The summons had been subtle; Malachi hadn't even felt her spell claw its way into his mind before it was too late. No one had noticed his departure, and he had not used the bond to tell his Master of the spell; the nature of it prevented even that.
She had thought of everything to get him back. And as he crept through the forest, he tried to think of a way to escape, but the spell prevented that as well.
Eri's voice stopped him cold. He turned, his feet wanting to move the other way. "Go back."
"Where are you going?" She stood in the forest, her hair shining in the moonlight, a thin sylph of a child, easily killed.
"Go back," he repeated, and turned away from her again, despair washing away any hope he had of freedom.
"Malachi--" Eri touched his arm and he snatched it away from her, tears blurring his vision now as he fought with the spell.
"Go back!" He growled the words and ran from her, shifting into the form of a Hound for speed.
She caught up with him easily, and nipped at his back legs to slow him down. He snapped at her, half mad from the spell, inwardly cringing when he realized what he had done.
There is something wrong, Eri said, not through the bond, but silently anyway, her lips drawing back from her teeth. What is wrong with you, Malachi?
Pain poured through his mind and he shifted shape, curled up on the ground with his arms pressed over his head. He bit his lip to hold back a scream, but even then Eri felt a portion of the pain and backed away, shifting into human form with a frown on her face.
"You are under a spell." She reached out to him, her touch burning into his skin. "Let me help you."
"No, child." Malachi recognized Stefan's voice even as he heard the growling of his remaining Hounds. "You cannot help him."
Eri stood up, her arms folded against her chest. "Who are you?"
"My name is Stefan. I--I once knew your Mother." Stefan bared his teeth. "And you do not want to fight me, child."
The spell continued its pull. Malachi crawled towards his goal now, even as his mind desperately begged him not to abandon Eri.
Why couldn't his cursed 'talent' break this spell?
He glanced back once as Stefan's remaining Hounds closed in on Eri, who shifted shape and fled into the night.
Stefan's Hounds did not follow her. Malachi supposed he could be thankful of that, at least.
He crawled on, the spell's relentless tugging forcing his arms and legs to move, despite his effort to stop his momentum.
"You will die here," Stefan said from behind him, his voice completely disinterested in Malachi's fate.
"I will curse you, then," Malachi gasped, and shifted shape so he wouldn't have to speak to Stefan again.
When he glanced back, Stefan had vanished with his Hounds, as if they had been mirages all along.
By then, it was too late. He had reached the house, which loomed in all its glory above him.
And the dampening spell prevented him from even attempting to contact his Master one last time.
He had heard Josiah's question through the bond, despite her spell, but he could not answer it.
The door was open; inviting him inside. In the form of a Hound, Malachi crept up the stairs, dreading Magdalen's touch and the teeth of Stefan's Hounds.
But when he walked into the parlor, only Magdalen sat there, with Seth's body lying in the middle of the rug, mocking him.
Without a word, Malachi shifted shape and knelt beside him. "You will die for this," he said, his anger pushing past the pain.
"I did not give you leave to speak," Magdalen snarled. "Leave him. He is a corpse now, and nothing more."
"He was one of us," Malachi whispered, ignoring her order.
She had drawn a circle around Seth's body, encompassing the entire rug. Malachi hadn't noticed it until now, and when he tried to step outside of its boundaries, something sizzled across his skin--a barrier of some kind.
He did not try again. Instead he glared at her and folded his arms. "What do you want?" His mind was clearer now, the pain almost gone. He could think again, however good that would do.
"I want the Wild Hunt," Magdalen said. "I want your Master. And I will have him. He will follow you here."
"Did you try to summon him?" Malachi asked. "And fail? The Hunt is free now. You will not bind him again."
He hoped his words were right, at least; there was always the faintest possibility of damnation.
Seth's throat had been torn out by teeth, not cut by a knife. So Stefan was responsible for his death. Malachi tucked that away for later. After he had a chance for revenge, if he lived through this.
