My phone was in my hand before Deveron had even finished talking. Of course, that simply led to me glaring down at it. “No bars. Naturally. When in the history of horror has a cell phone ever had service when it really needed to? I’m pretty sure cell signals are actually allergic to monsters and serial killers.”
“You’re not far off,” Deveron remarked. “Well, about the monster thing at least. You know the effect that Alters give off when they’re using their abilities that screws up cameras and stuff like that? Some of that goes for cell phones too. It has something to do with interfering with the waves in the air.”
“Luckily,” I replied while digging in my pocket, “Professor Dare knows my luck by now and planned ahead.” First, I took the little blue shirt button and ran my thumb over it a few times to activate the tracking beacon that she had mentioned before shoving it back in my pocket. Then I uncapped the marker and knelt down to write on the sidewalk in all capital letters, ‘AT KOREN’S NEW HOUSE. FOMORIAN SPELL AROUND HOUSE. BAD BAD BAD SUPER BAD DID I MENTION BAD.’
That done, I slipped the pack of strawberry chewing gum out, opening up a piece to pop in my mouth. As soon as I was chewing, I spoke up. “Deveron and I just got to Koren’s house, and there’s this magic barrier we just walked past, and now we can’t get out. He says it’s a Fomorian spell. Which, apparently, is really bad. We don’t know where Koren or her family are, so please come help right freaking now.”
By the time I finished speaking, the words on the pavement, the ones that I’d written in the marker, were already rearranging themselves. Now the message had been changed to read, ‘On the way.’
Seeing that, I let out a breath of relief. Not that everything was magically fixed, but honestly, after everything that had happened, I had pretty much expected the messages to fail to get through. Considering the luck I’d had with that sort of thing so far, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising.
Through it all, Deveron didn’t question any of it. He just stood there, pistol in hand while carefully observing the surrounding area. He had positioned himself so that he was between me and the house. When I finished, he started to turn to say something. Before he could get a word out, however, a figure appeared out of the darkness, coming down the sidewalk toward us. I’d barely noticed it when Deveron caught me by the arm, yanking me back behind him while pointing the pistol that way. Again, shielding me with his body. He stood that way, watching the approaching figure for a moment until the identity became obvious. “Wyatt,” he abruptly announced, lifting a hand to stop the man. “Wait, there’s a–”
“Fomorian blood passage shield,” Wyatt interrupted, head bobbing rapidly as he came to a stop right on the edge of the shield. “I know. I checked. I always check for magic every time I go anywhere. Why don’t you? Why doesn’t everyone? You should never, ever walk into any new place without checking. You shouldn’t walk into any old place if you haven’t been there in more than a day. You shouldn’t–”
Raising a hand, I interrupted. “Um, blood shield? I don’t see any blood.”
Wyatt looked to me, and I saw the distress and urgency in his eyes. “Blood shield. It’s—it’s not made of blood, it only lets people of a certain blood through, only activates for people of a certain blood. Right now, this one is our blood. Our blood. Our family.” He nodded toward Deveron. “His, yours, mine, Koren’s, Abigail’s. Our mom’s blood. Both sides of the family. Our blood. They want our blood.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Deveron glanced to me and then back that way. “Listen, we don’t know where Koren, her father, or… or Abigail are.” Something in his voice dropped a bit, the emotion getting to him before he pushed on through it. “But if they’re in that house, that means they’re in there with a Fomorian. One that isn’t interested in hiding anymore. If it’s shown itself this much, that means–”
Wyatt’s eyes widened abruptly. “It’s taking them.” As soon as the words left his mouth, I saw all the hesitation, awkwardness, and general silliness leave the somehow simultaneously short and gawky man. He started to take a step closer, about to cross the magical line and trap himself in with us.
Deveron, however, quickly stepped that way while putting his hand up again. “Stop, wait. Don’t.” Putting a hand against the shield as close to Wyatt as he could, he spoke calmly but urgently. “You need to stay here. Flick just contacted the school, so they should be on their way. But they won’t be able to get through the spell immediately. They’ll have to knock it down first. Which means you need to stand right here with Flick and so you can both explain exactly what’s going on as soon as they get here.”
