AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Three - "Alchemy and Alarms"

The third chapter of An Empty Place.

Chapter Three – Alchemy and Alarms

Rain is everywhere. The sky above the road is a loud steaming mist as the cool drops pulverize the hot blacktop. The smoking tendrils of vapor form a thin membrane above the road parting only when the traveler's hurried gait breaks through the swirl. Lightning flickers in indistinct blue chasms between breaks in the fog, revealing the path ahead for a moment, before its gone and the afterimage of the path is etched on the darkness like a second world inverted and laying on top of the first. Trees, tall and dark, form the walls of a tunnel directing what seem to be all the earth's oceans in a torrent at them. The moon suffocates behind thick never-ending clouds.

The road slopes upwards slightly so they are always bending into the rain. Rivulets run down the road over their feet. Holm couldn't find a single pair of shoes in the abandoned house, so they'd wrapped his feet in torn strips of dirty dishcloths and covered them with plastic bags. The bag on his left foot is opaque black and the right one is white with the logo of a disembodied blue hand, open-palmed over three black bars. Tad tried to explain to him what it meant but he became confused quickly. Something about maintenance. Parts, for whatever. No time to talk.

They were out of the house in a matter of minutes. The hunter's pale deformed faces haunted his vision and blocking out all other thoughts. He was sure he had killed them. Certain. For a while that day he was able to hope that they were a figment of his imagination. The torment was over, he'd thought, lying to himself to find some peace in the daylight.

Tad gave him the gun she found. He said he didn't know what he would do with it and gave it back to her. She put it inside her coat trying to stop her teeth from chattering. The dog frightened her. It was a familiar fear. Just like the trail of seeds scrolling over the mountain were familiar, but unplaceable. He apologized to Tad for vomiting. As the two of them scrambled to leave he tripped over himself and her. She held him up and steadied him until he was sure he was all right to move under his own power. He found that if he focused on objects, or her face, he was able to function; bend his knee, feel the tight reality of the gun handle, her hand when he gave it back to her, the scratch of the wool sweater pulled over his naked chest, the plush cloth on his feet, the crinkle of the bags.

Rushing out into the unknown, soaked through in moments as their bodies sopped up the storm to their bones, his wound began to throb. 

Now his hands shake - the left more than the right which covers the blistered wound on his side underneath the wool sweater. Tad pulls him along the road by the jacket sleeve, and when he inevitably falls behind her insistent tug spurs his weary limbs along. He tries to see through the rain, but all he can see is the back of Tad's head, her hair glossed and dripping with water. He follows it like a beacon.

"It might take a lot longer to get there," she says over her shoulder, shouting through the rain, "In this weather, I mean. Hopefully it clears up. Either way, we have to get through an enclosure . . . to find the person who can help us." She sounds confident.

The pain in his side is intense. He doesn't want to bother Tad to get out the first-aid kit they had thrown together back at the house. Some makeshift gauze. Some alcohol. Needles and thread. No way of telling if it would make any difference. So he continues to fall behind, distracted above and below by the pain and the perturbation of the violent path, barely able to keep his eyes open. He is yanked again and he realizes he was about to fall down. His legs below his knees are numb; like he is walking through snow or mud. He lifts his thighs up horizontal to the ground and swings his calves and feet forward. The plastic bags taped to his feet are porous and have collected water. 

"I need to rest," he says but she doesn't even turn around to acknowledge him – possibly because he whispered. She cuts a sluice through the water that slams constantly into them. Caught in her wake he tumbles and chokes on the foam vortex. "We can't stop," he says to himself. If only the road would plateau, or the rain diminish, or the pain quit him. He weaves and starts, pulled towards the ground by gravity and rescued each time by her grip. She must be tired, he thinks. Her fingers are blue and trembling

I'm so tired, he thinks, "Need to rest."

"No, you said it man, we have to keep on," Tad shouts into the curtain of rain. 
A shape moves just beyond the line between the visible from the invisible. Strong ropes of rain and wind throttles him and water gets in his mouth. He spits and lunges forward to grab Tad's shoulder.

"Look, just ahead, its moving!" he says, wheezing as the wind stings his throat, peering past her into the gloom. Again something moves: a leg, disappearing. Tad stops and looks up at him, blinking and cupping her hand over the side of her eyes to shield them from the storm.

