Over the Hedge
20 June 2007
When I woke up in the hospital, I had no memory of how I’d gotten there. Everything was blurry, my head was spinning, and I was surrounded by noises and voices I couldn’t place. I came around enough to register when Matteson, Alice, and Mandy informed me they’d be back in the morning, but not enough to really respond to them. The nurses helped me get settled, got me some dinner, and then left me to try to get some rest until a doctor could see me in the morning. I couldn’t sleep, and I had trouble meditating, so I mostly spent the night trying to process what I could remember. I thought through what little I’d gathered from my spell, and tried to piece together the encounter with Jeremiah. At some point, I realized I had no idea if Matteson knew his grandfather was sniffing around, and after searching through my things I found my phone to text him, but it was dead, and I hadn’t brought a charger with me when I went to perform the ritual. I remembered the phone having nearly a full charge, and that was when it set in that I had no idea how much time had passed since then. It wasn’t until a nurse came in to check on me a little after one in the morning that I learned I’d been unconscious for about three days.
I must have managed to get to sleep at some point, because I distinctly remember being awakened by Alice and the harsh light of day hitting me like a train. Behind her was Matteson, who shifted sideways until his shadow fell over my face and I could start taking them in. They both looked tired, and I wondered how many hours they’d spent sitting up worrying about me the last few days. There was no time to ask about that then, however; the doctor arrived quickly and talked through what they knew of what had happened to me. He didn’t really have answers, and when he tried to press for more information I found that neither did I. What little I did know, I couldn’t tell him. What was I supposed to do? Report a hundred-year-old man who looks to be in his forties, stepping out of the spiritual world to assault me while I was distracted looking at a realm deep beyond the physical reality? I determined getting out of the hospital was more important than honesty, and told him what was probably more true, anyway; that I didn’t really know what happened to me, but I felt alright now. I was discharged an hour later, and Matteson stepped out of the room as Alice helped me change into a set of clean clothes she’d brought from the house.
They told me what they knew in the car. Unfortunately, I got the impression Alice was hearing about Matteson’s encounter with Jeremiah at the ritual site for the first time, as well. While he tried to pass it off as something he just hadn’t had time to explain, she went pretty quiet for a while afterward. I learned about the new house spirit, and Mandy’s help the last few days, and Alice finally rejoined the conversation when it reached the point where they told me about her unraveling the spells around me so Matteson could remove them. I pointed out that it sounded like they worked well together, and neither of them seemed to know how to respond to that. I started to wonder what the hell was going on between them since her apparent return from England.
Mandy, Marz, and Tony were all at the house when we got back, and they each tried to ask how I was feeling without crowding around me too much. We had lunch delivered, and over the next few hours other people dropped in to check on us and people slowly filtered out. Matteson finally kicked the few remaining people out, except Alice, reminding them I’d had a rough few days and needed some space, and I went up to my room and finally managed to get some decent meditation in. When I finally got back downstairs, I found Alice sitting alone in the living room reading through a book on phrenology.
“You know that isn’t there as a valid resource, right?” I asked.
She smiled and set it aside. “I certainly hope not,” she answered as I sat on Matteson’s chair. “But it’s interesting. How are you feeling?”
“Better, now. I think the whole ordeal knocked me pretty well out of alignment. I’d better get to the river before I try any magic, just in case.”
“That’s probably wise. Listen, Matteson said you were out there looking for Rick. Did you find anything?”
“Nothing helpful. Did you find anything in England?”
“No.” We sat in silence for a while. “So what happens now?”
“I…I don’t know. I think, maybe, we’ve run out of options.”
“There’s nothing else we can do? Are you sure?”
“I’ve put all I have into this so far, Alice. And you went to one of the greatest hubs of magical knowledge in this plane, and we came up with nothing. I can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll find something new one day, but…I don’t know what that would be, at this point.”
“Are you going to be okay with that?”
“I’m going to have to learn to be, eventually. Will you?”
“What choice do I have?” She got up and paced around a bit as I lit a cigarette from Matteson’s pack.
“Where’s Matteson, anyway?”
“He went to pick up dinner. Should be back any minute now.”
“Do you want to tell him, or should I?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll all discuss it when he gets back. See if he has any ideas.”
