The Storm Tree
The Storm Tree is an urban fantasy story I wrote a while back. It's sort of a precursor to Piercing Darkness; it shares a few characters but they aren't quite the same people as I'd given them some more thought.
Warning for violence.
Edith Kirkbride smiled as she handed the customer his change, although she felt a little sad. She always did when she sold a book, even ones like the rather scuffed old paperback that was now walking out the door with its new owner. It was perhaps a slightly odd trait in an owner of a bookstore, but then on the other hand, if she didn’t love books she would never have suggested buying the store to her husband.
Warning for violence.
Edith Kirkbride smiled as she handed the customer his change, although she felt a little sad. She always did when she sold a book, even ones like the rather scuffed old paperback that was now walking out the door with its new owner. It was perhaps a slightly odd trait in an owner of a bookstore, but then on the other hand, if she didn’t love books she would never have suggested buying the store to her husband.
Edith looked around the store from her desk by the door. It wasn’t large, and shelves were lined up as close together as they could be and still let customers walk between them. There was no one in the aisles she could see from her desk; she checked the mirror in the corner that let her see the rest, yes, no one there either. That was no surprise, there had been a few customers an hour or so ago when people had gone out for lunch, but they had all gone back to their offices, the young man who’d bought the paperback had been the last one.
Turning in her chair, Edith checked the clock on the wall behind her. Two thirty. She climbed slowly out of her chair – she’s getting on in years, and while she’s not yet at the point where she needed a cane it’s better to be safe than sorry – and walked over to the door to the backroom. She knocked twice before opening the door. As usual, Vanessa was looking right at her as she stepped inside.
Vanessa had worked in the store for almost four years now, but all the same Edith felt uncomfortable with her. She was a helpful and diligent worker, certainly, but Edith had never quite gotten used to the lack of expression in her face or the tonelessness of her voice. At first she had thought the girl was just shy, but the years passed and Vanessa’s demeanour never changed. Edith now assumed it was somehow pathological.
“How are the books going, Vanessa?” she asked. By the looks of things they were going quite well; Vanessa was standing on the far side on a table loaded with neat stacks of books, arranged by genre. Other than the table and its chair the only other furniture in the room was the locked cabinet that held the rarer and more expensive books. Against the wall were several empty cardboard boxes and a trolley to carry the books out to be shelved.
“Only five left to record.” Vanessa replied, gesturing to something on the floor beside her; presumably a not quite empty box. “Everything should be shelved before three.”
Edith nodded. “Good work. Could you come out and watch the shop for a minute though?”
“Of course. Coffee break?” Vanessa inquired.
Edith nodded again. “Did you want anything?”
“No thank you.”
Vanessa followed Edith out of the back room and sat down behind the counter. She watched the door as Edith left and kept watching after she had walked out of sight. As she waited she brought to mind the memory of a book she had looked at a month ago. She felt the paper under her hands, heard the irritating, poppy muzak of the bookstore – a chain store, not the Kirkbride Book Exchange – and smelt the cheap coffee of the in-store cafe. At the same time she could feel the grain of the wooden desk, hear the faint whir of the air conditioning unit and smell the faint mustiness of the books. Then she had leafed through the pages as quickly as she could while still being able to look at the words; now she could take the time to read them.
She didn’t read for long. A few minutes after Mrs Kirkbride had left the little electronic bell above the door announced someone entering the store. Vanessa had not looked away from the door, and after a few seconds the new arrival saw her and smiled broadly in recognition.
“Hi Vanessa! How have you been? It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Hello Sara. I’m fine, and we saw each other less than four months ago.” Vanessa replied.
“Four months is ages, especially when we used to see each other every day. Did you do anything interesting on your holidays?” Sara asked.
“Mostly I spent them visiting my cousins. Were you looking for a book?”
“Book?” Vanessa waved a hand at the shelves.
“Oh, right.” Sara opened the satchel hanging from her shoulder and took out a stack of papers. “I just came from an orientation morning up at the college,” she explains as she sorts through them, “I got my booklist and a few of the sophomores I talked to said this was a good place to go to get textbooks.”
“I’m not surprised. I’ve seen the prices at the campus bookstore.”
Sara nodded. “They’re crazy, aren’t they? No wonder people complain about the cost of education.” Having found the paper she wanted, she replaces the rest in her satchel and hands the booklist to Vanessa. “Do you know if you have these?”
Vanessa scans the list; most of the titles are psychology or sociology texts. She could use the computer to check for them, but her memory was quicker and she’d glanced at the textbook shelves on her way out of the back room.
“We have all of those, but not all in those editions.” She answers after a few seconds. “I can print of copy of the errata for you; they don’t generally make that many changes.” She hands the list back to Sara. “Textbooks are on those shelves, opposite the door.”
“Thanks.” Sara moved off to browse and Vanessa turned to the computer. She opened and began to sort through the folder of errata. When the papers were printing she heard Sara call her name, and looked up, thinking she wanted help finding the books. Instead, Sara was looking at her expectantly. Vanessa looked back blankly for a moment before realising Sara must have said something. She quickly replayed the last few minutes of memory, this time paying attention to Sara.
“When do you finish work?” She’d asked.
“Around three,” was Vanessa’s belated reply. She made to duck down to the printer again when it occurred to her there was a requisite follow up question there. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m meeting the girls and some guys we met up at orientation at Romana’s at three-thirty.” Sara said. “Do you want to come?”
Vanessa considered it. Her immediate instinct was to say no, but suppressing her immediate instincts in social situations was so much second nature to her that it’s barely more than background noise. Romana’s was a coffee shop not far from the Book Exchange; the coffee there was good and she could easily make it there even if she had to leave work a little late. On the other hand, the probability of her enjoying spending an extended duration with Sara and her friends was close to nil; she didn’t really dislike them, relatively speaking, but that didn’t mean she wanted to spend more time with them than she had to. On the gripping hand, though, her parents had made her promise to accept all such invitations unless she had a specific reason to decline; they said she needed socialisation and she found it difficult to argue with that.
“Okay. I’ll meet you there.”
“Cool!” Sara smiles as she approaches the counter, her arms loaded with books. “Now, uh, what do you have in the way of bags? I should have brought a backpack.”
Vanessa left the Book Exchange a few minutes after three, stepping out into the afternoon sunshine. It was a warm spring day and she squinted at the light even from behind her sunglasses, wishing she’d thought to bring a hat. Romana’s was only a brief walk across the plaza, which at this time of day was mostly empty; being too late for the stay-at-home parents but too early for the office workers. She took her time, but still arrived early.
Romana’s was in the protruding corner of a block of stores; roughly triangular with the counter at the shorter side furthest from the street. Vanessa stepped inside and looked around. It was mostly empty: two barristas behind the counter and a few people in suits standing around waiting. Sitting at the sole occupied table were two girls who she recognised and boys she didn’t. The girl furthest from her, Linda, spotted her as she entered, giving a polite smile and nudging her friend, Sophie, who turned to look.
She grinned when she saw Vanessa approach the table. “Hey there, Nessa.”
“Hello Sophie, hello Linda.” Vanessa greeted them.
“This here is Adam, and this is Dan.” Sophie indicated the two boys, who had turned in their chairs to see who had come in. Adam, sitting opposite Sophie, was tall and skinny, the very image of a movieland nerd with his glasses and fluffy blond hair. Dan, sitting closest to the door, was shorter, broader and darker than his friend, and was staring at Vanessa slack jawed. Sophie noticed.
“If that’s what love at first sight looks like, I want no part of it.”
Linda giggled, Adam chuckled and Dan blushed as he realised what he’d been doing.
“Hello Adam, hello Dan.” Vanessa greeted the boys.
“Nice to meet you.” Adam leaned forward to shake her hand.
“Um... hi. Sorry about the... uh...” Dan paused, trying to think of the least embarrassing way to describe his staring.
“Ogling?” Sophie suggested, grinning. “Eyeball humping?”
“Eww.” Linda complained.
