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The glass tubes were something with which I was unfamiliar. Sure, I knew the concept behind draining thread energy. Wizards did it, though on a smaller scale, and plenty of demons drained life thread energy. But the glass tubes I hadn't seen before. Still, I was a worldly woman. I could get used to the idea.
Once I got used to the idea of the tubes, the fact that everyone in a tube was both female and naked was just another thing. I'm sure there was some complex and detailed explanation involving resonances and connecting steps, but whatever was going on wasn't exactly the kind of magic with which I was familiar. I knew nudity was generally a better way to perform magic, though, so there was that at least.
The only thing that really threw me off was the demon creature currently being fed by the mystical energy being sucked out of the women in the tubes. At least, I presumed the demon creature was being fed by the energy, since said creature was connected to the tubes by a number of strange wires, and a golden energy was being piped through the wires into the creature. Was it techno-magical in nature, or were the wires and machines simply a focal point? I didn't know, but it threw me off a little.
Well, I lie. That wasn't the only thing that threw me off. The fact that Billy was the one controlling the power lines, and the fact that I was also inside one of the tubes, also threw me off. In fact, I might even say those two facts threw me off more than the demon creature.
* * *
It had been three weeks since the incident with Candy, and I was beginning to accept that the cops would not be visiting me to have a conversation about the dangers of public arson. They might have wanted to speak with my con-artist ex, who'd had slightly more of a hand in the fire, but Eddie had skipped town and they hadn't come by asking me about him. The reality, of course, was that everyone on the force knew full well what kind of place the Kit Kat Lounge was, and likely weren't too bothered by the fact that it had to close for renovations.
The only thing left to keep me on edge was whether or not another ethereal creature was going to be after me any time soon. By my count, there had been two if I didn't count Johnson. And to be fair to Johnson, he wasn't after me so much as he was an idiot, so I didn't think he counted. That still left the gypsy with the weird book, and Candy the succubus. I had absolutely no leads on who was sending them or why, and no idea of how to get leads.
No, that wasn't true. I had one idea of how to get leads. Billy. Billy was an old family friend who knew more about magic and the nature of the ethereal planes than any other person I'd ever met, save perhaps my mother. But since my mother still wasn't speaking to me since my divorce, that left Billy. Sadly, Billy wasn't really speaking to me, either. At least, not vocally. He didn't answer his phone, and he didn't answer his door. What he did do was leave a note with my name scrawled on it taped to his front door. Each time, the note apologized for his rudeness, and asked me to run some errand or another for him.
At the current moment, what was in my hand was the fourth such note. The first three had asked for what I'd thought were common ritual items that someone like Billy would have plenty of. Still, everyone ran out of stitchgrass on occasion, and the man had saved my life. The fourth note, however, was asking for something a little more involved. I argued with myself over whether or not to argue, but finally decided that he'd done enough for me that I would suck it up.
“You know that tying fire threads to strands of my hair is just going to make your entire apartment smell like burnt hair!” I yelled at the door. Like the last three times, there was no answer from the other side. I shoved the note into the pocket of my coat, and headed back out to the street.
I found myself truly wishing I knew what game Billy was playing. Even the enchanted hair should have been something he could make himself. Was he just passive-aggressively getting back at me for making him tie my life thread to poison as part of a plan to deal with a succubus? Had his mind finally fried from so much interaction with magic? I'd heard some stories of weird things that could happen when someone came down with acute magic poisoning, but it didn't usually happen so suddenly.
Well, the man had saved my life on at least one occasion, and helped me out of a jam on more occasions than I could count. If he wanted me to run errands for him, I was willing. I pulled my coat a little more tightly around myself to fend off the chilled winter air, and began walking down the street. As luck would have it, Billy lived near a magic supply shop that I liked to frequent. It was run by the third generation of gypsies, and I had thing for supporting family.
The chill of the air was good for me, as it kept me less focused on Billy and more focused on how annoying I found the chill of the air. After walking five blocks, the shop was a welcome sight. It was a small shop situated on the ground floor of an apartment building that had seen better days. The window of the store was a wide display window, displaying a few sets of clothing that claimed to be enchanted (but weren't), and several bits of jewelry that claimed to be perfectly mundane (but also weren't). The window was decorated with Christmas decorations, which placed it about two months ahead of schedule.