I nodded and felt my eyes began to water. Was I really okay with this? Was this really the only way? As I stared off into space, I thought I saw myself, just flickering for the briefest moment, like I’d glanced in. And then I remembered, I remembered seeing Alice and I here, in this moment, just a fleeting glance as I was rushing forward in time back in Chicago. I remembered the wedding I’d seen, and it all clicked. This was really it, wasn’t it? This was why I didn’t see Rick anywhere forward of here. Because he wasn’t here. He wasn’t going to be here, and at some point, I moved on. I’d already seen it, and now it was happening, and I’d had no idea what I was leaving behind to go into that future.
By the time Matteson walked in the door with bags from Burger King, Alice and I were holding each other and crying.
15 May 2007
Without the tracking spell to guide us, it took a little over a week to make our way back to Iravati. Akshainie knew the roads pretty well, but we were starting from a realm she’d never seen, and I’m pretty sure we were lost for at least a day at the beginning. But she gave no indication this was the case, and I didn’t feel it necessary to mention.
But we made it back to Iravati safe and sound, though exhausted from that day’s travels, and spent the night there with her family. As we ate, I took a more thoughtful look at the building, and realized I didn’t see anywhere for bedrooms. When the naga began to gather into a large pile like snakes, the arrangement of the house began to make sense. Akshainie seemed to suddenly remember I was there, and pulled me aside.
“I’m sorry,” she began, “I didn’t even think! I’m sure we have some spare cushions you can use if—”
“It’s fine,” I said, chuckling. “I don’t mind sleeping in a pile. It’s…it’s been lonely sleeping alone lately, anyway.”
“Oh. Okay. I just, you know. The first night I was out traveling with Benedict and I realized he expected us to sleep in separate beds, I just kind of thought that was how humans operate.”
“To an extent, it is. But, also, he’s a Catholic priest, and I am not. He’s bound to be a bit more prudish than me.”
“I need to understand Catholic priests better. The more I learn the less human they sound.”
“Yeah, well. Same.” We laughed about that, and then found places in the pile to sleep. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I drifted off trying not to think about how in the world they ever find the opportunity to make more naga.
The next day, we ate breakfast with her family and then left Iravati, taking the River Network back to Sharon. The spirits of the Shenango River greeted us and asked me about Matteson, and then informed us that there was activity on the river that day and led us to a better place to step back into the physical realm without drawing attention to ourselves. Akshainie resumed her human form before crossing over. The walk back to the house was quiet, and it finally started to sink in that we were back. We’d gone into the spiritual realm to find and rescue Rick, and now that we were back in the physical realm without him, the burden of our failure weighed on me. When we were still in the Deeper Realms, there was always the chance. Maybe we would stumble across him, or some new clue would arise, or we’d pick up his trail again. But not now. Not on this side of the Hedge. Near the library, I had to stop and sit down on the low stone wall and cry for a bit, with Akshainie trying to comfort me.
We got back to the house about an hour after I started crying, and by then I had managed to recompose myself. When we entered, we found Matteson and Benedict looking through a dusty old book and comparing notes. Benedict practically leapt off the couch to come over and check that Akshainie was alright. Matteson seemed pleased to see us, but was moving slow enough that I walked over and pushed him back into the seat before he was fully standing.
“I’m glad you guys are alright. But,” he looked past me, to the empty open door.
I lowered my head. “We found where they landed, but the trail went cold from there. I think I need to try something different.” Matteson squeezed my hand and tried to give a comforting smile, which I returned, and then I went to the kitchen. “It’s been over two weeks since I had a coffee made in the mortal realm,” I said, by way of explanation as he watched me go.
“You’ve been gone one week!” he called after me.
“For you. Time is different once you get further from this realm.”
“That’s true,” Akshainie said, pulling herself away from Benedict and closing the door. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to travel to realms where it doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done that. Are you sure your aging isn’t going to be affected by this stuff?” Matteson asked.
“I have no idea. But it’s fine,” I answered. “I’m not spending years there.”
“Not so far. But if you keep going over there—”
“I’ll be fine, Matteson.” He grunted but dropped the subject. When I had finished making my coffee and returned to the living room, Benedict and Akshainie were sitting on the couch looking over his notes and Matteson had the book out again. “What’s that one?” I asked.
“It’s about the earliest known days of the Brood of Nachash. We’re not sure who collected these stories, though it seems to be mostly notes from Catholic Inquisitors in Spain, but we’re hoping it sheds some light on their goals.”
