Episode 5: Skin To Bone
There was a small gust of wind as Parker levitated himself first back onto the roof, then down into the warehouse with the others. He had his bow slung over one shoulder and a hand over the wound on his chest, and despite the obvious pain he was in, he managed a smirk. "That's the first and last time I go dumpster diving."
Lina rolled her eyes, but was glad to see he was alright. She gestured towards the gash on her arm. "Guess I know what we're doing on our day off."
Parker snorted and nodded. "So let's get that evidence we came here for and get the hell out of here. I've had my fill of monsters for the day."
"You and me both."
Snow, meanwhile, was already on it. She pulled a Polaroid camera from her pack, but couldn't stop her hands from shaking. Try as she might, without the distraction of combat, the monstrous visage she'd seen of Alistair crept its way to the front of her mind again, making it near impossible for her to steady her hands long enough to take any photos. Unfortunately, the first person to notice was the very one she was worried about.
"Need some help there, love?" Alistair asked, tapping her lightly on the shoulder. He was surprised when she jumped, and even more startled when she shrank away from him. "Snow...?"
"Sure. Fine. Whatever." She shoved the camera at him, determined not to look as she put distance between them. "I'll see if I can gather something else."
Baffled, Alistair stood holding the camera for a moment, glancing back at Lina and Parker, as if to silently ask what he'd done, but both of them just shrugged and shook their heads: Parker honestly didn't know, and Lina thought it was best not to point out that he'd just killed another human. Without much of a response, the conman shrugged it off too, but couldn't help the tinge of hurt her reaction to him brought. He didn't understand it; it was like someone had poured salt into the wounds on his stomach. Regardless, he forced back the strange emotion and focused on taking the pictures.
First, photos of the stone cages, the blood in and around them, fresh and dried out.
Next, the mauled vulture corpse. He took a few snaps of the frozen chunks of the other vulture too, making sure to avoid getting Guy in any of the shots, not sure what the were-cheetah would think of that. He avoided the human body. As far as he was concerned, there was no reason to provide evidence of the one life he'd taken, especially the obvious sword wound through his neck. He knew better than to damn himself, and he was glad he didn't need to make the suggestion to Parker to bury the body, the wizard opening the ground as before to inter the man, while Lina gave him some final prayers.
The last thing Alistair photographed was the magic circle. He took shots of the elaborate design from multiple angles, not sure how much the Warden would need as proof. Just as he finished, Parker moved next to him, raising an eyebrow and turning to him with a smirk. "Look at all the pretty colors, Alistair!" he teased, noting the multitude of colors that made up the circle.
For some reason, his quip irritated the conman more than usual, but all he sent the wizard's way was an agitated glare.
Snow stepped forward to inspect the design. This close, she realized the elaborate design was actually drawn out in sand, every color earthy and rich. There were deep reds like dark clay, bright blues like the sky, black, white, and a dusty gold yellow that was the only shade close to what could be called natural sand. "This is wild," she muttered, pulling out a vial to gather a sample of the sand. "I've never seen anything like this."
"I don't think any of us have," Parker suggested. "But then, none of us are really locals either. Might be a regional thing."
"Who knows..." Snow stood, drawing her wand. "Aneturbo." A small tornado formed at the center of the circle, swirling and gathering the sand in whirlwind, carrying it up into the air and dispersing it. With a long sigh, she ran her fingers through her hair. "Can we go home now?"
"Home, hm." Parker nodded. "Yeah, let's go home."
The walk to the bar was more tedious than the walk to the warehouse, an uncomfortable silence hanging over them. Alistair tried to start a conversation again, as he had before, but Parker and Lina were too injured to be interested in chatting, Guy was still in cheetah form and couldn't talk, and Snow simply shut him out. The first three he could understand, but it was Snow's refusal to even acknowledge him that had him annoyed. Or upset. Or angry. No, it wasn't anger, Alistair thought to himself, trying to pinpoint his feelings. He didn't know why it was her rejection that bothered him so much; normally, he didn't care what people thought of him, but when it came to Snow, he wanted to at least know why she'd suddenly changed her demeanor. Maybe she was just in shock from the ordeal. Maybe it was too much too soon for the young wizard. He made a mental note to ask her when he had the chance. If he had the chance.
He wondered if she'd even acknowledge him long enough for him to ask.
When they arrived at the Voodoo Queen, leaning against the door, apparently waiting, was old Zacharriah, casually smoking a cigarette. Parker groaned.
"Je n'ai pas besoin de ça aujourd'hui..." he mumbled before looking at him. "We're closed today, old man."
