June 24th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Outside Broken Arch
The ground was getting flatter. The woods were getting wetter. The general humidity of the summer had become a kind of sauna. Fred kept them near water whenever possible. There were small towns they could visit for food. He kept their path close to the road.
“There’s too much of a chance we could get sick,” he explained when Jill worried over this. It had been three weeks and she still wasn’t sleeping well. “We check anyone in as a John Doe if we have to. The rest of us are campers, we found them, and so on…”
“It bothers me that you’re so good at lying,” Jill said one night, and Fred turned his head on one side.
“There’s a difference between telling the truth and being honest,” Fred pointed out, and fed another log into the fire. “Just look at the Fair Folk.”
“I’d rather not,” she said, but turned the words over before falling asleep.
Soon the ground was getting drier. Somehow, it had gotten even flatter. The woods were getting denser, and Fred was looking for a path to take them southwest towards the border.
“Before we hit the marshes,” he explained.
He’d brought a small hand-crank radio with him. In the deeper woods, they’d pull it out and listen for a while, if there seemed to be nothing following them. They were huddled around a lunch of canned fish one afternoon doing this, when Pastor stood up and craned his neck as if looking up at the sky.
“What is it?” asked Rose.
Jill sat up straighter, and Fred looked up.
“Something,” Pastor worried. “Are there clouds in the sky?”
“No,” said Fred.
“But it feels like rain,” Pastor worried.
Fred quickly began gathering their things.
Pastor pointed north and east. “It’s moving like a cloud.”
Rose stood as well. Her coat, which she’d been wearing like a cape for the weather, she quickly pulled back on. She checked her kerchief. “Jill, you have a hat?”
Fred tightened the cross strap on his pack. “Elf-shot.”
It was a word that meant, “Run.”
The terrain was soft sod at best and under the burden of luggage, every distance felt twice as far. Any conversation was broken by beating feet and aching breaths. The weeks of travel had done them well, though; Rose hadn’t thought she could run so far.
“Why would they be attacking the marsh?” Jill panted after her.
“Town nearby,” Fred called back. “It’s a chance.”
“We can’t take it near there if not!” Pastor argued.
“Do you see any roofs around here?” Fred countered, too distraught for irony, and on they ran.
Rose pushed her feet into the sod, now and then glancing back to make sure Pastor followed. They were spreading out for the sake of the space. Fred was ahead, the fastest, and she worried he was keeping slow for them. He had his hatchet out.
The shot came down like high-speed needles, nicking bark and tearing leaves. Rose felt a barb catch her sleeve and pumped her legs faster to run.
Elf-shot was as old as the Fair Folk, a long distance weapon when glamour and charm failed. It wasn’t used for any military purposes (the faeries had better toys for that now); it was a game, akin to chemical warfare for the soul.
Rose felt an invisible needle pierce her arm. There wasn’t anything quite like that pain. Knives cut. Clubs bruised. But needles just drove inward and onward, parting tissue at infinitesimal levels, letting movement saw around them at its own risk. She clutched her arm and ran on, the sound of ripping leaves behind her catching her steps. She heard Jill cry out as a similar bolt struck her a few paces back.
Rose felt her head start to fog with an odd curiosity. It wanted to look back, to see what was following. The world was far more interesting under the effects of the poison. Long-term thoughts fogged and short-term curiosities were better. It was all she could do to keep running. She dug for her coin.
“Rose, is this really the time?” Jill shouted ahead.
Without looking at it, Rose slapped it onto her hand without a flip. She needed the ritual for the important decisions, she’d resolved, and that conditioning might save her now.
Heads. Run on.
More needles. Was there anything more interesting than a sky so blue?
They broke out of the marsh and into a lightly wooded area. Ahead was a stretch of asphalt, and past that the trees thinned further around the band of an interstate. Fred ran on ahead. Rose hurried after the bright beacon of his hair.
“Road!” he shouted.
They hurried up the embankment. Rose reached behind her as Pastor caught up, pulling at his hand to ease him along.
Another needle, like a nail to the back of her head. Rose swayed. Pastor had to help her along awhile instead.
There was little traffic at the moment. Fred looked down the road and hurried them onward.
“Any black cars?” Jill asked breathlessly. “They’d be close by…”
“No,” he said, then, “White and blue though.”
Jill had no answer beyond a pitched, breathless wail as they hurried onward. Finally, they approached a gas station. Across the street was a fast food restaurant with a faded red and yellow sign. A storage facility, gray and fenced in, sprawled to one side of it. A steeple-topped temple to the gods stood across a lawn from the other.
“Station,” Fred managed to say.
They hurried under the shelter of its service center, dropped their packs, and fell back against the wall. Fred recovered first.
“Let’s not look like we ran here,” he advised with some irony.