“They believe their High Priest will return when they’ve fulfilled their mission and given the world over to Nachash,” Benedict said. “Very messianic.”
“Wait, there’s someone above the Barzai?” I asked, sitting down on the arm of Matteson’s chair.
“Well, not right now,” Matteson answered. “They had one high priest, right near the beginning here, and then he was burned at the stake. But the cult seems to believe he’ll be back. In the meantime, his office is left vacant for his return. He’s kind of a figurehead, like the Queen of England. The Barzai is essentially his Prime Minister.”
“It’s like they’re trying to mirror elements of other religions and world systems,” Benedict said.
“European systems,” Akshainie noted.
“Yes, well. I don’t think they were global yet at this point.”
We talked some more about what the boys had been researching while we were gone, and then they asked us about our trip. Akshainie expressed concern that Rick was well and truly lost, but I insisted that I just needed to try something different. Matteson was supportive of my plan, but urged me to be careful how far I pushed myself.
After dinner, Benedict and Akshainie left, and I spent some time cleaning up before bumming another smoke from Matteson and then flopping onto the couch.
“I want him back, too,” he finally said, staring off into the distance.
“I know you do.”
“I just don’t want to lose you, too, over it.”
I sat up and looked him over. His eyes looked tired, almost old. “I’ll be careful, really. I just. I can’t give up, not yet. We came so close to finding him, and then just had to turn back. I can’t, I just can’t let that be it.”
“I know. And I’ll help however I can. But, please,” he turned to face me, “please promise me that when it’s time to stop, you’ll stop.”
I hesitated. The idea of there ever being a point when I would need to give up felt alien, wrong. But he was right. The spiritual realms are vast and complex, and if I just throw myself into them heedlessly in search of someone with no remaining trail, I could get irreversibly lost. “I promise,” I said, finally. He nodded, and we sat silently smoking for a while. After a couple hours of watching TV and trying to take our minds off things, he announced he was going to bed. I followed him up the stairs, he insisted he didn’t need help but I wanted to make sure, and when he was about to open his bedroom door I stopped him. “Matteson, I wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“How many things do you blame yourself over?”
He stood for a long moment with his hand on his doorknob, just staring down at it. “Only as many as I deserve.”
“You don’t need to punish yourself forever over everyone you lose, John.” He seemed to wince at the name, and I realized he hadn’t had anyone call him that since he learned that it was Alethea all along that had been calling him Matteson. “What happened to Rick, and Lori, and Alethea, they aren’t really your fault.”
“It’s good to know you believe that.” He started to open his door and I rested my hand on his arm.
“I…I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”
He looked into the room and sighed.
“Do you?” I asked.
“Not really, no.”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
I followed him into the room and, in his arms, I fell asleep quickly.
The River Network was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. We had found a quiet place under a bridge for us both to slip into the metaphysical realm, which was apparently second nature to Akshainie, and found ourselves standing before a completely different version of the river. The water was teeming with spirits, the color of the water was a marvelous, shimmering thing that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in the physical realm; but it’s somewhere near purple. Everything was alive, even the bridge above us seemed to have a slow movement like the breathing of a hibernating bear. Akshainie spoke to the water in a language I could barely even process, let alone understand, and it opened for us. The moment we stepped in, however, I felt a rush, fast and colorful and uncontrolled. Akshainie seemed entirely disinterested in the process itself, so I avoided asking about it. We surfaced at a different river, with landscape I didn’t even recognize.
We stopped and stepped deeper into the water, then beneath the water, to a ramp with outcroppings that served basically as stairs in the dry air. This, I was told, was the entrance to Iravati. Akshainie resumed her naga form, which I had never seen before, and when we reached the bottom of the ramp we were surrounded by other naga in what looked to be an open-air market. They paid no attention to us, except to try selling me fruits I’d never seen or wares that they probably described but I couldn’t understand. Akshainie ignored them, and I kept pace with her. As soon as they realized I was with her, in her glimmering armor with curved swords strapped to her sides, they gave me a wide berth.
We entered a house and were greeted warmly by a group of naga of varying ages and genders, who gave Akshainie hugs and grabbed my shoulders to look me over and comment in their own tongue. I smiled and tried to make nice, and they either lost interest in me or quickly realized I couldn’t understand them, and focused all their attention on Akshainie. She was happy. I’d never really seen her smile, I realized before now. Granted, I’d only met her at Henry’s funeral, and then today under less than desirable circumstances. But she seemed comfortable, and it was such an obvious change that I wondered why I hadn’t noticed how uncomfortable she felt elsewhere.
