Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Flash From the Past

Matt put his hand back in his pocket, running one finger over the medal there. He wasn't sure why, but when he'd taken "Santa" off the train to bury him, something made him keep the old man's only real possession - a beat up Purple Heart had obviously hadn't seen any better days than the soldier who'd earned it.

His initial reaction had been to leave it, not wishing to take anything from the dead, but this one thing he felt comfortable keeping. It was as if the deceased wanted him to have it. After all the things Matt had been through, a ghost with a final wish wasn't so hard to believe.

Burying Clyde had been an exercise in sheer manual labor. The cold Tennessee ground hadn't wanted to budge and he didn't have a shovel, so eventually he'd had to settle for a rain gully and piles of rocks. Not the best of final resting places but probably better than the old man would have gotten anywhere else. In a way, Matt was sorry to have said goodbye. There'd been something about Clyde...

A quiet dignity, maybe. The fact that even when he was destitute and forgotten by the world, the lost soldier was more worried about stealing in front of kids than he was about anything else; that had touched Matt. What strength of character the man must have had, and what terrible circumstances must have taken place to bring him so low?

Matt would never know those answers and that bothered him a little. He had always been a loner but now he vaguely wished Clyde was still around. After so much hell in his own life, someone to talk to would have been a welcome relief.

"Bah. I'm getting soft in my old age." This, of course, coming from someone all of eighteen years of age. Not that his life had been an easy one. Not at all. Matt had been on the run with his parents for as long as he could remember. Only the last three years had been anything approaching stable; he'd been in the same school for more than six months at a time. High School. Now that was a sore subject.

Matt kept walking, each footfall taking him a half yard closer to Nashville. In his memories, however, he was miles and months away - reliving the worst night of his life...


"Matt! It's your turn."

Garbed in the same dark robes he was wearing, Ariel was as loud as she was obnoxious. Of course, it didn't help that she was right. It was his turn, his part in the ritual. He grumbled at her, flicked his athame her direction derisively, and turned to fully face south.

"Hail to the Watchtower of the South. Hail to the Guardian of Fire. Hail to the Powers that Be. Watch over us and protect us as we do our work this Witch's Night."

The others murmured and nodded. "Blessed be." He barely replied, almost just mouthing, "Blessed be," in answer. This whole thing, Magic, was just a load. A way of getting out from under the old man's thumb for another night. If he was doing something "social" with his classmates, he could stay out past normal curfew. That was the only reason he was here.

Janet was next at the station of Water, followed by Roy at Earth. Ariel had started them off with Air, which was fitting for the bubble-brain. It chapped Matt somewhat that someone like Brad was the High Priest. Matthew didn't believe in all this crap, but the idea of anyone having power over him, even just like this, was galling.

They were in Wilkins Park, doing a High Rite. It was Witch's Night, some kind of pagan holiday. Matt never really kept track of these things. That's what Ariel was for. The psycho witch-chick was like an encyclopedia that way, always able to rattle off some obscure and barely-interesting fact about this crap. And if she didn't know it, her useless little friend...


Matt stopped walking, looking out over the next stretch of highway and the rest stop he'd just reached. Shaking himself out of his thoughts, he breathed in deep and made a decision. This wasn't easy for him, but he needed to swallow his pride. Ariel hadn't ever been anything but pleasant to him, probably nicer than he deserved.

It was time to call her for help. It stunk to do it, but he'd kill himself trying to walk all the way to Nashville in this cold. Even with a stolen coat and three pairs of socks, Winter was managing to creep in on him. It was pretty much call or freeze. There wasn't any room to be a bastard about this. Not any more.

He walked the seventy eight steps to the rest area's pay phone and picked up the handset. He didn't have his PDA any more, but the Holy Seal didn't keep him from using internal magic. His last teacher had given him a great little spell called a memory charm. Three words and the phone number floated to the front of his mind. It was a great trick, and the man who'd taught it to him had not deserved what the Order had done to him. Bastards...

Four digits into dialing the number, Matt saw a hand reach past him and press down the receiver. Darting back away from the phone kiosk, his hand went into his coat and settled over his left pistol before his mind even registered who'd hung up his call.

"You don't want to do that, Matthew."

"B... Brad?!?"

The High School hero smiled back at him and nodded. He was wearing a dark turtleneck, grey slacks, and a matching jacket with a strange triangular pin made of gold on the lapel. Brad looked pale, but otherwise perfectly fine. He certainly didn't look...

