The car tires crunched as they turned onto the gravel of the farm’s drive way. More workers littered the fields now that the incessant rain of the last few days had abated. Ashton watched heads turn to follow their progress up the drive. By the time the car pulled into place next to his Mother’s prius, she stood on the porch waiting.
They stepped out of the car. He expected hysteria. Not irritation, nor bizarre acceptance. He had gone out of phase and disappeared from the kitchen in the middle of a conversation. Instead she put her hands on her hips and berated him for causing her worry.
“After the last year you can’t just disappear on me. I only just got you back.”
He stumbled on the bottom step. “I’m sorry Mom. I didn’t mean to.”
“And now you’re going to have to go again? Aren’t you?” She turned her glare to the detective next to him. “Is he under arrest?”
“Not at this time, Ma’am.”
She crossed her arms over her chest after waving them to continue climbing the steps. A gravely laugh sounded from behind him and he watched his mother smile.
His head snapped to look over his shoulder. Tourmaline’s large bulk sat on the car’s roof. That explained the thump at the beginning of the drive. But his Mother’s reaction wasn’t so easy to explain. He could hear her strike up a conversation with the gargoyle after they entered the house. Did she just invite him into the back garden for tea and cakes?
His feet hit the rug runner at the base of the staircase. Would his life ever take on a normalcy again? The pictures blurred on the wall as he ascended. He reached the landing at the top. Will I ever stop being surprised by things? He shoved open his bedroom door.
Bryce’s presence shadowing him made his back itch. The detective went to the window and pulled the blinds up to look out over the garden.
“Does your Mother talk to herself a lot?”
Ashton hesitated as he pulled his old duffel off the shelf in the closet. He tossed it on the bed before glancing out the window. Tourmaline sat next to a small wrought iron table a tea cup incongruously held in his thick fingers. His mother puttered around pouring tea and serving lemon cake. This was just not processing.
“She, ah, likes to talk to her plants. Helps them grow, you know.” He returned to the closet and sorted through his clothing. Tossed a pile onto the bed, then added a blank notebook and some other odds and ends. Loosely folding the clothes, he shoved them into the bag then crammed everything else in where it would fit.
He picked up the duffel and slung it over his shoulder then threaded his coat through the strap. Turning to Bryce he said, “Ok. I think I’m ready.”
The detective nodded and led the way out of the room. Ashton paused on the threshold to take one more look at his old life. I don’t fit anymore. Do lost puzzle pieces ever find a new place? No answer was forthcoming, so he turned away and followed Bryce down the stairs.
He found his mother serving Bryce a piece of cake in the kitchen. She looked at him for a moment when he entered. Her eyes bored into his then she said, “Ash, honey, I know you need to leave soon but there’s time for some cake. Go on out to the garden and help yourself.”
He couldn’t interpret her look. Why does she see T? And why isn’t she freaking out?
Realizing he wasn’t going to get any answers standing there, he left the kitchen. The gargoyle slid a piece of cake across the small table to him. Ashton set his bag down and sank to the chair, but he didn’t touch the cake.
“Why are you here?”
The gargoyle shrugged. “Why not? You obviously need help. And the humans have no idea what you are up against, so they can’t protect you.”
“And you can?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly helped today.”
“And you know what I’m up against?”
Tourmaline laughed. It sounded like boulders rubbing together. “Hell no, kid. But I know more than the humans.”
He waved his hand encompassing the garden. “Take this land for starters. It feels like the park in town. Nothing will grow there.”
“Wait? What? You’ve lost me.”
“The energy of the forest there? Didn’t you feel the difference? It’s the same here. The energy is skewed. It’s too dark. The equilibrium is lost, so the ecosystem is off balance.”
Ashton’s thoughts raced. My dreams. What I have always wanted to do. Just on a much grander scale. Warmth slipped through him from his mark. He absently rubbed his chest.
“And you’re sure I can do something to fix it?”
“The little flitterby faeries seemed to think so. And obviously someone else does too, if they are trying to get rid of you.”
Ashton looked out over the fields for a moment. The struggling plants. The beautiful weather. But then he noticed something else. The cottage gardens surrounding the house. They flourished. Bright and vibrant. Like they lived in a bubble separated from the surrounding fields.
Fear raced through him at the implication. I need to go. He stood and grabbed his bag. Tourmaline rose to his feet.
They made their way towards the house. “So, T? What were you talking to my Mom about? And why could she see you?”
The gargoyle arched an eyebrow. “And where do you think your talent came from Kid?”
That’s what I was afraid you’d say.
Ashton stood at the foot of the motel’s bed and sorted through the contents of his bag while doing his best to not laugh at T’s commentary about Detective Bryce. The good detective just wouldn’t understand. After all he thought only two of them were in the room, not three.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be here for Ashton. Our investigation hasn’t had enough leads to get anywhere definitive.” Bryce said.
“In other words, Ash. They don’t know squat.”
“But today’s incident has made it abundantly clear that you are in danger.”
“So you’d better fess up pony boy. Cause you obviously know what’s going on.” Tourmaline translated.
Ashton smirked at the stone being, but kept his head lowered to look in his bag. He didn’t want to give the detective any ideas about his sanity.