Our stay was short, however. She gathered some supplies, had a few conversations, and then we were off again. The smallest of the naga, who Akshainie later told me were her three nephews and two nieces, followed us the whole way to a door set into a wall at the edge of Iravati. She gave each of them a hug, and they came to me with arms out and I did the same, and then they stayed behind as we slipped through the doorway.
It would be wrong to call what we entered a tunnel, but I have no other word for it. It was not a tunnel, because it wasn’t fully enclosed, sometimes even lacking an apparent floor. But it had a very real sense of being closed, of having borders, of maintaining a separation. It had bends and changes in elevation, though I can’t for the life of me describe how I knew they were there. These, Akshainie explained, were the roads. They were carved through the nature of the realm itself, passing through worlds and voids with equal ease. Sometimes, she explained, we passed through a place by being so small nothing in that realm could see us and we could not process the enormity of what was around us. Sometimes we stepped over an entire reality in a single pace, like a pebble resting on the road. She corrected herself later, noting that it was neither true nor false that they were ‘carved;’ they simply were, and the realm simply was, and they existed within and around each other, and it was impossible to know which came first, if indeed either had.
We followed that road for a few hours until it emerged into a vibrant glen, with an orange sky and flowers of every color imaginable. I sat and she curled up under a tree and we had our lunch, and finally took some time to chat. She told me about her family, how proud they were of her when she became a guard, how much she misses them sometimes when she’s out in the world of man. I told her about mine, and how I missed my parents and sister. She asked why I hadn’t seen them, and I managed to avoid saying too much about it before I was able to get her talking about Iravati some more. After we’d eaten and rested, I worked on the tracking spell, and off we want following the trail that highlighted. We passed through a handful of realms taking different roads, which seemed to be a convoluted mess but the spell seemed to know where it was going.
We traveled until we needed to stop and eat again, and spent what I assume was a night on a mountainside looking down over a city of twisting, fungus-looking spires. When I woke, Akshainie was already up and preparing for the day, and the city had been replaced by a forest of glittering trees with small dark shapes skittering around among them. Akshainie explained that that sort of thing happens sometimes in the Deeper Realms. As we walked she told me about how the realms here are shaped by human imagination and fear and collective memories and hopes and dreams. She said sometimes, you can fall into a world without form, actively being shaped and reshaped and torn apart as the ideas it feeds from are changing. Every now and then, she warned, someone would lose their way and end up in a dream and not emerge again for centuries if the realm got cut off from the rest of the realms just right as the person awoke. Sometimes they emerged because they found a new way out; usually it was because someone, somewhere, happened to have the same dream and accidentally reconnected the dream to the other realms.
I asked how a place like Iravati is able to remain largely unchanged for long periods of time if the realms are so dynamic, and she said some realms are more stable than others. Ultimately, however, it’s down to the way people envision or believe in a thing. Younger cultures, she said, have a lot more flux in their views of the world. They’re still coming to an understanding about who they are and how they relate to the world around them. They’re shedding whatever cultures they’re leaving behind, and forming new identities, and the whole thing gets at least as messy on this side of the Hedge as the physical side. But a culture with thousands of years under its belt, it changes, but usually there are large parts that stay the same or change so slowly that a single generation will barely notice. The places tied to these ideas of the world, to an outsider, look like they never change at all. But Iravati has, she added. The Iravati her grandmother knew is not the one she knows, though she doesn’t fully understand what the differences are.
I learned so much about how the metaphysical realm works by just walking around in it, eating its food and breathing its air, sleeping on its ground and bathing in its waters. Akshainie was an excellent guide, and I suspect it will be a while before I manage to write down everything I learned there over the five days it took us to arrive at our destination.
On the sixth day—or at least, after the fifth sleep, since time was difficult to nail down there—we arrived in a dark and dreary world. The tracking spell, which I had to renew each time we slept, stopped there. We spent all of that day and the next scouring that realm, and we found a little blood. Thanks to a spell we cooked up on the spot, I was able to identify some of the blood as Rick’s, but not nearly enough to be a real danger to him. There were burn marks, and wet places where Akshainie said the water showed signs of being magically controlled, though I don’t know what she saw to tell her that. We never found Rick or the Barzai, though, and despite my best efforts, the tracking spell turned up nothing more. When we awoke on the third day, we did one last look over the area, and then admitted that this was a dead end and decided to head back to pursue a different avenue.
