Over the Hedge
Tall Tales is on a scheduled hiatus as Tim gets a head start on Volume Three. Ongoing medical issues have caused interruptions in the publishing of Tall Tales multiple times, and the purpose of this hiatus is to build enough of a story buffer that future issues will not require unexpected breaks in the story.
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 porridge Nan had made for breakfast was warm and comforting, and I didn’t realize how hungry I was until it was in front of me. I had two bowls before I was finally able to relax and talk, with Sergei and Nan patiently waiting. I started telling them what I saw, and they were very excited to hear about my brief stop at my wedding. Sergei asked when it was, so they could plan a vacation, but I didn’t actually know. But when I got to the part about The Two, they both went silent and listened intently.
“So she put the thread in your eye?” Nan asked. “Is that what the new gold flecks are?”
“And it isn’t going away?” Sergei asked.
“I saw the same flecks in the eye of every future version of myself I’ve met.”
“But nothing more,” Nan pressed, “this isn’t becoming a habit, you doing things to your eyes?” I chuckled.
“As far as I can tell, this is it.”
“If things do not change,” Sergei said, wagging his finger.
“I don’t think they can change.”
“Of course they can! Time is not stone, it moves. It changes! It can change.”
“We’re talking about fate, dear,” Nan said, resting a hand on his knee.
“Pft. Fate. Is nice word, but time changes.” She rolled her eyes.
“The Two said they’d seen it all before!”
“And they said they had to keep things same. Which,” he held his hands out and shrugged, “is chance for it to not stay same.”
“I think I’m going to try and stick to the script, if you don’t mind,” I said, setting the bowl down and picking up my drink.
“But you choose that. This is what matters,” he said, turning to Nan, “is that she chooses.”
“Of course, dear.” She patted his knee and then turned her attention back to me. “But you didn’t get the answers you were looking for?”
“I got some,” I said, “and I suspect, over time, I’ll realize that I got more than I know. But I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without your help. Both of you.”
“Well, we’re not done.” Nan walked to the other side of the room, grabbing some papers off a shelf. “Sergei had some more detailed theories for you, but had to write them in Russian. I translated them for you.” I flicked through and found pages detailing various forms Sergei believed Hecate had taken over the years, beginning with…
“Is this Atlantis?” I asked. Sergei nodded enthusiastically, and Nan sighed.
“Yes. It’s a pet idea of his. You can do what you want with the ideas. They’re theories—”
“Correct theories,” Sergei added.
“—that you can take, and decide for yourself how useful they are.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But shouldn’t the store be open by now?”
“Is time,” Sergei said, waving the question off, “it changes.”
24 January 2007
When my eyes opened, I was facing the ceiling and the sky; both of them, juxtaposed over each other. I felt the couch under me, but as I looked around everything was a blur of motion. The walls were being built, they were built, they were being destroyed. Nan, Sergei, and a few dozen other people I didn’t recognize were everywhere, all occupying the same space, but drifting through and past one another in perpetual motion. They aged and resumed their youth, they left and never returned while they entered for the first time. I stood and stumbled across a floor that was there on one step and gone the next, the carpet shifting and changing, the structure built or missing, everything in flux, everything changing around me. I grabbed my head and felt my hair growing as I tried to soothe the ache. I tripped over something—it was impossible to know what, with so much furniture coming and going—and crashed hard onto the floor. I felt a hand on my back, warm but fleeting, and a cacophony of voices overwhelmed me. I rose to my knees and screamed, the pain in my head growing more sharp and everything breaking down around me.
Then I felt something pulling at me. From every direction, a total of eight points of tension pulled at me, holding me in place. My surroundings began to slow and meld, stabilizing ever so slightly. I looked around, trying to make it out, and saw the lines leading away from me, each to a person. There was Matt, and Jacob, and the six other people who took part in the ritual in their apartment. All around me, they were keeping me in place, fighting against the pull I was still wrapped in. I closed my eyes and focused, chanting. I remembered the shard in my pocket and grabbed it, pulling it out of my pocket and holding it with both hands. I narrowed my mind on it, then held it up and looked through it. In the lens I could see Nan and Sergei’s apartment, stable and unmoving, with Nan kneeling in front of me and trying to soothe me. I tried to block out everything else. I tried to remind myself of what was important.
I have the magic to do this.
I have Nan and Sergei waiting for me and trying to pull me back.
I have friends helping me, supporting me, holding back as much of this chaos as they can.
I have people back home who need me, people I want to see again, people I will see again.
I am never alone.
My breathing slowed into a steady rhythm and my vision began to close in, as if a tunnel was slowly absorbing everything else. I saw where I needed to go. I knew how to get there. I closed my eyes, whispered one more incantation, and shattered the shard in my hand. I heard glass breaking everywhere around me, the visions shattering and falling away. The cacophony ended. The feeling of being pulled stopped. I opened my eyes and looked directly into Nan’s. She smiled.
“I was afraid we were losing you,” she said, running her hand through my hair. I reached up and rested my hand on her wrist.
“I would never.” She pulled me in for a hug, and I didn’t fight it.
The blog of Jackie Veracruz.