"Dead. You're dead."

Brad nodded again. "Trust me, Matthew. You aren't telling me anything I don't already know. I was there, remember?"

Matt did remember. Vividly. He remembered Ariel wrestling with that son of a bitch from the Dark Ones, trying to get the man's gun away from him. Matt remembered the thunder of that handgun and the flash from its barrel. He remembered Brad's chest erupting red. He remembered...

"Could you stop that, Matthew? I really do not want to see it again."

Matt froze. Brad was in his head? But with the Holy Seal still locked around his brow, no one could find him or affect him with mental magics. He was cut off, locked away from any sort of communication. Well, any form except the same power that fueled the Seal itself.

"No. Way."

Brad nodded, providing the answering line from Bill and Ted's. "Yes way."

Matt stared at him a little closer, noticing now that while Brad looked healthy, he wasn't breathing. At all. Nor was he touching the ground. Brad was floating about three inches off the pavement, a faint sheen of light between him and the ground below. That was something Matt had seen before.

"You're an angel?"

Another smile. "Not exactly, but I'm on the same team."

Matt took two steps back, glancing around for the best places to run or hide. He hadn't taken his hand off the gun either. His pistols were both powerfully magical; if he had to fight his way out of here, they'd dent even an angel's holy hide.

"I'm not here to hurt you, Matthew. Your actions haven't made you popular with certain angels, true, but I don't answer to them. I am actually here to help."

Matt narrowed his eyes, his hand staying right where it was. "Help? How?"

"You were about to make a big mistake. I could not let you do it."

That sounded strange. Brad hadn't much liked him in life. What made him so helpful and concerned now that he was...?

"Could we stop reminding me about my death? I am still a little sensitive about it."

Matt blinked. "Oh. Ummm, sorry?"

A slight nod. "That's all right. To answer your unspoken question, I have to help you. Remember the ritual we were in the middle of that night?"

"How could I forget it? My life went to hell after that."

Brad glared at him, a bit of the person Matt knew coming back into his eyes. "I think I've got you beat."

He had to give that one to Brad. "True that. Okay, so why do you have to help?"

The "angel", or whatever Brad was now, calmed down quickly. "Part of the ritual actually worked. We are all tied to each other, Matthew. Even those of us who didn't live out the night. Until the ritual is finished, I can't go on and neither can Janet."

"Roy too, right?"

Brad shuddered. "We shouldn't talk about Roy."

"Why not? Isn't he an angel too?"

A quick shake of the head gave Matt his answer. "Not even close. The Dark Ones got to Roy while he was in his coma. Before Roy died, he made a pact in exchange for the power to kill Ariel."

Matt shrugged. "No big deal. Roy's the first person I used my magic on. he doesn't even have a body left." As he said that, Matt recalled the fight he'd had with Roy in the hospital. His power over entropy had awakened in that battle, turning the vicious ex-jock into nothing. Not even dust had been left.

"Matthew, you are not as clever as you think you are. Don't be so quick to assume Roy's gone. You didn't destroy him."

"Oh really?" Brad's attitude was starting to annoy him.

"Really. Your magic woke up; that's true. But you transubstantiated Roy. You..."

"I what?"

Brad sighed. "You've never been to communion, have you?"

Matt pulled out his pentagram medallion. "Hello? Pagan."

"Transubstantiation is the act of turning something into something else, typically through supernatural means."


"Yes, 'oh' is right. You didn't destroy him. You just turned him into something far worse than a Dark One zombie."

Now he was getting a little creeped out. "Do I even want to know?"

"The technical definition is a grabbengeist, or Grave Ghost. He is a spirit empowered by raw chaos and filled with the power of death itself, thanks to your magic."

"So... no then. No, I didn't want to know." Matt sighed. "Where is he?"

Brad shrugged. "I'd like to help you there, Matthew, but he's a servant of the other side. I can't interfere."

Matt growled and pointed at the phone. "You cut off my call to Ariel. Isn't that interfering?"

"Not really. I can act when the living parts of the chain we have forged between ourselves get involved. I've been defending you for weeks against Roy but I can't tell you where he is. And even if I could, I am not entirely sure. He's probably still healing from our last fight."

That was almost more than Matt could handle. "You? You've been fighting Roy? For me?"

