The Sea Hag
Ireland is a country in which the probable never
happens, and the impossible always does.
Sir John Pentland Mahaffy
Karlos Urich stared moodily out of the hotel window at the quickly darkening sky. “Another storm,” he muttered. “That makes, what? Three in two days?”
“Quit complaining,” his companion replied. “Your words will make no difference.”
Karlos grunted and looked over his shoulder. “And yours will, Taylor?” he snapped.
Taylor Voss only smiled in response. As an eighth level Sorcerer, they both knew she did indeed have some power over the weather. It was only Karlos’ innate Warrior grumpiness that made him uneasy. He longed for action and chafed at being confined within the hotel for so long, even with someone as attractive as Taylor.
Karlos returned his attention to the window. “Bloody unusual weather,” he remarked. “Even for god-forsaken Ireland.” Taylor suppressed a chuckle. Karlos was English and naturally predisposed to look down on the other nations of the UK. Taylor was Austrian, and if anything she possessed a quiet self-confidence that some often confused for smug superiority. Her record spoke for itself, however.
“When is Roberto returning?” she asked. Roberto Toscanni was the third member of their team, and the most gregarious. He was a glib talker and readily ingratiated himself into his surroundings, no matter what culture the team found themselves thrust into. For the past week, Roberto had spent far more time in the village than with his teammates, with little to show for it.
Karlos grunted. “How should I know?” he said, unwilling to turn again. “Bloody Italian. I can’t keep tabs on everyone.”
Taylor bit back her acidic reply, refusing to voice her opinion on Karlos’ ineffectual attempts at investigation. He would rather complain about the food than speak with any of the natives. This was their second time working together, and Taylor found that her opinion of the man had changed little in all the time she had known him. Karlos was lethal in battle, but he had the personality of a rock.
A soft moan emanated from the wall, from the room beyond. Karlos whirled, his hand flying to his gun holster. The sound came again, louder. Taylor moved forward in her chair, preparing to spring to her feet, a protective spell already forming on her lips.
Karlos took a step forward, toward the connecting door which led into Roberto’s room. Another moan, distinctly female, resounded through the thin wall accompanied by the unmistakable creak of bedsprings. Karlos’ shoulders slumped, and he let his hand fall away from his weapon.
“I don’t know how he does it,” he said, shaking his head. Taylor relaxed in her chair, trying to calm her racing heart. The sound of lovemaking escalated as Roberto added his own voice to the natural music. Karlos looked at Taylor, giving her a lopsided grin. “The Italian sure has a way with the women,” he said.
“I’m thinking this is not so good,” Taylor said, a frown creasing her face. “It is a distraction.”
Karlos’ smile broadened. “I could use a little distraction myself,” he muttered. His gaze dropped briefly to Taylor’s chest, to her hidden breasts.
She self-consciously drew her sweater tighter, habitually hiding her sexuality. “You men are all alike,” she growled angrily. “Always thinking with your crotches.”
Karlos turned back to the window, shrugging off his partner’s condemnation. “How much longer do we have to be here?” he asked, staring through the rain-streaked panes. “I hate Ireland.”
“Yes,” Taylor said, her voice dropping. “I suppose you do. Our investigation is not proceeding well. I feel we are being hindered.”
She could tell Karlos was scowling, even with his back to her. “It might help if you came out of the hotel more often,” he said without rancor.
Taylor drew herself up. “I am a Sorcerer,” she reminded him. “You are the Warrior. It is your task to go into danger. I can support you better from a place of safety.”
Karlos snorted derisively. “Yah,” he said, “I’ve heard that before.”
She chose tactfully not to reply. Let the Warrior have his resentment, she told herself. He is blinded by a lifetime of training, of warfare. It is his solace as well as his burden. She could not convey to him the deep disquiet which filled her, the sinking dread that something in this village, some malevolent spirit, already had control of her, as it seemed to control the villagers.
It was, she remembered, a feeling which had come upon her the moment she was handed this assignment. Despite her success in previous situations similar to this, the fact that one team had been lost here already gave her some pause. Still, she knew she was one of the strongest Sorcerers in the Order, stronger even than that arrogant upstart Jason who seemed to hold the Council in such thrall. Whatever was happening in this village, it was either too subtle or too powerful for her to detect. It was only that last possibility which caused her to shudder in unaccustomed fear.
The sounds from the next room diminished. She heard a woman’s high pitched, tittering laugh. Then a thud, as of something heavy striking the floor. Taylor glanced sharply at Karlos, still staring out the window, but the Warrior made no motion as if to respond. She opened her mouth to speak, to ask him if such sounds constituted the normal repertoire of Roberto’s sexual performances, when an all too familiar sensation struck her. Her skin began to tingle, tiny waves of energy raced up and down the length of her body as the very air around her became charged.
The room was suddenly alive with it, and Taylor had never tasted the like of it before. Instinctively, she wove a spell of protection around herself, pushing back the invasive current of arcane energy. It struggled with her own spell even as it formed. She felt dizzy with the effort to fend it off. Swaying, she struggled to her feet.
“Karlos!” she called out, her voice sounding hollow in the magically charged air. “Something’s wrong. Karlos?” The Warrior was unresponsive, standing like a stature before the window, as if entranced by the rain.
With sudden clarity, Taylor knew what had happened. The rush of insight stunned her, all the clues of the past week falling into place with unerring precision, leading her to one inescapable conclusion. There were great gaps in her theory, she knew, but it would not be for her to resolve this mystery. The storms, Karlos’ discomfort, Roberto so frequently missing, and now a moment of sexual frenzy followed by this storm of magic.
She was drowning, deluged under a choking sea of energy, an energy whose type she now recognized all too well. Some would call it black magic, but Taylor was too intelligent for that. There was no white or black, and only thin lines between good and evil. At least most of the time.
The force flowing through that wall now, that was evil in its purest form. And it was anything but human. She did not need to see it to know that Roberto was dead, his life energy drained to feed this magical assault. There would be no protection from her Warriors. She took a faltering step toward Karlos, thinking that she might take his weapon, use it to defend herself, for she was certain that her magic, powerful though it was, would be next to nothing to the force she battled now.
The connecting door creaked open, swinging slowly on hinges made rusty by the sea air. Taylor froze, staring with mute horror at the creature which entered the room.
“Oh God,” she managed to gasp.
“Not yet,” the creature replied with a voice like the thundering sea. Taylor choked down her scream and unleashed her own energy, funneling her magic into burst of white-hot light that exploded from her outstretched hand.
The creature batted it aside like a slow moving fly, and the energy slammed instead into Karlos’ back. The Warrior was flung through the window, out into the storm, without so much as a whimper of pain.
Then the creature was on her, with breath reeking of salt and blood, of souls torn asunder.
There was no time for repentance, for grief or sorrow. The sea, the storm, they had come alive and walked the earth bearing claws and fangs, with eyes which glowed with their own yellow light, staring into the blue eyes of the Sorcerer even as her life faded away.
The energy was spent, but there would be more. Time was an ally, and time brought all things necessary to those who waited. And she had waited a very long time already.
The village trembled beneath the victory howl of the Hag.
The tragedy is not that things are broken.
The tragedy is that they are not mended again.
