I. "A Boy named Ted"
Page 1


"SCHISM"

“You can’t be eight already. Ah refuse to accept dat! OOF! Even dough you seem to weigh what a ten year old would weigh, you!”


“Ah’m too big for da spacewalk Pawpaw. No way day gettin’ me in dere....unless maybe if you come in dere wit me.”


“Teddy, anyone can go in da spacewalk!”


“Well, if you go in den Ah’ll go in me too Pawpaw.”


“THen, dear, say it right. People will think you’re some kinda of white trash when you grow up.”


“Whatever, mamma.”


“BOY!”


“THEN, THEN! THU, THU, THU!”


“Alright, T-boy. Now go enjoy your spacewalk.”

“You ought to go easy on da boy Belle. It’s his birtday.”


“Well, his daddy and I don’t want him to walk around talking like a mudbug when he’s addressing the Senate or taking his Presidential oath!”


“He knows the differnce. Kid’s sharp.”


“And where do you think you’re going, Gavin Benoit?”


“Ah got a thing...with Teddy’s uncle Glenne It’s business. No way ah can miss it, me.”


“Oh, no! Don’t you leave me to give that boy another one of your excuses! You’re gonna be right back, right?”


“No. We’ll be a few days at least. Outta town. Ah’m sorry, ah shoulda mentioned it sooner but yer son gets so upset. Ah’ll make it up to him. Ah’ll send him something in the mail he’ll love.”


“I bet you will. You know, for a crawfish farmer, you and that son of yours sure do take a lot of out of town trips. You sure you’re not spending all your time in some Opelousas brothel?


“Nonsense, cher! My brothels are all in New Arlens!”

“Don’t forget your hat, daddy-in-law.”


“Right, cher. Tell Ted’s daddy ah’m sorry too. Me and his brother have to see about dis shipment in person if we wanna keep in business.”


“Don’t worry about it. He’s more used to you disappearing than Ted is.”


**********


"BRING ME TO LIFE"

        A bead of sweat trickled down Gaval’s face, hung suspended from his chin for an instant, and then surrendered to gravity and dropped into the darkness. The Ragin’ Cajun’s breathing was sharp, controlled, but still weighted and heavy from fatigue. He wasn’t sure how long they had been at it now. A few hours, at least, and still nothing to show for it. His fingers played uneasily along the length of the stake in his hand, and his telltale bandoleer alternated sharpened stakes with vials of holy water. They’d lost most of their best equipment to customs officials while trying to leave the U.S., and it was starting to show. The stake he now clutched had been whittled from a broken branch earlier that day. Taped to his jacket’s forearm sleeve with duct tape - the industrial-grade variety, not the kind that started mutating your DNA - was a sturdy flashlight with which to cut through the darkness. Most days he wouldn’t have minded being so poorly armed...a plain wooden stake could put a vampire out of its un-misery just the same as a sharpened vibro-steel one could. Tonight, however, there was no false security to derive from them. This was enemy territory…


        The tiny Swiss village on the eastern tip of the country - all right, more of a hamlet, with maybe four hundred souls if you counted the livestock - was quiet at this time of night, stilled and all but devoid of obvious life. Darkness reigned supreme, choking the alleys and the main roads alike with inky shadows in which anything could lurk. And in one of these shadows, the most unthinkable of creatures was lying.


        “Bravo team to Alpha team.”


        Gaval pressed his back against the aging brick wall of the town hall, taking a few seconds to breathe fully before bringing up the hand radio he clutched and whispering the reply. “Gav here. You find sometin’, Nabob?”


        “We just finished sweeping the northeast residential area. No sign of the Spectre.”


        The Cajun cursed quietly. “Nabob, dis town ain’t nothing but ‘residential area.’ We got to do better den this.”


        “Tell me about it.”


        “Have your people sweep on to de residences on de northwest side. Make sure to be thorough, dammit. De Spectre can hide just about anywhere.”


        “Trust me, I know,” came the former Slayer Chimneysweep’s embittered reply. “Nabob out.”


        He looked back through the darkness at the figure leaning up against the empty town hall to his right. Illuminated dimly by the moon overhead was a familiar face, the trainee - no, he reminded himself, a soldier now, not some baby trainee - named Sasha. She wore a black tank-top and camouflage pants, as though it might do some amount of good in concealing her from the monster, and was breathing just as heavily as Gaval, a thin veil of sweat shining on her face and neck like gossamer. Clutched in her hands was a plain stake depressingly similar to the one that the older Slayer held.


