Eye of the Tempest
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The little pony nodded where she stood among our knees.
“That’s what happened to you?” Anyan asked, his face troubled. I nodded at him.
“She was really banged up,” he told everyone. “I healed her,” he added, lamely, when Trill’s pony form leered at him.
“Healing? Is that what’s it’s called?” she asked, clearly ribbing the barghest. I held back a giggle as he turned a rather intense shade of red. Iris gave me a look, arching an eyebrow at me in question. I responded with a cheeky wink that made her smile.
“And nothing like that’s ever happened before with the Sow?” Caleb asked me.
“Never. I’ve always gotten a lot of power from her, but I’ve never lost myself like that.”
“We should keep the humans even farther away from the Sow for a while,” Marcus said. “Just in case.”
Amy nodded. “And we should put our heads together and try to remember when and where all the possessions occurred. And catalog any new ones.”
“I can make one of those maps with the pushpins like they have on CSI,” Iris gushed, sounding excited about the idea. To be honest, after all the drama she had experienced, I was surprised she wanted to be involved in more. But I could see how she might feel good being proactive, rather than merely defensive.
“Not a bad idea,” Amy replied, giving Iris a warm smile.
“Yeah, but what does all of this tell us?” I cut in, still not quite sure what was going on after my long hiatus in coma land. “I mean, what do we actually know about what is happening?”
“Well, we know that humans as well as some of us are being possessed,” Nell responded to me. “Most of the possessions take the form of warnings. But yours seemed to be leading you into the Sow.”
“Maybe that was just a more aggressive form of warning?” Anyan wondered aloud, as he tried to figure out why the possessions would change style. “Maybe whatever’s out there is trying to show us its power. Show us what it can do.”
Sarah shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe the Sow’s just reacting to all the power that’s shooting around. Natural habitats can be influenced by our hoodoo.”
“The voodoo that you do so well,” I intoned solemnly, if randomly. I was ignored. And yet I persevered. “So we know that there are possessions taking place and that they consist of some type of warning. But warning about what? I’m asking, basically, what do we really know, rather than what are we guessing?”
“There has to be something here, in Rockabill. It’s the only explanation for the possessions, and us getting attacked the way we were,” Anyan said. “I’m the strongest power here, besides Nell. And she’s well nigh unstoppable. So they wanted to get me out of the picture and use you as leverage, probably against Nell. So they could enter the Territory.”
“But Jane got ’em, instead,” Iris said, her voice proud.
“What else have they tried?” I said, realizing that couldn’t have been the bad guy’s only attempt in a whole month. “That can’t have been their only attack.”
“It wasn’t,” Caleb agreed. “There are all sorts of little things happening. Probes at Nell’s boundaries; things sneaking in, obviously looking for something, before running off; ‘tourist’ humans who act funny, but not in a possessed way. After what happened to you and Anyan, we’ve been watching the humans as carefully as our own kind. And Nell’s been kept very busy watching her boundaries.”
“There have also been creatures sniffing around Iris’s, as well as some of the other beings that are outside Nell’s immediate protection,” Caleb said, his voice gone cold and hard. Iris put a hand on his, gently as if to calm him. But I think she was also reminding herself he was there to protect her.
“So lots of little intrusions. Any ideas who’s doing it?” I asked.
“There have been a few reports. Harpies… and some humans glimpsed something like a giant,” Anyan replied.
“Or a spriggan,” I spat. “Phaedra’s crew.”
“We think so. But there are other helpers. It has to be a fairly large operation,” Nell said. “And there are reports of similar problems elsewhere. Other places that might house something, or someone, of value.”
“Grim’s been busy in Borealis,” Anyan added, as if to affirm what Nell was saying.
“The Grim? The one Cappie told us about?” I asked. Grim was a friend of Anyan’s who lived in, and guarded, the little suburb of Chicago called Borealis, where halflings had made themselves a very cool home. Other than that, and the fact that he was seriously powerful, I knew nothing about Grim. He wanted to remain a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and Anyan respected his friend’s wishes.
