The Midwest Whisperer, The Midwest Magic Chronicles Book 3
By Flint Maxwell & Martha Carr
The gates to the town of Ashbourne stood tall and foreboding. Maria ran her fingers over the shape of the music box in her satchel, and then turned toward the rest of the group, beckoning them forward.
They used a nearby hill outside of the town as cover while they scouted the town. The mountains were now behind them and they could all but smell the water on the lake drifting along the night breeze.
Can’t I have another breather? Sherlock asked.
“You just had one. You were snoring up on the mountain,” Maria replied.
Yeah, but we’ve come a long way since then. I’m hungry.
“We’ve gone down the mountain, which is much easier than going up the mountain. And you’re always hungry. What’s new?”
Maria glanced at Frieda, who was helping Gramps down the hill. He looked weak and frail after what happened when they arrived on Oriceran via his portal, but Maria kept telling herself that he was strong.
She had learned Gramps’s nickname while they walked and urged him to tell stories of old to distract him. That nickname was ‘Ferod,’ given to him in Dominion and used among the others that guarded the king.
‘Ferod,’ Maria; remember what it means. Your grandpa is a stubborn ‘Old Bull’—a little kooky, sure, but never one to give up. Especially with so many lives hanging in the balance.
She was hoping to get him to talk about the past, the glory days; it was, she knew, the only thing that could take his mind off of whatever pain was currently coursing through his body.
She paused and waited for Frieda and Gramps to catch up to her and Sherlock. The air was colder than it had been near the mountain—something she thought was quite odd. The chilly weather brought along dark thoughts, which she willed away with a smile.
When Frieda and Gramps finally caught up, Gramps smiled back. “Oh, dear, Maria, you’ll have to forgive me. My age is showing. Come, come—to the gates we go.” Gramps pushed ahead, shedding Frieda’s support. Frieda gave Maria a reluctant look, as if to say she was sorry, but Maria knew her grandfather was as hardheaded as she was. There was no need to be sorry. The two women took a couple of hesitant steps after him.
Sherlock’s energy had come back, and he bounded past all of them.
“Sherlock!” Maria hissed.
Too many good smells! Sorry!
Maria could only shake her head. When the Bloodhound reached the fence, he started sniffing all along the iron.
Fish! No…dead fish! Even better. And…and…beef? I smell beef. And butter and oils. Weeks old trash dumped into the lake! Mmm! He paused, taking in a deep breath through his nostrils. Oh, it gets even better…blood!
She froze on the spot so abruptly that Frieda and Gramps stopped, too. Maria’s heart sank.
“Blood? Blood, are you sure?”
Sherlock inhaled deeply again.
Yep, blood and sweat and steel.
“This is no time to joke.”
I’m not, Maria. Don’t act surprised…this is why we came here, right? To battle the bad guys?
Maria nodded, her senses heightening. She thought she could smell the blood and sweat and steel herself. She walked over to Sherlock and then crouched, sticking close to the shadows thrown by the gate. She motioned Frieda and Gramps over.
Gramps had his wand out, and Frieda’s hands were clenched into half-fists, ready to turn a spark into a blaze.
Now Maria crept slowly along the fence toward the opening, her sword out. The iron felt natural in her hands; so much better than it had felt when Gramps first gifted it to her two or three Earth days ago.
“Careful,” Gramps whispered, almost soundlessly.
Maria looked back and nodded. She had learned to be careful very quickly in this magical world. First the unexpected powers resulting in unexpected explosions, then the Arachnids and the dark dreams and the visions where she talked to dead soldiers, and portal mishaps; not to mention the Raffin in the Elves’ library. Yeah, she was surprised she’d lasted this long.
The iron of the fence was replaced by wood, stretching for a length of nearly one-hundred feet only to give way to iron again closer to the opening. Beyond the fence was silence. It was as if they’d arrived at a ghost town. Through the slats, Maria could see nothing but an empty street; wooden buildings and huts rose up on each side of the dirt road. A few barrels stood out in front of the wooden shops, and tethers and troughs for the horses in front of those. But no people; no voices. Only dark, shuttered windows, and eerie quiet.
