Here's the next installment of our Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up on any of the previous episodes, click here.
A keening wail rose upon the plain as she studied the creature that had Grayson by the neck. He looked defeated.
"Why are you doing this?" asked Claire, as Dawn tugged her towards the portal behind them.
"Something's coming," she whispered. "We can't be here."
The dog, Carl, was whining again. He looked trapped between his desire to reach his owner and flee out the portal. She knew what he felt like.
"A bargain was struck. He's refused to pay the price, so I must take it from his flesh."
It wasn't a human voice, but the sound of vines creaking or wood cracking. Her mind interpreted it into words.
"Nothing that should matter to you," said the nekyia tree.
Dawn tugged her backwards. "We have to go. Something's coming. Something bad."
Claire didn't need her friend to tell her. She could feel it too. Whatever it was, it hated them intensely for being alive.
"It was something with his daughter. You were supposed to help her," said Claire, remembering the wires attached to her skin and the gaunt expression. "She was in a hospital, but they couldn't do anything, so he made a deal with you, but she died anyway."
"A life for a life," said the nekyia tree.
"He couldn't do it," said Claire, understanding. She couldn't see Grayson's face well, but she could see the anguish in his eyes. The runes on the door, the sign at the campgrounds about the supernatural threats made sense to her now. "He couldn't take another life to save his daughter. She died recently, maybe a few months ago. That's when the sign went up, when people were seeing her, or something else." She remembered the motto on the wall of the foundry. "May the seeds of your mistakes bear fruit tomorrow, except these seeds were rotten, and now he must eat this deadly fruit."
"Then you understand," said the tree. "Leave him to me or you'll be joining him soon enough."
"The worst of both worlds," said Claire. "He let his daughter die, but you still wanted your debt. Did you send him after us, or did you want to claim us after we arrived?"
"He's a weak fool. I sent my minion to remind him, but when he wouldn't do it, I had to lure him back here."
"The debts of the Veil are strong," said Dawn. "I hate to say this, but we have to leave him. We're out of time."
The approaching presence felt like the baying of hounds, except these were made of the souls trapped between the living and the dead, angry that they weren't able to move on. In a fit of frustration, Claire sent a bolt of fire at the nekyia's head. She knew she performed the gestures perfectly, but the result was a wet flame that died long before it reached the tree.
"Your magic doesn't work here."
"Is there another way? If you kill him, you'll never get your prize."
"He is my prize. A life for a life, unless you're volunteering."
"Give him back to us. We'll find a way to pay his debt. With interest. But he has to leave with us."
The nekyia tree sneered. "Liar. I know you have no intention of returning. He was only weak enough because of his daughter. You would not kill another in cold blood, even to save his life."
From behind her, Dawn spoke with need. "Claire—"
"I know, I know."
The horde of creatures approaching was like standing on an empty beach as the winds of the hurricane were rising to a crescendo, safety nowhere to be found. Before she lost her nerve, Claire burst forward, rushing towards the nekyia. The tree released one vine from Grayson's neck, lashing out at her. She tried to dodge the appendage, but it whipped her face, opening up a gash on her cheek, which only intensified the baying. Fresh blood was like a beacon to the near-dead. Claire dodged under and grabbed the vine around Grayson's neck, pulling with all her strength. The second vine wrapped around her midsection.
"No!" she screamed as she punched the vines, trying to break free as Dawn screamed at her from the edge of the portal. Carl barked loudly, his hackles at full attention. Claire kept pummeling the vine, but it wouldn't budge.
The appendage squeezed around her midsection with a strength that should have cracked ribs. Then the nekyia screeched as if she'd been burnt by flame. The vine released, leaving her free again.
"What sorcery of the night queen have you smuggled here?" gasped the nekyia.
Claire checked down to find her shirt shredded and the striations of night metal peeking through the gaps. Seeing an opportunity, she shoved her hip against the vine that clutched Grayson's neck. It uncoiled instantly as the nekyia gasped in bright pain.
Grabbing his calloused hand, she dragged him away as the creatures of the Veil descended upon the gate. Claire had no idea if they could follow, but she wasn't going to stay either way. The four of them crashed through the opening, falling into the wet leaves of the Appalachian forest. Claire spun around, facing the opening, waiting for the denizens of the Veil to come rushing after.
*** Come back in 2 weeks for Episode Eighteen! ***