"You need what?" Verne looked confused. I had driven back to his house the next day, and gotten some sleep there while waiting for him to wake up in the evening. I had not gotten much sleep in the cabin, even though the thing had made no attempts on me the rest of that night.
"I need to know about Atlantaea. At least a few details."
He nodded, still clearly not understanding what I was looking for. "I will tell you what I can. But you must understand that I have spent countless centuries not thinking about it."
"You've forgotten a lot?"
He sighed. "There are… limits on what a mortal mind can keep within itself, Jason, and though I do not die as do normal men, still my mind is very much that of a mortal man. I never forgot certain events, aspects of the world that were important to me, but as half a million years passed, I had to make choices of what I would keep. The soul never forgets, true, but accessing that memory once it is lost from the immediacy of the mind requires, at the least, that the right set of ideas or reminders trigger the recall.
"So, I will try to answer your questions, but understand that I may have no answers."
"Okay." I thought a moment, getting my questions in order. "Your descriptions of Atlantaea were always pretty vague – mainly I guess because you were talking about events that happened, not giving me a virtual travelogue. I've gotten the impression of some kind of, well, shining city of fantasy crossed with super-tech, skyscrapers and aircars and all that, with these Seven Towers around it like a wall. But other things you've said make me wonder – I mean, it couldn't have been just one city."
He laughed. "Ahhh, no, certainly not, my friend. And I apologize for giving you such a, well, clichéd and inaccurate picture. And… yet it is not exactly inaccurate, in its way. The … the impression, the spirit, that is accurate. It was a 'shining city', Jason, the City of the Seven Towers, and indeed that was how many would have represented it, as a city with Seven Towers defending it. But that representation would be no more accurate than picturing, oh, the United States as being the city of Washington flanked by a giant Eagle and the Statue of Liberty."
"So 'Atlantaea' was like today's Earth – lots and lots of cities all over the planet – and the city you were talking about was more like the capital?"
He considered that. "Not… exactly. The city that many called simply Atlantaea was the founding location of the government from which the rest of the civilization grew. It was more than the capital, it was the very heart of our culture. There were other cities, other outposts – for example, one around each of the Seven Towers, which were themselves spaced around the Earth in a mystically symmetrical pattern. But because Eönae was our patron almost from the beginning, and because we did not grow from multiple opposed, advanced civilizations, as you have and still are today, we did not spread so randomly and completely over the globe. Many areas were still very wild, even at the height of Atlantaea's power."
"So… you never reached the populations we have." So far this was actually fitting together better than I thought.
"On the contrary, the civilization of Atlantaea had more citizens than you could grasp, Jason. Because we did not limit ourselves to this world." He gave a soft laugh at my expression. "In a hundred thousand years, Jason, can you imagine that human beings would not have spread out? If they were not to overrun this world, then naturally there was only one way to go. Outward, to the stars."
"Whoa." I had to assimilate this. I realized I was guilty of making the wrong kind of assumptions again. I associated magic, gods, and so on with faux-medieval material; Verne was talking about something far beyond that. "How big was Atlantaea, then?"
He gestured upward. "Step outside, and gaze upward, Jason, and realize that all of the stars you see were once part of the Atlantaean … Empire, I suppose. All of them. At the end, Atlantaea held sway over essentially the entirety of the Galaxy, and was poised to sweep outward to others of those island universes."
"Urk. Okay, I'd better leave all that for later. Anyway, your Earthly population never reached our levels, then."
"Oh, certainly not. I belive Earth stabilized at something short of a billion people, of which over one hundred million lived in the capital city."
Biiig city. "What about this area? What was here back then?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I see where you are going, I think. Unfortunately… I cannot be certain. The geography has changed considerably, both due to unnatural and natural forces, since that time. Off to the East of here, on or near Cape Cod, was one of the Towers, so it was not an entirely deserted area, but this far out… I suppose it would have been something like a very isolated suburb. The Towers, due to their nature, attracted many wizards, priests, alchemists, and so on to their general neighborhood, and many such would live relatively nearby; with flight or teleportation capability usually available, 'nearby' could have a very broad interpretation. If you are asking if someone of that civilization might have lived at the site of your friend's cabin, I would say it is entirely possible – even probable, since you have come here asking the question."