“It would really help us get you back to your mother if you would finally give me what you know.”
Ashton stilled with his hands in his bag. He stared at the interior without seeing it for a moment. “I wish I could help you Daniel. Trust me when I say that anything I know won’t help you at all.” Thoughts of his mother’s garden, and what surrounded it, uppermost in his mind. He looked up at the detective’s serious expression. Tourmaline watched him solemnly from behind the man. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway.”
“Try me…” Bryce swore when his phone trilled. He pulled it out of his pocket. “Yes?” The detective’s face turned stoic. “Hold on Frank.” He muffled the phone against his chest. “I’ll be just outside Ashton. We’ll finish this discussion in a moment.”
Ashton turned to T when the door snicked shut. “Now what? He’s not going to believe anything I say, T.”
“No. Probably not.” The gargoyle sat up against the wall of the dingy little hotel room. “I guess the better question is; what do we do next?”
“I… Ow. What was that?” Ashton looked down and saw a stunned mouse pick itself up from where it ran into his ankle. It then continued to flee towards the door. Tourmaline hissed and Ashton jerked his attention away from the rodent’s scrabbling claws on the door. The carpet across the room seethed. Spiders scurried across. More dropped from the ceiling and other creatures followed. Cockroaches, flies, anything that could live in the walls or nooks and crannies of a motel room fled from the bathroom side, along the same path as the mouse.
His eyes tracked back to the source. A tar like black ooze squeezed out from under the bathroom door. Spiders and other insects crawled over his feet, but he didn’t notice them. “What is that?!”
“Ashton. Get out of here. Now.”
A wave of fear washed over him. So strong that he staggered to the side and knocked into the table. A lamp crashed over and shattered. Ashton fell to his knees his eyes riveted on the creeping ooze. The still form of the gargoyle in the corner of his eye, and the feeling of the insects crawling across him, barely registered as the fear grew.
The door crashed open behind him, the sound of Bryce’s voice far away. A little sliver of Ashton’s free will let him know that the detective had been snared in the creeping mass’net, as well.
Beyond shivering, Ashton’s heart labored with the weight of the fear. Each pump became painfully hard. A tiny core of his mind skittered, looking for a way to flee and follow the bugs.
An equine scream exploded in his mind and his mark blazed. His body jerked free. He pulled his shirt open. The white light blazing from his mark hit the leading edge of the ooze. It recoiled but didn’t retreat. More instructions poured into his thoughts, a presence merged with him, and he gladly gave over to the more knowledgeable being.
He stood and white light, more intense than anything that had ever emanated from his mark, poured from the palms of his hands. A piercing shriek rent the air as the ooze twisted in on itself. He slowly stepped toward it. The dizzying gyrations made him nauseous. The light continued to burn from his hands. Finally, after an eternity that could only be a few seconds, the ooze fled out the bathroom window. Leaving the most horrific stink behind.
His breath rasping in his lungs, Ashton sank to his knees.
“What the fuck was that?” Bryce whispered.
“Your murderer.” The thinness of his voice surprised Ash. “Other than that, I have no idea what it was.”
“Don’t give me that crap, Ashton. I saw with my own eyes what you did. That’s proof that you know more than you were letting on.”
“And who’s going to believe you, Daniel?” Ashton turned his head and the detective opened his mouth then closed it with a snap. “Exactly. Now you know why I didn’t tell you. T? Are you alright?”
Ashton pulled himself painfully to his feet.
“I probably have stress fractures all through my stone now. But I guess I have to answer, ‘yes’.”
The detective darted looks into every corner of the room. “Who are you talking to?”
“A friend, Daniel. Don’t worry. I think we now have an answer to your question, T. It’s time to move.”
Bryce limped over to the door and shut it. “You can’t leave Ashton. You are in protective custody. Besides, I have a case to solve and you just became my biggest lead.”
“Obviously you can’t protect me from that, Daniel. I need to go.”
“I need your information. I need to know what we are up against and how to stop it. People’s lives are hinging on this Ashton.”
Ashton zipped up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Trust me, I understand that more than you know. I can’t give you what you want, Daniel. I don’t know. That’s what I need to go and learn. The only thing I can tell you is…Stay out of the park. Keep people out of it. That black ooze… That is what lives there.”
Tired to the bone, Ashton attempted to call on his power, on purpose, for the first time since his homecoming. It ran slowly and quietly through his veins, but enough responded that he managed to shift out of phase. The surprised look on detective Bryce’s face gave him all the confirmation he needed that he had succeeded. He looked at Tourmaline and the two of them left the motel room and headed off towards the park.
He walked as a shadow in his own world. A few Others saw him, but mostly he tried to avoid the reminder of how different his life had become. He figured he’d be facing that truth soon enough. It didn’t take them long to reach the border of the park. This time Ashton could see and understand the death and darkness that hovered around the space.
Now what? I haven’t the faintest idea where I’m supposed to go. If only…
Movement down the path caught his eye. His breath stilled.
The unicorn stepped out of the shadows of the trees and stopped where the grass met the forest. Across the distance Ashton met the blue eyes of the stallion. They both studied one another. Then Ashton took a step towards the unicorn. Silren hesitated, but then he moved out to meet him halfway.