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 low whine that slipped from Carl's lips was swallowed by the thick, foggy air. Swirls hid, then revealed the enormous tree that had just eaten Grayson. Dawn's fingernails were digging into Claire's arm, though she didn't remember her friend grabbing her.
The words sputtered from Dawn's lips as she stared agape.
"What?" asked Claire, not sure she really wanted to know.
"It's a nekyia. A tree that lives on the border between this realm and the Veil."
"Yes, I suppose. A gate."
"Yeah, oh shit."
Claire stared at the swirling mist. The tree made the pit in her stomach open to a yawning chasm. She felt like her heels were barely on the edge of the cliff and the emptiness was drawing her forward.
"What do we do?" asked Dawn.
A faint light to their left, about ten feet away, had them both turning. The ghostly blue apparition floated before them. This time it was clear that it was a young girl, maybe eight or nine. She reminded Claire of herself when she was that age, except this girl had wires attached to her arms and dark circles around her eyes. She was gaunt, not like her father, but in sickness. The anguish on her face was palpable. She extended her little arm towards the tree as if she was suggesting they go after him.
Her name came out Dawn's lips, sharp and urgent. Claire turned her head to see on the opposite side of the clearing near the base of the nekyia tree was another apparition. This one was menacing and dark like an oily patch in an old warehouse. It oozed decay.
"That's what killed the chickens. Did your books about the Veil tell you what to do when you encountered a spirit?"
As the menacing spirit moved closer, Carl's growl grew more intense until he was standing, his hackles forming a ridge along his back.
"I think I remembered something," said Dawn breathlessly. "Maybe."
"Maybe's better than nothing."
Dawn dug into the small backpack she'd brought on the trip until she found a tiny leather bag with a metal clip holding it tight. Her hands shook as she tried to open the bag as the apparition moved towards them slowly and inexorably. She pulled out two quarters and handed one to Claire.
"Breathe on it."
"Not air. But faez. Imbue it with faez."
Using magic required tapping into the raw stuff of creation called faez. It came from the base of her skull, or that's at least where it felt like it came from. Claire called forth her faez, exhaling onto the coin. Her nose tickled and tiny speckles of golden light formed before disappearing into the void.
"Throw them at the spirit. The bad one."
Following Dawn's example, she tossed the coin towards the spirit. As soon as the metal passed through it, the apparition faded into the mist.
"Why did that work?"
"It's an obol. A coin of passage. You're supposed to give it to the boatman Charon to ferry you across the Styx. I honestly didn't think that was going to work, but some of the myths were rooted in actual practices. The books I read suggested it, but no one had ever claimed they'd actually done it."
"I guess it depends on what we're doing."
Claire checked to her left. The spirit of the young girl was visibly urging her on towards the tree.
"I think she wants us to go after her father."
"I was afraid you'd say that."
"But that means you're coming."
Dawn sighed. "It does."
Claire edged towards the tree with Dawn on her heels. Carl joined them after a moment, his heavy steps crunching leaves. She kept her hands up, expecting the vines to try and capture her. A burst of elemental flame would keep them back. She hoped.
The darkness at the center of the tree beckoned. A greenish light could be seen deep within, suggesting the tree opened into a large space. The Veil. The place between the living and the dead. A place she knew she shouldn't be going.
"What do you think, Carl?"
She put her hand on the back of the dog's neck. The hackles were only slightly raised.
"I don't like this tree."
"I don't think it likes us either," said Dawn.
Claire put one foot in front of the other until she was passing through the gap where she'd seen Grayson dragged by the vines. The greenish light grew brighter, and she had the sensation of seeing through a thin membrane. As she stepped through, a pressure formed on her skin and she was no longer inside the tree, but on a vast desecrated plain. The sky was the dark green before a storm and strange noises that her mind wasn't supposed to hear sounded like voices. In the near distance, a presence shrieked, and she could feel its hatred towards her. But she was distracted by the scene ahead. Not far from the gate was a woman made of bark and darkness, the nekyia tree made real, standing next to a kneeling Grayson. Menacing green eyes shown out from her rough flesh as she rippled her arm. A vine coiled around his neck. His gaunt expression spoke of sadness and the final end.
"Begone. He made his deal and now he has to pay the price."