"Good. Then, assuming that what I think is right…" I sketched out a plan of attack. "I'm not a magician, but would this work as I've planned it, or do I need someone like Syl to activate it?"
"Normally… yes. But in this case, I think your knowledge and technology can carry the day. And it is, after all, already aware you are far from ordinary. This will lend a certain mystical force to your actions against it in any case."
"Come again? I thought you said I was a mundane?"
He smiled. "And you are, Jason, but there is no human being – no living intelligent being, in fact – who is so mundane as to have absolutely no connection to the mystical. Life and thought and souls are mystical in the very essence of what they are, and because of that there is some real magic in us all. Magic depends on belief, symbolism, and knowledge. The symbolism inherent in you – in what you have achieved previously, in your dedication to your work, in your courage in facing and defeating this creature already – these will give a not inconsiderable reinforcement to your actions as you have outlined them. Not a spell, as such, but … call it sympathetic magic. If the target believes in magic, and is affected by it – and all such beings as this must be fall into that category – it will, by believing, invest some of its own power into your countermeasures."
"So I'm basically hitting it with psychological warfare that it's going to make real?"
"Well put." He grew serious again. "But it is far from without risk, this plan of yours. Even if you are right, the creature may not be able to control itself long enough. If you are wrong, the creature will attempt to use the weaknesses of your approach against you – and it will do so now with full knowledge of what you can do, and why."
"Not the first time I've been betting on a throw of the dice. But I'd appreciate it if you can hang out close by – as close as you think you can get without blowing your cover."
The black-haired, immaculate head gave an assenting nod. "But of course, Jason. Tomorrow night?"
I nodded myself. "No point in giving it any more time to prep. Tomorrow night we finish this, one way or another."
"Very good." Verne gave a sharp-toothed smile. "But you need do no preparations tonight. Let us relax, therefore. I can tell you still are not entirely recovered from your ordeal."
"I can go for that." I said with a grin. At least this threat wasn't going to be ambushing me. I was going to ambush it.
Nighttime again. This time I was sleeping in a sleeping bag on the (no longer pellet covered) living room. Well, more accurately, I was trying to sleep. I knew the thing would have to try again; whether my main guess was right or not, it could not afford to lose now that it had started. A ghost would have no choice at all, at least not the automated-recording type. A demon… from everything Verne had told us about them, they were ruled by pride more than anything else, and my being able to chase it away and then come back would be more than it could bear. And a Thansaelasavi…
The pieces were all there, even if there was hardly a single shred of evidence I could actually hold in my hand. But in this particular game, emotions were really the key. I now knew the thing did not live on fear by itself. It had fled when I offered it up a dish of the real thing that wasn't focused on it directly. It had been scared by what it saw. Instead of grabbing that image to use it, the creature had been terrified by the Werewolf King.
Fear was what it projected – maybe because that was a strong emotion easily roused in people who didn't know what was going on – but the emotions I really kept feeling from it, that were an undertone in everything it sent, were very different. Negative emotions, yes, but ones with a common theme indeed.
Of course, that could be a typically demonic trap… or the constant undertone of a repeating ryunihav. But I didn't think so.
Not most of the time. Right now, in the silent, threatening twilight of the cabin's main room, I was strongly tempted to beat feet down the mountain and drag Verne Domingo back with me.
The thought seemed to trigger the event; my cell phone rang, causing me to jump in the semidarkness. I pulled the little gadget out. "Hello?"
"Jason. I must warn you; after our conversation last night, I have done some considerable thinking, trying to reawaken memories that would be relevant, and one just surfaced – one that I find extremely worrisome."
Great, just what I needed, more worry. "What is it, Verne?"
"I have mentioned that the Seven Towers protected Atlantaea. It may have occurred to you to wonder, then, how it was that the Demons could invade at all." His voice was sad rather than grim. "There was no simple way through the wards the Towers made, and no power that even Kerlamion wielded could have broken those wards swiftly enough to have prevented a truly massive mobilization of our forces – more than enough to have prevented the near-total victory that he instead achieved.
"As those few of us who survived learned later, they had managed – through what maneuverings we could not determine – to recruit one of our own to their aid; at this point the details are not important. For your purposes tonight you need only know this: first, that he was the one who created the vampires of Elias Klein's type, and is therefore likely one of the ones behind his appearance and possibly one of those assisting Mr. Carruthers' group. And secondly, that one of his principal research locations in the old days – his summer home, one might say – was somewhere in this region."
