Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
I’d have to drop a compulsion glamour on his ass, nothing else to do about it. Compulsions are ugly things. They basically usurp the free will of a living, thinking being. They’re kind of
—at least if you use them on another human—and they also make you feel all dirty and gross on the inside.
I wasn’t quite so apprehensive with the gnome since he was of the low fae. Monkeying around in a human brain can break a person’s mind, erase their personality, even twist them into something contrary to their nature. Fae of any flavor, on the other hand, tend to have very rigid and unchanging personalities, so compulsions generally don’t have the same negative side effects. The fae just don’t change—they are what they are, always. Even if that weren’t the case though, I’d still drop a compulsion on him; he and his buddies had kidnapped an innocent child and tried to murder me. More than once. The way I reckon things, he had a little payback coming his way.
I temporarily disarmed the Fort Knox strength mental wards preventing other creatures and mages from messing around inside my head. I reached out with my thoughts while weaving a fragile, pulsing net of spirit which settled in place over the gnome’s noggin, breaking down his will shotgun style, lowering his inhibition, and making him susceptible to my every suggestion.
His mind, his thoughts, stretched out before me like a sea of glassy sapphire lights, all of differing sizes and hues, some glowing, others blinking on and off. Orbs of consciousness—each tenuously connected to the others through a vast and elegant web of muted purple strings. Each orb was a memory or a dream, a feeling or some deep impulse. They worked together, separate yet one. Each pushing and pulling its own way, yet tied to the whole. Compulsion was simply a matter of navigating those waters, knowing which orbs to invade, which to subvert, and, in turn, co-opting the neural network so you could impose your will over the whole.
Brutal compulsions simply wiped the network, potentially destroying the person or creature, while more subtle methods could get the job done and leave little mess behind. I was good with subtle, at least where compulsions were concerned. It wasn’t much different from picking a lock really: just a light touch and knowing which buttons to put pressure on. I sifted through the orbs, bypassing the creature’s strange memories and alien emotions. There, a bundle of nerves responsible for motor reflex, navigation, and impulse control. I sent tendrils of thoughts snaking out into the handful of orbs, Vis flooding the system, our minds momentarily connected.
A dark shadow pressed itself into my awareness, a creature of spirit, a thing devoid of body, and seemingly made up only of voracious hunger and empty hopelessness. I’d been so preoccupied with not dying that I hadn’t even sensed the shifty bastard. Must’ve been following me, biding its time, waiting for an opportune moment to jump into my mental swimming pool.
Dark, ethereal claws ripped into my brain, the fiend’s awareness pressed into my own. A pulse of energy filled up my senses as the thing invaded my own internal network. A flash of light, and then … I was back at home, or what had once been my home. My wife—well, long time ex-wife—Lauren, standing before me. The scene was familiar; I’d replayed it a thousand times before. The day I’d walked out on her. Maybe the worst day of my life. Certainly in the top ten.
“Yancy, please don’t do this.” Tears streamed down her cheeks in rivulets. “Please. We need you.” She wiped a hand across her cheek, smudging the tears on her skin. “The boys need you, Yancy. They need you. You can’t leave. You can’t.”
I didn’t say anything, couldn’t stand to hear myself talk or to look her in the eye. So instead I turned away, a travel-worn sea bag stuffed with pants, shirts, and some hygiene stuff, slung over my shoulder.
“Please,” she said again.
I turned back; she deserved something, anything. “You just don’t get it,” I said, trying not to sound harsh and failing. “You don’t know what it’s like, Lauren. Everything’s different now. Everything. It’s better this way. Right now? Right now I’ve got too much baggage.” And I sure as shit wasn’t talking about the sea bag. “Nothing’ll turn out right if I stay around. I’ve got nothing good to offer you anymore. The kids’ll be better off without me around, dragging you guys down.”
“Please, Yancy … I know things’ve been rough lately. I know it’s not the same. I do, believe me. But you don’t have to go. We can work through this, work this out. Whatever’s going on with you … I’ll—I’ll support you. I’m here for you.”