Dan blushed again. “Maybe just staring?”
“That was not ‘just staring’,” Sophie insisted, still grinning, “Your mouth was hanging open. Another minute and you’d have been drooling all over the floor.”
Vanessa thought that Dan had a point; she knew from experience what ogling looked like, and she hadn’t seen it in Dan’s expression. It reminded her more of the occasional looks of horrified disapproval she sometimes received, mostly from old ladies. Apparently the world still contained people shocked by black lipstick.
She took a seat between Linda and Adam, Linda shifting away slightly as she did so, and looked over at Dan. His blush had faded and he was now looking at Sophie as she spoke, but after a few moments his eyes flicked over to Vanessa again. He immediately looked back to Sophie when he saw she was watching him, but when Adam was speaking and Dan turned towards him his gaze again stopped on Vanessa before he saw she was still looking back at him, and he quickly completed the turn to look at Adam.
Vanessa continued to watch him, ignoring the conversation. She could always remember it later if she needed to. While she was little better at reading other people’s expressions than making her own, she was fairly confident her initial impression that he wasn’t enjoying looking at her was correct. Nonetheless, he continued to glance at her at fairly consistent intervals; she guessed that was how long he took to convince himself that she might now be looking elsewhere.
What would make her look at someone, she considered, other than to admire their appearance? Well, they might be doing someone interesting or unusual, but that couldn’t be it, he’d been staring as soon as he’d turned around to see her. On top of that, he was the only one who’d been staring; surely anything that merited that much attention would get some kind of comment from the others, but they’d seemed as clueless as she was.
An idea occurred to her, and she started to look at him differently. It was a difficult sensation to describe but Vanessa thought it compared best to the detached concentration needed to make out a Magic Eye image. She saw the world... not fade, exactly, but be overlayed by colours of a very strange palette. Everyone in her vision was surrounded by a faintly glowing aura. She couldn’t see her own aura – that was the magical equivalent of licking your own elbow – but she was covered by a brightly glowing field: her warding and shielding spells.
Vanessa looked closer at the aura around Dan. It was a little brighter and more... energetic, perhaps, than the others, but that didn’t really tell her what she wanted to know. Or maybe it did, and she wasn’t interpreting it correctly. She’d never previously had much reason to use her second sight, and what she’d read of it assumed the reader would have someone to practise with.
Unhelpful as her second sight might be, Vanessa still suspected that her wards had attracted Dan’s stares, and she’d thought of a way to test the hypothesis. She tugged on her energy reserves and a trickle of power flowed into her, lighting up her system like a lifetime’s worth of endorphins. One thing her book had been clear on regarding second sight was that channelling power made your aura light up like a Christmas tree, and as she’d expected Dan immediately turned towards her and this time didn’t look away.
She raised a hand above the table as she shaped and directed the energy. Bright, heatless blue flames erupted from her hand, invisible except to second sight. Dan’s reaction was immediate and unmistakeable: he cried out and shoved himself away from the table, overbalancing on his chair and falling over backwards to wind up sprawled out on the floor. Adam, Sophie and Linda all stared.
“What the hell, man?” Adam asked when the shock wore off and he and Sophie got up to help Dan and his chair upright. “What’s up with you today?”
“I-“ Dan struggled to find words as they returned to their seats. He glanced at their faces: Adam looked concerned; Vanessa was as expressionless as before; Linda looked shocked; Sophie seemed amused. Finally he hung his head in his arms. “I don’t know. I thought-“ he looked up again, searching their faces and apparently finding nothing.
“Thought what?” Adam grinned weakly, “C’mon, don’t leave us in suspense.”
“I don’t know.” Dan said again, shaking his head. “Just not my day, I guess.”
Adam and Sophie shared a glance, but before either of them could begin to frame a question a cheery voice called out to the table.
“Hello Sara,” Vanessa greeted her as she turned in her seat, then “hello Tyra,” as she spotted the girl following Sara in. The rest of the table offered up their own greetings, albeit rather weakly in Dan’s case.
“Sorry we’re late, guys,” said Tyra as she and Sara put down their bags and pulled up seats, “my sister needed a lift to her piano lesson. What have we missed?”
“Dan lost a staring contest with Vanessa so hard he got knocked off his chair.” Sophie informed her.
“That... must have been interesting to see.” Tyra said as Linda giggled quietly. “Why were they having a staring contest?”
Sophie shrugged. Dan shook his head and buried his face in his hands.
“We weren’t.” Vanessa said.
“Then what were you doing?” Sophie demanded.
“Sitting,” was the answer. Sophie scowled and might have demanded clarification had Sara not wrapped her in a hug.
“Alright, alright, I’ll drop it.”Sophie said upon her release.
“Good girl.” Sara replied, and chuckled when Sophie stuck her tongue out at her
Dan spent the next hour pointedly avoiding looking at Vanessa, which might have looked strange had she made much of a contribution to the conversation. Luckily for him, she hardly spoke at all until Sophie excused herself from the table – she had softball practise. Vanessa promptly did the same but substituting her kickboxing class. They said their goodbyes and left in opposite directions.
Vanessa went home after leaving Romana’s. She really did have a kickboxing class to go to, but she has an hour yet and is in no rush. When driving through the gate she sees that the front garden is occupied, and after parking instead of going into the house she walks back out of the garage to meet her grandmother.
The ground of the front garden is mostly covered by white pebbles, broken up by stepping stones and circles of larger rocks that surround the beds of earth supporting tall, leafy shrubs. The paths of stepping stones lead to a central pagoda, around which are several elongated garden beds filled with flowers. Vanessa’s grandmother, June, is standing under one of the shrubs, catching an insufficiently leafy limb in a pair of long handled secateurs.
<Hello Grandma.> Their family mostly spoke Korean at home, in deference to June’s mother Jae Hwa who had never been completely comfortable with English.
<You’re home late, Vanessa. That’s not like you. You must have known you’d be helping me in the garden if you had come straight home.> She scolded teasingly.
<I promise you it had nothing to do with that. Do you remember Sara?>
June thought for a moment. <The blonde girl your mother wanted you to marry?>
<That’s the one.> June had exaggerated, but her daughter Kay had been tremendously excited that Vanessa had brought anyone home from school, even if only to work on an assignment. <She came into the book exchange and I met her and her friends for coffee after. Are you alright?> Vanessa had glanced down as she said the last, and June looked down to see a long, thin cut along her arm. She hadn’t felt it when it happened, but now her attention had been drawn to it the scratch began to sting.
<Oh! I hadn’t even noticed that. Here.> She held out her arm to Vanessa, who looked intently at the cut. For a few seconds nothing happened except Vanessa rubbing her own arm in the same place as the cut. Then the thin red line began to shrink inwards, and within seconds it had gone without a trace.
<Better than new.> June said with satisfaction. <Now, just bend back that branch there. It’s getting in the way.>
<Yes, Grandma,> Vanessa said, and reached up to comply.
The night Vanessa’s family ate in the casual dining room, as opposed to the formal dining room, which was so much larger that it was entirely unsuitable for just four people. The casual dining room was comparatively cosy; it could have comfortably seated twice as many people, but at least conversation didn’t echo. Not that there was much conversation.
Jae Hwa, at the head of the table, was mostly concealed behind a bookstand supporting a thick hardcover, a scholarly work on the differences and similarities in the philosophy of chess and go. Kay was seated to her left, both dividing her time between eating and working on the laptop in front of her. On the opposite side of the table June was engrossed in a paperback romance and Vanessa was just thinking.
<Could I ask some advice?> The rest of her family looked up, surprised that she would be the one to break the silence.
<Of course,> Kay said, <what did you want to ask about?>
Vanessa thought for a moment. <It’s about a boy.> Kay’s expression was caught somewhere between disbelief and joy. Michael’s settled for just disbelief. Vanessa noticed. <Not like that.> Kay sighed in disappointment, and Jae Hwa chuckled. <And it’s about magic.>
<I’m not sure how much we can help on that last,> June said, <but let’s hear it.>
Vanessa described the events of her afternoon; starting from meeting Sara at the Book Exchange and finishing on leaving Romana’s.
