Justin watched helplessly as his mother picked up Fen's picture and clutched it to her. She clutched it as if it would keep her from drowning as a flood of emotions surrounded her. When she finally looked at him he was surprised by the intensity of his gaze.
Her voice was harsh and desperate. He wasn't quit sure he understood what she'd said and as he leaned close, she whispered it again.
This time he heard the despair and fear in her voice.
"Momma?" he called, trying to reach her, trying to understand.
"I can't take it," she told him, and when he looked in her eyes, he saw the pain and fear. "I've already lost one son, you tell me I've lost another. How man sons will they take from me? Go, before I lose you too," she pleaded.
As he looked at her, serpent's voice came back to him.
He had told him, ‘I could never leave you child...any more than I could leave your brother.' And when he had asked if Serpent meant Fen, he'd said ‘No, the other one. The healer. Clearwater.'
"Momma," he called to her. "Tell me about him," he called.
"Oh baby," she cried as she pulled him to her. You're so much like him. I can't bear to lose you too."
He held her as he tried to piece together what had happened. ‘Another brother,' he thought to himself. ‘The other one' Serpent's words echoed in his ears.
Wulf's felt the night air brush past him as he stood waiting for the signal. He'd left the others waiting in the van. If anybody tried to pull anything, he wanted them to be able to move quickly, one way or the other. He tried to convince himself that they would take the sensible route and not throw their lives away if it came to that, but he knew better.
Jade and Daff had been violated mentally. Felix had been killed and Mercury... Mercury had been lost to them because of it. That was not the sort of thing his team took laying down. Any one of those incidents would have been enough, but all of them added together just made the team that more resolved to go down fighting the next time.
He prayed this wasn't the time. They needed the information Sable seemed so desperate to impart, but why now? Why was it so important that they had to leave Mercury alone in the hospital. That he had to know.
As he waited, he could feel Sable's men watching him. He tensed as he felt the movement behind him. One of them was closing in. He forced himself to remain still. Sable's men were only looking after the old man. Besides, there was no need to tip them off as to how fast he could actually move.
As the man approached he recognized the foot steps. "Evening Rosco," he called softly. The footsteps stopped. Wulf could almost feel the disbelief as the man stared at him for a minute.
Rosco, for his part relaxed a hair and shook his head. "Come on, he's waiting for you," he urged. With that he turned and started walking deeper into the park.
After a few steps he turned to see if Wulf was following and let out a gasp. Wulf was right behind him and he hadn't heard a thing. He stopped as he crested the hill and pointed towards the band shell.
"He's waiting for you down there," Rosco told him.
"Thanks," Wulf countered softly.
"I'm really sorry about Felix and Merc," Rosco added. "They will be missed."
Wulf bit his lip. ‘Merc is still alive you ungrateful bastard,' he all but screamed inside. ‘And we should be with him instead of chasing ghosts in the middle of the night.'
"There's nothing you can do for him lad," Sable's whispered from the shell. "Come, we must talk before it is too late."
"Its already too late," Wulf growled. "It was too late the first time he attacked my team. Now Felix is dead, and we've left Mercury at the hospital on your say so."
"It is necessary, you must believe me," Sable told him. "Come we must talk. The one they are searching for is safe. Soon they will be back looking for you."
Wulf bowed his head. He was getting so tired of Sables's all knowing attitude.
Sable watched Wulf as he approached. He could feel the man's agitation, but he didn't care any more. Things had been allowed to continue for too long. All of his secrecy had only aided his enemies. At first he thought it was for the best. Briar's actions had seemed slow and awkward. He'd realized too late that Briar knew exactly what he was doing from the start. He was the youngster in this battle, not Briar.
Briar was too well practiced to be anything other than what he was. Sable knew this now. He'd recognized the being and the spell that Ellingsworth had used to summon it there. This knowledge was not an easy load to bear.
Now it was up to Wulf and his team to find the people who could banish it. It, Briar, Rahalleth and any of a dozen other names IT went by had to be defeated and soon, before he found a new host, before he could bring his full power into being on this plane.
Still, there was at least one advantage to his existence, and that was the fact that he knew all the spells that Ellingsworth had access to, at least, originally. He also knew the Banishment ritual, but Briar had already grown powerful enough that it would take several mages to successfully work the spell.
‘And the stronger he gets, the less our chances are,' he told himself. "Wulf, come here," he urged as the man neared. "I am truly sorry for the danger I have placed on your head through my friendship, and the losses you and your friends have endured. I am sorry for having kept my own council on this, for I fear it has cost you greatly. Now I must tell you everything I know, before it is indeed too late. For I am old, and growing weaker. Soon I will not be able to withstand our foe."
