Thursday, September 15, 2016

The First Storm of Spring, Part 4 (New Short Story)

Here is Part 4 of The First Storm of Spring. If you haven't read Part 3 yet, you can find it here.
And if you're ready to go, Part 4 starts now…
The First Storm of Spring
By Catherine Mesick
Garrett stood for several moments uncertain what to do.
He didn’t want to fire up the staff for fear that Subee was nearby and would get hurt.
But standing still was agony—as was the fact that he could see and hear very little of what was around him.
And then he saw it.
Just beyond the haze that surrounded him, Garrett could see a twisting mass up in the air floating toward him. It was vast and dark and shot through with faint hints of sickly green light. At the same time, Garrett could feel a chill creeping around him, wrapping around his body.
Subee had said that he wouldn’t be able to see the evil spirits, but he had a feeling that that was exactly what he was looking at.
Garrett stood transfixed, watching the dark green mass as it rotated slowly in front of him. The mass was surely too big to fit inside the house, and as Garrett watched it, a disturbance seemed to roil it from within. Smaller masses spun themselves off from the larger one and floated beside it, twisting and writhing on their own.
Garrett squinted at the new masses, trying to make out what was going on, and he could see within them flashes of what looked like claws and teeth. After another few moments he could see what looked like long tendrils of hair that fluttered as if supported in a breeze. There were flashes of eyes, too, and Garrett could see that the strange creatures appeared to be bound together by some invisible force at their middles.
The evil spirits seemed to be woven together in bundles.
The bundles suddenly shot off on their own, leaving the larger mass behind, and Garrett was jolted out of his reverie.
He could feel that the air around him had grown significantly colder, and he was startled to see his own breath escaping his lips in little puffs of vapor.
Garrett quickly swung his staff around and sent a jet of flame through the fire barrier toward the large, twisting mass before him.
The mass reacted instantly, and it rumbled ominously with a tremor that Garrett could feel rather than hear. The air around him suddenly grew warmer, and he swung the staff around his head and brought it down toward the mass again, sending another jet of flame rolling over it.
Suddenly, he felt a blast of cold air at his side, and he turned to see one of the spirit bundles floating close to the barrier, reaching its many claws out toward him.
Garrett quickly trained his staff on the floating bundle.
The entangled spirits recoiled as a jet of flame rolled over them, and out of the corner of his eye, Garrett could see another spirit bundle fast approaching from the other side.
He hurried to fend off the new bundle with a fiery blast, and no sooner had he done so than he felt another wave of cold wash over his back.
Garrett realized Subee was right: the best way to combat the evil spirits was to walk around the perimeter of the barrier, sending out jets of flame as fast as he could to ward off as many evil spirits as possible.
And so Garrett got to work, patrolling the barrier with the great source flame at his back—attacking spirit bundles when he saw them and just barraging the immediate area with fire when he did not.
The temperature inside the barrier soon became insufferably hot, and Garrett’s hair and clothes became drenched with sweat.
He took that as a sign that things were going well.
Soon his whole world became fire and effort, and Garrett lost sight of everything else.
But as he worked, he gradually became aware of the central mass still hovering and roiling outside the barrier. Garrett couldn’t always see the mass depending on where he was standing, but every time he did pass it, he noticed that it never seemed to grow any smaller. In fact, it actually seemed to be getting bigger.
Garrett began to wonder if something was wrong.
He couldn’t see any sign of Subee, and he couldn’t see any sign of the house, or the storm, for that matter. All he could see was the fire he guarded and the masses of spirits that waited to attack.
Garrett began to scan the outer darkness for any sign of Subee. But she was invisible to his eyes.
Fear soon stole over him, and he lowered his staff. He needed to find out what had happened to her.
Garrett hesitated for just a moment, and then he threw himself across the barrier to the outer world.
He immediately wished he hadn’t done so.
On the other side of the barrier, a storm raged, and Garrett could see nothing but the heavy, driving rain and hear nothing but the howling of the wind. Even the evil spirits had disappeared. And the fire that Garrett had guarded seemed to have been swallowed up by the storm.