        “How you holdin’ up, cher?” he prompted between breaths.


        “I’ll be a lot better when you stop asking that every three minutes,” she said, glaring. “Ah’m fine, boss.”


        “Just checkin'. Guess it's how ah deal with anxiousness. Not counting that Phasmus training mission ah haven't been in charge of a group on a field patrol in a while.” Sasha smiled introspectively. That mission didn't go very well for her either, but it was to her credit that Gaval didn't bring it up. Gaval's anti-Spectre cadre was doing well, holding up under the pressure. That was good. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. “When was the last sighting?”


        “At least half an hour ago.”


        “Half an hour…” God, even in a village this size there was no telling how much damage the Spectre could inflict given this much time to itself. “We have to keep movin’.”


        The two Slayers crept out from alongside the town hall, a two-story administrative building that nonetheless managed to dominate the hamlet’s skyline. A few dim streetlights lit the main street that provided access to it, and the Austrian flag flapped carelessly in the slight autumn breeze. The layout was fairly simple; the town hall served as a focal point for the township, which had its commercial heart only a street or two over in the form of an open-air market. Radiating avenues like the spokes of a bicycle wheel branched out from there, and along these dusty roads most of the residences could be found right out to the periphery. Already Slayer teams had swept through the streets of the southern residences, trying to make as clean a search for the diabolical creature as they could. There was only so much they could do at night, though, and the Spectre could always double back on them. That was its nature, after all, and that was what Gaval dreaded about it so much. It was an enemy that one couldn’t see, touch, or even predict with any accuracy. It could slip soundlessly anywhere, gentle as a stray whisper lost on the wind. It could kill quickly, and just as silently.


        Stealth was as fierce a weapon as any in the Spectre’s repertoire. Unless they could learn to pin it down fast, it would be the doom of the Slayers, too.


        Check everywhere. Gaval had tried to hammer that into the recruits before they hit the streets. Now he found himself taking his own advice, creeping along the poorly lit street, staying in the shadows as much as possible, angry, fear-filled eyes sweeping every corner of the night, watching for a tell-tale shimmer or distortion in the air. He could sense Sasha’s presence only a heartbeat behind him, sweeping her gaze around with a belligerent caution. It was good to have her at his back; he trusted her, probably more than he trusted any of his other recruits. Still, though, this was taking far too long. Over the last few hours he felt himself losing control of the situation, watching slowly as it slipped out of his fingers. He hated that feeling, possibly more than anything else, and his patience was starting to wane. It’s got to be here…goddammit, it has to be here somewhere…where the hell IS IT?


        He stopped himself. No, he couldn’t get angry. Not here, not now. Had to exercise some control. Get a grip, Gaval, getting mad isn’t going to find it any faster.


        Get a grip.


        Get a…


        “There!”


        He had been using whispered tones for the past two hours. Sasha’s sudden half-shriek of warning caught him totally by surprise, and the Slayer Cajun nearly stumbled as a result. Catching his balance, he whipped around, stake at the ready, to where Sasha was pointing.


        THERE!


        A shimmer in the air, the barely half-visible sign of the incorporeal creature, caught for a split second in the light of a crude gaslight street lamp. There was no mistaking it. He had been waiting to see it all night.


        He brought his arm - and the flashlight taped to it - upwards, catching the distortion of the creature where it stood. Even illuminated, though, it was hard to see, and before either of them could react it slipped away, quickly disappearing down the shadowed street.


        “Hot damn, it’s about time!” he shouted, jerking the radio up to his face even as he began to run. “Gaval to all teams! We found de Spectre! It’s headin' for the market square! All teams fall in and try to pin it down!”


        Blood pounded in his ears even as his boots pounded the hard concrete, the dull fury starting to build up again thanks to the adrenaline. Fatigue melted away. He kept the flashlight raised, the beam of light bobbing erratically as he ran, occasionally catching a fading glimpse of the Spectre’s ethereal body fleeing towards the marketplace. The village’s commercial heart was only a street or two over…soon every Slayer that they had was going to be converging on it. Nowhere to run, nowhere to escape to.


        Still plenty of places to hide.