I stepped into the shop, taking only a passing notice of the multi-chimed bell that accompanied the door opening. The smell of herbs and components hit me square in the face, and as usual I had to wait for a moment to let myself get used to it. It wasn't unpleasant, exactly, but the smell could be overpowering. After a moment, I stepped fully into the shop. To my surprise, the man I'd expected to be behind the counter wasn't. Normally, the patriarch of the family worked the counter, an older man named Garenth. Instead, his youngest daughter was working. Well, working wasn't exactly the right word. She sat behind the counter, certainly, but she seemed more interested in something she was drawing on a large art pad.
“You know, if I was so inclined, I could have just made off with some stuff near the door,” I said as I stepped closer to the counter. Cindy looked up from her work, her face screaming how unimpressed she was by my words.
“You of all people should know why that wouldn't have worked, Ms. Berg.” She spoke with a tone that matched her expression, and it caused me to smirk. Kid was only thirteen, and she already had a mouth on her. I approved of such things.
“Where's the old man? Usually he's working the counter.” I moved towards the boxes of candles, wondering if I could talk Cindy down on the price. Garenth would have slapped me for the attempt, but he was not currently here.
“At the police station,” she responded, going back to her work. She said it in such a casual tone that I almost missed the precise words. When they finally registered, I turned back to her with furrowed brow.
“Wait, what? Why is he at the police station? Is everything alright?” I knew the cops occasionally harassed shop owners, but Garenth was third generation. If anyone in the city was legitimate, it was him.
“Oh, every thing's fine,” Cindy replied quickly. “Except for the part where Amanda turned up missing. That's kind of a problem.”
“...I feel like there's information to which I'm not privy,” I stated as I moved towards the counter. I'd only met Amanda, Garenth's eldest daughter, a few times, but I liked the girl. She was clever, and could haggle better than her old man.
“Kind of. She and dad got into an argument, and she threatened to open up her own shop on the south side.” Cindy finally looked up from her artwork, and I could see the worry in her eyes. She was trying to hide it, but I was good at reading people, and she was thirteen. “No one really believed her, but then the next day she was gone. I kind of figure she's just trying to show off for dad, but it's been three days, and he's worried.”
“...He doesn't actually expect the cops to do anything, though, does he?” I hated putting it that way, but the facts were what they were. None of the upstanding officials of the city liked to admit there was such a strong magical presence, even while having to accept the income that the magical trade brought. A missing gypsy girl would get bounced between missing persons and magical investigations for a week or two before a few missing persons posters got put up in the court house. If there had been active demonic involvement, or some sign of powerful and obvious magics, or even some sign of a mundane struggle the police would be more useful. From the sound of it, though, nothing of the sort had happened. Amanda had simply picked up and disappeared.
“No,” Cindy responded with a sigh. “But it's the only thing we can do. Money's tight, and we don't know any trustworthy ritualists who're good at tracking.”
I arched an eyebrow, and then cleared my throat. Just to emphasize my point, I leaned heavily on the counter and looked the child in the eyes.
“...Like I said, we don't know any trustworthy ritualists.” She spoke with such an innocent tone that I almost felt bad about wanting to slap her.
“I'm perfectly trustworthy! What about me isn't trustworthy?!” I told myself that if her story was good, I wouldn't actually demand an apology. She looked at me sheepishly, as if she hated to talk. I kept my eyes on her, until she finally began speaking.
“Well,” she began, her eyes looking everywhere but at mine, “remember that time you and Eddie talked Dad into offering a free blessing for every purchase so you'd have a cover to...”
“Ok, first?” I cut her off, not even attempting to keep the annoyance out of my tone. Between Billy's notes and this conversation, I thought it was justified. “That was Eddie's idea. Second, there is a reason I divorced him. Third? How many other ritualists do you know who you can ask to do this kind of job for no cost because of their relationship with your family?”