<Scaring him like that wasn’t nice, Vanessa.> June said.
<I know, but I couldn’t think of another way to know if he was looking at my wards or staring for some other reason. All my other spells are visible to everyone or not at all.> Vanessa explained. <I didn’t expect his reaction to be quite so extreme, either.>
<Do you think he’ll tell anyone what he saw?> Jae Hwa asked. Vanessa shrugged
<I wouldn’t think so.> Kay put in. <By the sound of it not explaining himself then and there made him look like an idiot. If he was going to he likely would have done it already.>
<What specifically did you want advice about, Vanessa?> June asked.
<I was thinking of trying to contact him.> Vanessa answered after a brief pause for thought. <I don’t know that it’s a good idea, but I’ve never met anyone else with second sight... he might know something I don’t, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to find out more.>
<If he was so surprised by it he fell out of his chair, I doubt he’d know very much.> Jae Hwa said.
<Let’s not blow this off right away.> Kay protested. <Can you show us what happened when you scared him?>
Vanessa pulled on her energy reserves. The dining room window took up most of one wall, and from the table showed only sky. If someone were to stand up and look out they would see a series of rooftops and gardens sloping down to the woods, which stretched out to the horizon. Vanessa shaped and released her power and the window went black for an instant before opening like an eyelid. It showed Vanessa’s memory of Romana’s, exactly as she had seen it. The sound of conversation and coffee machines filled the room. They watched the auras flicker, the flame wreathe Vanessa’s hand and Dan jerk away from the table and fall.
<More embarrassed than angry there, I think.> June said.
Kay nodded. <I don’t see why you shouldn’t meet him. Just be careful.>
Vanessa looked around the table and saw no disagreement. <Alright. Thank you for your help.>
Dan’s car pulled up from the curb a little way down from the park. His hand twitched towards the door but he subsided into his seat rather than open it. He sat there, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gearstick for several minutes. It was a nice night to be out; warm with a bright full moon, but he really wasn’t sure if he wanted to be there.
He’d agreed to it last weekend. He and Adam had met up with Sophie and her friends again; minus Vanessa, who apparently wasn’t a usual part of their group; and Sara had told him Vanessa had wanted her to pass on her number, and ask him to call her. He was relieved to see Sara didn’t seem to think there was anything too odd about that – it would be nice to think his embarrassment at the coffeeshop was all in the past – but he didn’t want to doubt his sanity all over again.
He called her anyway, to be polite, and had ended up agreeing to meet her on Friday night. Several times over the week he’d debated with himself as to whether he should call and cancel. As much as he wanted to know what the blue glow was, Vanessa was kind of creepy and could apparently conjure fire; meeting her alone at night might not be a great idea. On the other hand, Sara clearly knew Vanessa and hadn't indicated she was dangerous.
Realising he’d been sitting in the car for far too long, Dan got out before he could talk himself out of it again. The park was creepy at night, in the way places that were usually crowded tended to be when empty. At least the air was still, so there were no eerie squeaks or groans from the swing set or roundabout. Vanessa was sitting at one of the picnic tables, silently watching him. He walked over.
“Uh, hi Vanessa.”
“Hello Dan.” She said. She’d said the same thing in the same way at Romana’s and over the phone, too. Dan wondered if she somehow had it pre-recorded. “How are you?”
I’m standing in a creepy, deserted playground talking to a pyrokinetic Speak ‘n Spell installed in a goth Realdoll, Dan thought. “I’m super. Thanks for asking.” He said. “Was there something particular you wanted to say?”
If Vanessa was offended by his bluntness, she didn’t show it. “What was it that freaked you out at Romana’s?” She asked.
She had to know, Dan thought. She’d been looking right at him when she conjured up that blue fire, and it’d disappeared when he’d got up. It had to have been deliberate. Was this a test? “You don’t know?”
Vanessa didn’t say anything for a while. If she hadn’t still been looking right at him, he might have thought she’d somehow lost interest. “I have some ideas,” she said eventually. “I’d like to know if I’m right.”
“You were glowing blue and your hand caught fire.” Dan said, and Vanessa nodded. “Why were you glowing blue?”
“To match my eyes,” she answered, which Dan thought was pretty much the opposite of an explanation. “How did you see me glowing blue?”
“With... my eyes?” He said, unsure of what kind of answer she was looking for.
“What’s special about your eyes? Why wasn’t Adam just as surprised as you?”
“I-“ Dan thought about it. “That’s a really good question, actually.” He sat down on the bench opposite Vanessa. “It’s hard to imagine anyone not noticing that fire.”
“It does have a way of drawing the eye.” She agreed.
“What is it, anyway?” he asked.
“You don’t know?”
“Should I? It’s your fire.” She was clearly assuming some level of knowledge on his part, and he wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed at himself for his ignorance or her for her assumption.
Vanessa went quiet again. She didn’t do anything when she was thinking, he noticed, didn’t drum her fingers or chew the inside of her cheek, just stared. “Have you really never come across magic before?” She asked eventually.
He looked at her flatly. “Magic. Seriously?”
Vanessa raised a hand and clenched it into a fist as the blue glow that surrounded her flared, just like it had in Romana’s before her hand had flamed. This time instead of fire her hand emitted a misty blue light which coalesced into two spectral serpents that darted towards Dan, their scaled bodies extending behind them. Before he could move they hand coiled around his shoulders and were snapping threateningly at his face.
“Magic. Seriously.” Vanessa echoed.
“Yes. Magic. Certainly.” Dan nodded frantically. “Your point is well made. Please put the snakes away now.”
She opened her hand and the snakes evaporated. Dan sighed with relief.
“Going back to my question: you’ve never encountered magic before?” Vanessa asked again.
Dan opened his mouth to say ‘no’ or ‘of course not’ but closes it again when his memory stirs and he realises it would be untrue. “Not quite like this, exactly.” Vanessa waited for him to continue. “Do you believe in ghosts?” He asked.
“I may be open to the idea.” She answered after a pause.
“The only time before I’ve seen something no one else did, it was a ghost.”
“What made you think it was a ghost?”
“I saw my grandfather, the day after he died. He was sitting in his favourite chair, sort of dozing but not quite asleep. He used to sit like that a lot when he was alive.” Dan had never told anyone about this before, he’d never felt able to. It felt good to get it out, even here, to this blank faced girl. “I called for my dad – I would have been about seven – and he didn’t see him. I thought he was about to start yelling for a moment, like he thought I’d been making a joke, but then he just got kind of sad, well, sadder. I think he thought I wasn’t dealing well. The third day after grandad died his ghost was sort of fading, and the day after that he was gone. I haven’t seen him or any other ghost since.”
“Was seeing his ghost like seeing my fire?” Vanessa asked.
“No, not really,” Dan said after some thought, “the fire was impossible not to see, it was that bright. The glow, that I just noticed, as soon as I saw you. With my grandad, after the first time, I had to try to see him. Not, like, visualising him or something... I’m not really sure how to explain it.”
“Is it something you could do now?”
“Well... yeah, I guess. It’s not something like your fire where you can see it, though.”
“Okay, here goes.” Dan hadn’t done this in a long time, but it came to him as easily as breathing. He gave a little tug on the shining glow in his mind and power began to slowly trickle into him. It was sweet and golden, it felt like sugar and money and sex, and he briefly wondered why he didn’t use it more often before remembering what had happened the last time, when he’d held it too long. He shuddered, the power shuddered too and he quickly seized hold of it again before it went out of control. Twisting it into shape was more difficult than he remembered; that wasn’t coming back so easily; but he managed it and the glowing feeling faded.
Vanessa hadn’t looked away from him, and he wondered if she had seen anything. “Can you see anything new?” She asked, and he supposed she’d been able to tell it had worked.