He felt a flash of panic, and he quickly glanced up at his staff. But Garrett saw to his amazement that the plume of fire at the top still shone and flared brightly, and rather than being quenched by the rain, the flame had actually created a barrier against it—it was the only reason, in fact, that he was able to see anything at all.
And as Garrett listened to the fierce raging of the wind, it occurred to him that the flame was protecting him from that, too. Otherwise, the powerful hurricane should have flung him through the air.
But Subee was nowhere to be seen, and Garrett had completely lost sight of the central fire. And though he knew he should find it and go back to guarding it, he also knew he couldn’t do that.
He would press on until he found Subee.
Garrett plunged forward into the storm.
At first he saw nothing, and then he stumbled badly as his feet left level ground and ran up against an incline. Garrett remembered that there was a small hill in the lot behind Subee’s house, and that a huge pile of old cypress trees downed in previous storms had been dragged up there to get them out of the way. The resulting pile had made the little hill into something of a town high spot, and Garrett quickly scrambled up the hill and began to climb the heap of old trees.
The cypress trees were gnarled and tangled and heavily soaked with rain. Branches and bark came away in Garrett’s hands, and he had to keep shifting the fire staff so as not to drop it. He lost his footing once or twice, too, on the slick trees, but at last he came to stand unsteadily at the top of the pile.
Garrett held the staff high over his head, trying to create as much space to see as he could. The fire created an arc around him, completely shielding his face and body, and he looked out into the storm from his perch. But all he could see was a solid wall of gray, driving rain.
Garrett turned slowly in a circle, peering intently into the murk, and as he did so, he caught a quick flash of orange—a faint spark—out in the seemingly endless gloom. The spark disappeared as quickly as it had come, but Garrett was sure that he had seen it.
He scrambled back down the slick hill of trees and mud and headed straight toward the spot where he had seen the spark.
The way ahead was a solid wall of dark gray, but Garrett was sure of his direction.
He trudged on through the violent wind and rain, and the spark did not reappear.
And then he heard a low roar—it was different from the howling of the wind and somehow profoundly below it—as if it came from a depth that was impossible to plumb.
Garrett hurried toward it.
After a moment, he passed through a bank of fog, and he was startled to find the ground beneath his feet was now dry. The buffeting from the elements had also died down, and as Garrett looked around, he realized that the great central mass of spirits—the one that had spun off all the others—was looming over his head, slowly rotating and shot through with faint flashes of a sickly greenish light.
No wind or rain broke through the mass of spirits, and the mass seemed to have created a bank of fog all around itself like a border—the fog was slowly rotating along with the mass, and it gave every appearance of having been drawn out of the storm by the mass itself.
Something squelched under foot, and Garrett looked down to see what looked like a heap of brown seaweed. He looked around and saw more of the brown heaps—they seemed to fall strangely into a line.
Garrett followed the line of seaweed heaps, and the trail led him to a tall column of dark cloud that rose all the way up into the mass of spirits—small sparks were shooting out of it.
Garrett rushed forward and plunged into the cloud.
Inside was a hollow space, and he found Subee standing in the middle of it. She was holding her fire staff in one hand.
As Garrett watched, she plunged the staff into the cloud above and then pulled out a section of it, which trailed around the staff like wisps of gray silk. Then with one swift motion, she threw the section of cloud to the ground and quickly captured it under her foot. As soon as she did so, the section of cloud turned into a small bundle of spirits.
The bundle’s many claws scratched at her feet, and its many eyes flashed angrily, but Subee calmly brought the fiery end of the staff down on the bundle.
As the flames engulfed the little writhing mass, it disintegrated, leaving a heap that looked like brown seaweed.
As the spirit bundle collapsed completely, Garrett thought he saw the barest hint of green vapor rise up into the air and dissipate.
Subee reached up with her staff and pulled out another section of cloud, and though her face looked calm as she did so, Garrett could see that she was actually trapped herself.
A segment of cloud trailed down from the main body above and wound around her arm, effectively holding it in place, frozen by her side.
Several more segments trailed down and had hold of her long, red hair, making it difficult for Subee to turn her head, and Garrett saw with horror that a new trail of cloud was descending and snaking rapidly toward her.
This one was heading for her neck.