“...No cost at all?” She asked, her eyes finally looking at me. With suspicion, but I could hardly blame her.
“No cost at all,” I responded. “Well, except for supplies. I'll need supplies.” Cost of supplies wasn't really a cost. It was just supplies. Cindy looked at me for a few moments, as if trying to gauge exactly how on the level I was. It helped that I was completely on the level. Garenth was a good guy, and it always paid to have good guys who happen to run magical supply shops in your debt.
“...Grab what you need. I'll go get something of Amanda's. And don't let Dad know until you have something, alright?” Her tone was nearly pleading. I nodded in agreement.
“My lips are sealed. Promise.” I can't fathom why she didn't seem comforted by my smile.
* * *
Precisely forty minutes later, I was in my apartment connecting to the threads. I felt the warm power enter and entwine my body as I chanted, the swellowoil candles making the area smell like a fresh rainfall as they burnt. The trifli seed incense caused smoke to roll around the room, bringing with it the scent of freshly turned soil. No, it doesn't make sense, but I gave up trying to explain it years ago. Point was, the representation of the four elements gave me something physical to hold while my consciousness shot into the mystical.
Once I could properly sense the ethereal, I began to look for Amanda's thread. Cindy had given me one of the pillows from her bed, so at least the item was strongly connected. I gently fingered and then discarded various threads, judging them to be connected to things that were not a teenage girl, until I finally found one that resonated with human energy. Once that was done, it was short work to simply follow it to...
...The pillow. It took me a moment to realize what had happened, and then another moment to double-check my work and make sure I hadn't accidentally followed the thread backwards. There was no mistake. Somehow, the girl's thread connecting her to her pillow had been disconnected from her, and connected back to the pillow. More to the point, it had been done in such a way as to both keep the thread vibrant, and not be immediately obvious. That took skill. On my best day it would have taken me far more time and energy than I could imagine charging for. And let us remember, I could imagine charging for a lot of things.
I decided I'd have to do things the hard way. I searched the various threads connected to the pillow, before finding one that was likely connected to some other item Amanda owned. The feel made me think bed, but I wasn't picky. I followed the thread, moving as carefully as I could without giving up speed. The last thing I wanted to do was get myself tangled, which was a real possibility when searching down nearly random threads. At the same time, I didn't feel like leaving myself in the ethereal any longer than I had to. Normally, a human mind searching the threads wouldn't draw much attention. I, however, may or may not have had a price on my head that attracted ethereal beings.
After a period of time that felt acceptable, the thread led me to Amanda's bedroom. I presumed it was her bedroom, anyway, due to the resonances amongst the tangled web of threads. I suppose Amanda might have slept and lived in a broom closet with furniture. Either way, the thread led me back to her bed. I began searching nearby threads, attempting to find one that resonated with the girl's life energy. It took me longer, due to the thread being so far away from my physical body, but I was good enough to pull it off. Cindy and Garenth should have been thanking me for the rest of our natural lives.
Upon finding the right thread, I began to follow it. I was tired, and that made me go more slowly than I wanted to. It also made me not realize immediately that the thread led me right back to Amanda's bedroom. Once that fact solidified into my head, I followed the thread a second time to double check my work. Once again, there'd been no mistake.
I let my consciousness snap back into my body, and took a moment to wipe the sweat from my face. I took note of my candles, which had burnt down almost half-way. Mental math told me I'd been drifting for almost five hours, which was precisely the opposite of good. Whoever'd taken Amanda had not only been good enough to ward her in a very precise and convoluted way, but also good enough to make someone with my skills and talents take almost five hours to search. The last time I'd taken five hours searching the threads had been during training.
That led me back to one possibility. There were only a few people this far from the wetlands who had that kind of skill, and only one of them lived in Sonyar City. Whether he liked it or not, I was going to need to have a face to face talk with Billy.
* * *
I stepped up to Billy's door near midnight, shivering nearly uncontrollably. My socks and shoes offered a small bit of warmth, and the fabric of my robe was thick, but not thick enough to cut the full chill to my bare skin. Of course, attempting anything magical against someone like Billy was stupid through and through, so I probably could have skipped the robe and just wore normal clothes. If I had to fight him, I was better off just shooting him and being done with it.
