II. "The See-Through Solution"
Page 2


"LUCKY"


        Morning broke slowly over the Alps, shedding light across the ridge upon which Nabob sat cross-legged, alone. His finger ran along the barrel of his Beretta pistol, lying upon a rock in front of him, as he took in the scene. The former Chimneysweep agent was a fair distance above the improvised camp that his Rogues and Gaval’s Slayers had pieced together, but he could see that there was still no activity down there; after the late-night drill, they would likely be asleep for a while yet. About a mile distant, the small Swiss village where that drill had been staged was starting to rouse itself. It must have been a restless night for those poor people, too…


        Nabob sighed and let his eyes drift shut. It wasn’t that he didn’t like people. For the past few months, though, he had simply been by himself almost constantly. There had been the foray into the Shadowlands with the Rogues, yes, but besides that...he hadn’t realized how alone he’d been since…


        Since…


        But now, at last, there were others standing beside him. The Rogues were a comfort, although not as much as they had been when there was still the prospect of working with the ASG. Van’s flat-out rejection of their hidden kin still loomed over Nabob. Now he also had Gaval’s vigilante group with him…and though he would have preferred a cadre of fully trained Slayers, he had to admit that they were good. Very good. Especially for kids. They certainly couldn’t do any worse than those who had tried to hunt Plague-Sever before. He still remembered when a cadre of fully trained Slayers had tried to take it on, the night that…


        He exhaled sharply. Try as he might, he couldn’t put it behind him, that cold night in May when his world had come crashing down. The pain was still too fresh, even all these months later.


        From behind him there came the sound of boots scrambling against the rock face and a soft curse. Nabob’s eyes slowly opened.


        “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” he asked without turning around.


        “Almost feel like it,” Gaval muttered, pulling himself up onto the ridge. He was reminded of when Kirk asked the same of Spock in Star Trek II and wondered if Nabob was making the movie reference or if it was just coincidence. “But that’d make way too many people happy. What you doing up so early, ‘Bob?”


        “I could ask you the same thing. You chased as many phantom phantoms as I did last night.”


        Gaval shrugged as he sat down next to the Chimneysweep, letting his legs dangle over the edge. “Seems that ah don’t need near as much sleep as ah used to.”


        “Really? You need less sleep after you’ve lost your juice?”


        “Well…ah,” the Ragin’ Cajun hesitated slightly, “…the Divinity works in mysterious ways. Pounds his nails, an’ all that.”


        “Huh?”


        “Never mind. You didn’t answer my question.”


        Nabob shut his eyes again. “Big day ahead. I figured a little solitude first wouldn’t be a bad way to start it. I do my best thinking when I’m alone.”


        “Ah,” he said, swinging his legs up again and standing up. “Then I guess ah should leave you be.”


        He only got a few steps before Nabob spoke again. “I miss her, GAV.” The Cajun turned around again. “I miss her like I’d miss a piece of my own soul.”


        “You mean…Rae?” Gaval hadn’t wanted to bring her up, and had spent the past couple of days since they had joined forces specifically not saying anything about it…even though it was something weighing upon Nabob like a lead block tied to a drowning man. The last time Gaval had seen him before now had been at the ASG court martial disguised as an inquiry that had been held over the affair with the Zerg Canadians. It hadn’t been a pleasant experience, but even then Nabob had seemed less burdened…younger, more energetic. Now that had been replaced with grim determination and the expression of a man who had gone through things that no man should be made to.


        Nabob nodded stiffly. “Yeah. Rae.”


        Gaval rubbed his neck uncomfortably. “I…ah, I can’t say that I knew her well, but…”


        The Chimneysweep cut him off, raising a hand. “Look…you don’t have to. Everybody’s sorry that it happened, everybody wants to offer their regrets, everybody wants to…wants to tell me that they’d help if they could. But they can’t. Nobody can, and I don’t need any more goddamn apologies or sympathies!”


        The outburst caught Gaval off-guard. “…I was just going to say that she was a good woman, Nabob. A good Slayer.”