“I haven’t really looked around yet. No one’s died here recently, have they?” He glanced around the park. “Huh. I think there’s something in that tree over there.” He pointed and Vanessa turned in her seat to look. It was a big tree, with thick leaf cover and strong, easily climbable branches. It was entirely possible a person could be up there, let alone a ghost.
Dan got up from his seat and walked over for a closer look. He heard footprints behind him as Vanessa followed. Standing under the tree, they looked up into the branches.
“Where is it?” Vanessa asked. Dan pointed. “Do you know what it is?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just sort of a blob, but I can see it even though it’s not lit up. It seems like it’s moving without going anywhere. I mean, sort of flowing in place. Does that make sense?”
“I think I get it.” Vanessa took a pen torch from her pocket and clicked it on, illuminating the tree. Something shifted in the branches.
“That was the blob moving.” Dan reported. The branch it seemed to be sitting on was almost directly overhead and he stepped back to get a better angle. Vanessa did the same in the opposite direction.
“Is that a bird?” She asked.
“I think those are feathers, yeah.” Dan replied. “Do you smell something?”
He heard her sniffing. “Leaves, dirt, bark. Nothing strange. You?”
“Rotting meat, I think, plus what you said” Dan said, wrinkling his nose. “Not strong, though.” The bird was hard to make out; with Vanessa’s torch on the opposite side and the blobby glow overlaying it, the actual shape of it was indistinct. All the same, it didn’t look quite right. “Is it missing any feathers on your side?”
“Not that I can see.” Vanessa answered. “I can only see its head from here, though. Why?”
“There are barely any feathers in its tail and I think one of its wings is rotting off.”
“Yeah. I think I can see bone.”
“Cover your ears and close your eyes.” Vanessa said after a long pause.
“This is going to be bright and loud. Do it.” She insisted.
Dan pressed his hands against his ears and closed his eyes tightly. A second later there was a bright flash and a noise like a cross between a whip and a firework. He smelled charcoal and ozone as he lowered his hands and opened his eyes. “What the hell was that?” He asked, noticing a few feathers floating down from the tree. Some were smoking.
“Lightning bolt.” Vanessa said.
“Lightning bolt.” Dan repeated. “You can conjure up lightning bolts? How?”
“The same way as you can see ghosts, I think.” She explained. “By the way, how did you learn to do that?”
“Learn?” Dan thought about it. “I don’t think I did, it’s just something I can do. Why, how did you learn your fire and lightning and stuff?”
Vanessa stared at him silently for a long time before answering. “From a book,” she said eventually.
“A book? Where do you get a book like that from?”
Dan waited a while for her to continue, but it seemed that was all she had to say on the matter. “So why did you blast the bird?” He asked.
“Do you want a possessed, dead bird flying around?”
“When you put it like that... what was possessing it, though?”
“You’re the one who saw it, you tell me.”
“How do I know? It’s only the second ghost-thing I’ve seen after my grandad, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him.” He poked at one of the feathers with his shoe. “Your book doesn’t say anything about ghosts?”
“Ah. You asked before if anything like this had happened to me before. Has it ever happened to you before?”
“No. Does it strike you as odd that the bird should be here just when we were meeting?”
“I hadn’t thought of it before, but yeah, that is odd.”
“Perhaps I was too hasty in blasting it.”
“Maybe it was just here to deliver our Hogwarts acceptance letters.” Dan suggested.
“We aren’t young, British or fictional enough for that.”
Dan chuckled, and stopped abruptly when Vanessa didn’t laugh. Did she ever, he wondered? That had certainly sounded like a joke.
“Can you do anything other than see ghosts?” Vanessa asked.
“I can do lots of things. In relation to ghost sight and lightning bolts and so on... maybe? I’m not sure.”
“How can you not be sure?”
“Well, the ghost sight thing... it’s like a mould, right? I pour energy into the shape and when it’s full, boom, the energy goes away and I can see ghosts, you know?” Dan explained.
“Yes, I see what you mean.”
“Well, I do have another mould, but it doesn’t actually do anything.”
“Nothing? Are you sure?”
“Well, I’ve tried it once or twice, and nothing ever happened.”
“Would you have known what your ghost sight did if you hadn’t happened to see your grandfather?”
Dan thought about it. “I don’t see how I could have, now that you mention it. I guess I could try it out again. Hang on.” He reached the energy again and felt it slowly fill him. It took a full minute before he had enough to force it into the mould, and when he did it was gone. “See,” he said, “it didn’t do anything.”
Vanessa wasn’t looking at him, though. Being focussed on keeping the energy under control, he hadn’t noticed her stepping back. She was shining her torch at the fence behind the tree. “There was definitely some kind of energy projection.” She said. “It seemed to pass through the tree and the fence with no effect. I didn’t feel anything from the part close to me, either.”
Dan rubbed his head. He hadn’t channelled energy for a long time, and doing it twice in quick succession was making him feel a bit light headed. “So instead of not doing anything, it projects energy that doesn’t do anything?” He asked.
“It doesn’t do anything to wood,” she said, “and probably not to people. It would have been interesting to see if it could have done something to the bird.”
“You think it might have?”
“I think it would be reasonable to suppose your ‘moulds’ might have related effects: one to see whatever the thing was, and one to... do something to them.” Vanessa suggested.
“Make them grow to enormous size and hunger for flesh.” Dan proposed.
“I don’t find that likely, but perhaps you should be cautious about testing it if an opportunity should present itself.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Dan said, again wondering whether Vanessa had been joking.
“I should be going.” She said abruptly. “Goodbye Dan. Have a good night.”
“You too,” he replied as she walked away. He knelt down to pick up a scorched feather, and stood examining it for a while before returning to his car.
Vanessa had rarely paid much attention to her second sight. It wasn’t something she usually found much use for; having known no one else who used magic prior to meeting Dan, there was nothing to see with it other than her own magic and other people’s auras, which she already knew about and wasn’t interested in respectively. In the week after meeting with Dan, though, she paid close attention to it whenever she was outside, in case more decaying birds might be present. So far she had found nothing.
Dan, however, was seeing several every day at college according to the text messages he sent her every evening. He informed her that they seemed unthreatening and in fact barely mobile; they would stay for hours in the same perch before flying away. They also didn’t stay together, or with other birds, he reported. He had also noted that when leaving their perches they all flew in the same direction, towards the woods the town wrapped around like a crescent, and had suggested they go hiking.
She had agreed, partly to keep her promise to her parents and partly because she did want to find out where the birds were coming from. The woods certainly seemed like the most likely source for them, assuming they really were reanimated corpses. On Sunday morning they headed in, looking up through the branches in the hope of spotting one of the birds.
So far they had seen nothing of the wildlife, possessed or otherwise. Probably, Vanessa thought, they were still close enough to the town that the animals were wisely shy of humans. At first she had found the silence of the woods oppressive and eerie. Even when one of them stumbled on a rock or broke a stick underfoot the leaves and branches seemed to swallow the sound up. Her ears had eventually adjusted, though, and the sounds of rustling leaves and unseen creatures skittering through the undergrowth became reassuringly robust.
Dan is better company than she’d expected. He hadn’t said much beyond what was necessary and swearing when he stumbled on one of the many tree roots that made the ground there so treacherous. He filled his hiking pants quite nicely too.
He’d cast his ghost-seeing spell as they’d entered the woods and had been scanning the trees, hence his occasional stumbling. Vanessa didn’t have so much confidence in her second sight as a ghost-spotting tool and had been carrying their compass, keeping an eye on it to ensure they didn’t end up walking in circles. With no path and all the trees looking much the same, getting lost would be too easy. As such, she was not at all pleased when the compass stopped working.
She came to a stop. “Dan?”
He stopped and turned too quickly, losing his balance and coming close to toppling over before catching himself. “Gah! Sorry, what’s up?”
“The compass needle is spinning in circles.” She informed him.
“What?” He came back to her to have a look. “Well, shit. Did it just start doing that?”
“Just then,” she confirmed. “Hang on.”
