Their quarry was small, but it had character. Crumbling headstones leaned. Some were broken. Some were gone entirely–probably stolen. The small cemetery was located just off a scant-used logging road. There was a small open space with high grass, patted down in spots where deer would sleep, then the edge of the woods. The quarry was perhaps fifty yards into the woods. Trees were everywhere, some growing between and against headstones. Moss coated everything like a layer of green and white mold on year-old bread.
“Made it.” Maeve crossed over the trunk of a fallen tree. She inhaled and closed her eyes with the sweet smell of fresh air mixed with pine and clean earth. Kat and Finn were already there. Kat leaned against a small crypt at the west end of the quarry. Finn was sitting on a large burled root, flipping through a pile of leaves and moss with a found stick.
Finn looked up. “All set?”
“Yeah.” Maeve moved toward the center of the quarry, leaves rustling and twigs snapping under her feet. There was an old bird bath with a slight green-black patina that they had salvaged and placed in the center of the quarry about a year ago. They used it as a makeshift altar. The bird bath had a large chunk missing from the rim and side of the bowl, rendering it more useful as an altar for spellcrafters than as a public bathhouse for the winged.
“Kat, can you pass out the cloaks?” asked Maeve.
Kat pushed herself off the wall of the crypt and began pulling out long pieces of cloth from a dark bag behind a headstone.
“Patrick, if you could set up the…” Maeve stopped as she glanced toward Patrick, who was already unpacking. “Thank you.”
“Lights are on the way.” Finn checked his wristwatch, working out how long they had before someone might go looking for them. 2:14PM. The watch was an old wind-up type from his grandfather with the name CARRICK etched into the rim in posh script. The glass was slightly yellowed, but the mechanical elements were sturdy and kept ticking. A decent heirloom in Finn’s opinion.
Finn jumped up from his spot on the root, dusted off his hands, and heaved up on his backpack, sagging with candles. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a small blarney stone neckpiece he received as a gift from an uncle in the old country a few Christmases ago, and slipped it over his head. It was cut in the shape of a Celtic cross, owing to his heritage. It was the best he could do on such short notice to meet Maeve’s request for something Celtic. The theory was that items connecting someone to a dominant bloodline increased the strength of the circle.
The Maeve finished uncovering and re-laying their casting markers from previous meetings as the others donned their cloaks. Finn and Patrick propped themselves against a small crypt while Maeve felt around for the test item Peter had given her.
“Can we try one that makes us all invisible so that we can go around plaguing people without them knowing? That's good payback. Disturbing to the target.” Finn tapped the stone wall of the crypt with his knuckles. “While we're at it., we could spend some time gathering some intel on some other people I've been watching. Scout like we used to with my father in the woods during war games, but even better being clandestine. Been a while since we’ve done anything like that.”
“Uh, those were kid games, man. And if you recall, your dad always crushed us at those espionage-sniper missions anyway because he honestly would have freaked and broken both our necks if he caught us doing any kind of magick. We’re a little old for the stalking stuff anyway, I think.”
“He does that for a living, though. It’s adult enough. They have to train for years to get that good. It’s a full-time profession,” Finn protested.
“I think Maeve has other ideas tonight,” said Patrick. He leaned against the corner of the crypt, arms folded, tapping the heel of his boot against his ankle. “Your mom still in Portsmouth visiting friends today?”
“Yeah. Glad she’s not here. I hate having to listen to her go on about skipping school. Although, I’ll still get that when she gets back unless we ease things along for her with some thought-bending. We’ll get to that later, I hope,” said Finn. “Yours?”
“Out again. Another consulting job with dad for some suit in Fort Wayne. They left early to catch a 6AM out of MHT a few days ago. You’d think with jobs like theirs, they’d want to live closer to the airport.”
Maeve called back to the others. “You lip-flappers ready yet? I’m thinking incendiary flesh to give a pleasant burning sensation for a few days. Or, maybe temporary blindness. Something dramatic enough to interrupt their lives in a tangible way.” She cracked a devilish smile under her hood. “Mmm...I know. Personality shifts.”