“Whoa, whoa,” I interrupted, spinning that way. “What do you mean, ‘stand right here with Flick’? Flick isn’t going to be standing right here, Flick is going inside to look for Koren and her family.”
“Listen to me, Flick,” Deveron spoke sharply. “No. This is not within your training. This is far beyond anything you’ve seen so far. You’re not going in there. You’re staying right here with Wyatt while I go inside and–” His expression dropped, and he clearly had to force himself to continue. “And find them.”
“If you were actually acting as our mentor the whole time like you should’ve been,” I pointed out, “you’d understand that these past few months haven’t exactly been a normal training schedule. But that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Koren and Abigail are in trouble. That’s what matters. I’m going in. I can either go in with you, or I can wait until you leave and then follow you. Your choice. But either way, I’m going. And the longer we stand here arguing about it, the worse things are in there.”
For a second, I thought Deveron was going to keep debating with me. Instead, he let out a long breath and looked toward Wyatt. “You’re good with magic, especially security magic. I know you are. So listen. You need to start working on bringing this shield down, okay? You need to bring it down so that Dare and the others can come right through as soon as they get here. Because we’ll need them.”
Wyatt looked nervous, shifting his weight while his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down noticeably. “I—I’ve never worked with Fomorian magic.” His nerves were clearly getting to him as he stammered, “I-I don’t know that much about it. Wh-what if I mess up? What if I set it off? What if I make it worse?”
I could tell that Deveron really wanted to move. But he stepped right up to the shield, pressing his hand against it. “Wyatt, calm down. Listen to me. Look.” He met the other man’s gaze. “I believe in you. You can do this, all right? This is what you do. You’ve got this. I am going to go in there with Flick and we are going to save your sister and your niece. But we need back-up. So, you are going to take down this shield so that when that back-up comes, they’ll be able to come in and help. You can do it. They thought the shield would stop any help from getting to us, but they didn’t count on you. They didn’t notice you. The shield is set to our blood, to your blood. Your family. And magic is your thing. So bring it down.”
There were still obvious tears in Wyatt’s eyes, but his head jerked up and down a few times before the poor guy gave a loud, awkward sniff. “B-be careful,” he insisted, putting his hand close to the shield.
With a short nod, Deveron turned back to me, face serious. “Stay right with me. If I tell you to do something, do it. No questions. Watch my back, and if you notice something, speak up. And whatever you do, don’t go running off on your own, no matter what you see or hear. Do you understand?”
No jokes or off-hand remarks came to mind. Not then. Not with this. I nodded. “I—yes. I understand.” After hesitating briefly, I added, “This is bad, right? Like, really bad. Call up all the help we can bad.”
“It is,” he nodded. “But Dare and the others are on their way. That’s the best we can do right now.”
“What…” I bit my lip, hesitating indecisively before pushing on. “What if it wasn’t? I—Seller, my ancestor—my mother’s ancestor, the one who works for Garden. He gave me a way to contact him in case of an emergency. If the shield’s linked to our blood, our family, he could go through it too.”
There was no hesitation. Deveron just spoke sharply. “Do it. Summon him, whatever you have to do.”
So I did. Straightening up a little while closing my eyes to remember the exact phrase that the man had given me, I carefully recited, “Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse.”
As soon as the words were out, I looked toward Wyatt. “You know Seller, from Eden’s Garden? He’s our ancestor. I… I don’t know if you knew that already or—or what, but he is. And he’ll be coming here, coming to help. So when he shows up, um, tell him what’s going on, just like the others, okay?”
The wide-eyed man bobbed his head, hand moving up toward me, though it didn’t cross the shield. “Please—please be careful. I can’t—I never had a—I don’t know what—I can’t—please. Please.”
My own voice was quiet. “I know. It’s… just tell them, Wyatt. Tell them, and get the shield down. We’re counting on you, okay? Send Seller in and bring the shield down so the rest of them can come in.”
Then Deveron and I were walking, making our way across the grass of the well-maintained lawn. He took the lead, ordering me to stay right on his heels. With each step as we approached the house, I felt the sense of unease rise, covering me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t shake off. Every little night sound, every bare hint of movement, it all drew my attention like a hawk noticing a mouse in a field.