        He was dimly aware of Sasha following him, his mind acknowledging it only in a peripheral sort of way. A few other shadowy figures emerged from the darkness at a full run as well, other Slayers heading towards the market, crude weapons drawn in anticipation. This was it.


        The market square wasn’t large, but in the looming darkness it was a mighty labyrinth of old Victorian houses and twisting architecture. In the daytime it wouldn’t be imposing. Here, though, with a dozen large shops and houses surrounding the central plaza, there were any number of places for the Spectre to slip away. Gaval’s keen eyes flashed through the market as he ducked behind a large wooden barrel meant to collect rainwater. A few streetlights had courteously been lit, and in their waning glow he could see his comrades and recruits slipping behind cover all around the market, waiting for his instructions. Sasha crept onto a dark wooden porch a few meters to his right, the planks creaking slightly beneath her feet as she moved, sweeping the area with her gaze as well.


        It had to be here somewhere.


        Gaval held the radio back up to his mouth. “On my mark, all teams converge in de square! Sweep everywhere! I saw it heading dis…way…”


        His voiced trailed off.


        Something moved behind him.


        A second later a high-pitched shriek and an infernal chattering noise sent terror and chills up his spine as it crawled through the air from directly over his shoulder. The Ragin’ Cajun distantly heard Sasha yell some kind of warning, but it was too late. A cold hand seized his neck before he could turn or roll away, and the bitterness of defeat washed away the adrenaline like the ocean’s tide. He let out his breath slowly. He was dead.


**********


        The terrible ring of tension and defeat saturated every Slayer in the market.


        Before anyone else could move, Sasha appeared beside Gaval, thrusting her stake in front of the distorted mass of air directly behind the older Slayer.


        “Consider yourself slain,” she said.


        The grip on Gaval’s neck was released, and the Slayer Cajun threw his stake down to the ground in disgust, turning about to face the Spectre, irritation written in the sweat across his brow.


        “You still ain’t got the chattering down quite right, Chause.”


        “That should be the least of your concerns,” the Spectre replied bitterly. “Right now you are dead.”


        A few other Slayers joined them, covered in sweat and teeming with frustration as they jogged across the marketplace, some of them old and familiar faces, some of them newer acquaintances. Amongst them was Nabob, his Beretta pistol hanging loosely at his side. At least he had a real weapon. He wiped his brow and glanced over at Gaval. “Well. At least you found him.”


        That didn’t seem to console the Cajun any. “How long…?”


        “Four hours.”


        “Felt like eight.” Gaval said, shaking his head. “Dat ain’t nearly good enough. There ain’t no telling how much damage the Spectre could do in a village like dis given four hours…or how far it could get if it decided to run.”


        The Spectre grunted with annoyance and abruptly the slight distortion in the air faded to reveal Jabez, the leader of the half-dozen Rogue Slayers mixed into the group, wearing a spectacularly clashing Oriental-style robe. His long face and thin black hair were free of the sweat that marked the rest of them, and he didn’t even seem to be breathing hard, despite the fact that the bastard had evaded them for four hours. “Fortunately, running seems to be all this killer phantom of yours is interested in.”


        Gaval scowled. “Just wait ‘til it slows down, pal, then you’ll be screamin’ a different tune.”


        So far, though, it hadn’t, and already it was starting to grate on Gaval’s nerves something fierce. God, it had only been a day or two since the two groups - these ‘Rogue’ Slayers and his own trainees, Slayers in training often referred to as ‘Seedlings’ in the Slayer community - had come together to hunt down Plague-Sever. He couldn’t remember much about the trail, now...mostly just a blur of shouted orders, rocks, early Alpine snow, and the all-consuming rage that beat inside his chest like a kettle drum. Gaval had driven them as fast and as hard as he could, barely letting any of them - Rogue or seedling - stop for rest. It had made for a grumpy bunch of teenagers and an irate batch of Slayer-wizards (he was still trying to sort out which scared him more), and in the end it hadn’t done all that much good. The Rogues’ divination magic was, apparently, spotty, and while they had found a dead mountain climber the day they started the chase there hadn’t been any more prominent road signs that Plague-Sever had passed through the neighbourhood since. Knowing that the Spectre had started off heading toward the east, Gaval had kept them going in that direction, until just after dusk tonight, when they had arrived outside of this little Swiss hamlet that looked as though it had been lifted straight from the set of “The Sound of Music.” Even a few hours of rest had been leaving Gaval twitching, though...thus the combat exercise.