“You can do that?” asked Finn, now standing just behind Maeve.
“Sure. Psychs have all kinds of names for it. Multiple dissociative disorder. Borderline personality. Change the symptoms slightly and they keep adding names to try to describe it. Then they chase the new names with new meds—or vice versa. Tried to convince my mother that people who have those traits are just under a psychological attack from a darksider, but obviously that never goes over well with her. She hates it when I talk about things that interest me.” Maeve stretched out an arm and rolled back the cloak covering it. She motioned for silence, then cast a small widdershins circle around the altar, making sure not to step into it as she finished.
“My mother doesn’t know what I have to go through to stop hits on her. It happens more than she would want to know. Patients at the psych center do it all the time. When they sit there looking at the floor saying things that don't make sense, they're not doing it because they're cracked. Those people aren't crazy. They just lost a duel somehere along the way. I try to counter them for my mom when I sense them and of course all she sees is me mumbling to myself. That's why she had...” Maeve’s voice trailed. “Maybe I should demonstrate this sometime on someone she knows right in front of her. Maybe she’d get it then.”
“Risky,” Patrick said under his breath, taking his spot next to Maeve. “She’d probably find some way to explain it away, though.”
Patrick’s smile withered as he looked back over his shoulder.
“You hear that?” Patrick asked Finn.
Finn stopped and looked at Patrick. “No. What?”
“Wait...” said Patrick, holding up a hand.
“What?” said Finn.
“Shh. Sounds like breathing,” whispered Patrick, angling a finger to the north of the cemetery in the quickly obscuring woods. A low brume had settled around the trees. The fog itself was not altogether unexpected on such an overcast day, but its quickness in overtaking the surrounding trees was different.
“It’s coming from there,” Patrick said, pointing to a cluster of trees upland. “It sounds so...hollow.”
“There!” Finn thrust his hand out in front of him.
Just as Finn finished the word, the clear sound of crunching leaves and twigs from running feet echoed through the woods.
“I didn’t see anything, did you?” Patrick asked Finn, hoping for a little reassurance.
“Nothing,” Finn answered.
Maeve looked toward the woods beyond the northwest corner of the quarry. She had heard it. So had Kat. Maeve gave up looking for Peter’s talisman for a moment and followed.
“An animal?” asked Kat as she came up next to Patrick. Finn was squatting at the back corner of the crypt, looking out into the rolling fog.
“Don’t know. Sounded like two feet, not four,” answered Patrick.
Maeve stepped over the low moss-covered stone wall at the corner of the quarry to get closer.
The leaf-crunching resumed. This time, it came from their right and faded fast.
“You didn’t invite anyone new out here tonight, did you, Maeve?” asked Finn.
“Why would I?” Maeve countered.
“Tyler?” asked Kat.
“You mean Sarah, our new found Witch? I’d feel it if she were here. She’s on my radar screen from here on out,” said Maeve.
“A visitor. Hmm. This is certainly unexpected. I wonder if my make-up is alright. I hope I look my best if it is someone dead,” said Kat, turning a half-circle and patting herself for a way to check her make-up.
Maeve tried to ignore Kat’s weirdness. She often thought of Kat’s musings as a drunken walk along the wavy line separating insane and normal.
“The only time I said anything about the quarry was when we were alone outside the school. No one was around. I talked to Peter, but he wouldn’t come out here. He never does,” said Maeve.
“Now that way.” Patrick nodded once toward a large space where no trees stood, but where fog filled the space to about shoulder height. “It’s coming back.”
“I can’t hear anything,” said Maeve.
“Listen. It’s there,” said Patrick.
“Still nothing,” said Maeve. “You're the one they diagnosed with 'exceptional hearing' in second grade, remember?
“Ho-ly…” Finn cut short. Just as he stopped speaking, the group saw what Finn was watching. What seemed like a blast of wind had cut through the fog in the open space between the trees. The white soup swirled into ringlets in its wake. The footsteps stopped.
“I still didn’t see anyone,” said Patrick.