Zacharriah grunted, but seemed to have no intention of leaving, so Parker just sighed and unlocked the door, letting him inside anyway. Lina started after him, looking back at her friend. "Make sure you charge him extra for the inconvenience," she told him.
"Maybe I will, maybe I won't. Today, I just want cold drink and some rest. As long as he doesn't interfere with that, I couldn't care less."
She sighed, but didn't argue, moving past the wizard. She'd barely stepped through the door, however, when they heard more footsteps. The group turned to see, of all people, Mr. Williams from earlier that morning, shuffling towards them. His face was completely drained of color, and his eyes were wide and unblinking. His mouth was slack with fear, and he barely looked at them when he finally spoke. "The ancient one would like to invite you to his lair."
His expression never changed, but then slowly, his features began to sag. It was as if his skin was melting, sloughing off his body large strips, like a peeling banana. It fell in a heap on the ground around him, revealing the muscles, fat, and bloody organs beneath. The figure stood briefly, then like his skin, crumpled to the ground, dead.
Zacharriah had returned to the doorway and observed the scene, a deep frown on his face. "I guess they didn't care much for the messenger."
Snow choked back the bile in her throat long enough to move away a few feet before she began vomiting. Lina was likewise disgusted, but retreated into the bar to keep herself from becoming overwhelmed. Parker covered his mouth in disgust. Alistair just stared.
"Skin to bone, steel to rust," the siren sang quietly. "Ash to ashes, dust to dust..."
"Can we get some scrubbing bubbles here?" Parker asked with a forced smile, looking over at Snow. His attempt at a joke didn't go over well, and she flicked him off while she continued to puke. Guy, still a cheetah, approached the corpse cautiously, giving it a sniff. Then, with a deep growl, he bit down on the body and ran off, carrying the fresh kill out of sight and up onto the roof. That finally made Parker gag. "Okay, that's too much for me."
"There's something not right about that cat," Snow mumbled, barely over her own queasiness. "And I'm still not cleaning that mess."
Parker nodded and motioned for everyone go inside the bar. "I'll take care of it later, if Guy doesn't come back for it." He gagged again. "Not like we get any traffic this time of day. I at least want to get patched up first."
They all generally agreed, filing inside. Alistair took up the rear, hesitating for a moment. He almost stopped Snow to ask her about her behavior, but missed his chance when she hurried inside, and then thought better of it when Zacharriah kept his watch on all of them. He didn't like the feeling of being scrutinized, so he just joined the rest inside.
Lina had pulled out the first aid kit from under the bar and had it sitting on the counter, even though Parker had already taken her arm and was applying magic to start closing her wound. When he was done, she wrapped gauze around what remained, then turned to help him with his injuries. The gashes on Parker's chest were deep, so he had trouble removing his shirt to treat them. Alistair, meanwhile, had no issue tending to himself, shedding his vest and shirt without so much as a word to anyone else. He did cast a glance Snow's way while he cleaned his cuts with alcohol, but she was still avoiding him. He almost asked if she would help him with the bandages, like Lina was helping Parker with his, but dropped the thought when she sat clear at the other end of the bar. That pain again, like the pit of his stomach knotting. Alistair continued to bandage himself.
A sharp whistle came from outside, and the group turned to look out the still opened door. Artemis was standing there, eyes wide while he pointed down at the pile of skin on the ground. "Hey! Guys? This is a problem."
Snow groaned and shot him a glare as she slid off her bar stool and walked towards the door. "No shit, bushy-brows."
"Damn it! I wanted to make the bushy eyebrows joke!" Lina said, wrinkling her nose. Despite everything that had happened, even Parker was amused.
"Maybe we should recommend a salon where he can get those plucked," he added with a smirk.
If the Warden heard them, he made no indication of it, still pointing at the heap on the ground while he walked up to the entrance. "This is bad," he said to them. All the players better damn well be reading this. Everyone else, disregard this and the previous sentence. "This... Snow, you should know what this is." He looked sternly at her over the rims of his glasses, waiting for realization to hit.
She was so busy glaring at him, it took a moment, but soon her fearful expression matched his. "Oh fuck!"
"You say that a lot," Lina drawled. "Define 'oh fuck,' please."
"Oh fuck, as in out of my league," Artemis clarified, pushing his way inside while Snow followed him. "I came back for a status report. Didn't expect to find evidence of a skinwalker on your doorstep."
"We need Frank," Snow muttered, shaking her head. "This is too much. We need Frank..."
