The Underworld was never anything less than dank and gloomy. In all honesty, Phoebe would likely have resented it even if it had been brightly lit and colourful, but she wasn’t in much of a mood to be charitable or honest. Not when she was trapped there, with no possible hope of getting to her sisters, who were almost certainly dead already anyway.
She couldn’t know that, she wanted to hope that some how, some way, they’d survived, but the environment didn’t exactly lend itself to positive thinking. Neither did the fact that she’d been outmanoeuvred. She’d convinced Cole to make that deal with the Source, to wind back time in the hopes of giving her sisters a chance to survive, and she hadn’t even thought what they were going to do when the Source inevitably tried to stop them from helping her sisters.
Leo had tried to orb out, to go to the aid of his wife, and bounced back off some magical shield. Cole’s shimmer had likewise been stopped, and so had Phoebe’s spells. She’d tried transport spells, message spells, summoning spells, spells of her own invention. They’d all failed.
And then, of course, the Source had come. Cole’s caves had been protected, but not against him. No demon could fully guard against the Source, only light magic could manage that, he’d explained when Phoebe had barely been listening. She’d been useless with fear, and Leo had been out of his mind with panic, and Cole had taken an energy ball to the side to buy himself enough time to grab them both and shimmer to another part of the Underworld.
Phoebe looked up at the sound of her name, and saw Cole, pale with pain but standing straight and tall as he looked down at her. Somewhere, in a distant corner of her mind, Phoebe thought she might feel an impulse to match him, to stand tall and raise her chin even though it was all a lie, but… it was a very far away thought, and even if she entertained the idea, her limbs just wouldn’t respond. She looked away again, and heard Cole sigh.
There was movement in her peripheral vision; Cole had crouched down beside her, elbows braced on his knees, fingers laced together between them and thumbs tapping against each other. A nervous tic she only saw when he was trying to work out how to say something he knew she didn’t want to hear. “You’re still hurt,” Phoebe said, instead of giving him a chance to speak first and dictate the topic of conversation, “you should be resting.”
Cole quirked an eyebrow at her, unimpressed. “Leo healed my human half, I’m fine.”
“Your human half.” Phoebe shot back, and it felt so good to direct her frustration at something she could actually do something about. “Sit down before you fall down, Cole.”
Now Cole’s other eyebrow jumped to join it’s twin half way up his forehead. Then he sighed again and closed his eyes, expression contorting with pain that Phoebe was pretty sure wasn’t coming from the wound on his side. “I’ll sit down if you stand up.” He offered.
Phoebe stared at him, wondering what the hell that was supposed to accomplish. “Are you… Is that a bribe, or a threat? I can’t actually tell.” She snapped, knowing that whichever it was, she was offended either way. “And what good would me standing around do, anyway? I’ve done enough of that lately, thank you, so what does it matter if I do fuck all sitting down or standing up, it’s not going to save-” Phoebe cut herself off before her voice failed her and she burst into tears.
“No, but it might save you.” Cole pressed on relentlessly.
“So what?!” Phoebe burst out, and immediately regretted it, when Cole flinched. “I-” She began, then stopped in surprise when Cole held up a hand for silence. He was glaring at her.
“Do not.” He began, hard and unyielding. “Apologise for saying that unless you mean it.”
Phoebe gaped at him. Cole didn’t relent or change his mind or add a caveat. He just watched her, with eyes that looked like there was more Belthazor behind them than Cole Turner. Slowly, she turned the idea over in her mind, and realised that, in all honesty, she wasn’t sorry. She was sorry she’d hurt him, but she didn’t want to take it back. She didn’t mean the words any less, even knowing that Cole would be devastated if she’d died along with her sisters.
“Okay.” Phoebe whispered to her knees.
To her complete surprise, Cole smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile, but there was something oddly welcoming in it. Like he was inviting her to share in a mean joke. “Thank you.”
That startled a laugh out of her. It wasn’t a very healthy laugh, and it soon dissolved into great heaving sobs that hurt every time she tried to get enough breath for the next one. Warm arms wrapped around her, and she was pulled against a solid, familiar chest. That hurt, too, because as much as she loved Cole, what she really wanted right now was her sisters.
Phoebe wasn’t sure how long she sat there crying, but it felt like a very long time. She wasn’t even finished, still feeling so desperately hollowed out and alone, when Leo strode up to them, jaw set and eyes hollow. “Someone’s coming.” He said shortly.
Cole nodded, his chin bumping against the top of her head, then reached out and caught hold of Leo’s shin. The whole world went wobbly and hazy, and when it came back into focus, Phoebe found herself sitting in a different dark and barren cave. She didn’t have the energy to start crying again, but damned if she didn’t want to. She let her head fall onto Cole’s shoulder, not caring whether he wanted to move or not. If he did, she’d probably just fall over right there on the cave floor.
There was an echo of Grams in the back of her head, chiding her for being so pathetic, but all it did was remind Phoebe of another loss. Perhaps not to demons, but still. There was just so much death in their family, and it wasn’t going to stop. Phoebe was the last Halliwell left, and if it hadn’t been for Cole, she probably would have let the Source kill her, because she didn’t see much point in living anymore.
The first sign of attack came when a fire-ball exploded against the cave wall mere inches from Phoebe’s shoulder. Instinct had her moving, flinging herself into Cole and shoving them both down onto the ground, before her current apathy could muffle the impulse. Cole turned the motion into a roll, tucking her beneath him as he lifted his head with a snarl on his lips and an energy-ball in the hand that wasn’t protecting the back of Phoebe’s head.
He flung the energy-ball, and Phoebe tipped her head back to see it fly at a ranged trio of demons. They all looked rather scruff, with tattered coats and lanky hair and pointed teeth, which Phoebe could see because they were all grinning nastily. The energy-ball glanced off the shoulder of one, and he roared in pain, recoiling from the hit, while his two allies returned fire. Cole rolled them again, but only one of the fire-balls hit the ground where they’d been lying. The other flew at Leo, who threw himself out of the way and behind a nearby rock formation.
“Stay down.” Cole ordered. Phoebe opened her mouth to ask what he was talking about, when he suddenly launched himself up and away and crashed into one of the demons.
“Cole!” Phoebe shouted, twisting halfway up onto her elbows to watch with her heart in her throat as he grappled with the demon, keeping him between Cole and the other two so that they couldn’t fire on him while he was distracted. Panic seized her lungs in an iron grip, and she gasped shallowly for breath over an internal mantra of desperate pleas. She couldn’t lose Cole. Lose Cole, and she really would have nothing and no one to live for.
Cole slammed an energy-ball point blank into the chest of the demon he was fighting with, and then flinched back from the hellfire that sprung up to consume the demon. The other two leapt to attack, flinging fire balls and closing in. Leo appeared from behind some rocks and jumped one of them, driving him to the floor. Phoebe stared, her mind full of static, even though she knew that she was even better equipped to fight than Leo. Leo didn’t have any offensive powers. He was a whitelighter, and they were meant to be back-up, advisors and medics only. It was the witch’s job to vanquish the demons.
But Phoebe didn’t have any offensive powers either. Hysteria crept up on her, trapping an entirely imappropriate laugh in her throat. What was she going to do, premonition the demon to death? Levitate at him? And even if she could, her last attempt to help someone fight a demon got two people killed. What if she jumped in to the fight to save Cole, and just got him killed instead? Or if she cast a spell to kill demons, and got Cole caught in the crossfire?
An energy-ball caught the other demon in the face, and he went up in hellfire like his friend. Leo scrambled off the last one as Cole approached. Standing over him, Cole summoned up one last energy-ball and slammed it straight down. The last demon shimmered out before it hit, and the energy-ball left scorch-marks all over the stone. “Damn it.” Cole swore viciously. He looked up, then around with an urgency that faded into relief and no small amount of confusion once he spotted Phoebe. “I didn’t actually expect you to listen to me.” He remarked, striding over and offering her a hand up with a strained attempt at a smile.
Phoebe tried to answer, and just couldn’t find the words. Instead, she just took his hand and let him haul her up. Once she was on her feet, she flung her arms around him and clung. “We need to go. Quickly.” Cole said, and it took Phoebe a moment to realise he wasn’t talking to her. After a moment, in which she assumed Leo had joined them, Cole shimmered out. They landed in yet another cave, and then Cole said, “Orb us somewhere.”
“What? Why?” Leo asked, and Phoebe was startled at how hoarse and rough his voice sounded.
“Because those demons must have tracked my shimmer. They might not be able to track your orbs.” Cole informed him. Leo didn’t wait for more of an argument, just orbed out and took them both with him. Another cave materialised around them after the white lights faded. Cole sighed, and some of the tension went out of him.
As the tension left him, it flowed right into Phoebe, and she choked on her next breath. “I couldn’t- I couldn’t do anything.” She gasped out. Cole made a startled noise, and his hand smoothed over her hair. Phoebe hid her face in his chest and tried not to cry again. “You were in danger, and I should have helped, but I just froze up, because what if I got you killed too?!”
“Hey, hey.” Cole interjected, gentle but insistent. “You haven’t gotten anyone killed.”
Phoebe snorted her way into ugly, bitter laughter. “I’m sorry, did you miss the part where my plan got us stuck down here while Shax murdered my sisters?!” She demanded. Leo made an agonised sound, like he’d just been stabbed, and Phoebe realised what she’d just said. It hit her with all the force of a runaway train, and she made her own choked off sobbing sound, muffled in the folds of Cole’s clothes. “I should have-”
“What? Not tried to save them?” Cole interrupted, sounding frustrated. “Phoebe…”
Phoebe pulled away from him, not wanting to hear whatever he was going to say in that too-earnest tone. She didn’t want platitudes and empty reassurances. She wanted- she wanted to rewind time and save her sisters, which was kind of hilarious, in an entirely not funny way, given that was the plan that had gotten them killed in the first place.