Now that was a very unpleasant thought. "He's still alive?"
"Alive may be an inaccurate term. He is still functioning and active, yes."
"Damn. I thought you and, I guess, Raiakafan were the only survivors."
He gave a slight chortle. "Close. Besides myself and my son's family – who are themselves a puzzle, as you know – there are to my knowledge only three other survivors of Atlantaea itself, with perhaps one other who is not and has not been on Earth since the cataclysm. We will discuss this later. I simply wished to warn you that it is possible that we are dealing with something the Thanaeshavhi summoned, created, or bound. And that would be something very bad indeed."
I thought about it. How sure was I of what I had been sensing? "I'm guessing that demons or things like them could make me feel things that weren't true, right? Well, okay, the fear I'm feeling when the thing attacks isn't true either, but what I mean is that they could pretend to be letting me sense other feelings that it wasn't really feeling, to fake me out?"
Verne hesitated a moment; I suppose I hadn't asked the question as clearly as I would have liked. But after he untangled it, "Yes… yes, they could do so."
"Then I guess it comes down to whether I can still trust my instincts or not. My gut says it's still worth a try. My head's not so sure."
Verne sighed. "Only you can make that judgment, my friend. Your instincts have served you well, yet anyone can be misled under the wrong circumstances."
I stood silently for a few minutes, thinking. The dark sensation of a lurking threat did nothing to encourage me to stay, and there were plenty of reasons I should just bag this one. But …
"Okay. I might just be stupid, but I've never walked out on a job yet. More importantly, I'm pretty good at picking out patterns, and the thing I'm up against wouldn't know what I was like. So I don't think what I was sensing was fake. I'm staying."
"I truly expected no other decision, Jason." Verne said quietly. "But I shall be waiting with all my senses out and ready to respond."
"That does make me feel better. Hopefully you won't need to do anything. Bye for now."
I put the phone away, took a deep breath, let it out, then lay down again. I tried counting sheep, working out math problems in my head, just concentrating on how tired I was. Still that grim, menacing sensation would NOT let me sleep.
Maybe I could force the confrontation. It was worth a shot. The thing must have picked up the language, or at least be able to get the basic sense of what people were saying, if it had such intimate contact with the minds. I stood up.
"All right, I know you're there. And I know for damn sure you know I'm here." I made myself relax, leaned casually against one wall. "You lost last night's matchup. So what are you doing now? Trying to make me not go to sleep, because you don't want to try it again?"
The atmosphere of the room suddenly seemed to thicken; it was fear-laden, but with an undertone of fury and desperation. The fear pressed in on me, but it wasn't nearly as bad as last night; for one thing, I was fully awake and it hadn't had the chance to worm its way into my dreams tonight.
"Oh, yeah, like that is going to work." I said with a sneer. "Whatever you are, you know you don't have what it takes to scare me for real, not if you don't catch me when I'm sleeping. And I don't have to sleep. I can stay up here all night and go away, sleep in the day." I pushed back off from the wall. "Or… if you want to have another go at me… you could stop being so stupidly obvious and go away for a while. I'm not going to sleep while you're trying to creep me out, but if you take off the next hour or so, I'll bet I could manage a nap. Then you go for it. What do you say?"
For the briefest moment I sensed a new emotion; confusion, followed by a flash of angry agreement mixed with challenge. And then the whole room seemed to brighten, even though there wasn't a light anywhere in the cabin. I opened the window a crack and breathed in the calmness of the night air. I even heard crickets starting to chirp near the cabin.
It had taken the dare. Okay, that meant it probably wasn't a ryunihav – most of them weren't that flexible, according to Verne. Definitely didn't rule out demon – in fact, that last flicker of almost arrogant confidence pointed more in the demonic direction than anything.
Still, we'd established a form of communication, and reached an accord, even if it was only the equivalent of a temporary cease-fire. Good enough, though. I would be able to sleep now – and if I lived through the hour or so after that, Dave Plunkett just might get his cabin back.