Garrett ran forward and turned his fire staff at the segment of cloud, sending out only a thin tendril of flame for fear of burning Subee.
Garrett watched, relieved, as the trail of cloud quickly withdrew, and he swiftly turned the bright flame on the other trails of cloud that held Subee’s hair and arm. Soon she was free, and she whirled around to face Garrett.
But before she could say anything, the cloud around them seemed to gather itself. Suddenly, two thick trails of cloud shot out. Garrett watched in horror as one of the trails wrapped around Subee and lifted her off the ground.
Before he could react, the second trail wrapped around Garrett, and he, too, was lifted off his feet. Moments later, he was flying through the air, and he hit the ground heavily.
It seemed to Garrett that he must have lost consciousness, for he was suddenly aware of the fact that he was awake, and he couldn’t figure out exactly where he was.
And then he felt the cold, hard ground beneath him, and he saw hazily above him a large rotating mass shot through with green.
Garrett tried to sit up, but he found that he couldn’t move.
“Subee,” he whispered.
As if that one word had summoned her, Subee suddenly appeared in his line of view. Her face was hovering near his, and he could see that she had two metal sticks that were topped with fire.
Garrett recalled that he had had a stick like that once, too.
“You would have been safe inside the circle,” Subee said. “Why didn’t you stay there?”
“I couldn’t see you,” Garrett said. “I had to find out what happened to you.”
Garrett smiled. “I knew when I first saw you that there was no one else like you.”
“There is no one else like me,” Subee said quietly.
“I know,” Garrett said. “And that’s the very best thing about you.”
Subee stared at Garrett for a long moment, and he found himself staring back into her dark, unreadable eyes.
Soon all he could see were those eyes, and it seemed to him that within their depths was all of eternity.
Subee drew back abruptly, and she swung one of the fire sticks around in front of her. Then in one swift motion, she pressed the fiery end against his arm. Pain tore through him, and Garrett smelled something that he feared was the scent of his own flesh burning.
A moment later, Subee disappeared.
Garrett managed to raise his arm, and he stared at the thick black patch of charred skin that Subee had given him with her burning staff.
Another wave of pain rolled over him, and he let his arm fall back to the ground.
Soon Garrett saw a bright ball of flame hovering in the air, and for just a moment, he thought he saw Subee standing in the middle of it whirling both fire sticks in a circle over her head.
Then Subee vanished from sight, and all Garrett could see was wave after wave of fire rolling off that central ball of flame.
The waves kept coming, and Garrett could feel their deadly heat. Soon everything around him was fire, and even the great twisting mass of spirits with its eerie green lights disappeared—it seemed to have been completely consumed by the fire that now roared in his ears.
The fire kept coming, and soon Garrett’s entire body was engulfed in flame.
There was no longer any pain for him—just unbearable heat and heavy pressure on his chest that made it impossible to breathe.
The whole world was alight—there was only brightness and heat and suffocation. When Garrett closed his eyes, he knew that he had become flame.

At some point Garrett’s eyes opened. All he could see was darkness. He had a memory of flames, and he moved suddenly, trying to escape them.
But his body was pinned firmly down, and Garrett found that he couldn’t move at all. Even his fingers seemed weighed down by an invisible force.
Soon he heard shouts—voices of other human beings nearby—and he tried to call out to them. But Garrett found that his voice was as frozen as his body.
“There’s a big section of wall over there,” cried a voice. “We should try moving that.”
“There’s also a big piece of roof over by his car,” cried another voice. “He could have taken shelter under that.”
Garrett chuckled to himself. So that was why he couldn’t move—a house had fallen on him.
“Mark my words,” said a third voice. “We’ll never find him. He was swept into the swamp—and the swamp keeps her own.”
“Come on,” said the first voice. “Come over here and help me move this.”
“You won’t find anything,” said the third voice. “We haven’t found anything yet.”
“Just help me move this.”
Garrett felt the heavy pressure on him shift just a bit. Then it began to slide sideways. The feeling was more than a little disorienting in the darkness.
“I see a foot!” cried one of the voices. “Get this thing moving! I see a foot!”