The air between them shivered, and Phoebe was moving before she could think. She shifted her weight back and threw herself into a roundhouse kick that caught the demon before he’d quite finished materialising. He staggered sideways, and caught an athame with his chest that had been meant for Cole. Said half-demon turned with a dramatic gesture that would have looked kind of amusing, if the sweeping spread of his arms hadn’t trailed energy-balls that blasted into the small army of demons advancing on them.
Phoebe really wished she had time to panic, but before the sight had really registered, there was already a fire-blast heading straight for her. She ducked into a roll, and came up between two demons that lashed out at her with talons that would have been more at home on an eagle. Phoebe blocked the first swipe, ducked the second, and drove an elbow into someone’s solar plexus. She swept the other demon’s feet out from under them to keep them out of the way, and then turned on the one she’d winded.
She punched them – her, she was pretty sure – square between the eyes and she reeled back hands flying up to protect her face from further abuse. Something behind Phoebe hissed, so she whirled, and saw some vaguely humanoid reptile lurching towards her far too fast to be natural. She ducked low under outstretched claws, got her shoulder into the creature’s gut, and flipped it over her head. There was a thump behind her, then a scrape of claws on rock that grated against her ears, and she turned to see the lizard thing already back on its feet and running for her again.
“Phoebe, duck!” Cole shouted, and Phoebe obeyed. A sword whistled through the air just above her head, and Phoebe kicked out behind her at where she guessed the person’s knee would be. She connected, and there was a shout, and then she had to dive out of the way before the lizard creature caught her with its claws. She twisted and dove right back in again, catching the demon – if it was a demon, maybe it was a warlock, or some other kind of evil – with the sword with a hard uppercut to the chin, and then another kick to the knee that knocked him off his feet.
She stomped on the hand that held the sword, and he dropped it with a howl. She grabbed the weapon up, unnerved by how hot the handle was to touch, but whipped around with just enough time to brace herself before the lizard creature impaled itself on the blade with the force of its momentum. It let out a horrifying shriek, gurgled up purple blood, and attempted to claw her one last time before going limp, which dragged the sword out of her hands as it collapsed.
For half a second, Phoebe just stood and breathed, trying to process what had just happened, what she felt about it, how to think clearly again. Then something very solid slammed into her, and she went down with a startled shout. She and her assailant hit the ground hard with a grunt of pain, and despite the bruises she was sure would be forming, Phoebe did her best to get an elbow or a knee into whoever had just tackled her. They wrestled across the floor of the cave for several confusing moments, and then Phoebe found herself pinned by a dark skinned woman with needle-fine teeth and eyes that were black from lid to lid. “Stop squirming, witch.” The demon snarled, struggling to keep hold of Phoebe’s wrists. “The Source wants the pleasure of killing you himself, but he’ll accept your head if it’s the only part of you I retrieve.”
Something in Phoebe went deadly cold at that. She echoed it on the outside by going perfectly still, which made the demon crow in triumph. Phoebe barely heard it. All she could hear was a strange, distant whistling. The Source wanted to kill her himself, did he? Distantly, she thought she ought to be afraid. After all, that evil bastard had already killed two out of three, and Phoebe was the youngest. The weakest. She wouldn’t stand a chance.
Did it matter, if she didn’t? She might die, but did she care? Her body was still running on desperate, cell-deep survival instincts, but she didn’t think it would bother her too much if she died. And wouldn’t it be better to die in a blaze of glory, doing everything she could to kill the evil son of a bitch instead of lying down to die because she was just too sad to save herself?
She could hear Grams again, but this time, she sounded smug, almost proud, instead of chiding. That’s the spirit, girl. Give ‘em hell. Phoebe twisted suddenly, taking the demon entirely off guard and goetting a knee up into her gut. She wheezed, and let go of Phoebe’s wrists. She immediately brought her hands up, a memory so clear she might have called it a premonition flashing through her mind; one of Belthazor doing this to one of the bounty hunters that had come after him for killing the Triad. She put her hands exactly where he’d put his, bared her teeth just the way he had, and wrenched the demon’s head sideways with as much force as she could. Belthazor was stronger than her, but just like then, there was a sickening crack, and the demon went limp.
Phoebe kicked the corpse off her just before the hellfire leapt up to consume it, and rocked back onto her shoulders to flip back up onto her feet, hands up and finally feeling present in the fight. She had trained herself to fight because she didn’t have any active powers, and if she couldn’t explode the demons, or move their own fire-balls back into their faces, then she would use her bare hands to kill them. Those were weapons she could use.
Another demon came at her, and she ducked their wild charge, caught their arm, and used their momentum to swing them around until they slammed face-first into the cave wall. There was a crunch, and they collapsed, wailing. Phoebe dropped to snap their neck, too, and then she was up again, looking for her next opponent. An athame flew through the air, and although she whipped her head to the side to avoid it, it still sliced open her cheek. Blood trickled, hot and wet, down her cheek, but she ignored it in favour of finding the demon that had thrown the weapon.
Before she could, a familiar voice shouting in pain caught her attention, and her head snapped up, searching out where the sound had come from. There, across the cave, Leo had been backed up against the wall by a great brute of a demon, all bulging muscles and coiled horns protruding from his forehead. Leo was bent double, one arm wrapped protectively around his stomach, looking up at the demon with an expression of resigned acceptance. Phoebe wanted to go over and help, but there were at least half a dozen demons between them and she wouldn’t get through them all before Leo was really badly hurt.
She was pretty sure the thing couldn’t actually kill him, he was a whitelighter, after all, but he was their healer, and they’d all be in trouble if he went down. Not to mention, with him cut off from Up There, Phoebe wasn’t sure if that immortality would last, and she didn’t want to take the risk. A flash of light in the corner of her eye had her ducking, and a dart of fire zipped over her head. Another demon lunged in from her other side, and she spun out of the way as fast as she could. Not fast enough, because they still rammed into her side hard enough to make her stagger, but their momentum took them further than they intended since they hadn’t crashed into her and there was a metallic clang as they tripped over something lying in a puddle of black goo that was slowly seeping into the floor.
Phoebe looked down, and saw the sword that she’d used to kill the lizard monster.
Inspiration lit her up from the inside, and she dove after the stumbling demon, giving them a swift knee to the kidneys to keep them down while she plunged her hand into dead lizard-demon muck – ew – and pulled the sword free. She rose up, sword in hand, and located Leo again. The demon had him by the neck now, hoisted off the floor and turning red over the massive fist clenched around his throat.
Phoebe took a moment to pray – although what powers she thought might hold sway down here that would ever look favourably on her, she didn’t know – aimed, and threw. The sword spun through the air, and hit the demon hilt-first in the back of the head. Which at least made it drop Leo, but it wasn’t exactly the effect she’d been aiming for.
It turned and glared at her with eyes like molten lava, and Phoebe recoiled despite herself. A snarl rippled across its lips and it took one menacing step towards her. Then a sword tip sprouted from its chest, and it jolted, seized, and burst into flame. As it dissolved into ash, it revealed Leo, face twisted into a vicious sneer, sword in hand. The hatred on his face softened as he met Phoebe’s gaze, and he saluted her with the sword, before turning and swinging it at another demon.
Well. He would probably make better use of it, Phoebe decided. After all, being a healer, he might flinch at killing things with his bare hands, but Phoebe, on thinking back to the feel of a demon’s neck snapping under her fingers, mostly only felt satisfied.
Searing pain knocked her out of her thoughts, and she cried out in pain, hand coming up automatically to cover the new wound on her shoulder. There was a burn the size of a fist seared into the meat of her shoulder. She looked around, searching for the culprit, but there were still too many demons. Less than before, and that thought made her feel pretty damn proud, but still over a dozen, and at least four were glaring, growling, or snarling in her direction. Another three were trying to box Leo in again, although they were having less success now that he was armed, while the remaining five were trading fire and energy blasts with a very pale and strained looking Cole.
Fury stole over Phoebe and sharpened her every sense. Her mind raced, and impatience turned to intent as she hastily scrambled for a spell that might work. “Before me stands a mindless hoard,” She began, and immediately two of the demons howled and flung fire-balls at her. She dodged, but didn’t let her cobbled-together spell falter. “A dozen beasts of darkness pure,” Another attack, which drove Phoebe back far enough that she hit a wall. “Let hellfire be their last reward,” More fire blazed towards her, and Phoebe ducked, hunkering down as she shouted the last line with no small amount of desperation. “While those with souls my wrath endure.”
Simultaneously, twelve vanquishing fires erupted across the cave. Phoebe uncurled enough to watch her handiwork, and then she scrambled upright to check that her caveats had worked and Cole had survived. He met her gaze across the inferno of the demon’s death throes, and smiled, helplessly proud. Phoebe sighed in relief, and, as the fires died, pushed away from the wall to run at him and hug him tight. “That was a good spell.” He complimented, then pressed a kiss to the side of her head. “Glad you decided to stand up and fight.”
Phoebe nodded, then released him to look around and check on Leo. He was standing there with the sword still held loosely in his grasp, looking around as if he had no idea what to do with himself now that there was nothing to fight. Phoebe could relate to that, but now she knew where to find more demons to vent her fury against. “Leo?” She called.
He looked up, blinked slowly at her, and then seemed to jolt back to life. He dropped the sword and hurried over, hands lighting up white and reaching for Phoebe. She remembered that she’d gotten hit, and turned to give him easier access to her shoulder. “Thank you, but that wasn’t what I was going to ask.” She pointed out, trying for amused and falling somewhat short.
“Oh?” Leo asked, without any curiosity. As if he knew he was supposed to care, but just didn’t.
“I was going to ask where you learned to use a sword, actually.” Phoebe remarked.
Leo lifted his gaze from her wound, which was already almost entirely healed, to stare at her incredulously. Then he shrugged, indifferent. “You pick these things up.” He evaded. Cole looked between the two of them, then stepped away to retrieve the sword. Leo dropped his hands, letting the healing light fade, and Phoebe rolled her shoulder. Good as new.