If I didn't, well, there were worse places to be buried. I slid into the sleeping bag, closed my eyes, and slowly got myself to start drifting off to sleep. I wondered if it would really wait for me to go under, or jump the gun before I finished going to sleep…
Black acid fire raining down on me as I fled through streets of Werewolves and monsters. I gave a croaking scream and lunged upward, feeling tentacles coiling tighter, dragging me down…
No, wait, that was the sleeping bag. I rolled onto my back, started to wiggle out, and suddenly the darkness coalesced into that monstrous bipedal void, grabbing the bag, lifting it off the ground. I felt a spurt of genuine, not-generated-from-outside, fear at that; I had never thought it could manage that level of strength.
Possibly it couldn't yet, not for long, because in that same moment I was dropped to the floor with a heavy thud. I shoved my way out of the bag as it slashed at me. This time it actually drew blood, the rake of almost-invisible talons cutting like thorns of ice, injecting terror with the cuts.
Despite the muzziness of sleep and its hold on my dreams, I found I could act. My body was shaky and uncertain, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to try moving around an obstacle course, but I wasn't nearly frozen like last night. I glanced around in the gloom, then pulled the goggles I had around my neck up and over my eyes.
Ah, there, light without light. Image intensification with a little NIR illumination made the room bright as day for me. Possibly, depending on how the thing itself "saw", it might be seeing a little light of some kind coming from me, but very little. Damn, damn, damn. Its unexpected maneuver had moved me significantly and it was circling. I had to get it to the right spot before I could act. And if it could sense that, I might never get it there. I had to concentrate on keeping it distracted, off-balance and angry.
"Still… can't quite… ring the bell, Mr. Shadow." I said, trying to keep the quiver from my voice. "I've gotten worse cuts from rosebushes. I thought for a minute you might actually have something, but all you managed was to cut up my sleeping bag. That the best you have?"
It gave a soundless snarl and took a step towards me. I pulled out the laser pointer. It began to shrink away, then halted as I tossed the little cylinder away. "I don't think I need that." I said. "In fact, you've already beaten yourself, don't you know? Whatever you think you're going to get from people visiting here, it's pretty much over. Once I leave, no one's coming. Ever."
It dissolved, became a black shrieking whirlwind around me with a thousand tiny mouths and eyes, gnashing and mouthing and trying to tear at me – succeeding only in making a few more scratches. I felt desperation echoing from it. "You screwed up. You can't get what you want from animals, can you? They don't have enough… life force, will, whatever, for you to work on. They run away, they have no real tie to the land. And you're stuck here. You can't leave, or you won't. So you've driven away the people who used to come here, and pretty soon no one will come here any more." I checked, took two steps back. The whirlwind parted as I was about to touch it, rematerialized as the claw-handed horror. It was bombarding me with fear now, and part of me – the instinctive part – responded, screaming at me to hide or run. But my mind was still in control. My voice might be ready to dry up or crack, but I was still thinking. "You've lost it all. You can't even scare me any more. It's over."
The scream in my head was even louder, but this time it was mixed with a wail of despair and confusion and bone-deep sorrow. To my surprise it broke suddenly. I had expected it to continue its assault in desperate denial, hopefully into the trap I'd set. Instead it fled, running from words and thoughts that were too much for it. I gave chase, for this time it hadn't evaporated into empty gloom, but was fleeing as some sort of almost-defined blackness, flying through the rooms as though searching for something. It screamed as it flew, a keening wail of horror and loneliness and abandonment that kept the gooseflesh crawling on my skin even as I pelted after it in the fastest sprint I could manage.
It burst out into the night, circling the cabin, flitting from the edge of the little stream to the well to the cabin and… no, not screaming, crying. Crying like an abandoned child for a mother that never came, a child in the middle of a dusty, empty house where no voice ever answered back, where no hands came to pick it up and comfort it, no warmth would return to chase away the fear and let it know everything was all right. Nothing would ever be all right, for there was nothing left in the world that cared, nothing that could care, because it had been calling, calling, calling, through ages of mankind, and never had anyone or anything answered.
I felt tears start from my eyes and I stopped chasing, panting and feeling a stitch in my side. "I'm answering. Stop it."