Brad nodded. "Janet has too. In fact, she's healing right now as well."


Brad chuckled softly. "Oh again. You need some better dialog."

Matt laughed with him. Then he stopped. "Hey! Speaking of dialog, why can't I call Ariel? She's at Ravenhurst, probably the only safe place in the world for me right now."

Brad sighed and shook his head. "I can't say. Just trust me when I tell you that if you give a damn about her, you'll stay away for a while. That goes for Ravenhurst too. You're a black mark right now, mate, and if you go there, you could bring the whole place down in flames."

That struck home with Matt. Having been the cause of so many deaths, so much destruction lately, the last thing he wanted was to be the end of people he actually liked. And damn it, try as he might, he couldn't deny liking Ariel. She'd grown on him.

Like grave rot.

"Okay. So what do I do?"

Brad turned and pointed at a Subaru Outback parked nearby. "You need transportation and money. That's got both and the people who own it aren't very nice folks. It's no big karma hit if you steal it."

Matt looked at him for a moment, sizing him up. "I thought God said 'Thou shalt not steal'?"

Brad nodded. "True, but didn't you just say you were Pagan?"

Matt grinned. "Good point." He looked at the Subaru, thinking about the best way to jimmy open the door. It wouldn't be easy, but he could do it. Once again, his father's training would come in handy.

"Thanks, Brad. Is there anything I...?" Turning back, there was no one there. Brad was gone, no sign of him having ever been there. Somehow, Matt wasn't really surprised. Angels were always doing that kind of shit.

"Okay," Matt said, rubbing his hands together. "Looks like I am going to jack me just one more car. Sorry, Mom. I promise, this one will be the last one."

Then, a second later, "I hope."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

<--- The Laws of Magic --->

Matthew's world is one of power and enchantment - energies that seem to defy all rhyme and reason. From the spells of hermetic mages to the holy miracles of groups like the Order of Michael Archangel, magic is a very real but difficult to quantify part of the setting in which his story takes place.

Magic in his world may be hard to explain or analyze, but that doesn't mean it is entirely an unknown. A few things seem to be constants, or at least predictable enough that they could be considered "laws". Matthew has already learned that such laws can be broken on occasion, but they remain rigid enough to count on (or regret) whenever magical powers are invoked. Spells, it would seem, follow certain guidelines no matter who their casters are.


Law One: Control is everything. A spell needs to be controlled or the energies will act in unpredictable, often destructive ways. Will is key to working magic. The stronger the mind of the caster, the better their magic.

Law Two: Magic is alive. Spells and magical effects aren't machines and they aren't tools. The power of a spell comes from and is a living entity or perhaps a group of entities. There is a certain level of consciousness to the world itself and when one works magic, they touch that force and must contend with its wishes.

Law Three: Spellcasters are not created equal. It's a fine, noble dream to say that everyone is the same and bears the same personal worth. The truth when it comes to magic is that some people have more of a gift for spell work than others. Their talents can also lie in different forms of power; one mage might be very attuned to spells involving storms and weather while another is a fire mage with few equals. Conversely, there are many, many people in the world with the magical potential of a brick.

Law Four: The force of a spell is equal to talent plus emotion minus resistance. Almost a simple, straightforward equation, magic can be expressed as personal power and intensity combining to overcome resistances of many sorts. Some are external, such as a target's willpower or the structural integrity of a building. Others are internal, like doubt, conflicting feelings, or mental blocks. For example, fear of fire would greatly reduce or even completely negate a mage's ability to manipulate flames.

Law Five: When in doubt, do it yourself. This law expresses the tendency of the consciousness that is magic to be the least helpful when the spell being cast is unnecessary. If a mage works a spell to open a door he could easily walk across the room and turn the knob by hand, the power behind that spell will be weak or may not come at all. If a mage doesn't have a direct need for a spell to work, it is far less likely to do so. It is for this reason that flashy, pointless magic isn't seen in the world; the Power simply won't express itself through such useless displays.

Law Six: Ignorance is more than bliss; it's body armor. Mundanes (people without magical training who have not accepted that the Power is real) have a built-in resistance level to magic that generally exceeds any defense mages can generate through their spells. Denial is a powerful force; mundanes innately believe that magic is not real. Therefore, to them, it usually lacks the ability to affect them.