Alan Stewart Paton
The messenger shivered in the crisp morning air and drew his coat closer to his body. The season was late, well into spring and approaching summer, but the weather clung stubbornly to the cold, augmented by the frigid winds that fell out of the north, tasting of ice and emptiness. The path he walked was bare dirt lined on both sides with rough-cut stone. Tall evergreens loomed overhead, growing close together and withering away into shadow barely ten steps off the trail. Already the main compound had vanished from sight behind him, lost around a gentle curve, and ahead the path seemed to launch itself into the air as it plunged suddenly down.
He had traveled a long way to be here, and the journey had not been easy. The people he had been sent to meet had no desire for visitors. To say the settlement, here in the wilds of northern Canada, was remote would be an understatement. Fifty miles of rough road from the backcountry airstrip just to get to the long driveway leading here. It would be worth it, he reminded himself, just to meet them.
The man stopped at the crest of the path and looked into the clearing beyond. The ground sloped away, forming a deep bowl with a flat bottom, and the forest marched away on both sides to line the rim. Below, he could see activity, and he paused a moment to watch.
Interspersed among the trees was a tangle of rough-hewn equipment. Bars, poles, ropes, ladders, and walls formed the basics of a hectic obstacle course. A blur of motion caught the man’s eye. Someone was running the course, running flat out down a path which entered the bowl from the opposite side. A knot of people waiting below pointed excitedly. A second figure emerged behind the first, running hard to close the distance.
“A race,” the man muttered to himself, unable to suppress a sudden excitement. Of the members of the group below, only two were female, and neither of them matched the description of the one he had been sent here to meet. The racers, however…
They were moving with phenomenal speed. He had no idea how long the race had gone on already, but the runners showed no fatigue whatsoever. They were too far away to discern much detail, but they were both female and either of them could be her. He shivered with excitement.
One of the waiting people finally noticed him standing on the rise above them, and a moment later the man felt the unmistakable sensation of magic wash over him. Someone was scanning him, and the chaotic power which lay just beneath the veneer of control spoke of wild magic. But though he had never felt it before, he knew it was the touch of the Avatar.
Other eyes turned to focus on him. A lighter touch played over him, and the man let his own magic respond. Now they would know him for one of their own, a fellow Sorcerer. He glanced back at the racers and started down the incline.
The first had reached the obstacle course and entered it without slowing. The man faltered in his steps as he watched both women swarm through the ropes, barely pausing before leaping the barriers. He felt a momentary shame at his amazement. Having grown up entirely within the confines of the Order, where women were never acknowledged as physical equals of men, seeing two females display such a high degree of the Skill was disquieting.
Their motions were a blur. They leaped into the air higher than the heights of two men. He had the unsettling realization that both women could cross the distance separating him from them long before he could complete a spell of protection. And one of the women racing toward him even now was the one who had killed the Legion.
He stopped a few paces short of the group, waiting for the end of the race. The women passed in a blur, and he thought it would be impossible to pick the winner.
“Kali!” one of the men exclaimed.
“Fran!” shouted another. Everyone erupted in excited debate as the two racers slowed to a trot and circled around toward the group. A tall, brown haired man separated himself from the others and stepped toward the messenger.
“Hello,” he said jovially. “You’re a magician, right?”
The messenger bristled. “A Sorcerer,” he said tersely. “Yes. I am Eric Branaby, Clan Wolf, on special dispatch bearing a message from the High Council to the Avatars Frances Durant and Christian Barnett.”
The tall man said nothing, and another man stepped up to his side. “That would be me,” the newcomer said. “I’m Chris Barnett. Who sent you again?”
Eric stiffened, gazing at Chris in awe. The Avatar, his mind screamed. The repository of the greatest magical power in the long history of the Order stood less than a yard away, and Eric felt as weak inside as a schoolgirl meeting a rockstar. The analogy was apt, for Chris had long held a place in Eric’s pantheon of heroes, and to be meeting him at last gave Eric a sense of living outside of reality.
The tall man glanced at Chris with a scowl. “I have scanned him,” he told the Avatar with the barest hint of an accent. “I sense no evil in him.” The gaze returned to Eric. “So what holds his tongue?”
“The same thing that held yours the first time we met, Ilya,” Chris replied, breaking into a broad smile. He took a step forward an extended his hand.
“The High Council,” Eric suddenly blurted, lurching forward to grasp Chris’s hand in both of his own. The smile was contagious, and he felt the muscles of his face expand to match the expression of his idol. “I have a message for you. For both of you. The Avatars I mean…” His voice trailed away into silence.
Chris chuckled. “Okay,” he said simply. “For both of us. What kind of message?” He gently pulled his hand away from Eric and looked over his shoulder as the two racers arrived at the group.
Eric took a deep breath and tried to remember what he had memorized. “The High Council,” he said, “wishes to officially sanction your Clan, to extend the hand of friendship to you and all those who follow under your banner. You will be included…”
Chris’s head had snapped around and he now stared at Eric with a look of such intensity that the words crumbled to dust in his mouth.
“You mean they want us on the inside?” Chris demanded. “After all these years?”
“Well,” Eric said, licking suddenly dry lips, “yes.”
“I see,” Chris said, his expression inexplicably softening. Someone called out his name, and one of the racers flung herself into Chris’s embrace.
Eric took a deep breath to calm his jangled nerves. Don’t look like an idiot, he scolded himself.
“Did you see it?” the woman asked. “She almost beat me that time. I swear, I feel so old.”
Chris laughed. “You’re only twenty-one, Fran,” he chided. “Kali is barely a year younger than you.”
Fran pulled back slightly within his embrace. “That supposed to make me feel better?” she asked in mock anger.
Chris leaned closer and kissed the tip of her nose. “You’re so cute when you’re indignant,” he said playfully.
She grinned at him. “Oh no,” she said, “you’re not going to worm out of it with flattery.” He leaned closer and kissed her lips firmly. “Okay,” she said as they separated, “maybe you will.” She looked at Eric. “Who’s he?”
“A messenger,” Chris said, returning his attention to Eric. “From the Order.” Fran stiffened suddenly, all appearance of mirth vanishing from her face.
“He has no evil,” Ilya interjected, alarmed at the look on Fran’s face. “I have scanned him.”
“Not all evil comes from demons,” Fran admonished. She gently pushed Chris away and stood erect facing Eric. “Why have you come?” she demanded.
Eric felt his exuberance drain away. The nearness of her unnerved him. She projected an aura of dangerous violence backed by lethal training, a level of Skill he knew to be unparalleled. And she was so close.
“I come bearing an important message from the High Council,” he began, trying to hide his unease. “The Order wishes…”
“No,” she cut him off. “Why are you here?” He looked at her in confusion. She drew herself up tighter, tilting her head to point her chin at him, to look down her nose at him. “The Order turned its back on us,” she said in a tight voice. “For four years they’ve left us alone, treating us as if we didn’t exist. Why are you here now?”
“I’m not certain I understand,” Eric said meekly. “I have no knowledge of any previous contacts…”
“Because there haven’t been any,” Fran cut him off.
“Easy, baby,” Chris said, laying his hand on her shoulder. “He’s just a messenger. A little gun. You know how secretive they are. He doesn’t know.”