With the sudden volatility of that crying child, it whipped around, lunged at me with a shriek of hatred and denial. A concussion of force threw me backward. I could sense, somehow, the pain inside the creature, the injury it was doing to itself, but it no longer cared. It would kill itself in its effort to silence me, and maybe then the pain would end. Sharp-edged rocks and sticks swirled around me in a bladed hurricane, cutting hands and jabbing into my body, as I covered my face to keep from losing my eyes. Another silent cry of forceful rage lifted me from the ground, hurled me into the stream, and tried pushing my face into the water. I clawed at the insubstantial hands on my neck, but there was nothing to touch, just disembodied force shoving me underwater.
But for all its ability to produce momentary force, it wasn't all that strong. I got my hands under me and shoved. It hurt my neck, but I was up on all fours, face out of the water, breathing in fast, frightened gasps. It let go, and I staggered to my feet. I sensed more tearing agony within it, another terrible self-wounding effort, and heard bone-cracking splintery sounds. With real horror I saw it had broken thick old pine-branches to jagged-ended spears.
This was officially going too far. Time to call in Verne. I reached down and found that my cell phone was dripping water and my PDA was shattered, both obviously from my impromptu header into a shallow mountain stream. I tried the phone anyway as I dodged the first of the spears, which embedded itself in one of the cabin walls, but it didn't even power up; water in the battery compartment, probably. I wrenched the cabin door back open and lunged inside, the second wooden missile ripping along my side and leaving a ragged, bleeding wound. Well, at least I knew it was mad enough to come after me…
Come after it did, like a screaming typhoon packed into a three-foot sphere of destruction. It was using everything it had to come after me in a truly awe-inspiring tantrum, shredding itself apart like a hurricane coming onto land; it would not survive the experience, but that was no comfort to the poor bastards in its path. It blew the door off its hinges in a shower of splinters, echoing agony from within that was like my own torn side, like ripping out your own heart, but it didn't seem to care. Maybe, down inside, it had finally come to some dim understanding of what had really happened all those ages ago, and death seemed far the better option.
I staggered across the living room, diving for the laptop on the far table. Like the PDA, it had all the contingencies loaded, I'd just never expected to have to use it this way. The thing flowed across the room, slower now because it was dragging a shard of wood six feet long but edged like a sword, raising it up to hurl at me with unstoppable strength and undodgeable accuracy in the limited space.
It sensed my shift in mood just one split second too late, as the trap activated. Blazing like the sun in that pitch-black room, an array of emerald lines of pure light leapt into existence, a seven-pointed star that surrounded the creature in an impassable wall of brilliance. The wooden missile dropped harmlessly to the floor. I felt the thing's influence fade instantly. Potent stuff, that psychological sympathetic magic, especially when the subject was magical.
It screamed silently in loss and fury, spinning like a trapped whirlwind inside the five-foot space at the center of the seven-sided mystical prison, and then hurled itself at the edges, cutting into itself deeply before retreating. I realized that it would kill itself trying to get to me. I took a deep breath and bellowed, "Hoch'ita!"
It froze in shock and confusion. Roughly, according to Verne, that word meant "Stop that IMMEDIATELY!", but it carried with it a sense of ancient authority which was never used casually; a King would use it, a general, a powerful wizard, and always it would be an order to be obeyed without question or hesitation. He'd made me practice it for fifteen minutes before he'd been satisfied I'd say it right the first time, and he'd tested me for the next few hours at impromptu moments.
I'd hoped – at least for the moment, correctly – that the combination of the phrase itself, and the fact that it was almost certainly the first Atlantaean the thing had heard/sensed in the last half-million years, would make it stop and wait.
"I'm sorry." I said quietly.
It tried to gather itself to scream fear and hate at me again, but seemed to collapse into itself all of a sudden, aware of its own injuries and, with my honest expression of sympathy and regret, unable to continue its berserk frenzy. It was no longer a towering mass of shadows and terror, the height of the ceiling. It was shorter than I was now, coiling and writhing in shuddering pain and sorrow.
"Maybe I shouldn't have been as hard on you as I was. But I couldn't be sure – until now – what you were really like. You didn't really want to hurt anyone, did you?"
For a moment it tried to puff itself back up, like a little boy being scolded and trying to pretend that it didn't care. Then it sagged down, even smaller than before, and I felt a tiny thread of sorrow and repentance.
"Fear's just a lot easier to bring out… when that's what's inside you, isn't it?"
It swirled more tightly into a ball, no more than three feet across.