"What?" she says; at least she mouths the word as a raging blast of rain descends in a cloud burst and a thunderclap covers the sound of her voice. Clenching her shoulders in his hands he turns her and then points straight out up the road.

She starts to say, "I don't see anything," but he shushes her and crouches down by her hips like a terrified animal. The reverberations of the thunder signal a lull in the rain, and the wind reels back though the clouds still hang heavy and dark over them. With his left hand wrapped around her leg at the knee, Holm leans forward, his right hand on the ground to keep balance. He feels the patter of steps in the rain, practically indistinguishable from the rain itself, of something prowling, circling them out of sight. 

"Do you hear? The cat spirit. I know it," says Holm. For a moment he forgets if he has told her about Telebast, if she understood. He wonders if he should tell her now. But it must be in his head, because the feeling is gone. It was just the rain, dying around them.

"I don't hear anything. C'mon, let's keep going," she says, confirming he was only seeing things. He is glad he is not alone. The shapes flash and his right hand makes strange motions in the running water on the street, two fingers pointing like a wand. He's appalled at the lack of control he has over his hand and he bolts upright. He steps forward, pulling at his spongy beard, wringing the water out.

He sees the outline of Telebast. Red and blazing like the glow of a wildfire. The figure flares far down the road. Then it is gone. 

"Look," Tad says, nodding her head in the same direction, "You can see the lights from the enclosure now. Not like they need it." Sure enough, as the image of the cat drains away from Holm's vision, a pale yellow glow replaces it, a thin half circle of hazy light underneath the purple-black bulbous clouds. 

"We're almost there?" he asks, turning to her with utter ignorance. She says nothing, smiling as she splashes upwards to the crest of the road. Holm looks at the sky. He lets the rare drop of rain left over from the tempestuous downpour fall on his burning face. He hisses in pain as the pain in his side twists him in two.

"You okay?" Tad asks.

In his body, stretching and pulling at his sore flesh, something twitches and grows. It gnaws at him underneath his skin, burrowing through his muscle, the bulge swelling. Digging deeper.

Or trying to escape.


At a curve in the road that wraps around a cliff the slope ends. The highway winds back around the rocky mound and into the forest. One part of the road splits off away from the cliff and into a long shallow valley. The gray asphalt surface is stolid and impassive like an old glacier. As the second road nears the wall of the enclosure the trees gradually thin and then are gone all together, trimmed hedges replacing them, and beyond that are vast fields of manicured grass.

From where Holm stands in his soaked clothes, shivering uncontrollably, it seems like the woods are a cancerous mole on a smooth and healthy expanse of skin. Descending into the valley, the last vestiges of the storm now gone, an iridescent light coats them from the flood lights on the wall of the enclosure and from the dull orange street-lamps hanging from stalk-like poles on the wide boulevard. Holm tears off his makeshift shoes, letting his bare feet slap on the concrete; an insignificant sound under the vast dome of midnight sky and the white stone and steel fortress. The only other sound is the vibrating buzz of electricity. 

Tad points across rolling hills at a tall tower dressed with blinking red and white lights. "There," she says, "That's where the Cord that ran outside our little house ends. The generators are a hundred miles from here." She whispers although there is no one around to hear. Miles away there is a long ridge dotted with lighted windows and behind that a blazing yellow radiance that he imagines is from the Accelerated Cities. He asks Tad as much, and she tells him how the Cities were built around one of the fallen mountains, and the thermal vents it created when it hit the earth. "The Paternach controls that too, though. There are enclosures like these all around, that's why they call it the "Cities". Most of the properties inside have defaulted to Bank Two, if it's like the others around Porton, or Saddle," she says tilting her chin towards him but keeping her eyes on the encroaching wall. She is a little wary, explaining this to him, he can see. He must seem like a total invalid to her. He wants to know more, but is afraid to ask. The whole world is mad and alien to him and his mind is frail and full of holes. Already the details of what Tad told him leak out as if through a sieve; he is barely able to maintain a loose thread of understanding, as if he is on the cusp of wakening, stirring out of sleep to a landscape that is populated by the shapes from his dreams. Impossible, yet happening all the same. His eyes sting with tears of desperation. He is buoyed only by the shining certainty of the shapes; symbols, a sign post towards something greater. They're clear in his mind's eye. When he focuses on them, banishing all else, they hum and conjoin into a dark triangle. This shape dominates him and pulls him forward: the mountain. 