“Look, I just can’t stay. Or explain any of this.” I put a hand to my forehead; the pain was back again, behind my eyes, curling up and around either side of my skull like a set of ram’s horns. I rubbed at the bridge of my nose and then moved on to my left temple. Damn headaches. It was the dreams. Martin, dead, ropy gray guts and pieces of meat hanging from that Tualang tree. Hall, shot to pieces, gaping holes littering his torso, dribbling dark blood. Rat, burnt alive in an explosion and flash of white phosphorus. No one back home gave two shits about them. About the war. Nope, back stateside everything was the same. Except me. I’d moved on, but the world hadn’t taken notice.
The headache worsened, the dull throb moved down into my sinuses, pushing behind my eyes, urging me to see the energy. My hands grew warm, the stink of burning canvas wafted to my nose. Not this shit again. The fire. Fire coming right outta my friggin’ hands. Those freaks—called themselves mages or wizards or whatever the hell—said that was the reason for the headaches.
No, I couldn’t stay. Just too much wrong.
“Mommy,” a soft voice, a child’s voice, drifted from the doorway. “Is everything okay? Daddy, where you going?” My oldest son—a slight, tow-headed kid wearing a pair of rumpled green jammies. Good kid. But I wasn’t any good for him. I wasn’t cut out to be a dad, or a husband. All the responsibilities. Giving baths, reading stories, cleaning dishes. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t handle it, not on top of everything else.
“I’m leaving for a little while, champ. But I’ll be back. And I love you. It’s important you remember that. Whatever happens … remember, this is the best thing.”
“Please don’t go,” he said, his breathing too heavy, his eyes already red-rimmed. Must’ve sensed this coming for a while; he was sharp like that, perceptive. “Please, Daddy. I’ll be better, I’ll clean my room more, and do my chores on time. I’ll, I’ll help watch Jake, I’ll …”
“It’s not about any of that,” I said, my voice soft. “It’s not you, it’s not your brother or your mom. You guys didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me. I’m broken.” I couldn’t say anything else, not another word, or my traitorous tongue would betray me, would choke me up while I blubbered.
“Yancy,” Lauren said, voice flat. “If you do this, it’ll ruin us. It’ll kill them.”
I turned and marched toward the beat-to-shit ’66 Toyota Stout—paint peeling, shocks shot, window cracked—before I could change my mind. I’d be around, check in once a month, make sure everything was taken care of. Those freaks said they could set my family up if I left. It was better this way. Pick up the boys for the holidays maybe. I dunno.
My heart beat too hard against my ribs, I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. The seabag slid down my shoulder, so I grabbed the strap and shrugged it back into place. My hands were too friggin’ hot. The sea bag started to smolder from my touch.
“Stop right there, Yancy,” came Lauren’s voice, but it wasn’t really her voice, and this wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen. This scene was nothing new to me; I’d seen it countless times. I walked to the Toyota, threw my bag in the truck bed, hopped into the cab, and cruised away. That was how it happened, end of story. She didn’t say anything else, not that day.
“Turn around you no good, deadbeat piece of shit,” she said. The words stung, but they rang true—they were my own and I’d said as much to myself many a time. So I
turn. It was a compulsion, outside my control; my body didn’t feel like my own. Before, Lauren stood by the door, arms curled around her chest, like she was trying to keep her heart from breaking free. Now, she was only a few feet away, arms open, lips drawn back in a rictus. She looked different. Sick. Bruises, nearly purple, encircled her eyes. Her skin was corpse white, pasty-pale, with cracks and fissures cutting into her flesh.
“I said it would kill them,” she whispered, “but it killed me. You killed me, Yancy.” She held out her wrists as an offering. Dark brown slashes ran vertically down the inside of each arm. “Self-murderers have no rest, no peace, y’know? It’s the Forest of Suicides for us.”
What the hell was this?
I dropped the sea bag and backed away. This wasn’t right. Lauren was dead, but it sure as shit hadn’t been suicide. Cancer—it’d eaten her lungs right up.
“No,” I said, “this isn’t right, this isn’t how it happened.”
She snarled and lunged forward, dead hands distorting into elongated, hollowed out spikes, a little like the sucking, straw-like mouth of a mosquito. The claws were like straight razors, slicing through my skin and into the muscle below, pulsing as she kneaded the claws like a cat, drawing energy, life, Vis, from my body. I stumbled back and batted the hands away with a sweep of my arm. She vanished, and a moment later, reappeared behind me, hungry fingers slashing at my back. I could fight her, obliterate her with my power—a burst of flame or a lance of ice. My hands were so hot, burning up, I could do it.
