Going To Ground, by Mikey Hope
Greybriar and his teammates deployed that afternoon when the sirens sounded. Not police or medical sirens, but those soon joined in. No, these were the unearthly singing sort. Not mermaids, but witches, sorcerers, something. It was often hard to tell until you engaged, but his team plied their trade handling just this kind of situation, though things never went as planned. The full group had split off into smaller teams leaving him with two junior agents, call signs: Rook and Frostchild.
They affixed the hematite earcuffs they’d been issued for metaphysical sound exposure and rushed out from their headquarters to where pedestrians were already putting themselves in danger. Stalled cars full of panicking commuters clogged the street. The sunny day had turned chill with clouds in a wrong tint of green. Three singing “women,” their heads like a satellite dish, a static-filled TV screen, and a plume of antennae; turned from where they were facing, upwards to the east somewhere, and “looked” directly at Greybriar’s trio. He felt his beard hairs stand straight out and stars flashed in his eyes.
Next, a series of things happened either in an order he couldn't follow or their order shifted as they were happening, he couldn't be sure, and might never be sure. His eyes locked onto the singing things standing in the road. He couldn’t remember why they were there. They were singing in a strange high minor harmony, waves of power emanating from within them, in what flavor he wasn't sure.
Gouts of glowing, stinging mist blew past him, making him feel like he'd been standing too close to a pressure washer. Wet, but also gritty? Time crawled as he struggled to parse events. It felt like he was trying to run in a dream, that feeling of one’s legs dragging through mud that wasn’t there. Another bright wave of gritty mist. This one was warm. Yuck. He looked down at his hands to see if he could confirm he was dreaming and switch to lucid mode, but his hands (and clothes) looked like tandoori chicken, bright red with something moist and pasty on them. And he hadn’t woken up.
He smelled ozone and iron and...slaughter. The farm he’d grown up on leapt to mind. Oh, no. He tried to whip his head around against the drag of the “dream.” Spider-like arcs of electricity were crawling purposefully across the street and sidewalks. The “sirens” pitch dropped lower and lower, past alto and tenor, into baritone, heading for bass. He recognized shouting and gunfire and screaming – slow, but clear enough.
A miasma of smoke and mist hung in the air around him, clouds of tiny rotating bits, some kind of grit, like pinkish sand. He reached out into it when there was a sudden burst of moisture and stinging "sand" amidst a flash of light and a thunderous clap of displaced air. The burst must have originated right beside him because it knocked him down onto the asphalt. The song dropped away entirely as his ears rang, the only sound he could now hear, but he knew the song continued. He felt it.
Looking at the back of his right hand he saw a little spike of something sticking out between his index finger and his wrist. At first he thought one of his bones was sticking out of the skin like a compound fracture but he could move his fingers so, no. A buzzing, crackling noise pushed its way past the ringing and he suddenly noticed the pavement and how he'd landed on it. A spray of red droplets and whitish particles landed over him and the nearby sidewalk.
It was a spur of bone in the back of his hand. It was just somebody else’s.
Greybriar’s mind was treating everything like a car crash, slowing his perceptions down. His “wizard vision” shifted into a reddish wavelength as he remembered who he was, and that his team was under attack. His legs finally pulled free from the "mud", and just in the nick of time he rolled into the street, away from one of the scouring arcs. There was a smoking pair of cowboy boots beside him and a red spatter-blossom on the street around them. He jumped up, adrenaline kicking in, pain receding, pulled the bone bit from the back of his hand and whipped his head around to survey the scene outside his team’s headquarters. He saw at least a half-dozen of the lightning arcs roving through. To his horror, they were homing in on any unfortunate souls in the vicinity: passersby, police, EMS.
One arc had almost nailed him and even now a pair of them were bearing down on his teammates. He pushed himself onto his knees then lumbered up. He refused to look at the ground or acknowledge why everything had been spray-painted red or pressure-washed with grit. Not now. There were only instants to act. The tumult was too loud for anyone to hear him yelling, even though he could hear the sirens singing at their former pitch again.