Are they all dead? Am I too late? If she was, it was all because of that bastard Widow, the ruler of the Arachnids.
“Open?” Gramps asked.
Maria put a hesitant hand on the gate and pulled.
It was locked.
She shook her head. “Nothing,” Maria said, daring to raise her voice a little higher so the rest of the group could hear.
Gramps waved her back. “We must find another way in. It shan’t be difficult,” Gramps said.
“I could melt the lock,” Frieda offered. She snapped her fingers, and a spark lit up the shadows that the group clung to.
“No,” said Gramps. “No, we must be as careful and stealthy as possible.”
Like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible! Sherlock said.
“We gotta stop letting you watch movies when everyone else is asleep,” Maria replied. “You’re definitely not Tom Cruise, so don’t go climbing up any fences.”
You underestimate my power!
“What’s that one? Star Wars? Yeah, I think it is. Episode III, right?”
“Gramps is right,” Maria decided, taking control. “We should go around—”
A clamor of voices cut her off from inside the gate.
Maria, Sherlock, Gramps, and Frieda all froze to the spot, their eyes darting to one another.
“…then I told that fuckin’ Gnome to cry as loud as he wanted! His gods don’t matter anymore. There’s only one God now!” a gruff man’s voice said.
Others laughed in reply. Maria didn’t think that could’ve been remotely funny, despite missing the beginning of the story. But her ears had perked up (as had Sherlock’s) at the mention of a Gnome.
Gelbus. It has to be Gelbus. God, I hope he isn’t hurt…or worse. We need him.
“Soon, my brethren, soon!” someone else declared. “Our God will rise.”
The others cheered.
They sound like they’re getting closer…Rustling filled Maria’s ears.
The cheers stopped.
“What was that?” one of the men asked.
“What? I heard nothing.”
Maria’s heart stopped beating for a moment and she looked at Gramps. The tip of his wand was glowing blue, prepared for a fight. They were about thirty feet from the gate, but the only cover offered to them at that moment was the rolling hills, back the way they had come—and those were much farther than Maria wanted to risk. If they were to run toward them, they’d be out in the open for a solid thirty seconds; perhaps longer, with Gramps lagging behind. They’d be shot down or chased before they could reach safety.
The man laughed. “It is the sound of VICTORY!”
Maria relaxed. Frieda, who had been holding Gramps’s hand, looked down and quickly let go.
They were opening the gates.
“Shit,” Maria whispered. She waved the four of them back and they pressed themselves up against the fence as flat as they could.
A large man wearing a green hood walked out onto the path from the now-open gate. He stopped and sniffed almost as deeply as Sherlock had.
Maria held her breath.
More laughter and conversation floated out from behind the gate. The man reached into his cloak and produced what looked like a pipe. He held it out in front of his mouth and breathed fire.
What the fuck did I just see? Sherlock said. Did that guy just breathe fire?
Maria couldn’t reply, but it was good to know she had not imagined it. That man had, in fact, breathed fire.
The pipe smoldered, glittering orange and red, and the man stuck it into the corner of his mouth. As he started to turn in their direction, Maria caught the faintest tinge of red in the man’s eyes—but before he could turn all the way around, someone yelled, “Dig! You have to come back in here. We found a straggler!”
The man who had breathed fire, Dig, spun in the opposite direction, his cloak fanning out behind him, and disappeared into the town of Ashbourne.
The gate didn’t close behind him.
Just as the group was beginning to relax and breathe a sigh of relief, Maria took off toward the opening, saying in a harsh whisper, “C’mon!”
She stopped at the gate and peered around. The men, all wearing dark cloaks with the hoods drawn, formed a circle in the middle of the road outside of what looked to Maria to be a blacksmith’s workshop. Iron anvils stood on the small porch, well worn and chipped by the constant forging of steel; steel like the sword Maria held in her hand.
The men were laughing—Can I call them ‘men’? One of them blew fire from his mouth like a dragon. Maria didn’t much care about what they were laughing at in that moment. All she wanted was safe passage beyond the gates.
She stopped and motioned her companions to get inside. Frieda went first, holding Gramps’s hand, guiding him; then went Sherlock, followed last by Maria. She watched the cloaked men out of the corners of her eyes. The laughing increased. It was so loud that she could hardly hear the soft screams and pleas coming from the inside of the circle.
