Bridging the Veil
Bridging the Veil
by Kristin Darken
Note: This story takes place in the same 'almost our Earth' as my novel "A Glass Half-Full." It was originally written for a Samhain competition at BCTS and remains posted there as well. But for those of you who have read Glass and want a bit more while I get around to releasing the next novel in that trilogy or if you haven't read Glass and would like a taste of my perspective on the contemporary paranormal genre before you track it down or buy it for reading... this is a good sample.
As with most college parties; the house was mainly filled with loudly talking, hormonally charged, young adults in as little clothing as physique and blood alcohol level permitted. The furniture was cheap, mostly second or third hand IKEA by way of a couple Thrift shops, and heavily worn. Not a single piece matched another in color or style. The carpets looked to have been vacuumed sometime recently, which might actually have been more preparation than half the parties in town that weekend, but three of the four bedrooms looked to be in a state of chaos that suggested that someone had planned to leave those doors closed and the party contained to other parts of the house. A slight haze of smoke filtered through from the few students who couldn't do without their cigarettes, even though the rule was 'no smoking inside.' There was also a fairly heavy smell of incense, which could have been responsible for the rest. A slightly too sweet smell also suggested that someone was indulging in something more recreational than legal. The expected pounding loud music from two contrasting play-lists filled the house, classical rock riffs filling the main floor while a repetitive dance club throbbing of bass could be felt through the floor from the rooms below.
In the lone clean and somewhat uncrowded bedroom, a spiky haired pixy-ish acting major dressed in traditional Rom garb was doing Tarot readings for a guy I knew vaguely from a chem lab we'd shared in our freshman year and his date for the evening. The pair of them were done up in Prohibition era outfits, most of which even looked decently period. I'd heard good things about her readings from someone I trusted, that she was insightful if not truly gifted with the Sight. There really was no need for me to find someone to read my cards, of course; I was perfectly capable of doing my own readings with cards, runes, stars, or fractals. However, what she saw when reading me would give me a lot of insight into her abilities... and whether she might need to be distracted or helped. If a chance arrived, I would arrange to be read tonight. With any fortune, it would be the only excitement this Samhain.
Unfortunately, as I looked the rest of the costumes were clearly store-bought or poorly hand made... a combination of Thrift shop and Walmart pieces. My own fell into that category; though to be fair, my intent was far more practical than authentic. It was geek-gamer chic. The basic shape of it was the habit and scapula of a Benedictine monk; but instead of a rope girdle, it was held in place by a combination of leather belt and baldric that held sword and dagger where they would be freely accessible and yet out of the way of the 7 foot gnarled wooden staff I was currently leaning on as I studied my surroundings. The blades were not the slim rapier and main gauche combination that would be more often carried in that fashion, but they did convey a certain elegance that contradicted the sixth century style of the clothing. In place of the traditional cross, three separate stones hung caged in silver mesh and tied by soft leather thongs around my neck. In a hand rigged sheath on my right leg, over the sweats that kept the wool of the habit from driving me batty, were slim wands of rowan, ash, hazel and oak.
If it sounds like something out of a bad supernatural romance novel, you're probably closer to the truth than you know. It's more along the lines of a Jim Butcher wizard's council Warden. Without the convenience of a council's direction, organization, or potential for backup if things go south. In fact, my Warden-ship, if you will; was more self-assumed than assigned by any esoteric organization. I did what I believed was necessary to keep things running sanely for those who didn't have the ability to look out for themselves. Only a few of us have a natural ability, gift or curse, to see or influence that part of the world; but that didn't mean that the occult world could only affect us few. You don't have to believe in or even know of the duwende to anger them and become the target of their mischief in your house. Can't ever find things you know you always put down in the same place, always blowing a fuse even though your landlord says there's nothing wrong with the circuit? You've upset your household spirits, appease them and you'll find that your home life will go much smoother. Whether that involves leaving a bowl of milk on the doorstep for the fey, offer apologies to the duwende, or ensure that your home is built with proper feng shui; depends entirely on how you want to approach the situation.
Any way you look at it, though, I was doing something of a patrol of the parties around the college hoping to head off any trouble before it really got under way. You would think that with a small city to cover and the number of people doing stupid stuff on a regular basis, that it would be an entirely 'reactive' job, cleaning up messes after they'd already happened. The likelihood of being in the right place at the right time to prevent one of these disasters is so small as to make math majors chortle as they work out the probability. But no... I'm actually conveniently given a front row seat to most of them... do you believe in coincidence? I don't.