There are other rules, but these six guide much of the interaction between magic and the "real world" of these stories. As other important things come up in the tales, they will be documented here for your information.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Past and Presents

It wasn't a dream. He really was looking at a drunk, half dressed Santa Claus sitting on the other side of the train car.

"O... kay." That convinced him; he'd finally lost it. All the running, all the killing, all the nights of sleeping in alleys and the back seats of unlocked cars. Insanity had managed to catch him before the Order could. He hated Christmas, always had. Such a horrible time of year. He never got what he wanted and he never understood why people pretended to be so happy when they were really just making themselves miserable with the stress of the holiday.

And there, on his doughy ass in front of him, was the posterchild of everything wrong about Yule.

The grizzled looking old lush looked over at him, one eye slightly larger than the other. His green-gloved hand around a bottle of something cheap and nasty, he looked like a rejected ad campaign for Bad Santa. Something even Billy Bob Thorton found too tasteless to print... which was saying a LOT.

"Whaa you lookin' at?" The words were so badly slurred, Matt was convinced at first the man was speaking some sad, monosyllabic foreign language with no redeeming qualities. A painful audial blight... like French.

Matt answered truthfully once he translated the bum's vowel movements. "What am I looking at? Truthfully, I have no bloody idea."

The slovenly Santa waved the bottle at him. "You tryin' ta be funneh?"

Matt shook his head, huddling up in his corner to stay warm. "The irony of a besotted Kris Kringle asking a fellow bum if he's trying to be funny is just too rich." He chuckled at the old man's foolishness. "Besides, I doubt I could tell you any jokes you'd understand right now."

The drunk grumbled and took another swig. "Arrogant bastahd. No respect fer yah elders."

That was more surreality than Matt could take. He was cold, he was tired, and now he was in an insult contest with Jack Frost's drinking buddy. "Look at yourself, you bum. Just what in the world is there about you I should respect?!" He hadn't meant to yell, but there'd been so much so fast these days, he couldn't stop the emotional flood. No way in Hell he was going to get lectured by some old piece of train trash like this!

Matt expected the man to get pissed off. He even expected the sot might try to get up and come at him. He was walking a thin line here and he knew if, but he didn't care. What was a pickled hobo in a red, white, and spattered dirt-brown coat going to do? Throw up on him? There wasn't anything this human flotsam could do that he couldn't handle. Nothing.

Except cry. Matt stared in mute shock as the old man began to weep. False Santa beard hanging below his salt-and-pepper real one, the Santa practically folded in on himself and bawled. Huge, shuddering sobs racked his too-thin frame under the bulky, stained costume. He was talking between ragged breaths, but Matt couldn't make out the words.

All sense of superiority fled Matt in a regretful sigh. He groaned, standing up and crossing the car to where the man was sitting, and leaned down within arm's reach. "Hey. I'm..." Matthew Engel never apologized; it just wasn't something he did. Not once in his living memory had he said he was sorry about anything. Not one damn thing, even when it had been his fault. But here he was, watching a man dissolve into tears before him because he'd mouthed off like... well... an arrogant bastard.

Before he could say the words, the old hobo shook his head and looked up. In the moonlight streaming in from the half-shut door, Matt could see trails of moisture on him half-grey cheeks. "Ain't nothin', boy. Ain't nothin' you should respect in me. Ah ain't nothin'." The words were still slurred but Matt understood him easily this time.

"Don't say that." Matt put a cautious hand on the Santa's shoulder. "You aren't nothing. I shouldn't have said that."

The hobo lifted his bottle again, not to sip at it but just to wave it in the air between them. "Wah not? You was right. I cain't even play fuggin' Santee Claus onna streetcorner. They fired me and they shoulda! Fuggin Santee Claus gettin' drunk onna job... Ahm jus' trash."

Matt winced, hearing his own thought come out of the old man's mouth. "No. That's not true. Surely you..."

"Surely ah whut?! You see dis outfit o' Santee Claus?" The man tugged at his jacket with his free hand.

Matt nodded but didn't say anything.

"Well, ah only got dis 'acause ah ran away when dey fired me! Ah ain't been warm in so long and dis coat was so nice. Ah stoled it! I ran off and kept it! Santee Claus is a thief... an ah did it right in fronta sum kids!" That provoked another weeping fit while Matt just watched.