"It wasn't your fault."
NOW it raged at me, hammering against the insubstantial walls of light and screaming its self-hatred in crying, hysterical waves of horror and blame that made my eyes sting again with more tears. My god what this poor thing had gone through. It was a wonder it was even capable of this much communication.
"No, it wasn't. The Demons sealed off magic, you poor bastard! It cut off your master's power, turned you into a faint, faint echo of yourself. There wasn't a damn thing you could have done to help him – or her -- and there wasn't anything they could have done to help you. Your master and partner died… and you've been stuck here ever since, no magic to release you, because that death happened after magic faded. There was no release, just a binding. You've been here, waiting, for half a million years, as the glaciers came down and ran back, as we rose back from barbarism and spread back over the land, waiting and crying for someone to come that could never come back.". I felt the tears that it couldn't actually cry beginning to break forth from it, into me, heard the edge of a sob in my own voice.
"But you aren't alone any more. You don't have to die. You don't have to scare people just to live. There are still things that endure, things that haven't gone."
It moaned, a soundless cry of abandonment and tragedy, unable to believe that anything had lived from its past, when its … master? Partner? had gone to nothing. I touched one of the other controls, then another. The glowing cage faded out. It seemed to glance around in startlement. I spoke to the air around us. "Come in."
Verne Domingo coalesced from the night. The creature shrank back for a moment, but then Verne, who seemed to have instantly understood the situation, simply knelt and held out his arms, saying something low and soft in that ancient language. I heard the words "Eönae" and "Thansaelasavi", and others, in the tone of a father to a frightened child.
It moved forward, tentatively, radiating disbelief and fear and hope. The undefined monstrous aspect wavered, began to melt away. There was still a shadowy shape, but it neither towered nor threatened. It was exhausted, wounded almost to death by its own efforts, taking hesitant, halting steps forward towards the ancient priest. With a sudden rush it scuttled quickly into Verne's arms, curling into a tight little ball and now sobbing audibly with a sound like a crying steamkettle, a solid tiny dragon of polished darkness, wounded in a dozen places and bleeding wisps of shadow. "It's all right now." Verne said very quietly. "It will be all right."
I sagged back with a sigh of relief, only then realizing that my entire left side was totally soaked in blood and it hurt like hell. "I think… I'm going to need a little loving care myself." I said. Then the darkness seemed to close in on me, pushing me down, down…
I woke up, staring at pastel walls and hearing all-too-familiar beeping sounds. Glancing over, I saw a very familiar head of night-black hair bent over, sleeping in a nearby chair. "Hey, sweetheart." I said, feeling only minimal roughness in my throat.
Syl jolted awake and stood, smiling but with traces of tears in the redness around her eyes. "Hey yourself, Jasie." She hugged me gingerly; even that stung my side, where I suspected I'd have a hell of a scar. "I thought I told you to be careful!"
"You said you wanted a husband and a home to come back to. We're still here."
She smiled faintly. "Well, yes, but I was hoping to have them both at the same time."
I shrugged – which hurt, too. "I'll admit that I could do without the regular stops in the hospital, but it beats the alternative." Looking more carefully, the room didn't look quite standard. In fact… "Um, where exactly am I?"
"You are in one room in my home, Jason." Verne's deep voice replied. Dressed in his usual immaculate outfit, he had materialized in the doorway. "We have reason – more than ever, in these days – to keep considerable medical equipment at hand, and your wounds – while certainly significant – were easily treatable by someone with general medical knowledge. So I brought you here."
"And what about…"
"You were correct, of course, Jason. It was indeed a Thansaelasavi, specifically a familiar of a wizard who lived mostly at night and whose magics dealt with light, shadow, darkness, and so on, as well as emotion. I suspect I may have met her – for it was a woman, that much I was able to draw out – once, perhaps at some party or event at the castle. Such wizards were much in demand for such events – entertainment specialists, you might say."
"Where is it?"
"He, Jason. His name is Arischadel, or Aris for short."
"Okay, where is Arischadel?"
Verne frowned slightly. "Aris is bound where he is. I do not know if I could release him, even if he wanted to be released, but he has spent a near-eternity protecting that spot – as you guessed, like a faithful dog at the grave of his master, perhaps waiting for master to awaken. That has, in turn, bound him ever more tightly to the location. Magic has a way of reinforcing what is being done, of extending and strengthening what already is. He is now more than a familiar spirit, in a way; he is a part of the land in that small area."