I didn't want to shoot him. I didn't want to do anything to him, honestly. I hoped that if I just managed to talk to him, he'd have some explanation that made some kind of sense. Considering how little sense he made under normal circumstances, I felt as though I was shooting for a spot past the moon. Maybe somewhere near the sun.
I banged on his door, calling out his name as I did so. Like the past few times I'd tried it, there was no answer. I scowled, considering my options. Billy was a master at threadwork, the likelihood of magically manipulating my way into his home was slightly worse than the likelihood of me suddenly developing gills and discovering I was the lost princess of the undersea. Then another realization occurred to me. I pulled off my hat, reached under the band, and pulled free my lock picks. Five minutes of careful work later, and Billy's door swung open. That was the problem with magical thinking, I'd found. People who did it the most tended to not pay quite as much attention to the physical as they should.
“Billy?” I called out as I stepped down the stairs. Billy's home was the cellar of an old building that used to house a coffee shop and several offices. None of the other floors were still in use, but whatever Billy paid in rent must have given the landlord the incentive to maintain the place. Either that, or Billy owned the whole thing. The story changed in direct proportion to how many times Billy mentioned the great whale in a conversation.
I got no answer save the gentle creaking of the wooden stairs. I ran my hand along the wall as I moved, as much to keep stable as to look for a light switch. I didn't find one until I hit the bottom of the stairs, which seemed both a really stupid way to set up a basement and yet perfectly appropriate for Billy. I flipped on the light, and a single bulb hanging by a wire from the ceiling flickered on. It cast a dim light over Billy's place, just enough to see that it sat in the same disarray as it always did.
I stepped further inside, moving past the electronic bits that had an inch thick layer of dust on them. My attention was caught by a dull banging noise, and when I turned, I found a shelf full of old glass bottles. Inside said bottles were blobs of varying colors that occasionally moved about frantically, making a banging on the glass. Those were new from last time I'd been in Billy's place, and I was absolutely positive I didn't want to touch them.
My attention was then grabbed by a thick, leatherbound book that sat on a small desk in the corner of the room. I could just almost say apartment, since Billy's place was only the one room. I always wondered where he slept, but I didn't think such questions were useful at the moment. I moved to the book, inspecting the cover carefully. An odd beast was etched onto it, and I knew enough to recognize it as an ethereal being. A demon, perhaps, but it didn't look like any of the standard summons with which I was familiar. It was dog-like, similar to a guard demon, but its body was longer and it had six legs instead of four. It also lacked the gigantic horns, though it had larger fangs to make up for it.
I glanced around the room quickly to make sure I was actually alone, and then reached out to open the book. I felt a small jolt of energy as my fingers touched the leather, which made me hesitate. However, I needed to know what was going on, and I was absolutely positive I'd never seen this thing in Billy's place before. Maybe it was just a new thing he picked up in the past few weeks, but with how strange he was acting and the current situation, I didn't want to take any chances. With a quick breath to prepare myself, I grabbed the edges of the cover, and swung the book open.
The smell of old parchment hit me stronger than the dank smell of my surroundings, which was pretty impressive. The first page was written in a handwriting I wasn't familiar with, but reminded me of old Franian writing from around 43 C.R. From what I remembered of my various demonology studies, the Franians had a strong knowledge of Ethereal beings. I think it wound up being their downfall, but that was an easy guess. Every high magical culture of the past wound up being really knowledgeable about something that wound up being their downfall.
I took a moment to decipher the writing, pursing my lips as I worked. After a few minutes, I deduced it was telling me the story of the Lord of the Fifth Ethereal Realm, which was supposed to be written with capital letters because it was very important. I flipped through a few pages, reading bits at random. I didn't know who the Lord of the Fifth Ethereal Realm was, nor did I even know which realm the Fifth was supposed to be. I remembered there were supposed to be seven, and that the physical realm was supposedly the third. Standard summonings came from the first, and the more esoteric summonings came from the second. Anything past the third was far too powerful for humans to control.