        A good Slayer. For Nabob, there were a thousand ways he could have described Rae…but in the end, there was no sounder description than that.


        “A good Slayer…” he repeated at a murmur, mostly to himself. “I wish that meant as much as it used to.”

        There was a lengthy lapse in the conversation, both of the renegade Slayers pausing to take in the sun as it peered through the rough-hewn Alps, nature’s sculpting clay. The occasional military plane would pass overhead, filling the mountain valleys with the dull boom and roar of its jet engines. Last they had heard Swiss and EU authorities were still trying to piece together what had happened to Flight 113, the flight that the Spectre had rode to Europe on. The current assumption involved renewed terrorism, and thus the airspace above Switzerland had been tightened like a blood-stained glove.


        “Ah dunno, Nabob,” said Gaval, shaking his head. “We talked about cleanin’ up the mess we’ve both made with the Guild in our own ways after all this is settled...”


        “Yeah?”


        “Well, what if I don’t wanna clean it up.”


        Nabob hesitated. “You left the Guild almost a year ago,” he said at last, some strength returning to his voice. “I’m not ragging you on your decision, but all you’ll have to do after this is get the Guild to see that what you did you did on your own with volunteers. You go back to your normal life and...and all will be well, right? I mean, if you don’t want to be in the Guild without the Rush, who can blame you?”


        Gaval twitched visibly, a movement Nabob caught just out of the corner of his eye. Still bothers him, I guess. “It’s not just that. Ah can’t help but be bitter at the way they’ve reacted to this whole thing. They just jumped to accusing me of being obsessed. Dick had the nerve to accuse me of trying to play vigilante and posse with this group, but ah’d bet the farm they’re better prepared than any Slayer unit to face up to this kind of threat.”


        Nabob nodded silently, taking the moment to listen to see if anyone else was up. Neither he nor Gaval was comfortable with impressing their political ideas onto young impressionable minds. Nor did he particularly want to discuss matters like this without


        Fortunately, they weren’t. “An’ it’s not just the way they’re treatin’ us,” Gaval continued. “After hearing what dey did to you, it’s just getting way outta hand.”


        “Look, I’m not about to say the Guild has any special design in their decision to take me off this case. I’m sure they did what they did with good intentions and all.”

        “Yeah,” interrupted Gaval. “Ah’d never say dat the Guild was doing anything dat was morally questionable...but...”


        ”But they’re jumping to conclusions.”


        “Exactly.”


        “They’re trying to make the calls for us when we know - hell, when they know that we know - more about this thing than anyone else out there...especially you,” Nabob said.


        “So what are you gonna do, then, after all this?”


        “I don’t know. It’s still kind of early,” answered Nabob, almost letting a sour we’ll see if we survive it first slip off of his tongue. “I guess time will figure it out for me.” He paused for a moment to look down at the camp a short distance away. “I guess the answer will have to come to me when the time’s right. But you’re decided? You’re out for good?”


        “Ah guess it’s similar for me too, but if ah had to decide right now, ah’d say yeah, ah’m out. I almost work better alone than ah did wit the ASG dese days,” said Gaval soberly.


        Nabob sighed and chewed his lip. “You’re a braver man than I am, Gaval, and you always have been. You’ve got the strength to pull free. Anyway, enough sentimental crap. Do we keep pressing east?”


        “No reason not to,” replied Gaval. “That’s the direction Casper was heading when we lost the trail. Always to de east. I’m starting to feel like I’m caught in a game of Diablo II. Have those spellslingers of yours had any more luck tracking it?”


        The Chimneysweep shook his head. “You heard Jabez last night. He told me that it’s hard to track undead with divinations, since they have no life energy to leave an imprint. It’s like hunting a shadow at twilight.”