“Know what?” Eric asked. His eyes wavered between the two Avatars, each icily cool but with different reasons. He had always assumed that the Avatars had been busily at work over the years, performing secret duties for the High Council. Certainly nothing that a low level Sorcerer from a rustic Clan needed to be kept abreast of. He had been told only that the Avatars had gone Renegade over a year ago and were to be found at their remote headquarters. He had expected nothing less than he had found. A scattering of well constructed buildings, a crowd of youths with freshly discovered Talent, working the magical Art, and young Warriors practicing their Skill under Fran’s tutelage, all coming together to form the first new Clan since the beginning of all.
It was a prospect as awe inspiring as the Avatars themselves. But four years? the words echoed in his mind. That can’t be.
Fran seemed to relax, drawing something from Chris’s touch. “Why don’t we go to the House,” he told her gently. “We’ll get you into some fresh clothes and hear what Eric here has to say.” She nodded absently and allowed him to pull her away. Ilya stepped forward.
“Please to come with me,” he said, smiling. Eric nodded, and the tall foreigner moved back up the trail, retracing the path Eric had used to get here. Chris and Fran melted into the group which surrounded them with boisterous chatter, and Eric turned away from them sadly.
No, this was not what he had expected.
He followed Ilya back to the main compound, turning off the stone lined path just before reaching the rough gravel lot where Eric had parked his rented car. Everything was neat and orderly with no hint of the chaos he had expected. There were six buildings in all, laid out in no plan that Eric could discern. He could guess their purposes at a glance. Two were obviously dormitories, three stories high and each a hundred yards long. Nearby was a low, wide building with an arched roof glittering with dozens of skylights, most likely a gymnasium. Farther off was a sturdy brick structure with few windows, overshadowed by a tall smokestack. That, he assumed, was the power plant.
A second gravel lot held a motley collection of six vehicles, the entire contents of the Clan’s motor pool. Completing the circle was a half-buried warehouse. Those five buildings formed a rough circle surrounding a modest house of two floors. It looked as if it might have been lifted out of any suburban housing development and dropped here in the wilderness. Except that the roof was covered with radio antennae and satellite dishes.
It was to the house that Ilya led Eric. He held open the door and motioned for Eric to enter. Inside was what once might have been a cozy parlor, but now it was crammed with computers and workstations, leaving just enough room for one person to pass. Eric turned a questioning look at Ilya, but the man had already gone. The confusing array of electronics beeped and hummed busily, the myriad of monitors flickering with unfathomable displays, and Eric felt his sense of unease deepen. He was familiar with computers, but nowhere had he ever encountered so much technology in one place. It was not the way of Sorcerers to rely on machinery.
A girl appeared in the doorway across the room. She looked him up and down with a practiced eye. Eric would have guessed her to be a servant, dressed as she was in jeans, tank top, and an apron which tried to engulf her, but he had already reckoned that the Clan had no funds to spare for such a luxury. Indeed, judging from what he had seen already, this place was more of a commune than a Clan of the Order.
She was young, no more than fifteen he guessed, and undeniably beautiful. Her long blonde hair was piled on her head in a tight bun, and she appraised him with fiery blue eyes. Despite his training, Eric felt his heart skip a beat.
“Let me guess,” she said in a light, whispery voice, “Sorcerer, right?” He nodded mutely. “Thought so,” she added.
“My name is Eric,” he began, then choked on the rest. Her eyes moved to his face and locked with his. He felt a momentary panic, and he scrambled to prepare his mind for a mental assault that never came. “I take it,” he said after a moment, “that you don’t have Talent.”
“Talent?” she echoed, her brow furrowing in confusion. “Oh. You mean I can’t work magic.” She nodded, dropping her gaze. “You got that right. I’m a Warrior.”
Eric felt an entirely different apprehension seize him. “But you’re a…” he began and cut himself off.
“A girl?” she finished for him. “Yeah. And that must mean you’re from the Order. Never seen a girl Warrior before, huh?”
Eric shook his head. “Not until today,” he mumbled. It was one thing to know some things existed on an academic level, and it was quite another to come face to face with the reality. I’m beginning to wish they’d chosen someone else, he bemoaned internally.
“I take it they know you’re here,” the girl said, crossing her arms. “What am I saying? Chris probably knew you were here the instant you started down the driveway. You hungry? Bet you are. Well, come on.” She turned abruptly and disappeared through the doorway.
Eric stood still, momentarily stunned by the sudden flurry of words. The girl poked her head back into the room. “Well?” she demanded. “You coming?” Almost reluctantly, he forced himself into motion. The doorway led to a hallway crowded with bookshelves. It seemed as if they had tried to stuff an entire library into the hall, and Eric glanced at some of the titles as he pursued the girl. Most of them seemed to have something to do with religion or the occult. He recognized quite a few texts on magic shelved beside reference books on the paranormal, physics, forensics, medicine, and dozens of other subjects.
The hall terminated at a spacious kitchen. A round breakfast table sat in a nook dominated by a huge bay window. The air smelled of spice, of fresh bread and baked meat. It reminded him of home. But that was a long time ago, he reminded himself. The girl waved him into a chair then crossed to the other side of the room.
“You want something to drink?” she asked, already pulling a glass from a high cabinet.
Eric stared at her stretched form, trying to guess what curves she hid beneath her voluminous apron. She turned suddenly and caught him staring. He gasped involuntarily and jerked his gaze away.
“Some tea would be nice,” he muttered, feeling his face flush red. He risked a quick glance at the girl. She dropped her own gaze, smiling demurely, then turned away.
“Tea it is,” she said, busying herself at the stove. “Hot or cold?”
“Hot, please,” he said, watching her.
“Hot,” she muttered to herself. “Where are you from? England?”
He suppressed a laugh. “No,” he said. “New Zealand.”
“Oh,” she replied. “That explains your accent.”
“What accent?” he asked in mock innocence.
She scowled at him over her shoulder. “I thought you were American at first,” she said.
He nodded. “Yes, I get that a lot. Where are you from? Canada? Quebec, I’d guess.”
She looked at him, startled. He smiled at her reaction. “I travel a lot,” he explained. “I try to mask my own accent, and it makes me pay closer attention to the accents of others.”
“Oh,” she said neutrally. She moved closer and set a ceramic mug in front of him. He tried to ignore her nearness, concentrating on the steam rising into his face, the tail of the tea bag draped over the rim of the cup.
She turned away. He reached out for her and stopped himself before he could touch her. She’s a Warrior, he reminded himself sternly. Never touch a Warrior. She sensed his action and paused, looking back at him.
“What’s your name?” he blurted.
The emotion seemed to drain from her face. “Judith,” she said with growing coolness.
The sound of the front door closing vibrated through the soles of his feet, and Eric tore his gaze away from Judith. She moved smoothly away from him, carrying herself on the balls of her feet as though prepared at any moment to launch herself into combat. He said nothing more to her. She carried the weight of some great sadness on her shoulders, a melancholy which ran deep into the core of her being, and as desirable as she was, Eric knew he could never have her.
Chris appeared in the doorway. He nodded congenially to Eric and crossed quickly to the refrigerator. He removed two bottles of water and flung one across the room. Eric jerked his gaze back to the doorway in time to see Fran enter. Deftly, she snatched the bottle from the air, popped it open, and quickly drained half the contents.
She wiped her mouth with the bottom of her shirt and favored Eric with a scowl. “I’m going to shower,” she said. She looked at Chris, communicating some unspoken message, then vanished back down the hall.