He cringed again. He'd been so upset about having to get new shoes because his weren't in the best of shape while this old man was freezing to the point of stealing a Santa costume. The concept of how messed up Matt's priorities had been hit him full in the face. It was literally like a punch to the soul.

"Where..." It was hard for Matt to come up with words right now. "Where are you heading, old man?"

The Santa wept a while more before answering. "Ah was thinkin' ah'd ride to Knoxvul and try fer another train goin' south. Ah wanna git somewhere warm."

Matt nodded; at least the man was aware enough to know he needed to get out of the cold. Drink hadn't addled him too badly.


He blinked for a second before asking the hobo, "Excuse me?"

Another wave of the bottle, this time at his chest under the dingy grey puffball buttons. "Name's Clyde. Not 'old man'."

Another wince. Was he really just that much of an ass? Matt hadn't even thought the term would offend. Sighing, he stuck out his hand. "Matthew."

The man looked up at him like he was holding a hundred dollar bill. Or a fifth of whiskey. Running his tattered green glove on his red wool pants, Cylde reached up shakily and took his grip, completing the gesture. Shaking it slowly, he added, "Pleased ta meetcha."

"Likewise," Matt said. Surprisingly, he meant it.


Many hours later, the horizon out the box car's door started to turn lavender. Between shared drinks of gin, Matt and Cylde had talked about everything from family and friends to where America had all gone wrong. Clyde was firmly convinced that when Nixon had been thrown out for doing what every president before or since had done, the country had gone to hell. Matt couldn't disagree, even though he hadn't been alive then.

Clyde regaled him with how he'd come to be in this sorry state, starting with the Department of Veteran Services cutting off his benefits as part of Bush's new "streamlined Defense budget". Without a monthly check, medication was the first thing he lost. Then his house. Then his car. Everything had fallen apart after that and he'd been a vagabond ever since.

His family lived in Wyoming, Clyde said, but they didn't want him. His son was a politician and a washed-up old drunk like what his father had become looked bad on the Society page. "Ah dun care anyhow!" he told Matt. "Ah didn't take charity frum good folks when dey offered it an' ah'm sure as hell not taking charity frum mah useless son now even if'n he'd give it!"

"Besides," he said to Matt with a conspiritory whisper, "ah think hesa queer. Ah blame his mom fer that." He and Matt shared a long, warm laugh over that one.

For more than an hour now, Matt had been telling Clyde about the past few months of his life. It might have been the gin moving him to reveal so much or just the simple, human need to lighten his misfortunes with another living soul. Surprisingly, Cylde had been an excellent audience, not once scoffing even at the crazy shit Matt was talking about.

When he reached the end of his story. Matt chuckled softly. His spirits really were lighter. "Thank for listening to all that, Clyde. You must think I'm crazy, right?"

No answer. "Cylde?"

Still no answer.

Matt looked over at Clyde, leaned against his shoulder and staring quietly into the dawn. No motion. No breath. Nothing but silence and a small, happy smile over a rat's nest of a cheap white beard.

Matt shifted so he could lay the old man down gently. With one hand, he closed Cylde's eyes for the last time. With the other, he wiped small drops of saline off his own face. He sat for long while, just looking down at the corpse.

Then, saluting his momentary friend with the last of the rotgut liquor, he swigged it back and rested the bottle under Cylde's arm.

"Thank you, Santa," he told the body softly. "You may not have given me what I wanted for Christmas this year..."

He turned his face towards the warmth of the sun.

"...but you definitely brought me what I needed."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Decisions at a Crossroads

Matt stared at the train tracks, trying to make up his mind.

Side by side, the lines would take him either east towards Nashville or west towards Memphis. Both options posed some level of risk and not just because he'd be traveling further into country music-only radio either way. Ugh.

Heading to Nashville meant leaving the rural landscape and starting to enter town after town. More authorities, more contact with locals, and more chances to be seen by agents of the Order. It wasn't much of a risk but given his luck, any chance of discovery was large enough for him not to ignore. He was well-acquainted with what the Knights of St. Michael did to witches.

On the other hand, riding the rails to Memphis would be the absolute last thing the Order would expect. It bought him the element of surprise and gave him the possibility of taking the fight to his enemies for once instead of just reacting to their constant assaults.

Of course, it was the last thing they would expect because it was mind-numbingly stupid.