Wulf sat beside the man and waited to hear what he had to say.
Bear felt the tension in the back of his neck long before the spell hit. He'd been driving, so there was little he could do other than brace himself and prepare for the worst. He grimaced as the wheel was wrenched from his hands and the truck skidded sideways.
The truck careened sideways as he fought for control. He forced himself to concentrate on the road as the back of the truck threatened to whip around on him.
"I think they're onto us," Geoff dead panned as Bear brought the truck back under control.
"Nah," Bear countered as he scanned the area behind them. "Must have just been one of those freak gusts of wind."
He smiled at Geoff, but he was staring at something in the rearview. "Bear," he called worriedly. "I better take control, you're needed in back."
Bear flipped the switch as Geoff jacked in. Once Geoff had control of the truck, Bear looked around to see what had upset the man.
"What the..." the sentence died on his lips as he caught full sight of the source of their problems. "I don't think they want to capture us any more," he told Geoff, but he was in no position to hear. "Guess this is where I earn my pay," he sighed.
Behind the convoy, the sky had turned a very disturbing shade of orange.
Red as far at the eye could see. It started as a blaze behind them, but now it completely surrounded the convoy. Bear could feel the tension as several members of the Wilson family piled out of the trucks and prepared to face their attackers.
He alone could sense the four forces that had surrounded them. They paused as if they were waiting for some kind of signal. Then they moved in unison, closing in on the small cluster of Trucks.
‘Four Fire elementals,' he thought in disbelief. ‘Four!'
For the first time in his life, Bear didn't know what to do. One was bad enough. He'd seen the footage from the van, seen what Duck and Tracker had been forced to face down. Now he was faced with four of them, four much more powerful elementals, all working together.
He realized that was the key, they were working together. That meant one force had brought them there. Either one mage or a team, it didn't matter. They were the real problem. If he didn't take care of them before the elementals did their bidding, there wasn't going to be much left of any of his people.
He reached out to the spirit world and was rewarded with a gruff laugh.
‘Been waiting long enough for you boy.' It was bear, the spirit of his family.
Bear smiled as he reached out to the spirit, and the spirit folded himself around Bear. Then he was wearing the skin of bear. Together they searched the sky for forces at work. Then he found them, the spirit of bear guided them to the enemy.
A circle of mages stood waiting for him. They smiled as he approached.
‘Couldn't resist the challenge could you?' The words came from all of them as they raised their arms in greeting.
‘You threaten my friends,' Bear growled. ‘Did you expect any less.'
‘Of course not,' they answered. ‘Will you join us?'
He paused as he felt the threat behind the offer. It was a formality, nothing more. They already knew his answer, knew that he would refuse. It was not in bear's nature to work with ones such as these.
‘You know I cannot,' Bear answered. ‘Now leave, for I grow tired of your games.'
As one the circle of mages channeled their power into one at the center of their circle. Bear could feel the power as their combined power forced him to his knees.
Bear growled in anger. The bear spirit growled in rage: This was his world, his domain, his cub they now threatened. Bear watched as bear pushed himself to the forefront. One swipe from his massive paw threw three of the them to the ground.
The others regrouped quickly, sending another surge to the center man. The focus. Again threads of energy whipped around him.
‘We must get him,' Bear thought as the pain from the attack fed through them both.
‘You think I don't know that cub?' the bear spirit countered. ‘But to get to him, we must break the circle.'
‘Then break it,' Bear answered fiercely. ‘I will get him.'
‘Spoken like a true bear-cub!' the bear spirit thought with approval. ‘Go!'
On the spirit's command Bear launched himself from his protective mantle into the thick of the battle. As bear ravaged through the ranks of the mages, Bear closed in on their focus. The others realized their mistake a minute later, but it was too late. Bear had cast his own circle surrounding himself and the other mage, effectively locking the others out until their combat was settled.
The man glared at him as he looked around and found himself locked in. If that weren't enough, Bear had added one more piece to their combat. The man tried to run to the border, only to find his ankle bound by a tether which in turn was tied to a stake in the middle of the circle.
‘What is the meaning of this?' the man demanded.
‘By western tradition, I as challenged, choose the meeting site and the combat style,' Bear countered. ‘You have challenged me, and risked the lives of those I call family. A bond far stronger than that which holds your friends.'
Bear turned and showed the man the view outside the circle. Their circle broken, his lodge, his team had fled. ‘Now, fight like a man!'
The man glared as he drew a knife and cut the tether. As he faded from the plain, Bear gave him a mental push.