Chris dropped into the chair opposite Eric’s. He peered into the mug then lounged back, sipping his water.
“So,” Chris said after a moment. “What exactly is the High Council?”
Eric opened his mouth to reply and was suddenly overcome by a deep sense of awe. He was sitting across a table from the Avatar, having a conversation with the Avatar.
They should have sent someone older, he thought grimly. But then, an older Sorcerer would have looked down his nose at Chris, discrediting him as a simple Wild Talent, disregarding all evidence to the contrary. Likewise, a Warrior of any level would have sneered at Fran. It was only the younger generation, so eager to find something to believe in, to which they could attach their own meager faith, who would approach this matter seriously.
Eric shoved aside his awe and sat up straighter. “Each Clan,” he said, hoping his voice carried some modicum of authority, “is ruled by a Council comprised of members of that Clan. Each family casts one vote, and the number of members in each Council varies according to the size of the Clan.”
Chris nodded. Eric smiled, pleased with himself. “Additionally,” he went on, warming to the subject, “each Clan elects one member to be on the High Council. Those people live in Rome, where the Order keeps its headquarters, and rule collectively over all the Clans.”
“What good does it do to have a Clan Council,” Chris asked, leaning forward, “if there’s a High Council ruling over everyone?”
Eric suppressed a frown. There was more to this conversation than he was seeing. “What good does it do,” he countered, “to have a Provincial government when there’s the Parliament ruling over all? Each has its purpose. Sometimes they overlap, but not often.”
“And where do we fit in all of this?”
“Pardon?” Eric asked, thrown off track.
“My Clan,” Chris said, fixing Eric with a steady gaze. “Will we have a seat on this High Council?”
“Well, I’m sure you will,” Eric said, unsure. “I mean, every Clan does.”
“And that’s spelled out in your offer?” Chris pressed. “Specifically?”
“Not in so many words,” Eric replied, feeling his unease flare up and become a knot in his throat. “But the implication is clear. As I said on the field, the Order will officially sanction Clan Phoenix. That means you get all the rights every other Clan has.”
“And that’s spelled out in your offer, too?” Chris asked somberly. Eric remained silent, and Chris nodded as if it was the answer he had expected.
“Do you live with your family?” he asked, suddenly changing the subject.
“No,” Eric replied after a moment, confused. “I live in Clan Hall. My Clan’s Hall,” he clarified. “I work as a messenger, so I travel quite frequently.”
Chris took a swig of his water, considering his next question. Tentatively, Eric sipped at his tea, grimacing at the bitter taste. “How old are you?” Chris asked.
“Nineteen,” Eric replied.
“How long have you been a Sorcerer?”
“Since I was fifteen,” Eric said, trying not to blush. It was a late age for Talent to manifest, a sure sign that any ability he would have would be weak.
“And your teammates?” Chris prodded.
This time Eric could not keep the red from his face. “I’m not on a Team,” he replied. “I work as a messenger, as I said.”
“Surely messengers need protection, too,” Chris said as he leaned back casually.
“Only those who…” Eric cut himself off. Only those who are bearing messages of great importance, he finished in his mind. But what else is this if not such a message?
Normally, he knew, a Sorcerer was teamed with at least two Warriors, forming the basic action unit the Order employed. Those who’s Talent, their innate ability to use magic, fell below level two were assigned other duties. Such as bearing messages which protocol demanded be delivered in person.
But, he was certain, this was a special case. In all the long history of the Order, Clans had been lost but no new ones had ever been created. Exactly how much importance did the High Council attach to this mission if Eric had been the one entrusted to complete it?
Chris was silent, letting Eric stew in his own thoughts. It was evident that Chris had reasoned things through farther in a few minutes than Eric had in all the time it had taken him to get here.
Fran appeared in the doorway rubbing her head with a towel. She had changed into loose fitting sweat pants and a halter top, and Eric could not stop his eyes from darting over her well toned body. If she noticed the appraisal, she chose to ignore it. She kissed Chris before settling into the chair beside him.
“What have you two been talking about?” Fran asked.
“That was a quick shower,” Chris said, smiling at her. She ignored him, focusing her attention on Eric.
He swallowed hard. “I was just telling your…” he choked to a stop.
“Husband,” Chris finished for him. “They didn’t even tell you that much, did they? We’ve been married for three years.”
Eric put his hand over his mouth in surprise. “Forgive me,” he said. “You’re right. I should have known. We had guessed, and hoped, but you see no one is told much about you. We all learn not to ask about things that don’t directly concern us...I’m sure the Lady understands.” Eric felt blood rushing to his face. He was babbling, unable to stop. “So, have you any children yet?”
The smile which had been forcing its way onto Fran’s face abruptly vanished. She looked away quickly. Chris put his hand over hers, staring down at the table. “No,” he said softly. “Not yet.”
Eric dropped his own gaze, embarrassed at his rudeness. “Forgive me,” he said, “I didn’t mean to be so inquisitive. I just…” His voice faltered.
Chris waved nonchalantly. “It’s okay,” he said. “Forget it. You were saying something about an offer?”
“Yes,” Eric said, forcing his thoughts back to the reason for his visit. “The High Council wishes to officially sanction your new Clan, to lift your Renegade status…” Again he let his voice fade into silence.
“Tell me,” he said, scooting forward in his seat. “How long have you been Renegade, anyway?”
Chris squeezed Fran’s hand, and she closed her mouth, cutting off whatever she had been about to say. “How long do you think it’s been?” he asked Eric.
“Just over a year,” Eric said. He smiled ruefully. “Of course, I don’t know all that you’ve done since the Legion was defeated. Your exploits have been a closely guarded secret.”
“Four years,” Chris said.
“Four years,” Fran repeated. “Four goddamn years. Your holy High Council is terrified of us, of our determination to get rid of the old, useless traditions. They’ve kept us on the outside for four years, hoping to make us come begging for help. Well, we didn’t. We made it, and now that we have our own Clan they want to…” She stopped, clenching her fists in anger.
“It’s not you,” Chris said to Eric. “We lost a lot when we went against the Legion. And instead of being hailed as heroes, we were ignored. The survivors of Fran’s old Clan were shuttled off to other Clans. The old Clan Hall was razed. All we had was the little bit we’d taken when we were on the run.”
He looked at Fran. “And each other,” he added. “The point is, after all this time of ignoring us, why the sudden interest?”
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “I only know the terms I was authorized to offer.”
“And those are?”
“Full rights and privileges,” Eric said at once. “Your Renegade status will be removed. You will receive all the funds you require in addition to advisors and access to the Order’s main library and data net.”
The couple stared at Eric silently. “And the catch?” Fran said at last.
“None, really,” Eric said, relieved to have the conversation back in familiar territory. “You will, however, be required to stop recruiting from the other Clans.”
“Ah,” Fran said, relaxing back in her chair. “I see it now. They’re afraid of us, Chris. We’ve made people sit up and think. The Order’s own ironclad traditions are choking the life out of it.”
“Have you wondered why they chose you to carry this message?” Chris said to Eric, surprising the man with the apparent insight into his thoughts. “I’ll tell you. It’s because you’ve been so isolated. You haven’t already heard our message. And I know it’s out there. Judith here is proof.” He pointed at the girl leaning on the counter, mutely following the conversation. “She was born with the Skill, the blood of a Warrior. Once she heard Fran’s story, Judith raised so much hell she got kicked out.”
