang for my buck. For a poor bastard like me, that’s a big deal.

Aesthetically speaking, the Archos isn’t going to make everyone happy. It’s big, about 4.5 x 3.5 inches, and it’s got some weight to it. The good news is that most of this surface area is taken up by the 4×3 inch screen. The downside is that it’s not that easy to carry around if you don’t have a bag or a jacket pocket to stick it in. This doesn’t bother me all that much, since I tend to wear a jacket no matter what the weather’s like, but some people might pass it up for a more conveniently sized device. The Archos’s design is very techno-traditional. Shiny silver metal and plastic in a shape that makes it look like a tiny television. I know I’m not the only one who finds the simple, substance over style approach appealing. With the Archos I feel like I’m holding an actual piece of technology, whereas the iPod feels like a slick, expensive toy.

Where it fails to beat the iPod is in the controls. Apple has something of a reputation for intuitive, easy to use control interfaces. The Archos doesn’t quite meet that standard. It’s easy enough to get used to the button layout, but the touch screen interface could be better. The touch screen controls are, in most cases, a bit on the small side. I might just be unaccustomed to the whole touch thing, but I found some of the buttons hard to select even with a stylus. When I have a choice between the touch screen and the buttons on the side of the device, I tend to go with the buttons.

This review takes an unexpected twist in the face of circumstance, as my Archos decided it was too beautiful for this world a couple of days ago. The operating system has gone kerfucken, and as a result I was granted an opportunity to give the company’s technical support and customer service a cursory evaluation. I chose the email route for tech support, and got a response in less than two hours. Not bad, but let’s see how many hoops they put me through. Rather than make me go through every possible combination of troubleshooting methods (which I had already tried), Tony the friendly tech support guy took the information I gave him and drew the obvious conclusion: my shiny gizmo had transmuted into a shiny brick. He immediately hooked me up with the necessary RMA information to get the thing repaired or replaced, as needed. All I need to do is find my way around the returning process (my two and a half years working for FedEx will prove helpful here), and probably pay for the return. Could be worse.

As I was going through this process, an unsettling thought occurred to me: what about the software I paid for? Will I still have that if the device needs to be replaced, or will they take the opportunity to fleece me out of another $50? Time to give customer service a call.

A relevant digression: I spent three years working at a customer service call center (See above, re: FedEx), and as such I am intimately familiar with the inner workings of that industry. In other words, I know exactly how bad customer service can be. Any time I have to call a customer service line, I brace for the worst. This time, my suffering was minimal. I was only on hold for maybe three minutes, and the gentleman who finally took my call didn’t give me any kind of runaround. If my device is repaired or replaced, any software I bought will be loaded onto the new/fixed product, and I should give them a call when I get it back just to make sure. I asked, he answered, no unnecessary bullshit.

To summarise, the Archos 605 is a better-than-decent product. It earns high marks for technology and price, but gets dinged for unnecessary extra costs and less-than-perfect interface. Aesthetically, you’ll either love it or hate it, but I love it, so it gets points there. Tech support and customer service are surprisingly good, based on first impression, but time will tell how that all works out. In the end, if you’re looking to buck the Apple trend, but still want a quality product, I would definitely recommend the Archos.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Technology | 2 Comments