“However you learned, if you can use it, it’ll probably be useful. I doubt that’s going to be the last bunch of bounty hunters we see.” He pointed out, holding it out hilt-first to Leo as he approached. Leo looked like he might refuse to take it, but in the end, just shrugged again and took it.
“Not just bounty hunters.” Phoebe declared, and that got both of their attention. She looked to Cole, who raised his eyebrows in question. Phoebe was pretty sure her smile wasn’t very nice at all, but it fit just right with her mood. “You were right, Cole. At least partially.”
“About what?” Cole asked, frowning now.
“Even if I helped get my sisters killed-” Leo flinched, but Phoebe ploughed on. It didn’t hurt that much anymore, it just made the well of rage in her run deeper, and she was already unsure how far down it went. “-I wasn’t the only one. The Source did this to us. To them. And I’m going to kill him for it. I’m going to start with his bounty hunters, and I’m going to work my way up until I can put my hands around his neck and break it.”
Leo and Cole stared at her. Phoebe stared right back at Cole, daring him to object. In the end though, he just smiled. “Spite is as good a reason as any to keep moving.” He acknowledged. “And I could do with a little cathartic vengeance myself. How about you, Leo?”
“I don’t think…” Leo began, and then faltered, expression crumpling into something that was trying to be a smile, but only ended up looking miserable. “I don’t think I’m supposed to.” He finished in a voice that wobbled and wavered. Then he cleared his throat. “But… but Pi-Piper… if it was her… that’s- that’s what she’d do.”
Well, that hurt. Phoebe breathed deeply through the ache in her chest, and forced herself to focus on the goal. They were going to kill the one who did this to them, and then she could worry about how much it hurt. If she wasn’t dead. “Does that mean you’re with us?” Phoebe asked, because she wanted the clarification.
“Yeah.” Leo agreed, looking down at the sword in his hand. His expression went blank, no more painful smile, no more agony, just a sort of mild indifference. “It can’t exactly make me feel worse.”
Cole snorted, and clapped Leo on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit.” He encouraged, so dry it was almost mocking. Then he tipped his head towards one of the dark tunnels branching off from their cavern. “Let’s get moving. It’ll be better to start a fight on our own terms, and not because we were snuck up on again, so we ought to clear out of here before their friends come looking for them.”
It took Phoebe several seconds to catch up, and then she groaned. “They tracked the shimmer, and they tracked the orbs, which means we have to walk.” Cole looked unrepentant, so Phoebe just started walking, putting one foot in front of the other. Cole fell into step beside her, and she could hear Leo’s footsteps behind them. When Phoebe’s thought started to take a turn towards everything she’d lost, she forced herself instead to mull over exactly what she was going to do to the Source once she found him, and discovered that while it didn’t exactly lift her mood, it certainly kept her going.
It was only after they had walked and slept, and Phoebe had woken with a feeling like she’d slept for far too long, that it occurred to her they must have been in the Underworld for days already. Cole was still sleeping, so it was Leo Phoebe settled beside to ask about it. She considered asking about the sword laid across his lap first, handle grasped loosely in his fist as if he hadn’t let go of it all night, but she decided not to in the end. It was fairly obvious why he was sitting like that, with a good line of sight to both the entrances to their chosen cave, back propped up on an uncomfortable spur of rock.
“I don’t know how long we’ve been down here.” Phoebe began, drawing idle patterns in the rock-dust carpeting this cave.
“A day and a half.” Leo informed her hollowly. “Or there about. Time is a little inconsistent between here and the mortal world, but it’s mostly parallel.” For a moment, his knuckles turned white as he clenched his hand around the hilt of his sword, but then he relaxed again, and huffed out a soft sigh, closing his eyes just long enough to regain some composure. Or apathy. Phoebe couldn’t tell.
“Do I need to worry about food?” Phoebe asked him, doodling an apple in the dust. “I’m not hungry, but I don’t know if that’s just the grief talking.” She said it coldly, clinically, because if she didn’t, she might not have been able to get the words out.
“No.” Leo assured her. “The Underworld… and Up There-” He pointed vaguely towards the ceiling with his free hand, but he wasn’t putting much effort into the gesture. “-aren’t… physical spaces. You can put physical things in them, but they’re not like the mortal world. They’re built with magic, and they’re made up of echoes and reflections of the mortal world. Your physical form is sustained by the magic of your environment, which is absorbed by the magic in you, your soul.”
Phoebe nodded. She thought she ought to be relieved that she wouldn’t have to worry about starving to death, but… it really didn’t affect her one way or the other. It was just a fact to bear in mind as she made plans. “Okay.” Leo didn’t respond to that, but that was okay. Phoebe sat with him and waited for Cole to wake up.
She hated it. The stillness, the silence. It was all too easy to slip back into apathy, and there was something about that hollow unfeeling that was so much worse than rage. Anger felt so good in comparison. She wanted something to fight, but she knew Cole was injured, and he needed his rest if he was going to heal properly. And she couldn’t lose him too, which meant not leaving him behind, and not making him fight on not enough rest.
“Did you recognise any of those demons we fought yesterday?” Phoebe asked Leo when the silence became too much to bear. Going by the tired, disbelieving look Leo levelled at her, he didn’t agree. “The lizard thing? What was that? It died when I stabbed it, but I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Leo shrugged. “Could have been a manticore.” He said carelessly, before glancing down at the sword. “If it was though, this is more than just metal.” He added, gesturing at the weapon. “Manticores are hard to kill. They’re an upper-level demonic species.”
“Probably is.” Phoebe agreed, eyeing the sword with a bit more interest.
“Almost certainly is.” Cole offered, and Phoebe looked over to see him sitting up, bleary-eyed but alert. “They knew who they were hunting, and there’s little point in bringing a sword to a fight with a whitelighter, a Charmed One, and an upper-level demon unless it’s been damned, or cursed, or imbued with some sort of evil potion.”
“An ordinary sword could kill me.” Phoebe pointed out.
Cole smiled at her, challenging and proud all in one. It drove away a little of the chill in Phoebe’s bones, and she almost managed to smile back. “Even that sword couldn’t kill you.” He pointed out, gesturing. “You stole it off them and killed them with it.”
That did get a smile out of Phoebe, but it wasn’t a very nice one. “I did, didn’t I?” She asked smugly. “Want to see if I can do it again?”
“What exactly are you thinking of?” Cole asked, leaning forwards to prop his elbows on his knees.
Feeling something that could almost have been anticipation thrumming through her, Phoebe spun herself around so that she could look at both men while she talked. “Well, that’s where I need your help. You were an upper level demon, so you must know something about what the Source is going to do now.” She spread her hands in an exaggerated shrug, inviting his input.
Cole didn’t answer for a moment, thinking carefully about what he knew. “The problem is that this isn’t like a human military. There aren’t protocols or any sort of standard procedure. Demons are, by nature, chaotic.” He smirked faintly. “Even everything the Source has done so far is… not something I would have been able to predict. The bounty hunters? Sure. But sealing the Underworld?” He shook his head. “I didn’t actually know he could do that for this long. And even if I had, I wouldn’t have thought he would.”
“Why not? It seems pretty effective to me.” Phoebe asked, glaring upwards, even though she had no idea where this magical block was, exactly, or even if it was anywhere in particular. Up was where she wanted to be and couldn’t get, so that had to be roughly where the barrier was, surely?
Cole shook his head. “If his only goal was killing us? Sure, it keeps us isolated and in a place where he can track us, more or less. But demons are rarely that focused. They spread evil, wherever and whenever they can, and they can’t do that if they’re all stuck down here with us.”
“You have a point.” Phoebe acknowledged. “So… Hey, can you try shimmering up there again? We haven’t actually- Or have you checked since that first…” She trailed off, not wanting to talk about, or even think about, that first attack in Cole’s cavern.
Instead of answering, Cole shimmered out. Except, he didn’t, quite. He turned translucent, outline wavering like Phoebe was looking at him through a heat-haze, and then something flashed with ugly black light, and Cole was thrown backwards. He landed flat on his back on the ground, wheezing, and Phoebe scrambled up to dart the few steps between them and skid to her knees beside him. “Cole?”
“Fine.” Cole assured her, waving her off. He rolled onto his side and coughed up a few wisps of smoke. Then he slumped and rested his forehead against Phoebe’s thigh. “Seal is still up.” He told her uselessly.
“Yeah, I kind of figured that much out for myself.” Phoebe replied, amused.
A warm grin unfurled across Cole’s face, half hidden against Phoebe’s jeans. “So the plan is still to kill demons?”
“Yes. One demon in particular. Do you know where he might be?” Phoebe asked.
Cole pushed himself up to sit, eyebrows raised. “Even if I did, which I don’t, how were you planning to kill the Source of All Evil?”
“I don’t know. If the demon-killing sword doesn’t work, I could always just bash his head against the rocks until he dies.” Phoebe suggested with a careless shrug. Cole gave her a hard look, to which Phoebe only rolled her eyes and shoved herself up onto her feet. “Well, if we can’t get at the Source yet, then we can at least thin out the ranks. Where do upper level demons like to hang out?”
For a moment, Phoebe thought Cole might refuse to tell her. Then he shrugged and stood beside her, dusting off his hands and offering her a vaguely sarcastic smile. “I can show you a few places. But a lot of them, you can’t shimmer in or out. If we go in, we’ll be trapped there unless we can lure them out. And you don’t have any active powers.” He reminded Phoebe.
“I can kick their asses, and I can come up with a couple of spells, I bet.” Phoebe retorted.
“These are upper level demons, Phoebe.” Cole reminded her. “Do you remember how much trouble you and your sisters had to go through to kill me? And I am not at the top of the food chain, as good as I am. Was.” He corrected as an afterthought.
Phoebe rolled her eyes, hard. “Yes, I remember, but I don’t exactly have the ingredients for a vanquishing potion down here with me, Cole! What am I supposed to do? Sit on my ass and cry?” She demanded furiously, almost afraid to let go of her anger in case she slipped back into misery.