He could ground out magical power but these arcs seemed more than just magical, maybe otherworldly, even alive. He wasn’t skilled in grounding electricity, so he needed to either move Rook and Frostchild out of the way or divert the arcs of lightning before they hit. He wished he could just shout abracadabra! and whoosh! teleport them to safety like in the movies, but that was much too involved an effect, especially at speed, and he just didn’t know a spell that would suffice. He'd have to risk improvising, so he decided to lean on what he was skilled at: altering the functions of magic itself. He drew on his own spirit’s energy and reached out to the lightning.
"Let one power be another!" He felt the virtue leave his body and before his eyes, the electric arc that was bearing down on Frostchild transmuted into pure eldritch power, invisible, incorporeal. It was still dangerous, but Greybriar knew Frostchild was wearing the shield-against-magic that he had cast over the entire team before they'd deployed. The arc struck the boy full on the crown chakra, making Greybriar wince. The shielding spell evaporated immediately and the boy collapsed like a steer hit by a bolt gun. There was no time to check to see if he was alive, and even if so, he'd be unconscious until medical, probably magical aid, was provided.
He was about to re-manifest the “off the cuff” spell since it had worked as intended (ad hoc spells did not always do so) when Rook locked eyes with him. The wizard’s eyes widened and his stomach turned to ice as he realized that Rook's protection spell was absent. He almost panicked but he still had one way to deal with electricity that he could do instantly, and now there was no other choice. He snatched his trusty taser, already enchanted to channel magic power, out of its belt holster and fired both wires into the arc as Rook’s lips questioned: "Grey-?"
While Rook’s head was shaven, the arc came near enough to make his trim beard puff out, but was diverted immediately into the taser wires and lit them up like the world ending. Superheated air pulsed outward with a crack! and Rook was thrown back, his glasses flying off, while the arc shot up into the taser and blew it apart in Greybriar’s hand. With a great plink! noise, Greybriar’s own spell-against-harm activated. The wizard was pushed back a bit but had managed to keep himself upright, his hand and likely his vision, spared the worst.
He held the trigger assembly of his taser, momentarily crestfallen at the loss of his favorite weapon but instantly overjoyed that Rook had been spared. He tossed the mangled taser to the ground, snatched up Rook’s glasses, then remembered Frostchild and squawked in concern: "Help me!"
Rook grunted as he rose and rushed to the side of his fallen colleague. Frostchild's hair had been singed by the arc, even as it had turned from electricity into raw mystic power. His forehead and face were laced with livid fern-like Lichtenburg figures, and single tears of blood crept slowly from each closed eye, but he was breathing. Rook began immediate first aid while Greybriar scanned the stricken cryokinetic for mystic anomalies. He was alive, yes, but it might only be the meat still kicking. A blast like that, especially to the seat of the connection to the divine, could have grave consequences. In Greybriar’s vision, Frostchild’s aura was showing the signs of the shock but was fairly stable considering.
As the frequency of Greybriar's perceptions elevated, he confirmed that Frostchild's astral form was present and accounted for, where it belonged. He had definitely taken a hit spiritually, but was mostly just stunned and should recover. There was a familiar strangeness in the boy's aura that Greybriar would look at later when they weren't in deadly danger. The young man’s protective spell had failed but only after it had done most of its job. That was good news, and it also gave Greybriar some idea of the level of power they were dealing with. There were still a few of the sparking things roving about even though the area had largely cleared (or been cleared) of people – except for the “sirens” and whoever was still offering sporadic gunfire.
"What happened to your spell-shield?" Greybriar asked while his eyes were still rolled back, focusing on higher realms instead of the crumpled form before him.
"Do what now?" Rook answered automatically, digging around in his first aid kit.
"Your spell-shield. It's gone. What happened?"