“Nor I,” whispered Kat, bending and rocking to try to see something, anything. “Come dead things. Come.”
“What would do that? Cut through the fog like that?” asked Finn. He whirled as tree limbs thrashed overhead. Branches in a second tree nearby shook and sagged, as if burdened with a considerable weight. Then silence.
Patrick picked up new movement through the mist at the base of one of the trees. He made out what he could only guess was a kind of animal leg, standing upright. No body appeared to be attached. He squinted and pointed through the fog. Maeve took a step toward it. As she did, the leg lifted and disappeared.
“Patrick, you hearing anything else?” whispered Maeve.
Finn walked to a hulking oak and looked around it. Still nothing. He turned back to the others. Maeve looked at Patrick, still mouth-breathing heavily from the adrenaline rush. She yelled something unintelligible. Finn watched as her face screwed up. A nagging feeling of being watched got Finn to suddenly pay attention to his immediate surroundings. A queer feeling of not wanting to see but needing to see usurped Finn’s heart and pulsed it faster. He slowly looked right. A faint specter of a ghoulish head with wide goat-like eyes hung above him. He turned to face it, but by the time he moved, it was gone. Leaves rustled under the place where the ghost head had hung.
A moment later, a lick of smudged light caught Finn’s eye in the distance. “Do you see that? Smoke or something." Finn motioned toward a tree some distance away. They could all see it—the steady billow of moist, hot breath arcing through the air from behind a wide oak trunk.
“Someone there?” Patrick asked, raising his voice to call out across the space ahead of them.
Maeve began walking toward the breathing tree, the brittle leaves on the ground giving her away as she went. The others followed, but kept a casket’s distance.
“Hello?” Maeve asked falsely honeyed as she approached the tree then squared with the knobby trunk. The others followed. She moved slowly in the event the source of the breathing was faster than she was. She could hear it. Louder than before, but still hollow.
As she squinted to make out a source, her muscles shut down. Her face drained. She wasn't sure what she might find, but seeing nothing was more of a shock.
The others circled around Maeve. She reached out toward a visible lungful of respiration, chanting something simple for protection. She tilted her head to one side and took a step forward.
Patrick stepped in front. “Get back from it,” he said, thrusting out his arms and pushing on the others. His arm suddenly dropped to his side.
“Some…” started Patrick. “Voices.”
“Whose?” whispered Maeve.
Patrick shook his head, trying to parse the sounds.
Finn watched his own breath in front of him. The tree’s breaths were much slower, longer. “Incredible. What is it?”
“Sad creature,” said Kat. “Whatever it is, it seems it did not want us to find it.”
“Still can’t make out the voices,” said Patrick, pressing the heel of his right hand to the side of his head.
“They sound more...irritated.”
A raspy voice croaked from behind the last breath and in that moment, Maeve realized the breaths weren’t the tree’s. A gap separated the breaths from the surface of the bark by a solid cubit. There was a certain apprehension in the voice, as if speaking was somehow painful and something to be avoided. The words came slowly and with an irregular and dignified dialect that reminded Maeve of an Abenaki elder she once met at a pow-wow, somewhere deep in her memory.
They said nothing.
The hollow voice was strained. Maeve cleared her throat in the hope this thing might do the same and spare them the sound of it seeming to gargle its phlegm. “Your actions will not...go unseen...I was sent...to give you a way...to see the thoughts and memories...of Spirit.”
A long exhalation swung in the air like a lighthouse beam in the direction of the quarry. The low stone wall was still visible in the distance through the encroaching fog. The candles Finn lit earlier still faintly danced, dulled to pixie auras by the haze.
Maeve wanted to ask another question, but stopped as the breaths arrested. Only the giant old tree with its copious moss remained. The late afternoon light, already subdued by the overcast sky above the trees, dimmed further. Heavier clouds were on the move.
The four ran back through the fog to the quarry, jumped the stone wall and made their way to the altar. Fog slithered over the stone wall from the heavy woods into the quarry. Kat was first to make it to the altar. She began searching for something novel. The others followed suit. Kat put a hand on the altar while she thought about where the assist might be. Maeve roved through the cemetery suddenly noticing Kat standing next to the altar. An uneasy feeling rushed through Maeve like the lingering dread that so often ruins the day after a too-real nightmare.