While Gramps, Frieda, and Sherlock kept going, hiding behind the safety of the blacksmith’s building and the darker shadows of the alleyway beyond, Maria stopped near the gate.
She had her sword out in front of her in her patented battle stance.
Through the legs and swirling cloaks, by the light of a nearby fire, she caught glimpses of a man’s anguished face.
She heard the blows of the men’s feet, connecting with the defenseless man’s ribs. The crunching. The cracking. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and felt his pain. Then, gripping her sword in both hands, Maria opened her eyes.
“Hey, assholes!” she shouted.
They stopped. The man on the ground moaned and rolled out of the circle. He wore a leather jerkin, and his hair was gray around the sides of his head and absent on the top. Fresh blood dribbled from his nose and mouth. He was dazed, barely hanging on.
The eyes of the cloak-wearers flashed at Maria, and collectively lit up like hungry flames. So many things she had once thought impossible were proving not to be. Below their fiery stares, the men in cloaks bared their fangs, and forked tongues wiggled out from between their jaws.
Maria’s confidence wavered, but she didn’t let that show.
“Yeah, that’s right, assholes. I’m talking to you. Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
Maria didn’t realize it, because she didn’t care so much when it came to doing the right thing, but they were all bigger than her. Much bigger.
Sherlock whined at Ignatius’s feet. Ignatius could not understand the dog as clearly as Maria, but the whining was self-explanatory: Maria needed their help.
If Sherlock’s point hadn’t registered, Frieda’s reaction would have made sure it did. She gripped Ignatius’s arm tight, causing him to wince out of shock, and said, “We have to help her!”
Ignatius knew from the legends that these five cloaked men were members of the Dragon Tongue, a group of devout worshippers of beasts long-gone from Oriceran. Seeing a dragon was rare these days, it seemed, but one would never see a Rogue Dragon; they were the stuff of legend.
“Ignatius!” Frieda whispered, pulling on his sleeve again.
Sherlock dug his paws into the dirt; his hind legs were shaking, ready to explode forward.
“Sherlock, steady,” Ignatius warned the dog, and the Bloodhound eased up…slightly.
“She’s going to get herself killed,” Frieda whispered in Ignatius’s ear.
He took a deep breath. As much as he wanted to help Maria, he could not. Not only was his magic weak—and ever weakening—if they came forth now, they would ruin their chances of getting the Gnome and saving this town.
“Do not worry, Frieda,” Ignatius said, smiling wide. His teeth—often mistaken for dentures, due to his old age and their sheer brilliance—beamed in the twilight. “Maria can handle herself. Come, we must make haste toward the dungeons. Surely, that is where our friend Gelbus is being kept.”
Frieda looked like she wanted to smack him. He could sense the heat radiating off of her palms.
“Trust me, Frieda. Trust me—” Ignatius was cut off by the sound of Maria’s blade, ringing out against the upraised hands of one of the Dragon Tongue. The blade, Ignatius knew firsthand, was as sharp as it was the day his father gifted it to him, and it cut cleanly through the man’s last attempt at defending himself. He fell to the ground, screaming.
Not good, the screams. They will raise more attention in our direction.
Sherlock yipped softly. It was a hard noise to listen to. Gramps bent low and ruffled the Bloodhound behind his droopy ears. “Come, Sherlock; Maria will be all right. You and I both know that.”
Sherlock looked up to him with watery eyes, and despite the obvious sadness in them, there was trust.
“Come, come. Let’s move.”
They moved down the dark alleyway, navigating between bins of overflowing trash and overturned boxes while the blue glow of Maria’s magic ate away at the shadows.
Maria thrust the blade forward and took another one of the cloaked men in the gut with a slash. She pulled the sword free and spun around to block a hit from one of the remaining three. The steel rang out, echoing over the deserted town.
It took everything Maria had not to falter or slip up. These men were much more unsettling up close.
A kick caught her in the back of the leg, and she lost her balance.
Maria! Maria we’re going… we’re going to find the Gnome. Hold on. Fight! Fight! It was Sherlock’s voice, coming from somewhere in the distance, not as strong as it should’ve been.
