Showdown at the Solstice, Part 2

Showdown at the Solstice, Part 2

Author’s note: the planned quartet continues with August’s second installment… stretched into two parts, because, well, it kinda got away from her like a mustang on the prairie. The on-going tale of magic gone awry in a small Texas town continues with the next solstice story. Look for a new story from Jill on the fall equinox and continue with part two of this installment at the bottom!

CHAPTER SIX

The shack was so quiet, so lonely. Regi crawled into bed and sprawled out the way he wanted; he got up when he wanted, ate what he wanted for breakfast, and didn’t have to share the pot of coffee.

He couldn’t wait to leave.

Regi drove straight to the Ghost House, shooting Mac a text when he got to the parking lot: I’m here, you around?

Yes, but… would you grab me a McMuffin?

Jesus. Which one

Sausage. And a hash brown 🍟🙏

Regi rolled his eyes and tossed his phone onto the passenger’s seat, then did a donut out of the parking lot, spitting a great cloud of dust behind him. His stomach roared its pleasure at the rich smells in the McDonald’s drive-thru, so by the time the line crawled far enough that he was at the speaker, he ordered five McMuffins and three hash browns.

He and Mac sat in the computer room and scrolled through comments on the viral video while they feasted.

“Mmm!! Check it.” Mac swallowed a mouthful of greasy sandwich and highlighted a comment with the mouse. “ ‘Never really understood the appeal of supernatural content until this video. Skeptic 4eva but def down the rabbit hole now…’ Watch, on the next video, this guy’ll—” They shot Regi a look and trailed off with a weak grin.

“Next video?” he growled. “Surely you’re reconsiderin’ this whole damn channel, kid. It’s rippin’ this town apart.”

“Reconsidering?!” Mac’s eyes grew very wide. “Hell no! Look at this!” They switched tabs on their browser and it was Regi’s turn to widen his eyes. “Those numbers are just from the last week. Not even—six days! The revenue potential on this is… to the moon.”

With these words, Mac cast a not-so-sly sideways glance at Regi’s backside. And to Regi’s horror, his backside wiggled as if of its own accord.

“Cut it out.” He clenched his butt cheeks together, willing them to ignore all talk of the moon, but the wolf inside him snapped back. He heard Tira’s gentle whisper in his mind’s ear: If you had only learned to control the wolf…

“Sorry. Haha. Ahem. Trace mentioned you were a werewolf. I had to see what happened.” Mac wiped their mouth with the back of their hand and tapped the desk. “But for real—there’s a lot of money to be made from a channel with this kind of access to the real deal, and I don’t need more than it takes to fix this place up… Think of all of the supernatural—I-I-I mean, Below causes we could help!”

Regi scoffed, but he tried to soften the blow with a chuckle. “Yeah, what, with fiat currency? It’s not exactly the coin of the fae realm.”

“I asked Trace,” Mac said, spinning in their chair to turn their frustratingly charming wide-eyed gaze on Regi, “and they said there’s plenty of ways Below can use human money.” They toyed with their phone as they talked. “Securing safe living arrangements, for instance. Or getting supplies from this realm for their spells. And—oh… shit.”

They turned their phone screen wordlessly. Regi read the bright red banner of text out loud with a sinking heart. “Delivery notification, order delivered, to… oh shit.”

“That’s all the way across town from the station,” Mac said in a tiny voice. “We were supposed to be on site in half an hour.” They looked like they were about to burst into tears, grabbing a handful of their blue hair.

Regi’s breakfast churned in his stomach and he put his palm on the desk to steady himself. Then he tossed his head as if clearing it. “No, no. We can’t let this stop us. Do you know anyone with a flatbed?”

Mac’s brown eyes were glazing over. Regi took them by the shoulders and got in their face, their collective McBreath mingling. “Hey! Listen. We don’t have time for a panic attack. The real attack’s comin’. I’ll make the call, you just have to give me a name, a number, somethin’.”

The youngster’s lips moved.

“What? Speak up, kid, I can’t hear you.” Regi put his ear next to their mouth.

“Henry Rarney,” Mac mumbled. “He’s on Facebook.”

“Rarney,” Regi said, “got it.” He did the search on his phone, saw the man preferred texts, and copied the number over to a new message. It took about ten minutes of tense silence, broken by the iPhone ding, and as many messages back and forth before Regi had negotiated a pickup and delivery by 2 PM.

He was about to lock his phone when his eye fell on the last message in his conversation with Astira. Two nights ago, during his last shift at the library, she’d sent him her signature “hang in there” emoji:

😘🤝🌄

And he hadn’t even replied.

Opening the message chain, he typed and retyped until he finally had the words, Last night I was really cold without you.

He hit the arrow to send it and realized he’d been holding his breath.

“Well,” Regi said, looking up at Mac, “two o’clock. Ten hours until it’s the solstice.”

Mac’s face crinkled up like they were about to cry. “It’s not enough.”

“No, it isn’t.” Regi ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. “But it’s gonna have to be.”

He squared his shoulders and went through the door of the production room, pretending he wasn’t devastated by the notable absence of any dinging sounds.

“Where are you going?” Mac called.

“To rustle up all the help I can get.”

***

Staind’s “It’s Been a While” blasted at the highest volume the Camry could manage as Regi kept the pedal to the floor down Highway 95. He leaned back against the headrest, wishing it would provide him more of the pain he deserved to feel right now. It was as if his head had cleared with the McBreakfast, and he realized how utterly foolish he’d been.

A fool to treat a fight for one little boy’s happiness as any less important than the fate of the world.

A fool to downplay the importance of the partnership between the humans and the Below.

A fool to expect a woman who said she loved him to walk away as soon as she had the chance.

For all he knew, the forces-that-be would slam the Saltbush portal closed tomorrow night, and whatever fate had befallen Loudon would come to pass in his own little town. There were only three portals left, and three more nights of power in the calendar year. No telling which was next, and whether any of them would survive 2021. And here he was, Regis Nardelle being his dumbass Regis Nardelle self, throwing away what life had so graciously brought him in favor of some unrealizable fantasy.

The song began again, and when the singer growled, “I’ve gone and fucked things up, just like I always do,” Regi sang along at the top of his lungs.

Maybe he deserved to be alone.