“No, but you’re supposed to think these things through before you go charging in recklessly and get yourself killed, too!” Cole snapped. When Phoebe recoiled, he checked himself, and looked away in something like regret. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“No, don’t.” Phoebe dismissed, turning away. “Okay. I’ll- I’ll think about how to get upper level demons without a vanquishing potion, but in the meantime, what am I supposed to do? I can’t just sit here, Cole, I won’t.” She declared fiercely, looking back at Cole to make sure he understood her.
Cole nodded, smiling again. “I never expected you to. Let’s just start small, okay? There are messenger demons, vassals, weak bottom-feeders that serve upper level demons.”
“What? And bring them coffee?” Phoebe mocked.
Cole snorted, and played along. “And file their paperwork.”
“So where can we get them?” Phoebe asked, and Cole’s smile became a grin that looked alarmingly sharp. He held out a hand to her, and Phoebe took it, anticipation filling up the hollow ache in her chest. In unison, they both looked over at Leo. “Coming?” Phoebe asked hopefully.
“Why not?” Leo sighed, and climbed laboriously to his feet. Sword in one hand, he reached out with the other and took hold of Cole’s shoulder. Cole shimmered out, and when they reappeared, the cave around them had been replaced by a narrow tunnel. The rock was darker, almost black, except for streaks of rusty brown through it in places. The light was dim, the same bland illumination that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, but left deep shadows in nooks and crevices.
“Where are we?” Phoebe whispered.
“They’re sort of like a cross between servants corridors, shortcuts, and sewage tunnels.” Cole offered, voice a low murmur. “It’s where the dregs of the underworld linger, where a lot of the bottom-feeders nest, and where malicious energies from vanquished demons congeal. So watch out for poltergeists.”
“Poltergeists. Aren’t those ghosts?” Phoebe checked.
“No.” Leo interjected. “They’re concentrations of energy and magic given form. You can get different types of poltergeist depending on the type of energy. You can even get healing poltergeists in places where magical healers do a lot of work.”
“We’re not going to find those here, though.” Cole remarked, then hushed them, and pressed himself back against the wall of the tunnel. Phoebe mimicked him, trusting that he’d be better able to sense someone coming than she would.
Sure enough, a moment later, a hunched figure scurried into view carrying a large bundle. They were muttering something vaguely disgruntled under their breath, and weren’t looking where they were going, so Phoebe waited until they were only a few meters away before she moved. One high kick later, and the demon was sprawled against the tunnel wall, bundle spilling open across the floor and revealing a skull that was definitely not human.
Phoebe decided not to worry about it until she was sure the demon was down. They stirred, looking up at her with dazed eyes that abruptly widened with fear when they realised who she was. “Hi.” Phoebe chirped, wiggling her fingers.
“Would you like me to do the honours?” Cole offered, stepping up beside her.
“No, I think I’ve got this.” Phoebe replied, thinking for a moment. The demon lurched as though they were going to try and run, but Phoebe planted a foot in their chest and shoved them back down. “Evil standing in my sight, I vanquish you with all my might.” Phoebe chanted, and the demon melted with a high pitched wail. She watched it until the last iridescent blobs of goop had dissolved into the ground. “Okay, next?” She asked, turning to Cole.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “There’ll be more coming in a minute. Someone will have heard that.” He nodded towards the patch of rock where the demon had been lying.
“Good.” Phoebe declared, and she turned so that she could see both ends of the tunnel. “So, while we wait, what’s that skull?” She asked.
Cole shrugged. “Bones have power. It’s probably all that’s left of some powerful ancient evil. Some high priest probably wants to use it in a ritual. Maybe to locate you. Maybe to strip your power. Although that usually takes living power.”
“Living power?” Phoebe echoed.
“A human heart is the standard representation.” Cole offered nonchalantly. Phoebe glanced sideways at him. Catching her look, Cole just shrugged. “Could use your blood, but I don’t think they have that. Mandrake root can sometimes be used, but it would have to have been imbued with your power first, and I don’t think you’ve ever gotten a premonition off a mandrake root before.”
“Uh…” Phoebe tried to think back, but even over something that innocuous, the knowledge that she’d never see her sisters ever again, never fight evil with them, or rush to tell them about a surprise premonition, hit her hard, and she stopped thinking about it. “I don’t think so.” She stated coldly. Cole didn’t reply, and Phoebe didn’t look at him to see if she could read his thoughts on his face. Instead she studied the end of the tunnel that didn’t have her looking past him, and waited. Better to focus on killing demons than everything she’d lost. If the demons would just hurry up, everything would be great.
After an interminably long wait, Phoebe saw a shadow move on the tunnel wall right where it bent out of her sight. Wordlessly, she waved a hand at Cole and Leo and pointed. “They’re going to be on guard.” Cole whispered right in her ear. “We won’t be able to take them by surprise like the last one.”
Phoebe nodded, and readied herself, edging closer to the bend in the tunnel as quietly as she could. She’d gotten perhaps half way there when a demon poked their head around the corner, saw her, and withdrew abruptly. Phoebe flung herself forwards and around the corner, already lashing out as she took in the number and position of the demons waiting for her. It was a small group, armed with a mismatched array of athames and one or two clubs. One even appeared to have a slingshot. Some had completely black eyes, others flicked forked tongues in the air, others bared fangs in silent threat, but all of them were hunched and dirty, without any of the presence Phoebe had come to expect from demons with any real power.
She didn’t even need a spell to deal with them. She just grabbed the wrist of one of them when he tried to stab her, kneed him between the legs, then twisted his arm until he dropped the athame. She caught it, flipped it, and stabbed him with it. He went down in flames, and she moved on to the next. The one with the slingshot threw something that exploded in a cloud of foul-smelling gas, and a moment later, he fell to an energy-ball flung by Cole.
A demon lunged at her from either side, greenish gas swirling ominously around them. Phoebe was forced to back up several steps as she fended off one with her stolen knife, and kicked the other in the stomach to keep him back. The one she’d kicked recovered faster than she’d expected, and she was still grappling with the other one when she came lunging back in, aiming her club at Phoebe’s head. Phoebe jerked out of the way and swung her weight around, driving her other opponent into their ally’s path. The club connected with the demon’s skull, and he toppled to the ground, insensate but not dead, just in time for Phoebe to see Leo take the other one’s head off with a hard swing of his sword.
Dropping to one knee, Phoebe drove her stolen knife into the demon’s throat, and then flipped the knife as she came up to stab the one looming over her through the smog in the gut. They exploded into hellfire in tandem, and Phoebe looked around for the last two, if her first quick count had been accurate. It was hard to see through the smoke, and Phoebe covered her mouth with her sleeve before the urge to retch became too strong. It smelt like a restaurant’s garbage bin after a week in the midsummer sun, and it itched at her throat when she breathed too deeply.
A shape loomed at her side, and she whipped around, knife coming up before she realised it was Cole. “We should get to cleaner air.” He suggested, and Phoebe just nodded and let him lead the way. They found Leo a few steps further down, leaning against the wall of the tunnel. He didn’t say a word as they passed him, but just fell into step with them. As they passed the place where they’d killed the first demon, Phoebe paused, looking down at the skull thoughtfully. “Will they be able to track that?” She asked Cole.
He shrugged. “Maybe. You could probably cleanse it even if they could.”
“I don’t have any of the herbs or incense that I’d need for a proper cleansing.” Phoebe corrected, shaking her head. Her stomach lurched, and she swallowed hard in an attempt to push down the sudden urge to throw up. That smell really was disgusting. “Well, let’s take it, anyway. If it’s powerful, we might be able to do something with it, and even if we can’t, I don’t want to let anyone else get their hands on it.” After sticking her newly acquired athame into her belt, she bent down, rewrapped the skull, and hefted it into her arms.
“You’re going to fight while carting that thing about?” Cole demanded, not looking impressed in the slightest by Phoebe’s tactical decisions.
“If we get attacked, I’ll drop it, and pick it up later.” Phoebe informed him, taking a moment to find her balance with the heavy skull in her arms before she started walking again. “Now lets go find more trouble.”
They did just that. Several tunnels and strange twists and turns later, where the air was clearer, they ran into a group of half a dozen demons. Literally. One moment Phoebe had been watching the end of the tunnel as she walked, and the next a dark blur had slammed into her and knocked her to the floor. For a moment, the whole world seemed to lurch and spin as her sense of balance struggled to right itself. The blur above her resolved itself into a demon with black eyes that looked just as startled to see her as she was to see it. She lashed out with the skull in her hands because it was the only weapon she had access to at the moment, and the demon grunted, but didn’t pause in his attempts to get his hands around Phoebe’s throat.
“Oh no you don’t!” Phoebe grunted, bucking her entire body to throw the demon off, then tossing the skull the other way. In that brief moment, she caught a glimpse of Cole and Leo both being ganged up on. Then she reached for her athame and twisted to face her own assailant. The demon was already up, and aiming a kick at her head. Phoebe hurled her torso upwards to avoid it, then stabbed the demon in the thigh, which was the best she could reach from the floor. It was clearly a non-vital wound, but the demon recoiled with a hiss of pain, and then began to shrink in on itself.
For a moment, Phoebe thought that had been enough to vanquish it, but instead, the demon shrunk down into the shape of a rat, and scurried into the shadows. Phoebe didn’t exactly like rats, but she hadn’t thought she was particularly squeamish about them until that moment. The sight of the creature vanishing into the shadows made her feel sick, her skin crawling with disgust.
Phoebe lurched to her feet, swayed momentarily, and then forced herself forwards, athame at the ready. She took one of the demons attacking Cole down with a knife in the back, which gave him the space to get another with an energy-ball. The last shrank into another rat and vanished. “Rat demons.” Cole spat, looking as disgusted as Phoebe felt.
“Figures the Underworld has a rat infestation.” Phoebe muttered, and went to help Leo with the one he was still struggling with. The other appeared to have been run through. Another demon stabbed in the back, but this time, Phoebe couldn’t quite keep the small groan of disgust back as it died. “Ugh. I feel sick.” She complained.
