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."
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.
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..."
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."