"Hmm. Is he going to be okay? I mean, I know he put me here, but I was feeling a lot of what the poor thing was feeling; he was just scared and angry and not thinking at all. I got the impression of a kid, even if he is as old as you are."
"Many Thansaelasavi are mentally children. They are not unintelligent but are relatively simple, not complex beings." Verne smiled. "Yes, he will be all right. It took much time for me to truly reach him and make him understand, but the strength of Eönae healed and strengthened him. She has accepted his guardianship of that little part of the world, given him a sort of purpose in life."
"But he's stuck there?" I thought for a moment. "And he's really lonely. And has been for a really, really long time. I wonder…" I had an idea. I asked a few more questions and nodded. First I had to get out of here and talk to Arischadel, but if he was the way I thought…
"You said you'd solved the problem, so why are you coming with us up here?" Dave Plunkett said curiously.
"Because I said I'd solved the problem, not gotten rid of the cause. I'm going to leave it up to you as to whether you want to deal with what's left. If not, I'm willing to buy the camp off of you."
Dave and the rest of his family glanced apprehensively at me as we continued hiking up the trail towards the cabin. "You mean… it is still there?" Lizzie said nervously.
"Yes and no." I answered. "You were right, that there was really something there, and it scared you, but it wasn't exactly what it appeared to be."
I'd thought for a while about how to approach this. I couldn't – for a number of reasons – tell them the whole truth, but I couldn't just gloss the whole thing over and ignore it. It hadn't taken long, though, to realize that telling the truth in general terms would probably be safe enough for them, especially if I took certain precautions.
"Basically, you already knew there were stranger things in the world than we used to believe." I said. "Werewolves and such. And then your own experiences. Well, I'm sure you realize that the strange stuff didn't just come into existence last year. There's been this kind of thing hidden behind the metaphorical curtains for time out of mind.
"We don't know why, but it's become pretty clear that the weird stuff has become a lot more active lately. Anyway, it turns out that your cabin sits on the same area that someone – call it a wizard – used to live. And when that wizard died, their pet spirit, a familiar you might say, refused to leave. Maybe he didn't really understand death, or just wasn't going to leave his master. Anyway, he's been waiting, and alone, for a really long time, and forgot about working and living with people."
"You're saying it's been there all along?"
"Since long before you guys bought the land. Don't know how long, really. In any case, the thing is that this creature is really mostly spirit. It gets strength from other people living around it, especially from strong emotions directed at it. And in its state, it was easiest to raise the emotion of fear."
Dave frowned. "So… it was scaring us so that it could eat?"
"In a way, yeah." The cabin rose up before us in the sunshine. Chipmunks scattered at our approach, as did a couple of birds. The forest was full of the sound of the native animals getting ready for the fall of night. "And probably, like any kid or animal, acting out of its own fear and territorial protection. The more aware it got, the less it understood of what was going on, and that scared it."
Jenny shook her head. "I don't want to go back in there if it's going to be playing those games again. Even if it won't hurt us directly, that's just too much."
"I wouldn't expect you to." I said.
"Hey, the door's trashed!"
"Sorry. Like I said earlier, it wasn't an easy job. Worthwhile, but not easy." I stopped near the entrance. "I said it can get stronger from emotions directed at it. Those emotions don't have to be – and really shouldn’t be – fear. You don't think a wizard wants to be afraid of their familiar, do you?
"Your resident spirit has a name. He's called Arischadel. I don’t know if it would work for you… but what he really needs is people who will enjoy having him around. In return, he can do little things for you."
Elizabeth – Lizzie – looked up suddenly. "Like… like the house elves in some stories I read when I was a kid? You'd leave them cookies or something and they'd clean up the house?"
I laughed. "Something like that, but probably not as immediately useful. I think you kids – and adults – will still have to do the dishes, so to speak. But he'd like to play, I guess."
Lizzie shivered suddenly, remembering. "I dunno if I could play with that."
"I wouldn't blame you." I said, remembering my own unpleasant nights in that cabin. "But what you remember isn't what he is."
"What's that?!" Mitch said suddenly, pointing.