Okay, Memphis was right out. That left either hopping a train car to Nashville or staying on foot. Matt looked down at his shoes, if pieces of incredibly worn military-grade robber and leather scraps in the vague shape of feet could be called "shoes". He'd put so many miles on this footwear, he was amazed it was still intact.

His magic didn't help that any. He'd recently become aware that his particular gift - entropy - was a double-edged sword. It lent great power when he needed it but it took its toll on his belongings. He'd long since lost his watch, four stolen cell phones, and even a 'jacked car to his magic. Now he was starting to see its effects on his clothing. At this rate, he'd be walking up to the Grand Ol' Opry in his birthday suit.

Waling wasn't really an option. If he lost his shoes in this terrain, his feet would be lacerated and blistered before he made Manchester, much less a major city. The rail, as exposing an option as it was, looked like the only real choice now. Matt settled himself against the train shack and readied himself for a nice, long wait.

Seven minutes later, the blast of a train's whistle in the distance made him chuckle at the world's little ironies. In the trunk, all he could do was wait. Out here, not what he was free? Nothing was giving him a chance to rest. Standing up and dusting himself off, Matt secured his pistols and watched for his chance. The train wouldn't be stopping, so he'd have to do what fugitives called a "hot hop".

It was a dangerous thing, really. In the area between Washington, DC and Florida, the absence of high-speed switching stations and signal equipment limited trains to speeds below 80 miles an hour. That meant most freight engines had a governor that kept their cross-country speed at 79 mph. Not a pleasant thing to jump onto by any stretch.

If the hot hop was mistimed, he could suck a car door in in the face or fall between the gaps and catch a nasty case of locomotive rash. Needless to say, both could be fatal. Hundreds dies every year trying what he was about to and right now, he couldn't use a spell to improve his chances. Damn it.

Matt caught that thought and crushed it. His father never had an magic and he'd stayed one step ahead of the authorities for decades doing things exactly like this. Dad had given Matt a hundred little rhymes to remember during his childhood. One was for just this situation.

Muttering under his breath, Matt started sing-songing. "Little train go by, Matthew wants to catch a ride. Matthew knows you don't mind. Time. To. Jump!" He started the verses at the moment the engine passed him and waited for his moment, waited for a car with an open loading door.

"Little train go by." The bright yellow engine roared by, pulling a long string of steel cars painted in red, green, brown, and black.

"Matthew wants to catch a ride." One by one, the cars roared past the shack, a deafening sound that hurt his ears terribly.

"Matthew knows you don't mind." If everything was right, if the train was one with a governor, if the cars were all regulation size, and if his rhyme and meter were both constant, he could do this. If not...

"Time." There was no turning back.

"To." This was probably going to hurt, but fortunately, if he screwed up? Not for long.

"Jump!" And he did.

The leap was perfect, the timing exact. He sailed into the open doorway and braced himself as the moving train beneath him sent him off his feet the moment he landed. He pitched and rolled, almost falling out the other side.

That was the other risk - both cargo doors being open.

He made sure he was tucked in, leaning as hard as he could to his left side so he careened into the far wall past the deadly portal. His back slammed into steel but at least he stopped inside the car. The alternative would have been brief, unpleasant, and messy.

Uncurling, Matt laid fully back on the car's thick compliment of absolutely nothing. The car was empty, like most of them tended to be these days. It was cheaper for most portage companies to transport several empty cars on a train than to go to the expense of unhooking and storing them at a railyard.

Better yet, there weren't any other passengers in this one. That was a blessing. Matt was alone.

And if he was alone, in a moving train, he was just safe enough to do something he'd needed for going on three days now.


Saturday, December 9, 2006

One Step Closer

The other rule about power lines was that they almost always followed roads. If they didn't, they would soon reach one. It was common sense, really. Utility poles invariably broke down, either from the elements or from Jethro Redneck and his buddies playing a rousing game of "What's tougher? A truck or wood?" One way or another, lines needed servicing.

That's where the roads came in. It was a little known fact that most roads in rural areas were not built to connect houses. They were built to make to either support railroads or help run power and telephone lines. Transport trucks had to drive on something, after all.

This was important to know because rural roads could then be counted on to provide easy access to electricity, communications, and trains for someone on the run.

Every once in a while, having a 20-year fugitive from the law for a father came in handy.