The hot summer sun, nearly at its fullest claim of the sky, followed him with a harsh eye as he pulled into the big gravel parking lot serving the combination post office and city hall. He turned the volume down to avoid glares from the two soccer moms with their twin minivans and myriad offspring.

Before he got out, he pulled out his phone again and checked. No messages from Astira. Impulsively, he dashed off, I know I can do better. I will do better.

The dusty walk from his car to the city hall door was longer than the down-and-backs his coach had made the high school soccer team run. Regi straightened his shoulders and practiced saying, “Howdy, Mister Mayor,” in his take-me-seriously voice a few times in front of the city hall door before opening it.

Mayor Aguayo, hand upraised as if reaching for the knob, stood in the doorway.

“H-howdy, M-Mister Mayor!” Regi blurted out.

Aguayo raised an eyebrow and dropped his hand. “Nardelle. What can I do for you?”

It all bubbled up in Regi’s throat at the same time, and he struggled to form a coherent sentence. “Guess this is—I gotta ask, I can’t just—well, I was hopin’ to—”

“Spit it out, kid,” Aguayo said, folding his arms across his chest.

Regi rubbed the back of his neck furiously. “Yeah. Sorry. Look, there’s—where do I start.”

“At the beginning.”

“Yeah, right. Of course.” Regi found he could look everywhere but the mayor’s skeptical face. He drew a deep breath, determined to blurt it out. “Look, there’s no way of sayin’ all of this without soundin’ like a complete fool, but—there’s a powerful force threatenin’ to destroy Saltbush, and I have it on, ah, very good authority that if I can gather up enough hands to help, we can shore up our defenses at Olde Saltbush Station and prevent the shadowborne and whatever else is lurkin’ between the realms from swarmin’ our fair town.”

He wanted to pant, to lap up water from a cool stream. The embarrassment crawled under his skin.

Aguayo was quiet for a long, long time. Regi finally dared look up and found the mayor sizing him up. Finally, the man shook his head. “I’m sorry, kid. I don’t think you’re well.”

Regi’s fists clenched. “I am neither a liar nor am I out of my mind.”

“Sure seems like it, coming at me with this… nonsense.” The mayor poked a big finger in Regi’s chest, and Regi flinched but stepped into the finger. “What the hell, Nardelle? It’s a goddamn Saturday. Either you’re drunk or—”

Whatever Aguayo might have insinuated was lost in the wail of a red-eyed smear of darkness that descended on him from above.

A part of Regi’s brain he hardly knew was there lit up, and everything slowed. Light changed quality, becoming harsher, sharper. His arm moved before he told it to, reaching out with fingers that were -lengthening into vicious claws. He stared hard at the four foot-wide cloud of darkness seeping towards Aguayo, its beady red eyes like turbine lights.

Knowing what it was, he could see it. And he knew what it would do.

It would possess Aguayo.

Regi willed his fingers to twitch more swiftly. He threw all of his energy and focus into his arm, and he felt it lengthen and change to become the wolfman’s limb. He stretched his neck towards the attacker, feeling his jaw shudder and lengthen, watching his snout draw away from his eyes. Then he sensed that his teeth were powerful, and he lunged to bite.

He snapped through what felt like mist, but tasted like foul medicine his mother had forced down his throat whenever he’d had a headcold. Spluttering, snuffling, he whipped around behind Aguayo and noted with satisfaction that the brollachan—it had to be one of Dubhghlas’s Scottish monsters—was smashed against the wall. Aguayo stumbled away, heaving, his eyes bugging out of his face.

“Pero qué mierda!” he shouted.

Wolf ears flattened against his skull, Regi lunged, shoving the mayor out of the way with one hand and wrenching the brollachan off the wall with the other.

The blood thrummed in his vision, and the creature attempted its vanishing trick, but Regi knew he had the brollachan trapped by the slimy bulk he felt thrashing between him and the ground. He opened his mouth to bite, rearing back so he could bring the full force of his jaws crashing down on the creature.

But it moved so quickly, without form.

It poured into his nostrils, his mouth. The foul taste filled his whole head and his vision ringed with darkness. It would possess him. He scrabbled and snarled and clawed, but the brollachan had its smoky fingers in him.

Regi panicked. He felt the wolfman retreating, his claws slipping back to fingers, as the darkness threatened to wash over him completely.

“Hijo de puta!”

The air filled with the thick scent of burning herbs and a brilliant light blinded Regi even through the brollachan’s thick mist. The creature hissed and screamed, a ferocious wail that ended in a choking sob. It released Regi and squirmed away across the ground, shielding its eyes from the light pouring from the tactical flashlight Aguayo gripped in his left.

Gagging, Regi clawed at his throat, sucking down sweet air, bewildered to find the wolfman had completely retreated. He was fully human.

Aguayo clasped Regi’s shoulder. The mayor’s expression was completely different from when he had opened the town hall door. “Mierda. Are you alright? What the hell was that?”

Regi waited a few more heartbeats before he was ready to speak. “A brollachan. One of the many things that might leak through that portal come tomorrow. Lucky you had somethin’ on you.” He gestured toward the flashlight and the herbs.

Aguayo coughed, looking guilty. “Well. That Mac kid set me up, just in case. They said there were creatures in this town that might run away if I had the right kind of smoke up my sleeve.” He shuddered as he looked off at where the brollachan had vanished into an alleyway. “Alright, Nardelle, I guess there must be something to what you are saying. Give me the lowdown, and I’ll see how I can help.”

So Regi explained, as best he could given that his body quivered with adrenaline and whatever it was that coursed through his veins when the wolf rose up. He told Aguayo how he had gotten involved in all of this, how Cara Boss had learned of the closing portals and cursed young Taiyang Kong, how Astira had come to Saltbush with the intent of undoing her cousin’s wicked spell. How he and Astira had joined forces with the fairy godmother and battled the shadowborne. The council of guardians. And now, the delay in delivery of the supplies intended to shore up the physical manifestation of the portal in Saltbush, Olde Saltbush Station.

At the end of his tale, Regi sat exhausted with his back against the hot wall of the town hall. Aguayo eased himself down to sit next to Regi, resting his wrists on his knees and staring out into the prairie. It was hot, summer-hot, and barely noon, and crickets droned like an ancient machine.

