Elliot was familiar with treating creatures from Gehen with brutal spells, but never had his instincts of mercy and wrath fought so viciously for his conscience.
“Incindiaras anima!” the sweeper casted, setting a nearby brazier’s contents into a blaze of phantoms screaming at the Hollow dwellers chasing him.
Carina’s wand fought him at every syllable. The summoned energy felt intent on staying inside the upper scapulars of his shoulder and erupting there. He tried to coax the wand but it seemed to scream right back at him; Elliot grunted to unleash the force, a strain which buckled him to his knees.
The group of dwellers trailing him were chased off by the illusory phantoms. Figures of bright flame left smoke trails as they pursued the dwellers around a corner. Elliot exhaled and let the incantation fade. Exhaustion spilled from the top of his head in a dark, heavy wave.
Surrounded by a flurry of disintegrating sparks and rising scraps of scorched trash, Elliot felt himself leaning backwards towards the ground. A warm pair of arms reached up from below to embrace him, pulling him under a surface of water. Soft kisses and gentle squeezes lulled him deeper.
A school of sirens.
A song of sleep.
“Agh!” Elliot jerked.
Countless sets of wide, black eyes set in tight, sunken sockets were staring down at him. Their battered, pale skulls were smudged grey and black from soot. Knobby fingers began to pinch and pull at him, testing the suppleness of his flesh. Their mouths hung open, breathing long, ragged gasps with cracked, blackened tongues sitting behind cracked teeth filed to jagged points.
Elliot kicked off the Hollow dwellers about to gnaw into his ankles and shouted incoherently. Their surprise at his awakening allowed him to free his arm and pick up Carina’s wand from the ground. When he did, he noticed his veins burning bright with caster’s sickness. A sheen of sweat on his hands were casting thin streams of steam into the night air.
Ignoring the symptoms, he belted out, “Ferius!”
The spell snapped through Elliot’s arm and erupted in the cracks of Carina’s wand. One moment, Elliot was watching the spell race towards the tip of the wand, and the next, the entire instrument had disintegrated to little else than a few solid, blazing embers. The rest was dust.
The spark allowed him a moment to scramble to his feet while the Hollow dwellers came to the realization that the spell had been ineffective.
“Don’t make me! Back away!” he shouted at them, frantically picking up what was left of Carina’s wand. He pushed through bone fragments and half-decayed, unidentifiable matter to find more of the pieces. “I will! Back! Away!”
More dwellers were coming from either side of the alleyway now. Those that were closest to him seemed to consider the taunts to be empty. More terrifying than their numbers, Elliot realized as he stumbled back towards the wall, was that there was no mirthful expression to be found amongst them. No joy at overcoming their victim’s final resistance. No thrill in the hunt.
It was just hunger. An insatiable, hopeless famine.
Deep in his mind, Elliot shrank away to a familiar place.
He strained to uncover the lid of a well. Its rim was splintered and the tighter he gripped it, the deeper it dug into his palms.
With the cover off and his hands bleeding, he searched the waters swaying at the edge. Leaning over, he felt its cold surface touch his chest. Closer, it embraced him with frigid arms. Then his mother’s hands grabbed his head and shoulders with a gentle forcefulness, pulling him headlong into its abyss.
Then he was sinking. Far, far past his own memories. A small collection of sadnesses and disappointments.
Beneath his own, he found his mother’s entire lifetime of grief. And beneath hers, a sorrow so rich it had caked into the walls of the well; it was not merely the substance of the water, but a blackness which thickened it.
He opened his mouth and inhaled, a sensation of choking that caused his body to writhe.
Folk stories say that banshee screams are loud enough to rupture ear drums and cause internal hemorrhaging within a ten yard radius. Those who survive the physical damage are often cast into depression and mental psychoses so intense that comatose states persist for several days if not weeks. Victims lose all motivation to live, let alone move. Stories of survivors are often accompanied by reports of wandering in surreal labyrinths of the mind where one is confronted by memories they do not own. Injustices and tragedies that had befallen someone in the lineage of the banshee who created the scream.
The severity of it, of course, is influenced by the volume of the banshee’s shriek.
“I didn’t want to,” Elliot sobbed. His raw throat turned his voice into a hoarse grating. He pitched forward, managing to stumble to his feet. “Carina. I’m so sorry.”
The scream had left trails of shallow, silver streaks that twisted like vapor around him.
The dwellers closest to him had simply fallen. Not much different than sacks of bones.
At the ends of the alleyway, bodies were twitching. Their eyes glazed over with that same shock—that quiet, frozen pain that Elliot had seen before.
And for many streets around the heap of bodies, inhabitants of Reaver’s Hollow stirred to find their thoughts haunted by voices that did not belong to them.
Warden Freema was turning over the bloodied note. She felt its burnt edges. “And what happened here?”
“I thought you dealt more with illusions, Shriek? Oh well, that doesn’t matter. Have a seat.”
“You don’t sound so well. Nor look it. Please, I insist.”
“You channel several generations of grief into a single sound and we’ll see how bloody well you hold up afterwards.”
“Careful, sweeper. Remember—”
“You sent me into Gehen itself, Warden! Have you ever been there? Do you know what it’s like? Banshees don’t like screaming anymore than people do hearing it! And you made me do that. That’s on you!”