Billy wasn't trying to summon a demon lord, was he? That would be more annoying than I could properly explain. If you were going to summon a demon lord, however, you'd want a woman who's blood was tainted with magic. Amanda would certainly cover the bill there. She was young enough that it wouldn't surprise me to find out she was a virgin, either. Only this time, I doubted I could find a convenient boyfriend to have sex with her before the ritual began. Billy was a damn sight smarter than the Johnson kid.
But one girl wouldn't be enough. Not for an actual lord, anyway. And certainly not if Billy wanted to make absolute sure the ritual worked. I needed to find out if other girls had been kidnapped, and quickly. I closed the book, and turned quickly to leave the apartment. Naturally, Billy stood right behind me.
“Billy!” I shouted, as much from surprise that he'd snuck up on me as anything else. He simply tilted his head, staring at me with an odd, vacant expression I'd never seen on his face before. The look made me hesitate, which was my first mistake. Well, no, that's not true. It was probably much further down on my mistake list.
Billy had no such hesitation. He stretched his hand out, and made a twisting motion. The single light bulb shattered as electricity sparked, and before I could so much as scream an obscenity a blue bolt of lightening shot through the air and hit me square.
* * *
The next bit of time is hazy. I recall feeling Billy pull my clothes off, and I know I was carried somewhere. I remember chanting, and I seem to recall a knife being shoved through my gut. The first thing I solidly recall is waking up in the dark on a sheet of cold metal. My lower intestines were wonderfully intact, which suggested the knife was a dream. I hoped.
The floor was cool against my naked skin, which made me want to lay on it a little longer. My joints ached, and my chest felt burnt where the lightening had hit me. I'd never seen Billy use a direct spell ever. He had always stuck to charms when he did anything at all. There had to be a connection, but I was in too much pain to consider it. The voices weren't helping.
...Voices? I tried to focus on the voices I was hearing, and realized they weren't audible. They were inside my head. All female, all of them worried or scared. They chattered on about wanting to go home, or wanting to know what happened, or other things that people say when they're scared and clueless.
“Would you all shut up?!” I said, perhaps a bit more terse than I'd meant. There was silence for a moment, before one voice spoke out.
“...Ms. Berg?” The voice sounded familiar. A second of thought supplied the answer as to why.
“Amanda? Amanda Strusnki? Is that you?” If I'd found the kid, then at least that part of my job was taken care of. I found myself wishing I'd actually asked for payment on this one.
“It is you! Ms. Berg, where did you come from? You're trapped in one of the tubes too, aren't you?” Amanda sounded hopeful, so much so that I almost hated to disappoint her.
“Yeah,” I spoke out loud, and only then did it occur to me that there might not be a reason to do so. I tried again, this time thinking inside my head. “We're in tubes?”
“It looks like it. Every once in a while there's a bright flash of light. Also, we can talk to each other, but there's not much point. Other than to not go insane.” The girl sounded less than pleased about her situation, and I didn't blame her. I certainly didn't relish the idea of spending who knew how long in a glass tube. Still, I had a more important question.
“There a bathroom somewhere around here?”
“No,” came the less than thrilled response.
“There doesn't seem to be a need,” offered a completely different voice. “Something about the tubes seems to freeze bodily functions. I've been here approximately six and a half days and I haven't had to sleep, eat, or anything, really.”
“...How did you count the days?” It probably wasn't the greatest of questions, but I actually had an answer, or at least a good guess, for most of the other things that could be known.
“...I kind of have an innate sense of time. My mom says it runs in the family.” Whoever the girl was, she sounded almost sheepish about it. As if she thought maybe what she was saying was stupid, but less stupid than being trapped naked in a giant glass tube.
“I think she's just making it up” said a third voice. “She doesn't have any clue how long we've been here and she's just trying to make things up to sound smart!”
“Girls, girls. You're both pretty,” I said as I began to feel around. The last thing I needed was teenage girls catfighting inside my head while I was trying to think. That was when a thought occurred to me. “Hey, so. How many of you are there here?”