“She went Renegade,” Fran said. “Just like me. Just like so many others are doing. The only ones we recruit are the ones already cast aside by their own Clans.”
“I understand,” Eric said. “But things are changing. The High Council has many new members, and new policies are being readied. You’ve done well here. Once more you have led the way. But I also understand that it takes resources you don’t have to keep a Clan alive. Your vehicles are parked in the open, and none of them looks very new. Your buildings look sturdy, but do you have a vault? Do you have enough weapons for all your Warriors? This far north, can you raise enough crops during the brief summer to feed everyone for a year?”
He paused. “I respect you both,” he said softly. “For what you have done and for what you continue to do. Please, don’t let it end because recognition was delayed.”
Chris sighed. “It’s more than that…” he began.
“We’ll think it over,” Fran suddenly interjected. “Judith, show him to the waiting room, please.”
Judith pushed away from the counter and walked past Eric. “Come on,” she said tiredly.
Eric looked at the Avatars in confusion. Chris tore his own surprised gaze away from Fran and turned back to the messenger. “Go ahead,” he urged. “Evidently we need to talk.”
Fran had turned to stare out the window. Feeling dismissed, Eric nodded and stood. Judith was waiting in the doorway, her back to him, and she began to move as he approached.
Left alone, Chris eased down in his chair and waited for Fran to speak.
“This stinks,” she said after a few minutes.
“I agree,” Chris said. “But why do you think so?”
She twisted to face him. “Do we really need them?” she asked fiercely. “Where have they been all these years? When Legion killed our families, my Clan? Where were they when we tracked down the Brotherhood and destroyed their headquarters? Or when we broke up that devil cult in Nevada? Where was all their resources when Brotherhood assassins raided this very compound four months ago?"”
A tear fell from her eye and rolled over her cheek. “Where were they when our baby died?” she asked through clenched teeth. Chris leaned toward her and put his arms around her. She clenched him, trembling with emotion.
She pushed him away after a moment and wiped her face angrily. “Yes,” she said, “we do need new weapons, and new cars, and more cash. But I won’t sell out for it.”
Chris smiled and reached out to brush Fran’s moist cheek. “Baby, we don’t have to,” he said. “But who says we can’t use them the way they’re trying to use us?”
Fran scowled, and the hint of a smile appeared on her lips. “You have a plan,” she said.
“You bet your tasty butt I do,’ Chris said. “Look, what does the Order normally do with a threat? They destroy it. But we’re too strong for them. We’ve got more than a Clan here, we’ve got an army. So what can they do? They try to absorb us. I have no doubt they intend to break us up once they have control.”
“We’ll never let them have control,” Fran said.
“Exactly. We’ll make a deal, take everything we can, then refuse to take their orders. And in the meantime we’ll chip away at them from the inside.”
Fran giggled. “We’ll screw them while they think they’re screwing us,” she said, smiling now. “Husband, I like the way you think.”
“Why thank you, wife,” Chris said. They pressed closer and kissed. “Should we call him back and tell him?” he asked in the space between kisses.
“Let him bake awhile,” Fran said, crawling onto Chris’s lap.
“Stew,” he corrected.
Chris the Avatar, supreme practitioner of the magical Art, watched his wife across the dancing flames of the bonfire. He found himself trapped inside moments like this more and more frequently. So often he was the calm for her storm, the anchor which chained Fran to her sanity. She had lost so much, seen more horror than any human should be required to experience, and yet she bounced back quickly from every low.
The demon Legion had taken more from her than anyone. After killing it, she had expected her life to become better. But every struggle they overcame only revealed another on the far side. The Clans had turned their backs on her, accusing her of going Renegade, of abandoning her Clan and family even before the Legion had struck. And, in a way, she had. She had been ready to, anyway. Ready to turn her back on the only life she had ever known, just to be with the man she loved.
The Legion, able to possess thousands simultaneously, had transformed itself into an army and had even recruited others to its cause. Like the Brotherhood, the paramilitary Satanists whose secret society had rivaled the Order, they had been a thorn in their side ever since. The new Clan had broken the Brotherhood’s base of power, but they had failed to destroy it. A mistake they paid for when they woke up under attack four months ago. Sixteen dead, including Fran’s unborn child.
The pain of that memory would sting for a long time to come. Neither of them could understand why it was so hard for them to conceive. Fran had been barely two months pregnant when she miscarried, the result of being too close to a concussion grenade.
Chris watched her carefully, but all signs of her previous melancholy seemed to have evaporated. That was her way.
The sky was beginning to color as dawn approached. It had seemed appropriate to celebrate. The messenger, Eric, was naïve but sincere. He was unable to use his magic to hide his thoughts and emotions. There were some here, Wild Talents Fran called them, who could lift thoughts from the minds of others. Chris could not, but he could tell when someone was trying to deceive him. There was no mystery in why Eric had been chosen. He had an idealistic expectation of what Chris and Fran represented, what they were, and it shone from him like a beacon lending his words the credence of conviction.
The plan would work. There was no one easier to rip off than a group that thrived on its own self-delusion. The Order envisioned itself as infallible, unbeatable. And they would pay.
Fran moved around the fire to join Chris, sprawling playfully over his lap. He pulled her tightly against his chest, pressing his lips to hers.
“Whoa, tiger,” she said when they pulled apart. “Feeling kind of randy, aren’t we?”
“I feel good,” he said, smiling broadly. “But we have to talk.”
Fran turned serious. She sat up on his lap. “Something wrong?” she asked tersely.
“Not really,” he replied. “Just a little kink in the plan.”
She looked over his shoulder, back to the house where Eric was. He followed her thoughts. “No,” he said. “Not him. He didn’t know.”
Fran looked at him quizzically. “I hate it when you get enigmatic,” she said. He laughed.
“Eric brought us all kinds of paperwork,” Chris said. “The Order is a vast bureaucracy, there are forms for everything. But part of the package was a contract for us. They aren’t as dumb as we’d hoped.”
“Oh, really,” Fran said. The tone of her voice implied her low opinion of those on the High Council.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “They just want to reassure themselves that we’re really coming in.”
“They want us to go on a mission for them,” Chris said, looking back at the dying flames. “A ghost hunt.”
“Is that all?” she snorted. “Then they are just as dumb as I think they are.”
He shrugged. “I can’t help being suspicious,” he said.
“I think you’re just being paranoid,” she chided.
“Maybe so,” he replied, “but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone’s not out to get you.”
She hesitated then burst into laughter. “Oh, I love you,” she said, hugging him tightly.
“I love you, too,” he said, feeling a warmth suffuse his body.
“So,” she said after a moment. “What kind of ghost is it?”
“If I read the mission briefing right,” he said, “it’s the ghost of a witch.”
“Interesting,” she said. She turned to stare at the breaking dawn. “Better than a demon,” she said.
“True,” he mumbled, pushing his face into her hair. Not even a demon could stand against us now, he thought to himself. Clan Phoenix has a strength the Order never had. A unity of spirit, a sense of real purpose. And hope.
When they had pitched the idea to the Clan’s other members at the evening meal, the response had been no less than he had expected. There was no one here who did not firmly believe in the cause Fran had pledged her life to. The forces of darkness, however contrite the term might sound, were very real. The only barrier between them and humanity was the Order. And, now, Clan Phoenix.