They near the gate. Two black armored trucks with tank treads as tall as a man are position in front of the wall. The sheen of their bodies is like the helicopter's and his mind flashes with its harrying light. His palms grow slick with sweat and he leans closer to Tad. 

"What do we do?"

"I've gotten through these before . . . let me do the talking," she says. As she speaks she wraps his arm around her. "Now, go limp," she directs him. This is not difficult for him since his limbs were robbed of all energy long ago. The bulge in his side continues to grow, and he is very careful not to let her touch the spot.
"What if they know me?" he asks, hanging his head down to let his wet hair conceal his face. It smells sweet with grease, like pig fat. He understands that he must be hungry.
"Do you know you?" she returns, glancing at him.

"Fair enough."

The trucks are parked off of the road behind a pair of barricades that form a triangle with the electronic gate. Holm smells oil and sulfur. A guard in a black uniform disengages from behind the barricades, carrying an assault rifle with the barrel pointed at their feet. He holds out his hand with palm facing outwards. Behind him is the guard station, a rectangular glass structure with a thin aluminum door, and a camera which trains on them as the guard stops them. 

"Halt. State your business," the guard says. His face is impassive behind a translucent visor that juts out at an angle from his helmet. Tad shivers and speaks with a weak whine:

"Our bus was run off the road by hijackers." 

"That's the risk you run without a Contractor escort. Please state your business or you will be detained."

"My mother . . . we were coming to see my mother . . ." she says as she draws herself closer to Holm, engaging him in a childlike hug, her voice beginning to quaver.

"Please produce authorization for leased visitation of enclosure 16-C, Mount Pleasant." 

"But it was taken . . . with everything else," she says, silent tears streaking down her cheeks. He knows it is a performance but Holm feels a warm tightness in his chest, she is so effective. But the guard is not moved.
"Please produce proof of lease or vacate the area," he says, and to emphasize this he adjusts the rifle upwards. Holm mumbles something under his breath, nervous nonsense, and pulls Tad back. The guard does not retreat, but once they are out of earshot she wipes away her feigned tears.

"Come on, maybe we can go-," She stops and a line of concern crawls across her forehead. She sniffs the air, looking around discreetly. "Is something burning?" A curl of smoke wafts around Holm's right arm and he shakes it off like a buzzing insect. Something is burning in his pocket. He reaches in and grabs the card fold, which is blistering hot but cools quickly to the touch like tinfoil.

"Wait a minute." He pulls out the burning card and juggles it in his hands as it cools.

"Look at this!" says Tad and she takes the ID card from him. She turns away from the barricaded gate and holds it up to examine closely. "It's changed. It's not the same card anymore. Look, it changes. Probably linked to a satellite or something. Weird."

She gives it back to him. The gold ID card has thinned and changed color to a light brown. The picture has enlarged and instead of 'Hundun Co.', it says 'BANK TWO' in large block letters. Below that it identifies the carrier as a 'Defaulted Property Reclaimer', whatever that is.

"You can use this to get in," she says making a cutting motion with her hand, "Lickety split."

"But won't they be suspicious? After that story you told . . ." Holm eyes the gate warily. Tad follows his gaze for a moment and licks her lips to consider the odds, but then looks him determinedly in the eyes.

"These guys are not hired to ask questions. People who can go in go in. They keep the rest out. That can get us in. Otherwise it's another day or two's hike through the wilderness."

Do I have that kind of time? he thinks, No.

"Fine. We'll approach the gate," he says. He holds the card in between his fingers smearing his thumb over the grainy photo of himself. Looking closely at this he notices that his eyes are covered in shadow, as if the photo was lighted from a source directly above his head, his forehead shining over a horizontal bar. His nose throws a sharp line vertically over his lips. Moving his thumb like this leaves a dirty smear of condensation on the card over his face, his thumb-print writing tiny worming swirls in a maze on its surface. 

The guard holds his hand out again as Holm walks towards him, mimicking his earlier pose. Then he drops his hand and the gun barrel to examine the card. Holm is surprised to find himself calm. He reads the guard's attitude from subtle shifts and nuances in his body and the occluded expressions of his face: card appears genuine . . . odd that it was not produced before . . . perhaps to remain incognito on non-banking business . . . what was that story the girl told? He has to tug on his beard to keep from smiling.