“You- Phoebe.” Cole growled in reprimand. “Leo, heal her.”
“From wha-? Oh, the gas.” Leo realised, and laid glowing hands on Phoebe’s forehead and stomach. The touch of his hands made Phoebe want to recoil, skin crawling, but she forced herself not to. It definitely wasn’t a normal reaction, so she probably had been poisoned.
“You need to tell us if you’re feeling odd.” Cole lectured her angrily as she waited for the healing to kick in and stop her feeling so awful. “You can’t just ignore it if you’re not feeling well, that’s how people get killed in fights like this.”
“I wasn’t ignoring it, I just didn’t realise it was anything odd until just now. Rats are gross on a good day!” Phoebe protested. Cole glared at her a moment longer, then abruptly turned and fired off two energy balls. Twin squeals of agony and two tiny bursts of hellfire told Phoebe that he’d managed to catch the two rat demons that had transformed. “Good aim.” Phoebe complimented.
“Can’t have them running back to their boss and telling them where we are.” Cole said, then turned to frown at Leo. “What’s taking so long?”
“Poisons are always a bit more complicated than wounds.” Leo gritted out, shooting Cole an irritated look. “I’m working as fast as I can.” Phoebe honestly hadn’t noticed how terrible she’d been feeling until she started to feel better. After several more minutes where Leo scowled at his hands and Cole scowled along the tunnel and Phoebe tried not to feel too impatient, Leo finally lowered his hands. “Your balance might still be upset for a few hours, but you should be fine after that.”
“We should find somewhere to lie low, then.” Cole suggested.
“What? No. I’m fine, Cole, I can keep going.” Phoebe protested. She turned and bent to pick up the skull by one of it’s horns. She felt a little dizzy as she straightened, but it was nothing she couldn’t ignore. She considered the skull for a moment. “You said they were probably going to use this in a ritual, right?” She asked Cole, who nodded resentfully. “Hmm…”
“What?” Cole asked.
“Nothing, just thinking.” Phoebe dismissed. “If nothing else, I’m sure it’ll make a good club. Let’s go.” She tossed out flippantly, and set off down the tunnel again. They started encountering a lot more turn-offs and branches, and Phoebe mostly navigated them by playing eenie-meenie-miney-mo on them. There were even stairs here and there, which Cole told her to avoid.
“Why?” Phoebe asked, the second time they ran across a set of stairs leading down.
“They’ll take you into the Underworld proper. We must be close to some hub, probably an upper-level demon’s lair, or maybe a meeting hall or market.”
“The Underworld has markets?” Phoebe asked, amused by the thought.
Cole flicked a pointed glance down to the skull she was still carrying. “We have to get our virgin’s blood and innocent souls somewhere.” He quipped, although Phoebe could tell he wasn’t actually joking. “The main demonic market is actually top-side, but it’s a lot easier to trade things like souls down here, because the ambient magic preserves them where they’d fade and move on if they lingered in the mortal world.” Phoebe shuddered at that, but kept moving.
They started encountering more demons, although they were all fairly easy to vanquish. It turned out the skull really did make an excellent weapon, as hitting demons with it seemed to both stun and horrify them in equal measure. Phoebe used her simple little vanquishing spell a couple more times, and discovered to her annoyance that it didn’t even work on all lower-level demons. Generic canon-fodder demons, yes, it could put those down, but it wouldn’t kill raptor demons, or thrull demons, or even rat demons.
That last one she discovered when they were well past the hub, and back into tunnels that could go on for ages, and they tripped into a low-ceilinged cavern where the blasted things apparently nested. She’d thought she could get them all with a quick spell, and be done, but there just wasn’t enough power behind it to squash even one of them. It made Phoebe miss Piper and her ability to just blow demons up, it made her miss Prue, and the way she could throw a demon’s fire-ball right back in their face.
And she hated these demons for reminding her, for existing when Piper and Prue were dead, and Phoebe was helpless. She laid about her with her athame, using the surprisingly sturdy skull as a shield more than a weapon now – it didn’t seem to be overly damaged by fire-balls, which was useful – and letting her hate overwhelm her grief. It was so much easier to be angry.
They were making decent, if slow, progress when all of a sudden every last rat demon went still, heads tilted up as though they were scenting the air. Then there was a flood of rats sweeping around the three of them as the rat demons inexplicably fled. Phoebe stared around her, too startled to be freaked out by the swarm of rats scurrying over each other around her.
“We should go.” Cole said urgently. He tried to take a step, and his foot nearly went out from under him as it got caught in the tide of rodents. Snarling, he blasted a patch clear with an energy-ball, and stepped forwards. It was slow going, but within a few seconds, all the rats were gone, and he ran the last few strides to Phoebe, catching her with an arm around her, and holding a hand out to Leo, who had somehow ended up all the way on the other side of the cave. He started walking over to them, but slowly as he cast a wary eye over their surroundings.
An echoing, haunting wail reverberated out of a tunnel. Leo faltered, turning to stare towards the sound, then whipped back to face them and started running. Before he could reach them, a strange amorphous thing oozed out of the tunnel. Phoebe could only stare, heart racing. It looked vaguely humanoid, sometimes, but sometimes it appeared to be moving on all fours, or slithering like a snake. It was ghostly, more solid towards the centre, but wisping at the edges like dense fog.
The whole cavern shook, Leo lost his footing and went sprawling, skidding along the floor for several feet before he scrambled up to all fours. The creature, whatever it was, seemed to be trying to expand to fill the space, and electricity began to dance around it, sheering whole chunks of rock away from the walls, and dropping stalagmites from the ceiling. Those chunks of rock wobbled, shook, and then rose up. Leo scrambled to his feet and lunged at Phoebe and Cole. The moment he touched them, he orbed them out.
A hateful shriek followed them into the non-space between places, and stabbed right through Phoebe’s head. They landed, still staggering from Leo’s impact, and the moment they had their feet under them again, Cole took them somewhere else. That somewhere was a cave of dark grey rock, the floor covered in shale and the cavern roof so far above their heads that it was lost to shadow. It was blessedly empty, and once she’d ascertained that, Phoebe allowed herself to sit on the uncomfortable shards and press her hands to her ears. “What was that?”
“Poltergeist.” Cole informed her.
“That was a poltergeist?!” Phoebe yelped, looking up at him in horror.
“I’ve never seen one that big before!” Leo exclaimed, eyes wide enough to be showing whites all round his irises.
Cole raised an eyebrow at him. “You clearly haven’t spent much time in the darker corners of the Underworld.” He remarked dryly, as though he wasn’t stating the obvious. “They can reach easily twice that size here. If they get much bigger than that, though, someone usually has to do something about them before they absorb too many of the rank and file.” He shrugged, with a slightly vicious smile. “It’s something of a sport to the really powerful upper-level demons. If you can disperse it, you can usually absorb some of the magical energy. It’s a great power-boost, if the poltergeist doesn’t kill you first.”
“Huh.” Phoebe said, looking down at the skull in her hand, smiling a little as a few ideas began to come together in her mind. They were still unformed, impractical, and not at all concise, but it was the beginnings of a plan, and that was infinitely more satisfying than where she’d been before their little jaunt into the Underworld’s underbelly. “Well, let’s rest for a bit, and then we can go hunting again.”
Time quickly became unreal to Phoebe. Without a day and a night, the sun rising and setting and rising again, she easily lost track of how much time had passed. She slept when she was tired, until she woke up, and then she went hunting demons, dragging Cole and Leo along in her wake. She’d slept three times, so she was calling it three days, but it felt so much longer than that. It felt like weeks already.
She’d amassed a small arsenal by stealing weapons off the demons she confronted. There was never anything quite as good as Leo’s magic sword, and several times she found herself holding strange metallic wands that wouldn’t do anything in her hands, but if Cole touched them, they’d shoot lightning or fire or plasma. She mostly collected athames and knives. They were fairly common among the lower-level demons, because some of them were like her, without any active powers to defend themselves.
Her clothes suffered. Leo kept healing her injuries, which she was getting less of as she got used to fighting the way she was, but it was a toss up whether her clothes would be repaired along with her flesh, and consistently sleeping on rocks had turned her white top and jacket grey really quickly. When they came across a demon with a decent leather jacket, Phoebe appropriated it before she stabbed her.
Then the bounty hunters cornered them again. They had been hunting demons for hours, aiming for those places in the magical-sewage-tunnels that Cole assured her were close to the lairs of upper-level demons who were in the Source’s confidence, and Phoebe was finally forced to admit that she was flagging. She’d been making stupid mistakes for a while, and Cole finally put his foot down. The retreated to a new, isolated little cave, which they did every ‘night’, and they lay down to sleep without any preamble.
Phoebe had just started to drift off, tucked between Cole and the wall of the cave, when there was a sudden roar of flame, and heat washed over her like a wave. Cole cried out, immediately curling around her and pressing her back against the wall. Phoebe was tempted to punch him. She was even more tempted, but somewhat less inclined, when she realised that his shout had been more than shock. His clothes were on fire. “Idiot.” Phoebe hissed, squirming out of his hold so that he could roll over onto his other side and smother the fires.
Before she even had her feet under her, a jet of fire washed over the wall of the cave within a few feet of her, and she yelped and dived out of the way as it swept through the place she’d just been standing. “Spirits of air, bank the fire, before it becomes a funeral pyre!” Phoebe shouted, and the swirling through the cave abruptly died.
“Oh, well done.” The man standing in the middle of the cave complimented. He was old, with grey hair slicked back and a short white goatee. He was flanked by two others, a bulky, short-haired woman in a very nice red leather coat with black fur trim, and a pixie-like young woman with her black hair buzzed on one side and carrying a crossbow. “The last you might be, but you’re still a Charmed One, aren’t you?”