Speaking of... tonight's trouble waiting to happen was a Ouija board. It wasn't one of those cheap Hasbro numbers, either. The board was an old, well-oiled wood, so dark it was almost black. Scattered across its surface were the letters and numbers, the words yes and no, and a few glyphs that looked Egyptian. These were engraved into the surface and then filled will some sort of lacquer in some fashion that made them much lighter than the surrounding wood without actually using some other material to fill them. The planchette itself looked to be ivory or maybe bone. And old. Old enough that board and planchette probably predated the use of the Ouija board by that term, when it had simply been called planchette writing. The current users of the board were all male and had reached the point where more accusations about who is moving the planchette than writing is going on. Predictably, tempers peaked and one of four stormed away from the table. The others pulled back, taking drinks from nearby glasses, and then called for someone else to join them before returning to what they were doing. As the fourth hand joined them, they began from the beginning again; running the planchette in the counter-clockwise circles used for Opening the board to the other world.
Ritual is a funny thing. It's purpose is to ease the path between two points. When you can't see clearly through a storm, trying to find a place you've never been before might seem to be a nigh impossible task. But if someone has gone before you, paved a road and provided clearly lit signposts for you to follow, and handrails along the dangerous parts to keep you from straying off that road; it suddenly seems a lot more feasible. That's how ritual works. Someone who can see how to accomplish the task has created a pathway to follow that even those who cannot see, who cannot feel the world moving around them or hear the songs of life all around us, can follow and manipulate it in some way. And as more people use a ritual, that path becomes more well worn until even the skeptic can create an impact. Opening a Ouija board is one such ritual. An Opening is meant to be followed by a Closing.
This board had clearly been Opened far more often than it had been Closed this evening. It hadn't yet become an open doorway to the Other quite yet, but on a night like this when the Veil was already as thin as it was? It was only a measure of luck that nothing had torn through already. And while I'm sure none of the guys at the table had noticed, the planchette had slowly continued moving toward no while no one had their hands on it when the previous user had left the group.
It wasn't the first time I'd run into problems with Ouija boards. But usually, it was easier to deal with them. Accidentally spilling drinks on the board usually gave you aggressively wipe it off, conveniently using a clockwise rotation to do so. It also made the board slightly sticky and the cardboard surface to ripple, which discouraged further use. If that wasn't enough to stop them, it was enough to get me close to the board to lock it shut so no casual use of the usual ritual had any hope of opening a doorway. I browsed the board game shelves at all the local toy stores regularly, unobtrusively locking boards before they ever even reached an owner who might use them without caution. I couldn't bring myself to spill a drink on this board. Even just seeing full glasses near it made me cringe at the risk to what had to be a priceless family heirloom. Was it possible that the owner didn't even realize how rare, how unique this thing was? No... the only way to be certain was to join the group and resist any contact that was made and then ensure that when the board was Closed again, that it was Closed tightly enough that it wouldn't accidentally be a risk again.
I was about to join the group at the table, to feign interest in what they were doing, and thus work my way into being one of the users when a delicately fingered hand caught my arm.
"Hi! I wondered" interrupted the lyrical voice of the actress I had observed earlier, "if you would like a Tarot reading?"
I shifted so I could look at her more directly. She looked... earnest. Somewhere between eager and anxious. I took another look back at the Ouija board and the group using it. Something was there, touching the planchette from the Other side... but no more than it should with proper usage of the board. And more than likely, as long as it remained in contact like that; the board wouldn't attract anything else. Then when they finished, it would be Closed. And I wouldn't...
"Sir Monk?" she interrupted again.
"I'm sorry... it's Bill," I apologized, giving her my full attention. She was as I had remembered her, fairly typical of the college actress: a petite ingenue, looking both innocent and wicked at the same time. The hair also said sassy while keeping her clearly feminine. I'd also her one or two rumors about her sexuality that suggested that while she might play the flirt with me to get what she wanted; it would only be play. Not that there was any guarantee that the rumors were true. "If you don't mind my asking... I'm sure you have lots of people wanting readings, probably more than you have time for. I admit I planned to ask too at some point, but why come looking for me?"