‘No honor!' he swore as the bear spirit joined him.
‘But dangerous no less cub. This battle is not yet won. They will be back.'
‘I will be waiting,' Bear answered.
As he turned he froze. He hadn't expected anything quite this soon. Facing him were 4 figures, each pulsed with fire.
Bear forced himself to stand erect as he dismissed the circle he had cast. If he were to die, it would be fighting, not hiding like a child.
‘Fear us not,' the elementals pulsed. ‘You have freed us. Fight with honor, live the same.'
Bear watched in surprise as the four vanished from sight.
‘Go now cub, there will be time later,' bear told him...
Bear shook his head as he found himself back in the cab of the truck. Geoff had disengaged himself from the controls and was watching anxiously.
Bear smiled. "They know we're the decoy," he told Geoff. "May as well head back to base."
Geoff nodded as exhaustion overcame Bear. "Just rest, we'll take it from here," Geoff reassured him.
Bear smiled as he slipped into the stages of exhaustion. In his dreams Duck watched over him in the morning light.
Duck winced as the first rays of light stabbed at the back of her skull. Even the suppressors on her eyes didn't seem to want to function. It had been another long night, but at least nothing else happened. It was as if everything they'd been fighting had just disappeared.
"It's like that," Ange told her as she joined Duck on watch. "Sometimes it seems that we're fighting days on end and then nothing. It could be like this for days, weeks even, or it could start right back up as soon as you sit down for breakfast."
Duck nodded. "Been there," she stated as she looked at Ange. "How are your people holding up?"
"Well as can be expected," she answered. "Candide was one of us. And from the looks of things, she'd been one of his even longer. No one even suspected it. Now they're all looking at each other, wondering if they can trust each other."
Duck nodded grimly. "Its a hard lesson to learn, but it may keep them alive."
"It could get them killed," Ange countered.
"There is that," Duck agreed. "Best thing we can do is try to get them before they get us."
Ange thought about what Duck had said as she looked out over the encampment. "What's you're game plan?"
"Figure we'll be leaving this morning, we've got to get some things together before I go the Chessman's Club tonight. You should probably pull up stakes as well."
"Kinda figured on that." Ange told her. "Have you figured out the communications yet?"
"We've figured out the cryptography," Duck admitted. "Problem is still delivery, but I think Tracker's working on that."
"I meant to ask you about him," Ange told her softly as she looked at Duck. "Are you two an item?"
"Item?" Duck asked blankly, then smiled as she realized what Ange was asking. "Sorry, I can be dense sometimes. Tracker's my partner, my best friend but we'd kill each other inside a week if we tried to be anything else. Why?"
Ange chuckled. "Just curious I guess."
Duck nodded. "He's a good man," she told Ange. "But he's seen a lot of heartache. If you're interested in him, go softly. But don' t you dare play him."
Ange nodded. Duck's reaction confirmed what she'd said. It wasn't a jealous warning, but a defensive one. "What happened?"
Duck shook her head. "He was hurt, badly," she stated. "Just leave it at that."
Ange nodded again. It was obvious that what ever had happened had hurt her as well. ‘Tighter than friends,' she thought to herself. ‘Family.'
"Stop by the office before you leave," she told Duck.
"Yes Ma'am," Duck countered with a salute and a wink.
Ange thought about her conversation with Duck as she headed back towards her office. The possibility that Canide wasn't the only convertee they had under their roof was unnerving. At least Duck refused to pull punches when it came to security.
"Boss?" she turned as Wheels came jogging over from the garage.
She waited for Wheels to catch up and then looked at her. "What's up?"
"Allison," Wheels answered tersely.
"What about him?" she demanded as she looked around and saw no sign of the man.
"He left, sometime last night," Wheels told her.
"I don't have all the details," Wheels stated as she tried to catch her breath. "Jonesy said he saw him at the gate."
Ange swore to herself. ‘What was the man trying to prove?' But then a darker thought crossed her mind. ‘What if he was up to something? What if he was working for Briar?'
Wheels waited for Ange to digest the information, then nodded towards the bus where Duck and Tracker were. "What about his friends?"
"They're leaving soon," Ange told her. "We'll break camp once they're clear."
"What about Candide?" Wheels asked quietly.
"I don't know," Ange answered softly. "I just don't know."
Wheels nodded then put a hand on her friends shoulder. "We'll get by," she stated.
Ange looked at her and let out a deep breath. "I hope to god you're right."
"Tracker," Duck called on the radio as she approached the bus.
"Clear," came Tracker's reply.
Duck smiled to herself as she climbed into the van. "How's sleeping beauty?" as she looked over towards Whisper.