She took a few steps back the way they’d come. The compass ceased to spin and reoriented itself, hopefully correctly. She walked back to Dan, and it began to spin again. “Interesting.” She put away the compass and took out her phone. “Are you getting any reception?”
Dan checked. “Nope. Not one bar.” He pushed a few buttons and held the device up to his ear. “Says ‘service not available’. You?”
“Nothing.” Vanessa took a few steps back again. The reception quickly sprouted two bars. “Very interesting.” She put the phone away and remembered the moment the compass had started to spin. It took her several reviews of the memory before she noticed the subtle change through her second sight. When she’d moved forward and the compass had started to spin, everything had become brighter, infused with a faint, otherworldly glow. She would never have noticed it if she hadn’t been looking for something.
“Hey, Vanessa?” Dan interrupted her train of thought, and she looked up to see him looking deeper into the woods. “There’s something coming. I think it’s too big to be a bird.” He didn’t have time to say more before a deer came charging out of the trees and rammed him.
The impact sent him sprawling back and he cried out. He tried to scramble back up but fell back, gasping. The deer turned to Vanessa, one antler stained with blood. It was very clearly dead; one eye socket was empty and its hide was patchy and rotten, in places enough to see bone.
“Dan, stay down.” Vanessa ordered as the deer lowered its head and charged again. She leapt out of the way and her vision suddenly whited out. Her head felt like it had split open and she realised she’d thrown herself into a tree trunk. She’d have been better off just taking the charge, she thought, her wards would protect her from something hitting her, but not from something she hit. Grasping at her head and glad there seemed to be no blood she pulled on her energy, quickly shaping it and blasting the deer with lightning. The bolt scorched the corpse’s flank black and filled the air with the scent of ozone and carbonised venison, but the wound didn’t seem to impair it as it readied for another charge.
Vanessa made a quick sidestep around the tree and the deer blew past her. She blasted it again as it went, striking it above its foreleg. The muscle burned away to expose bone and the deer seemed to be moving more awkwardly now as it reoriented itself for another charge. The ground on this side of the tree was so thick with roots, though, that even with the extra time Vanessa couldn’t make another quick sidestep to avoid it.
The deer darted forward, its horns getting within centimetres of her before her wards flared with a bright blue-white light and stopped it dead in its tracks. Vanessa continued to back away and took aim of its wounded shoulder before it could regain its momentum. The exposed bone splintered violently, almost explosively when the bolt struck it, severing the limb. The body fell sideways, legs and head spasming, and then lay still. The slight aura around the deer disappeared.
Vanessa leaned against the tree, clutching her head. It still hurt, but what worried her more was that she was feeling slightly disassociated from her body. She hoped that wasn’t a sign of a concussion. She focussed on the pain and felt it double, the usual unfortunate side effect of using her healing ability on herself, but shrugged it off and felt it begin to recede as the healing took hold. As soon as she felt centred again she made her way over to Dan.
He was still lying where the deer had left him, hands pressed to his wound. The antler must have pierced a lot of blood vessels; his shirt is absolutely drenched in blood. He was still conscious, his eyes focussed on Vanessa as she approached, but he was disturbingly pale and his breaths were quick and shallow. Vanessa almost doubled over when the empathic link of her healing was established and she felt his wound mirrored on her body. She’d never healed anything this serious before and it went arduously slowly, especially with her half-suspecting another corpse-deer or murder of dead crows to come charging out of the undergrowth.
Happily, that didn’t happen. The wound closed and Dan climbed to his feet. “Wow.” He said, as he pulled off his ruined shirt. “That was amazing. I feel great.” He started mopping the rest of the blood off his chest with the shirt’s mostly unstained back.
“Good.” Vanessa said. “I’ll need you to drive me to hospital.”
“Something you can’t heal?” He asked. “You seem to be pretty damn good at it.”
“I’ve never had to heal a head wound before.” She answered. “It doesn’t hurt any more but I’d rather not risk it.”
Dan nodded. “Fair call. We’ll head off, then? Nothing you want to do with that?” He asked, nodding at the scorched body of the deer.
“No.” She said simply, and headed off. Dan followed behind her.
The doctor had pronounced Vanessa to be in good health. Vanessa had explained the injury without reference to either magic or undead ungulates merely by changing her ill-advised dodge to a stumble, and to Dan’s surprise the doctor bought it. Dan didn’t feel a need to get checked out himself, as his head had gone unbattered and Vanessa and rendered his chest wound as good as new or better.
She’d left her car back near the woods and he was more than happy to give her a lift back. There was no way he’d have been able to get himself away from that deer, after all. Even so, he wasn’t entirely happy about lying to the doctor. Sure, it would have been awkward trying to explain the truth, but Vanessa’s ghostly snakes were pretty damn convincing.
“Do you think we should tell someone about this?” He asked her. They hadn’t shared a word since leaving the hospital.
“The deer is completely dead now.” Vanessa said. “There’s no way to prove it’s moved since it died.”
“You could summon up your snakes again.” Dan suggested. “They convinced me.”
“They convinced you that magic was real. They had nothing to do with the deer or the birds.”
Dan nodded. He had to concede the point there. “What if we catch one of the birds?”
“That could work. Do you have a plan to do it?”
“Not off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s instructions on bird trapping somewhere on the net.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me, but I’d think that luring birds would involve bait of some kind. What do you think would attract a zombie bird?”
“Other birds’ brains?”
“Good luck with that.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Dan asked, annoyed.
“We wait. If the birds are harmless we won’t have wasted our time, if they aren’t then eventually the authorities will notice on their own and we won’t have to worry about convincing them.”
“So we’re just going to wait until someone gets hurt? That’s kind of cold, don’t you think?”
“Probably,” Vanessa said. Dan glanced away from the road to look at her. He’d never really thought of himself as particularly adept at nonverbal communication, but talking with Vanessa was a real education in how much he relied on it. Normally he would have been able to modify what he said based on the other person’s reaction to it, but Vanessa’s voice was toneless and her expression perpetually blank. He just had nothing to go on, and it was frustrating.
“What if someone goes into the woods?” He tried. “The birds might not be aggressive but that deer damn well was. We can’t let people just wander into danger when we know it’s out there.”
Vanessa was quiet for a long time, long enough that Dan started to wonder whether she was thinking about it or just ignoring him. “I told you I learned magic from a book.” She said eventually.
Dan didn’t see the relevance, but at least she was talking. “Yeah, you said that.”
“So someone had to have written it; someone else who could do magic.” She continued.
“Have you ever heard of any sorcerers?”
“Not stage magicians. Do they sell spellbooks at the campus bookstore?”
“Not that I’ve seen.”
“Do they offer a Masters in Applied Sorcery?”
“What’s your point, exactly?”
“Why doesn’t everyone know about magic? You didn’t believe in it at first and you can do it.”
Dan thought about it. The question had never occurred to him before. “Maybe all the other wizards and so on went underground because of the witch trials and so on?”
“So does proving we can do magic sound good to you?”
“I... see your point, I guess. Do you really think they’d light up the bonfires these days, though? I can’t see that happening.”
“Do you want to risk it?”
“I... I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about this.”
Dan saw Vanessa nod out of the corner of his eye. They spent the rest of the drive in silence.
Vanessa liked to start her days with a swim. Luckily, one of her predecessors had felt the same way and had caused an Olympic-sized pool to be installed in the house. She was pulling herself out of the water on Tuesday morning when her mother approached her.
<Morning, honey.> Kay was waiting by the side of the pool, a few steps away from Vanessa’s point of exit to avoid splashes on her suit.
Kay held out a newspaper. That day’s edition of the local paper, Vanessa saw. <I thought you might find this interesting.> She said. Vanessa looked at the headline. ‘Professor Killed In Hitchcockian Nightmare!’, it proclaimed above a small picture of a ruddy-faced man in glasses. <I’ll leave it over here for when you’re dry, but the short version is that a body was found, mutilated by small incisions and surrounded by feathers.>
<Pecked to death?> Vanessa asked.