"I dunno, can't you tell?"
“Could be that song, or the...lightning? Nevermind, we have to get him out of here and keep anyone else away from those damn arcs.
“Are they alive or spells or what?”
“You say that like those are mutually exclusive. I can’t be sure. Electricity is weird, you know.”
“You’re a wizard.”
“I mean even for normal stuff it’s weird. Nobody knows exactly how it works.”
“Oh! I fell down a wikihole about that one time.”
Greybriar’s eyes and attention returned to the physical world. “Yeah, so ‘I don’t know’ is the answer for now, but obviously they’re deadly, and this whole situation is giving me deja vu. This is bigger than those women. It may be time for me to tell you something.”
“I know you’re gay.”
“Dammit, listen! Only the old salts in the group know this. You know how people talk about technology outstripping our humanity and spending too much time looking at screens?”
“Well they’re right. Just not the way they think. When electronic mass media was invented, maybe even the first electrical grid, something somewhere was stirred. Something hungry and calculating. And wherever it was got into our...realm or paradigm or souls, however you want to think about it, but it got in. Invisibly. Insidiously, like a parasite. It fed off our auras through the radio, and then the TV, telephones, the internet, you name it. Not enough to be obvious of course. Just nibbling away at the life force of the audience. It’s not an abomination to play video games all night or fall asleep in front of the TV, but this thing is an abomination and it takes advantage of our boredom and loneliness and curiosity, and it’s been growing ever since, for at least 100 years.”
Rook was irked. “Why didn’t you tell us all of this before?”
“We were trying to protect you. See how that worked out. One more reason for the spell-shields, keeps it out of your heads.”
Car radios blared on scrolling, random channels, then fell silent. A startling boom sounded and broken glass showered the street as a gas tank exploded on contact with one of the crawling arcs. The men cringed and ducked down, looking for somewhere safe to drag Frostchild.
Greybriar craned his neck around. “Where are they coming from, they’re not coming from where the sirens are- ohh, God."
"What? What ‘oh God?’"
"So, don't look where I'm looking – I said don't look! Across the street where the women are facing there's a brutch. It’s a little hole in the world that something is trying to squeeze through. They’re helping it.”
“Can you silence them? Or ground them out?”
Greybriar watched as incoming bullets sublimated into sheets of circuitry-shaped sparks on contact with the sirens. So much for that.
“I could but it’s too late. We have to go. We have to go now. We may have to evacuate."
Rook scanned Greybriar’s face. “HQ?”
"What?! Why? What is it?"
"I think I was right. Except about the invisible, insidious part. It doesn’t need to do that anymore.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Isn’t it obvious? It’s stopped being subtle. It’s hungrier than ever and it’s done being patient. It’s strong enough to crack open the Veil. Something rang the dinner bell and it’s bringing an appetite. The lightning is just the start.”
He looked down at Frostchild's barely stirring form. “Damn, my hand is throbbing, I wish he’d wake up so he could ice it for me. Let's get to the RV. See if we can get him on his feet. You'll have to carry him if not. You're young and strapping."
"So glad I made use of the company gym membership."
Rook scowled, then scooped up his supine teammate, distributing him over his own tall, sinewy frame so that Greybriar could keep his hands free to spellcast. As they scooted down the slope to the parking lot, the sirens’ song abruptly ceased. The hairs on their necks and arms stood up as a baleful fluorescence lit the area from an odd angle.
“So, that’s bad,” offered Rook.
“Yes. They must have stabilized that brutch. Head for the RV, I’ll get the door. You get him situated, I’ll drive us out the back. We’ll pick up the others on the way. It’s cramming its soul-sucking electric ass into our dimension. ”
“Who is? Doesn’t it have a name?”
"Such a common word. It must get so much attention from that."
Rook stopped short and his face turned quizzical. "Does spelling an eldritch horror’s name keep it from noticing you?"
"I think we’re about to find out.”