"I've felt better," came the hushed response.
Duck rewarded him with a grin. "We're going to have to head out," she told them. "You coming with us or staying?"
Whisper sat up and looked at Duck and Tracker. "I'd like to come," he told them. "I just don't know if I'm going to be much help to you all."
Duck looked at him and smiled. "Probably the same as usual," Duck responded, her aura wreaking with mischief.
"And what would that be?"
"Comic relief," she answered with a wink.
"Comic relief?" Whisper countered in mock disbelief. "Miss ‘I can't keep a straight face' Wjowski think's I'm comic relief? One of these days my dear, you're going to wake up and I'll have turned you into a duck."
Duck smiled at him as he stated to pantomime pushing up his sleeves and preparing a spell. Then he caught sight of Candide. His smile died.
"Lets go," Tracker suggested as he picked up the mission pack. "We've got some serious ground to cover before tonight."
With that, they moved out.
Rabbit opened his eyes as the door opened and the Rabbi let himself in. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.
"Yes sir," Rabbit answered as he looked around. "Ian?"
"Ian is fine, and more importantly, safe," he answered. "You did well to bring him here Derrick. I would appreciate it if you could tell me what has happened."
"Since when?" Rabbit asked as he sat up and ran a hand through his hair.
"Since the police started looking for you," the man answered.
Rabbit looked at the man in surprise and then nodded. "I'll start a little bit earlier," Rabbit assured him as he took a deep breath. "Some friends had been in an ‘incident' earlier, we were looking for him. There was a sniper. It was him or my brothers. I took him out, his backup tried to take me out. The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur. I woke up in a hotel room. Boomer was fussing over me and Kenny. Something happened to Kenny," Rabbit told him as his eyes got that far away haunted look.
"Seems when he healed me, he got attacked, I don't know. We split up when the police arrived. I could feel something hunting me. I was scared, but then it went off looking for other prey, so I followed it. That's when I met Ian. It wanted him. Almost had him too."
What of your brothers?"
"I had to leave them," Rabbit answered softly. "Had to get Ian someplace safe."
The man looked at him he could hear the guilt and worry in the younger man's voice. He put a hand on his shoulder and nodded comfortingly. "These are indeed desperate times. If my messengers can be of assistance please, do not hesitate to call on them."
Rabbit nodded. "Guess its time for me to leave," he stated in a half question.
"I'm afraid so lad," the man answered. "My men will see you safely to your brothers."
"Thank you," Rabbit answered.
"I'm sorry it couldn't be more," he told Rabbit. "But I'm afraid my influence isn't as strong as it used to be."
"You've been more than helpful," Rabbit assured him. "Can I talk to Ian before I go?"
"Of course lad," the man assured him. "He's in the chapel playing."
Rabbit smiled as the man offered him a hand up. Together they headed towards the chapel.
It was as if, for the first time in his life, he truly understood the nature of the music. It had always been, would always be. It was the job of the singers to keep the music pure, and to lead the others in chorus. As he contemplated the fact, the music swirled around him. Here in the burnt out remains of the old church, it was almost tangible.
He knew that Rabbit would be leaving soon, to once again walk the line between the song and Rahalleth. He regretted that he would not be going with his new friend, but the song was here, and he had much to learn from it before he faced the dark singer again.
The music swirled again, as if it sensed his concerns. Then, the music took him and filled him up until he couldn't help but sing.
Between the dark, between the shades
Of black and grey, and patches in between.
There you'll find the pathway,
that border sides of light.
The pathway between, the roughest road,
struggling in the balance, to keep the dream alive.
The pathway between, the roughest road,
when you fall, pray you fall on the side of light.
Between the fire, between the flames
of hate and distaste, and everything in between,
there you'll find the battle,
between the sides of light.
The pathway between, the toughest road,
struggling in the dream, to keep the balance straight.
The pathway between, the toughest road,
when you fall, pray you fall on the side of light.
In between the shades, between what is seen
where the certain and the uncertain dance,
there you'll find the struggle
that determines who you are.
The pathway between, the holy road
struggling in the balance, to keep the dream alive,
And on the path the journey lies.
When you fall, pray you fall on the side of light.
There's a battle on the pathway,
when you stand, pray you stand on the side of light.
As the echo of the song faded, he looked around and saw Rabbit waiting with the one he called Rabbi. He knew they had come to say good bye, but he also knew the battle was far from over.
"I'll see you later," he told Rabbit. "Be careful."
Rabbit nodded and gave him a lopsided smile. "You too kid," he answered.