"Sophie," she introduced herself, reaching for my hand. I let go of the staff to take her hand, turning her handshake into a more chivalrous exchange. The kiss the merest brush of my lips across her knuckles, not the slobbering nonsense performed by the modern knight in anachronistic armor. I gave her hand back, too, unlike those who use that initial contact to claim permanent possession of the limb of a member of the opposite sex. She paid none of it any mind at all, her attention was completely on the staff at my side. "How... how does it stay like that?"
I put my hand back on the staff, which had remained perfectly steady without my support.
"It's balanced," I deadpanned.
"Oh... it has so many knots and twists to it... it doesn't look like it could be," she added, still focused on the staff.
You'd think after all these years, I'd know better than to do something so stupid but... I couldn't resist, "It's like a Weeble." She looked at me with confusion. "You know... Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down." I took my hand off the staff again and nodded towards it, encouraging her.
She reached out, touching it lightly, which caused it to wobble a little... then tried again a bit harder, causing it to sway almost thirty degrees off vertical. It swung like the striker on a bell, upside down, until it balanced out again. Fortunately, there weren't any engineering students in the immediate vicinity because it might have broken someone.
"That's really cool... how does it do it? Is it weighted? Is it..."
"It's magick," I explained, once again in a deadpan.
She looked at me with a smirk, clearly not believing that explanation. Then she took a second look at my face, suddenly unsure if I actually might have meant what I'd said. I put my hand back on the staff, forestalling her next attempt to test the staff's Weeble-ness. An experiment that would have had it bouncing off the floor in clear violation of entirely too many rules of physics. She pouted at me as I reminded her, "I have admitted to wishing a reading, but you haven't answered my question yet."
"Oh... well, I actually... I've wanted to do a reading for you for a while now," she managed to get out, suddenly shy and uncertain. Or at least acting as such.
"I'm not sure whether to be intrigued... or worried that you're stalking me," I told her with a grin pulling at my lips.
"A little of both, probably," she agreed, relaxing a little. "I suppose I could tell you, it's magic."
"You could," I nodded. "I might even believe it. Except your reaction to my staff suggests that you don't really believe in magick."
Her smile grew tight.
"So why don't you tell me the real reason?"
She looked at me again, carefully like she had when she'd reconsidered my comment about the staff. After a moment, she seemed to find whatever answer she was looking for and gestured for me to follow her into the bedroom where she had been doing the reading earlier. A shiver ran down my spine, causing me to hesitate; and I quickly looked around the room again. The Ouija board was still under control, nothing especially unusual was going on with the rest of the party that I had seen. I shrugged, hoping my personal guardians were watching out for me; and then I followed her.
My name is Bill Thompson. I'm a student at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, but I'm non-traditional... in more ways than one. I'm a student by way of a longer than necessary tour of duty in Afghanistan, so I'm a bit older and I have a slightly more world weary perspective on life than most college students. What really makes me non-traditional, though; is that I see things that most people would rather keep on their bookshelf with the other light reading for when they aren't studying: spirits, boggles, and their mundane world counterparts. I'd learned the hard way that it didn't matter what we believed about their existence; there are plenty of things that go bump in the night that will go right on bumping as long as they can get away with it.
It wasn't something that just caught me by surprise one day. My imaginary friend hadn't just faded away as a passing phase when I found other friends to play with, though he only dropped by to visit when his Other world responsibilities gave him a bit of freedom. We had both grown up since then, though he'd had more than a few decades head start on me. His kind matures differently than we do... those of us that bother maturing, that is.
By the time I moved away from home, I'd accepted that most people were likely to write me off as eccentric at best... and more likely, just strange. Military life hadn't helped that any. My D.I. and I got along far too well when you considered the age difference. It was like we'd served together for years and maybe we had somewhere... some when. It caused all sorts of trouble for me at the time, though. I got through it, like I get through most things. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked hard, taking on extra responsibilities any chance I could and doing everything possible to keep people from noticing. It worked.
The war changed things for me. I wasn't one of those idiots who went into the military looking for revenge for the terrorism on my country. There was no doubt in my mind, then or now, that it made sense for me to serve. I was good at being a soldier; but more importantly, I was good at being where a good soldier was needed. My unit considered me a lucky charm and for a little while, I believed that my strangeness might be accepted somewhere.
Then I encountered my first demon.