They called it the Eternal War, not because it would never end, but because it had been raging since the dawn of creation. Chris, with the tremendous magical ability he possessed, was somehow an important piece of the grand puzzle. Fran, as his counterpart, was no less important. Whatever it was they were meant to do, Chris was sure it had not happened yet.
Fran turned and snuggled into his embrace. “A ghost hunt,” she muttered. “And then we bleed them dry.” Chris looked beyond her at the horizon as the sun began to peek over. Golden light sparkled on the tops of the trees and began to creep down toward the ground.
“Where at?” Fran murmured sleepily against his neck. “Where are we off to?”
“Ireland,” Chris answered. “We’re going to Ireland.” The light fell into his eyes, and he turned away.
We always have to choose between suffering our own
pain or suffering other people’s. We can’t not suffer.
Chris grimaced and clutched at his roiling stomach as the heavy van slammed through another pothole. “I always pictured Ireland as being full of rocks,” he said. “You’d think they could toss a few into these damn holes.”
“Sorry, mate,” the driver, Shaun, said. “I don’t think this road’s seen a paver since the Great War. The gov’s too busy trying to find jobs for everybody to worry about these back lanes.”
Fran laughed, seemingly unaffected by the bouncy ride. “They should put a few of them to work repairing these roads,” she said. “Kill two birds with one stone.”
Shaun joined her laughter. “You’re right,” he said. “Stupid bloody Irish.” The laughter cut short as the van bounced over a deep rut. It was loaded down and heavy, making the rough road seem worse than it probably was.
Chris looked behind him at the other passengers. Judith and Kali, sharing the next seat, seemed to share Fran’s immunity to motion sickness. Farther back, however, the other two members of the team were as green as the rolling pastureland they traveled through.
“Nico, Aaron,” Chris called. “How are you two holding up?” Both men lifted their heads only slightly, enough for Chris to see how pale they had become. It was odd to see such similarity in two men who were so different.
Aaron Dubois had arrived at Clan Phoenix early one winter morning wearing a thin cotton jumpsuit and carrying a gnarled wooden staff, looking like some kind of fantasy wizard come to life. Which was not far wrong. Chris had detected the man’s magic instantly. He used it to ward off the chill air, and it had led him to Chris.
Fran called it Wild Talent. Presumably, somewhere in the mists of the past, the bloodline of the Order leaked out. The supernormal abilities they all shared were passed out to the uninitiated, manifesting as psychic powers, clairvoyance, even higher than average physical abilities. Aaron was different from the other Wild Talents they had encountered, though. In addition to using magic without spells, much the same way Chris did, he was completely blind. Somehow this made him more sensitive to the flow of the magical force, using it to interpret and manipulate the natural world around him.
Nicodemos was, in most ways, Aaron’s opposite. He had lived his entire life within the confines of the Order, and while he was no weakling, neither was he a Sorcerer of high caliber. But he knew more about the Art than most people knew existed. At thirty-nine, he had grown tired of being pushed aside and looked over. Eager to find a place where his vast lore would be appreciated, he had left his own Clan to join the Renegades, Chris and Fran. He had acted as Chris’s mentor ever since.
The two females, Judith Macy and Kali Hoest, were interesting stories themselves. Judith was only fifteen, and it was undeniable that she had Skill. She, too, had grown up in a Clan where the unspoken rule was to flatly deny the possibility of a girl becoming a Warrior. Whereas Fran had the advantage of a father who was a Warrior who knew how to train other Warriors, Judith’s parents were low level Sorcerers. Faced with a life of repression, she had rebelled, earning her Renegade status long before she arrived at Clan Phoenix.
Then there was Kali. They had discovered her by accident, though Chris often thought that there must be a higher power involved. Kali was like a clone of Fran, matching her ability for ability, and she was growing stronger. Her origins, like Chris’s, were shrouded in mystery, but there was no denying she was of the Blood.
The van bounced through another deep hole, ripping Chris away from his reverie. The countryside was beginning to change. For miles, everything had been pasture bordered by the ubiquitous stone walls, although seldom did they see any livestock. Now the land was becoming more uneven, broken in places where it seemed something had burst free from beneath. The road smoothed out a bit as it dropped between two hills.
“It’s an old Roman road,” Shaun called back over his shoulder. “Built on an even older Celtic road. The Celts were here a thousand years before the Romans arrived.”
“What did either of them want with all this?” Fran asked, waving her hand at the bleak countryside.
Shaun shrugged. “Maybe it was the view,” he suggested. He grinned at Fran as he pointed through the windshield at the way ahead.
The road was curving now, dropping through a break in the landscape. Sheer rock walls rose up on either side, boxing them in. They broke into daylight again, and Fran gasped at the view which suddenly appeared.
They were still high, and the road could be seen rolling into a series of switchbacks, making a quick descent toward the ocean. The road forked to the right, and they could just make out the ruins of a castle on top of the cliff that began to loom above them. A lower cliff extended out into the sea on the left, crested by a lighthouse. And in between, nestled close to the sea, was a village.
“Glenarry,” Shaun announced, slowing so his passengers could absorb the view. The buildings were crowded together, making maximum use of the tiny space between the cliffs. Jutting out as they did, the cliffs formed a tiny harbor, itself a part of the larger Clew Bay beyond. The masts of a few, small fishing boats could just be seen bobbing in the gentle waters beyond the village.
“It’s mostly cliffs along the western shore,” Shaun said. “But for some reason the land drops to sea level here. Made a perfect port at one time, I guess.” He shrugged again. “Just another quaint Irish village now.”
Chris leaned closer to his window, staring at the village as the van crept down the sharp incline. He could pick out a few shops, but most of the buildings seemed to be houses. A large church loomed over everything, clinging to the hillside above the village like a watchful angel. The lanes were narrow and paved with stone, worn smooth with the passage of time. He could make out a wharf built along the edge of the cliff, extending out into the waters of the bay.
As they got closer, Chris began to notice the abandoned buildings. Houses with windows shuttered, shops with plywood nailed over display windows, and less than half the berths along the wharf were filled.
Fran peered closely at the church as they passed. “Where’s the graveyard?” she asked.
“Up above,” Shaun said, concentrating on the road. “No room for a cemetery down here.”
“Did we pass it?” Fran asked, puzzled. “I don’t remember seeing it.”
“Me neither,” Kali chimed in. Chris looked back at the church, now behind them. The cut stone foundation fell away sharply on either side. A double flight of stone stairs dropped from the front entrance into the village just below. “And why doesn’t anyone live up top?” Kali added.
Shaun sighed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Some areas entomb their dead in caves. Maybe that’s what they do here. And I seem to remember something about storms. They get aplenty here, but this little cleft and the bay always get skipped over.”
“Maybe they used to live up there,” Judith said, staring back up the steep hill, “a long time ago. The castle’s up there, after all.”
Chris nodded. In fact, he had seen a few houses on the heights above, glimpsed in passing while everyone else was staring at the view ahead. There was the lighthouse, he was sure they had seen that, with a few houses built alongside it. And he was pretty sure he had spotted a cottage on the bluff beyond the castle ruins. No doubt there were others, hidden by the vagaries of the landscape.