“With you here, ma'am, that makes fifteen. And before you ask, yes ma'am, we all seem to be teenagers. The oldest is Amanda.” The girl with a sense of time answered. That answered those questions, at least. Fourteen children, all of them likely virgins. All of them connected by their life threads, I'd imagine. It would explain why we were all connected at the brains.
“Any of you done any thread work?” It was a shot in the dark. I didn't even know if I could connect to the threads in this tube. And it was a tube, I could tell as I felt around me. It was just wide enough that I could lay down with my arms spread, which didn't give me a lot of room to move around.
“There's a couple of other gypsies in here, Ms. Berg” Amanda responded. “Everyone else seems to be a sensitive. But I already checked. No one but you knows any threadwork.”
Fifteen sensitives. I recalled back from my training that sensitives were what happened when an incubus or a vampire got a hold of great grandma. Gypsies were the most powerful of the lot, but even the most powerful of gypsies wouldn't be able to do more than give you a head cold. You were more likely to get cursed to trip over your shoelace some time in the next week. Most sensitives were like the girl who could tell time. They had nifty parlor tricks, but nothing all that impressive. And they still had to be trained if they wanted to do any actual magic.
I tried to think back to the book I'd read in Billy's room. I hadn't had long with the thing, but I recalled one of the pages saying something about the shards of ether. It could have been metaphor, or it could have been actual crystalline shards for all I knew. The book hadn't been very helpful, and Billy's spell had been a touch distracting.
I began running through possibilities in my mind. Fourteen potentially virgin girls, all connected by their life threads. Presumably, in any case. I hadn't connected to the threads to check, but it was the most likely answer. If there was some more esoteric reason for the mental chatter, I'd be out of luck on guessing. The set up had all the pieces for the summoning of a demon from one of the upper realms, save for one. The initial offering. Johnson had used the bones and blood of the slain to make an alter. Billy was smarter than to summon a greater demon without proper preparation. On the other hand, I'd thought Billy was smarter than to try to summon demons at all. A thought began to solidify in my head just as the lights came up. For a blissful moment, I was thrilled I could see further than half an inch in front of me. What I saw made me decide I'd rather have the darkness.
I could make out the other fourteen tubes, all suspended by steel girders to a concrete wall. I didn't know if we were in an underground bunker of some sort, or a warehouse, but it didn't really matter. The tubes each had a thin wire connected to the bottom, which connected to a circular platform in the center of the room. Continuing to follow wires led me to a small desk, upon which sat a large computer. At least, I presumed it was a computer, though it was far more block like and filled with levers than any computer with which I was familiar.
There were two other figures in the room, not counting the fourteen girls in tubes. One was Billy, who stood at the previously mentioned computer. He looked hard at work, pushing buttons and pulling levers for purposes I couldn't even fathom. The other? The other was the demon figure that I'd seen on the cover of that book. It stood, lifeless, upon the platform in the center of the room.
I pushed myself to my feet, ignoring the pain in my chest from having been hit by lightening. I banged on the tube wall with my fists, trying to get Billy's attention.
“Billy! This isn't going to work! I'm not even a virgin, you know!” I made a mental note to come up with a few lines for situations like these. I wasn't really happy with the ones I came up with on the fly.
“I don't think he can hear you,” one of the girls responded. “He hasn't said anything to any of us.” It would figure. I began running through other possibilities in my mind, when Billy decided to prove the girl wrong.
“Sexual purity isn't as important in the fifth realm,” he said with a vacant tone. He didn't even so much as look up from his work. “Besides, Fynarnan doesn't need to be summoned. He's already here.”
The shards. That would explain the girls, and the fact that they were all sensitives. A few pieces began to fall into place within my mind.
“Let me guess. Ancient curse, split his being into fourteen parts, and now you're putting him back together. That doesn't explain why I'm here, though. I'm not a sensitive, unless looking fantastic while kicking ass is some kind of magical ability.” That one was much better, I decided. Really had a good amount of heft to it. I'd have to store that one away for future use.