There are many dark places in the human spirit, created by misunderstanding and loss. Twisted logic, repressed emotions, terrible things spawned by the foolish teaching of our elders... simply because their elders taught the same thing to them. An inability to perceive another way because habit tells us there is only one.
Those things lead to horrible events... but as dark as they are, they are shadows and shades of gray to the Darkness of evil. A demon encourages the development of misunderstanding. It revels in misinformation and the twisting of logic to make a harmful action sound logical and right. It feeds on the repression of healthy emotions and mocks us when we blindly follow the teachings of those who expect us to act on faith as those teachers lead us astray.
That was the day that I chose the role I would play. Still a soldier... but fighting a different war. And if the battlefield happened to be a college costume party where the only devil was a sorority girl in a skimpy red outfit with plushy horns and a trident (yes, a trident), then I'd deal with the irony...
The actress had preceded me into the bedroom she'd used for her earlier readings. While I had misgivings about using someone's private room without their permission, I had no real interest in having what might be a very revealing Tarot reading done in a more public setting. I took a better grip on my staff and limped my way after her. There really was no need to limp, my 'old war injuries' were little more than intriguing looking scars on my left arm and side, with what looked to have been a wicked tear across my lower back. Which is exactly what it had been. But hey, funny dressed geek with a staff... if I don't limp, I've got no excuse to be carrying around a staff.
Besides, as I'd noted already; the young lady was leading me and I couldn't help watching as she did so. Actresses may make most women look like demure, emotionally stable, rational human beings... but when they set their minds to flirting with you, you might as well enjoy it. Sophie reached the bed and slid herself onto it, coyly patting the mattress beside her.
A faint sensation caught at me as I went through the doorway, a bit like walking through a heavy section of a spider's web. I slowed, turning my attention to moving through the barrier gently instead of tearing it down. From the other side, I looked back at it. A faint dusting of light revealed the chalk symbols sketched sloppily at the four corners of the door frame. Now that I was aware of it, there were similar marks at the windows and in the four corners of the room itself. Someone with little understanding and less adherence to ritual had tried to ward this room. It wasn't strong enough to stop much, if that was its intent at all.
“What is it?” Sophie asked curiously.
“The air is clearer in here,” I lied. Good scenery or not, she was hiding something and until she gave me a reason to trust her; I was treating this with a bit of caution. “I was looking to see if there was a vent duct or something keeping the air flow pushing it back out of the room.”
“Oh... really? I never really noticed... “ she looked around, trying to help me solve the mystery. Which I had just made up on the spot.
“Why would you?” I asked. “It's not your room...”
“Actually...” she started to correct me, before trailing off. I tilted my head slightly, my “I'm listening” pose but it didn't encourage her. She picked up a silk bag and pulled out a stack of cards wrapped in more silk, both a rich vibrant blue. With the ease of familiarity, Sophie quickly flipped through the cards, extracting one to place on the bed beside her. I didn't recognize the image, suggesting that it was either an obscure deck or one that had been custom painted for her, but it was of a young man with a sword in hand swept down to his right. A knight of swords, perhaps, or one of her Major Arcana... meant to be used as my signifier. Not the usual choice by those who know me, but considering I was at that moment carrying both sword and staff at a party; it probably made a certain sort of sense.
With that card removed, she handed me the rest of the deck and I began shuffling without a need for further direction. “You're not going to answer anything I ask you tonight, are you?” I asked, somewhat teasingly.
She looked at me hesitantly and took a breath to answer. Then stopped and left it back out carefully. “Let me at least lay out the cards before starting to explain... please?” she asked, almost begging.
I nodded in curious agreement. It wasn't uncommon for a reader to not want discussion prior to the reading, to keep from skewing what they saw in the cards with what they consciously know. That's actually one of the more difficult parts of reading for your own fortune; it becomes far too easy to ascribe meaning based on rational deductions instead of allowing the impressions to come on their own. The Sight works in much the same way as any form of creativity, with instinctive impressions taking form in any way you are open to translating them. But if you begin interpreting them or working with them rationally before they are fully exposed, you can disrupt further flow.