The road leveled out, and Shaun pulled the van into a large parking lot at the edge of the village. There were at least a dozen other vehicles here, half of them trucks of various sizes. The lanes in the village were not wide enough for modern cars, barely wide enough in most places for people to pass, and Chris guessed that anyone who owned a car was required to keep it here.
Shaun shut off the engine and turned to face his passengers. “This is as far as we go,” he announced. “The inn isn’t far. You can see it from here. It’s the only two story building in town.” He pointed out the window, and the group stared where he indicated. Chris frowned. None of the buildings looked significantly taller than its neighbor, a trick of the uneven landscape.
Judith flung open the side doors and leaped out, showing no sign of fatigue after the long drive. Chris stretched, hearing his knees pop and crack, and waited for Fran and Kali to exit before pulling himself out after them. Nico and Aaron were last, still looking ill. Shaun joined them at the rear of the van and they began unloading equipment.
This was the part that always made Chris nervous. Inside the nondescript bags was enough weaponry to level the entire village. There were guns, knives, swords, and explosives in addition to three suits of full body Kevlar II armor. As usual, he let the women carry the heaviest items. He had long ago resigned himself to the fact that they were physically superior to him.
Shaun led the way into the village. At each intersection of the twisting lanes, he would stop to consult a small map, and each of the females would scan the area around them, orienting themselves. This was where Chris felt he had an advantage. He was constantly aware of the flow of life energy around him, the faint and often difficult to detect voice of the universe. He knew instinctively where the most people were concentrated, where to look to find gathering places or foci of traffic. It was similar to the way the Warriors were mapping out the village in their minds, orienting everything along the unseen lines of magnetic force they were not even aware of detecting.
It took ten minutes to make their way to the inn. Just as Shaun had said, it was the only building in the village that appeared to have more than one floor, although the upper story rose only a few feet higher than the neighboring houses. In the rear, the top floor was level with the ground, and the group had to descend a flight of stairs as they circled to the front. Some cataclysm in the distant past had broken the rock here, dropping a wide shelf down to nearly the level of the rock-strewn shoreline beyond. The building faced onto what was perhaps the only straight avenue in town, and along its length Chris could make out the shops which were the staple of any village in western Europe, each with its own distinctive sign. Butcher, cobbler, barber, tailor, lined up in a neat row that curved out of sight toward the docks.
The inn itself was unimpressive. Built of stone like every other building in the village, the inn had a weathered look, and the sign hanging in the front creaked as it swung in the gentle sea breeze.
“Kind of fitting, eh?” Shaun said, appearing at Chris’s side and nudging an elbow into his ribs. “The inn, I mean. It’s called The Sea Witch.”
Chris smiled politely as if he shared the Englishman’s humor at the irony. “Why isn’t your own Clan handling this?” he asked as the others brushed past, moving toward the entrance. “I mean, they’re a lot closer. Certainly you have the people to handle a ghost.”
Shaun grinned and leaned closer. “Well, we would have, mate,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s the bloody Irish, you see. There’s not a single one of them in the Order. And ever since the Easter Rebellion…well, they just don’t take kindly to Englishmen traipsing around asking nosy questions.”
Chris nodded, pretending he understood. It did not, however, explain why all of the other European Clans were passed over in favor of Chris’s own Renegade one. It was a big part of the underlying mystery disturbing him, and for the dozenth time he inwardly prayed he was not leading his team to disaster.
Shaun followed the others inside, leaving Chris alone in the street. He cast a final, worried look around him at the village, which was looking more sinister by the minute, then moved to join his team inside the inn.
Most of the ground floor appeared to be a combination of pub and diner. The main room had tables of various sizes scattered about with a pair of matching booths along the wall. A dark wood bar filled the area directly across from the entrance, shelves filled with whisky bottles occupying the wall behind it. The only adornment on the walls was a pair of dartboards and a rough edged sheet of slate, wiped carefully clean. It had all the atmosphere he had expected.
Fran was talking with a large man next to the bar. She waved to Chris, beckoning him to join her. The others were spread out around the room, their bags piled at their feet, talking quietly among themselves.
“This is my husband, Chris,” Fran announced as he stepped to her side. “Honey, this is Teddy. He’s the owner of the inn.”
Chris extended his hand and Teddy grasped it firmly. “Welcome to Glenarry,” he boomed. Chris found himself smiling, as though Teddy’s friendliness was infectious. He was a large man with the look of someone who was once accustomed to lifting heavy weights. His black hair was turning mostly gray, and his skin had a weathered look despite its paleness. Chris glanced quickly at Fran. She winked at him.
“So,” Teddy said, still smiling. “How long are you and you’re friends planning to stay?”
“I’m not sure,” Chris said. They had worked out a cover story in advance, but he was always hesitant to lie to honest people.
Teddy nodded knowingly. “Well, you’re welcome here at the Sea Witch for as long as needs be. I’ve got your rooms laid out for you. Breakfast and supper are included, but you’re on your own for lunch. I have to give the others a chance at your tourist money, after all.” He gave them an exaggerated wink and rocked back on his heels, chuckling.
Chris laughed. “Do you get many tourists here?” he asked.
“More than you’d think,” Teddy said, crossing his arms over his chest. His voice dropped a notch. “It’s the witch, you see,” he said, leaning forward as though he was sharing a secret.
Chris felt a presence at his elbow and turned to see that Kali had moved up beside him. “The witch?” she asked, curious. “What witch is that?”
Teddy’s face changed to a mask of surprise. “The Sea Hag, o’course,” he said. “She appears on the cliffs and sings to the waves and makes them dance. Calls out to passing ships and lures the sailors with promises of sweet kisses. She dances naked ‘neath the summer moon, and entices the hearts of lonely men. Or so the legend goes.” He boomed with laughter.
“I’ve never seen her meself,” he added. “But there’s plenty that claim to. And plenty more that blame her for our recent troubles. That’s why you’ve come, isn’t it? For the witch?”
Chris smiled, covering the vague doubt sniping at his reemerging good mood. “Yes,” he said. “The witch.”
Teddy nodded again. “Ah, yes,” he said. “As I thought. Then I’ll have my boy give you the tour. Knows all her haunts, he does. In the meantime, lets get you folks settled.”
“Sounds good,” Fran said, waving to the others. “Hey guys,” she called, “we’re going upstairs.” She turned back to Teddy once everyone was ready, and he bounded into motion, taking the stairs two at a time. Chris marveled at the man’s robust energy. How anyone could escape being depressed in this dreary village was a mystery to him.
The team filed past, nodding to him respectfully. Shaun was edging toward the door, and Chris moved to intercept him. “Leaving?” he asked.
Shaun nodded. “Yes,” he said, grinning. “Anxious to be out of Ireland.”
“What’s this about the witch?” Chris asked. He was groping for the right question, sensing some unease in Shaun beyond his English bigotry. “Are we honestly here to research a local legend?”
Shaun sighed again, a habit Chris was quickly finding annoying. “Almost every small village on the west coast has some kind of witch legend,” he offered by way of explanation. “The Irish are real big on folktales and superstitions. But what you’re here to look into is no fairytale.”
