Remembered Kisses: Chapter 9: Winter's Herald

The rest of the day went quickly, but as it passed it grew increasingly colder.   By early evening, it had grown frigid.  Pulling his coat tight against the cold, Sam swept his gaze across the campus from his usual perch in the bell tower.  The skin on the back of his neck was rippling with anticipation.  The night was still and free of rain, but Sam’s vision was almost useless in the murky fog, forcing him to focus was on his supernatural senses.  There was nothing out there right now, but the Otherworld was as still as the mundane world.  “If I’m cliché enough to be a watcher in a bell tower,” Sam muttered,  “The nightmares can have their calm before a storm.  It’s only fair.”  He reached into his coat, felt the worn grip of his .38 in its holster behind his back.  The familiarity was comforting.



He heard footsteps below him, turned to see Marcus coming up.  “Good,” he said, turning back.
“You’re here.”

“That sounds ominous, professor.” Sam could hear Marcus’s smirk.  “Well done.  Have you been taking lessons?”

Sam rolled his eyes.  “It’s been a quiet night so far. But cold.”

“Bloody cold,” Marcus agreed, his breath misting so that it looked like smoke was trickling out of his mouth.

Sam buttoned up his coat the rest of the way and tugged on his leather gloves.  “All right,” he said.  “Let’s get out there.”

Marcus nodded and followed with him.

“Where’s Kendra?”  Sam asked, as they meandered through campus.

“She’s out with her circle tonight,” Marcus said. “Performing a ritual.  Then, she said, she was going to do some private work.”

“Private work?  Does she do that often?”

“She needs to learn to master her energies on her own.  She's talented.  She’ll be fine.  Her apartment’s pretty secure.  She has iron hanging over the door and everything.”

"Iron helps with most things.”  They kept walking.  It was now beyond chilly: it had become bitterly cold, even for this time of year.  Sam was almost shivering despite his coat.

“We expecting trouble tonight, professor?” Marcus asked.

“I’m always expecting trouble, lately,” Sam said.  “That’s why we patrol.”

“It seems like we’re the only mages who patrol.”

“Not quite.  But we’re spread thin," Sam replied.  "There aren’t a whole lot of mages in the college to begin with.” He stopped, holding up a hand.  “Do you hear that?”  He asked.

“Hear what?”

Sam shook his head.  “Nothing.  I don’t know.  This place.  It can be so hard to see in… all the twists and turns in the hedges.”  The bookish mage frowned.  “I always feel like something is tracking me.”

Marcus looked around, suddenly concerned.  “You think it’s more of the trouble from last night?  Another shade?”

Sam shook his head.  “No,” he says.  “I don’t feel that same pull, but...” his voice trailed off.  "I don't know.  There's something similar.  Maybe.  Damn."

Marcus nodded, eyes tracking around them.  “Bloody park,” he said.  “I’m having trouble focusing too. Now I’m kind of worried about Kendra.  I hope she’s safe.”

Sam put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay to be worried.  But you were right.  She’s a competent girl.  We can best help her and her coven if we continue our patrol.  It will keep the night things out.”

Marcus sighed.  “I just still feel like there should be more of us out here.”

“Well, we’re working on it.  You know most of the other mages don't think the same way I do.  They’re more concerned with study, research, and patient observation.  And we’re hoping to draw a few more young ones like yourself in, so that your enthusiasm and energy can help with the patrols. But the others are still out there every night, regardless of how tired they are.”

“Awesome. I knew you were just using me for my youth,” Marcus replied, but he was grinning.

“Now you know the truth.  We’re terrible, terrible people.  We only want you because you’re young.”

“And pretty.”

“And pretty,” Sam agreed.  He glanced around again.   “There.  I don’t think it’s following us any more. This part of town is strangely quiet.  Usually more of the Lorenzos’ people are around, sifting through the ambling passerby.”

“We really shouldn’t let them do that.”