The hell was I thinking?
No … no, I couldn’t. Not her, not after what I’d done, what I’d put her through.
She pressed in, but I couldn’t bring myself to raise a hand to her. Instead, I darted away from her and the truck, back toward the house. My son, standing in the lawn, now lurched at me with his own mosquito fingers extended. Whatever Lauren had, clearly it was catching. My youngest, Jake, was still in the house. Maybe I could spare him, save him from this disease, whatever it was. I shouldered past my eldest, knocking him to the ground, before hauling back the screen door and sprinting into the living room.
There was something in the corner, a dark shape, a long shadow with spidery arms and knobby knees, purple eyes and tearing claws. It looked familiar somehow … a flash—a frosty tunnel, a frozen lake, a blocky man hanging from a wall … things
The room blurred at the edges. I no longer stood in the living room. Now it was a great hall. I remembered this one, too: the night I left the Guild for keeps.
The hall was filled with old-fashioned, red-cushioned church pews, housing men and women dressed in flowing robes in a multitude of hues, all looking at me with stern faces, unmarred by compassion or care. Walls of gray stone, smooth from the grinding passage of age, surrounded me on all sides like a prison. Slender candles, in silver, wall-mounted candelabras, shed dim yellow light. Stained-glass windows in greens, blues, purples, and reds all stared down on the unfolding scene. In one glass panel, some saint lifted a hand in benediction, while birds and other forest critters surrounded him. In another, Daniel—long beard and wispy white robes—stood unperturbed in the midst of a pride of hungry lions, gazing around, unworried.
Right now, I kinda felt like Daniel. All the mages around me seemed like a bunch of bloodthirsty lions, just waiting to take a bite. Unlike Daniel, I wasn’t under God’s protection, and I wasn’t sure I would leave the room without at least a few scratches.
I faced twelve robed figures arrayed in a semicircle on the platform at the front of the chapel—the Elder Council of the Guild of the Staff.
I locked eyes with the arch-mage standing center-stage. She was a striking woman with smooth skin, high cheeks, and bright green eyes, searching and calculating. Her hair was a mass of silver, hanging all the way down her back. Though she looked to be in her late fifties, Arch-Mage Borgstorm had to have a couple hundred years under her belt and was about as savvy as magi came. She was also cold, calculating, and political to her teeth. Had she been in the lions’ den, I would’ve felt bad for the lions.
“Now you listen here, it’s not right, dammit,” I said to the whole room. “The Morrigan can’t just take her without retribution. Ailia is one of us, she’s a member of this Guild, and we protect our own, right?” I looked around at the assembled men and women in the pews, not sparing them my wrathful gaze or the heat in my voice. “That’s why we have the Fist of the Staff. That’s why you recruited me to do all the shit I’ve done.”
“That will be quite enough, Mage Lazarus. We are fully aware of your contributions to the Guild. You are, however, a junior member without the experience to make these kinds of decisions. There is a very good reason you are not allowed to pick your own assignments.” Her voice was all no-nonsense business, her tone one that commanded immediate compliance. “You simply lack the requisite familiarity, which is so necessary to understanding the complicated and often delicate nature of the supernatural nations. We’ve been over this before, no need to hold up this assembly with your drama. Now, moving on.”
“Don’t feed me that line of shit.” Gasps of shock filled the room. Lots of these folks had a bone to pick with the arch-mage, but there are some things that just aren’t done. Just aren’t said.
Her gaze seemed to freeze me for a moment, energy built in the air around her. “Considering your current emotional state,” she said coolly, “I will overlook your gross breach of protocol and uncouth demeanor. But I expect you to be civil or you will be removed and penalized. Harshly.”
“I’m about to go uncouth all over everyone in this friggin’ chamber, you hear me!” I yelled, my face flaring with heat. “I’ve put my ass on the line for this organization. I’ve fought nightmares and monsters, saved members of this Guild, rescued family members. And now when it’s one of our own? When it’s my Ailia, you’re gonna turn your backs? Bunch of cowardly, self-serving, sniveling ostriches. Sticking your friggin’ heads in the sand. It’s no wonder the Morrigan felt ballsy enough to snatch up a full-fledged member—”