        “Craters,” he muttered. “When we were comin' over in Fjorxc’s Orca I was mostly worried about how we were gonna fight the Spectre. I never thought we were going to have to play hide-n’-go-seek with it first. There’s no reason for it to be running from us…as far as we know nobody’s been able to even bring it down a notch, not even dat Rogue friend of yours who it got the best of…”


        “Torvan…” Nabob sighed, recalling the hulking, muscle-bound Rogue Slayer who had accompanied him into the Shadowlands alongside his sworn charge, the Rogue princess Kali. Finding him on that mountain, cold and lifeless, had been a nightmare. Telling Kali about it was going to be worse. “We can’t be certain about anything there. Maybe Torvan did manage to wound it, and maybe that’s why it’s evading us.”


        He’s too hopeful, Gaval said to himself, critically surveying his seated companion. He’s still hoping that these Rogues of his are the answer to all our Spooky problems. “But is it evading us, or is it just staying a step ahead of us?” Gaval pressed out loud. “Dat’s the real question. All I know is dat Plague-Sever didn’t come to Europe to pick a fight. It was doing that just fine back in de States, an' ah really doubt it boarded that plane by accident.”


        “You’re saying that it’s here for some other reason?”


        “Well, it wasn’t fleeing when it left the States, that’s for damn sure,” Gaval said. “It wanted to come across the Atlantic, but not because it was scared or itchin’ for a fight or even hungry. Aside from de plane crash itself we haven’t had any reports of unexplained mass slaughter in de Swiss countryside, so it isn’t roaming around these parts to graze.” He paused in the middle of his thought, staring thoughtfully out across the Alps. “I think it’s heading somewhere specific.”


        “You’re giving it a lot of credit for sentient thought.”


        A flash of anger was suddenly upon the Cajun. “Look, when you’ve got Plague-Sever breathing down your face, sapping de light from inside of you, getting inside your own blasted essence...then you can lecture me on how much credit I give it!”


        “Sorry…”


        “Yeah, well, you should be!” Gaval folded his arms, turning away angrily. “I know the Spectre. I know it better than anyone! I’ve felt it in my chest, and I know that what drives it goes beyond primal instincts…there’s a mind in that broken creature’s body. There's intelligent thought behind those pitch black eye sockets; direction; cold and unbending direction...we really have no idea what it wants. And that is what I hate…!


        It was almost upon him before he realized it. The Rush…no, the tainted Rush that Nighteye had bequeathed upon him…used to take concerted effort and focused rage to summon. He vaguely recalled going through those notions with Lothos back in Irvine many months ago…it had been almost comforting to know that it took effort to call the tainted Rush to him, because then at least it was under his control. But now…the anger welled up much faster, trying to take control of him and spill over into the power of Nighteye’s Rush like a kettle left on the stove too long. What had once taken a concerted effort was fast approaching a hair-trigger.


        Gaval fought it down, however. Not here. Not now. Not like Dick. As the anger wrestled for control, he squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists, feeling beads of sweat forming on his brow as he battled to calm himself down. After a moment, it began to subside, slowly simmering down from fury to dull anger. The Cajun let out a slow breath, letting the cool mountain air fill him as he inhaled again. He opened his eyes and looked downwards, forcing his fists to unclench.


        His palms were covered in blood.


        “…You okay, Gav?”


        He turned. Nabob was rising to his feet, an expression of both worry and suspicion on his face. The Cajun nodded wearily, suddenly feeling fatigued in a way that he hadn’t even a minute ago. “Yeah, ah’m fine. I just…got a little worked up about it, dat’s all.” Nabob’s worry seemed to subside, but the suspicion remained for an instant. Did he feel it? Aw, crap, he couldn’t have felt it…


        Nabob looked at him for a second longer, then nodded warily and bent down and retrieved his Beretta from the ground, twirling it twice experimentally and sliding it into its holster. “I’m going to head back soon.”


        “Fine with me.”


        “But first, on what you were saying…”


        “Yeah, yeah, Ah’m sorry ah blew up…”


        The ex-Chimneysweep looked at him irritably. “Don’t worry about it. I meant about the Spectre. Let’s assume that you’re right, that it is headed for some specific destination. Any ideas where it would be going?”


        “I don’t know it that well,” Gaval said.


        Nabob stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Okay, how about this…would it be heading toward wherever its going in as direct a way as possible?”


        “Probably. Spooky’s mind may not be primal, but it’s straightforward.”


