[Cecily] Prologue: "Personal Demons"





January 12, 2182

        I limped up the drive to the rambling structure my brother Harrison and I call home, Murray grumbling along at my side. "Not only does she try to banish an Elder demon, but then she chases him through the Direwood, and -"
        "Murray, shut up." My goblin companion's complaints continued, but at least he was muttering so I could no longer hear. Hauling my gear up the porch stairs, I dropped the ichor-coated mess in a heap by the door, except for the battered instrument case that I carried into the house and set gently on the entry hall table.
        "Harry?"
        "In the library, 'Silly."
        For once, I was oddly comforted by the childhood nickname that usually drove me bonkers. Near death experiences really boost your sense of nostalgia, I guess. Leaving little trials of blackish green ick in my wake, I staggered into my brother's domain.
        Harrison and the library have been, and always will be, integrally linked in my mind. My earliest memories are watching him pour over some tome or another in the oak-paneled room, just as he was doing now.
       He turned as I crossed the threshold, dripping ichor, mud and far too much of my blood for my tastes onto the hardwood floor. "Christ, Cecily." He caught me just as my leg gave out and set me into a chair. The room was beginning to swim about me , so I just closed my eyes and let Harry patch me up, like he had so many times over the years. Except this was a bit more than a skinned knee...
       "I'm going to assume that it was indeed a possession." I heard him fumble with the first aid box Murray had dragged in.
       "Well, that, or one hell of a bad case of puberty," I said wryly.
       The call had come in two days ago; a very worried couple with an unusually behaving 12 year old boy. In most cases like this, Harry and I would have recommended psychiatric analysis, but when the mother mentioned her son had been in the Direwood, I decided it might be worth a look.
       The Wood is a mostly dead hardwood forest located about two Shadows out from Blythe. It's easily accessible from Corwin's Walk, and is a popular 'proving' ground for stupid teenagers trying to make a name for themselves amongst their peers. A small section of black road runs through the place, and as a result, it's infested with a multitude of minor demonkind. So these kids go in and spend a night, to prove how cool they are to their buddies. Most of the time. they just get scared out of their wits, but there are a couple of cases where kids have been killed, eaten, or possessed by the Wood's inhabitants.
       "I got there," I related to Harry between clenched teeth and invectives, as he poured iodine into the various teeth and claw wounds. "And it looked like a classic possession case; minor shifts in facial bone structure, speaking in tongues, spontaneous telekinesis..."
       "It was that bastard Hakthla!" Murray suddenly exclaimed..
       "Murray, you're ruining the drama."
       "Why didn't you call me?" Harrison interrupted our byplay.
        "Well, by the time I figured it out, brother dear, I was too far into the banishing to send you a postcard." I winced as he began to probe the deep wound across the back of my calf.
       "Hakthla, huh." Harrison scrutinized my leg. "I take it he was the one who almost hamstrung you?"
       "Well, I couldn't very well just let him run free through the neighborhood. So I chased him back to the Direwood." My stomach felt like it dropped 10 feet and did a somersault when Harrison probed the cut.
       "Well, I'm going to have to call Dr. Mathers, 'Sil. You've got some muscle damage here." He sent Murray off to call the doctor, then looked at me for a long moment. "You think Hakthla set this up to bring you out?"
       I shrugged, feeling somewhat dizzy and nauseous. "He's a bit of a big player to be hanging out in the Direwood, and possessing kids has never been his schtick. And I'm pretty sure he's still pissed about that oculous thing."
       Hakthla is of a class of Elder demons known as Beholders; demons with a third eye that allows then to see into the souls of others, and use what they see to then lure the victims in. They then feed on the soul, and gain sustenance and power through it it.
       Well, usually. Hakthla, though, is probably pretty hungry by now, since I took his oculous about three years ago. And there are few things crankier than a half-starved demon.
       Dr. Mathers showed up not much later. An old friend of the family, he's been patching me up when I get myself in trouble beyond Harry's skills to fix the damage. He clucked sympathetically over me when he'd taken stock of the situation. "Well, I'm going to have to stitch the muscle. You're very lucky it's only partially severed. Even with your rejuvenation abilities, a severed hamstring would be messy." He rummaged through his kit, and pulled out a small bottle and a syringe.
       I should probably explain to you my theory on phobias at this point. There are people who deal in danger all the time. Nothing phases them. So, as a balance, there is usually some small, completely irrational thing that given them the wiggins in an extreme way. I fight demons and undead creatures every day. I am usually considered fearless to a dangerous degree by those who know me. But I hate needles.
       So when Mathers pulled out that four inch hypodermic, I think I left fingerprint indentations in the arm of the chair. He smiled this hollow, almost goulish smile at my reaction, well used to it by now.
       "I'll just stay awake," I muttered through clenched teeth as he drew the anesthetic into the syringe.
       "Cecily," he countered in his doctor tone, "while minor, this surgery is going to be extremely painful."
       "Pain, shmain," I tried to stop shaking as he pulled the needle from the bottle and tapped the air bubbles from the syringe.
       "I can't have you squirming about during this procedure..."
       "I'll hold very, very still, I promise." I could hear the edge of panic rising in my voice.
       "Unconscious people usually do," he replied, taking a step closer, that tiny needle looking to me like the blade of a claymore.
       Fortunately, I escaped any memory of the needle actually maing contact with me, because I passed out before he'd gotten with in a foot of my arm.

******
       Various pieces of nine millimeter pistol were scattered about me on the porch as I cleaned the viscous green gunk out of them. At least Beholders didn't have a high acid content to their blood; I went through more guns and blades that way.
       It was near sunset. I'd woken up about an hour after the good doctor had left, and since I couldn't do much more than sit, I had camped out on the front porch to clean my gear, a task that had taken me the rest of the day. My sword was a total loss - Hakthla had snapped it into three pieces. I tossed them in the pile with the bent shotgun and the small wad of metal that had been my other pistol.
       Harrison came out with coffee when the sun was about halfway past the horizon. He chuckled as he surveyed the piles of broken, mangled and ichor coated weapons. "Looks like he put a dent in the armory."
       I slapped a clip into the now-clean pistol, chambered a round, and fired at the target across the yard. "I just consider it an excuse to go shopping," I grinned, putting the pistol away and taking a cup of coffee.
       Taking up his customary seat on the porch swing, he watched the sunset in silence for a moment. "It was a close one, wasn't it?"
       "Yeah, it was." I stopped trying to hide things from Harrison years ago. He has this uncanny knack for knowing what's going on in my head, no matter how nonchalant I am about it. "Not only is he limited to physical sustenance, he's lost a lot of influence amongst his peers."
       Harrison sipped at his coffee, the lengthening shadows hiding his frown. "Means he's probably going to keep at this until one of you is dead." He didn't sound at all comfortable with this prospect.
       I gave him a wry grin. "Everyone has their personal demons."

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