They stood there a moment, looking at each other. Both were both singer of sorts, but they were so very different. Still, Ian knew that the music would see them through the times to come.
"What makes you think they'll show up here?" Finagle asked Boomer for the fourth time in as many hours.
Boomer looked at him and shook his head. "You're used to being in control aren't you?"
Finagle glowered at Boomer for a minute then nodded. "Point taken."
"They're going to need the stuff they have stashed here," Boomer stated as he looked over at Kenny.
"But if you know to come here, won't the enemy?" Mercury countered.
"Well, this place was setup a while ago," Boomer answered. "Hopefully its old enough that Briar won't be able to track it."
"God I hope so," Kenny grumbled in agreement. His head still hurt and he really wasn't in the mood for another encounter with Briar. Especially not in his current state.
"And if they don't," Boomer added. "We take the Beast and leave them an IOU, because we could really use the equipment."
Kenny shook his head and regretted it immediately. As his stomach started churning again, Finagle started towards him worriedly.
"I'm fine," Kenny grumbled as he waved the man off.
"Heads up," Mercury grumbled as he felt the all too familiar pull of magic. "Somebody's probing the place."
Duck eased her pistol out of its holster as Whisper signaled them. "Somebody's in the storage unit," he signed.
"How many?" Tracker signed back.
"Two, maybe three," Whisper answered with a shrug. "I'd have to go astral to find out any more for sure, but that increases the changes of being detected ourselves."
Duck and Tracker exchanged looks and shrugged.
"Your turn," he told her as he leaned down slightly.
Duck stood straight until he'd picked her up and positioned her in a fireman's carry. Whisper shook his head as Duck settled into the roll of ‘liability,' and Tracker positioned his gun under her legs.
"I'll just wait over here," he stated as he took cover behind a group of trees. He felt much better with a brick wall behind him as he remembered how much trouble Duck and Tracker tended to get in and out of.
Tracker looked at him and shrugged. "You'll miss a great party."
"Right, with you occupied with our poor defenseless Duck, I'll be their first target," Whisper signed. "Thanks, but no thanks!"
"Have it your way," Tracker countered.
Whisper gave them a worried look. He knew Duck and Tracker were good, but even skill didn't always determine the outcome. Their luck had to run out sometime. "Be careful," he whispered.
"You too," Tracker answered. "Keep your eyes peeled."
With that Tracker carried Duck to the door of the storage unit and palmed the door open. He could feel Duck tense ever so slightly as he stepped inside. He knew from the reflex action that she could feel some one waiting for them in the shadows. He could feel it too. As he moved in, he positioned himself so that he was between Duck and their attackers.
"Hold it right there," a voice growled from above.
Tracker raised his hands as best he could without letting go of Duck, or more to the point, his gun. "Three heat signals behind the Buff," Duck's message echoed in his ears.
"Look I don't have any money," Tracker announced as he let a little bit of desperation creep into his voice. "My friend's been injured and..."
"Tracker?" a voice called from behind the van, he could hear worry in the voice as it continued.. "Mercury, hold your fire, its Tracker."
Tracker let out a sigh of relief as he finally recognized the voice. "Boomer?"
"Duck's hurt?" Boomer asked worriedly as he came around the front of the truck.
"Was," Tracker answered as Duck slid off his shoulder and landed on her feet.
"But I got better," Duck added as she smiled innocently at Mercury.
Boomer let out an audible sigh of relief. "I was so worried that something had happened to you two."
"What about you and the police?" Tracker countered as Duck stretched.
From his vantage point, Mercury watched her holster the gun she'd been carrying. "Interesting friends," Mercury grumbled as he continued to scrutinize the newcomers.
"Where's Rabbit?" Duck asked worriedly as the others came out from the other side of the Buffalo and she realized that the third signal wasn't Rabbit.
"He had to take a friend somewhere safe. Hopefully he'll be joining us shortly," Boomer answered.
Tracker had just started to relax a hair, when Boomer froze staring up at Mercury.
Mercury held his hand up, signaling a hold, as he felt the pull of magic outside the storage area. "More magic," he warned as the sound of gunfire erupted outside.
As the others dove for cover, Duck and Tracker stood there looking at each other for a moment. The sudden look of worry flashed between them.
"Whisper," they stated in unison as they headed for the door.
"Damn it, Duck, Tracker what the hell are you doing?" Boomer demanded.
"Just load up the Buffalo and get ready to roll," Tracker yelled back When Boomer didn't move, he yelled, "don't just stand there, move!"
Duck didn't wait for a response as she hit the door and rolled outward, gun drawn. Tracker ran through the door a second later and was met with a hail of bullets.