Sophie was watching my hands move with the cards. Almost like she were reading them in my hands, or reading my hands themselves. Her eyes were slightly unfocused, as they can become when you're drifting into a trance. I'd led more than a few guided meditations and she could have been right there with them. I slowed my motions with the cards some, sliding them more carefully together with the next pass, watching her reactions. Her breath caught, and she unconsciously licked her lips... being the male I am, I noticed the sharp points in the front of her silks. Feeling a bit like a voyeur, I imagined I was probably a bit flushed myself. Though tempted to see where this might lead, I finished shuffling and handed the deck back to her. After a brief reaction as she returned to herself and hurried to take them back from me she began laying out the cards.
The pattern, like the cards themselves, was unfamiliar to me. A center placed card, atop the signifier, was a common start. From there, it was very different. Five cards, in a standard masculine pentacle order, went first. Then, at each of the five two more were added, in positions creating five equilateral triangles, each with its outside line a perfect tangent to the point at which the star would reach the circle in the pentacle. I didn't know the significance of the positions, but it was clear that something important was developing as each new card added to her understanding of the reading.
I recognized the placement of the final card without any need for a sign from Sophie. That's when all the screaming started.
It was small, even for an Afghan village, and close to the Pakistan border. We had been following some of the attackers who had hit Coalition forces a few weeks prior, thirty... maybe forty AAF. They had us well outnumbered, as they usually did, but we were keeping our distance and covering angles that might be more difficult for eyes overhead. Somehow, they evaded all of us; every one of them coming into this little place and now, not a sign of movement and no indication that anyone had left. At some point in the night, they had slipped away... and every one of us was on edge, waiting for the hiss of that first bullet.
We were wrong. The enemy hadn't found a way to leave unnoticed; they just weren't alive to show any sign of still being here. Something had, with inhuman strength, torn them up like so many paper dolls. Cold killers, experienced soldiers, were suddenly green with nausea. Limbs had been broken down into parts and tossed around haphazardly, a head here, jaw there. There's a vivid image etched in my memory of a tongue lying spread out on a windowsill, resting in the sun like a bloated cat.
A voice in my head was screaming “back back back back back!” but I looked to the LT for directions. It's alright to feel that fear bubbling up, but you have to be wary voicing something that can turn confidence in your unit into something uncontrollable. But gods, I wanted to echo it aloud... I should have echoed it aloud. But I didn't... and that's when the screaming began.
The first scream triggered an image of something I would likely being fighting not to see, for the rest of my life. The second spurred me into action. I spun, as quickly as a man in a monk's habit and wearing a sword can get away with... and saw darkness on the other side of the door. Something flickered, throwing sparks, in the far corner... someone trying to light a Bic, maybe. The music was all gone, which is why the screams were even audible. I started to relax, realizing that we'd probably just blown a fuse or tripped a breaker.
“Don't...” whispered Sophie's voice behind me. That voice started up in my head again “run run run run...” and I realized that the lights were still on in the bedroom. And in that moment, I slammed into the doorway. Where it had been like walking through a spider web coming in, the ward was now like a stone slab. A stone slab that was blocking the light of this room from crossing into the larger room on the other side of it. That was decidedly not normal... even by my definitions of normal.
The first strike of the staff hit the barrier center at shoulder height and I felt something give in the dense wood that had taken far greater punishment from physical fights in the past. The second shattered the trim along the door frame, proving that the rune markings on this side had nothing to do with what was keeping me in.... and evidently, everything to do with why we had still had lights. I dropped the staff, vaguely hearing it hit the wall and skitter along it to the floor. It was far too unwieldy for close quarters and was clearly not as useful as I'd hoped.
“No!” Sophie cried out, before her voice became oddly muffled and she let out a pained scream.
I didn't need light to get my athame into my hand or to select the long spine of quartz from the stones hanging at my neck. A quick pull snapped the leather thong and I lifted the stone into the air over my head, invoking it “Bright Lady, blessing of the moon!” The quartz crystal sang with the remembered light of the silvery moon, filling the room and pushing back the darkness. Most of the darkness.
Kneeling over Sophie, who had drawn back to the headboard of the bed and brought her knees up to cover her torso was a shadowy female figure. It was pulling something away from the actress, who was struggling and moaning with rising pain. The figure made a move like it was searching for more of something, and I was reminded oddly of the primates picking bugs off of each other. No matter, whatever it was doing was clearly hurting the girl and I'd be a poor hero if I screwed up and put her into danger and didn't at least try to stop it. I lunged forward with the athame, to slice through the shadow. It vanished immediately with contact. I looked around warily, this having been far too easy to believe it was over.