        He couldn’t fault that, though. The idea for a midnight training exercise for the Seedlings against an invisible opponent had been his, backed up by Nabob and Jabez. But four hours...? If it took his Seedlings four bleedin’ hours to hunt down an invisible clown in a clashing robe, how were they going to fare against the Spectre?


        When it slowed down, of course.


        “...Might have helped some if any of your other Rogue buddies had bothered to come out here and use some of their magic,” Seth Bourque, a pre-Chimneysweep in the Seedling group, was saying. “They’re probably still back at the camp sound asleep while we’re out here busting our butts.”


        “Then it would surprise you to learn that my comrades are just outside the edge of this town, and have been for the past four hours, watching your performance from a distance,” Jabez replied coldly. “And undoubtedly laughing. Still, it is rather disappointing to know that you missed the point entirely.”


        “Point? What point?”


        “Any juvenile Rogue with enough magical potential to pull a rabbit from a hat can pierce an elementary cloaking spell such as the one I employed. The point, boy, is that you and your kin here cannot. You must be prepared to improvise against an opponent you cannot see, and if that means hunting an invisible foe through dark streets all night then so be it...”


        “Hey, we were trained to take on Plague-Sever,” Sasha interjected, stepping between Seth and Jabez and glaring at the Rogues’ leader. “We’ve been training for months!”


        “With what? A blindfold and a tape recording of someone grinding their teeth?”


        “Lothos has really loud teeth...!”


        “Keep your voices down,” Nabob said sullenly, holstering his Beretta. “People live here, and they’re probably the kind of people who think World War One is still on. I’m not up to facing a bayonet charge from 90-year old Austrian cow farmers tonight.”


        “Ah’m not shy to admit that ah’m startin’ to get the shakes here, and it ain’t the cold and it ain’t the Spectre,” said Wayne, another Seedling pre-Chimneysweep, as he gulped back a few mouthfuls of water from his canteen. “Mah brothah and I get all funky when we don’t eat for too long. Low blood sugar and all that.” Dwayne nodded and yanked the canteen from his brother’s hand.


        Gaval gave a terse sigh. He’d been pushing them hard, but all of them were looking exhausted by this point. They hadn’t had much of a break before diving into the war-game-turned-fiasco - only long enough to see all the lights in the quaint little town go out - and from the look of it all of them were on the verge of collapsing or killing one another, possibly at the same time.


        Dammit, they were starting to slow him down.


        “Ya’ll are getting tired. That’s okay...we’re not all marathon runners here,” he smiled, though it turned into something more of a grimace. Wayne and Dwayne frowned at the comment. “Maybe some of us should head back to camp and the rest who think they can go on should do so. The trail’s not gettin’ any fresher.”


        Nobody had really noticed Lothos before they suddenly saw him beside Gaval shaking his head. Jabez’s face in particular twitched with something between surprise and disgust at the Kiwi’s appearance. “I can’t condone splitting up the group when dayth on a stick is in the immediate nybahhood,” the Death Knight said.


        “You also have no trail to follow, Guild-Slayer,” Jabez pointed out. “Not now at least, and certainly not in the dark. Lest I remind you?”


        The Ragin’ Cajun felt another surge of anger, but it was Sasha who spoke up, her voice chilled with fatigue and irritation. “Explain to me again how you managed to lose this thing for us in less than a day, Mister Wizard.”


        “Divination magic has always been more an art than a science,” the Rogue replied evenly. “Your phantom bleeds negative energy that we can track to a limited degree, but it does not leave a sticky, convenient slime trail for us to follow. Perhaps you should ask it to dropad crumbs.”


        “I say we go back to camp and stay there for more than half an hour this time,” Nabob suggested. “I’ve got some Vienna Sausages that have been begging for attention all night. We’re only going to get killed if we try rock climbing in the middle of the night, Gav.”


        “Ah guess...” the Cajun said grumpily.


        He was cut off by a number of lights coming on in shops all around the village square, and a number of shadowy figures emerging into the night air from indoors, hollering in German and waving suspiciously gun-shaped objects in the air.


        “Bad neighbours,” muttered the Redneck Seedling Clint.


        “‘Bob, what dey shoutin’?” Gaval asked.


        “Er...‘Fix Bayonets’...”


        “We are so leaving.”


**********

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