“Kat, what’s wrong with your hand?” asked Maeve, distress growing as she spoke.
Kat looked down to see a blackened version of her hand resting on the altar. The black flowed like oil, but ran up her arm instead of down. Kat jerked her hand away from the altar. Maeve looked at Kat, then at the altar, then back at Kat.
“You crossed the widder...Kat! Get out of there!” pleaded Maeve.
The black oil-like substance receded along her arm back to her fingers, then disappeared. A small trickle of the same stuff oozed down Kat’s face from her eyes like syrupy tears. Finn cut in and stood between Maeve and Kat, looking Kat over like a mass casualty triage medic.
“What just happened?” asked Finn. His concern ran deep.
“She crossed the circle,” said Maeve, peering over Finn’s shoulder to inspect Kat.
Kat made no effort to speak. She just stood, watching Finn with deadened countenance. Finn wiped the oily tears from Kat’s face, smudging the stuff across her pale cheeks.
“What is that?” asked Maeve, gesturing to the streaks on Kat’s face, spying over Finn’s shoulder.
Patrick shadowed Kat from behind and put the back of his hand to her cheek.
“She’s hot to the touch,” said Patrick.
Finn did the same to confirm.
“Kat, you okay? Come on, girl,” said Maeve.
Kat began to shudder, her eyes rolled fast and hard in her head. Her mouth dropped open and the black oil spilled out like a flash flood down a gully, spattering Finn’s cloak and part of his neck.
He grimaced and grabbed at his neck to wipe it clean.
Patrick and Maeve stepped away.
Kat stared straight ahead into Finn’s eyes unblinking and lifted a droopy hand to wipe her mouth and chin, still placid.
“What the hell is this?!” said Finn.
Maeve went to the altar and looked in. A vial’s worth of the black liquid remained in the base of the bowl. She looked into it. It rippled. The closer she put her face to it, the more it rippled. It was dark enough in the quarry that the liquid offered no clear reflection. The weathered white of the altar stood out against the tiny enigmatic pool.
Maeve stood as the sound of beating wings cut the air. A black shape dropped to the altar with a cold one-two clap of feet on plaster. A hefty crow perched and tucked its wings. Maeve stepped back to give it space. The avian emissary twitched a few times, adjusting its wings and stance as if by ritual. It stepped into the altar, bent forward, and drank the liquid. The bird fluttered its wings then collapsed in the center of the altar.
Maeve moved forward and reached out to touch the crow. A crooked wing covered its head. Her fingers met the spread of feathers. Warm, but stiff.
Patrick groaned and put a hand to his right ear. “Why are they screeching?” he sputtered through gritted teeth.
“It’s like some sort of poison—or disease,” said Finn.
Maeve picked up the bird with both hands and held it above the altar. Clear water dripped from the bird like droplets from melting ice. Maeve suddenly had a sickening thought. She imaged herself plunging her hand into the carcass of the bird. She couldn’t explain this urge, but it was quickly overtaking her. She closed her eyes and did the unthinkable. Her hand cut into the belly of the bird. Her palm met something hard. She put her fingers around it and pulled back quickly. She let the bird fall to the ground and unclenched her fist.
An eye about the size of a human’s sat in the center of her hand, the black oily substance pooling in her hand. She winced at the sight. With her other hand, she rolled the pupil of the eye toward her, then she stopped. The iris was a glowing brilliant blue, but the pupil seemed disfigured and twisted.
Maeve hooked a finger to prompt the others to close in. Finn and Patrick followed. Kat was still catatonic, despite all remnants of the black liquid gone. A sudden rustling near the altar begged to be noticed. They looked. There, on the ground, stood the crow. It fanned its wings, cocked its head, and took flight just out of reach into the misty canopy.
Maeve watched as the crow’s wingbeats swirled the fog like a jet through smoke. “But, I thought...”