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Authors: Megan Derr

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BOOK: Dire Straits
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He struck a match and lit the end, holding the cigar between two fingers.  Bannick sighed soundlessly as the smoke hit his system, soothing his riled-up blood.  Calm weed, it was called. One of the many secrets the Crown had brought with it when they had taken control of the country and brought the dark days to an end.

Reaching into his satchel, Bannick pulled out his
Book of Prayers
. To be fair, the book
did
contain prayers—hundreds of them. But they were all parts of spells meant to banish everything from the simplest gremlin to some of the highest orders of demon.

Of course, it was all written in Old Runic, which no one but priests and dusty scholars bothered to learn anymore. Even most other magic users frequently didn't bother to learn more than New Runic.  It was only one more reason that people were as afraid of Priests as they were in awe.

He flipped through the book until he came to the chapter he sought.
On the Making and Destroying of Dires.
Flipping through a couple more pages until he came to the subsection he wanted, Bannick stared at the little sketch alongside a lot of troubling information. It resembled the cave they stood before far too closely. Bannick mentally went through every swear word he knew.

"I can tell from your face that you know what's going on—and I can also tell I definitely ain't gonna like it," Myre said.

"You ain't," Bannick said and took another long drag on his cigar. He closed his book and slid it into a pocket of his frock coat because he'd need it again shortly. "I'd say the marks on this cave are at least eighty years old, maybe a hundred. Someone was trying to make a dire demon."

Myre paled. "I've heard of those. Met a dire dog, once. Some fool boy was mucking around with books he shouldn't have been reading.  I was a greenhorn then, just arrived in town and roped into helping the Sheriff 'cause I could read Runic and knew a bit more magic than most folks.  We couldn't kill it, though. Sheriff called some friend of his, who sent a strange fella who killed the dire dog sure enough. And then we tanned the hide of that fool boy what started the mess." He took of his hat and fanned himself, swearing softly. "That dire dog was bad enough. I don't want to know what a dire demon could do."

Bannick did not bother to reply because he could offer
nothing
reassuring. The moment the Crown had gotten Myre's telegram, they had feared some sort of dire. But they had hoped it was a creature that had been sealed away by a magic user because he could not destroy it. In that situation, Bannick would have stabilized the Seal and told the Crown to send him the correct help
now.

This was much, much worse, and as powerful as he was, Bannick even could not kill it.

Dires were undead creatures, brought back to a pale imitation of life by way of magic and alchemy. The creation of dires, and most of the magic and alchemy surrounding such dark arts, had been outlawed when the Crown assumed full authority roughly seventy five years ago, instituted its Priests, and required that all mages be licensed and registered with the state.

Most often, a creature recently deceased—usually killed on purpose by the mage—was 'infected' with magic or alchemy that turned it undead and brought it back in a horrific nonliving state where it was more powerful than it had been before, obeyed only its creator, and required the flesh of the living to sustain itself.

Dire demons, however, could only be made by first trapping a demon in the body which it had possessed. Then the host was killed, leaving the demon trapped inside a corpse. After that it was left in a secured location—like a forgotten cave—for years, even decades. As the body rotted, still infused with the demon, it combined with pre-laid magic or alchemy to become something new, something darker, something hundreds of times more dangerous than a regular demon.  The theory, still unproven, was that the entire process drove the demon insane. Whatever he had been, the demon was no longer by the time the conversion was finished.

Worst of all, dires could not be killed by ordinary mages or priests. Dires could only be killed by necromancers, and a dire demon would require a necromancer on par with Bannick in terms of skill and experience.  Necromancers, however, were rare. There just weren't many folk who wanted to bend their magic to understanding such dark arts, especially given much of it was illegal except under very particular and closely watched circumstances. The Crown supervised necromancers far more than any other branch of magic.

The last time Bannick had heard a count, there were only about two hundred necromancers in the entire country, and not even a thousand worldwide.

Striding closer to the cave, Bannick pulled out his book again and double checked the runes he would be using, even though he knew them by heart.  Then he began to write in the dirt, murmuring the incantations softly, occasionally humming.  When he finished, he stood up and brushed his hands off on his chaps. Turning to Myre, he said, "That should hold things a little longer, and I should know when the Seal finally collapses."

Myre shook his head then stared at the cave in horror. "Why would anyone do this? Why just leave it?"

Bannick shrugged and pulled on the brim of his hat. "This place was lawless and wild a hundred years ago—even just eighty years ago. I reckon the fella what put it here, had some mighty big plans for his dire demon.  My guess, he was killed before he could come back for it. Over time, his Seal has been rotting. I doubt we'll ever know what really happened, but all we need to know is that there's a dire demon in there, and he's not got much longer before he's finally free." He turned away, looking at Myre. "Come on, then. We need to get to the telegraph office."

Nodding, Myre mounted his horse as Bannick did the same, and they rode as fast as they could safely push the horses back to town.  Once they reached town, Myre led the way to an old building fronted with a large glass window. Across the glass, in black and red paint, were the words
Tillery Post & Telegraph
.  Tying their horses off out front, they strode inside.

"Deputy," the man at the counter greeted warmly, but his smile faltered, turned into wide-eyed surprise, as he saw Bannick. Then he snapped back to Myre. "Something wrong?"

Bannick removed his hat and set it on the counter. "I need to send a telegram."

"Yes, Father," the man replied and handed over pencil and paper for him to write his message.

Not bothering to tell him to leave off the formality, too intent upon what he was doing, Bannick quickly penciled his message and handed it back. "Send this to Crown City, the Temple of the Priests."

"Yes, Father," the man said again and turned away to send the message.

