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July 17, 2019

Her phone jangled in the cupholder. She pressed it to her ear without taking her eyes off the dark, wooded road. Her voice was rough from disuse when she answered.

“Astrid speaking.”

Words were costly. Better to keep them brief, leave fewer weapons to be used against her. A faerie making a crank call could be more dangerous than the monsters she fought regularly, anyway.

The boy on the other end didn’t spare many words for greeting either. He mumbled something about a casserole.

“Eat that if you’re hungry. Just don’t touch anything on the top shelf. Andre is supposed to come for dinner tomorrow.”

Xander groaned, loud and petulant. Astrid ignored him.

“Did you wash the dishes yet?” she asked. “Mm. Do that before more video games. Yep. Bye.”

She dropped her phone in the seat beside her. There’d be a sink full of dishes waiting for her tonight. Perhaps she could extract assurances from the boy, but that was like pulling teeth. And for what? He’d only half-ass the job and begrudge her for the effort.

Who would know that futility better than Astrid? She’d made vows before. Now they were an albatross around her neck. That, or scattered into the wind. Promises were dead weight or chaff, no in-between. That was all words were good for.

Her truck slowed to a stop on the side of the road. With her headlights off, she was almost invisible to human eyes. Any late night passersby would cruise on without even noticing her. 

She’d continue on foot.

Astrid reached into the backseat of the cab and immediately closed her hand around the hilt of a blade. Her Sovereign . A bastard sword, cold and black as the Abyss.

When the discussion of implements had come up so many years ago, Poppy had suggested a knife. Or perhaps something subtle, like a wand instead? Astrid had other plans. Sovereign was unwieldy. But when a fight was necessary, she preferred the weight of steel in her hand.

She hopped out of the pickup and landed in matted, wet grass. Her boots squished as she approached the forest. With each step, Astrid became more aware of the chirping crickets, the creaking trees, the sliver of moonlight overhead.

A spider crawled across her shoulder to whisper in her ear. “The lake sits a quarter mile to the west.”

The creature’s voice was low and sweet; a singer and a smoker, rolled into one. Once upon a time, the Spinster wove heartsick melodies in the clammy gutters of the Abyss. Dirges that could bring a statue to tears, or lead a grieving lover to an early death.

Those sympathetic magicks now suffused Astrid’s practice, poison infecting the wounds that her actions left on the world. The Spinster was Familiar, by nature and by name. 

Astrid swung her sword at the thick tangle of bushes and trees. One slash cleared over three yards of brush in front of her. She pushed forward, forging a path with quick strokes of Sovereign. 

Something moved in the shadows ahead, mottled light obscuring its shape and size. Astrid lowered her blade and closed the distance. She halted as she recognized the figure.

“Miss Lindstrom. A pleasure,” the ranger said by way of greeting. He wore a tattered uniform that read Superior National Forest on the sleeve. His beard was long and prickly, more like pine needles than hair, and his skin was knotted and rough as tree bark.

A rack of antlers crowned his head, but they looked distant, almost superimposed. Each antler prong was topped with a bloody bird head. Astrid counted off a loon, several smaller jays, even a decapitated eagle. 

“It’s said you’re the premier scourge in this region,” the spirit told her, “if not the entire state.”

“I’ve heard the same,” she replied, addressing the foremost loon’s head. “Show me the beast.”

The birds all nodded like bobbleheads, and the ranger began to move. He was fast, as many dark forest spirits were, each footstep light enough to barely stir the forest floor. Astrid’s progress was slower, harried by bugs and branches and brush. But her familiar had a gentle tread, which Astrid drew on, and her sword made quick work of the many obstacles.

She thought of Xander and Helena as she walked. Xander first, because he demanded attention by nature. He was belligerent and loud, too absorbed in the trappings of youth to be reliable. His practice was potent but untamed, and that chaos presented a greater liability than obvious weakness. 

He was too much like his father.

Helena…Astrid dreamt of her eldest child often. She saw her wading through the depths of the Abyss, and watched her struggle and fight her way out. On an intellectual level, she knew that the girl in the Abyss was merely a pale reflection of herself. Astrid was not her father, and she would never inflict on her children what Poppy had deemed necessary. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but worry.