Sam sighed.  “I know.  I agree.  But they need to eat.  And contrary to popular fiction, animal blood just doesn’t do the job.”

“So we let them feed on people, just like that.”

“The treaty has them never eating enough to kill.  Just nibbles here and there.  It weakens them to an extent, never getting a full meal, but it’s better than war between them and the mages.”

“Do you really believe they’re not killing people?”

“I have to.  Treaties don’t work unless the sides trust each other a little bit.”

“You’re naive, Sam.”

Sam sighed.  “Am I?” He asks. “It’s possible.”  They walked in silence for a while, making their slow circuit around the park.  Sam stopped, held up a hand again. “Thought I heard something again,” he said.  “A skittering.”

Marcus glanced around.  “I think I heard it too.  Sam.  I don’t like this.”

“Neither do I.  In fact, I’m not going to stand for it.” Sam spun around once, lifting his hand high, and reached out to the moonlight hiding beyond the clouds. He reached through the Otherworld to where the moon always shone and he tugged, bringing that light forward. Slowly the area grew brighter, chasing shadows away in the silver-white-blue light.

And that’s when they saw them.  Three ghastly figures. Man-like but clearly no longer among the living, their flesh was half rotted off and what clothing they had left was in tatters. Roaches crawled out the eye socket of one, another was more bone than flesh, and the third looked like it had been killed by many knives long ago.  Sam’s stomach churned as their scent hit him. The smell of decaying flesh combined with the smell of a musty, moldering coffin to trigger a nauseating revulsion as the sheer perversion and weight of the power used to make them coated everything they touched and fouled everything around them.  He didn’t know how he had missed it before.

They were not advancing; in fact, they were reeling back, the pure light of the otherworldly moon holding them at bay for the moment, but Sam knew it couldn’t last. “Zombies,” he muttered.  “Dangerous ones. Damn and double damn.”

“What makes them dangerous?”  Marcus asked, slipping his wand out of his coat.  “I mean, other than them being zombies.”

Sam gave him a sideways glance, still holding on to the thread of moonlight, drawing in as much of it as he could.  “Deduction.  They’re in a state of advanced decomposition, yet they’re still mobile.  Which suggests intentional animation, rather than spontaneous. They are mindful enough to be repulsed by light, and they are canny enough to sneak up on us. Dangerous.” Sam took a deep breath.  "And they reek of necromancy. Lots of it.  I'm surprised you can't sense it."

Marcus shook his head.  "I'm not sure.  Focusing is still hard.  Do we have a plan?”

“Blowing them apart works.”

The circle of light began to fade, and the zombies slowly lurched forward.

“Right,” Marcus replied with a nervous grin. “Blowing them apart, I can do.”

The light disappeared, and the zombies sped into them in a mad rush.  Sam’s first move was another ray of otherworldly moonlight.  The channel was still mostly open, and the power he had drawn in exploded out in a blast of pure silvery light and crashed into the zombie with the roaches climbing out of its face.  The roaches burst into flames, flickering away like little nightmare-bugs,  and the zombie was briefly lit up.  But it wasn't enough, and the zombie continued to lumber towards Sam despite its obvious damage.

Marcus's reaction was exactly what Sam expected.  His wand spat fire at one of them, adding the smell of burning flesh to the roiling stench that already filled the air, along with the smell of charcoal and wood-fires that always accompanied Marcus’s blazes.  The fire was devastating, and the skeletal one instantly caught alight, its exposed bone burning brightly as a torch.  Sam had often questioned Marcus's choice to tie the wand’s power to the warm hearths and the roaring campfires of otherworldly war-camps, comfort being a strange correlation for a weapon. But it always had a fine effect on nightmares, and it was clearly anathema to the power that raised these zombies.  Sam could sense the dark magic boiling away under the heat of the spell, and the zombie collapsed, the animating force behind it scorched away.

But the stench grew.