“You're here because we refuse to let you get to the lake, Samantha Berg.” Billy spoke plainly, and if I'd needed any more proof that he wasn't in control of his own body, it was his use of my full name. He'd called me Sammy since I was knee high to a toadstool. His words about the lake reminded me of the gypsy with the ethereal book, however.
“What lake? You're the second thing to mention the damn lake, and I have no idea what the hell that's about!” I yelled out at him, as much to ensure I was heard as out of annoyance. My question made Billy finally look up at me.
“Everyone wants to know things, but no one wants to pay the price for the information. Your friend wished to know. Your friend thought he could pay the price. Then he failed, and played a part instead of watching from the outside. Now he plays a part as a tool. Are you prepared to pay the price for knowledge, Samantha Berg?” I stood there, speechless, unable to understand the question. Billy must have taken my silence as an answer to the negative. “I didn't think so. Now, Samantha Berg, your life thread will be drained and destroyed, along side the shards that will make Fynarnan whole.”
With that cheerful thought, Billy flipped another lever on the computer. The tubes began to spark and glow, and I felt my body begin to burn as the threads connected to me. I could see the powerful golden glow, and took note of my own life thread as it wrapped around the cord leading down from the tube. I looked at the other girls, and saw that their threads had a similar set up. This was not going to be pretty.
I felt my body weaken as whatever machine Billy had me stuffed in to began to drain my life. The weakness wasn't the worst part. No, the worst part was the sparks shooting through my brain as I touched a mind with which mortal man was not meant to fuck.
They say that when adrenaline pumps through a person's body, it boosts them into hyperdrive so that everything slows down and their mind speeds up. I have no reason to doubt that, but it's never happened to me. I mean, I'd been in a lot of particularly stressful situations, but not once had I had a moment where everything around me slowed down and I moved a lot more quickly than I had any real right.
Except for this time. I saw the girls drop to their knees and lean against their tubes, pain creasing their faces deeply. I saw Billy staring at us vacantly, before his gaze moved to me. Maybe it was my imagination, but he almost looked expectant. I felt the fire in my brain as it tried to process information it could never properly comprehend Then I realized, quite calmly, that if I was connected to it so it could drain my life thread, then it was the smallest matter to make it connect to me.
I reached out and grabbed threads that I know only in hindsight I wasn't actually connected to. Without any real thought on my end, my hands began to move and tie, tug to pull more slack, and wrap to ensure the strength of the bond. As I knotted the last thread, I had the crazy urge to announce that I would form the head, and then I was in two places at once.
“What are you doing?!” Billy yelled in a mixture of surprise and anger. It took me a moment to process his words, because it didn't come just as words. I heard the words, physically, in my body in the tube. But I could feel the emotions, sense the precise inflections and meanings in every tiny tone. I could also feel the girls trying to figure out control of the demon's limbs, which caused the body to wobble a bit. I tightened my grip on the threads, which helped them get stable, and then spoke.
“Taking control of this body. Or didn't you notice?” I heard the words in my ears, while hearing my voice from the demon's body down on the pad. It took all the focus I had to not get distracted. “Here's how it's going to work. You're going to release control of Billy. Then I'm going to destroy your body. Or, you can fight me, I'll still rip you out of Billy, and I'll destroy your body.”
Billy grabbed the air again, and another lightbulb exploded as a lightening bolt shot at me. I felt the girls move the body, and it lurched to the side. It was a gangly motion, awkwardly performed, but with as quick and powerful as the body was it hardly mattered. The bolt of electricity shot past us, and I tugged on a thread to let them know which way to go.
We shot forward, and before I could properly react I felt us slam into Billy. We tumbled to the ground, and for a moment we were a tangle of limbs and grunts. The girls got us to spring free, but I was already plotting the next move. The threads I could see through the demon's eyes were amazing, and I found myself wishing strongly that I could simply stay there forever. Normally, I saw a criss-cross of threads that sat loosely connected to everything. Through the demon's eyes, the threads were more like a tapestry. Some things had five or even ten separate threads, all with different meanings and energies. It was intoxicating.