How can I know what he's thinking? The guard looks at him, then back at the card.

At this point, as the interminable seconds passed during which the guard holds the card, the sore in Holm's side begins to gurgle and throb.

It pushes its way through the cavities between skin and fat and muscle and finds some sensitive organ. A coil of piping hot pain threatens to double him over involuntarily. His insides snarl into a tightening mass and it takes all of Holm's will not to succumb. He slaps down hard on the bulge as the guard's eyes are fixed on the card. The sound of the slap draws the guard's gaze to him and Holm grins widely to mask the torsion of inarticulable suffering. The guard hands the card back to him, and waves him by.

Tad rushes to him. She must have detected some frailty in his manner, because she immediately rejoins her arm around his waist. The agonizing wave diminishes gradually as they walk, careful and quiet as the security camera records them passing the guard station, slipping through the gate as soon as its hydraulic cylinders pry it open a sliver. She lets go of him as the gate slams shut again, putting her hand under her coat and making some unseen adjustment. He remembers the gun. Would she have used it on the guards if the card had been denied? From the way her shoulders sagged as she let her breath out into the pallid air, the ring of sweat at her hairline, he had to assume so. He tells himself he will ask her this when they are safe – and though he'll forget to do this later, he was from then on satisfied of her capacity for survival. This would comfort him in dark times. 

On entering the enclosure Holm is hammered by an overwhelming, yet indistinct familiarity. Still not a concrete memory, but a sense of stillness that comes when one recalls a precious thing, the shock of finding a sentimental place lost to the past. But there are no names or places for him to pin it down. Like the street signs weathered and illegible, Holm's internal map of memory is scribbled over, whitewashed. But the paper tape of his consciousness remains, the white sheet waiting to be filled, alluding to what was forgotten.

Here on the streets each house is the same, or very similar, almost all of them darkened and empty. Street lamps, like those on the outskirts, blink on and off as they detect motion on the streets. It gives the impression of some eerie electronic intelligence when usually a rabbit or rat is the only culprit tripping the sensors. Besides the lamp light a lustrous aura emanates over the streets and the houses, extending to the outer walls but not escaping them. He can't pinpoint the source of the aura though all the houses and the sidewalks and mailboxes are scrubbed into a bone white nacreous surface and intensify this light. He asks Tad what it means.

"Well . . . the emergent reactors that're buried deep underground," she says after hesitating, "they make open air particulates that glow with . . . waste matter, or something. At least that's what I've heard. I think the whole place is irradiated. It's gross when you think about it."

She spat out this last bit, her eyes always roving over the windows and backyards between the houses, hands inside her damp denim coat.

"Something to do with the vents . . . or . . . the mountain?" Holm asks, struggling to form the question.

Tad shrugs, "I don't know. Why?"

"I . . . no reason I guess," he says, but he's fascinated by this hidden history. Hidden not just to him, but even to Tad who is so smart and capable.

"Are you scared of this place?" he asks her.

"No. Maybe a little. We have to find the tunnels anyway. Unless we want to deal with more Contractors." Her pace is hurried as she tries to put as much distance between the gate and the guards as possible. "We want to get to Poor Street. That's where I'm supposed to meet my contact . . . or receive further instructions . . . I guess I'm not sure what . . . " 

But Holm is not listening. His hand is drawn unconsciously to the picture in the inner pocket of his jacket. The photo is soggy with rainwater and has bled through to the back. There is the double-exposed outline - blue dotted lines that looked like the silhouette of a child's face. 

He shifts his gaze from the photo to her, his face expressionless and smooth as marble, blazing with some terrible fear or something else inexpressible, and his eyes quivering as if on the verge of tears. He must have scared her with this look because she takes a step back onto the bright yellow painted curb. They are standing on the street between two abandoned houses, one recently so, as the lawn remains trim and green while the other must have been left some time ago since the grass is overgrown with wildflowers. He blinks and he turns away from her to wipe away tears from his eyes. 

"I-," he starts, shaking his head, "I know this person. In the picture. I've been . . . I've been here before, too."