        “Then I think that it’s time we started paying more attention to its patterns of movement, rather than just stumbling eastwards. If we keep going as we have been we aren’t going to catch it. We’ve spent the last 48 hours proving that. Maybe we should have some of our…ah, people huddle around a map and plot out the possible destinations.”


        Gaval nodded. “Ah’m liking this. Figure out where it’s going, cut it off before it arrives.”


        “The Rogues’ magic would probably help the process,” Nabob said. “When he gets up I’ll ask Jabez to get on it. Can you spare someone from your posse to give him a hand?”


        “Sasha,” Gaval said without hesitation.


        “The Cajun girl?”

        He nodded. “Bright as any two of de others, even if she does still have a lot tah learn and doesn’t have a college degree to show it. An’ the more we can get our people working together, de smoother things are going to run and de faster we’ll find Spooky.”


        “Then let’s get back to camp,” said Nabob. “We’ve got some maps to find.”


**********


"HEY NOW"


        Gaval could remember facing Sephroth down twice - and sometimes four or five times after a good shot of rum - without so much as flinching. In the presence of an angry woman, however, his face still retracted in an involuntary twitch usually reserved for the overwhelmingly evil.


        “Pike that, boss, Ah’m not goin’ near those…those people more than ah have to!” Sasha, her sleeping bag pulled up to her shoulders to hide whatever she was deciding to use as nightwear, said with a whispered shout in a sweet Tennessee accent. “Why would you pawn this off on me?”


        The Ragin’ Cajun adjusted his fedora uncomfortably. He was squatted down on the ground inside of Sasha’s tent - having already kicked her ‘room’mate Kysha out for the moment- about four feet away from a very angry young woman. The inside of the canopy brimmed with their distinctively female scent and the unwholesome vibes of radiating displeasure.


        “Sasha, we’ve been with ‘em for a week now. They’re Slayers, same as us.”


        “Oh, same as us, huh?” she steamed, still trying to be as quiet as possible as she pulled the sleeping bag up closer around her. “Sorry, ah didn’t realize we were creepy archaic loners with chips on our shoulders that you could use as doorstops! Thanks for clarifyin'!”


        “Why are you actin’ like dis?” he asked, irritation managing to seep into his voice.


        “Because ah don’t trust these ‘Rogue Slayers’, GAV! I don’t trust them and ah don’t trust these…powers that they have!”

        Gaval shrugged. “It’s just a little magic.” His experiences with CWAL had rather desensitized him to the world of the arcane. Between watching an elven bladesinger try to impart the finer points of fireball creation to a 10-year old girl and having a death knight summon and bind demons to change the TV channel whenever the remote broke, all on a daily basis, the supernatural had lost some of its mystique.


        “A little?!”


        Visions of chain lightning crackled in his head. “Okay, so a lot of magic. It’s their way, same as strength and speed is ours.”

        “But they don’t need the Rush to use their magic!” Sasha said through gritted teeth. “It’s…it’s unnatural!”


        “Hey, compared to some of us you’ve been a Slayer for about five minutes. Who’re you to say what’s natural in us?”


        Thunk. He could almost hear the palpable change from woman angry to woman scorned, and he could certainly see it. Her dark sun-drenched features instantly tensed back, all the more menacing on a girl who, when Rushed, could snap your neck like a tindertwig. It wasn’t a look Gaval had oft received, and for an instant he was drawn back into the past - only a few weeks ago, really - to a conversation he had with Rachel. Back in Irvine. Back when…


        He had been trying hard not to think about her lately, and how he had left for Europe without telling her or anything. But it was like trying not to think about a pink elephant…the more you tried the more vivid the image became. Gaval remembered one thing above all else…after he had told her that he was still hunting the Spectre, she had asked him if there was anything else. Anything at all. And something had made him say, “no.” Lying to the woman he said he loved. His soul was damning him because of it. The worst thing, the very worst thing, though…was that he thought he could live with that.


        It scared him more than anything.