The sliding continued, and soon Garrett felt a pleasantly cool breeze swirling around him. More sliding brought light filtering down to him, and before long, Garrett found himself staring up at a tranquil, blue sky.
Remembering the fire, Garrett swiftly put his hands up to his face. But his skin felt healthy and unburned—gone, too, was the pain.
“We found him, boys!” said a voice that Garrett now recognized as belonging to Sheriff Walt. “Let’s get that ambulance over here and get him out of there.”
Soon Garrett was in an ambulance riding back to the hospital. He had surprised and alarmed everyone by sitting up and climbing out of the depression he’d been wedged into under his own power. All of his rescuers had urged him to be careful and to sit back down, but Garrett had stood with them and chatted amiably until the ambulance had arrived.
Then he’d climbed into the ambulance, much to the amazement of the EMIs, and he’d sat down on the stretcher before they’d even had a chance to wheel it out.
The sheriff had climbed into the back along with him and had sat down on a small bench that lined one wall.
As the ambulance moved off, the sheriff leaned back and ran his hands over his face. Then he leaned forward and set them on his knees.
“You were lucky,” Sheriff Walt said.
“I know,” Garrett said.
“No—you were really lucky,” the sheriff said. “You got wedged in between two sturdy sections of concrete, and over that was laid what I thought was a piece of wall—but it was actually a piece of the big, flat roof from the post office. The concrete kept you from going anywhere, and it was high enough to catch the section of roof and keep it from crushing you. And then the roof prevented anything else from falling on you. You had a perfect little storm cage there.”
Sheriff Walt looked at him sharply. “And there’s not a mark on you.”
Garrett said nothing. He could still remember how the flames had engulfed him, and he didn’t have any idea how he’d survived that.
“What were you doing out there anyway?” Sheriff Walt asked.
Garrett glanced up at him in surprise. “You sent me out to find Subee and bring her to a shelter if she hadn’t left.”
He felt a sharp pang as he thought of Subee. He remembered now how she had left him.
“Subee?” Sheriff Walt said. “Subee who?”
“Subee Cantor. She’s the only Subee in town.”
“I don’t know any Subee,” the sheriff said.
“Of course you do,” Garrett said. “Everybody knows Subee. You know, Snake Lady? But people shouldn’t call her that. It’s really not fair.”
Sheriff Walt shook his head. “I know everybody in town, and I don’t know any Subee.”
He stood and knocked on the window that overlooked the ambulance’s cab. The window promptly slid open.
“Either of you fellas know a Subee Cantor?” the sheriff asked.
“Subee?” said the driver.
“Yeah,” said the sheriff.
The driver shook his head. “No.”
He glanced over at his seatmate who replied the same way.
“That’s what I thought,” the sheriff said. “Thanks, boys.”
The window slid closed again, and the sheriff sat down in his seat.
“I see what’s going on now,” Sheriff Walt said, glancing at Garrett, and Garrett thought he could see relief in his boss’s eyes. “You didn’t get out completely unscathed. You’ve suffered some head trauma—possibly had some hallucinations. I’m sure it all seemed very real to you. But I can assure you that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Sheriff Walt’s voice had grown kindly and paternal.
“You’re good man, Garrett, and I’m not surprised that your hallucinations would take the form of someone you had to rescue.”
His eyes darted to Garrett’s arm.
“When did you get a tattoo?”
Garrett looked down at his arm and then turned it over.
On his forearm up by his elbow was a gold leaf—it looked just like the mark that Subee had had on her own arm.
Garrett ran his fingers over the mark lightly.
“She said it would protect her from the storm,” he said.
“What was that?” Sheriff Walt asked.
“Subee gave it to me,” Garrett said. “She left her mark on me.”
“I see,” Sheriff Walt said, and he smiled as if he were humoring a young child.
“I had a feeling about her once,” Garrett said.
“You had a feeling about this Subee?” the sheriff asked.
“Yes,” Garrett said. “I had a feeling about her, and I turned out to be right.”
“And what does that mean?” the sheriff asked.

Garrett smiled. “It means I have a feeling she’ll be back.”
Thanks very much for reading!

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

The First Storm of Spring, Part 3 (New Short Story)

Here is Part 3 of The First Storm of Spring. If you haven't read Part 2 yet, you can find it here.