<So it would seem.> Kay answered. <They did mention one alternate theory, that it might have been done with knives and the feathers left as a kind of calling card, but given your run in with the deer I’m going with the Hitchcock theory.>
Vanessa didn’t get the Hitchcock reference, but she took her mother’s meaning. <He was a professor at the college?>
<Yes. He taught early colonial history, according to the paper.>
<Dan will find out quite quickly, then.>
<I’d be surprised if he hasn’t heard something about it already. Why do you say that?>
<He’ll want to go back into the woods.>
<And you don’t?>
Vanessa paused, and Kay waited patiently for her to answer. <I’m not sure. He can spot them better than I can, but he’s not much good for anything else. If he gets swarmed by birds I don’t think I could blast them quickly enough to save him.>
<Ah, you don’t want to go with him. That makes sense. Give me a call after you’ve talked with him, I think I have something that could help him out. For now, though, I have to get to work. You aren’t working today?>
Vanessa shook her head. The Kirkbrides only needed her a few days a week, when the new books had piled up a bit.
<Okay. Say hi to Dan for me.> Kay waved goodbye and left. After drying herself off enough not to be unacceptably drippy, Vanessa went up to her room. She checked her phone and found that she had a missed call; to very little surprise, the number was Dan’s. He’d left a message and she pressed the button to hear it.
“Hey, it’s Dan here. It looks like those birds are dangerous after all. Call me when you get a chance. Bye.”
Vanessa returned the call and when it went to his voicemail she left a message that she’d be available to take calls for the next few hours. With that done, she went downstairs to get breakfast, taking the phone with her. It rang fifteen minutes later when she was halfway through a mouthful of weeties, yoghurt and passionfruit. She swallowed quickly and answered the call.
<Hel-,> Vanessa’s mental gears crunched and ground as she switched languages. “Hello, Dan.”
“Hi Vanessa,” Dan said. “Sorry I didn’t answer before, I had an early lecture.”
“Forgiven. Mother says hello. You called about the dead professor?”
“Yeah – wait, what was that about your mother?”
“She said to say hi to you for her.”
“Uh, okay. Say hi back. So, you heard about Professor Rutherford?”
“It was in the paper. What have you heard?”
“They found him in the parking lot, near his car, covered in feathers and the shreds of his clothes. Apparently they cut him up enough that he was identified based on the contents of his wallet.” Dan’s voice caught a few times as he spoke, and descended to a growl as he finished.
“That’s about what the paper said.”
“Yeah. So, are you ready to tell someone about this now?”
“I’d rather try the woods again.”
“Seriously? I nearly died and you could’ve concussed yourself! You’d really rather that than just talk to someone?”
“Damn it!” Several seconds passed in which only Vanessa heard only the sound of heavy breathing through the phone. After a last, deep breath Dan started speaking again. “You know I’m not going to be able to help you with that, right? I’d like to and all, but I don’t have a forcefield to bounce charging zombies off. There’s not really much I can do about a murder of undead crows.”
“There may be a way around that.” Vanessa said. She trusted her mother knew what she was talking about. “When are you free?”
“My afternoon’s clear tomorrow, although given what last time in the woods was like I’d rather wait for the weekend and have a full day free.”
“Alright. I’ll call you back.”
“Okay, see you.”
Vanessa hung up and called her mother. Kay picked up immediately.
<Hello mother. I’ve spoken to Dan. He said hi.>
<Oh, good. Did he suggest going back into the woods like you thought?>
<He suggested telling the authorities again.>
<And you don’t want to do that.>
<So what did you decide?>
<He said he would like to go but feels he would not be useful in the event of a massed attack by the birds.>
<He’s probably right about that.> Kay said. <Did he mention when he might be able to go, if a way around that could be found?>
<Good. Take him with you to see me at work - my work, not yours. When do you finish tomorrow?>
<Half past two.>
<That should work out nicely then. Have a good day.>
Vanessa hung up and called Dan again to give him the address of her mother’s office and when to be there. He agreed and happily did not ask for any further details. She put the phone away and returned to her breakfast.
Dan checked his notebook again, and found to his displeasure that the address Vanessa had told him hadn’t changed at all from the last time he’d looked. He looked up at the building again. He was in his car, parked by the side of the road outside a large, white office building. The sign on the facade declared it to be Mercer Security, next to a shield crossed by a sword and something Dan couldn’t quite make out. A scroll, maybe? In any case it seemed like a strange place for Vanessa to want to meet, unless she was planning on hiring bodyguards.
Well, he wasn’t going to find out sitting in the car. He got out and walked down to the building’s driveway. A pair of uniformed guards crossed in front of him as he walked down the drive, looking him up and down with a penetrating expression as they passed. He saw a pair or security cameras as he approached the door; clearly they took their business seriously. Somewhat to his relief he also saw Vanessa’s car in the parking lot in front of the building.
Inside the sliding entrance doors were two more guards. The reception area was tiled with marble and well lit. At the back, just in front of another sigh with the company’s name and shield logo was an information desk staffed by a smiling young man and woman a few years older than Dan. Off to the side were long lounges and tables. Vanessa stood up from a lounge as Dan entered and walked over to him.
“Hi Vanessa,” he said. “What are we doing here?”
“Getting something to compensate for your lack of durability.”
Dan blinked. “I’m sure there would have been a way to say that so it didn’t sound like erectile dysfunction.” He muttered, but Vanessa was already leading him away, towards the stairs. They hurried up two flights and entered the building’s corridors. Security cameras, motion sensors were much in evidence, although Dan didn’t see any more uniformed guards.
Vanessa led the way through the corridors until they reached a four way intersection. “Do you need a bathroom?” She asked.
“Uh, no,” Dan said.
“Keep going down here,” she pointed down the corridor the way they’d been heading, “and go in the door at the end. The nameplate will say ‘Kay Mercer’. I’ll catch you up.” So saying, she took the left turn.
Dan stayed where he was, watching her go until she took another turn and was out of sight. He wondered what he was doing here and cursed himself for being too weirded out by Vanessa to ask her for an explanation. How bad could it have been? Sighing, he continued on down the corridor.
Vanessa hadn’t been entirely accurate in her directions, he found. It wasn’t one door with a nameplate, but a set of double doors with the name inlaid in bronze letters. Dan supposed that when your name was on the building you could do what you liked with your door. He knocked and went in.
His first thought was that the office was much smaller than the doors suggested. Then he saw the other set of doors in the opposite wall, and the seats along the side, and realised that this was a waiting room.
Dan hadn’t yet realised there was someone else in the room and he jumped slightly when she made her presence known. He turned around and saw a woman, a bit older than the receptionists downstairs, seated behind a desk and looking at him expectantly. He experienced a brief moment of panic before he managed to form words.
“Um, hi. I was, uh, directed here by Vanessa?” he said, hoping like hell Vanessa knew what she was doing and wasn’t actually insane.
Happily, the woman nodded and rested her finger over a button on her phone. “Your name?”
She pressed the button and after a brief pause spoke into her headset. “A Dan Miller here to see you.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “Yes.” She released the button. “Please go right in,” she told Dan, gesturing to the doors. He did so.
The office beyond was much closer to the size he’d expected from the doors. It was dominated by a large hardwood desk, behind which Vanessa was seated. Dan stopped in his tracks, astonished, wondering how and why she’d got here ahead of him. Then he realised she couldn’t be Vanessa – firstly she didn’t have Vanessa’s makeup, which had survived their trip to the woods without a smudge and he doubted could be removed so quickly and smoothly, and secondly she was smiling. Dan couldn’t imagine Vanessa smiling other than a horrible, Joker-like rictus, but this smile was friendly and welcoming. As he stood staring it widened into a grin.
“I do look a lot like her, don’t I?” the woman said, chuckling.
“Yeah- wait, how did you know...?”
“What you were thinking?” she finished for him. “It’s what most people think when they see one of us and then the other. Have a seat. I’m Kay, by the way.”
“Dan.” He sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk.
“Yes, Vanessa’s told me about you. Where has she gone off to?”