        Gaval suddenly remembered where he really was, realized that now would be a good time to focus back into reality, and looked back up at Sasha. Her stark, penetrating eyes were staring at him expectantly, as though waiting for him to say something back.


        Craters, how much of that did I miss? “Um…sorry? Did you say somethin’?”


        Sasha rolled her eyes in the ‘Why does my life always have to include men who don’t listen to a whit of what ah say?’ fashion. “Get out. I need to get dressed. Or something.”


        “Look, Sash…”


        “What part of that didn’t you get?”


        “Look, Ah’m not leavin’ here ‘til Ah’m finished!”


        “That’s what all the guys say…” she muttered blandly.


        He ignored the comment. “Sash, I really need you to work wit de Rogues on this,” Gaval said, switching between imploring and begging inflections. “They can help us find de Spectre, I know it. We’ve just got to give ‘em a chance, and maybe a little cooperation too.”


        “So why me?” she asked miserably. “I’m no cartographer…why do I have to help them look at maps?”


        “Because you’re the one I trust to do a good job,” he replied. “You’ve got a mind for patterns an’ numbers, and that’s what we need right now. I wouldn’t really trust any of the others with this, and if we can figure out where Plague-Sever’s headed, we can cut it off, stop it before it does any more damage.” Her expression didn’t change, so he tried a different approach. “Plus we can stop playin’ mountain climber an’ start stampin’ out some evahl!”


        That made her smile. A little. “Well…I appreciate the good faith…”


        “Thought you might.”


        “…Even though Ah’m never gonna to forgive you for this…”


        “Don’t expect you to.”


        “I’ll do it,” she sighed. “But you’re daft if you think Ah’m gonna trust these Rogues.”

        “A little cynicism is good for everyone. Just get us some results and try not to shoot anyone an’ Ah’ll be a happy little Cajun indeed.”


        “Yeah, sure. Now beat it, I’m really gonna get dressed this time.”


        He grinned. “But Ah haven’t finished yet…”


        A pair of old jeans thrown in his face cut him off.


**********


        Most of the Seedling vigilantes had portable tents acquired at Wal-Mart for a ridiculously low price that confirmed that they had been made by the lowest bidder. The Rogues’ tents, by contrast, could almost be called pavilions. Moreover, they were apparently conjured or summoned out of thin air, since the Rogue Slayers were travelling much lighter than most of the Seedlings.


        As she pushed open the flap on the main Rogue tent and hesitantly glanced inside, Sasha let her hand linger on the material for a moment. It felt thick and warm like velvet by the fireplace.


        Okay, so they’ve got enviable material to cut tents out of, she told herself firmly. That doesn’t reduce the creepiness factor. Aloud she said, “Anybody home?”


        “Do come in before the cold does.”


        Sasha stepped inside and let the flap close behind her. She blinked, letting her eyes adjust to the relative darkness. As they did, they widened. “Wow.”


        The rectangular room in which she stood seemed to bear no geometric similarities to the tent/pavilion she had just walked up to. She couldn’t tell because of the battered hiking boots she wore, but the carpet beneath her looked like it was made out of the same soft material as the tent flaps, and it definitely didn’t feel as though it had been laid atop jagged, uneven, rocky ground. In the center there was a tall wooden table with chairs arrayed around it, upon which were spread numerous maps of the region. A few lanterns provided illumination, hanging from the ceiling as they were and casting a dim blue light over everything. The sweet, heavy smell of spices seemed to invade her senses. Sasha couldn’t help but think that she had just stepped into a different world.


        Jabez stepped forward, and it was the first time that Sasha had ever seen him without the gaudy Oriental robes draped over his shoulders. Instead, he had on slacks and a loose black t-shirt, and carried a cup and saucer in his hands. That made her want to fall over in surprise as much as anything else.


        “So the robes are detachable,” she couldn’t stop herself from saying.


        “Nabob told me to expect one of you Guild-Slayers to stop in this morning to help,” Jabez said evenly. “I wasn’t expecting sarcasm to be invited too. Coffee?”


        “Had plenty,” she mused, continuing to glance around. “All this, is it...?”