Without looking at Regi, Aguayo said, “I am resting my faith for a moment. I will need it all night.”

Relief flooded through Regi as he realized what Aguayo’s words meant. “Ah, sir, thank you. I appreciate your—”

Aguayo raised his hand. “I will make some phone calls. I will make some recommendations. You will lead us in what to do.” He lolled his head sideways to eye Regi. “Like it or not, you are the one who knows what is going on here. And how we can stop it.”

A mixture of gratitude and terror rolled through Regi, a chilly wave against the sun’s persistent heat. “Aye. I suppose that’s true.”

The mayor allowed himself one more minute to steady his breathing, and then he heaved himself up and vanished into the town hall. Regi could hear him inside, his voice rising and falling as he talked to Saltbush residents with varying attempts to convince and cajole.

There was no sign of the brollachan. Regi held his aching head in both hands for a few seconds before fishing in his pocket for his phone. One corner of the glass was shattered, spiderwebbing cracks across the screen. He sighed heavily and tried navigating to his messages. It still worked, though the now-sharp edges on his screen nipped at his fingertips.

There were three unread messages. He tapped the icon, heart in his throat, then sighed when he saw two were from Mac and one was from Cara Boss.

Delivery on its way, from Mac, and then about half an hour later, It’s there! OMG! 🚧

He gave that one a thumbs up. He’d call Mac after he saw what Cara wanted.

Call me, was all she’d said.

Keeping his eyes on where the brollachan had disappeared, Regi dialed.

“Hey, kid. Don’t talk, just listen. I consulted with the council. That video your little friend made? It’s wild, just wild. Ata did an analysis, and claims there’s a correlation between how strong the shadowborne and the brollachan and anything else squeezin’ out of the portal is, and the levels of skepticism and belief in the area.”

Regi opened his mouth to tell her about his spat with the brollachan.

“I said, don’t talk,” Cara said sternly. “Zip it. We’ve got work to do tonight, but after the solstice… well, let’s just say Mac Calderon is gonna need to go viral again. And again. As many times as it takes to get the whole damn world to believe.”

***

Regi’s neck cramped, but he kept his head craned back anyway, taking in the haphazard fortified mess that was Olde Saltbush Station.

A mere twenty hours before, this had been an old, flat building paying tribute to the era of passenger trains with its dusty presence. Now it was like an homage to insanity, a composite of hastily-assembled boards, planks, sheets of metal, and thousands of nails. It could have been designed by Frank Gehry to be the centerpiece of a major metro.

Hammers, power tools, and the murmur of people at work side by side filled the rapidly-heating late morning air. No matter where Regi looked, he saw humans and beings from Below laboring side by side in a strange, tense harmony, fueled by discarded McDonald’s bags and to-go cups from Bean Around. Funny, how a crisis never ceased to bring people together.

But there was one significant face missing in the crowd. Regi looked for Astira every time he went for another handful of nails, but if she was there, she was well-hidden.

“She’ll make it,” said a small, nasally voice near Regi’s feet.

He started, closed his eyes to slow his heartbeat. “Ah. Hwan. You scared me.” His eyes snapped open. “Is Tira with—”

Hwan’s tails rose. “I just told you. She’ll make it. She’ll be here. She keeps her word, you know.”

Regi’s face warmed at that. “I—I know she does.” He looked back at the station and its bizarre transformation. “You think this’ll hold, Hwan?”

The fox took a step forward, tipping his head to one side. “It’s ugly, but… it’ll hold.”

Regi snorted softly and gestured at the mixed crowd. “Kinda like this alliance. If it holds, at least.”

“Kinda like most things in life that last,” Hwan said, flicking three tailtips at Regi as he bounded off into the crowd.

Regi watched the fox go, the wolf inside twitching at the sight of a smaller animal fleeing, the human inside twinging with a sense of loss. His mother Jillian rose to his mind and he turned away, fighting down a sob as he remembered his mental threat to curse her with an inconvenience. He hadn’t called her in weeks. She’d been so excited for him and Astira. He ground his teeth together and desperately uncursed her.

Before he let the fear and disappointment bubble over, he checked his phone one more time.

No new messages.

Something between a snarl and a sob and a sad laugh barked out of him. Several townspeople turned around and eyed him, but he busied himself on his phone and they ignored him soon enough. He stared back at his reflection in the selfie camera he’d opened on accident. He’d never seen his brown eyes so full of sadness.

He hated himself for it, but Linkin Park ran through his head: But in the end, it doesn’t even matter…

He shoved the phone in his pocket. The world might end tonight. He had a fray to enter.

Regi Nardelle squared his shoulders and started the long descent down the ridge, his boots crunching in the gravel.

Familiar hands slipped around his elbow, and the scent of the tropics filled his head.

“Tira,” he breathed, hardly daring to look, in case she was a brollachan playing a horrible pre-murder joke on him.

“You are one prime grade asshole,” she whispered in his ear, “making me chase you down on the battlefield.”

Regi wasn’t sure whether to laugh, or cry, or shiver at the way her lips and words tickled his ear.

He turned and pulled her towards him, but she stood firmly planted so he could only wrap his arm over her shoulders. She was smiling, but her dark eyes held something unreadable.

He wanted to grab her, kiss her, never let her go. He didn’t.

But he had to know.

“Will you—can I—are we—”

“I am by your side, as I have always said I would be,” Astira said, her head high. Her gaze never left his.

Hwan bounded up. “It’s time, Tira,” he said breathlessly.

Astira touched her palm to Regi’s, extending her fingers along his. The corner of her mouth twitched.

“Yes, it is,” she said, looking at where their hands touched.

Regi swallowed hard.

Astira let her hand drop and followed Hwan down to the strange structure below without looking back. It felt like microwaved déjà vu, only this time, it was high noon and not the middle of the night, and Regi wasn’t running ahead with Cara Boss.

Regi ran the back of his hand across his brow, disgusted by how much sweat poured down into his eyes. It was high noon on the longest day of the year; thoughts ran slow. He started a lumbering train of thought to wonder how long they’d have to wait before they knew which portal was closing.

Before that train got anywhere, Olde Saltbush Station began to shake.

As it shook, what looked like massive clouds of smoke billowed out of every opening. But Regi had laid eyes on the brollachan the morning before, and he knew what he was looking at.