That was being generous. In this particular case, it was more akin to the mouse noticing the hawk.
A small garden gnome in the flowerbed drew my attention. Somehow, its eyes seemed to follow us, that unnerving, creepy smile that had been painted on its face somehow seeming to widen as we drew closer. The shadows played tricks with the thing, adding cruel dimensions to its frozen expression.
We took another step, and I snapped my hand out to catch Deveron’s arm. “Wait. W-wait a second.”
Immediately, he turned to me, eyes scanning everywhere. “What? Are you all right? What happened?”
“Th-the gnome,” I managed. “I think–” Cutting myself off, I shook my head. “I need to make sure.”
Before he could object or say anything, I took a step to the flower garden and went down to one knee. Hand tight on my staff, I raised the weapon up between us, just in case. Then I leaned close enough to peer at the thing, keeping the end of the staff at the ready while Deveron stood directly over me.
My gaze found… a cheap little gnome. Its body was clearly made of whatever ceramic or clay it was supposed to be, and some of the distinct features were chipping off. Despite my feeling, the thing was just an ordinary garden gnome. So, with a sigh, I glanced up to the thing’s face while starting to rise.
The eyes were real.
A strangled noise of shock escaped me as I jerked backward reflexively before covering my mouth with a hand. Deveron’s hand found my shoulder and yanked me up to my feet while he pointed the gun at the thing. Then, for a second, we both just stood there, staring in horror at the thing at our feet.
Yes, the entire body was a real garden gnome. It was just a cheap little lawn ornament. But where the painted-on eyes were supposed to be there were instead a couple of holes. And in those holes, there were real human eyes. They had been shoved inside the thing. But it got worse. Because somehow, those eyes were still alive, still working. They blinked, moved around in their improvised sockets, and clearly focused on us. It was watching us, staring at us in a way that made me want to whimper.
Deveron raised his pistol to focus on the thing, clearly about to shoot it before he thought better and shook his head. “Don’t know whose eyes those are,” he pointed out. “We might… might be able to fix it.” There was doubt, as well as disgust in his voice. But he lowered the pistol and gestured. “They probably already knew we were here as soon as we crossed the barrier. And even if they didn’t, they definitely do now. So, let’s go in and see what the hell they want.”
With a glance back toward the horrible gnome, I followed him to the front door. Not bothering with anything subtle, Deveron simply pointed that flintlock pistol of his and pulled the trigger. A thin red beam shot from the barrel. As it hit the door, the entire thing glowed briefly before vanishing entirely.
Noticing my look, Deveron muttered under his breath, “Two modes. First it absorbs inanimate objects. After that, it can either shoot projectiles made of the same material, or expel the absorbed object.”
I nodded. “So, absorb a door and shoot wooden bullets. Or shoot the entire door itself.”
“Pretty much,” he confirmed before stepping through the now-exposed doorway. “Stay close.”
Together, the two of us stepped into the dimly lit foyer. There were no lights on. The place was lit only by a few candles that had been placed here and there. Ahead, I could see an archway leading into what looked like a dining room that was lit by more candles. To the right there was a stairway leading up, along with a few pictures of Koren and her parents. And to the left, there was an open space that led to a nearly pitch-black living room where I could make out only a few shapes of furniture.
Turning his head slightly, Deveron listened intently. After a few seconds of that, I saw him pale noticeably, even in the candle-light. Without a word to me, he went straight for the archway that led to the dining room. I followed, hand tight enough on my own staff that it almost hurt.
We emerged into a genuine horror show. The sight in front of us was almost enough to make me lose my dinner. Bile rose in my throat even as a strangled, horrified noise made its way out of me.
The long table had been set as if for a Thanksgiving feast. There were places for about sixteen people, complete with plates, silverware, napkins, and glasses. Throughout the rest of the table were platters of various delicious looking food. That much, at least, looked normal.
What was decidedly not normal, was what happened to be sitting at most of the place settings down either side of the long table. Incubators. An incubator sat atop each chair. And in each incubator, there was an infant, a baby. They didn’t look like they could be more than a few days or weeks old at the most.
