Something moves in the storm. Or does it?
“Back in, storm’s here, back in,” Rich chanted. Once on his preferred perch, he murmured, “Do not like this, Defender. Someone tried to move the slab. Smelled cigarette smoke in the dirt, person dug in trying to shift the seal. Too heavy for now, don’t like it.”
“For now?” Mike murmured back. He retreated out of the wind, arms folded, as if observing the rain now sheeting straight down.
Tik-Tik wiggled and curled tighter around his neck. “Something answered the person. That’s the black. Do not like. Too many tasty tidbits around, the deaths in the peat. Need to carry our kit.”
Sharp tobacco scent cut through the rain and ozone. Mike rolled his eyes and said, “Why me? Of course that strap would come loose if you pull that way. And I don’t have the repair kit with me.” Irritation and frustration came easily. He added, “Dude, I told you to leave the nice bag alone and not pull on the strap. Now I’ll have to carry my everyday bag.”
“Needed a snack, smelled a snack. I like snacks. Egg? Beef stick? Beef sticks are great!” Chittering replaced words.
Mike sighed at the top of his lungs as he plodded past Zhurovina Turko. The tip of her cigarette glowed red in the dim light in the courtyard niche. He glimpsed a smirk on the Belarussian’s square, flattish face. She wore her hair in a crown over the top of her head, very traditional and completely at odds with her modern, loose-cut suits. “Dude,” he sighed. The smirk grew.
Once back in their room, Mike fed Rich some of his high-protein travel chow, then got ready for bed. Instead of sleeping, mage and Familiar said their evening devotions, alternating Latin and English. I prefer Serbo-Croatian, but not if someone else is listening. Latin meant Catholic, which fit an American. And everyone knew that the 767th would use Latin.
As he tried to ease into sleep, something boomed in the distance. A soft beep from the corner of the room warned that power had gone out for now. “Transformer?” Rich asked around a yawn.
“Who knows.” He rolled over. Not my circus, not my giraffe.
“Wer ist das?” Mike demanded, wide awake in the darkness. Tik-Tik hissed as a shadow moved through the room. Or did it? Mike drew power from his Familiar and waited. The presence dissipated. “Wo war das?” Where was that?
“Other side of the wall, strong, bad, really bad, but didn’t push in,” Tik-Tik reported. He dove off the bed and went to that side of the room. Mike looked at his travel clock. 0430, and very dark still. “Power’s on. Don’t like this. Something icky came past, or someone with an icky overlay, like a slimy cape.”
Mike wrinkled his nose at the mental picture. “Gross, dude. Seriously gross.” He stretched, then eased out of bed. The room felt no physically colder than before, but he shivered even so. A quick, hot shower, then he shaved and dressed. After their morning devotions, he and Rich eased out of the room. Absolute silence surrounded them, heavy and intent, as if the very air listened for something. Holy Lord, I do not like this place at all. We need to load a 737 tanker with holy water and drench the entire mountain, then make a second pass on the bog.
“Daaaaaaaang,” Rich said, completely still as he stared out the courtyard gate. “Stay with you farther, fog thick, something else.” The quiet had followed them outdoors, save for the sound of water dripping. No bird calls disturbed the morning, yet.
He could see a dozen meters or so, if he squinted. “Any smart birds are sleeping in,” Mike said, mostly to hear his own voice. Fog filled every space, held down by low clouds. Torn leaves, twigs, and some small branches littered the ground outside the walls of the castle. The walls seemed darker, the wet turning the stone and plaster grey-black instead of dirty-snow grey. Mike set Rich on the ground at the tourist gate. Rich hurried to do his thing and return. “Worms?”
“On the surface. I’ll get a few later. We need to look farther, Defender.” Rich’s voice sounded deeper in the pre-dawn fog. “Something’s wrong downslope.”
“Not the peat bog. I am not touching that unless we have reinforcements, clergy and otherwise.” Draku needs to deal with this place, if he can. What hadn’t he? Mike followed Rich to the end of the car park, such as it was. More branches littered the ground. Some longer grass in a meadow-like open area showed signs of overland flow, flattened by water. “Wow, it really did rain hard.” The soil here took a lot before rain started running off.
“Not the bog, nopity nope! Just the road.” Rich hurried ahead. Mike followed the silver tail tip in the twilight. “Well, sheeeee-it,” Rich called, sounding just like Sergeant Calhoun.
Slow footsteps came up behind him. Mike said aloud, “That’s a heck of a scratching post you pulled over.”
“Not me this time!” Rich attacked the oak, clawing at it as if he were a cat. Then he climbed onto the fallen trunk. “Dirt quit.” The roots had been pulled out of the ground. Water stood in the place where the roots had been.
Usually it takes a week or more of rain before that happens. I really do not care for this. He climbed over the trunk, collected Rich and went farther. Rich wiggled, so Mike turned him loose to grub for worms or whatever as he surveyed the damage. One bird called, then fell silent once more. Rich skittered over another tree, having too much fun. A charred streak and shattered stump marked lightning’s work. Mike lowered his shields. Icky seeped from the castle into the air, and from the bog into the fog. This is as rotten as that not-a-mosque, minus the attack sand.
“This is as bad as a movie,” Mike grumbled under his breath as he peered down at the road. The storm, after the heavy rain, had toppled at least three trees across the road. Parts of the pavement had eroded as well, probably undercut farther down the slope.
“Yep, but it works, doesn’t it?” Rich called from atop one of the trees. “Storm was natural, trees are natural, combination feels strange.”
Mike turned left and right as he studied the silent, mist-laden woods around them. “If I hear a chainsaw or banjos, we are running so damn fast.” There was a reason why the regiment kept a library of horror movies and fantasy novels. “We’re not getting a vehicle down that road until it’s cleared and inspected.”
“Agreed.” Rich scratched the surface of the beech with his claws, acting like a cat again, then flowed down and back to his mage. “Creepy, too creepy, fog creeping toward us.”
Something flowed up the road toward them, a dark mass in the mist, like concentrated essence of fog. Mike checked his six and backed away as fast as prudent, Tik-Tik scampering along beside him. The presence stopped at the second tree. Mike retreated farther. He didn’t sense any active malice in whatever it was, but the all-pervasive air of corruption could mask a lot of things. He scooped up his Familiar and hurried toward the relative shelter of the castle. When they reached the parking area, he unleashed the mongoose on the worms. Four proved sufficient. Mike tidied his Familiar’s feet and carried him back to the paved area.
Mr. Custiss waited on the covered portico in the courtyard on the north side of the castle. “How thick’s the fog?” He didn’t bother trying to hide his cigarette.
“Very thick, sir. Visibility might be fifty yards at most, probably less. And several trees blew down in the storm, blocking the road.”
“Well, nuts.” The consul’s aid sounded more resigned than irritated. “I’m sure Mr. Benes has what he needs to get through, or someone from the forest service will clear the road soon.”
“Yes, sir.” He kept one hand on Rich, preventing comment, snarky or otherwise.
“Do you get an itchy feeling from that end of the castle?” Custiss waved his empty hand toward the chapel and cellar entrance.
Mike and Rich both nodded. “Yes, sir,” Rich said. “There’s an esoteric presence, or strong traces of one, under the building. We can’t tell if it was here and then departed, or if it is dormant but present.”
Custiss took a long pull on his smoke. “Good. I’m not imagining things. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, sir.”
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