He paused, staring at Chris but focused inward. “Look,” he said after a moment, “you’ll discover the truth soon enough anyway. This’ll probably get me into trouble, but I’ll level with you. Yours isn’t the first team sent here. Ask Teddy about the other ‘tourists.’ This is very real, Chris. If it’s a witch, then she’s very special. But from what I hear, the folks back in Rome feel it’s something paranormal. Either way,” he reached out to clap Chris on his shoulder, “my money’s on you.”
Chris’s mind was churning. Here it was, the duplicity he had suspected. He wanted to ask what had happened to the other team, but he decided not to press the issue now. Not with Shaun.
“Thank you for your honesty,” he said dryly.
Shaun scowled. “Look, don’t get angry with me,” he said. “I’m just a soldier. I hate all the bloody secrecy. Besides, it’s just a flipping ghost. After all I’ve heard about you and your missus, this should be a walk in the park.”
Chris let his tension drain away. “Yeah,” he muttered. “You’re right. I guess I’m just not used to…you know.”
“The Order,” Shaun finished for him. “I grew up with it, so I suppose I understand it better.” His scowl deepened. “No,” he corrected himself. “I’ll never understand it.”
He thrust out his hand. “Good luck, Chris,” he said. “Not that you’ll need it.”
Chris shook his hand, suppressing the urge to wince at the strength of the man’s grip. He still felt uneasy at the situation, but he had to believe there was nothing his team could not overcome.
Shaun pulled away and stepped to the door. A crack of thunder filled the air as he stepped outside. He peered up at the overcast sky. “Leaving just in time,” he said. “Looks like a storm brewing.”
He looked back at Chris. “All the contact information you should need is in the kit I gave you,” he said. He hesitated. “Do you think there’s room in your Clan for another Warrior?” he asked softly.
Chris was a bit taken aback, surprised at the unexpected question. “Always,” he answered. He felt his anger dissolve completely. Perhaps the mission would turn out to be more than he had bargained for, but it was no less than he should have expected. The Order was built upon secrecy and lies, and it practiced subterfuge even where it was detrimental to its members. The revolution he and Fran planned was long overdue.
Shaun turned to look Chris in the eye. “I’ll be in touch,” he said somberly, then he turned and strode away down the narrow lanes of the village to the sound of more thunder.
Chris stood a moment staring at the closed door, listening to the sound of the first raindrops tapping against the world outside. “Ghosts and witches,” he muttered. “Better than demons, at least.”
“Got that right,” came a voice from behind him. He whirled around, startled. Fran had managed to descend the stairs silently. She grinned at him as she slipped into his embrace.
“Isn’t this great?” she asked. “I’ve always wanted to visit Europe.”
“Well, we’ll see how great you think it is once you’ve seen the ghost,” he said, returning her smile. He kissed her, sucking gently on her bottom lip.
“Ooh,” she said, “is that a promise?”
“Got that right,” he said, echoing her words. She pinched him playfully then snuggled farther into his embrace as they heard the others coming down the stairs behind them.
“All right you two,” Judith called out. “Get a room.”
“I have one, thank you,” Fran returned playfully, cutting her eyes suggestively at Chris. He arched one eyebrow, only a bit surprised at Fran’s ardor.
“Hey, Boss,” Aaron said from the top of the stairs. “I’m hungry. When’s chow?”
Kali appeared beside him. “I can’t believe you’re hungry,” she said, “after all that retching I just heard.”
“That was Nico,” Aaron protested. “I told him not to eat that sausage this morning on the plane. All those potholes did him in.”
“Poor baby,” Fran said, smiling at Chris. He returned her smile, but he felt a sudden sense of loss. The mental link they had once shared, the rapport that had drawn them together, was gone, and he missed it. The battle against the Legion had changed him. His power came quicker, easier now, as though he had been moved closer to its source. But it was rare for him to touch Fran’s mind.
“I’m hungry, too,” he said, hoping to cover his momentary sadness. Her smile flickered but did not fade, and she tightened her hold on his waist.
“Someone say they were hungry?” Teddy said in a loud voice as he skipped down the stairs. “You’re in luck. I just happen to have a large kettle of stew on the stove.”
“What kind of stew?” Judith asked, successfully sounding innocent.
Chris caught the gleam in Teddy’s eyes. “Why,” the innkeeper said, winking, “Irish stew, of course.” He laughed boisterously. Chris felt his worries swept away for the moment, and he joined in the laughter.
Teddy waved them toward the tables in the next room and disappeared into what Chris presumed was the kitchen. Still laughing, the team moved into the dining area and filtered into chairs, choosing a seating order established long ago and thousands of miles away.
“We should go over the mission briefing,” Chris said once they had all found their chairs.
“Later, Boss,” Aaron chided. “Fill the belly first, then the mind.”
“Later,” Fran echoed, squeezing Chris’s arm gently. “There’s plenty of time.” She looked around the table. “You know,” she remarked, “this is our first vacation since our honeymoon.”
Chris said nothing. They both knew this was not a vacation, but the fantasy was too pleasant to dispel.
“Where did you go?” Judith asked. “On your honeymoon.”
“Where else?” Fran said with a flourish. “Niagara Falls.”
More thunder vibrated the walls of the inn, and Chris felt a tug, something at the threshold of delectability. He shrugged it off.
“I thought it would have been Devil’s Tower,” Kali said with a chuckle.
“Or Hell, Michigan,” Aaron chimed in. Chris could not help but laugh. It seemed he must be the only one with misgivings about this trip.
Then he felt it again. A tug deep inside him, a prickly feeling in his soul. He felt a rush of dread as he recognized it.
With each clap of thunder, the sensation recurred. It was still faint, but there was no denying what it was. Shaun’s words floated back to him. The local area was a hub of storm activity, and he thought he understood why.
This was not natural magic, nor was it the touch of the undead. Ghost magic had a unique flavor, easy to distinguish. No, this came from something alive. The storm was being generated by magic, though he was unsure whether it was directly or as a by-product of something else.
The legend of Teddy’s Sea Hag sprang to mind. He pictured her as Teddy had, singing to the waves from the cliffs, casting her spells for whatever purpose and disturbing the natural order.
The conversation moved on without him. He smiled on cue, nodded in the right places, but he was focused on the sensation he felt inside. He did not reach out for the Hag. Best not to let the witch know what powers had arrived to contest against her.
He felt smug in his vindication. There was no ghost here. This was magic born of living flesh, and as he felt his unease lift away from him he realized he had been afraid to face a ghost, unwilling to once again pit himself against something supernatural.
He dug into the stew Teddy delivered with a growing confidence. On his third bite there came the strongest tug yet. He closed his eyes, quickly orienting himself, and followed the faint trail of dissipating energy. Not enough to pinpoint a location, but at least he had the direction.
No one seemed to notice his hesitation between bites. His spoon resumed its journey from bowl to mouth and he chewed with grim satisfaction. So quick! he thought to himself. Already I’ve got a lead, and it was so easy! To think I was worried.
He would send Judith and Kali to check out the castle tomorrow. It was the only structure in line with the reading he had taken. With luck, the witch would have left behind evidence of her craft, enough for Aaron to get a reading from.
He glanced at the blind Sorcerer at the end of the table. The man was a magical bloodhound, and Chris felt a growing conviction that he had chosen the members of this team well.
There were no more tugs of magic. The sound of the storm faded away as well. Chris pushed the thoughts from his mind and concentrated on enjoying the company of his friends. Inwardly, he smiled. The hunt had begun.