“Don’t let them touch you!” he cried out, but the creatures were already swarming victims, attempting to possess their bodies, and the screams of the unprepared rang out, drowning Regi’s warning.

Weee-oooo! Weeee-oooooo!

“Get the hell outta the way!”

Darla Stone hung halfway out of Saltbush Fire Station’s #1, a massive fire truck usually pulled out only to manage prairie fires, as the vehicle barreled down the slope towards the station. Regi dove out of the way, rolling into the bluestem grass and popping up to watch Darla and her crew of volunteer firefighters arming themselves in front of the station with forcible entry tools and the heavy hose. While the other firefighters wore heavy suits even in the heat, Darla wore a cutoff version of her usual jacket that left room for her massive owl wings; she’d slung a fire axe over her shoulder.

The smoky forms turned towards the truck and its occupants, flitting around, but seemed unable to penetrate the heavy suits. Darla swung her axe at the eyes, and Regi saw several pairs wink out and their associated clouds dissipate. But then one slithered around behind her and caught her around the neck, crawling into her face and pulling her to her knees. She dropped her axe and tried to pull the brollachan from her body.

Regi growled and leapt down the gravel ridge. He pitched forward where the incline was too steep, wishing not for the first time that he had his wolf limbs to tip forward onto. Then the thunder of hooves surrounded him along with a cloud of dust.

Tryx Young sat astride her silver mare, her black hair streaming out behind her. She was decked in black and silver, her black stetson low over her eyes. As her horse came up alongside Regi, she tipped the brim to him. “I’ll ride with ya,” she called.

To Regi’s right, another horse, a chestnut stallion, tossed its head as its rider reigned it in. The man raised his head so his hat no longer obscured his features. Regi was shocked to see Daniel Fisk.

The rancher grunted. “What, didn’t expect to see me here, Nardelle?”

“Not exactly,” Regi admitted, then added because he knew he should, “but I’m glad to nonetheless.”

“Charge ‘em together,” Fisk said. Regi nodded, and Tryx whooped. They rushed down the remaining gravel incline into the swirl of mist.

Regi knelt down beside Darla, whose eyes were rolled back in her head. Her close-cropped hair was slick with blood in his hands. “Someone, help me!”

Small, delicate, but capable hands joined his on Darla’s body, and Regi looked up to see Mac crouched near Darla’s feet. “Balls, dude, it looks like she got possessed,” they said.

“That’s exactly what happened. We have to get her to Cara Boss.” Regi scooped up Darla’s shoulders.

Mac frowned. “Nobody’s seen Cara since dawn. We can take her back behind the action.”

The two horses circled the cluster of firefighters, with Darla at its center. The brollachan had fallen back away from the sparks the horses’ hooves threw up.

“They’re afraid of fire,” Regi shouted, remembering Dubhghlas’s words.

In his arms, Darla coughed and chuckled weakly. “Well, ain’t that some ironic shit. Light it up, team!”

The firefighters set to work collecting nearby dried-out plants and bits of scrap wood while the riders on horseback circled them, horses tossing their heads nervously as the brollachan swirled at their feet. But as soon as the flames roared up, the misty creatures shrank back, then went to seek less-prepared victims.

Pinpointing the location of the designated aid vehicle on the ridge, Regi squatted down and readied himself under Darla’s upper body, making a clicking noise with his mouth to get Mac’s attention. “Hey! We’re gonna take her up to the med truck. You ready?”

Mac had been staring bug-eyed at the horses with a stupid grin. “OH! Yeah, yeah. Ready.”

Together they dragged Darla past clusters of people and Below who, moments before, had been laboring side by side to shore up Olde Saltbush Station, and were now slashing at the brollachan-tainted air with claws and silver knives and the distinct flashes of magic spells. Regi ducked as a shadow fell over them, hefting Darla more securely on his shoulder.

He looked up. Big black wings beat an irregular flight path, and a curious orange face tipped to look at Darla as its owner swooped low. A vampire in the daylight—unheard of.

“I’m fine, Aza,” Darla grunted when the fruit bat got close enough to hear. “Get to the shadows in the eaves. Watch the fire.”

Aza chittered and winged off. Regi and Mac struggled the rest of the way up the hill and got Darla settled in the shade of the white Dodge Ram and the care of Willow Trayler and a couple of tight-jawed volunteer nurses. Regi was already sweating through his t-shirt. He wiped his brow as Mac came up alongside him.

“I’m going in,” Mac said. They had their camera propped up against their shoulder and a determined set to their jaw as they looked down at the battle below. “Don’t try and stop me.”

“Why would I stop you?” Regi asked. He wished desperately for an ice water; his throat was dry from all the dust kicked up by the feet and hooves and unnatural winds. He combed the figures below for Astira.

Mac gasped. “I—I mean, you’re—I guess I assumed you’d tell me I was a kid, I couldn’t protect myself, I need to stand aside and let the adults take care of things.”

Regi tipped his head and shot Mac a smug smirk. “Now that sounds like projectin’ to me.”

“You’re so right.” Mac winced into a smile. “But hey, I like that we’re friends enough you’ll be straight up like that.”

“Don’t get used to it,” Regi said in his gruffest voice, folding his arms across his chest and attempting to maintain his straight face.

But even with death roiling around them, he had to admit, it felt nice to have someone call him their friend.

“I’m gone,” Mac said. “Gonna stream for science. Well, for faith.” And they sprinted off in a flail of limbs and a trail of dust.

Then Regi saw Astira. She and Hwan were a ball of golden light just beyond the fire Darla’s crew had built to a blaze. The fox had twisted himself into a blur of tails and nose, the glow emanating from him like a slow corona. Astira’s eyes and skin gleamed as if alight as she flipped and leapt and slashed.

Astira and Hwan held back a small cascade of familiar oil-sheened black masses oozing out of the cracks left in the boards nailed to the station. Regi’s breath came sharply. Shadowborne.

The creatures were pouring out of Olde Saltbush Station like blood from a wound now, threatening to overwhelm Astira and Hwan and the firefighters. Regi charged, willing his weak human body to unreasonable speeds.

He had no idea how the hell he would fight shadowborne in this form. Pummel it with his fists? Bite it with his blunt omnivore teeth? Give a swift kick in the groin?