Bannick picked up his hat and moved to sit on a bench along the far wall, forcing himself to wait patiently for a reply.  He fervently hoped there was a powerful enough necromancer nearby because he sensed the Seal would break entirely in another day at best. The most he had been able to do was buy a few hours. Even his particular brand of 'supplemented' magic was no match for a dire demon. If he had to travel more than a town or two over or wait several days for a necromancer to arrive …

"Reply," the man at the counter said.

Surprised it had come so quickly, Bannick rose and crossed to the counter, accepting the slip of paper with a nod and thanks.  The message was brief, but it said all that needed to be said.
Necromancer on way. Ezell Underwood. Arrive morning 630.

There was a necromancer already en route. The necromancer was Ezell. He had never thought to run across that name again; he had forced himself to push Ezell to the back of his mind, to live forever as the sweetest of memories, one of Bannick's few, precious, happy memories. Who would have thought his sweet, quiet Ezell would become a necromancer?

Bannick had never found it so hard to breathe.

Gathering himself, he thanked the telegraph operator again, then slid his hat on and motioned for Myre to follow him outside. Standing by their horses, he told Myre in low tones, "The Crown has already sent a necromancer; he's arriving on the morning six thirty train. I'll pick him up and take him straight to the cave. Do you and your wife have room to put him up? The Crown will be paying, of course."

"Kate's always got rooms," Myre said easily. "I'm just glad they've already sent someone. They anticipated a dire, huh?"

Bannick nodded. "Yes, though nothing of quite this caliber. We were hoping someone had just sealed away something like your dire dog, since they wouldn't have been able to kill it."

Myre muttered choice curses under his breath. "I wish that was all it was, too. I'm going to need to go speak with the Sheriff about this. You had best come along, to back up what I'm saying."

"Of course," Bannick replied. But as they rode off, all he could think about was Ezell and the fact that they would be meeting again, when Bannick had been certain they would never cross paths again.

They'd met when they had been stranded in the city of Hallow. The snow there had stranded everyone, and everything. Bannick had been just twenty-two, a brand new Class Two so proud of the blue collar he had earned well ahead of expectations. Ezell had been a student, a couple of years younger than Bannick, eager to go abroad to schools and places that Bannick would likely never see.  He had been the most beautiful person Bannick had ever seen, all long, smooth gold hair and the prettiest hazel eyes framed by delicate spectacles.

The snow had stranded them in Hallow for two weeks; it had not taken them more than a day and a half to become lovers. Bannick had never met anyone, before or since, like Ezell. When the snow had finally let up, and they'd been forced to go their separate ways, Bannick had never been more devastated.

One month later, he had been sent to tend a minor problem in a small farming town in the company of a senior Class Three who was training Bannick. The demon there killed the entire town and the senior agent in the end. By the time he had managed to destroy the demon and save a few small surviving children, Bannick's fate had been rewritten—no longer on the path to a Class Five black collar, but destined to go one step further to the notorious red.

Thirty-five now, going on thirty-six but feeling closer to eighty, those two weeks were still the sweetest memory he possessed. And in less than twelve hours, he would be seeing Ezell again.

Bannick did not know what to think, what to feel—what to do. Even a dire demon, at that moment, was nothing next to the moment when he had read Ezell's name on that little slip of paper.

Forcing the thoughts away, he tried to focus on the job, if only because it would make the time pass more quickly and the morning would come all the faster.

*~*~*

Bannick lit a cigar, even more restless than usual and barely able to listen to Myre's chatter. The train was ten minutes late and waiting was driving him crazy.

He wondered idly if Ezell remembered him, and how well. Nearly fifteen years was a long time. And he wasn't the type to worry much, but he did wonder. Not even the bittersweet smell of the calm weed was soothing him this morning; the restlessness stirring his blood was caused by something that no cigar would ever cure.

Bannick scratched at his cheek, realizing belatedly that he should have bothered to shave, but by the time he had finally fallen into bed, it had been later than he liked to think upon, and he had stayed in bed as long as he could.  There'd been no time to shave—or do more than wash, dress, and eat quickly—before they had ridden off to meet the early train.

The sound of the whistle drew his head up sharply, and Bannick took another drag, trying to focus himself.  He suspected, however, that telling himself such things were futile.  That he was going to be seeing Ezell again in a matter of minutes had him more restless than usual, and nothing was going to fix it except for Ezell finally showing up.

"I sure hope this necromancer can take care of the dire demon," Myre said as the whistle faded.

"He can," Bannick said. "I knew him, once. Years ago. If he's even half the man now that he was then, we'll be just fine." Myre eyed him, expression more thoughtful than Bannick liked. He raised his brows in inquiry.

Smiling faintly, Myre asked, "Knew him once, huh? Like that, is it?"

"Like what?" Bannick asked, barely keeping the irritation from his voice. He hated know-it-alls. "Met him, oh, nearly fifteen years ago. Spent two weeks in Hallow, snowed in. Last I checked, that was like a whole lot of nothing."

Myre laughed. "Son, I had ambitions to be wealthy and powerful on the west coast. It took me seeing Kate once to decide that Deputy of this Podunk town was the life for me." He settled his hat on his head. "I’m thinkin' I'll go have another word with the Sheriff, and leave you to wait for the necromancer. Damn train is late, anyway." He winked and was gone.

Bannick rolled his eyes. Honestly, if there was one thing he really did not miss about this side of the country, it was the nosey, busybody nature of folk.  Then the train came into view, and even Bannick's irritation slid away. He waited, sucking on his cigar as if his life depended on it as the train slowed to a stop and the passengers slowly began to disembark.

When he saw Ezell, it was like a punch to the gut, stealing all his breath and leaving him dizzy for a spell. Ezell was still so beautiful, even rumbled from hard travelling.  Older, harder, rougher, but the hair still fell to his shoulders, as rich as gold in color, and there were gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the delicate nose—

BOOK: Dire Straits
5.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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