The first zombie was back again, swinging at Sam with a heavy fist. Sam, distracted by Marcus’s brilliant display, was unready, and the blow sent him sprawling.  He somehow managed to keep his feet as he staggered backwards, and saw the last zombie crashing into Marcus. It had moved too close for him to bring the wand to bear, and with a pair of smashing blows, Marcus was taken to the ground and the zombie went down after him, hands ready to rip the apprentice limb from limb.

“MARCUS!”  Sam shouted, his mouth tasting like old pennies, and he threw his arms out… reaching to the trees, calling on their power, drawing forth their otherworldly shadows, and suddenly branches became grasping arms of wood, and the zombie above Marcus was ripped up into the air and torn apart by the inexorable strength of guardian of the natural order.

Sam was sent sprawling again as the other zombie pounded him. This time he lost both his focus and footing; and as his head cracked against the carefully fit stone of the pathway he felt  the summoned tree-being snap free of his will.  He rolled, putting his arms up, trying to ward off the zombie’s crushing attacks, but it was too strong. He couldn’t bring his focus back. The snapped spell had screwed up all his talents, and the power kept slipping away even as the zombie slammed its hammer-like fists into him.  He was dimly aware that Marcus wasn’t moving, either, and fear welled up in him like blood from a wound. They're so strong.  Faster than expected… I’m going to die here, crushed to death, by a bloody zombie in the dark of this tree-covered park. He gritted his teeth as the world spun, desperately trying to think of something, anything…

And then there was a squashing and a crunching sound, and the zombie was gone.  Sam carefully opened his eyes. His tree monster had sprung fully to life, walking on its root systems like strange, gangly legs, beating the zombie against the ground with every step.  He knew he needed to stop it.  He knew what carnage it could cause, loose in this world, but he didn’t have the strength.  Nothing left… so hurt… but he shook his head. No, he thought. No excuses.  It has been helpful. But it needs to go home.  No matter how much it hurts. Sam reached out again, and he somehow managed to grasp the thin line of power that still tied him to the monster.  It was slippery, but he took hold of it.  It was like a rope, flowing from the otherworld to him and then to the monster, and as he focused his mental grip on it his vision began to cloud and the garden shifted around him. The trees grew taller.  The moon grew brighter.  He could hear a babbling brook, and see the spiders in the woods,watching him.  Spiders?  The size of large dogs?  No.  I can't worry about that.  I have to focushave to push this back… he ground his teeth together, pulled again, and suddenly the tree-spirit was in the Otherworld and Sam was letting of the power as quickly as he could.

His vision faded back to normal, and he slumped on the ground, lying there for a long time, next to the now-dormant uprooted tree that had housed the summoned spirit.

Eventually, he rolled to his side.  It hurt.

Marcus was lying there, too, not far away.  Sam realized he was breathing, and then Marcus seemed to come to his senses as well, bit by bit.  “Sam?” He croaked.

“Here, Marcus.”

“That didn’t go well.”

“It could have gone better. But we’re alive.”

“Are we?  I’m not sure. I need... second... opinion.”

Sam slowly and unsteadily climbed to his feet.  He thought he was mildly concussed.  Likely why I lost the grip on the power.  It happened when the brain started rattling around in its cage.  He pushed his hand through his hair.  It came away slick.  He stared at it for a moment.  Giggled.  Looked back at Marcus, who was staring at him.

“You’re laughing, Sam.”

“Sorry.  I’m just bleeding.  It’s weird.”

It was weird.  The blood was his, he knew it.  But there was power in it.  He could tell just from the way it felt in his hand.  Power just waiting to be used. Power that felt so different.  His eyes flicked down to Marcus.  Marcus was bleeding, too.  Sam could smell it.  He could smell the coppery tinge of it, smell the power brewing there, just waiting to be tapped and to be used. He shook his head, trying to shake it off.  Must have hit my head harder than I thought.

Sam offered Marcus a hand up.  Marcus took it.  They grinned at each other for a moment, and then sense started to roll back into Sam.  He looked back at the bodies on the ground.  What was left of them.  “Those,” he murmured.  “Those aren’t nightmares.”