“Always.” Phoebe snarled, drawing her favourite of the knives she’d collected. It was a nasty thing, serrated along one side, and cursed with a strength-draining spell. A cut with that, and if it wasn’t lethal, it would still incapacitate most lower-level demons within seconds. The man opened his mouth, to exchange more banter, probably, but Phoebe didn’t have any patience for that after his first horrid quip. She lunged forwards, knife leading.
The bulky woman charged her like a bull, blocking Phoebe’s access to the old man. Phoebe danced out of her way, but a bolt of lightning shooting out of the woman’s fingertips stopped her from advancing again. “Hello again, Belthazor.” The old man said, and Phoebe looked over to see Cole on his feet, fires out and a furious glare directed at the old man. “It’s been a long time.”
“Seventy years.” Cole agreed.
“Mm. I’ve never quite stopped hating you for what you did to me back then, even though I gained so much from it. Funny that, isn’t it? Which is why I was so delighted when the Source told me what my new mission was.” The old man explained, smiling beatifically as he waved his hand and conjured up more flames around Cole. This time, however, Cole was ready, and shimmered out before the fire reached him.
Phoebe didn’t get to see where he went, because the bulky woman was on top of her again, and she had to slash hastily at her hand before she could grab Phoebe’s throat. The knife caught her hand, and Phoebe had a moment to hope, but the demon just hissed, and shook her hand like the cut from the cursed knife was a particularly painful paper-cut. Then she grinned nastily at Phoebe. “That sort of thing only works on those weak enough to have no strength to spare.”
“And I suppose you’re, what? A strong-man demon?” Phoebe mocked, frustrated.
The demon gave her a look so unimpressed it bordered on disgusted. “A tracer demon, actually. But you have no idea how much power you can accumulate if you’re a good bounty hunter down here.” She lifted one foot, and stamped down hard, making the entire cave shake. Cracks spread out from her foot, and she smirked at Phoebe. Phoebe had barely a second to fling herself behind a rock formation before the electricity was arching towards her again. It hit the rocks with a crackle, and was swiftly followed by the demon herself. She brought a fist down on the rocks, and they shattered, leaving Phoebe with no cover. She scrambled away, while also desperately trying to swap her knife out before the demon reached her.
The demon powered forwards, catching Phoebe about the shoulders and tossing her into a wall. Phoebe hit it with a breathless cry, but she wasn’t the only one. The demon gave a strangled yell, clutching at her upper arm, where Phoebe had stabbed her with a blade that electrocuted anything it cut. It clearly wasn’t enough to put this demon down, but there was a tremor in her damaged hand now. Phoebe smirked into the face of the tracer demon’s glare.
Fire was still crackling ominously around them, and Phoebe could now hear the occasional twang of a crossbow. Frantically, she tried to work out how they could get out of this. She needed a spell with the power to put down this tracer demon, and clearly a simple vanquish wouldn’t work. Then they’d have to deal with the darklighter, and the old man. What a nightmare. This team had clearly been hand-picked by the Source to hunt the three of them, and kill them.
While Phoebe was trying to compose a spell in her head that might put the tracer demon down, said demon raised a hand, and shot her with a bolt of lightning. Phoebe ducked into a roll, then immediately flung herself backwards once she was on her feet to avoid a second bolt. “A storm to shake the earth and sky, a power top great for anyone to command- No, shit. A power too great for anyone to control- Oh, fuck it.” Phoebe cursed, and gave up trying to rhyme while under attack. Instead, she focused on getting close enough to the demon to cut her again.
It wasn’t working. She knew what Phoebe was doing, and was keeping her at arm’s length, fending her off with lightning. Phoebe got a little too close, close enough that her swipe with the knife caught coat but not skin, and she saw the attack coming, but didn’t have enough time to dodge. All she could do was try to move so that the blow connected with her shoulder, not her chest.
The next thing she knew, she was on the ground, her entire right side an unending sea of agony. She blinked dazedly up at the roof of the cave, wondering if it had always wobbled that alarmingly. Then her view was blocked by the tracer demon looming over, smugness radiating from her as she leaned down and grabbed Phoebe’s good arm. When she lifted, however, something in Phoebe’s other shoulder shifted in a way it really shouldn’t, pain flared white-hot and all-consuming, and Phoebe screamed.
“Phoebe!” Cole shouted, but his voice turned gravelly half way through. That should worry Phoebe, she knew it should, but she couldn’t remember why over the agony in her shoulder. Then she was falling, someone was screaming, and Phoebe tried to brace herself for impact. But she never hit the ground. Instead, huge arms caught her by the waist and around her good shoulder. It still tweaked her bad shoulder, the unexpected halt in motion jarring it, but it was mild enough that Phoebe only whimpered.
Belthazor loomed over her, his red face alien and alarming, but his eyes still held warmth and concern, not mindless rage or vicious cruelty. Phoebe attempted a smile, but had a feeling it looked more like a grimace. Then Belthazor roared. It was a sound composed half of rage, and half of pain. Clumsily, Phoebe tried to reach out, to comfort or protect or something, but her good arm was pinned to Belthazor’s chest, and trying to move her other arm sent bolts of pain radiating through her shoulder. The initial agony was fading though, and she took some comfort in that, and forced herself to think past the haze in her brain.
“You see, that’s your problem, Belthazor.” The old man remarked from somewhere out of Phoebe’s view. “You never could quite let go of that pesky little soul of yours.”
“I’m not the only one here with a soul.” Belthazor snarled. For a moment, Phoebe was confused. Of course he wasn’t. Witches and whitelighters both had souls, too. But then the old man laughed, and her fuzzy brain caught up.
“True, true.” The old man murmured, as if the whole thing was the height of quality entertainment. “But I know better than to allow mine any wiggle room. The Source watches me far more closely than he ever watched you, after all. Still, it’s why I am still alive, and why you are going to die.”
Belthazor tried to shimmer out with Phoebe, and the whole world wavered around her for a moment, before something seemed to squeeze her in a vice, and the world reasserted itself, just the same as before. “Did you really think we’d let you get away that easily?” The tracer demon demanded, and there was a crackle of electricity just before Belthazor roared again, and convulsed. His grip on Phoebe tightened to the point of pain, and then released her like she was burning. She tumbled off his lap and onto the ground, gasping at the renewed pain.
When she could focus passed the pain again, she found the old man standing over her, smiling like he was trying not to laugh at her. “Looks like your guard dog’s a bit distracted, so it’s just you and me now, my dear.” He said, and elegantly clasped his hands behind his back. With his suit and his neat appearance, it made him look like an old-fashioned gentleman.
“What are you?” Phoebe demanded, though with how breathless she was, it didn’t quite have the effect she was hoping for.
The man’s eyebrows rose, genuine surprise flashing across his face, before he smiled again. “You don’t know? I’m in that lovely book of yours, you know. Well, not myself specifically, but we firestarters are quite famous. Rare, too. There’s perhaps three a generation, if that. We’re the Source’s personal bodyguards, and occasionally, his assassins.”
Even though she knew Shax was nothing like a firestarter, the concept of an assassin belonging to the Source still made Phoebe so angry she could choke on it. Words escaped her, vanished beneath the red haze, but she wrestled with her temper until she could remember that she had a plan, she just needed a little bit more information on what she was trying to kill. “But you’re- Cole said-”
“Oh, I’m no demon. I’m as human as your lovely self, I assure you.” The old man informed her.
Phoebe couldn’t help her grin, even if it was tight with pain around the edges. “Once born of pure and cleansing fire,” She began to recite, and the firestarter’s eyes widened in shock. Then he started to laugh in disbelief.
“I understand you haven’t been practising your craft very long, but really, girl, what do you mean to accomplish?” He asked, talking over her. “One witch alone doesn’t have the power to destroy a firestarter. We’re more powerful than almost any other mortal power. The Charmed Ones, perhaps, might have stood a chance, but without your sisters, you’re nothing.”
“Now tainted by darker desire,” Phoebe pressed on through gritted teeth. If she could finish the spell, then he’d get all the comeuppance he deserved for that taunt, and then some. It just needed to be said, to go from thought to voice, to carry the magic from inside her to outside, to let it touch the rest of the world. “Your own power shall take your soul,”
At that, the firestarter stopped looking quite so amused, and Phoebe grinned, feral with pain and the victory she could taste on the tip of her tongue. “What?” The firestarter barked. “But that’s not-” He lifted a hand, but Phoebe got there first:
“For hellfires burn beyond control!”
The explosion washed over her, searing her skin and stealing the breath from her lungs, but her pain was nothing compared to the pure, vicious satisfaction sweeping through her. She opened her eyes after the initial blast to watch as the fires twisted and rippled, folding in on themselves as they consumed their own master, their source. Even over the ringing in her ears from the sudden explosion, she could hear him screaming, and the sound made her laugh, a touch of hysteria lingering in the back of her throat.
With her good arm, she pushed herself upright and looked around. As the fires dwindled, she found that the battle had come to a screeching halt, and the four others in the room were staring at her and the slowly shrinking vortex of fire in the middle of the cave in shock. Cole was back to himself, and Phoebe couldn’t tell if the lingering pink in his skin was because he’d only just transformed back, or because he’d been caught in the face by the shockwave of heat. The tracer demon had her mouth open in a silent cry, and one hand reaching out towards where the firestarter had been standing. It was burned all over and half way up her arm, sleeve singed away. On the other side of the cave, Leo was looking blessedly unlike a pincushion and, in fact, the darklighter’s bow had been cut in half, and she was now fighting with two black knives that glimmered like an oilslick.
“You-” The tracer demon stammered, turning her horrified, outraged gaze on Phoebe as the witch clambered laboriously to her feet. “How did you- You don’t have the power! You can’t have-”
“I can’t?” Phoebe echoed incredulously, baring her teeth at the demon in an expression that was more of a sneer than a grin. “I might not be ‘one of the Charmed Ones’ anymore, but I am a Warren Witch, and I most certainly can!”
The tracer demon flinched, genuine fear flashing across her face, before it twisted into a snarl of rage, and she threw herself forwards, one fist raised. Cole dove between them, flinging energy-balls to fend the tracer demon off.