Rose’s head felt like it was swimming. “I can’t move my arm,” she reported. That, apparently, was all she had the energy left to say. Her arm went suddenly rigid with the cold pain of the invisible dart. Her head was no better. She sank down against the wall and clenched her teeth. She clutched at the wall. There was someone there, wasn’t there? Standing in front of her in army khakis…
She turned the coin.
She looked up. “Dion,” she whispered.
“What about him?” Jill sank down on her knees beside her, leaning her head against the wall. She was clutching a hand back at her shoulder. Fred swallowed a few times, then patted Pastor on the back. The blind man was leaning against the wall, his eyeless sockets turned first to the sky and then to Rose. His blindfold hung loose about his neck.
“Your brother?” he asked quietly.
“It’s nothing,” said Rose. The needle in her head was driving inward. It was making the rim of her vision go dark.
“How’re the clouds, Pastor?” Fred asked.
“It’s stopped a way’s back,” Pastor managed. “I think just past the road. What was that you said, about the cars…?”
“They’ll be here soon. Come on…”
Fred led them across the street, Jill swaying as she walked. Rose held her arm rigid.
“We could try the temple,” Jill suggested.
“Let’s try behind the temple for now,” said Fred. “No use dragging anyone into this.”
Rose stumbled after him, paused as she and Jill staggered into each other.
“Rose, are you okay?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’ve got a bunch of elf-shot in my back, of course I’m not okay,” said Jill tightly, but she offered her hand. Rose took it.
The rim of shadows around her vision was getting tighter. Rose put her free hand forward like a woman stumbling in the dark.
“They’re turning off the road,” Fred reported as they rounded the corner. “Damn, damn, damn…”
“What’s the blue and white mean?” asked Pastor.
The cars were stopping on the shoulder along the road, lining up in front of the storage facility. There were odd hood ornaments on each one, something like the shape of a sphinx in flight, glinting in silver.
“There’s nowhere to go for miles,” Jill whimpered.
“We need to get back to the woods,” said Fred quietly. “It’s harder to search. There’ll be St. John’s wort to treat the shot…”
At that point, a door squealed open and a woman stepped out. She was wide and matronly in her bearing, with clear brown skin and smart brown eyes.
She was carrying a bag of trash in one hand, carefully away from her dress, though she wore an apron.
She saw Fred first, then the rest of them. And there was an unsurprised, appraising look about how she met their deer-in-the-headlight stares.
“Well ‘en,” she said. “Bit shy t’come in?”
Fred glanced at the woods. Pastor adjusted his blindfold quickly.
Something in the woman’s eyes changed from observant to knowing. “Y’all need to get inside now,” she said. She set the trash just inside the door and pulled at their arms, one after the other.
Rose winced and clenched her teeth around a cry. She thought she felt footsteps echoing behind her as the woman pulled her inside. The woman made a sign against evil and these stopped, at the threshold.
She shut the door. The four found themselves standing in a dark hallway running along the back of the temple, with several doors leading to small offices, restrooms, and the main sanctuary.
Fred spoke first. “Ma’am, do you know there are cars out on the road from Central City?”
“I know it,” said the woman. “She comes by here quite a lot o’ the time.”
“Not in here, mind you,” the woman said, then added to Rose, “You’re sick in a bad way. Come…”
She led them down the hallway. They passed stained glass windows with old iconography altered slightly to accommodate the new—better foliage for the hanging tree, bright armor for the virgin, a wolf chasing the moon… They reached a pale blue door at the last one.
There was a cup like a hollow horn hanging on the doorframe just inside it, filled with a bit of honey wine. The woman splashed a few drops of it over her shoulder as she opened the door. She stepped aside for them and they did the same, Fred with some awkwardness, and Pastor with a backwards turn of his head. Then she stopped Rose just inside the door.
They’d stepped out into a large sanctuary. It was wide and the ceiling was arched over four wedges of long, wooden benches. The floor was carpeted, but for some hardwood lanes to either side of it.
“That way,” the woman said to Fred, pointing down a lane. Turning to Rose, she dipped her fingers in the horn again. With these, she carefully crossed two lines on Rose’s forehead. Rose listened to her murmured prayers until the ring of darkness widened again to let in the light.
“Come along now.”
With weak movements, Rose leaned on her shoulder all the way down the lane, and then limped through the door of a private study.
“You can see the road from here,” the woman said, leading her to a chair. “Not a noise, and lock the door. We’ll say the high priest is out since it’s truth. Keep the lights down. If I leave, wait for the phone.” She gestured towards a heavy oak desk.
“Who is out there?” asked Pastor, worried. “Why can’t I see her?”
“In’eresting question,” said the woman. “There’s St. John’s wort oil in the cabinet there.” She nodded for Fred. “Now keep quiet and low.”
She walked out into the sanctuary. Fred followed to obediently lock the door behind her.
Jill felt her body give up to exhaustion and sank into a chair, staring at Rose. Fred worried at the room’s only window, which was stained glass with a few clear panes to see by.
Pastor stood, still and unsure of the space around him, wondering if they’d backed themselves into an inescapable trap.