And if you're ready to go, Part 3 starts now…
The First Storm of Spring
By Catherine Mesick
The next several hours were spent in silence. Subee sat with her eyes closed, and it seemed to Garrett that she was meditating. For his part, Garrett sat and watched the sky steadily darkening through the window in the kitchen.
When the wind began to pick up, Subee’s eyes flew open, and she looked over at Garrett.
“The evil presence is coming. I can feel it.”
Garrett sat up in his chair. “Is there something we should do to prepare for it?”
“There are a few small things we need to do when the time to act draws closer,” Subee said. “But right now, all we can do is wait—we have to wait until the storm makes landfall. There’s no point in getting ready too soon.”
So while they waited, the sky continued to darken and the wind grew stronger and stronger. Soon rain began to fall.
The storm was starting to intensify, and Garrett glanced over at Subee. But Subee was sitting with her eyes turned down to the table, and her attention was clearly elsewhere.
She appeared to be listening for something.
Time passed and the rain outside began to batter at the windows. The wind began to moan, and the walls and roof began to rattle.
The room had long since grown dark, and the window showed only a solid sheet of grimly determined rain. It seemed to Garrett that the entire outside world was now made of water.
He glanced at Subee in the gloom.
But Subee did not move.
Just as the wind began to truly howl, and Garrett began to fear that the house was going to be carried off with the two of them still in it, Subee moved slightly and seemed to come out of her trance.
“It’s time to get ready now,” she said.
She stood.
“What are we going to do?” Garrett asked.
“We’re going to start a fire.”
Subee stood and moved through the gloom to a cupboard.
“Where?” Garrett asked.
“In the living room.”
“It is very dark, ma’am, but I’m pretty sure there’s no fireplace in here.”
“The fire’s going in the middle of the living room floor,” Subee said, retrieving something from the cupboard and returning to Garrett. “The house is going to be destroyed anyway. A little extra fire damage won’t hurt anything.”
“There’s also the little matter of ventilation,” Garrett said. “We could very genuinely suffocate before the storm or anything else outside got the chance to damage us.”
“The roof will be off soon enough,” Subee said. “Smoke inhalation won’t be a problem.”
“That’s good to know,” Garrett said.
Subee glanced at him sharply. “Speaking of damage, you don’t seem too concerned about the storm any longer.”
“You said that mark on your arm will protect you.”
“And you believed that?”
“Yes, ma’am. I believed everything else you said. That part’s no stranger than the rest.”
“And you believe I can protect you, too?” Subee asked.
“I do,” Garrett said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have let me stay.”
Subee stared at him for a long moment—her expression was unreadable in the dark.
Then she moved to the center of the living room.
“We’ll build the fire here.”
She dropped a dark sphere on the floor and it cracked open like an egg. A thin tendril of flame rose out of the top and danced over the sphere.
“Well, that was easy,” Garrett said.
Subee sat down in front of the little flame. “We’ll have to build this fire up in a little bit. But this is good for now.”
Garrett sat down opposite her. The flame threw flickering shadows over her face, and he watched her in the newly created light.
 “So what now?” Garrett asked.
“We wait, and I need to meditate. Then I’ll show you what to do.”
“Before you go into your trance or whatever it is,” Garrett said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.”
“What did you do to me back when I first arrived?” Garrett asked. “How did you knock me out?”
“Earth smoke,” Subee said.
“Earth smoke,” Garrett repeated. “Is that some kind of magic?”
Subee smiled faintly in the light of the tiny fire.
“No. It’s just an herb. But it can be very effective against an enemy if you know how to use it right.”
“Is that how you saw me?” Garrett asked. “As an enemy?”
“Is that how you see me now?”
Garrett thought he saw Subee smile again, but the flickering of the flame made it hard for him to be sure.
Subee closed her eyes then, and while she sat quietly, Garrett listened to the howling of the wind and the driving rain as it railed at the house—roof, walls, and windows. The tiny building began to shake, and Garrett heard ominous creakings from the roof—it sounded as if it were in imminent danger of being torn off.
To Garrett’s great relief, Subee eventually opened her eyes.