He looks up with a singular clarity for a moment like a fish freed from a binding net leaping into the sheen of the sea. A path is revealed to him. Compelled he takes a wobbling step forward and, hearing a bird call, turns his head to spot the creature. Instead streaks of black and gold and pink – the color of the shapes – overlay his vision like prison bars.

This picture, he thinks, why did I forget it? I can see a pool of water. I see a small hand, frail and still. I see scratches – signs - all around them.

He follows the bird sound down a street running perpendicular to their course. The streaks of color lead him like a map, a grid lying on top of the real world. The girl's mouth is moving, pleading with him to wait, but there is no time. He's wasted enough time already. The boy has his hand on a wall of ice, or a face, he can see him now, scratching his fingernails bloody against it, reaching out for clear water. He moves his feet like a metronome, steady and constant, carried on an exhalation of wind through the same repeated streets, signs faded to exacerbate their sameness. He hopes to see Telebast, or some other assuring spirit, to verify his path. But there is no one, no-thing . . . not that he can see. There is only a hot breath behind him. Super heated, driving him, melting the wall of ice between him and the boy. But this vision leaves him like all the others.

They come to rest somewhere. Tad huffs in gulps of air just behind him. They stand in front of a house. This one is different. The windows are dark like the rest, but unlike the others they are painted black. He shakes his head and rubs his eyes to recover from his stupor. The vision had fallen on him like a drop in pressure, a quality that is felt rather than heard or seen, a zone of quiet deeper than the hum of the lamp lights on the streets. It left as it came: swallowed again by the mysterious catacombs of his mind. His eyes still search the blurry picture, and the house, swapping his focus between the two, trying to unravel the mystery that connects them. But he is confounded. Returning the photograph to his pocket he proceeds up the walk to the house's front stoop. Tad, still winded, follows him. Her hand grips the gun handle inside her jacket hard and it cuts into her hand. At the door Holm knocks five times. 

Silence. A bird cries out in a croaking burst. Behind them the street lamps blink out leaving only that vague specter of light crawling up from the ground. Tad spins on her heels and scans all around them.
"Listen, Holm. We have no idea who lives here," she says. When she turns back to the house, she looks at his stomach and grimaces, "You- You're bleeding." 

Two red dots soaked through his sweater, and then his jacket, low around his waist. They grow together to form a kind of figure-eight. Holm covers the bloody stain and says nothing. He looks at the door as if he can stare through it and they wait. 

In another minute, or maybe ten, the door opens. A robed man wearing a paper mask motions for them to enter. Holm turns to Tad and holds out his hand.

"This is where it started . . . or some place just like it . . . I know it . . . we can go in," he says, like a host welcoming an old friend to his home. "I think we can trust this stranger." 

She looks at him with forceful unblinking eyes, lips drawn tight to her teeth. The look says he is too trusting. You don't know what kind of trouble we could be in. The look says she is afraid. 

"Come on, it's alright."

"Fine," she says, and she crosses into the house.


In the house they are confronted by an onslaught of movement and light, a gibbering mash of sound, and for a moment Holm panics and scrambles back to the door. But a calm hand on his back reassures him and the masked man offers him a supporting arm. The paper mask is white with deep holes creating dark shadows over the man's eyes. The exaggerated brows of the mask are ridged like beaks and its diabolical grin and round, jutting cheeks reveal only the barest portion of the man's lips and rugged chin. Playing all over the mask and the walls of the house are images, like an anxious painter revising and thickening his canvas. When the masked man speaks he contends with the whine of voices and music curdling in Holm's ears. The man leads them to the living room. The pictures are of bats and sunflowers, logos, a smiling woman, a man with a dog, a rolling plain of bright orange wheat and a perfectly round disc of sun above it. A mountain range with a skier vaulting down it in slow motion. Two women in a pool. Men with helmets and bright colored clothes smashing into each other. Holm loses track of them all, each one in succession flipping out and then flipping back instantaneously. He closes his eyes to keep from becoming disoriented. The light still penetrates his eyelids and, abstracted in this way, is more violent, commingling in a sluggish crawl across his corneas, flashing in vacuous bursts of pink and blue.

"Sit please," says the man next to his ear, his breath hot on his shoulder. A chair is underneath him. Tad is holding his hand. He opens his eyes as she leans towards him. She senses his confusion and cups her free hand around her mouth to project her voice through the noise: 

"It's the Brand. All these houses have it."