Well, he’d find out when he got there, wouldn’t he?

He found out very quickly. The ground disappeared beneath him and suddenly he was up against the slick exterior of a shadowborne lump. It extended its mass out towards him, nubs of body stretching as if becoming fingers.

Without thinking, Regi grabbed the shadowborne limb and pulled with all his might.

The creature ripped off the ground with a horrible squelch and a shriek like a dying jackrabbit. The elongated flesh in Regi’s hands warmed quickly until it was too hot to hold and he flung it away from him. The shadowborne hit the side of the station and oozed down it, steaming.

Regi spun around to find Astira crouched on three limbs, holding her sword out beside her. She grinned proudly at him. “Welcome to the fight, my love.”

Then she whirled around and cried, “Aza, now!”

The fruit bat Regi hadn’t registered was hiding under the eaves of the station dropped like a stone. Before it hit the ground, a flash of light and magic fog enveloped it, and Aza Ali rose up with her hands crackling at her sides. Her face twinged as the beating sun hit it, but she was wearing a gris-gris bag around her neck; she’d have a few minutes before the light was too strong even for the protective amulet.

Shadowborne and brollachan alike shrank away from the power sparking between her fingers. Head high, she approached Regi and Astira and pivoted so the three of them had their backs to each other.

“Let us show these damn monsters a Texas welcome!” Aza howled, flashing her fangs.

She and Astira plunged back to fighting, magic spitting like a firecracker and sword slicing at shadowborne flesh. Regi concentrated on finding shadowborne foolish enough to form convenient handles and yanking them off the ground. He flung them against the wall to stun them, where Hwan melted them with tight beams of light from his eyes.

A distant roar kicked up and Regi swiveled his head to find the source of it. He feared the worst: another supernatural force, something his tactic with the shadowborne couldn’t touch.

But then he saw the unmistakable pale pink paint of Cara Boss’s El Dorado on the ridge. Cara glittered with rhinestones in the front seat. She caught Regi’s eye across that distance and gave him a slow wink, accompanied by a touch of the brim of her pink ten-gallon hat.

For some reason, Regi’s heart leapt into his throat.

“Look out!” Astira cried right as she shoved him hard in the shoulder.

Regi stumbled out of the way as a brollachan enveloped the space where he had been a split second before. Astira twisted her body out of the way of the mist, and the little red eyes within burned angrily.

The firefighters were running out of material in the vicinity to burn, and the brollachan were back, incensed and bolder now. A bellow went up from behind them and suddenly Mayor Aguayo and a horde of older teenagers Regi recognized from the library rushed up, hoisting high bundles of smoking herbs.

Still, some of the brollachan managed to get a hold in corporeal forms, some human, some not. These beings writhed in agony or at worst turned on their companions with hands curled into claws. Crying, “HIYAAA! HIYAAAAAA!” as if they were hollering at cattle, Tryx and Daniel drove their horses at the possessed, herding them away from the intact fighters.

Above the commotion, a voice like a thousand voices intermingled began chanting words Regi didn’t understand. But he knew who was speaking: Cara Boss, tapping into her ancient power as a portal guardian. He shivered. She must be casting some massive spell, to project her voice across the battlefield like the anthem in a stadium.

Aza raised her head from the sticky corpse of a shadowborne and grinned. “Cara Boss has a lovely voice.”

Hwan’s ball of light flickered and the fox’s concentration turned towards the ridge on the opposite side from the pink El Dorado. “Woah—the humans!”

Lining the ridge like action figures stood a contingent of Saltbush residents, with Maria Garza and Hector Jones standing out in front with bullhorns in their hands. Maria’s students and the other folks from Hector’s retirement home clustered close behind them.

Maria raised her bullhorn. “We—we are—we see you, creatures! It is not a matter of belief but—of evidence!”

“I ain’t gonna have a lot more chances in my life to see new shit,” Hector croaked into his bullhorn, “so I ain’t lookin’ away!”

Regi had his hands tight around the thrashing appendages of a shadowborne as the words reached them. The creature noticeably shriveled and its energy waned; Regi took the opportunity to heave it hard against the ground at Hwan’s paws, where it turned to a puddle in the fox’s ambient light.

Hwan flicked an ear towards the bubbly pool of a corpse. “Huh. Direct application of belief. Wouldn’t have thought of it myself, but it’s very clever.”

A lightbulb went off in Regi’s brain. “Oh, shit. I gotta find Mac. Tira, Aza, I’ll be right back.”

He sprinted past the brollachan-possessed, who were now all lying on the ground with smoke curling from their ears and nostrils. “Drive off the shadowbo—the slimy things!” he called to Tryx and Dan as he went by. Tryx tipped her hat and spurred her horse out of the tight circle she and Dan had been forming around the possessed.

Cara’s chanting intensified as Regi kicked his way through a pile of shadowborne and found Mac on the other side, staring through the lens. The eyebrow above the lens rose sharply. “Regi!”

“Hey, kid, this way. Got somethin’ you need to get on tape.”

“It’s not tape anymore, Regi, you know that, right?” Mac said as Regi took their arm firmly and power-walked them across the dusty gravel.

“Shut up. Look.” Regi gently palmed Mac’s head and pointed their gaze to the humans on the ridge. “As soon as they started that up, the creatures that came through the portal got weaker. That’s what you need to broadcast to the world.”

Mac made some adjustments on their camera. “You got it, Reg.”

An epic guitar riff echoed out of nowhere off the station. In Regi’s mind, his wolf ears swiveled towards the sound.

“Trace!” Mac cried with delight. “They’re gonna play us a battle anthem!”

There was no other name for the power ballad Trace’s Telecaster pushed through the same portable speakers at the solstice party. Regi could feel his heart swelling and imagined the same must be happening to every Saltbush resident in the shimmering valley. It made him feel like he was in a movie, watching this all happen cinematically.

He registered an aching fear, an absence where something he treasured would usually be. He wanted to be beside Tira, protecting her back. Making sure she was alright. That was all he cared about, really. The details of it all—they could be worked out, for better or worse. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, in this fight or at all.

As if somehow sensing Regi’s resolve, Trace’s song changed pace, transitioning from the driving chords to a swelling solo. Listening to the cues of his body and the music, Regi spun around and ran full tilt to Astira.