“Sophie,” I hissed, trying to get her attention without dropping my guard. “What was it doing... what is it?”
She sobbed once, then appeared to try to force herself to be calm. I'd see people do it before... usually right after they'd been given terrible news. She pulled her knees closer to her chest, though I noticed that she had somehow managed not to disrupt the layout of the Tarot cards. They seemed to glisten slightly in the memory of the moonlight.
“You really are... my Destroyer...” she whispered. “There's nothing left... just as it said.”
“Wait... I'm what?” Destroyer? That couldn't be good. I was trying to help her... sure, I had made a mistake, but she was still ok, wasn't she?
“Will you do the rest too? I don't want... I can't be... “ she sobbed again, mumbling incoherently into her hands.
Great. So I'm at least partly the bad guy in this scenario. Is this some sort of situation where I have to make a choice, somehow? Rescue the girl or rescue the other fifty people in the house? I couldn't accept that... if there had to be a sacrifice to get people out, I'd find another way. At worst, the sacrifice would be me. I wasn't going to get anything out of Sophie... so what other options did I have? Find the source of the shadow, maybe? I was better on the Ouija board, but there could be other options. And while I was looking for its source, maybe I could figure out where it had gone when I'd tried to cut it.
First part... get out this damn room.
I examined the doorway again, the glow from the crystal stopping as abruptly on reaching that barrier as the regular light had. My mind was whispering at me again and I let it. Clearly it was safer to stay hidden in this room, but I couldn't let whatever was happening out there continue. The obvious solution was to use the only tool that had worked so far; I tried slicing through the doorway with all the intent I'd use to open a breach in a circle. The blade skipped across the surface, throwing off sparks of... shadow. Alright, so shadow can spark... you won't find that as an answer on Jeopardy. Not only was it sparking, but the sparks and pieces of shadow were getting caught in some sort of orbit around the blade before being drawn into it. Like the athame had a sort of gravity field that worked on shadow sparks.
Not only had I never seen anything like it... I didn't think it could possibly be good. An athame is a tool representing the extension of the will. In the cycle of events esoteric, its an outward moving force. The idea that it could absorb something, draw something into it, was contradictory to everything about the concept. Wisely, I tried shaking it off. I tried throwing the shadow out of the blade. I tried pushing energy out through the athame to burn it clean. No shadow.
Then I noticed my hand. Something was... off. The skin was more pale... and less textured, somehow. And there was no hair on it. Had I burned it somehow?
I tried the blade on the barrier again, a heavier shower of sparks this time; none of which escaped the pull of the athame. It almost seemed like I was making some progress, slow but certain. But now I was sure of the changes to my hand and now my wrist. Whatever I was doing to the barrier, the sparks being absorbed by my athame were sapping some of the life or spirit energy from my body in the process... enough so that it was reflecting in my physical aspect, and that meant it was far more dangerous than I'd thought.
But danger or not... I had to get through that barrier to help the others. Wounds to the spirit could be healed, if slowly like nerves. I was proof of that already, and I bore the scars of it for evidence.
I sharped my will along the edge of the blade and cut deeply.
Corporal Daniels had two little girls and a pretty brunette in Alabama. Everyone had seen the pictures he carried with him everywhere. Smoke swirled through a sharply defined beam of sunlight and with a faint whisper, like a final exhalation, Daniels would never take another quick glance at those photos. He dropped, pieces scattering as though someone had dragged him through a meat grinder and the blood splashed wetly, released all at once.
Voices were yelling, men running... another flying limply across the street, propelled by some unseen force. But under the screams, the demands for answers, the begging for a reason... there was nothing. No explosions, no gunshots... there wasn't anything to shoot at. Just voices... and the hint of a breeze, stirring dust and sand and carrying the metallic taste of the blood.
The other voices were still shouting at him to flee when a shadow took hold of him and dragged him through an unstable wall and across the rocks of the hillside behind it.
The dark surface in the doorway gave under the pressure, but didn't collapse in any way that resembled a shield or ward falling. It rotated and rolled away, nearly pulling the athame with it. The main room, which had been full of people minutes ago, was empty... quiet, except for the muffled screaming still happening from the basement. My hand felt uncomfortable around the hilt, weak somehow. Pulling up the sleeve of the robe, I could see that whatever withering effect had spread most if not all the way up my arm... the skin uncomfortably sensitive and unhealthy looking. It was hard to tell just how far it had gone, but anything that leeched life force away that easily wasn't going to be a simple opponent.