Astrid herself was a second child, much like Xander, but she had forced herself to grow and fill  her mother’s absence. There were some days she forgot that Barrett was older, other days when she forgot about him altogether. It was the nature of these twisted, tangled family lines to force the offspring into roles.

On the other hand, Helena was diminished. Perhaps it was the reverse situation at play, Xander swelling and stretching to claim what Max had left behind. It seemed Helena was always grasping at shadows, to find validation or solace in whatever was at hand.

It was only a matter of time until the only option left was Poppy.

She slowed as the ranger-spirit did, crouching behind a fallen Norway pine. For a moment, she sucked in the cool night air to ground herself. The Other beside her didn’t even stir.

“Hostiles?” she asked, her voice lower than a whisper. “Complications?”

“It breathes, slowly but surely. Every night, at least a few breaths.” The ranger shifted position to hold up his hands in a wide circle. “When it inhales, the stars wink out. The air chills, plants die, and Limbo gains a foothold in our forest. With each exhalation comes the spawn. Twisted, metal things. Hard to fight.”

As if on cue, a falling tree thundered in the distance. A moment after came the recognizable roar of a chainsaw. The two sounds in conjunction were backwards, slightly amiss in an indistinct sense.

Astrid nodded, taking it all in.

“I want to see it. How far off was that treefall?” she murmured.

The loon titled its head. The ranger and the other birds tilted their heads along with it. “No more than two hundred paces.”

“I’ll head to the water. Provide me with cover as necessary, per our agreement,” Astrid said. She made as if to run forward, then paused. “That was also directed to you, Spins.”

The spider skittered off her arm and onto the forest floor. As the ranger’s collection of heads began bobbing again, Astrid darted off.

It was a short, mad dash to the rocky shoreline. The trees thinned and then opened to a wide clearing at the edge of the lake. It was less a beach, more a sloping cliff face that led right down to the water.

And in the water was the Maw.

Reports could not prepare her for this. Words would never do it justice. For thirty years Astrid had wrestled with and conquered and tamed the varied creatures of the Abyss. For thirty years she had learned and grown ever stronger. And yet this thing seemed far greater than the sum of her experience. 

Despite the stillness of the air, water churned and frothed as if in the throes of a storm. The lake was blacker than night, but there was still movement beneath the surface. With her Eyes open, it looked like a swarm of violent, angry uvula.

She’d thought the rock beneath her to be rust-red iron formations. In a sense, she was right. But the cracked lips of this monstrous Other were far from stable or sturdy. Turning her gaze downward, she saw pulsating flesh between the layers of sediment.

The mossy stones that dotted the lakeside were not stones at all, but massive, moldering teeth. Creatures teemed among these grayish-black growths, but they were alien and wrong. She recognized them as scraps and scrapings of the Abyss, cobbled together from the excess of greater things. It was worrying that they’d surfaced here. Or been made to surface here.

In the face of the godlike gullet, Astrid almost forgot the goal of her excursion. Forgivable, but stupid. She turned and saw the ranger a few dozen yards back, running circles around a goat with fur that flashed like lightning. 

She ran toward them. When she was about twenty feet from the goat, she swung her sword. The Spinster’s power flooded through her, shearing through the thick fur. The ranger’s next strike drew silvery blood. Astrid’s next strike ended the fight.

“You saw it?” the Spinster inquired. She stood in a more human form now, wearing a shawl knit from wool, webs, and human hair. The ranger stood closer to Astrid than her familiar, wary of the bogeyman. It was understandable, but between the two women, his fear was misplaced.

“Yes.”

“Your verdict?”

“It presents an issue,” Astrid replied. She addressed the ranger. “Clear the area of the Innocent. Alert the local judges of this godsmouth and petition for their aid. And avoid flying too low above this lake.”

She pointed back at the water. Something stood high above the surface, undulating in an artificial current.

“Is that its mortal form?” the ranger asked. “Its champion?”

“It’s a tongue,” said Astrid. She clapped a hand on the ranger-spirit’s shoulder. “Don’t fly over the lake. Spinster, with me.”

The Spinster followed, in the guise of a spider once again. Astrid strode off without another glance.

This complicated things. Xander had yet to learn how to drive. Helena still struggled to find her niche in the practice. And of course Poppy expected her to lend her voice to the upcoming conflict this fall.

All of that would have to wait. She was a scourge, after all, and actions always spoke louder than words.