“They’re not?”

“No,” Sam said quietly.  “Someone made them.  Someone sent them.  Used power from the underworld. I could feel it. So.  Mage.”  He swallowed.  “I mean.  Probably.  There’s a small chance they were randomly raised by the fluctuations that happen near the undercity, but… the shadows.  They were being concealed, Marcus.  It’s what makes sense.”

Marcus seemed uncertain.  “But who?”

“I don’t know. It didn’t feel like any of the practitioners in town.  I’d know… I’ve seen their skills. I know their smell. Maybe something to do with the Prince of Winter.”  Sam ran his hand through his hair again. “We’ve been marked. Made.  One of those words.  And I don’t know by who.  He’s got agents on this side. The dreams were bad enough.  But this…”  He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.  His emotions were starting to run away with him.  The paranoia was taking hold.  He knew this game. It was a side effect of too much power, too fast. Don't give in, Sam.  Don't let it take you.

And then there was a flicker of power that seemed to reach across the town, a sudden cold darkness that went beyond the blackness of the foggy night, and Sam knew they were not alone. The cold dropped into a bone-chilling freeze, and a creature had appeared out of nothingness. It was a figure etched out of shadow and blackness and a terrible, killing cold. As it unfolded wispy, incorporeal black wings, an inky, stifling stench filled the area that Sam instantly recognized as the pall of the underworld.

Sam panicked, icy fear reaching up from the depths, trying to seize his heart and drag him down.  The power he was facing was immense and terrible, something from beyond the doors that shouldn't be here. That couldn't be here. Yet there was something human about it, too.  Something familiar that Sam couldn’t place.  His head was still spinning, his guts threatening to erupt through his mouth, and as the figure approached him he could hear it speaking to his mind more than his ears.

Made.  You have been indeed been made. You have fought well, mortal.  But you strive in vain.  The winter prince nears.  I am his Herald.  You will submit, or you will perish.

Sam staggered back, fighting the fear back down, forcing his world to stop spinning.  “No,” he croaked.  “No.”  Marcus was frozen still, if in fear or something else. Sam couldn’t tell. But it was clear that it was all in Sam’s court now.

It is too late, the figure imparted, and green light began to suffuse the area.  It was the same light  that so often came with Audrey's power. It was the light that came when mortal magic reached through the Otherworld and touched what was buried.  The way is too weak.  You have already submitted, and the ways will open.  You have made it happen, magus.

Sam kept fighting the panic, looking around desperately for an idea.  Something was tugging at his mind, something about the form in front of him, wreathed in power… Wreath!  WRAITH! The understanding hit Sam like a ton of bricks.  Wraiths had no form, and they can be banished, if only he had… yes.  There it is. Sam snarled, pulling on the last bit of his will.  “The ways are Shut,” he snapped.  “They were made by those of the light.  And The Light keeps them!”  He tugged on his last twitch of power for a relatively small spell, just the right twist of power… and as he twisted, the bulb of the lamp post nearby shattered the darkness with sudden light.  The light exploded outward in a sudden flare, feeding off the moon hidden behind the clouds, feeding off the electricity flowing through it, and everything was blinding white, and when the light faded, the wraith-herald was gone.

Sam hit the ground, hard, and emptied his guts onto the wooded path, and the world started to move again.  “Sam!”  Marcus said.  “What’s wrong?”

“I...” He retched again.  “Didn’t you just fucking see that?”

“See what?  One minute you were talking about the Prince of... You know, and then the world got a little fuzzy, and you were there puking your guts out.”

“I think we’re in deeper than we thought, Marcus,” Sam said slowly.  He hurt all over.  His body was torn from the fight, all his magical channels stretched and scorched from too much power. He could feel the otherworld trying to pull him in even now.  “It’s really, really bad. But I might have bought us some time… goddammit look out!”