Phoebe staggered backwards, out of range of the fight, and fetched up against the cave wall. It jarred her shoulder, but she found she could brace her right arm by curling her left under her forearm and gripping the elbow, and that held whatever had been broken still. She caught her breath, took a moment to make sure her other spell would probably work, and then threw it out; “By shattered earth and stolen storm, this tracer grew beyond her place. Those gifts the spirits now deform, no power left to fuel the chase.”
The tracer demon staggered, a bolt of lightning fizzling out in her palm. She stared dumbly down at her hand, which was beginning to shake, and her knees went from under her. Cole paused only long enough to regain his own balance, and then he hurled an energy-ball into her face at point-blank range. She went up in flames with only a small, dismayed whimper to mark her passing.
When Phoebe turned to consider the darklighter, she glanced quickly between her three adversaries, and made the sensible decision. She orbed out.
Good thing, too, because Phoebe hadn’t actually come up with any ideas for how to vanquish a darklighter. She didn’t want to try the old power-switching standby, and could barely remember the spell she’d need anyway, and she didn’t have any external power she could safely turn on the darklighter. She was still contemplating the problem – this probably wouldn’t be the last darklighter they faced, given that Leo was with them, and the only thing that could reliably kill a whitelighter was a darklighter – when Cole appeared in front of her. “Phoebe? Are you-” He stopped after registering the way she was holding her arm, and turned his head just a little to bark “Leo!”
“Coming.” Leo replied, and a moment later there were gentle hands on Phoebe’s shoulder. She still flinched from the touch. Carefully keeping her breathing even, Phoebe kept her eyes closed and leaned her head back against the cave wall. Healing never hurt in itself, but that didn’t mean Leo couldn’t jostle things while he was getting there. She tried to stay as relaxed as possible, to let herself move with any nudges or pokes, instead of bracing against them.
“What’s wrong? Why isn’t it working?” Cole demanded, his voice so sharp it cut through the air like a knife, and Phoebe’s eyes snapped open. She folowed Cole’s gaze down to her shoulder, and saw that Leo’s hands, while braced over her injury as though he was ready to heal, weren’t glowing. She flicked her gaze up to Leo’s face, and saw him looking poleaxed.
“I-” Leo began, then faltered, mouthing soundlessly and shaking his head. His brown furrowed in concentration, and he glared at his hands, visibly struggling, but there was no healing light. He screwed his eyes shut, as though in pain, and his head drooped. “I can’t heal.” He whispered.
“What?” Cole snapped. Leo didn’t seem to have it in him to answer, he just carefully lifted his hands off Phoebe, and backed away several steps. Cole advanced after him. “How is that even possible?!” He demanded, reaching out and grabbing hold of Leo’s shoulder to keep him from running away. He was definitely looking flighty; desperate and panicked and like he’d prefer all the tortures the Source could come up with than having to face this situation.
Phoebe took pity on him. “It is possible.” She told Cole, who rounded on her, but didn’t let go of Leo. “We’ve seen it happen before. Well, okay, it was Piper that couldn’t-” Phoebe cut herself off, agony lancing through her, which she ruthlessly ignored. “Anyway,” She continued brightly. “Yeah, it happens when a whitelighter loses touch with the source of their power.”
“And that is?” Cole pressed, but there was a resigned look in his eyes that suggested he knew exactly what it was.
Phoebe smiled grimly and shrugged her good shoulder. “Love.”
Leo flinched. He curled in on himself and wrapped his arms around his middle as though he was afraid he might come apart at the seams if he didn’t. “Well, you’re just going to have to get in touch with your inner cupid, then.” Cole snapped at him without mercy. Leo just shook his head. “Yes, damn it, Phoebe’s arm is broken by the look of it, and she needs a healer, so you’re going to pull yourself together and do whatever you need to to fix it!”
After a moment, Leo lifted his head, and Phoebe almost recoiled at the amount of venom in his glare. “Because you were so in touch with your love when you lost Phoebe!” He bit out with surprising clarity, all his words perfectly enunciated, despite the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes, and the way his shoulders were beginning to shake. “If I recall correctly, you resorted to alchemy to try to shut off your feelings when Phoebe was alive and well and just didn’t trust you! Don’t you dare tell me I have to be some sort of martyr to save your love, when mine is-” Leo’s voice finally faltered, and he gasped in a heaving breath that shook on its way back out.
“I’ll admit mine wasn’t the healthiest reaction, but you’re supposed to be the angel, here. If anyone-” Cole began.
“Cole!” Phoebe barked, before he could say anything that would drive Leo away. She was a little worried that he might just run if they attacked him like this any further, and if he left, she was terrified he might just try to kill himself. If not outright, then by biting off more than he could chew. If he was losing his healing ability, he might be losing his immortality as well. She’d already lost two sisters, she couldn’t handle losing her brother, too. She just couldn’t.
Cole turned to her, looking furious, but Phoebe held his glare, and glared right back. “It’s fine. We just have to set my arm the old-fashioned way.”
“It’s going to take weeks, maybe months, to heal if we leave it like that.” Cole protests. “And Phoebe, I know you, you’re not going to be able to sit still for that long down here.”
“Well, no, of course not.” Phoebe scoffed. “But it’s not like my punching them was vanquishing all that many demons anyway. I still have my knives and one good arm. That’ll do until I’m healed.” Cole opened his mouth to protest, but Phoebe interrupted him before he could even start. “No, Cole! If Leo can’t heal anymore, that’s fine! You didn’t complain because I couldn’t blow the demons up, so don’t complain now when it’s Leo’s turn to be handicapped!”
“That is not the same-!” Cole snarled.
“So what? You can’t change this by yelling at him! You can’t fix this, Cole! So unless you’re going to-” Phoebe almost couldn’t say the next words, but she forced them out ruthlessly. “Unless you’re going to bring Piper and Prue back from the dead, drop it, alright?!”
Cole blinked at her, stunned, but Leo made a wounded sound and ripped himself out of Cole’s grasp, backing away until his back hit the wall and he could sink down into a ball. Then he covered his face with his hands and moaned like he was being tortured, and didn’t have the energy to scream anymore. “I can’t-” Leo breathed out, so quite Phoebe almost missed it. “I can’t-” He tried again, but faltered before he could finish.
Phoebe thought she ought to go over there and comfort him, but just the thought made her feel like her chest was caving in. There wasn’t any way she could help, it was taking all of her energy just to keep herself in one piece. She didn’t have the resources to spare to hold Leo together, too. Cole was the one who had been doing that, up until now. He’d been holding them both together, really. Offering Phoebe a shoulder to lean on, and a path to vengeance. Phoebe wasn’t quite sure what Cole had offered Leo, maybe just silent companionship, maybe just understanding, but it was clear that Leo was falling apart.
“What- what’s the point ?” Leo gasped out, and huffed a small laugh that quickly became a sob. “I can’t heal - I’ve always- I- And without Pi-” He choked on her name, and curled in even tighter on himself. “If- if I can’t even h-help you, then-”
No. Phoebe was not going to let him go down that road. Not on her watch. She strode across the cave and reached out with her good hand to grab Leo’s chin and force him to look up at her. Her broken arm dangled uselessly, and she gritted her teeth against the pain. She could see tear tracks on Leo’s cheeks, more tears lining his eyes and spilling over when he blinked, and she thought idly that they made quite the pair. “You pull yourself together right now , Leo!” She snapped. “Obviously it would be great if you had the power to heal all the world’s ills and vanquish all its evil. But you don’t. And that sucks. It’s very sad. And now is so not the time to dwell on it!”
“But I-” Leo began, faltering, and trying to shake his head. Phoebe wouldn’t let him. “I’m not- There’s nothing I can do…” He trailed off helplessly.
Phoebe made sure to be very obvious and dramatic about how she was rolling her eyes. “Yes there is.” She told him in a tone that brooked no argument. “I’m going to need all hands on deck for my plan. You don’t get to drop out now.”
“Your… You have a plan?” Leo asked, quiet and almost tentative, as if he didn’t want to engage, but he couldn’t quite help his curiosity. His hope.
Phoebe smirked, inordinately pleased with herself. “I have a plan.” She confirmed. “So are you going to get up and help, or am I going to have to carry you with a broken arm?”
Leo shook his head. “You need to splint that.” He murmured, so absently Phoebe wondered if he even knew he’d said it out loud. But then he was pushing himself to his feet and distracting her by taking a deep, steadying breath and asking; “Okay, so what is your plan?”
“I think I know how I can kill the Source.” Phoebe stated. That got both Leo and Cole’s undivided attention. “External power.” She explained, and watched as Leo frowned in confusion, but Cole slowly gaped at her in awed understanding.
“That was what you did with the Firestarter. You turned his own power against him.”
“Sort of.” Phoebe hedged, grimacing. “It’s more like… Firestarters are human, right? They have souls. And while they’re born with the capacity for good or evil, the powers they get come from one side or the other, right?” Cole and Leo both nodded to confirm. “Well, given what he said about not forgiving you for what you did, and the bit about the Source watching him which was why he suppressed his soul so well… I figured Firestarters don’t get their gifts from evil.”
“They don’t.” Leo agreed, a bit dazed, clearly struggling to follow. “They’re supposed to be, well… purifiers. Their gifts are some of the most volatile, but also one of the most powerful weapons against evil, because they burn out corruption.” He stopped, blinked, and choked on the realisation.
“I just reminded his magic of it’s original purpose. He tried to burn the corruption out of himself.” Phoebe explained.
Cole was nodding now. “That’s why the Source is always so eager to collect Firestarters. If he can get them young and turn them to his side… That was genius, Phoebe.” He complimented, giving her that intense, almost desperate look that always made Phoebe feel like she could do anything.
“But the Source is evil.” Leo pointed out.
“Yes, and the exact same thing won’t work in this case, but there are other sources of power besides myself. And if I can gather enough magic from elsewhere, and channel it through the right ritual, find the right representation and symbolism… then there’s no reason I can’t kill him.” She beamed, wickedly delighted.