Matt thought about his dad for a moment, then put his feelings away. Mourning his late parents wouldn't bring them back and he didn't have any time or strength to waste on memories. The Heracles enchantment had cost him plenty. A day of unconscious, comatose slumber in a drainage pipe and now advanced stages of dehydration and hunger.

He hadn't been prepared for this side-effect but he should have been. Of course it was going to take its power somewhere. "Nothing is free, not even magic. Especially not magic."

Kathrine had told him that and made him repeat it a hundred times before she would teach him anything. She and her entire coven were dead now, victims of the same bastards that had been hunting him. He tried to rationalize it as the Order catching up with witches they were bound to find anyway but he couldn't fool himself. He had been their target. Lady Moonwander and her friends had been in way of bullets meant for him. No pretty lies would change that fact.

Finally, though it was getting a little hard to see, he came upon a telephone pole with a junction box within arm's reach. Time for another of Dad's little tricks. First though, he'd need a rock. A rock and the strength to swing it as a lock.

Or, he grumbled at his hunger clouded brain, he could just use his bloody GUN.

*BLAM* One dead lock.

Inside was what he'd hoped to find. The universe had thrown him a small break, something he could never count on and doubted would happen again any time soon. The junction box was hollow, as most of them were, but it wasn't empty.

His father had taught him that when you were on the run, it was best to stick to the country and avoid big cities. There were lots of reasons for that but high on the list were golder opportunities like this phone box. Telecommunication companies rarely owned their own poles, his dad explained; they leased them from electric plants. Because power companies tended to use heavy equipment more frequently than telcos, most of the gray metal boxes were left unfurnished.

Out in the country, that meant they were like little treasure chests filled with whatever phone technicians felt like storing in them. It could be a long drive for workmen to come out to these poles; the more they could leave on site the less they'd have to bring with them. In his years as an escapee, Matt's dad had found money, tools, handsets, even porn in these things.

Matthew had found something even more valuable. MREs, just as he'd hoped for. This was obvious the south, where survivalists ruled and gun racks came standard on pick-up trucks. Ready-to-eat meals straight out of an Army/Navy surplus were practically fast food to these people. To Matt, they were a godsend.

A godsend, or the Devil looking after his own. Either way, he could eat. The six pack of beer in the junction box was tempting but he forced himself to ignore the cans. Alcohol would only hurt, not help, even if it was wet. There were sauces in the MREs and drink powders for sugar and electrolytes. Not the same as water, true, but better than nothing.

Sitting down to his ill-gotten feast, Matt considered his next move. The poles here ran east to west and they had a small orange metal tag on them with four numbers and the letter T. That meant Tennessee. Joy.

Also, with poles going east-west, it was a safe best the interstate nearby did the same. The only true interstate in Tennessee was I-40 and since he couldn't even see the shadow of mountains to the east, he was probably between Memphis and Nashville. The realization sent a cold chill down his spine.

Lady Kathy had only taught him a bit about the forces of magic but she'd given him a lot about the forces in the world of magic. For obvious reasons, he'd focused their discussions on the Order. Chief amongst her lessons had been places to avoid and chief amongst those was Memphis.

Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Elvis sightings, displaced blues singers, and Christian splinter sects as far as the eye could see. In the States, the Order of St. Michael had no greater stronghold than their compound south of the city, right on the riverfront.

It wasn't easy saying, "Well, fuck me..." around a mouthful of chicken ala king, but Matt managed it pretty damn well.

Friday, December 8, 2006

The Secret of Life is that It Ends

He stood in the center of a ring of fire, the remains of his enemies. The slow drop of crimson from his fists, red and wet, anointed the earth with their last thoughts, their last dreams. Did they suffer? Did they pray as he beat them to a pulp? Did they regret or feel sorrow that their lives had come to this and now were at a violent, liquid end?

Did it matter?

Matt looks down at his hands, wincing as the pain of the seal on his brow brought him back to the Now. He was still banded, still cut off from the outside world. He couldn't call to his bike. He couldn't summon that sword that hated him so much. He was alone.

Especially now that the Knights of St. Michael were dead. He'd come through the back seat like an avenging revenant, tearing through the steel, fibers, and upholstery with inexorable hands and unstoppable force. The holy golden seal on his forehead kept his magic from reaching outside his person but it didn't do a thing about spells that affected his body internally.