The long moment slowed to fragments rushing past his senses:

A chestnut and a silver horse rearing and kicking at a squirming mass of shadowborne, their riders whooping.

Hwan’s light flashing brightly as he leapt into the air and spun in a cloud of billowing tails.

The sizzling smell of dying foliage as a domed curtain of hot energy bubbled out from Cara Boss’s El Dorado, containing the entire battle.

The proclamations of faith from the ridge, growing in confidence and intensity.

A glimpse of bright blue hair as Mac and their camera swiveled around deflating shadowborne.

A pirouette of sunlight off rhinestones as Cara Boss stood up tall on the El Dorado’s seat, her hands raised over her head.

Mist lifting as weakened brollachan drifted towards Olde Saltbush Station.

And then…

Just like the first time a portal had slammed shut, it happened with a sound like icebergs collapsing or a canyon crumbling: a wash of shadowborne mass, oozing from every crack in Olde Elgin Station. Wherever the black goo touched the ground, a blob rose up, ready to devour with the mouths forming divots in its thick flesh. Saltbush residents screamed as shadowborne clamped down on their limbs and exposed flesh. Souls wailed as they were replaced by eager brollachan.

Then the roof blew off Olde Elgin Station.

Reinforcing beams groaned and strained. Nails shrieked as they grated against one another. And above the prairie, four wicked, curling horns and a face like the skull of a cow rose to stare pitilessly at the carnage below.

The monster was the size of a small office tower. The skull’s jaw went slack, revealing smoke and fangs as deadly sharp as Aza’s.

Astira’s voice rose up, shrill and powerful above the thunder the monster’s presence: “Gods above, it is Ao Yin!”

Regi’s stomach seized and he stumbled. His mind’s eye burned with visions of Tira succumbing to the brollachan’s touch or the shadowborne’s bite or a slash of this Ao Yin’s wicked claws.

He doubled his speed.

Ao Yin’s massive arm whistled through the air and smashed down where Regi had been a split second before. Stumbling in the force of the resulting wind, Regi threw his hands out in front of him and fell forward. A rock drove into his palm and he cried out.

He broke the sound off as other screams rose up—real screams, screams of mortal terror.

Ao Yin reared back and flung a handful of shadowborne at the people on the ridge. Most of them fell back and managed to snatch torches out of the bonfire to defend themselves, but Willow was unlucky. A shadowborne hit her squarely in the chest and latched into her throat before she could react.

Regi gasped, his own pain forgotten.

He rolled onto all fours, then pushed up into a run, praying to every god he could think of to give him time.

He rounded the side of the station and came face to face with Tira.

Her eyes were wild, her smile wilder. She moved into him, pressing her body to his, her cheek brushing against his so her lips could reach his ear.

“Trust me, Regi. Let go.”

And then she leapt towards Ao Yin, sword gripped in both hands, a banshee wail tearing from her throat.

Time froze. The blood pounded behind Regi’s eyes and he bit back a scream of Astira’s name. A few milliseconds passed in slow motion: Astira rose, Ao Yin turned, Hwan bayed.

Ao Yin reached for Astira, vicious talons extended.

Regi’s blood hummed and he leapt without thought. He changed and stretched as he flew through the air. When he landed with his claws extended to sink into Ao Yin’s furry arm, he was fully wolfman.

His instincts had completely taken over. He drove his fangs into the massive monster’s flesh, wanting to recoil at the bitter, moldy flavor of Ao Yin’s coat.

Ao Yin roared, a thunderous sound that shook the prairie. It began pulling itself free of the station. With a flick of its arm, it sent Regi flying.

Regi twisted in the air and landed heavily on all four paws, bringing his head up to snarl at Ao Yin. But the monster’s attention had been drawn to the two horses charging its feet, Tryx and Dan dancing their nervous mounts out of the way of the slashing claws.

All at once, the moment caught up with Regi. His chest heaved and his vision filled with red. He leaned forward heavily to catch his breath, then raised his head and scented for Astira.

The soft smell of her, heavily tainted by the presence of blood and sweat, drifted to him from the station. Regi craned his neck until he could see Astira perched on the corner of the roof. Her sword jutted off the edge beside her, and her tunic top fluttered in the hot wind.

Regi barked. Astira looked down sharply, then grinned.

“I knew you could do it.”

He stared up at her. “You did that on purpose.”

“I have faith in you, Regi Nardelle,” Astira said, then, “Shit! Look out!”

She dove off the roof at Regi and they rolled away from the station in a dusty ball. Something massive crashed into the station, followed by a horrendous groan of metal and wood as a rusty pickup truck leaned over the corner of the building where it had landed.

His extremities humming with adrenaline, Regi stared in awe at Merle, on the ridge with a small parking lot’s worth of worn-down cars behind her.

There was no mistaking Merle for anything but an ogre, towering head and shoulders above the humans scurrying to drive the cars close enough for her to lift them over her head and fling them at Ao Yin. She picked up a crunched Accord and swung it like a shotput.

Someone skidded to a stop beside Regi and Astira. Mac’s blue head bobbled as they pulled their eye from the camera. Regi assessed the kid: their exhaustion was evident, as was their fear, but that determined set to their jaw remained.

“Holy shit, dude,” they said as they made eye contact with Regi.

“Holy shit indeed,” he said, nudging Tira’s arm. “You gave this thing a name. What is Ao Yin?”

“I meant your wolfman form,” Mac said, but Tira spoke over them.

“Ao Yin is one of the fearsome beasts of Chinese mythology,” Tira said grimly. “Its cruelty was so great that the ancients imprisoned it with deep magic. I learned of Ao Yin and the other fearsome ones from my grandmother. She called its place of imprisonment, ‘the space it cannot leave.’”

Cara Boss’s thousand voices and Trace’s formidable guitar licks wound around each other, contrasted against Ao Yin’s terrible roaring.

“Clearly it has left that space,” Regi said, tossing a look at the monster. Ao Yin was moving slowly towards the ridge, shuffling like it was auditioning for the part of Godzilla. It dropped its head low and swung its curled horns, scattering the people on the ridge.

“We must drive it back into the portal.” Tira’s knuckles paled on the hilt of her sword. “It must return to its prison.”