“I sent you there to help us, to help get you to the bottom of this!”
“What could that woman have possibly done to help us?”
“She was a seer!”
“A seer?! There are hundreds of them in Moram!”
“Shriek, listen to me,” Warden said. She was holding Elliot’s shoulders now, her brows furrowed in what appeared to be genuine care—something that perplexed Elliot and caused him to recoil. The tears, he realized. He had started crying—he’d been too tired to notice. “Madame Mormug was different. Her father was a Voice for Calan, her mother a Morros priestess. She could see memories—like most seers—yes, but what she could do and do alone is dig into an individual’s past and see things even their minds stored but the individual had forgotten. That man. You said he stood over you when you went unconscious. Mormug could have gotten a look at his face. His coat. A scar on his hand. Anything.”
Elliot sank into the chair in front of Freema’s desk. “But why would she go to live in a place like that?”
“She’d seen too much. It drove her mad. Partially.”
“I killed them, Freema. They were trying to eat me. And I killed them.”
“They’re not human, Shriek. Everyone knows that. They’re just animals. You did what you had to do”
“I thought so too …”
“Something most folks don’t know,” Elliot said, rising to leave. “Animals can’t hear a banshee’s cry.”
“Wait. Before you leave. Did you see anything in Mormug’s apartment? Something to help us?”
“Whoever he is, he left only that note. And Mormug … all …” Elliot shook his head. “I already told you.”
“You were there. You have a better grasp of this situation than any of us.”
“If that’s true, then my life is forfeit whenever they see fit. Do you know what I noticed immediately when I went into that chamber with Mormug’s body, Warden?”
“She was strung up by her hands. Like a puppet. I was no different.”
Milk shrieked as it was being aerated beside several runic stoves brewing caffek, the aromas arresting the air with a fragrance of roasted nuts and chocolate. Elliot thought the bustle of the lounge would dampen his incessant thoughts, but they didn’t.
“A caffek lounge. You must really be trying to stir up something you shouldn’t,” Carina greeted. She’d already removed her coat and small, pointed hat on the revolving coatrack at the entrance.
“Unfortunately it couldn’t be much more the opposite,” Elliot confessed. “It is good to see you, however. As always.”
A waiter placed down a simple cup of caffek for Elliot and a particular concoction that Carina used to treat herself to when they would keep each other’s company.
“You remembered,” Carina noted with less pleasure than you might imagine.
“Lavender and acolyte’s root. Hard to forget.” But even Elliot wasn’t enjoying himself, not with the news he had to bring.
“I am tempted to ask you, ‘Is that all?’ and leave you here, right now, you know that don’t you?” Carina threatened.
“But I won’t. I hate it, but I feel myself compelled to stay. How did your assignment for Freema go?”
“It took me to Reaver’s Hollow.”
Carina watered down her shock and concern well enough. She gave a nod before a bemused scoff. “Figures why they bought you the clothes and wand.”
“And I had to … you know—”
“Thought as much when I saw you. It doesn’t quite break my heart the way it used to, but I’m sorry you had to do it again.”
“No, no it’s all right,” Elliot said, not enjoying the flickers of worry in her face as much as he thought he would. “Carina. Something happened that night. The reason I had to scream was, well … There is no complex way of putting this to make it easier. So I suppose I … ”
Any hope of her enjoying this meeting fell from her face.
The witch dropped her caffek. After the cup erupted, she slapped Elliot with enough force that it rivaled the shattering of the mug as well as the dumbfounded silence that swallowed the lounge.
“How dare you,” Carina trembled. “Twenty-three years I’ve used that instrument. Held it close to me. Trained with it. Relied on it. Long enough to learn to cast without it. To be somebody. It gave me who I am today, Elliot. Do you understand that? Without that wand, I could never be the practitioner I am now. Now you show me what you have left of it and you don’t say another damn word do you understand?”
Elliot brought out the handful of charred remains that he’d been clutching in his coat since he’d set out that morning. A few pieces stuck to the sweat of his palm. He set them down on the table and started to open his mouth.
Carina slapped him again..
“What did it?” she asked. “Answer me.”
“I was cornered, all right?!” Elliot shouted, rising from his seat. He know he didn’t have a right to scream back at her, but he was tired of taking the abuse. “T-t-hose people—creatures!—they were moments from devouring me live and kicking! And I … I saw my veins. I saw the light—the sickness. I knew I shouldn’t have casted, but I panicked. That’s when I had to …”
“Light?” somebody murmured.
“Caster’s sickness …” another contributed.
“Carina,” Elliot realized. “We can’t do this here. Word will spread.”
“I don’t give a damn what people hear about you! Not anymore. Freema gave you another wand, Elliot. You told me yourself. So why didn’t you use it?”
“Because I felt connected to you when I used yours! Is that so terrible?”
Carina swallowed a bitter laughter by biting her lip. She swept up what was left of her wand and stomped towards the entrance. “When they were starting to eat you,” Carina sobbed, “did you ever get the thought in your head that you should let them? At least then you’d be good for something.”
“Yes,” Elliot mumbled. “I did.”