The lights were back on, I realized. They didn't feel like they had returned to full strength, like the building was in a sort of permanent brown out effect. I took a cautious step into the room, eying the Ouija board. Strangely, the board felt closed. Someone had taken the time to properly end the session with it when everything had gone dark. That knocked massive holes in the few ideas that I had about what could have caused this.
There were no bodies. No large pools of liquid that suggested terrible things had happened, just what looked to be a few drink splashes. I started towards the hall only to have a hand take hold of my arm.
“Don't... “ Sophie warned, stopping me. “You can't fight this. It's already won. Taken what it was promised.”
“What it was promised?” I asked her, looking back into her eyes, afraid that I knew exactly what she meant.
“We... we called it from the stone,” she explained, offering a large geode fragment with her other hand.
I stepped back from it, pulling myself free of the hand that was still on my arm. There wasn't anything in the geode... even without touching it I could tell that. They'd pulled it all the way out, which meant it had free rein. Whatever natural power or artificial binding that had been done to lock it in was gone as well. Even if I could fight whatever it was... I couldn't put it back where they'd gotten it.
“What did it give you?” I asked her, more insistently. She looked down, shyly, but I pressed the issue. “Tell me.”
“We... we got the other objects... the Ouija board, the Tarot, the Wand. Only, none of them work like we thought they would.”
“What did you think they would do?” I pressed.
“They should be the most powerful.. the greatest ones in the world.” She was looking at me again, so whatever it gave them as a group... whoever they were... it wasn't what she had personally asked for.
“The most powerful, greatest ones... what?” I growled, starting to get frustrated by the way she was dragging this out. Did she want whatever she'd loosed to run rampant through the city? She didn't have the wild eyed, crazy, evil witch look... for that matter, she didn't even have an apathetic self-absorbed student look.
“The most powerful Ouija board, the greatest Tarot, the... something Wand... I forget exactly what Greg asked...”
“You... stole these from somewhere else using a spirit locked in the geode? You stole random items with vague descriptions without knowing exactly what you would get?”
“Well... not me... but, I suppose...” she went back into shy and demure mode, which pissed me off... and turned me on, at the same time. Ok, I'll admit it... rescuing the damsel in distress is in far too many of my fantasies for this not to be doing 'something' for me.
“You let some sort of spirit or demon loose from a trap for some random objects... “ I took the geode from her, examined it a little more closely to be certain that it was indeed useless, then tossed it at the couch across the room. “and two of the three objects are just tools. Very artistic, probably valuable antique, tools... but just tools.”
“Tools. Just objects to focus the inherent ability of the person using them. Why would you need powerful mystic objects to accomplish that? What about the Wand?” I queried. My own use of wands, the athame, and so on... were all uses of tools. I might put some of my own energy into them for use when my reserves were low... but mostly, they were foci or devices to channel my intent. But a request for a powerful wand might really get something useful.
“Greg broke it.”
“... broke it. He kept saying stupid stuff... like abra-cadabra and pointing it at things,” she explained with a shrug. “It caught on the door frame as he posed to do it again... and snapped right in half.”
“You've got to be...” but she wasn't. These weren't serious practitioners... they shouldn't have been able to dismantle the spirit's trap. They were set up in some way. “Fine. So we don't know what it is... we've got nothing to put it in if we can figure out how to subdue it. Maybe we can at least get the rest of the people out of here so it can't hurt anyone.” I turned to head out of the room, towards where the stairs to the basement were; if I remembered the layout right.
“They're ok,” she insisted, taking hold of my arm again.
“There are people screaming... “ I started to pull away again, but her hand slid along that withered arm sending strange shivers up it and down my spine until she caught my hand and turned me back towards her.
“It's a Halloween party. No one is getting attacked. Everyone is down in the basement because it is safe. It's warded. And there is another exit that people can use to get out if they need to,” she explained, stepping closer. “They're down there so we can be alone up here..”
“I don't...” I mumbled, confused by her sudden show of interest... even... desire.
“It was all set up to get you here... so I could get what I asked for,” she caught up my other hand and pressed herself against me. The scent of her... the heat of her... washed over me.