“Yep. He guards something strong, and someone’s been trying for it. Using very similar strategies,” the barghest said.
“So, what we know is that war is coming. The bad guys are looking for things that will give them an advantage. And one of those things happens to be here, in Rockabill, but we don’t know what it is, or where,” I summarized, suddenly feeling immensely tired both physically and emotionally.
“Well, we know it’s locked. And that there are four locks,” Iris said, still managing to look on the bright side despite everything she’d gone through. I saw Caleb stroke her blond head after she’d spoken, and my heart went pitter-patter. He so got her, I realized—he was rewarding her for a bravery, a strength of spirit, that he would only recognize as either of those things because he really understood Iris—who she’d been, what she’d suffered through, and how she was fighting to regain the part of herself she’d lost in that mansion.
“Like what kind of locks? What do they look like?”
“That we’re not so sure about,” Anyan admitted. “But they’re here. Somewhere. Probably.”
“But we’re not really sure what they contain?” I said, just to be clear.
“Er, no,” was all Anyan could say.
We all sat around the bar at the Sty, not meeting each others’ eyes. Although we weren’t talking, I knew everyone was thinking the same thing I was, or at least a close approximation.
My morning swim was a combination of my usual outing and a new kind of reconnaissance. I swam in and around the piglets, Trill keeping watch, trying to see if I’d go all Exorcist and try climbing into the whirlpool again.
But nothing happened, and I kept my usual respectful distance from the Sow. She swirled about in front of us, silent and inscrutable, while Trill and I circled like not-very-fearsome sharks.
After my swim, I went home to shower and then got ready for work. It was my first day back in my normal routine in a very long time. I’d been traveling for weeks before the attack that had left me comatose for a month, so I was incredibly lucky I had such understanding (and slightly glamoured) employers. I was also more than ready to get back into the swing of things, especially since I was really feeling my oats. The night before, shortly after we’d had our run-in with Stu, I’d nearly fallen asleep sitting up. I’d had a busy day for someone who’d been asleep for so long. Anyan looked a bit disappointed when Nell offered to apparate me home, but I took her up on the offer. I didn’t think I could stand up for much longer, so any hanky-panky with the barghest was going to have to wait.
Which meant that I began my long walk to work well rested and feeling good—almost entirely normal. Or as normal as I could feel, given the circumstances.
Because, once I entered our little village, I saw that things were definitely odd in Rockabill. Nothing a stranger would have picked up on, but I could feel it. It wasn’t all the people about—there was always a lot of foot traffic in Rockabill. Except when it was raining or snowing, people would drive into the town center, but then they’d park to do most of their errands on foot. This was partly due to how small our little village was, but it was also because it was an ideal way to socialize. Everyone would walk around, coffee in hand, chatting about who had done what to whom. In a place like Rockabill, there were no secrets and, except for the tourists, no strangers. Anyone who planted him-or herself here for longer than a single summer was fair game for the outrageously generous acts of kindness, the sometimes cruel gossip, and the ceaseless interest that was life in a very small community.
And for better or worse, I was a Rockabillian. So the tension that had sprung up while I was sleeping grated at me like nails on a chalkboard. Everyone was walking around like they expected something to jump out at them. Which I supposed was understandable if your friends, loved ones, and neighbors could start yelling weird threats randomly and for no obvious reason.
Or start writing on the walls, I thought, seeing evidence of badly painted-over graffiti on the outside walls of Tanner’s Bakery; our little supermarket, McKinley’s; the Trough, our diner; as well as some of the sidewalks and benches. Underneath the fresh paint, I could clearly see the words “Rises,” “Death,” and “Come” defacing the brick or shingle sides of our downtown buildings. I wasn’t opposed to things “rising” or “coming,” but having “death” sandwiched between the two words was a bit of a buzz kill.