“Uh, bathroom, I think.”
“Ah. We’ll just wait for her to show up, then. How are you two getting on?”
“Okay, I guess. She’s not really that easy to talk to, though.”
“No non-verbal cues?”
“That’s the bulk of it, yeah.”
Kay seemed about to reply when the door opened. Dan looked around to see Vanessa walk in.
“Hello mother.” She said. Dan gaped, and turned back to look at Kay, who smiled a greeted Vanessa. The gears in Dan’s brain ground and creaked as he tried to work out how Kay, who looked almost identical to Vanessa, maybe a few years older at most, could possibly be her mother.
Kay noticed his expression and laughed again. “Yes, really,” was all that she said on the matter. “Now, let’s get down to the armoury, and see if we can find something to help keep your insides inside while you’re in those woods.”
Kay led them through the building, down several floors. They used a different staircase than they had going up, but Dan was pretty sure they were below ground level. Kay hadn’t been kidding when she’d called the place an armoury. Past the guards – who had just nodded them through when they saw Kay – were six big metal doors secured with keypads and fingerprint scanners. They went into the second door on the right and Dan gaped as he stepped inside and saw the rows of racks holding weapons.
“Holy mother of... What are all these for?”
“Mostly training,” Kay said as she led them through the racks, “there’s not really a lot of call for this kind of firepower most of the time, but I generally go for the ‘have it and not need it’ option if I can. Occasionally it comes up.”
“Really? What kind of things do you break this stuff out for?”
“Mostly escort work in volatile situations. Food shipments from charities to places with a lot of warlord activity, things like that.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool. No plans to overthrow the government then.”
Kay laughed. “I’ll hold off on that until we iron out the bugs in the doomsday device.” She said, as they stopped in front of a rack that, instead of weapons, carried some kind of armour. “Here we are. Try this on; it should fit over your t-shirt.” She took a bulletproof vest off the rack and passed it to Dan. It had very thick sides, he noticed as he put it on, coming all the way up to his arms.
“It’s more comfortable than I’d have thought,” he said, “but wouldn’t keeping birds off need a bit more covera- oh.” He cut himself off as Kay passed him another piece of armour, this one a sort of mantle that added a layer over his arms and a second one over his chest and back.
“The straps on the sides slot in through the vest. Here.” Kay reached over to help. Once that was on, she passed over another piece of armour, and then another and another. Eventually Dan found himself entirely encased.
“Okay,” he said, rapping himself on the chestplate, “this feels pretty solid.”
Kay took a walkie-talkie from a nearby shelf and turned it on. “Say again? The helmet’s muffling you.”
Her voice seemed to come directly into Dan’s skull, as if he were wearing headphones. He supposed they must be built in to the suit. “I said it feels pretty solid.”
“Glad to hear it. Try walking up and down a bit; make sure it still fits when you’re moving.”
He did so. At first the armour seemed extremely heavy and confining, but after pushing himself a bit he realised it was almost all in his head. He couldn’t get up speed quite as quickly as in normal clothes, but he had pretty much his full range of movement and the weight seemed well distributed.
“It’s a lot more comfortable than I’d have thought.” He reported.
“Good. Come back here, then.”
Dan walked back over to Kay and she helped him out of the armour. He was surprised to find that his clothes underneath were soaked with sweat.
“Wow. How did I not notice that?”
“The armour’s tight enough that the wet cloth doesn’t rub against your skin.” Kay explained. “So, are you available for another expedition into the woods on Saturday?”
“Absolutely,” Dan said. “Even before then, if you can come, Vanessa.” Vanessa looked over upon hearing her name, but said nothing. “I feel bad enough that one person’s died, if missing a few lectures gets it over with quicker...”
“I know what you mean.” Kay said. “Friday, then. You can do Friday, Vanessa?” Vanessa nodded. “Good. Park by the woods at nine on Friday morning, and wear something light. You’ll be sweating a lot more after a walk in the woods.”
Vanessa and Kay were already suited up when they heard a hesitant knocking on the back door of the van. Kay looked at Vanessa, who’d made no move to investigate the sound, and unlatched the door. She pushed it open to reveal Dan standing outside.
“Oh, hi Kay,” he said. “I didn’t realise you were coming.”
“One of the nice things about being the boss is you can take time off on short notice if you really need to.” She said as she helped him up into the vehicle. “Armour’s over there.”
The inside of the van was the armoury in miniature, with space for maybe six people’s equipment and just enough seating for them to squeeze in. With only three the floor space wasn’t exactly abundant, but there was just enough for Dan to suit up.
“Uh, just a question,” he said as he strapped on the mantle. “Is there any reason I can’t put this on outside, since I don’t need to take off anything but my shoes?”
“I’d rather not have to explain why we’re going around in forced entry suits. It’s the sort of thing that worries people.” Kay answered.
“It’s not actually illegal, though, is it?”
“No, all this stuff is licensed, but it’s what you might call peripherally illegal, like lockpicks. There’s nothing illegal about owning them or carrying them around, but there’s only so many legal reasons for doing it. So questions tend to be asked.”
“Oh, okay.” Dan clicked the last fastener on his helmet closed. “Ready.”
Kay passed weapons from the rack to Vanessa. “You aren’t licensed to carry a gun, Dan?”
“Uh, no. One question, though, why do you have swords?” Vanessa had rested her shotgun against the wall while she buckled on a sword belt.
“In case the guns stop working the way the compass did.” Kay explained as she fastened her own weapons.
“Okay. Do you need a license for those?”
“No, but you do need a lot of training. Just stay in the rear, is my advice. Vanessa, you ready?”
They hopped out of the van and closed the doors behind them. Kay touched a small device on her belt, and rather than the usual ‘bleep-bleep’ of a car locking there was the sound of heavy bolts sliding home. There was no one else around as they entered the woods. Vanessa led the way, followed by Kay, with Dan bringing up the rear.
They hadn’t been going long when Dan’s voice sounded over the radio. “Dead bird in the tree, just in front and on the right.” They came to a halt, Kay and Vanessa raising their guns. For several long moments, all was still.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to move. Let’s keep going. Dan, keep an eye on it.” Kay said after a while. They started off again, and heard wings fluttering overhead after they passed the bird.
“In front and to the left now.” Dan said. They continued forwards, the bird zigzagging over their path as they went. After several minutes it was joined by a second bird, and then a third. A fourth joined them just as they reached the point where the compass had failed before. Vanessa announced that they had passed the barrier.
“Testing, one two three.” Kay said as she raised her shotgun. BOOM. The blast scoured the bark from a nearby tree.
“Why would the shotgun work when the compass didn’t?” wondered Dan as they continued.
“Maybe the barrier is electromagnetic?” suggested Kay.
No deer appeared as they continued on, but the trees around them steadily filled with birds. They made no move to attack, but at one point they all began to caw. The three looked around and saw that the birds were all in the trees on one side, with none ahead or behind.
“Is anyone else getting the weird feeling that they’re telling us we’re going the wrong way?” Dan asked.
“It did cross my mind,” Kay said, “but why would they want us to go somewhere in particular, and if they do, would we want to go there?”
“Any better suggestions?” Vanessa asked.
“I suppose not. Let’s go.” Kay said, and they turned towards the birds.
Not long after that, they reached what had to be their destination. The woods opened up into what at first seemed to be a clearing, but a second glance showed the trunks of many trees, scorched black and burned down nearly to the ground. There was only one tree still standing, roughly in the centre of the burnt clearing, beside which two more cadaverous deer stood. Lightning crackled around its branches as though they were the arms of a Jacob’s Ladder, creating a constant rumble of thunder. The cause of the burnt trees was immediately obvious.
They walked cautiously towards the storm tree, the birds behind them following. More birds flew out from the trees around the clearing, settling on the blasted trunks to watch them. When they had covered roughly half the distance from treeline to tree, the thunder briefly stopped. A moment later it started again, but strangely modulated. Vanessa could hear words in the rumbling.