        “Magic? No, our detachable robes simply have very deep pockets,” he sipped his drink and stepped up to the table, spreading out the maps in front of him. “You are standing in a small extra dimensional space. A pocket dimension, if you will. They exist just on the borders of your reality, and can be accessed if you know how. A home away from Home, so to speak. We use them occasionally as refuges.”


        “And to avoid sleeping on the ground?”


        “Well, yes...”


        “It’s very...ah, blue,” her eyes were still adjusting to the different lighting. The illumination made her think of the thickly-placed colored lighting in some of her little brother’s computer games, only bluer.


        “This wavelength of light is easier to manipulate magically. It also reminds us of Home. So are we going to trade banter or are we going to try to find this killer ghost of yours?”


        Sasha’s inner cat was making hissing noises, but she joined him at the table, bringing out the consumer GPS device that Cory had “borrowed” from his father before they’d left and placing it on the table. “My name’s Sasha, by the way. If you care.”


        “A pleasure,” he muttered, not lifting his eyes from the map. “Now, our last contact with the Spectre was here...and when our divinations could no longer pick it up we were here.” As he traced a finger from west to east along the map, a silvery glow was left in its wake. Sasha squirmed. “We are now here. It was continually heading toward the east, and given no natural barriers or change in motive...I’m sorry, is this making you uncomfortable?”


        She made herself smile pleasantly. “Not at all.” Dear God, why did I ever leave Tennessee? The only magic there involved rabbits, mirrors, and sawin’ people in half!


Jabez narrowed his eyes - already partly slanted due to his complexion, which reminded Sasha most of someone with mixed Asian-Caucasian ancestry - and continued. “As I was saying, barring natural barriers or a change in motive, I believe it is safe to assume that Plague-Sever will continue to head eastwards.”


        “Until it gets hungry,” she muttered, looking at the closest map. “There aren’t any big towns directly in its path until it reaches Innsbruck or Salzburg. D’ya think it’s heading there? To...feed?”


        “A possibility,” the Rogue sorcerer said. “But an improbable one. If it just wanted food it would scarcely have bothered to leave California. At any rate, before we lost track of it there was nothing to indicate that it would have made any radical changes in direction, Guild-Slayer, so assuming that it is maintaining a steady course...”


        “Look, if you insist on not calling me by my name I’m going to start referring to you as ‘Bad Robes.’ My name is Sasha. Is that so hard?”


        That managed to annoy him. “Those ‘Bad Robes’ are ancient relics crafted by some of the finest of Kharvalle’s bloodline over five hundred years ago. They are infused with intense magical powers with which to supplement our own. They have been utilized in the Great Hunts of my people for generations.”


        “Oh. What happens if you spill mustard on them?”


        “They are also dry-cleaner safe.”


        Sasha rolled her eyes, but then frowned, something catching her eye on the map. She stabbed a finger down, the silver glow that had traced behind Jabez’s hand abruptly dissipating like mist.


        “Waitaminute...what’s that gorge?”


**********


"RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD"


        “...cerebral haemorrhaging, and possibly permanent brain damage. Dispelling magical invisibility may be an easy feat, but penetrating the shroud of a naturally invisible creature is far more difficult. They do not fully exist on the same dimensional plane that we do, and any divination cast to pick them up has to be able to divine multiple dimensional planes simultaneously. That means dangerous amounts of feedback for the recipient of the divination, Severus, you know that.”


        It wouldn’t have been right to say that Lothos was spying. It was more a matter of lurking outside one of the Rogues’ tents, and if he happened to hear something...hell, they were all on the same side, weren’t they? No secrets between friends, right?


        The Death Knight peeped in through the curtain and into the tent, the interior of that was obviously much larger than the exterior. He shrugged mildly...CWAL Headquarters had much the same effect, although to be fair there had been a few renovations since they’d moved in. Inside the tent were two of these ‘Rogue’ Slayers, their garish robes replaced with something that in another world would have been mistaken for pajamas. Both were sitting on the ground, cross-legged across from one another on the carpet. One was tall and gangly, perhaps late-30s with thinning black hair and an elongated face that vaguely reminded Lothos of a melon tipped on its side with a point for a chin. That would be Severus.