When I woke up in the cabin, Rick was gone.
The events of the night before felt like a bad dream, but I rolled over and his pillow was cold. I cried for a little while as it all sank in. Knowing we’d left Rick and Alice to be taken. The fight. Watching him sacrifice himself to stop the cult. The interview with the police. The dead body in the cabin’s kitchen and bullet holes in the walls. We were up late dealing with that, telling our story over and over again, our carefully-crafted lie that didn’t talk about disrupting a ritual and watching my boyfriend fall into a different plane of reality that I couldn’t seem to reach.
Alice had asked Matteson on the way back why he didn’t just grab Rick from the other side and pull him back. He was having trouble catching his breath by that point, but he explained that it didn’t really work like that. What he could see an interact with was basically a ‘close’ part of the metaphysical realm, a spiritual mirror of our world with pathways that led to deeper realms. Wherever Rick was, it was a deeper realm, and it would take powerful magic to access it. He, personally, had no way of getting there. I also had to explain that I hadn’t yet figured out how to replicate the spell they’d used, and even once I did, I wasn’t sure I would be able to muster the mystical energy needed to pull it off without a significant amount of helpers or blood. But I promised I was going to try.
I slowly made my way to the shower, and then to the bedrooms. I had a lot of packing to do. The police let us sleep in the cabin that night because it was so late and we’d had such a rough night, but they demanded we stay out of the kitchen and seemed very eager to have the whole house available for their investigation as soon as possible. We agreed to leave as soon as we could.
When I carried my bag downstairs, I found Alice sitting in the living room. She came over and gave me a hug, and we just stood there holding each other for a while. She explained that her bag was already in Rick’s car and Matteson’s was in Alpha. I had agreed to drive Alpha to the hospital for Matteson, and she was going to follow me in Rick’s car and then give me a ride back to Sharon. We were going to talk to Rick’s family together.
Matteson was awake and quiet when we arrived. No one really knew what to say, and he thanked us for checking in and reminded us that we should hurry if we wanted to talk to Rick’s family. So we said our goodbyes and headed out. Went through a drive-thru for breakfast on the way.
We told Rick’s parents the same story we told the police, but really emphasized how much Rick fought back and how his doing so gave us an opportunity to get to safety. We told them that Matteson tried hard to get him free, too, but was too injured by that point. We apologized so much, and they reminded us that it wasn’t our fault, and we all cried together. Alice swore she would throw whatever resources she had available at finding him, and they thanked her.
I asked her about that when we got back to my place, and she explained that she meant it. In order to maintain the story, of course, she would have to throw money at aiding the investigation, maybe hire a private eye, and she was certain her family would support that plan. It was for Rick, after all. But she also knew that she had magic in her now, and if there was some way she could help me reach him where he is, I was to tell her and she would drop everything to come and lend a hand. I thanked her and told her I would do just that, and I went to take a nap. When I woke, she was gone.
I didn’t realize how bad Alice was taking all of this until she started throwing up. At that point, I had to turn my attention away from the fight and focus on helping her. I didn’t really know what she was going through in that moment, but I knew that she needed someone, and I was the only someone available. So I tried my best to help calm her down, though I doubted she was really paying that much attention. I did my best, though, and when she was finally calmed down enough I turned my attention back to the fight. Hopefully things hadn’t gone too far off course while I was failing to give magical support.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was the priest, standing in front of an open portal with an elder entity trying to reach through, holding Rick prisoner. The arm was translucent, and I realized it was still partially in the metaphysical realm. The spell wasn’t complete yet. It needed something more to push it over the edge, and there was a blade pressed against Rick’s neck. I let go of Alice and stepped forward into the clearing, just at the edge of the trees. Matteson was still opposite me, and the priest’s eyes were fixed on him. Rick looked at me, though, and gave a weak smile.
I tried to think of a spell that would help. Something I could cast to free him while the priest was occupied with Matteson. Something I could do to turn the tide. But as soon as my mind turned to magic, it went foggy. I couldn’t think straight, I could barely stand. I tried to push through it, but it was unyielding. I get it now. During the fight, when no one knew where the priest was, he must have been preparing. Setting a trap. Ensuring that my attempts to use magic against him would fail. I tried to take a step forward but the world started to spin and I fell to my knees. My vision was blurring slightly. I reached out toward Rick and could see tears coming down his cheeks.