From his spot in the corner of the bar, Zacharriah growled. "No you don't."
Snow gave him a desperate look. "Are you serious? Do you know what a skinwalker is?"
"Do any of these people?" Artemis asked. Lina and Parker both raised their hands.
"I do," Lina said first, and though her voice was steady, it was clear by her expression she was scared. "Their formal name is Naagloshii: shape-shifters of Navajo and Ute lore, less myth than most would prefer to believe. Nasty creatures, semi-divine and evil to the core, they're called skinwalkers because they can peel a person's skin off to take his form, among other shapes they can morph into on their own. I've heard of ones turning into everything from gorillas to hawks." She looked at Parker worriedly. "Normally, they're only found in the southwest. What the hell is one doing up here?"
"Don't know, but I do know their favorite snack: spellcasters." He glanced down at his wound. "Especially wounded ones. Easier targets."
"They feed on magic," Snow said, rubbing her temples. "Taking it from their prey and adding to their own power reserves. Worse, the more afraid of a skinwalker you are, the stronger it becomes, and the stronger it becomes, the scarier it gets." She shook her head. "Let's just say we're fucked."
They all turned when they heard Zacharriah clear his throat. The old man blew smoke out of his nose and nodded towards Artemis. "And who's to say he's not one of them?"
The Warden paled, especially so when they all looked at him skeptically. He held up his hands in defense. "Now hold on a minute! This is easily proven. We'll just need to come up with some way to tell who's really themselves and who's being impersonated..."
"We can all have safe words!" Alistair chirped sarcastically, leveling his gaze at Artemis with a devious smirk, his hand resting gently on the top of his cane. "But the old man's right: first you need to prove yourself."
"Prove myself," the Warden said back, face going from pale to flush as he frowned. He pushed his glasses up and pointed to Snow and Parker. "These two are cousins."
"Not good enough," Parker snorted, rolling his eyes. Snow nodded in agreement, putting her hands on her hips.
"Yeah, that's not exactly a secret, Artie."
"You think so?" he asked, his smile sly while he crossed his arms. "What if I told you were cousins through marriage, not blood?" He sent his cocky smirk towards the old man in the corner. "Isn't that right, Zacharriah?"
Zacharriah coughed, but being called out had clearly startled him.
Parker raised an eyebrow and turned in his direction. "What do you know about this?" the young wizard asked. "I'm guessing he's not bullshitting us?"
His frown became very pronounced, and the old man slowly shook his head. "No, he isn't." He paused, taking a long drag of his cigarette. "Justin was my husband. I'm your grandfather."
Everyone was silent. Artemis nodded confidently, his point made. Parker stared at Zacharriah in shock, but slowly smiled. "Grand-père...?"
Zacharriah's eyes briefly flashed with light. "Don't get any ideas."
The back door creaked and everyone turned to see Guy amble in, human and completely naked again. He carried the pack of clothes he'd brought loosely in one hand and only gave them half a glance before he started towards the stairs. "I need a shower," he mumbled somberly, then disappeared up the steps.
No one brought up the blood on his face and hands. They all could guess whose they were, and no one wanted to think about why he looked so mortified.
"So," Lina said, breaking the tension. "Is this some family reunion or something? Is the cat related too?"
That got a snort out of Parker, but Artemis missed the joke. "I'm not related to anyone."
"Thank God!" Snow and Lina chimed together, then both laughed. Even Alistair chuckled at that.
"Ok, so, everyone's related," he teased, clapping his hands together. "How exciting. Let's move on. Safe words?"
"I'm thinking we need something stronger, like a challenge response system." Artemis took off his glasses to clean them on his shirt. "Something only those in this group will know. Like... a question with an unusual answer."
"Sounds good to me. I think..." Lina suddenly trailed off, eyes going blank for a moment. She drew a deep breath and turned to Parker. "Fill me in later? Mother's calling."
Parker nodded, knowing exactly what she was doing as she rushed up the stairs to her room. He turned to the others to explain. "Her mother is something of a spirit guide to her. I think her spirit must have tied herself to her when she died, since Lina witnessed her death. Occasionally, she'll call out to her. It's best to let Lina have her space when she has these chats."
Those who hadn't known simply nodded in understanding. Zacharriah cleared his throat to get their attention, moving beside the old jukebox the bar housed. He gave it a solid thump and it lit up and began to play an old Johnny Cash song: You can run on for a long time, run on for a long time, run on for a long time. Sooner or later God'll cut you down...
"You want my safe word?" he asked. He pointed at the jukebox. "There it is."