“We’d better start building that fire,” she said.
She stood and walked a short distance. Garrett quickly followed her.
In front of them stood a coffee table and a small uncomfortable-looking couch that was little more than a wooden frame with cushions.
“We’ll need to chop these up,” Subee said, pulling an axe out from under the couch. “We’ll also need to chop up all the furniture in the bedroom and in the dining room.”
She glanced around the room. “Sorry I only have one axe. I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be here.”
“That’s okay, ma’am,” Garrett said. “There might be a heavy knife or something like that I can make do with in the kitchen. Do you have a flashlight?”
“Yes, I do. And for the last time, just call me Subee.”
Subee produced a flashlight from one of the kitchen cupboards and handed it to Garrett. And while she got to work in the living room with the axe, Garrett took the flashlight and a sturdy steak knife and went down the short hallway to the bedroom.
The bed was much like the couch—a spare wooden frame with a mattress on it, and there was also a dresser and a little wooden nightstand.
Garrett attacked the bed first, propping the flashlight up on the nearby nightstand, and as he worked, the storm howled and buffeted the house so fiercely that it seemed as if it were in imminent danger of being carried off.
Garrett realized ruefully that that was probably the case.
After a short time, he returned to the living room with his first armful of firewood, and Garrett saw that Subee had already produced a bright, blazing fire in the middle of the floor. Around it in a wide circle was a thin ring of flame, and above it was a hole in the roof through which smoke was passing. The ring of flame was not connected to the larger fire, and it held steady—the ring was not increasing in size or feeding on any fuel—it was more of a border than anything else.
And the hole in the ceiling above the fire let out the smoke but didn’t let in the rain.
Garrett stopped and looked up at the roof. “How did you do that?”
“I can touch spirit,” Subee said. “And that includes the spirit in the elements. I can control them in a way. So I’ve created a selectively permeable barrier. It lets the smoke out, but stops the rain from getting in.”
“A selectively permeable barrier?” Garrett said.
“And how did you make the hole in the roof?”
Subee reached for an object on the floor.
“I did it with this.”
By the light of the fire, Garrett could see a long, thin metal tube that looked something like a fire iron—but it was clearly hollow.
“And what is that?” Garrett asked.
“I made it myself,” Subee said. “I call it a fire staff, and I use it to channel the flow of fire. I’ll give you one to use too. Luckily, I always bring a spare.”
“So you shot a hole in the roof with this using fire.”
“Yes. The roof really will be gone soon, but as you pointed out before, proper ventilation is important. And thanks very much for the firewood.”
Garrett glanced down at the dismantled pieces of furniture in his arms. “You’re welcome. There’s plenty more back there.”
“Bring it all out,” Subee said. “We want this fire to be as big as we can get it.”
Garrett and Subee continued to feed the fire, and eventually they had a blaze going that lit up the house even brighter than daylight.
But no matter how high the fire blazed, it never moved beyond the circular fire barrier that had been drawn around it.
“I assume this is keeping the fire under control in some way?” Garrett asked, pointing to the ring of fire on the floor.
“Yes,” Subee said. “And I’ll do something similar to protect you.”
“From the fire?”
“From the fire, from the storm, and from the evil spirits.”
“That’s a tall order for one circle,” Garrett said.
He glanced at the gold leaf on her arm.
“And you’re sure that little mark will protect you?”
“It has for many years.”
“Does it protect you against the storm or the spirits?”
“It protects me against the storm,” Subee said. “I protect myself against the spirits.”
Once the furniture was exhausted, Subee stood back seemingly pleased with their work. “Well, that’s done now.”
“And what am I going to do exactly?” Garrett asked.
“You are going to tend the fire.”
“Ah,” Garrett said.
“It’s a vitally important job,” Subee said. “I need to have a reserve of fire to draw on.”
“You’re going to fight the evil spirits with fire?”
“Yes. Fire is the only element that is like spirit—it’s the only element that isn’t a solid, liquid, or gas. It is, by its very nature, diffuse—it’s pure combustion. Because of this fire can be used to disperse evil spirits—break them up when they concentrate and send them off alone so they can do less harm. And that’s what we’re dealing with here—a concentration centered in this storm.”