“Ave, maga,” boomed the tree’s thunder.
Latin, thought Vanessa. Church latin, at that. As its greeting had clearly been directed at her, she stepped forward and raised her faceplate.
“Ave,” she said, <what do you wish to say?>
<I would apologise,> the tree said, <for the zeal of my servant who has troubled you. I had not thought there to be any of your kind in this place save my enemy and his servants, but I do not see his mark on you.>
<Your servants have troubled another also,> said Vanessa, <do you wish to convey an apology to those who mourn him?>
A wordless boom of thunder racked the clearing before the tree spoke again. <No. He had wronged me and thus earned my wrath.>
<How had he wronged you that he should deserve death?>
<He kept from me what is mine!> the tree raged, <I have been bound here for too long, and now I have the means to retake my freedom he thought to defy me!> Its ranting devolved into further wordless thunderclaps.
Vanessa waited until it had quieted before she spoke again. <What is it he was keeping from you?> Through her second sight she perceived a flare of energy from the tree, not lightning this time, towards one of the birds. It flew up and swooped down towards Vanessa, releasing a scrap of paper form its claws before pulling up and returning to its perch.
She plucked the paper from the air. It was a newspaper clipping, a picture of Professor Rutherford holding a leather cord with a heavy metal ring dangling from the end. It looked entirely unexceptional to her.
<You seek this ring?> she asked.
<I seek myself,> the tree answered, <trapped inside it for too, too long.>
<I see. It might be possible that I could retrieve it. It would be difficult, though, and costly. Are you able to compensate me for my difficulties?>
<Retrieve the ring,> the tree said, <and I shall bind one of my servants to you, to labour on your behalf for all the days of your life.>
<Very generous of you. Shall I leave this here?> Vanessa raised the picture. One of the birds hopped over to her from its stump and opened its beak wide. She offered the paper and it snapped it up, carrying it back to the stump. <We shall take our leave, then.>
<Indeed,> rumbled the tree. <I shall send one of my servants with you, to guide you out safely.>
<Very well.> Vanessa said, and closed her helmet.
“It had quite the temper for a plant.” Kay said as they turned to go.
“I’m not sure it was a plant,” Dan said. “The deer and the birds, the ghosts I see in them fill them entirely. The one in the tree was only in one little point. What was it saying, anyway?”
“It’s been looking for a ring and thought Rutherford had it. That’s probably why his clothes were torn up; the birds were searching him for it. Any suggestions on how to destroy it, mother?”
Kay took a while to answer. “Good question, I’ve never had to assassinate a tree before. You couldn’t burn it down, a tree that size; it would take forever to even catch alight. In theory you could ring its bark, but the others don’t seem to have a problem with the animals being dead. High explosives would be your best bet, if you could get them there. I’m afraid they don’t let me have bazookas stockpiled, though, so how you’d pull it off I’ve no idea. I think a magical solution is called for. Do either of you have anything?”
“Another good question,” Vanessa said. “Dan, could you start charging your mystery spell?”
“I guess. What do you want me to do with it?”
“Experiment on our guide.”
They were out of sight of the tree by then, and the bird it had lent them was fluttering from branch to branch ahead. It took over a minute for Dan to pull enough energy; Vanessa watched his aura grow brighter agonisingly slowly. The release was something of an anti-climax; the bird simply fell from the air and hit the ground, unmoving.
“That would seem to be just what we need. How quickly can you do that again?” Vanessa asked.
“I’d need to charge up again, but I could do it now. Give me a few minutes and I could maybe pull off two.”
“Start charging when you’re ready and we’ll head back.”
“No time like the present?” Kay asked.
“It may notice the bird is gone if we wait too long.”
They waited, supporting themselves against trees as they caught their breath. Kay and Dan opened their helmets to get some fresher air; Vanessa closed her eyes behind her visor and meditated. It took ten minutes for Dan to replenish his energy reserves a begin charging again. Vanessa began to draw on her own powers as well.
“Wow, Vanessa,” Dan commented, “You’re glowing like you’re about to go nuclear.”
“Yes,” was her only reply.
“I wish I could see what you two do,” Kay said. “It sounds interesting.”
“It’s got its moments, I guess.” Dan said.
When they entered the clearing, Vanessa had empowered herself to her satisfaction.
“Just say the word.” Dan said.
They heard the unfocused rumbling that preceded the tree’s speech, but Vanessa cut it off with a colossal blast of her blue flames. They were not true fire and did not ignite the wood; instead they rotted it, blackening a vast chunk of wood with necrotic decay. Then they struck the spirit at its centre and detonated with a tremendous flare of light.
“Holy shit!” yelled Dan.
“TREACHERY!” boomed the tree.
“Now,” ordered Vanessa. She saw Dan’s own spell lash out and strike the tree, as the birds took to the air, but the lightning didn’t dim and the thunder continued to rumble.
“It didn’t work!” Dan yelled again.
“Keep charging and try again,” Vanessa said as she raised her shotgun. Kay had already braced her own, training it on one of the two deer now charging toward them. Vanessa held her fire longer than her mother, being less confident in her aim; by the time she had fired on her own target the other deer was already beginning to stumble under a hail of shot.
Watching the charging cadaver, timing her shots and remembering the durability of the one she’d fought previously, she concluded her target would reach her and began to step back and aside as she emptied her magazine. The deer followed her movement and adjusted its course, running past Kay just as she adjusted her grip on her weapon and brought the grip down on its back. There was a hideous, wet snap and it went down in a tangle of limbs.
Clear for the moment, their hands went to their belts for more ammunition when Vanessa was suddenly blinded by a bright flash of light and her mother’s yell filled her ears. She realised the tree must have launched a lightning bolt at her and was thankful their armour had been tested on her own lightning, but before she could look to check the birds came down, and everything was feathers and movement.
The radio had nothing but Dan panicking for several seconds before Kay shouted at him to keep charging the spell and shut up. Fortunately the armour was holding up to the myriad claws and beaks as expected, but it was simply impossible to get a clear shot at them. Vanessa took a few swings at them with her shotgun, having realised it would be too easily to hit Kay or Dan amid the flock, before giving it up as useless and drawing her sword, stepping away from the other two, or where she thought they were, to free herself to swing.
There were no more lightning bolts, fortunately. The tree cared enough for the birds not to fire into them, she guessed. Or possibly they blocked its view as much as theirs. Unfortunately, she had nearly burnt herself out with that first blast of flame; her powers were recovering, but not up to the same thing again. She started channelling what she had anyway; she would almost certainly need it. Her sword was impacting satisfyingly against the birds; her armoured boots crushed one she’d cut from the air with almost every step. There were just so many of them, though, that it seemed to make no difference at all: her vision remained filled with mouldering feathers and beaks pecking impotently against her visor.
“Spell’s ready!” Dan called at last.
“So cast it!” Kay yelled back.
“I can’t see!”
An idea occurred to Vanessa, and as she began to shape her stored power she made a sprint away from the other two. The birds followed, but when she turned, spell ready, there was just enough of a gap that she could see where they were and aim. She raised an arm and a violent blast of wind poured forth; the onrushing horde of birds crashed into it as though it were solid, and those around Kay and Dan were blown away.
“You’re clear,” she said, and as Dan released his spell it occurred to her that she was no longer covered by the birds, and the tree had had quite some time to charge its next bolt. Oh snap, she thought, as the light blinded her.
She came to some minutes later, her ears ringing like a cathedral whose hunchback had something to prove. Her side felt numb, and her muscles were oddly tensed; she’d landed in a strange position and her armour had held her there. She tried to shift, found it hurt too much, and was just falling back against when she was pulled to her feet. A murmuring sound near her ear indicated the radio still worked, even if her ears didn’t.
“I can’t hear anything,” she told them, hoping she wasn’t yelling. She looked painfully to each side, seeing both Kay and Dan supporting her. Before her was the storm tree, lightning now quenched. Clearly Dan’s spell had gone off nicely.
“Congratulations,” she said, “I think that went rather well.”