        His companion was the Rogue who stood out the most in their group. Rather than the partly Asiatic complexion that the other Rogue Slayers displayed, with slim features, black hair and slanted eyes, this girl was of different stock entirely. Calling her thicker would have been an injustice, but she was more filled-out than the other Rogues, who tended toward a suppleness that bordered on frailty. More strikingly, she looked Caucasian, her skin olive-coloured and her waist-length hair a tinted bronze that was also slightly frayed and implied one too many magical experiments. Her name was Brianna, if his memory was still serving him. The segregation between Rogues and Seedlings was still very real, and Lothos had kept close to the trainees at first.


        Time to change that.


        Brianna was the one talking. “Almost everyone who attempts such strong divination incurs considerable cerebral trauma, and that is amongst our people. Attempting to cast it on these...these children who have no knowledge of the path is madness.”


        Severus’s voice was as grim as his face. “And yet it may be our only recourse, Brianna. For all our magic we can hardly fight something we cannot see. We know that...Torvan cast the divination upon himself just before he...fell. I could sense the magical residue on him, and it looked as though he died fighting, so at least it gave him a chance. Sensory magic may be our only hope...”


        “Surely there can be another way,” she interrupted, something between fear and impatience balanced in her tone. Definitely a fire there. “Harming ourselves is one thing, for we know the risks. But they will need magic to fight this abomination too, if they hope to see it, and they are so young...”


        “They know the risks.”


        “They know nothing,” she snapped, emotion gushing out as though a dike had been breached. “Their leader has lost his mind in arming them to fight a creature that could bring down even Torvan. And that black mage of theirs...”


        Outside the tent, Lothos grinned.


        “Stop it,” Severus said sharply, his voice suddenly, dangerously low. “You know your place, Brianna, and it is not to question the alliances our leader has made for us.”


        “You question Jabez all the time. To his face.”


        “That is different. My position cannot be assailed by the elders any further simply because there is no position left to assail. And there was a time when Jabez answered to me, so he would do well to let me speak my mind as I please,” Severus sighed with annoyance. “You must remember that your position here is a privileged one. An extremely privileged one.” Another sharp breath. “Some of us have sacrificed a great deal to ensure that for you.”


        Interesting, the Death Knight considered from just outside. Something to store away for later.


        “I know,” she said meekly, the strength draining out of her voice as her eyes lowered to the carpet. “Can we go back to magic...?”


        “Of course.”


        She raised her head a little. “I still believe the full divination to be too dangerous to attempt. For any of us.”


        “It is the only way to detect an ethereal beast for certain.”


        “But could there not be some way to limit the spell’s biofeedback?” Brianna said persistently. “If we could but modify the magic to only divine the dimensional frame the creature inhabits...”


        “Impossible,” replied Severus coldly. “Assessing its relative dimensional location would take time and energy even if it were standing completely still. What do you think our chances would be against a shifting target, hm?”


        “Maybe a lot better if you asked for some help on it, comrade.”


        Both of the Rogues were on their feet, hands motioning toward some arcane defensive pattern as Lothos brushed aside the curtain and scrambled inside. His attempt at a disarming grin only seemed to make them recoil more.


        “What do you want, necromancer?” Severus demanded. “And what do you think gives you the right to...?”


        “I want the same thing you do,” Lothos replied evenly. “Spooky’s head skewered on a stick and a lifetime supply of cheese curds with a 1000 inch Plasma HDTV thrown in free. Barring the latter, I’ll take Spooky nice and dead, for good this time.”


        “How thrilling for you,” Severus scowled. “Now explain why your previous eavesdropping has transformed into your soiling my rug.”


        “Cheese curds?” Brianna muttered under her breath. “What are...?”


        The Death Knight smiled wryly. “We need help killing Spooky, you need help getting your magic to wuhrk right. You can help us kill Spooky, and I can help you with the smoke n’ mirrors.”


