Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
The way the light from the living room shimmered across his gaunt cheeks, the protective spells he had on his property and the wooden door—along with the titles of the tomes—made Claire realize he wasn't just an occasional practitioner of magic, but a full fledged warlock. Using magic without a patron led to faez madness, but he'd clearly been using it for years without issue which meant he was pledged to a mage outside of the Hall system, or a supernatural creature with considerable power. Given the location in the middle of the deep forest, she didn't think it was a benign being.
"I was admiring the runes," she said, words tumbling over her tongue.
His jaw pulsed with barely restrained anger. The shadows dancing across his face made him skeletal, haunted by past deeds that glimmered across his brown eyes.
"I don't have any downy."
He brushed past, leaving her stunned in his wake. She used the facilities, returning to a tense scene of Grayson poking the fire with a metal stick while Dawn stood as far a way as possible without looking like she was avoiding him. He stood up and tossed the metal pole into a bin which rattled like chains.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Grayson. It's probably best we return to our search. I really appreciate the chance to take a break and the water."
Grayson stared back with unblinking eyes. He glanced at the box of tomes as if he suspected she'd been looking without permission.
"You're right. It's best you move on."
Dawn let out a relieved sigh which Claire wanted to kick her for, but Grayson didn't seem to notice.
The rest of the words never left Dawn's lips because an awful scream from outside the house startled them. The screech made Claire feel like she'd been dunked into a pool of icy water. Grayson moved to action, grabbing for his backpack, and motioning frantically at them.
"Stay here. The hellcat's come back."
Before Claire could say anything, Grayson had barged outside, the screen door slamming shut behind him.
"Claire, what did you get me into?"
Stunned, it took her a moment to find the words. "I'm sure this looks worse than it is." She peeked out the window seeing no sign of their host. "I bet he'll kill the hellcat and we can leave safely."
"If it's the elongated hellcat, why did he leave Carl and his shotgun in the house?"
The dog, hearing his name, glanced up but made no move to leave the warm fire.
"I'm getting the fuck out of here," said Dawn, rushing towards the door.
Claire met her there, holding her back. "Don't blunder into danger. Let's think about this first."
"Think about what? We're in a creepy guy's house with weird runes and a screaming hellcat outside. Or what he wants us to believe is a hellcat."
Claire froze. "I think you're right. I don't think there's an escaped hellcat. But there is something."
The expression on Dawn's face fell to horror. "What?"
Claire told her friend the names of the tomes, which brought a hand to her mouth.
"Tell me about it."
"No. I've read the last book. The Beyond the Veil one."
It was Claire's turn to be surprised. "You have?"
"Contrary to my current appearance, I used to be a goth girl, which in my circles came with the expected occult readings, Ouija boards, and black lipstick. The tome is about the Patron of Umbra Velum and how he survived a trip to the Veil. It was his katabasis."
"A journey to the underworld like in the myths." Dawn shook her head. "Humans aren't supposed to be able to survive for long in the Veil. Our presence draws the near-dead. Claire, I don't like what those books mean. He's a warlock for sure, but who or what is he pledged to? For all we know he could be planning on coming back to kill us in return for his continued power."
"What I want to know is why he said he had a daughter, but there's no sign of her in the house."
"If I had to guess," said Dawn. "I would say he had to kill her in return for his power. I'd bet if we broke down that door, we'd find an altar to whatever being he'd pledged to."
"I don't know. I'm not entirely sure that makes sense." She gestured to Carl. "Dogs are notorious for sensing creatures from the Veil. Why hasn't he reacted? Or made a fuss about what's going on?"
"Grayson didn't say what else Carl was a breed of. What if he's some sort of demonic hound?"
"Does he look demonic to you?" asked Claire.
Dawn rubbed the back of her neck. "No. He's big, fluffy, and sweet."
"I'm going outside to look for him."
"You're what?" asked Dawn.
"Something’s not right. He should be back already. I don't like waiting. You can stay in here with Carl if you want."
"I will," said Dawn.
When Claire reached the door, the big dog lumbered back to his feet and trotted over, which made Dawn give an exasperated sigh.
"Fine. I'll come out into the spooky fucking woods with you and hunt down our warlock host."