“I said I wouldn’t hesitate,” he said. The priest looked at him and then at me, and smiled. He turned his attention back to Matteson. The closest thing to a threat in the clearing.
“What?” I asked. He smiled again.
“I love you, Jackie.” With that, he bent forward slightly, and then pushed off against the ground. He pushed back against the priest, who was too caught off-guard to react, and they both hit the low stone altar and rolled backward into the portal. There was a blood-curdling scream, and the arm of the creature reaching through the portal fell back into it after them.
Matteson charged forward and I suddenly had to make do with whatever plan I could scrape together on the fly. Everything we had talked about was out of the question as soon as he was in the middle of things. So I felt around on the ground for a stone and, once I found it, I invoked its strength in a protection spell to buy him time to free the others. I knew I couldn’t put it too close to them, so I created it a little ways out, between them and the cultists that Matteson wasn’t already thrashing. One cultist ran full steam into the protection spell, and I felt it shatter as my focus was split trying to find more components. I was about to try again when I saw that the other cultists were taking their time, and then focused on Alice as she ran toward me. Two cultists made a break for her, and were close enough that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to help her in time. Before I could cast anything, though, two large roots burst out of the ground. Each one grabbed a cultist and pulled them underground, kicking and screaming, and Alice stopped and stared wide-eyed.
“Alice!” I yelled. She turned to me and I waved her over. She ran into the woods and dropped next to me, and we began crawling through the underbrush to get away from where anyone might have heard me calling her.
“Did you do that?” she asked, quietly.
“Nope. I think that was you.”
“I thought it was, too, but that seemed like…a lot, you know?”
“Well, you were in danger.” I peeked up again after taking cover behind a log, and saw Matteson attacking someone while Rick took a shot and a step backward. “Roderick did say your magic would defend you, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, I guess.” She leaned against the log. “I don’t know if I’m really ready for all this, Jackie.”
“You don’t have to be.” One of the cultists moving toward Rick pulled out a hatchet and drew back as if to throw it. I bit my tongue until I tasted blood and then lit his ass on fire. I checked the portal. It was wavering slightly, but it was still open. I couldn’t figure out why at first, and then looked again at the people Rick and Matteson were attacking. There was blood everywhere.
Being spilled in the middle of a ritual.
“Oh no,” I whispered.
“What is it?” Alice asked.
“You weren’t the bulk of the sacrifice,” I said, pointing. She looked over the log and I saw realization dawn on her face. “They were!”
One of the things that had concerned me most about Matteson’s knowledge of the supernatural is that, despite access to a wide array of information about magic and spellcasting, he seemed to have only really studied the stuff he found personally relevant. This included an extensive knowledge of supernatural creatures and the ability to recognize many situations that could arise with them, but it didn’t include much about actually dealing with a spell as it was being cast beyond rushing in and breaking the magic. Which, admittedly, is a useful skill to have; but it gets in the way when one’s handling of the magic is reliant on understanding what the spellcaster is actually doing.
So I had to stop him from barging in the moment magic was actually being cast, and then again when the portal opened. Opening the portal, I knew, wasn’t particularly easy, but I did note the way they were doing it. The magic looked familiar, like they had learned it from some of the same sources as I’d learned my magic. It looked like it was connected to the modes and norms I had learned from Hecate. I needed to look into that connection. Either their understanding of magic was by chance in the same broad category as Hecate’s, which would suggest it originated somewhere in the Hellenized world, or they had learned this spell directly from Hecate herself. Either way, of course, recognizing that enabled me to more easily predict where they were going and what they were doing. The portal was open, and it took most of their energy to do that, based on the number of people they currently had available. If they wanted to then draw anything through, especially under their control, they were going to need more spellcasters and, I estimated, the blood of at least three adult humans.
We had to wait for the sacrifices to arrive before we could make our move. If we showed our hand too early, we could create a bigger problem.