Regi groaned. “There has to be another way.”

“There is not.”

“Tira—”

“There is not,” she said, swinging on him with a fierce stare, “and I need your help. Now.”

The roar of battle rattling in Regi’s skull faded away as his love for this woman filled his senses. He rolled his broad shoulders and tipped his ears forward.

“Lead the way.”

Tira gave him a look that would move mountains, and then she whistled for Hwan and charged at Ao Yin.

A small rusted Toyota truck whistled towards Ao Yin’s skull. It flicked its arm up and batted the vehicle back. The truck tumbled end over end across the ground and up to the top of the ridge before it lost its momentum, cutting down everything in its path.

Including Daniel Fisk’s chestnut stallion and the aid truck.

Even as he kept his speed and trajectory behind Tira, Regi’s horrified gaze remained locked on the familiar crushed bodies lying side by side next to the fallen horse and the crumpled trucks. He caught no details at this distance, but Regi thought he saw Darla reach out and take Dan’s hand before they both fell still.

Regi choked on a sob. Beside him, Hwan wailed, a haunting sound that twined with the chanting and the guitar.

Regi turned to touch noses with the fox. Warmth passed between the canids and Regi bounded with new strength.

He came up alongside Tira and they matched their strides, reaching Ao Yin at the same time. Astira vaulted into the air and Regi braced himself. She drove her boots into his shoulders and sprang high enough to land on Ao Yin’s shoulder.

Regi snarled and began to climb the monster.

Trace struck a loud, reverberating car.

A Ford Focus struck Ao Yin on the side of the head, gouging a chunk out of the monster’s skull and sending bone fragments flying.

The El Dorado’s engine revved like an ancient monster awakening from slumber.

A sludgy limb gripped Regi’s leg and pulled him down, hard. He almost lost his grip in Ao Yin’s thick, fur-encrusted skin but managed to hang on by three claws. Kicking at the shadowborne, Regi twisted away and kept climbing.

Tira balanced on the back of Ao Yin’s neck, slashing at the bone and horn, but few of her blows seemed to land. The monster reached up to try and dislodge her, but she ducked around to the other side of its head, out of Regi’s sight. He growled and lunged, finding purchase on Ao Yin’s furry shoulder.

Regi rose up, threw back his head, and released a howl that came from the pit of his stomach.

Ao Yin froze for a split second. Its breath rattled in its chest like an old furnace. Then it turned an empty eye socket on its shoulder.

Regi stared into the void.

It was death. It was infinity. It was the end of all things.

The El Dorado roared, and so did Cara Boss: “REGI! TIRA! CLEAR THE WAY!”

She and her car flew off the ridge, straight at Ao Yin, a streak of pink and shimmer. The curtain of magic followed, tightening around its epicenter, the bedazzled fairy godmother. She let go of the wheel and threw up her hands, and the curtain crackled with electric power.

Regi took three massive steps, crossing Ao Yin’s back with the first two and clearing the monster’s left shoulder with the third. Somehow, he got his arm around Tira’s waist and she threw herself into him, adding her momentum to his.

He realized his weight would crush her.

So he threw his other arm around Tira’s middle and wrapped around her, then curled them both inward. His back and shoulder took the impact as they hit a pile of gravel and slid to a stop.

Through the haze of pain and dust, Regi watched as Cara Boss’s El Dorado landed on the bridge of Ao Yin’s skull and Cara Boss launched herself out of it with her shotgun Retribution in her hands. She landed with impossible precision on the soles of her pink leather boots on the crown of Ao Yin’s head and unloaded her shotgun into the skull as the El Dorado crashed into the dirt.

There was no sound.

All sound had vanished.

Regi stared in disbelief as the curtain of magic tightened like a black hole that passed right through him. As the field shrank to stick like a second skin on Ao Yin and Cara Boss, the sound came rushing back, and once again Regi’s ears were filled with the song of the prairie wind and the sleepy crickets.

Within Cara Boss’s magical net, Ao Yin thrashed as she put round after round of shot into its skull. Its claws pierced the veil but it held, sealing itself where the monster tore it.

Ao Yin took a slow, hesitating step backwards. Then another.

Cara Boss’s ears rang in Regi’s ears, though she was now sealed behind her own spell. CLEAR THE WAY!

He knew what they had to do.

“Tira,” he murmured in her ear. He still held her close, and she hadn’t moved. But she was warm and breathing. “Tira, one more time. We gotta fight one more time.”

She must have been dazed, because she rolled over without leaving his makeshift embrace, as if they were curled up in bed and it was 2 AM. “Five more minutes.”

Regi melted. He nuzzled right above her ear, wishing for his lips. “We have to go. You and me.” With a gentleness that belied the urgency of the moment, he raised her head up.

Her eyes fluttered open and she managed a weak smile. “As it should be.”

Relief washed through Regi and he rested his chin on the top of her head. “I thought I’d lost you.” He didn’t mean the battle.

“I am right here.” She wrapped her hands around his middle and squeezed. “You must stop believing I will go, or one day you will look around and I will be gone.”

The ground shook as if to remind them that Ao Yin was shuffling towards them. Regi leapt up and helped Tira to her feet. She retrieved her sword just as Hwan bounded up, frantically licking her face.

“She’s alright, Hwan, let’s go,” Regi said urgently. “We gotta get everyone out of the way between here and the station. Cara’s got somethin’ up her sleeve.”

Tira squeezed his hand and then took off to the right side of the building with Hwan at her heels. His heart in his throat, Regi went the other way. As he neared skirmishing Saltbush residents, he called out, “Get away from the station! Go on, get!”

People scattered, followed by dogged shadowborne and brollachan emboldened by Ao Yin’s brutal attack. Regi hacked at a few with claws and teeth, but let most of them go, because Cara Boss was driving Ao Yin faster and faster back towards the station.

Then Regi was around the building, sprinting towards Tira and Hwan. The trio fanned out in a line away from the station, only daring to look back when they were a field’s length away.

Ao Yin leaned hard against the front of the station. Sparks traveled along the magical skin clinging to the monster and Cara Boss, and then the curtain fizzled and disappeared. The hot air tore apart with the anger in Ao Yin’s roar and it clawed at its skull.

Cara Boss took a blow to her forehead. She fell to her knees, coughing.

