Thursday, January 25, 2007

Coins for Charon

Dropping the gear into 3rd for more pulling power, Matt began to cuss out the hills of Tennessee.

The Smoky Mountains were a trial for any vehicle, but his was ill suited for the sudden slopes and sheer drops of its cliffside roads. He wasn't really in any danger; the roads were icy but he could handle those. The real trouble was his lack of sleep and the weary lethargy that lingered in every muscle. he had his magic back, but having it all rush into his body at once had taken its toll.

Now he was nodding off on the pass between Knoxville and Chattenooga. Not a good call. He could sustain himself on pure stubborn for a while, but eventually he would have to pull over or succumb. Here, there was no shoulder to stop on, no rest areas to catch a quick nap. It had been more than a hundred miles since the last gas station and more than that since the last hotel. He hated the thought of giving his hunters any time to catch up, but there was quickly becoming no other option.

Not that stopping was an option either. No place to do it meant not doing it at all. Matt's car slid under him again, coming frighteningly close to the edge. Past it, a sharp drop of more than a hundred feet awaited him, waiting to swallow him up. Eyes wide and a little more awake now, Matt pulled his vehicle back to the center line and pressed on.

For nearly an hour, this was the way of things. Awake for a while, a moment's slip, a longer moment of panic, and then awake again. Nodding off, waking up, all the while bordering on the edge of a heart attack. This could not go on. He would have to stop soon; there wasn't any choice. Even if he had to ditch the car and find a place to hole up on foot, he would have to stop. It was either that or plunge into the mist-filled ravine and end the chase permanently.

And that was not an option.

Almost as if in answer to an unspoken prayer, a small shoulder appeared on the snow covered road ahead. Just a stone embankment with a metal railing around its far edge, it was big enough for one car only. It was enough! He slowed down, easing into the turn that took him onto the shoulder. Mist rose up from the gap beyond, but he didn't care. The metal railing wasn't even intact, but that didn't matter. He could stop now; he could get some sleep. That was all that mattered...


The railing was broken?

And that wasn't mist. It was smoke.

Matt groaned. "Damn it."

He was out of the car, one hand on his left gun and the other holding the door for support. The break in the railing was new, its edges still shiny and uncovered by the snow still falling all around him. Another car had recently done the same as his, only it hadn't stopped on the shoulder.

It had gone over.

Running as fast as he dared to the side, Matt used a simple spell to sharpen his sight. It was one of the many tricks Mary had taught him. Bright-eyed girl, smarter than he would ever be, and now very dead. He'd grieve for her, he'd grieve for all who'd died to keep him alive. Someday. But not now. Right now, he had to make those sacrifices mean something. Maybe there was still someone to help down there.

The smoke made it impossible to see, so he reached out with his free hand and clawed at the air. Rakes of entropy shattered the obscuring wind, sending streamers of smoke in all directions, opening up a path between him and the ground. It didn't last long, but the tunnel of sight was enough for him to see what lay at the bottom of the mountain.

A van, its side doors wedged forever shut by its impact with the ground, was wedged between a pair of massive rocks. The smoke was billowing up out of its underside, now turned to the sky. Oil and gas were burning freely, one of the stones imprisoning it blackened by the blaze. The car hadn't been there long. That meant that despite how terrible the damage appeared, someone could actually be alive down there.

Even Matt had a hard time believing that. A wreck like that had to be fatal. Who could have survived something like that? He turned back to his own car. He had his own life to worry about, not the one-in-a-million chance of someone living through such a plunge.

He stopped, hearing Mary's words in his memories. He'd asked her why the coven had taken him in, and her answer had shocked him. "Because, silly, that's what magic does! Magic is life, and life is hope. If we didn't help you, who'll help us when we need it most?" Of course, that had been before the Order found him and killed them all. Magic hadn't helped them. No one helped them. Even he'd done nothing, hiding while the Knights butchered them all.

Growling, hating himself for being such an over-emotional twit, he turned around and walked back to the edge. This was pointless.

He holstered his pistol.

No one survived that crash.

Matt opened his coat.

They are all dead down there.

He reached into the air, hand closing around empty air as he summoned forth his sword of radiance. The angel's blade, held now by someone unworthy.

There's no one left to save.

With a deep breath, Matt let himself feel a moment of faith. He didn't know how this would work, or even if it would work, but he had to try.