All of the babies was asleep. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Each one had what looked like an actual umbilical cord leading from the baby’s stomach, out of the incubator, and leading along the table to the far end. The fleshy cords all linked up together into a single one, which led up and into the stomach of the figure who sat there, smiling at us.
My first guess was that the man was a horrible burn victim. His skin appeared to be literally peeling off in various places. He was almost like a half-melted candle. At one point, he had clearly been handsome and tall, with obviously athletic features. Now… well now it looked like there was another face entirely hidden beneath the half-melted one.
Beside the terrifying figure, in another chair, sat Koren’s mom. Abigail. My sister. The woman looked like she was barely conscious. Her head kept drifting from one side to the other, and her eyes were half-closed. She was mumbling something, but I couldn’t make it out.
And behind her stood Koren. At first I thought her hands were braced against her mother’s back. But a second later, to my horror, I realized that her arms were actually buried partway inside the other woman. Koren’s hands were inside her own mother, through some kind of hole in her back.
As soon as we stepped in, Koren’s eyes snapped up and she blurted, “F-Flick!”
The half-melted man who stood there simply raised a hand to stop her. “Whoa, easy there,” he cautioned without looking away from us. “Remember what I said? Stop pumping your mother’s heart and well, it stops. Keep going,” he gestured with the hand. “Pump, pump, pump. There you go, squeeze, release, squeeze, release, that’s right.”
Focusing on Deveron and me, the figure gave the smile of an indulgent father. “I’m sorry, you know how teenagers can be. She was getting a bit… unruly. So I gave her something to do.” He waggled his fingers at us. “Idle hands and all that.”
Head tilting then, he focused on Deveron. “Now, you’re a bit of a surprise. Either you found a way past the shield already, or… hmmm. Interesting. Very, very interesting.”
Making a noise of anger, Deveron raised his pistol. Before he could do anything, however, the figure tutted his finger back and forth. “I wouldn’t,” he cautioned before gesturing to the sleeping babies and the umbilical cord that led to him. “Anything happens to me, and well… there’ll be a lot of very unhappy parents, I’ll tell you that much.”
“Fomorian,” Deveron snapped then, the hate and fury in his voice filling the room. “Let them go. Now.”
For a moment, the figure seemed to consider that. He tapped a finger against his chin. “Hmm. You know,” he spoke carefully while starting to peel some of that melting skin off his own face. The flesh came off easily, revealing an entirely different, more angular and grayish-green face beneath. “I don’t think I will.”
Smiling entirely pointed teeth at us, the Fomorian popped the balled up bit of flesh into his mouth, chewing it up before swallowing. He was literally eating his own disguise, picking a bit out of his teeth with a sharp fingernail before peeling more of it off to snack on.
Choking back the urge to throw up once more, I spoke up, demanding, “Well, obviously you want us here for a reason. Or wanted me here for a reason. So what is it? You’re looking for my mother? You’re working for Fossor? You want something. What? What do you want?”
Peeling the last of the skin that covered his face off, the Fomorian rose to his feet. As he stood, there were several cracking and popping sounds as his bones rearranged themselves. “Oh, I’m most certainly not working for Fossor. My people don’t ally themselves with such… creatures. No, certainly not. And as for what I am here for, does a Maker truly need a reason to visit their creation?”
“What then?” I demanded, fear, confusion, and anger all warring inside me as I glanced from the monster to Koren and her mother, then back again. “What creation are you talking about? Our family, my mother’s rebellion, Crossroads itself, what?!”
In response, the Fomorian cracked his neck from one side to the other while regarding me. Moving two fingers to pluck off the last bit of loose, hanging skin from his neck, he popped it into his mouth. He started to speak while chewing thoughtfully. “Well, you see, we may claim any and all of those, given the right… point of view. Some with more pride than others. But,” he held up a finger, “none would count as our greatest creation. That would be the thing we have sacrificed so much to reunite ourselves with. Our most important, wonderful, and irreplaceable experiment. Our shining triumph. The most powerful weapon in our entire biological arsenal.