Regi’s feet stopped moving. He turned around, his nerves screaming at him to escape, his heart screaming at him to go back, fight for Cara.

Cara raised her head and looked him straight in the eye. Her eyebrows twitched and the corner of her mouth quirked in a smile.

Regi heard her words, plain as if she’d said them: Don’t you dare come back for an old woman, you dumb kid.

Then Cara screamed.

The thousand voices screamed with her. Trace wrenched a harmonizing note out of their guitar.

A perfect oval of haunting blue light appeared in the center of Olde Saltbush Station. It grew fast, engulfing the building and then Ao Yin and Cara Boss. Inside the oval, hints of another world flickered and fluttered, lights and shadows playing tricks on the brain. Regi knew he was looking into the fabric between the worlds, where the shadowborne grew like mold.

Cara’s scream rose in pitch and intensity until the portal was large enough to swallow everything it touched.

Ao Yin writhed, trying to dislodge Cara, but her hands were locked to its skull. Then the monster began to shrink, collapsing on itself. Shadowborne and brollachan scrabbled in vain as the portal sucked them in too.

Regi stared in horror and awe as Cara, unrelentingly joined to Ao Yin, aged visibly. As the light in the portal flickered, so did the life in Cara’s now-ancient eyes. She looked as old as she was. She raised those sunken eyes to Regi one final time, and her lips puckered in a smile.

Her whisper came to Regi on the wind: “So long, y’all.”

Regi fought back tears.

The portal shrank rapidly. Shadowborne and brollachan winked away, one by one. Ao Yin shrank until it was the size of a large bear, a tiny Cara Boss still clinging to its skull.

Smaller. Smaller. The portal was hardly big enough to see now. A cheer went up from the weary Saltbush contingent. Trace let their song trail away.

In the relative quiet, Regi howled, pouring his grief into the sound.

Then the portal wobbled, widened again to the size of a human. Two stumbled through, and the light winked away.

Ao Yin was gone.

Cara Boss was gone.

The two figures who had come through the portal stood up on shaky legs. Regi’s chest was tight, but he walked towards them, determined to meet the last two people Cara Boss had given her life for.

As he walked, he shed his wolfman form and slipped without hesitation back into his human skin.

Both the people were dressed in simple shirts and pants, but when they raised their faces, Regi recognized the older one instantly.

“Ming,” he said breathlessly, the realization slamming into him: Saltbush’s guardian was gone, dead, wiped away. Another of the four guardians kneeled here, looking like a refugee. Ao Yin… the shadowborne, the brollachan… Everything pointed to the Xi’an portal closing.

When Ming looked into his eyes, Regi knew that everything he feared was true.

***

The conference room was so full the poor air conditioner wheezed just to bring it from sauna to high noon. Notably, three council seats sat unfilled; it was only a few days since the showdown at the solstice.

Regi’s head throbbed, but he down some more ice water and ignored it. Tonight’s meeting was too important to be distracted by such petty things as his corporeal form.

Mayor Aguayo, heavy bags under his eyes, rose and put his hands together. “I call the town council meeting of Saltbush to order at 7:34 PM on Wednesday, June eighteenth, twenty twenty-one. Quorum is… met. Everybody who can be here, is.” He looked at each of the council members in turn as he spoke. “Let’s get right to it. We’re here to discuss the aid package. It deposits tomorrow. Safe to say we’re going to scrap the plans we made before, eh? What now?”

Regi stood up. “I say we start with the damage. Then start shoring up for the fall equinox.” He quickly sat back down, warming.

But Aguayo nodded. “I agree. I would love to hear some debate though.”

Silence around the room as everyone peered at each other.

Aguayo’s eyebrows rose. “No one objects?”

Heads shook.

Mac spoke up meekly. “I think we all got close enough to death last week, we know to take it seriously. I’d like to offer half my month’s ad revenue to add to the funds.”

Aguayo’s eyebrows looked like they would fly off his face. “Work with Tryx on getting that donation squared away, if you please. And thank you, Mac. But—don’t give us too much of it either. You must make sure you are raising the faith of the world with your videos. It may be all that stands between us and the end of the world.”

Mac’s beaming grin outshone the moon. “Happy to help, sir.”

Regi reached his arm around on the back of Mac’s chair and chuckled. The kid was one of two things—fine, three, you happy, Hwan?—that never failed to make Regi smile.

Aguayo closed the discussion period for the aid package, then asked the young woman to his right, “Jingyi, how is your grandmother?”

Regi, and everyone else, leaned forward to hear Pei Jingyi speak.

“She inhaled some dangerous vapors on our way through the portal, but the healer says she will recover fully. Xiè xiè.”

Jingyi leaned back in her chair, folding her arms and her legs. She’d slicked her spiky black hair up in contrast with her sweet, earnest expression. Even with all eyes on her, she remained calm, showing no signs of the distress she’d been under a few nights before.

“There is the matter of appointing a temporary guardian for the Saltbush portal,” Aguayo said gently. “Are you ready for such a responsibility?”

Under the table, Regi slid his index finger from a nail to a claw and back again. The transitions came almost effortlessly now.

“My grandmother has trained me well,” Jingyi said. “I am not ready to do it on my own, but she is here with me. I will manage.”

“Then welcome to Saltbush, ma’am,” Aguayo said, extending one of his large hands to Jingyi, “and we thank you for your help.”

A cheer rose up from the assembled crowd, even those pushing in through the packed doorway.

Regi jumped at the sound, but his heart warmed at the sight, even if the fire department would have something to say about it.

His heart sank. The fire department was a somber place without Darla.

But her death, nor Willow’s nor Dan’s, had not been in vain. Everyone in Saltbush believed now, and Jingyi and Ming agreed that faith was probably enough to keep the town free of shadowborne or their ilk until the repairs and shoring up were complete. After that, well, the plan was to make sure Mac had plenty of access to Below townsfolk for interviews and vignette videos, to raise the faith of the world as much as they could before the equinox in less than three months. Together.

A hand reached around and squeezed his side gently. He dropped his hand over Tira’s and closed his eyes, taking in a deep, grateful breath.

Together.

***

Tune in at the fall equinox to find out what happens next to the little town of Saltbush, Texas, in the expert hands of Jill!

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