        “I’ll not stand for our power to be sullied with your black hedge magic. Necromancy is the magic of outlaws, exiles and demons.”


        “...And banished alien warlords.”


        “What?”


        “Ne’ermind. You prob’ly don’t get the Paingiver channels out here. But c’mon, we’re bettah off if we don’t keep holding each other at ahrm’s length. And there’s more to necromancy than making zombies and SPAM WARRIORS to fetch popcorn for you. Although those are my primary uses of it.”


        “I am not interested in your...”


        “What else can it accomplish?” Brianna asked, genuine curiosity in her voice.


        Severus shot her a glance so venomous that she recoiled as though slapped. “As I said, I am not interested...”


        “I’m choosing to ignore you and answer her,” Lothos said, pointing. “Necromancy is about the flow of life and death. Sure, you can make the dead rise and do pahrty tricks if you want, but that’s only half the fun. It’s also about subtle life energies. A little nudge here...a little push there...suddenly you’re seeing the world in a whole new light.” He glanced at Severus. “Literally. If we pool our resources, I think we can find a way to see Spooky without frying our brains by looking at eight dimensions at once.”


        “I am sceptical,” Severus scowled.


        “’Course you are. You’re old. It happens.” He looked at Brianna, noted the barely-concealed look of adventurous awe on her face. “What do you think?”


        “I-I...” she couldn’t bring her face up to meet Severus’ glare, but she nonetheless managed to whisper, “...I don’t see the harm in trying...”


        Severus rolled his eyes. “Very well, black mage, but only in the interests of our alliance.”


        Lothos’ grin spread like a heinous knife wound from ear to ear. “Crack out the spell components, boys and girls. We’re gonna have us a pahty!”


**********


        “This gorge, right here!” Sasha said triumphantly, pointing to the map that she had just thrust onto a rock in front of Gaval and Nabob. A few of the other Seedlings gathered around as well, and she was dimly aware of Jabez hovering somewhere behind her. Only dimly, though. “Look at it...it snakes through the mountains like a scar! Practically bisects them! We’re only a few hours from it now!”

        The sun was overhead - it was almost noon now - but the unaccustomed warmth wasn’t doing anything for Gaval’s nerves. If anything, the few hours they had spent in rest and preparation were making him all the antsier. He felt that they should be out there now, finding and fighting and killing that goddamned Spectre, not sitting about picking their noses with indecisiveness.


        This, though. This seemed to be progress.


        “About 5 kilometers of plateau, then a steep gorge,” Nabob frowned as he observed. “Not entirely uncommon for mountains.”


        Something, however, was trying to click in Gaval’s mind. “How steep is it? And how deep?”


        “Impassable steep,” Sasha replied, grinning as she realised he was on the same track she was. “But there are bridges every couple of miles.”


        “Plague-Sever doesn’t know that.”


        “Exactly.”


        Cory, one of the younger Seedlings, spoke up. “But Spooky can fly! What’s the big deal with some small canyon?”


        “Spooky can’t fly, kid,” corrected Nabob. “Why do you think it hopped an airliner to central Europe?”


        “I thought it was on a deadline!”


        “No, ‘Bob’s right,” said Gaval excitedly. “The Spectre can’t fly. It travels more like...like a hovercraft. It can’t jump much wider than we might be able to with a pole vault...so it would have to either doubly back to find a way across the canyon or at the very least follow the ledge looking for a way across.”


        “That means there’s a chance it could be heading back our way,” Nabob said, pulling back the hammer of his Beretta pistol. "Five kilometers of this terrain could take all day and we've got to be there at that gorge if we want to catch the thing when it turns around to find a way across." Even as he spoke, his breath visible in thick vapours in the cooling breeze, Gaval drew a pair of rune-etched stakes and started gathering his camping gear. “Gav, where’re you going?”

“To catch a thief,” grumbled the anxious Cajun.


        “Not without me you’re not!” cried Lothos, bounding out of nowhere to help his friend pack. “Move it folks! This is what it’s all about!” He turned to Gaval. “I’ve got some good news about making Spooky visible...”


********




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