"You do not know he will follow me," he said.
"Don't be naïve," Magdalen sneered. "Of course he will follow you." She walked around the circle, watching him from all angles. "You broke my spell again. It is strange, isn't it, that two of Gabriel's Hounds have some sort of talent?"
Malachi shrugged. "It's not so strange." He hesitated. "Did you know that Althea is dead?"
Even that only gave her a moment's pause. "Good riddance," she said, and spun away from him so he could not see her face. "She was a traitor to the Council."
"Yes, with your aid," Malachi said. "Surely you realize that this cannot end well for you. Too many people know what happened." He had lost much of his fear now--perhaps that stemmed from Althea's death more than anything. Oh, he realized she could kill him, but he wasn't afraid of her anymore.
"The only thing that matters is that I control the Wild Hunt," Magdalen said. "And I will."
"No. You will not."
Malachi almost laughed at the look on Magdalen's face when Gabriel appeared in the parlor. None of her spells had heralded his arrival. Perhaps Josiah had helped with that.
Gabriel glanced at Malachi. Do not react. Josiah is outside, attempting to destroy the dampening spell. Eri is safe.
"I have your Hound," Magdalen said. "He will die if you do not bind yourself to me." She motioned with one hand and half the floor vanished.
Malachi scrambled backwards as Seth's body slid into the water below, vanishing under the depths without a sound. The floor underneath him creaked and groaned under his weight, threatening both his safety and his life. He backed up too far and pain sizzled across his arms. And then, of course, he scrambled too far forward, and almost lost his balance.
Magdalen laughed as a board cracked under Malachi's weight. "The floor will not hold forever," she said. "And I can make sure he drowns."
"I will not bind myself to you," Gabriel said. He took a step forward, towards the circle, and the house shuddered.
Another piece of the floor vanished. But this time, Malachi thought that Magdalen had not intended that to happen since it was outside the circle.
"The Council knows what you have done." Gabriel stopped as a hole opened up in the floor right in front of him. He stepped around it, closer still.
Malachi perched on the edge of what was left of the floor, as close as he dared to the edge of the circle. "You did not ask how Althea died," he said, hoping to distract her.
Behind Magdalen, the walls cracked, burned and vanished in an instant. Stars shone overhead and then vanished as the spell regained its hold. How long could this go on?
"I don't care how Althea died," Magdalen snapped. "If you will not bind yourself to me, then your Hound is dead." But instead of making the rest of the floor vanish, she reached her hand through the circle and pulled Malachi back against the barrier. "Shadow take you, give me your light!"
Pain seared across Malachi's nerves. He felt his talent--or whatever it was--struggling to block Magdalen's spell, but it was too powerful, too vast. He screamed, but then--
Too much power breaks the spell, Josiah said inside his mind and used the bond between them as a conduit to add his own power to the mix--his own talent that Althea had lived on for ten years.
The floor collapsed, and for a moment, Magdalen's grip was all that held Malachi upright. But even she could not hold him forever, and when her grasp slipped--
Gabriel was there, a solid weight behind him, pulling Malachi to his feet as the circle collapsed, and adding his own power to tip the balance of the spell.
With all of his might, Malachi visualized a mirror.
And Magdalen screamed.
Mirrors weren't conduits. They reflected, nothing more, quite possibly the best kind of shield anyone could envision, despite what Lucas had said.
The house collapsed in an ungraceful mess. The backlash from Magdalen's spell bounced off the mirror as well, and that, in truth, was her downfall. She staggered back and tripped before she could attempt to harm anyone ever again, vanishing into a hole that grew wider as they watched, safe on the edge of the grass where Gabriel had pulled Malachi to safety.
The house continued to collapse, almost as if it protested the spells. The chimney fell first, and then the remaining walls, until all that remained was a pile of rubble to mark Magdalen's grave.
Malachi felt a hand on his arm long before he realized that the threat had ended. He would have banished his mirror if he knew how; his mind refused to believe that he was safe.