A yellow fruit being cut by a chop from a knife.

"Is it some kind of disease?" He asks. Her laugh pierces the blanket of noise. He even almost smiles thinking that he might have made a joke. But her laugh is halting and out of place – nervous if anything. 

"Kind of. These advertisements keep the house out of the hands of Bank Two. They pay to put them here, to . . . influence the occupants."

"That's true," says the masked man, "But I am unmoved by their persuasiveness."

He moves over to a white box on the wall and holds up a white cylindrical device, engaging a button on its side while waving it over the box. Immediately the light and sound diminishes. The room feels awkward and empty with the darkened images playing out in near silence surrounding them. A shadow play of its previous cacophony. The masked man mumbles something about how the quiet will not last long and produces a candle from within his robes. He sets it on the rickety table in front of them. With a quick movement it is lit and an orb of warmth splays over Holm. Tad sits on the edge of an old chair and huddles toward the light.

The rest of the place becomes observable without the constant blare of advertisements: the torn couch, the broken legs of a chair thrown in the corner, the seat of which leans up against the wall; the floor carpeted with a light green foam pad. He sits in a comfortable, high-backed chair, though it’s damp and smells of mold. The masked man sits across from them and the candle flame flickers between.

"Do you remember us at all?" he says, his voice calm as he smoothes out his robe over his knees. The mask disguises who he is addressing; its devil eyes appear fixed to the candle light.

Of course he means me.

"No," the man says.

Has he heard me? Holm wonders.

The mask reveals nothing. He stares in silence at the flame for another moment. Finally he says, "I'm not afraid of you." He looks over at Tad as he speaks. She sits still as stone. He shrugs and looks between the man and Tad, scratching his beard. "I had a . . . flash of memory, and it led me here. I do not remember much at all."

The masked man nods his head and crosses his arms. The shadow on the back wall shifts and ripples as a school of fish flutter like a ribbon in the dimmed Brand image behind him. The fish are hairy bolts striking out from his bare head with their beards trailing behind them.

"Yes . . . a flash. That makes sense. You were right to come. We do not know why you fled." The masked one sways so that the shadow from his pointed nose dulls and sharpens with each little movement. 

"Fled? From you? How do you know me?" Holm says. He grunts as the thing in his side begins to squirm.
"A mutual friend. He used to work for the same people that I do. We hoped you would help us, too."

Holm wonders what happened to this 'friend' . . . maybe they could meet someday and talk about old times.
"Hundun? You work for Hundun?" Tad interrupts. The masked man nods. The half-light from the Brand and the glow of the candle make this serene movement look prayerful, almost sacred, in the manner of a priest or minister. 

The man leans toward the table and takes Holm's hand. His fingers are cold and greasy with sweat. He squeezes it as if imploring him to remember.

He is afraid of something. 

"Do you remember the spell at least?" he says hoarsely, begging him to remember

"The spell? You mean the marks," says Holm.

"No, that's not what I mean." The man shakes his head, "You are not ready to see."

He releases Holm's hand and turns his attention back to the candle. The masked man points at the candle.

"You must make yourself ready."

Holm looks into the flame and it disappears, opening up like a portal to a familiar place, a bedroom. A woman leans over the bed. He reaches out with his mind to this woman. He puts his hand on her shoulder. But it is gone: the vision is torn away from him when the thing twists in his gut. All he sees is red, like through a filter of blood.

The masked man moves his finger and points at Tad. She pales and gulps, gripping Holm's forearm.

"What- What is it?" she says.

"Someone else I know has asked us to look out for you . . . you in particular," the man says.


"L- Darling."

Her face lit and her fingers dug into the flesh of his arm in her excitement. "She's one of you? Hundun?" she asks, or rather demands, as she peers into the face of the mask.

"Part and parcel. She has heard word you were coming for the root. She is assigned to guide you."

"How do I contact her?"

Holm grunts as the stabbing pain ratchets hard in his gut. She lets him go.

No, it's not you.

She wrings her hands anxiously.

"She can be contacted by phone," the man continues, "But not until you get into the Cities. The Paternach has jammers all over this sector."

"And the number?"