"Okay," Artemis said carefully. "So if we ask you what your favorite song is, and you answer with this or start singing it, we'll know it's you." He looked around. "Anyone else know one for himself already?"
"Ask me anything about color," Alistair said. "Like the color of your clothes or distinguishing between two similar, but differently colored objects." He lifted one shoulder. "Except for this group, no one knows I'm completely colorblind. If I can correctly identify actual colors with ease, something's wrong."
"I can be asked about my tattoo," Snow went next. "Ask me the story behind it. Most people don't know it's to commemorate my grandmother. They just assume it's because I'm part Winter or just have a thing for faeries."
"My favorite drink," Parker picked up, smirking. "Everyone assumes it's bourbon, because I'm from New Orleans, but my all time favorite is a good margarita. In fact, I'm in the mood for one now. Anyone else want one? Alistair?"
"Ha ha. Funny. You know the answer."
"How about a slushie then?"
"Anyway," Snow interrupted, turning to Artemis. "What about you, Artie? What's yours going to be?"
He smiled proudly. "Ask me what's the password."
Snow stared at him. "The password? What is it?"
"That's the trick: there is none! If I give one, then it obviously isn't me."
"Bright as a black crayon, that one," Alistair muttered under his breath, wondering if he should mention his answer was one very easily stumbled upon. He decided not to. "So we'll get ones for Guy and Lina when they come back down, and fill them in on ours then. In the meantime..." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the photos he'd taken. "The evidence you requested, sir. Though I imagine at this point, it should be clear my friends aren't the ones causing trouble."
"With the evidence on your doorstep? This is superfluous, at best, at least in that regard." Artemis still took the photos and started flipping through them. "Though I'm still all for being... thorough..." He stopped on one of the photos Alistair had taken of the magic circle. "Now hold on. A skinwalker shouldn't need a magic circle." He looked at it closer. "But this is definitely Native American, or at least imitating that style."
"Might mean a wizard or warlock is involved anyway," Parker said with a sigh, rubbing the bandages on his chest. "Lina was able to speak with the ghost of one of the victims. She said he described the man who transformed him as an ancient tribesman with a horned helmet and staff. It's not much to go on, but it's a start."
"Wonder if it was him or the skinwalker who invited us to his lair." Alistair snorted and rolled his eyes. "His lair... really? What kind of moron is he? Does he really expect us to just go traipsing on over? Didn't even give bloody directions, let alone the fact that no one here is that stupid. Close your mouth, Parker, or I will cut out your tongue."
Parker promptly snapped his mouth shut.
"Anyway," Alistair continued, leaning against the bar. "He's going to have to give us a lot more incentive to meet on his terms. It's obvious he's just trying to goad us into confronting him directly, and he's a complete idiot if he thinks we'll bite. We don't know what we're up against, don't know his motives, and further don't even know where his God damned lair is anyway! Ancient one my arse: this is the sort of puerile villainy reserved for schoolboys playing at being evil masterminds, only to go crying to their mums when no one falls for their obvious tricks. It reeks of inexperience, and if not that, then a complete lack of intelligence."
Artemis gave him a curious stare. "You say all that with a disturbing amount of confidence. As if you would know..."
"I do know." Alistair sent him a devious smirk. "I don't know if it's been mentioned, but I am a con. A hustler. A swindler. A crook, a cheat, flimflammer and fraud. A scam artist, if you like, but above all, a professional deceiver and manipulator. I see something like this and can't help but laugh at its foolishness. All the magic in the world can't make up for utter stupidity." He hopped down from his bar stool, bit back a wince when his movement aggravated his injury. "And since you can't fight stupid with logic, I'm going to go upstairs and content myself with my music, before I do something I regret."
He gave them all a small bow, wincing again, then gathered his things and hurried upstairs. Music. Alistair ran his fingers through his hair before he slipped into his room and shut the door. Music to take his mind off of everything that had happened that day, and most importantly to calm his nerves. He knew if he didn't calm down, he would do something stupid, something likely involving parkour, picking locks, cleaning his sword of blood or some combination thereof. He knew whoever this "ancient one" was was trying to provoke them, provoke him, and that knowledge was the only thing stopping him from tracking the bastard down. That, and as he'd mentioned to the others, he hadn't exactly told them where his lair was. So Alistair put his records on, willing himself to listen to the music and let the songs calm him. Stop him from acting on his desire to destroy something, someone, anything for the pain he'd been through that day. Stop him from proving that he could be just as monstrous as the beasts they'd fought.
Stop him from becoming the monster he knew he was.