It was also distracting. Billy grabbed another thread and threw another lightening bolt, this one hitting us in the side. The stereo scream of pain filled the room, but I refused to let us stop. I tugged on another thread, getting us back to our feet, and felt the body respond.
We charged at Billy again, and in another moment we'd pinned him to the wall. I admit, I hesitated. If I was wrong, I could wind up destroying more than the man's body. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I grabbed a thread, and tugged.
The demon's head made a physical tugging motion, and an ephemeral blob started moving out of Billy. It struggled, and I struggled, and we were in a mystical tug-of-war over the soul of the man I called friend. I felt the girls work the body, pushing its legs to add more strength to the tugging. I felt us slide along the floor as the blob tugged back. I felt our muscles pull tight, stretch uncomfortably. The blob held strong...
And then popped free, shooting towards us like a bullet. I moved the head, grabbing the blob in my teeth before slamming it onto the ground. Then, just to make certain it was actually dead, I began to rip it apart with my teeth. This lasted until I felt very silly and decided the ephemeral shreds were probably not going to merge back together.
By the time I'd stopped savaging the thing, Billy had started to wake. He made a grumbling noise as he sat up, rubbing his head. I saw the creases on his face, the crinkles at the side of his eyes that indicated his slowly coming to an understanding of what the hell had been going on. Once I was positive it looked like him again, I spoke.
“This is the last time I'm cleaning up your mess, Billy. Now dismantle this machine and let me and the girls go. I've got a splitting headache, and it's all your fault.” The stereo sound of my voice was a little strange, but the familiar smile on Billy's face made the searing headache worth it.
* * *
“Thank you, Ms. Berg. I don't know how I can ever repay you.”
Garanth's gratitude was nearly palpable, especially after the five minutes of hugging and crying. I couldn't blame him, really. I could only imagine how I'd feel if I'd lost my daughter and someone had saved her. Especially with the story Amanda had given him. I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off with a hug.
“If you need anything, ever, just let me know. Supplies, blessings, I'll do whatever I can for you.” I would have told him it wasn't necessary, but free supplies was sufficiently awesome enough that I bit my tongue. It helped that he was hugging me so tightly I could barely breath.
Once I'd pried Garenth's arms from around me and the goodbyes were said, I made my way out of the store. I didn't get more than a block away before Billy intercepted me.
“Sammy! Was Garenth alright? What did you tell him?” A look of worry crossed his face. “...Am I banned from the store?”
“He's fine, I told him the truth, and no. He's a third generation gypsy shop owner. I think he understands the concept of accidentally violating a vow and being forced to do something you wouldn't do otherwise. Speaking of which, you want to give me a little more detail on that.” It wasn't a question, and my tone didn't suggest it might be. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat to ward off the cold winter air, and waited. Billy looked sheepishly at the ground, kicked a rock with the toe of his shoe, and then sighed.
“I'd wanted to know more about the lord of the fifth realm. In return for not interfering in the machinations of certain ethereal destinies, I was given that book. I thought I'd said that.” For just a moment, I could hear the deep inflections of his voice that made his words more than words. But only for a moment.
“You did. You did not, however, explain why mine was one of them.” I hoped I didn't sound angry with Billy. I wasn't angry, after all. I was pissed. Billy wilted under my question, looking everywhere but at me.
“...That's because I don't know any more. Something about the whole situation made me forget what I knew, and the book is gone, too.” He sighed heavily, and slumped so far down I was afraid he might melt into the sidewalk.
“Figures.” I sighed along with him, feeling defeated. “I'm going to go home. My head still feels like it's filled with red hot metal shavings, and I need about a fifth of whiskey and a good week's sleep.” Billy simply nodded in response, and I turned to walk away. Before I did, however, a thought occurred to me. I stopped, and looked back at the short man who I'd known since I was a child.
“...Oh, and Billy?” He looked up, a questioning look on his face. “Thanks. For saving my life even though you knew the consequences. If you hadn't done that, I wouldn't be here to be mad at you.”
Billy smiled softly, and I took that as sign enough that everything would be alright.
I think that's the best one yet. I love this series.
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Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
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