Thankfully Matteson saw where I was going with this thought, and he resumed waiting with me. It was another five minutes or so of the cult holding the portal open before we started to see other figures emerge from the trees. From our vantage point, it was hard to tell much about them, except that there were two of them not wearing robes. I figured those would have to be the sacrifices, but two really didn’t seem like enough. I was sure they were going to need a third, at least. But now that they were here, and clearly not dressed as part of the cult or as willing sacrifices, we needed to establish a plan of attack. We whispered to each other about what angle to come at them from, and started to creep closer. As they drew nearer to the altar and we approached, we were finally able to make out more detail about the intended sacrifices.
They were Alice and Rick.
“Oh, fuck,” I muttered. Before the words were fully out of my mouth, Matteson was up and charging.
“Did you remember all the stuff I asked you to bring?” I asked Rick, who was standing at the front window of the cabin sipping on a coffee.
“Yeah,” he said, not turning away from the window, “I already set it all up in the other bedroom upstairs.”
“Oh, good. So, when are we doing up?”
“After they get back.”
“Rick, honey,” I said, leaning on him and wrapping my arms around his chest. “The entire idea was to have our own little vacation while they’re at the reservoir.”
“No, I don’t mean when they get back tonight. I asked Alice earlier if she’s ever driven Alpha before, and she said no. This won’t last ten minutes.”
“Oh.” I rested my chin on his shoulder and looked out through the window with him. He took another sip of the coffee, then raised to my lips so I could get one, too. Then we saw Alpha pulling in, and Alice came inside and asked Rick if they could borrow his car. He acted surprised and told her where his keys were in the kitchen, and off they went again. “Now are we going upstairs?”
“Wouldn’t dare miss it.”
We spent basically the rest of the day in that room, with a short break for lunch, and when we saw the light from the windows start to fade we slipped across to our room to get dressed.
“Didn’t you wear those jeans yesterday?” he asked as I was buttoning them on.
“Yeah. They’re the best ones I have for hiking. I wasn’t expecting to be going into the woods again tonight when I packed so I didn’t grab another pair.”
“I still don’t like the two of you going alone.” I knew he didn’t. He and Alice had resisted, but we all ultimately agreed that the best plan was for Matteson and I to go and scout out what the cult was up to. Once we had information, we could tell whether or not we’d need their help, and in the meantime, they could keep safe here and prepare for whatever was going to happen. Honestly, I was mostly hopeful that staying with Alice would be enough incentive to keep him out of danger and out of our way, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
Besides, he was responsible for cleaning up the other bedroom tonight.
By the time the others got back I was lounging in the living room with the fireplace lit and Rick was nearly done grilling a dinner for all of us. We all ate, and joked around, and sorted out how we were going to contact one another if we needed to. We laid around the fire and told stories, and around 10 Matteson and I kissed our respective partners and slipped out the back door. It was a full moon, so even though we had a flashlight, we had agreed to use it as little as possible to reduce the odds of being spotted. It would take a little under an hour in ideal conditions to reach the clearing, and we knew it would take longer trying to sneak in the dark. We were also pretty sure they would be shooting for midnight. Dawn and dusk would also work, and the following midnight, but this midnight seemed more likely to me. And if we were wrong, that would just buy us more time to assess preparations and make a plan of attack.
29 April 2007
When I woke up in the cabin, Rick was gone. He wasn’t gone from the cabin, of course, but he wasn’t in the bedroom and when I slipped into the upstairs bathroom for a shower he wasn’t there. The whole thing was odd, but I didn’t linger on it. I got my shower, got dressed, and headed downstairs where I found him finishing up in the kitchen.
“I didn’t know you even knew how to make pancakes,” I said, looking over the assortment he was laying out on the table.
“Well, it’s a special trip and I thought I’d try doing something special,” he answered. I kissed him and sat down.
“Do the others know? We don’t want everything to get cold.”
“I knocked on their door a little bit ago, they said they’d be right out.” He put the last of the food on the table and sat down next to me. I started making a plate, trying a little bit of everything. “You know they have real maple syrup in the fridge here?”
“As opposed to what?”
“I dunno, but you have to taste it,” he said, handing me the glass jar. I was pouring it on my pancakes when Alice and Matteson joined us. We all got to talking, and everyone was impressed with the breakfast. I told Rick I might have to keep him around and he gave me a smile and a nudge.
Matteson mentioned hearing some noises in the woods last night and Alice said that there’s always noises in the woods at night, but Rick said he heard them as well and thought they sounded more like people. We agreed to keep an eye out but Alice noted that sound carries a bit out here and the next cabin was a couple miles away, so it was probably just some hikers. Either way, we had plans for the morning and didn’t see any reason not to do exactly that.