You're only wasting time you don't have.

And with that, he leaped off the cliff, plummeting into the smoldering crevasse below...

...and halfway down, his trenchcoat flared wide, becoming arcs of glorious shadow. Light and dark, the glow of his sword and the shade of his beating wings, trailed through the air as he descended to the burning earth below.

Amazed, Matthew settled to his feet beside the broken van. His wings folded, almost of their own volition, and vanished, fading into his back and becoming a coat once more. One swipe of his sword took the side of the vehicle off, its edge cleaving effortlessly through steel and glass. A hundred pounds of refuse fell away, allowing him a look inside.

Two bodies were pinned upside down, their blood raining onto the roof of their crumpled coffin. Dead, utterly dead, they were beyond his help. His tainted magic could feel their demise; he knew without seeking such knowledge that they had been dead before he got here. Nothing he could do for them now.

But his magic also revealed something else, something it couldn't touch. Entropy magic easily pierced objects and the flesh of the fallen, but it had a hard time affecting the living. That was the province of White Magic, the power of life. Somewhere in that twisted hulk, a heart still beat. Faintly. Slowing... Slowing...

Matt jumped from the ground to the rocks to the top of the van and struck as swiftly as he could. Layers of the van carved away; he had to be careful but he also had to be quick. He could have easily ripped the van apart with a few strokes, but he couldn't be sure where inside the life was; one false stroke and he'd silence the heartbeat ringing in his ears.

Finally, the undercarriage was peeled away and he could see the van's lone survivor. A young girl, a bloody mat of hair covering her face, suspended by her seat belt in the middle of the backseat bench. Her back turned at an awkward angle, the girl's peril was obvious. She was suffocating, her chest too constricted to allow for much breathing. He knew moving her could hurt her further, but at this point she was damned if he didn't anyway.

His sword lashed out one last time, cutting her straps as he grabbed her by the shirt. She was small, maybe ten years old, so he could easily pick her up with one hand. That was good, since he had only one arm free. Cradling the little one to his chest, he aimed his sword at the sky and begged it to bring back his wings.

Pinions of darkness erupted from his back, his coat expanding to banish the smoke around him. With one beat of them, Matt took to the air and flew upwards at a dizzying speed. The sheer cliff soared past him, disappearing as he passed the edge of the road and arched into the snow-shrouded sky. Much as he wanted to stay in the air, enjoying the feel of flight, the girl in his grasp needed help now.

Matt landed, his wings vanishing again, and ran to his car. Throwing the back door open, he had her on the back seat and was checking her over. Her ribs were spongy, probably broken, and her hair was stuck to her face because shards of broken glass were in her cheek and forehead. Her bleeding had stopped, but the damage was done. She was pale and cold, probably only a few minutes from death.

"Damn it!" Matt hadn't done so much just to lose this girl now. "Don't you dare die on me!" He had no healing magic. None. His powers had been corrupted long ago; the rite that awakened his powers had also twisted them away from the Light. He could kill easily, but he couldn't so much as close a paper cut.

"Fuck it." Entropy was all he had, so entropy would be how he saved her. The wings thing had worked; he was feeling lucky. "Fuck it all."

He closed the door and climbed into the driver's seat. His coat was over the girl now, keeping her as warm as it could. He was more than an hour from Chattenooga, just as far from Knoxville behind him, and the nearest town was probably too far for what little life existed in his back seat. Only one thing left to try.

But first, something he'd promised Mary he'd always do if he came across the dead. The last time he'd done this was for the old man on that train back near Nashville. He'd hoped he'd never have to do it again.

So much for hope. Matt rolled down his window and threw a handful of change from his pocket over the edge of the cliff. Four quarters tumbled into the smoke, falling into the darkness below. "Farewell. May your journey be a peaceful one." He didn't really believe in such things, but Mary had. Honoring her wishes was the least he could do for her.

But now, another young girl was depending on him. One he could save.

Matt gritted his teeth. "Here goes nothing."

And with that, he focused his power in a way he'd never wanted to try. It was dangerous. It could easily go out of control. One slip, one moment of failed control, and it could be the last thing he ever tried. And it was the child's only hope.

That thought bolstered him and, against his better judgment, Matt used raw Entropy to tear open the sky, rend open the world, and collapse space between his car and the nearest hospital.

It was the most frightening piece of spellwork he'd ever done...

...and it worked.

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