“Well, I’ll take your word for it that that works,” Garrett said.
“It does,” Subee replied. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
She took the metal tube she had in her hand and dipped it into the fire. The fire filled the tube, and a thick plume of flame came out at the top of it.
Subee then used the flame to draw another, wider ring of fire on the floor which encompassed the earlier ring and fire at its center. Then she stood back.
“This circle is for you,” she said. “Step in.”
Garrett glanced at her curiously, but he stepped inside, taking care not to let the fire singe his clothes as he did so.
“And you’re going to need this.”
Subee pushed the metal cylinder into his hands.
Garrett was surprised to find that the cylinder was cool to the touch. He held the flaming end away from his face and glanced back at the big fire that was roaring behind him.
“This situation feels a little hazardous,” he commented.
“Don’t worry,” Subee said. “The circles I’ve drawn should keep you safe. The first one will contain the fire and keep it in place. The second one will keep the spirits from getting to you.”
“Getting to me?” Garrett said.
“Yes,” Subee said. “The spirits are going to attack the fire. I need you to protect it.”
“With this?” Garrett indicated the fiery cylinder in his hands.
“Yes. The spirits cannot cross the barrier, but they will go after that big central fire. The spirits bring profound cold that they’ll use to put the fire out—they know it’s the only thing that can destroy them. I need you to walk around the perimeter of the fire and ward off the spirits with the fire staff.”
“And how do I do that?” Garrett asked.
“Just wave the staff, and it will respond,” Subee said.
Garrett gave the staff an experimental shake, and a jet of flame shot out from the end of it.
Garrett was so startled that he nearly dropped the staff, and he was relieved to see that the flame died back down as soon as he stopped moving it.
“That certainly seems to be effective,” he said. “How do I refuel it?”
“You won’t need to,” Subee replied. “I’ve linked it to the main fire, so as long as that one is still going, you will have plenty of fire to fight with.”
“What about the wind and the rain?” Garrett asked. “Won’t those put the fire out?”
“No—my barriers will keep those out, too. All you have to do is keep the spirits from getting too close to the fire and putting it out. The cold they bring is a spiritual cold, and I can’t stop that with my barrier. Just be sure to stay inside the circle yourself—you’re safe in there from the spirits and the storm. But once you step outside, you’ll be vulnerable to both.”
“I’ll have to watch my footing, then.” Garrett said.
“See that you do—you won’t last long against either one of them.”
Subee moved off to the other side of the fire, and Garrett got to work with the staff, swinging it experimentally to see how he could control the volume of the flame.
As he did so, he noticed that he could hear the roaring of the fire behind but nothing else—the howling of the storm and the rattling of the house had disappeared. He stepped outside the circle just to be certain, and sure enough, the sound of the raging storm returned instantly. Garrett listened to the din outside for a moment, and he could feel the house around him shaking—he could tell it wouldn’t last much longer.
He stepped back into the circle carefully, and he was enveloped again by relative calm—the only sound he could hear was the fire behind him.
And he could no longer feel the shaking of the house at all.
Soon Subee reappeared by his side. Her face was drawn and pale, and she was clutching her own fire staff tightly.
“They’re here now,” she said. “The first thing they’ll do is tear the house apart. Then they’ll attack. You probably won’t be able to see the spirits, so don’t let that bother you. But you will be able to feel them. Concentrate the fire anywhere you feel cold. And keep moving around the circumference of the fire—protect it on all sides as best you can. And if you can’t feel the cold—just keep moving around and around and keep your flame blazing as high as you can.”
Garrett looked at her closely. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I have to,” she said.
A moment later, there was a distant cracking sound, followed by the barest hint of a breeze.
Subee gripped her staff even more tightly and glanced sharply out beyond the ring of fire in which they stood.
Garrett followed her gaze, but he could see little beyond the ring itself—the air around him had taken on a hazy golden glow, and the room beyond was little more than a dark blur.
“Stay inside the circle,” Subee said. “You’ll be safe in here. Don’t come out no matter what you think you see or hear.”
She stepped outside the circle and was lost to his sight.

*You can read Part 4 here.*

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