In a way, he'd have to thank the old bum for his advice about learning self-magic. He'd been so focused on perfecting his powers over entropy, he'd ignored the fact that he could empower himself with the self same energies. He'd been practicing that lately, mostly at the elder's insistence. That daft old vagrant had been right; Inner Focus could save his life.

He shuddered as the life of two men rained from his clenched hands. When had he started thinking of that old vagabond as an "elder"? Sure, he had some good advice but Matthew Engel did not need a mentor. No Obi-Wan for this padawan. No sir. He was on his own and he liked life just fine that way.

Of course, it was best not to dwell on the fact that he'd been headed to the Ravenhurst Estate, a manor house known for its hospitality and protection. Better for all concerned not to mention that he was going there to be with his only real friends in the world. No, he didn't like to dwell on such "soft" things. He was a solo act; existence was just batter that way. Matt didn't need anyone and damn anyone who suggested otherwise.

He looked around, trying not to let the sight of the tortured remains of the Knights get to him. One could hardly call what was left "corpses". It was more like a couple of scattered Lego sets made of meat. His hands still hurt from crushing them, from beating them into the consistency of uncooked meatloaf.

There were still shards of bone sticking out of his hands. He wasn't himself feel that pain right now. The Gift of Heracles was still burning so brightly through him, Matt really just wanted something else to hit.

Something else to kill.

He contented himself by searching the refuse of the car he'd torn apart. Life in the trunk had become death in the back seat. Then he'd turned the driver seat into a three foot wide abattoir with four-wheel drive. He didn't remember the wreck but the mangled chassis burning nearby insisted there'd been one. He had been invulnerable to harm then- basically the exact opposite of his normal gift. Just how he'd done that he had no idea, nor was he sure he could duplicate the feat.

Right now, he wasn't worried about that. All he wanted was his guns. He'd earned those and he'd be damned if he was going to leave them here now that he'd dedicated them ritually.

That made him laugh. He had just killed two more servants of the Lord. By all rights he wasn't just damned, he was ensured a deluxe cell in Hell's darkest prison. He chuckled darkly to himself. For the sake of the other prisoners, Satan should be sure to make it in Solitary.

The first gun was easy to find. He was grateful for that; the holy seal on his head made it impossible to feel the weapons. The white handled pistol was laying on the ground where the driver's limb had landed after Matt'd torn it free. He tried not to murmur the "disarmed" joke but it came out anyway.

The black handled gun was a little harder to find. He ended up having to throw aside the car's twisted engine block and dig through about four feet of wreckage and humanity to locate it. There it was, still tangled in the coat of the first Knight. He'd done things he decided to forget to that man on his way out of the trunk. He'd never wanted to consider evisceration a mild word; now he had to.

Tucking both of the guns in his coat, Matt looked around him now with an eye for something other than carnage. The enhancement spell would be ending soon and he'd crash along with it. According to the lore he had on this magic, he'd sleep for at least a day. he had to get somewhere safe; the Order of St. Michael would be coming for this car when it went missing.

Assuming they weren't already.

In the distance he saw electrical poles. It was a start, at least. Everything else for miles around was just countryside. Utilities meant a station on one end and civilization on the other. His father had taught him many things, but right now Fugitive's Law #21 came into play.

"When in doubt, follow train tracks or power lines. Both lead somewhere."

Hands in his pockets, mindless of the dull, growing pain in them, Matt started walking...

A View From the Trunk

The car hit another bump in the road, jostling him awake. He sighed and opened his eyes again, knowing he wouldn't be able to see much.

He was right. There only light came from the dim red of the vehicle's tail lights and a thin crack of sunlight coming in from the trunk. He could feel the ropes around his wrists and the dull, painful weight of the disc pressing into his forehead. They'd banded him.

The bastards.

He'd been hearing about these things. "Holy seals," the old bum had called them. They were pieces of gold about the size of a dollar coin, engraved with a Latin verse and supposedly infused with the might of the Lord.

Might of the Lord? Been there, killed that.

Still, glib as he felt about the power of the Almighty, he couldn't deny the headband's effect. He was about as powerful as Cisco the Wonder Kitten right now. In terms of magic, he ranked somewhere between an unconscious David Blaine and a birthday magician on a four-cake-piece sugar buzz. He could affect himself slightly, as evidenced by his awareness that nothing internal was broken or bleeding, but the outside world was off-limits.

No projective magic. Lovely.

Wherever this car was taking him, it looked like he was going to be along for the whole damned ride...