"Let me," Josiah said, and released it. "I didn't think she would use that spell."
Malachi blinked. "That--That was the spell Althea used on you, wasn't it?" Slowly, feeling returned to his arms and legs; he realized Gabriel was holding him up, and that Zechariah and even Eri were nearby as well, lending him strength.
"And you survived?" Malachi's mind felt flayed, almost, and a headache throbbed behind his eyes. He wanted to sleep, to escape the inevitable questions and the aftermath of this.
"Yes." Josiah's worried gaze met his own. "And you will too."
"I'm so tired," Malachi whispered. "Is it over? Can we go home now?"
"Is her spell broken?" Gabriel asked, breaking his silence for the first time.
"I--I think so," Malachi whispered. "I am sorry, my lord--"
"I don't sense any spells," Josiah said after a moment.
"Stefan wasn't with her," Gabriel said. "We will search for him, but later, after everyone is healed and rested."
"So that means we can go home?" Malachi asked, closing his eyes.
"Yes. Magdalen is gone. We'll return for Seth's body later." Gabriel swung Malachi up into his arms.
"Let's go home."
god knows when (May 2005)-9/3/06 4:29pm
revision/addition 1/11-4/4/07 10:30PM
Lucas opened his door at the knock, half-expecting to see Malachi, or Zechariah, perhaps, sent to inform him what had happened. He knew bits and pieces of it, of course; he'd helped Gabriel raise Seth's body out of the destruction, but he had stayed away. The Hunt needed time to itself for a little while. Time to heal more than anything, but also time for Gabriel to decide on their new role in the world.
The other members of the Council had accepted his version of events, but Lucas had not gone into great detail. It was enough for them to know that Althea had been a traitor, working with Magdalen to get control of the Hunt. They didn't need to know that Malachi had effectively killed her. Lucas did not want to put him through any sort of a trial, even though it had been a clear-cut case of self-defense.
The Hound on his doorstep--
Josiah held himself as if he wasn't quite sure of the reception he would receive. He had not aged, but he was much paler and thinner than before, and his gaze reflected some thin thread of his ordeal.
"Gabriel let you come here alone?" With Stefan still somewhere at large, Lucas couldn't believe Gabriel would be so lax, especially so soon after Josiah's reappearance.
Josiah smiled and shook his head. "No. Zechariah and Thomas brought me this far. They'll come back when I am ready to leave."
"My house is open to them as well as anyone else," Lucas said. "They could have stayed."
"Our Master thought you might wish to speak with me alone," Josiah said. "And he wanted me to tell you--his daughter was born last night." He hesitated. "Her name is Chloe." A smile slipped past his lips, and he held his hands a span apart. "She is just about this big."
What did that make Josiah? Her older brother? "That is a fine name. I assume everything went well?"
"Our Master's lady is resting," Josiah said. "But yes. Sennet told us that everything would be fine."
"Are you--" For a moment, Lucas didn't know what to say. "How are you?"
"I am--" Josiah's mask of calmness slipped. He stood there for a moment, staring at Lucas, then sank down into a chair and covered his face with his hands. "I am here. I am alive."
"Come inside," Lucas said, holding the door open. "Do you wish to talk about it? I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't want to do."
Josiah didn't move at first. He remained huddled on the porch chair, his shoulders shaking, his hair veiling his face.
"Josiah." Did Gabriel know that he was this affected? How could he not be affected? "You are free now. Remember that."
"Yes, I know." Josiah's voice caught. "But I--"
"What are you afraid of?" Lucas asked gently.
Without looking up, Josiah whispered, "I am afraid that someone else will die. And that the bond will be broken again. And that I will be alone again." He took a deep breath. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"I would like to assure you that no one else will ever die and that the bond will never be broken again, but I can't do that," Lucas said. Especially since Stefan had yet to surface. "And you know that I can't. Neither can your Master."
"I know all of this," Josiah whispered. "But--But it--"
"It doesn't help."