I glanced up. "That," I said, "Is Arischadel."
Around the corner of the chimney, a little narrow black head was looking, with smoky-crystal eyes. It peered nervously out at the group of us, visible in the darkening twilight because of the faint light in the eyes and a slight luminous edging to the shadowed body. When no one made a move – the Plunketts were all staring – Aris edged hesitantly out from behind the chimney. He was a perfect little dragon, about two feet from nose to tip of tail, glittering crystalline scales making him look like a sculpture in dark quartz, huge eyes blinking uncertainly in what was, to him, the brilliant light, batlike wings twitching with caution.
It was Lizzie who spoke first. "Oh my god, he's so cute!" she said.
Aris gave a questioning burble, a sort of trilling whistle.
"Are you really the same thing that scared me in my bedroom? You can't be!" Lizzie started forward.
Dave stretched out a hand. "Hold on…"
I shook my head. "It's okay. I guarantee it. She's doing exactly right. She likes dragons, I take it?"
Jenny gave a strained laugh. "Her room is almost wallpapered with them. When she was a baby, she had a stuffed dragon that went with her everywhere."
Mitch was following Jenny, staring raptly at Aris.
Aris scuttled in half-eager, half-fearful steps to the edge of the roof, looking down at Lizzie. I could just sense the emotions he was radiating, hope but fear at the same time, fear that this would end the same way, that there would be a moment of caring and then total loss.
Lizzie seemed to feel it too. "No, no, it's okay. Really. I'm not mad at you now."
Dave and Jenny tensed as the tiny dragon of shadow seemed to pluck up courage and drop down towards their daughter. I couldn't blame them; small it might be on a relative scale, but it still had sharp-looking teeth and claws.
But it curled up into the girl's arms like a satisfied kitten and radiated such incredulous contentment when those arms hugged back that even Dave broke into a broad smile. "So that's it?"
"In a way. You guys have to promise to come here regularly. Aris needs people. But the right kind of people, which you are, but not everyone is. You might have to come here more often than you used to. He's stuck here, so he can't come back with you. Maybe one day he will be able to move around, but there's no telling if that will ever happen."
Dave and Jenny looked around at the settling evening. The threat was gone from the darkness – it was a calm and untroubled evening in the Adirondack woods. "Can you guarantee it won't… go back to what it was?"
I nodded firmly. "You're talking about a thing so loyal it wouldn't leave over… well, lots and lots of years. I'll guarantee it. If you people choose to be his friends and, I suppose, new masters and companions, he'll be by your side – as much as he can – forever. I know it's weird and scary in some ways, but you guys also seem to be the kind of people who can handle things pretty well. Hell, you came back and faced him when he was mad a second time, which is more than most people would be able to manage."
Dave nodded slowly. "How … where'd you learn all this, about him? Just from him?"
"Like they say on TV, there's things you don't want to know. It's up to you what you do. I'll buy the camp if you don’t feel it's something you can handle."
Mitch had cautiously extended his hand, which Aris had nuzzled.
"Well…" Dave rubbed his beard, staring at the little creature. "I guess it's better than a dog. Nothing to clean up."
Jenny knelt next to her daughter and looked at Aris. The little draconic spirit looked back and I felt it radiate a tremendous feeling of apology, sorrow, mixed with hope and pleading.
That worked. The truth of those emotions couldn't be denied, not by anyone who was reasonably honest with themselves, and the Plunketts were definitely that. Jenny gave a little smile and reached out to gently pat the smooth scaled head. "It's okay. I accept your apology."
When I left, a little while later, I could see Lizzie and Mitch laughing in amazement as Aris put on a shadow-show. The little Thansaelasavi saw me walking away, came flying through the night air and hovered there, radiating thankfulness and apology for the hell it had put me through.
"That's all right. I'm going to be fine." The walk up the hill had hurt like hell, but it was all going to work out. "You just watch over them. You know that there's other forces out there waking up. Keep an eye on them. They're not wizards. And they don't know the truth, and shouldn't."
It radiated iron determination. I smiled and nodded. "Good enough."
I watched as the spirit-dragon flew back to the family that had adopted it, after all that time of fear and darkness, and grinned.
"Finally, a real happy ending."
I turned and headed downhill, toward my own happily-ever-after.