So after breakfast, we all headed down the yard to a trail through the woods behind the house. We’d packed a lunch, and it took us a couple hours to get to the vantage point Alice was telling us about. It was a magnificent view, and we hung out there for a while and had lunch before heading back. On the way back, however, Rick dropped his water bottle and it rolled downhill through the trees away from the trail. We all went looking for it, and found it at the edge of a clearing with a large stone in the middle of it. Alice said she’d never known it was there, but it looked nice, so we all went in. Something felt off to me about it, and when I glanced over to Matteson he looked tense.
“Are you sensing something here?” I asked him. He grunted and nodded.
“What is it?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Something feels wrong.” We went ahead more carefully, and when we got close enough to the stone we all, aside from Alice, stopped suddenly.
It had a red spiral engraved on it.
25 January 2007
“How was your trip?” Alice asked, as we stood next to the baggage claim in Pittsburgh. The machine kicked on and a couple bags started to emerge from wherever they are before they get here.
“It was very good. Got to see some friends, had some time to relax, got some work done.”
“Yeah, I know you were looking for answers about something. Did you get them?” I thought for a second.
“Not as much as I was hoping. But I got some, yeah.” My suitcase came around, and we grabbed it and made our way to the car. Alice was filling me in on things I’d missed—it wasn’t much, really—for the first bit of the drive, but she changed tone once we were settled onto the highway.
“What happened?” she asked.
“In Chicago?” She nodded.
“You seem like you have a lot to say, but you aren’t saying it. And your eye is different.” I adjusted in my seat and thought about how to answer her.
“I saw the future,” I said, finally. “Some of it, anyway.”
“Was it bad?”
“Nothing that I saw was bad. It was just a lot. I saw the four of us, you and me and Matteson and Rick, at a cabin. That looked nice.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea! My family has a cabin, over in the mountains. I should talk to them about letting us use it, you know, when it warms up some.”
“Yeah, that would be nice. I saw bits and pieces of things, I didn’t really manage to stay in one place long enough to get any real information. I was eventually pulled aside by The Two and told there were things I couldn’t see yet.”
“Who are The Two?”
“Oh, uh…they’re like, well they aren’t in charge of the metaphysical realm, necessarily, but they kind of embody it?”
“Oh, the King and Queen?” I stared at her.
“Where’d you get those names?” She shrugged.
“That’s what Matteson calls them. Said only the Queen ever talks to him.”
“Do you know where he got those names?”
“From the way he described it, it sounded like he just came up with it. When he first met them. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you this.”
“I guess we haven’t really talked about it.” I looked out the window, thinking, for a couple minutes. “Wait, he started calling them King and Queen, unprompted?”
“Yeah. He said they didn’t give him anything to call them, so he just called them that, and they were okay with it.”
“Matteson named them?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
“No, but, I was told they were given the titles King and Queen by the one who named them. And you’re telling me Matteson gave them those titles. That means Matteson named them, and it means Matteson, for some reason, had the right to name them.”
“That sounds pretty important.”
“It is important. There’s no way Matteson should have the power to name them, nothing that I can think of would give him that kind of authority.”
“You think he has authority?”
“No. But, it almost seems like he’d have to, doesn’t it?” We rode in silence for a while. I tried to piece these things together, but nothing was clicking. There was some piece I was missing, I knew it. But if that was the case, I probably wouldn’t know what that piece was until I was much older. The mother at the not-Crossroads, she seemed like she had only just figured it out. Was it really going to take me twenty years to get the missing piece? Or was there more than one missing piece?
“Well,” Alice finally said, “this all assumes he named them, and didn’t just stumble on a name they already had that he just didn’t know about, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”
“Did you see me in the future?” She smiled, clearly trying to change the subject.
“I did. And you were wearing a wedding band.” She gasped.
“Really? When was this? Who did I marry?” I shrugged.
“I didn’t find out what the date was. And you weren’t standing next to a husband, or wife for that matter, so I don’t know. I couldn’t exactly ask you.”
“Husband,” she said, with finality. “It would be a husband. Nothing against it, but that’s not for me.” I chuckled as I leaned back into my seat.
“Time is not stone, Alice. None of us really know the future until we get there.”
The blog of Jackie Veracruz.