"No." Josiah's voice was very small. "When I--I--"
"Come inside," Lucas said again.
This time, Josiah slid off the chair and straightened up, his eyes bright with unshed tears. When he stepped into Lucas' house, some tension seeped away from his bearing, and he actually managed a smile before gesturing to the couch and chairs. "You--You changed things."
"Yes, a bit," Lucas said. "But there's one thing that hasn't changed around here."
"What would that be?" Josiah asked, still staring, as if he had never ventured inside a house before in his life.
"The library at Darkbrook," Lucas said. "Oh, there are more books, I'm sure, but the library itself has stayed the same. And I'm certain you would just as welcome there as you were before."
"We haven't spoken of--of Darkbrook yet," Josiah said. "I think--I think Our Master wishes me to stay home, at least for a little while."
"I imagine he would," Lucas said. He wanted to--to reach out to Josiah; as he would any other student, but Josiah was not--in any way--any other student. "Is he listening to this conversation?"
Josiah shook his head. "No. He dampened the bond between us. We are--effectively--alone, for the moment, at least."
Did that make it worse, then, knowing that Gabriel wasn't listening? "You know what happened, then--when you disappeared?" This was almost as awkward as his first attempt to find out if Josiah was truly a Hound.
"My Master blamed you," Josiah whispered. He glanced away, just as uncomfortable as Lucas. "Malachi would have died that night if you hadn't intervened."
That was the first time Josiah had even mentioned Malachi's name. "How is Malachi?"
This seemed to be a safer topic. Josiah's shoulders straightened. "He is supposed to be resting. Magdalen--she trapped him before she died. And she used the same spell on Malachi that Althea used on me."
Lucas had managed to find a tiny bit of information about that spell in the week and a half since Magdalen's timely death. "And he lived?"
Josiah shrugged. "I helped him overcome it, but he's still--recovering. He is under Sennet's care." He added that last part almost fearfully, as if he expected Lucas to demand access to Malachi at any moment.
"Good." Lucas hesitated. "We could talk further in my library, if you'd like. I'll make some tea--I have cookies and leftover cake from my niece's birthday celebration--"
In that instant, Lucas realized what was wrong. It wasn't the awkwardness of fear--truly--it was the awkwardness of what neither of them could bring themselves to say.
"Josiah, I am more happy than you realize that you are safely home," Lucas said gently. "And I don't expect we can just pick up where we left off. I know that. But I don't want you to be a stranger, either. I don't want you to be lost to me--or Darkbrook--forever."
Josiah's lower lip quivered, but he did not lose his composure this time. Instead, he nodded, his eyes bright. "We can--We can speak more in the library," he whispered. "I--I would like a cup of tea. If you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind," Lucas said. "Wait here--or wait in the library if you wish. It hasn't moved. I'll be right back."
Josiah smiled, and for a moment, he looked like the boy he had seemed to be before. "Thank you."
Malachi opened his eyes. For a moment, he couldn't remember why he lay in a bed, under a thin quilt that had seen better days, but then he remembered Magdalen, and her spell, and his reaction to her venom.
"What do you remember?" Sennet asked from where she sat across the room.
Malachi licked his lips. "I--I don't know. What should I remember?"
He stared at her. Was she joking? "Malachi?"
Sennet nodded. "You didn't know that before."
Coldness settled in Malachi's stomach. He clutched the quilt around him, shivering despite the warmness of the air. "I did not? My own name?"
"No." Sennet stood. "May I approach?"
"Of course," Malachi said, confused. "Did I prevent you from approaching before?"
"You could say that," Sennet said, and smiled at him. "You learned your lesson a little too well, I think. If you really wanted to, you could block your Master from your mind."
This was worse, even worse than Magdalen. "No. Don't say that." He almost pulled away when she took his hand, but let her take it at the last minute. "Don't--"
"You've done it already," Gabriel said from the doorway, his voice soft and unthreatening. He held a tiny bundle in his arms--a bundle wrapped in a soft swatch of cloth.