Two of the remaining men didn’t fight with swords, but with magic. A dark magic, Maria knew. She could feel the malice laced within every spell that came her way.
“Drugka kol urha!” one shouted, and a stream of fire emanated from his fingertips.
Maria ducked and rolled out of the way, the pain in the back of her leg now nonexistent. She felt the hair singe on the back of her neck and hands.
She sprang up, her legs bent, head on a swivel, eyes darting between each of the three men now closing in around her. Their eyes burned a bright red now. It reminded her of the Arachnids.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Maria murmured. With her left hand, she motioned them forward.
The man with the sword came first, a perfect distraction. She saw what the other two were planning before they could do it, and she was expecting the dark magic that came from their fingertips as they muttered spells under their breath, their lips pronouncing words Maria could never fathom with her limited Earth knowledge.
She blocked the hit from the one with the sword and kicked out, catching him in the middle. The man wheezed, dropping to his knees. Maria spun with her next hit. Gotta make it fast. Gotta time it right.
She spun, and the scream from the man on his knees was cut short as she sliced him horizontally across the chest. She focused now, hearing the dark spells again.
Firelight lit up the sky. Just as Maria completed her spin and faced the two remaining men, she saw their magic combine into what resembled a small mushroom cloud. An inferno of death.
“The sword! The sword, Maria!” a strong voice said, coming from nowhere and everywhere at once.
She had no time to question it. It was do or die.
In both hands, she held the sword in front of her, with the point aimed between the two cloaked men.
The dark magic came straight away.
The next thing she knew, her arms were vibrating hard enough to make her think they would come off. She opened her eyes only to close them immediately after; the light was too bright. It was like staring into the sun. A roaring rattled in her ears. The smell of hot steel and burning flesh reached her nostrils.
Then—all was quiet.
She stood in front of the two men, as if nothing had happened. Except…it wasn’t exactly like that. Her sword weighed more than it had before, and fire danced just beneath the surface of the steel.
“No,” one of the cloaked men rasped, his forked tongue slithering out of his mouth like a snake’s. “No, that can’t be.”
It all came to Maria in a wave of understanding. Her sword had absorbed their dark magic, and now it was more than a sword.
It was a loaded gun.
A grin found its way to her face.
“Oh, my deformed friends, but it is,” Maria said. With her right hand, she rotated the blade and drove its sharp point into the ground. A crater formed where the blade met the earth. Black smoke and fire shot off the sword’s edge, like two ropes of flame. They lashed across the cloaked men’s faces, leaving a jagged, red mark across their flesh. They cried out and fell to the cracked road.
Maria, her jaw hanging open, raised the sizzling blade to eye level. Beneath the steel, faint orange, black, and red flames danced—fading, fading, and gone.
“What the hell was that?” she whispered to herself.
Movement caught her attention. It was the man that the cloaks had beaten. He was moving away from the smoky area, sliding on his backside.
“Are you okay?” Maria asked him. “No, don’t be scared. I’m on your side. I was only trying to help you.”
“What—what…are you?” the man asked breathlessly.
Maria stepped over the incapacitated Dragon Tongue and hunkered down in front of the old man, sticking her hand out to him. “Oh, geez, where are my manners? I’m Maria Apple, from Earth, and we’d better get the hell out of here before more of those bastards show up.”
The man only gawked at Maria’s hand.
“Okay, buddy, we don’t have time for this. Me,” she pointed to herself, “good guy. You,” she pointed to him, “guy who just got his ass saved; don’t blow this new lease on life. Let me help you up.”
“I-I-I—” the man stammered.
“Yeah, yeah, thank me later. Come on. The rest of my group can’t be far.”
Firelight bounced on the horizon down the road.
This time, the man, now looking over Maria’s shoulder at the torches bobbing in the darkness, took her hand. She pulled him up—he weighed next to nothing—and then she sheathed her sword, which was now back to its normal weight.
“There!” someone shouted in the distance. “Over there!”
Before Maria could tell if the reinforcements had seen them or not, she and the old man vanished amongst the empty buildings, the dark shadows hiding them from enemy eyes.