And that’s when the other-cat, all sleek blackness with eyes the color of uncut emeralds showed up.  Sam leapt back, staggered, lost his balance, and fell backwards.  He tried to remember a defensive incantation.  He lifted his finger, calling power forward… and the world shifted, and Sam was on his side, his head pounding again as the spell just fizzled out and everything flashed a nauseating red.

When Sam's vision cleared, he saw that Marcus was kneeling beside it, scratching behind its ears. .  He looked concerned, and listening to quiet words Sam didn’t understand.

“Marcus, what are you doing?”

“This is a sending,” he said, and Sam could hear the worry written in his voice.  “This is one of Kendra’s.  I can understand it, I think…”  The cat made another noise, and Marcus’s eyes widened and then darkened. He rose with an energy Sam didn’t know he had. “Kendra’s hurt,” he said, his voice hard and wavering at the same time.  Sam’s heart plummeted, and he felt cold.  “Badly.  Come on, Sam.  We need to hurry.”  And he was off, following the cat.  Sam forced himself to his feet, seeking for a second wind… and again he gritted his teeth, and now he hurried after his student. Rest could wait.  It would have to.

*

They rushed after the cat.  Sam could tell that Marcus was agitated as the cat kept to the footpaths, almost ducking between puddles of moonlight. It's like it the moonlight to charge up enough to remain, Sam thought.  That means it's a very basic construct... and I know Kendra is skilled enough to do better than that. The cold pit in his stomach grew worse.   He didn’t want to think about all that could mean.  After the zombie attack, the night seemed colder. Crueler.  Every shadow they passed seemed like it hid another pack of them, waiting to attack.  Sam didn’t think he could weather another attack.  He knew Marcus couldn’t.  His head was pounding with every step.  He wanted to sleep.  He knew he couldn’t.  He knew he needed medical attention… or at least time for his body to right itself.  A mage could control his body; he could manipulate energy to speed healing by a tremendous amount. But that took focus, and concentration, and a safe place.  And Sam had time for none of those things.

So they kept to the paths -- no moonlight could make it through the tree cover -- and wound their way through the park to campus.  They found her in an alley near the school, between the science building and  the math building. She lay against one of the walls, curled up in the fetal position in a small sliver of moonlight.  Her clothing was undamaged, and there was no mark on her, but there was a stillness about her.  She wasn't even shivering.

Marcus made a strangled noise and ran to her side.

She stirred, turned, and reached up to cup Marcus’s cheek.

“Kendra,” he whispered.  “My Kendra.  What’s happened to you?”

“Marcus,” she murmured, her voice weak.  “You found me.  I knew you would. Good job, Puss.  Extra treats when mommy gets you home tonight.”

He pulled her tighter to him, and she seemed to Sam to be as delicate as spun glass in the young mage's arms. “I did,” Marcus murmured, smoothing back her hair, staring down into her green eyes.  The expression on his face would stay with Sam the rest of his life. “I did find you. I have you now.  It will be better.  You’ll be okay.  Won’t she, Sam?”

Sam said nothing, just watching.  He knew, and when Marcus met his eyes, he saw that the younger mage knew, too.  Sam’s heart broke.  I have no words to help with this.

There are no words anyone has that could help with this.

Marcus looked back down at his love, cradled in his arms. “Kendra,” he whispered.  “Sweet Kendra.  Who did this to you?”

She reached up, her small hand pale as alabaster as she touched his face, stroking it with her tiny palm.  “Marcus,” she said, one more time, almost as if in prayer.  “I love you.  I couldn’t… he took it. He took it all.  But I had to see you.  I couldn’t… I needed you.”

“Who took it?” Marcus asked, his voice strained and pleading.  “Who did this to you?” He asked again.

She didn’t answer.

“Kendra!”  He cried.  “Kendra don’t go!  I need you!”

Marcus’s head fell against his dead love, his body wracked with sobs.

Sam felt his own heart break, and turned away to hide his tears.

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