“But why would all this...”
“Love,” she interrupted, both answering and naming me. I blinked in confusion and tried to pull back, but there was now a cold wall behind me. She continued to press into me as she explained, “I asked for love and then hid the last bits of myself where I thought it would never find them... so I could recover. Because love with you... you would have to be made a girl, somehow.”
“So the rumors... you are a...”
“NO... I'm... you don't understand. That was my room. My room as a guy!” she pulled back from me, letting me look down at her. “I asked for love and it showed me you.”
“You are... were... a guy?” I asked, looking at the very clearly displayed assets that I could see from this perspective.
“Until you broke the wards I had on my room and it took everything that was left,” she sighed, surprisingly not angry or bitter. “Thanks to you, my Destroyer. And the rest of it, too, I suppose now... my Lover, my Mate. All prophesied millennium ago,” she added, pressing herself back against me. “Now that it is done... it doesn't feel so... wrong... to feel like this about you... as a man, my man.”
Feeling more than a little overwhelmed by it all, I disentangled myself from her and paced across the room. Now that I could listen more objectively, I could tell she was telling the truth about the party below. There were screams but also the occasion cheer or shout of the sort that might happen during a contest or drinking game. As I looked back to her, she ran a hand exploring down her body and the other up to her lips.
“Come on,” she complained petulantly. “I've turned myself into a woman to find my true love. I've manipulated an entire party to ensure we have all the time we need to enjoy ourselves. I know everything about what makes a guy feel good. I know you find me attractive. Why is it so difficult for you to take what I'm offering?”
“I don't know... it's a lot to take. I mean... you were a guy,” that wasn't what really worried me, and I was still wary for some reason. But despite thinking about it, I just couldn't place why I was resisting so much.
“I haven't been a guy for months, except for just a couple little parts that I've been protecting... and there's nothing left. It can't recover, ever... I tried to cheat on my price but its gone for good now.”
“But nothing,” she stopped me, rushing in and shifting up on tip toes, kissed me as aggressively and passionately as I've ever been kissed. And yet, nothing about that kiss suggested anything about her past... his past. I was kissing a girl. A very desirable one, who wasn't going to take no for an answer.
“See...” she purred, dropping back so she could lean against my chest.
“I suppose I do... I... do.. do you want to see a...?”
“That kiss was wonderful... but if you think I'm waiting until you take me out to a movie or dinner before I get another one... you're crazy. Are you going to leave and force a beautiful girl to deal with her own needs... or are you going to lend a hand...?” she stepped back, starting to pull me along with her.
“I... wait... my hand.” I looked at my right hand in hers, realizing that that was her doing... part of the magic she had intended to change me into the girl in this relationship.
“It'll grow back, over time... as long as we don't remove all of it from you,” she explained, pulling me another step back towards her room. “We could remove more of it from you, give you boobs... even do the lesbian thing if you want,” she added coyly. “But not tonight... tonight, I want this.”
She grabbed the sword belt and pulled me the rest of the way into her room. I resisted a little more... but we both knew that she had won. I gave her what she asked for... and I took my price in return. Neither of us was unhappy with the exchange. It was only the first of many.
My senses were twisted, barely rational, with the haze and confusion of heavy doses of pain killers. I'd seen friends fighting through the mists to make sense of where they were and what they were experiencing... but all I could focus on was the roaring wind and whomping sound of the chopper. Voices raced, inside my head, outside my head. Back and forth. A small man, speaking Arabic and then English, and then something with a very old sound to it, old and powerful.
“Unusual,” he said. “ifrit rarely give up something they take. Destined, it says.” I could feel hands on my back, interrupted by incredible flashes of pain.
Another voice, “What do you mean destined?” That was American... the Captain, maybe... or a medic?
“Father of Destroyer. Terrible destiny. Would leave where found... but unwise to anger ifrit.”
“He'll be lucky if he can ever walk again... let alone be a father...”
The voices faded back into the haze of medications as I took my last flight as an active duty soldier. They would eventually get me put back together, the wounds that had nearly torn me into parts like so many of my friends mended, and they removed layers of skin scarred with ancient script. There were photos of it somewhere in my records, but I couldn't look at them without seeing terrible things. So they had never been translated for me.
But every now and then, I heard that old voice echoing through a drugged haze... terrible destiny. And worried.