Malachi closed his eyes. He remembered something about a baby; something fleeting and quick in the midst of confusion.
"Her name is Chloe," Gabriel said. "It is more of a human name, but Emle likes it."
It was a lovely name.
"Would you like to hold her?"
When Malachi opened his eyes, his Master blurred in his vision. "Are you certain you can trust me to hold her?" he asked, not really knowing the answer to his own question.
"I think the worst--this time, at least--may be over," Sennet said, and squeezed his hand.
With her help, Malachi managed to sit up and lean back against a stack of pillows. The room briefly reeled around his head, but it settled quickly as Gabriel approached to place the sleeping bundle of baby in his arms.
She was tiny and perfect, with near-invisible eyelashes and wisps of pale hair peeking out from under a knitted cap. When Malachi touched her tiny hand, she curled her fingers around his finger and wouldn't let go.
She is--She is beautiful, my lord.
Yes. She is. Aloud, Gabriel asked, "How do you feel?"
Malachi considered the question. "I--I'm confused, my lord." He had no free hands, so he settled on a shrug. "Sennet said I did not know my own name."
"You did not, last time," Gabriel said. "Josiah says it's a leftover effect of Magdalen's spell."
"Your mind is still casting out her influence," Sennet said. "And it will pass."
"Do you know that for certain?" Malachi asked.
"Of course not," Sennet said. "You and Josiah are the only two people who have ever survived that spell, muchless lived to talk about it afterwards. But I am hopeful of your complete recovery."
Still, even with the miracle of Chloe in his arms, Malachi could not leave the matter to rest. "And if I do not recover? What then? My lord--" He tightened his grip on the baby and she squawked and opened her eyes.
Hardly daring to breathe, Malachi stared into her gaze. I am sorry, little one.
Something--something soft and unformed, but also powerful and curiously alive--washed through the bond. It wasn't an invasion, truly, but more of a question, and Malachi felt the others' shock and interest just as he realized what had happened.
He would have dropped her if he had been standing. Instead, she nestled in the crook of his arm, smiling up at him with toothless gums.
"What exactly did you say to her?" Gabriel asked, his voice fighting for control.
"She--" Any other time, his tone of voice would have caused Malachi to flinch, expecting punishment, but he did not even hesitate. "She used the bond, my lord!"
"I know," Gabriel said. "What did you say to her?"
"I--I told her I was sorry," Malachi whispered. "I woke her up. I didn't mean to."
"I guess you didn't know this would happen?" Sennet asked, keeping her voice low.
Your name is Chloe, Malachi said through the bond. You are beautiful, and I will never let you come to harm.
This time, her response was less aware and more sleepy. She closed her eyes and gave a little sigh, almost as if the initial use of the bond had been much too exhausting for a tiny baby.
And perhaps it was. Malachi glanced up at his Master. "She's asleep again." He kept his voice low and soft.
"I see that," Gabriel replied. "Would it surprise you if I said I don't know what would happen if you do not heal?"
Malachi had almost forgotten his unanswered question. He considered every possible reply, then sighed. "No. It wouldn't. At least not anymore."
"We will wait and see," Gabriel said. "But for now--Chloe needs to sleep, and so do you."
Sleep held no peace in Malachi's mind. "But what if I don't wake up myself?" he asked--a possibility that frightened him more than he cared to admit.
"You will," his Master said. "Now sleep. The worst is over. Magdalen is gone."
But Stefan still remained. Malachi closed his eyes as Gabriel lifted the baby from his arms. Despite the fact that she weighed almost nothing, he could still feel her absence. But her smell clung to his skin and followed him down into the deep healing darkness of sleep.
Perhaps the worst was over. But even then, the spectre of Stefan haunted his dreams.
THE END FINALLY!
If you've gotten this far, thank you so much for reading. Authors love comments! Please feel free to leave one. :)
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