"237-523-7253," he lifts his hand up and extends his pointer finger tracing the numbers in the air as he recites them. Holm overhears Tad whispering to herself: "What the hell is he doing?"

"A phone number. So what?" he mumbles and rubs his temples, trying to hide his shaking agony.

He said something about . . . a spell? The marks, the figures, dance indifferently in his brain.

What the hell is the root? He thinks.

"I'm gonna give it a try, anyway, if you don't mind," she says to the man, dropping her duffel bag from her shoulder and releasing the cinch. She produces her phone and enters the numbers and holds the receiver to her ear. She waits. Holm leans closer and squints, as if that would help him hear. The bloody filter just gathers at the periphery. He thinks he must be mad because he feels tears on his cheeks and then wipes at them only to find his face dry.

He watches and waits with Tad as she keeps her eyes fixed on some random point by her toes in the dark shadows under the table. The masked man breathes heavily. Indeed the man's swaying has increased to an absurd, pendulous rocking. In the interval while they wait, Holm slides off of his chair and grasps the masked man's clammy hand that rests on the table. 

"Can't you tell me who I am?" he pleads with the mask as it nods rhythmically. 

"L- Darling: tell her your story. She can help you in ways I can't. She has . . . gifts."

"What kind of gifts - like mine?"

"In a way," the man says. He can almost make out a muffled laugh from behind the bobbing mask. Holm's face scrunches in frustration. He decides not to tell the man about Telebast. 

"What about telling me why I'm being chased?"

The nodding stops. The flame of the candle flutters wildly, almost snuffing itself out. 

"Are they hunters?" The masked man's lips shake before he bites down on them in a grim line. The shadow in the masks eyes lifts with the wavering candle light and he sees a damp blue cornea glimmering. He did not need to speak, the man knew his answer. "The three?" 

He opens his mouth in a simper and a cold spark settles like ice in his chest. The masked man stares at the candle flame. 

"You're right, I can't get through" says Tad as she lowers the receiver from her ear and holds up the phone face to the others. A green light blinks on the screen with a red X on top of it. 

As she performs this gesture there is a knock on the door.

Then another.

"They're coming," the masked man says.

The doorbell rings, three times, before it's laid on producing a constant tone. They freeze and listen - until Tad slowly replaces her phone in her duffel bag. Then, with equal care, she removes the gun from her jacket.
"That won’t do any good," the masked man says, "not for these devils. You'll just have to run. There's a back door." The man stands, his robes falling down heavily over his feet. Holm is up and pushing Tad towards the back hall, arm across his belly, no longer able to straighten himself completely.

He hears a chattering noise inside his guts. He feels the grind of burrowing legs.

He turns back to the masked man, who rolls his sleeves up on his arm. He is trembling.

"Who are you?" Holm asks.

"A friend. Now get out of here."

He saw his breath. It was as smoke in the crisp plane beyond the waking mind, not from his mouth but from the mask's nose, like dragon's breath. He was surprised the protector did not recognize the hunters - they were like brothers to him - they wanted him for themselves.

The masked acolyte watched as the protector and his friend sped out into the hall towards the back. The Brand rose up again blasting his senses and obliterating the doorbell. But he could feel them, the monsters, the hunters, outside and demanding entrance. The hunters might have thought that the protector was free and are jealous of his escape. But that's not why they pursued him. And the protector was only as free as water: he had to always follow the current.

The masked one waited until he heard the back door click shut. He shunted the projected images from his mind, shut out the belligerent noise with absolute focus, and crept towards the front door. A pale green glow seeped under the door jam and at the cracks in the glass window. As he neared he saw a shadow; an ephemeral silhouette dark on the stoop. The acolyte put his hands on the door. It was as cold as old bones buried in tundra. He craned his neck to listen to the crackle of electricity outside. There was a smell of sulfur. 

"Let us in, flesh-born."

The voice was calm. Like life and death as one.

"I cannot obstruct your path," the acolyte said through the door.

The acolyte opened the door and was swallowed by the green light. A burning circle spun above the hunters' heads. One reached out for him.

The masked man drew a spell in the air.

The hunter's hand sizzled as it rifled through the acolytes cloak looking for the skin.

"What is this? You lie!"

The acolyte died quickly. He had spent his last breath aiding in the protector's escape. His flight, his sacred path . . . towards the mountain.