“I think it might work.” Cole agreed. “But I have no idea where you think you might get enough power to match the Source of All Evil.”
Phoebe may have bounced on the spot a little. Cole narrowed his eyes at her, wary, but Phoebe was too proud of her plan to be dissuaded by a little bit of suspicion. She grinned in the face of his mistrust. “Who wants to go poltergeist hunting with me?”
“What?! No! Absolutely not!”
Phoebe jerked backwards, stunned by that point-blank denial of her idea. It was risky, she could admit that, but she’d thought it was a pretty good idea, all things considered. “But you said upper-level demons did that sometimes, so it’s not impossible-”
Cole covered his eyes with one hand, as though he might be able to make reality go away by refusing to look at it. “Upper-level demons occasionally, when they’re feeling reckless and overconfident, take entire armies of cannon-fodder into the passages to flush out a poltergeist, and bait it into chasing the lower-level demons while the upper-level demons risk immolation or worse darting in to siphon off a little bit of power at a time. They don’t go in injured, with only two allies, to try and gather enough power to kill the Source!”
Phoebe raised an eyebrow at him. “But it is possible.” She guessed, although she made it sound like she already knew it was.
“Even if it was,” Cole retorted, voice going low the way it only did when he was angry beyond reason. “Even if you could get enough power to do what you’re planning, Phoebe, this is the sum of the most malicious, violent, cruel magic that ever gets used, distilled into a pure essence of malice. And, Phoebe, you’ve always been a good person. One of the best.” Cole sounded so sincere when he said that, that Phoebe flushed despite herself. “Do you have any idea what channelling that sort of vile magic could do to you?”
“If it helps me kill the Source? I don’t care, Cole.” Phoebe replied, meeting his gaze so he knew she meant every word.
“I do.” Cole replied, stepping closer and taking hold of her good arm. His other hand hovered over her injured arm, clearly wanting to touch, to hold her, but entirely unwilling to hurt her. “I care. I love you, Phoebe, and I won’t lose you, not even to yourself.”
Phoebe gritted her teeth, but couldn’t quite find it in herself to be angry at him for loving her. “Then we find a different conduit.” She decided. “Like using the tracer demon’s stolen powers against her. I didn’t need to channel them because they were already in her. So maybe we need to bait the Source into absorbing a poltergeist?” She wondered.
“That would be difficult.” Cole murmured, which was better than an outright rejection, but ultimately not very helpful. “And any other external power is going to have to go through you. You’re the witch. You have to shape it.”
“Maybe I could purify a poltergeist?” Phoebe mused. “Turn it from malicious energy into benign energy? Although I have no idea where to even start…”
“That wouldn’t work.” Leo interjected, sounding hollow and exhausted, but no longer close to a meltdown. “All things balance. You can’t turn evil good. You can put in enough good to neutralise it, invest enough love and care into something to help it grow, but if you did that with a malicious poltergeist, it would exhaust you, and all you’d get for your efforts is less energy.”
Phoebe threw her good arm in the air. She started to try the same motion with her right arm, but the moment she so much as shifted, it shot a warning bolt of pain right through her. “So, what, then?” She asked once she could unclench her jaw. “It’s not like there’s a huge abundance of good magical sources in the Underworld.”
Cole made a thoughtful sound, and Phoebe turned to pin him with a demanding stare. He almost quirked a smile. “I was just thinking, perhaps I was wrong.”
“About?” Phoebe demanded impatiently.
“You having to channel an external source. You said, earlier, that if you had the right ritual you could kill the Source. Well, what if you used a ritual to imbue a weapon with enough power to kill the Source. We’ve been using malicious magic against the demons the whole time.” He waved a hand at Leo’s sword. “If you could contain a poltergeist’s energy, and then had a spell to release it at the Source, that might work.”
“But that still has the problem of going poltergeist hunting.” Phoebe pointed out.
“Trying to lure one into a trap isn’t quite as dangerous as trying to rip bits out of it while it’s mad.” Cole pointed out dryly. Phoebe snorted her way helplessly into laughter at that, and nodded in acknowledgement.
“Okay.” Phoebe declared. “Splint first, and then we figure out how we can contain a poltergeist.” They scavenged for something that would work as a splint, and eventually resorted to sending Cole off to raid some demon’s lair for something. He came back with a plank of wood that was somewhat bloodstained at one end, which he looked rather sheepish about, and they broke it down into something that would do for the time being. Cole offered up his robe thing – under which he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, which Phoebe thought looked far better on him – to use as bandages, and Leo helped set her arm before they wrapped it. It was clumsy and awkward, but at least Phoebe’s arm hurt less now when she tried to move it. That was good enough.
Then they worked through every containment and weapon-making ritual they all knew combined, and came up with a ceremony they were fairly sure would work. It was patched together out of a few dark rituals Cole knew, a few ancient weapon enchantments Leo remembered, and one of the few rituals Phoebe could remember from the Book of Shadows for ‘harnessing great power’.
They would need several supplies that would be hard to get, down here in the underworld, but Cole was fairly sure that the incense, the blood, and the bones of a dragon would be available at a market. Of course, getting into the market was the problem. They needed disguises. A couple of raids on a lower-level demon’s nest offered them enough to chose from, although the pickings weren’t great. Phoebe tried to ignore how badly they smelled as she pulled on the rough, stained clothes. But most importantly, the jacket had a hood, which she could use to cover her face.
“Alright, we stick together, and the moment you even think someone’s made you, we shimmer out.” Cole instructed sternly. “Because if we give them time, they’ll throw up wards, and then we’ll have to fight our way through to get out.” Phoebe nodded solemnly, so Cole held out a hand, which she took. Leo grabbed Cole’s elbow, and they went.
They arrived in a shadowed corner of a bustling market, and to Phoebe’s relief, no one paid them any mind. “Come on.” Cole murmured, tucking Phoebe’s hand into his arm like she were some sort of Victorian lady. The romantic tucked away not-so-secretly in Phoebe’s heart thrilled at the gesture. Her practical side remembered to keep track of Leo as he followed close in their wake.
Cole knew his way around, so Phoebe was content to let him lead the way. They stopped at a stall selling candles and incense, and traded one of Phoebe less well enchanted daggers for a few bundles, and then moved on to a stall that stocked glass bottles of all sizes full of thick red liquid. “Is it all human?” Phoebe asked in an undertone, although she also tried to keep her tone mildly curious instead of sick and horrified.
Cole glanced at her, then shook his head. “No, there’s some animal, some demon, even. See, there?” He pointed to the glass bottles with black or green inside rather than red. “But we need human blood. Preferably an innocent’s blood.” Phoebe pursed her lips, but nodded firmly. Cole side-eyed her for a long moment. “We can come up with a different plan.” He offered.
“No, this is the best one we’ve got.” Phoebe said, shutting down the part of her that quailed at the idea of using an innocent’s blood for a ritual. Especially like this, when she was fairly sure the innocent died to provide that blood.
Cole continued to watch her a beat longer, then nodded. “Alright.” He agreed, and pushed forward to the front of the press of demons. When there was a lull, he called out his own order, and the proprietor of the stall pointed out a rather large shelf. Cole gave the old woman a hard look, and started interrogating her as to the age, condition, and origin of the various options. The woman brightened when she realised she was talking to someone who knew what they were doing, and got into a lively debate over the price of her best stock.
Phoebe tried to tune it out, lest her resolve waver. At a glance, she could tell that Leo wasn’t listening, either, because his expression was the same blank disinterest he’d been wearing since she’d kept him from having a complete meltdown, without a hint of distaste for what was going on right in front of them. But they managed to endure, and they walked away from the stall with a bottle of human blood added to their purchases.
Then they had to scour the marketplace for dragon bones. Phoebe hadn’t even known dragon’s existed until Cole had mentioned the power of their bones. “Well, they don’t anymore.” Cole informed her as they ambled. “They’ve been extinct for the last… thousand years? Eight hundred years. But there are plenty of bones around, and they’re the best in magical containment.”
“So, basically, we’re going to turn a dragon’s knucklebone into a magical bomb.” Phoebe surmised.
Cole tipped his head in agreement with a sideways smile. “More or less.”
It took them ages to find anywhere that might possibly have some dragon bones available, and in the end, it wasn’t one of the stalls that specialised in rare objects. Instead, they found exactly what they were looking for at a scraps and debris stall tucked away in a shadowed corner that no one was paying any attention to. Phoebe was the one who spotted it, and pointed it out to Cole, asking if it was what they were looking for.
It was a dirty yellow-ish awkwardly shaped lump the size of a loaf of bread. Phoebe tried to imagine the size of a creature with an ankle bone that large, and then stopped, because her brain was hurting. “How could something that large exist, and mortals still believe it’s a myth?” She asked in a whisper.
“Oh, at the time, they knew they were real, but over time they were forgotten.” Cole explained as he stepped forwards. “How much for the knucklebone?” He asked, and the stall’s minder peered up at him from under a heavy black hood through their one good eye.
“Hmm… You wouldn’t be interested in trading your soul, would you?” They asked in a voice that immediately made Phoebe think of crows and graveyards.
“Your powers then?”
“What about that lovely sword your friend is carrying?”
Cole looked thoughtful, so Phoebe jumped in with a quick “No.” Leo was already feeling useless enough. She really didn’t want to see what he would do if they took his only way to fight away as well. Cole gave her a side-ways look, caught sight of her stubborn expression, and capitulated.
“Well, then, why would I give it to you?” The stall-minder asked.
Phoebe laid out every last one of the athame’s she’d collected off the demons. “How about these?” She offered. The demon leaned forwards to consider them, tapping a few with their talons. And they were talons, not nails, serrated down the inside edge and wickedly sharp at the tip.
“Tch. You want dragonbone for those trinkets? Not likely.” The stall-minder scoffed. “Stop wasting my time, or go away.”
Phoebe and Cole looked at each other, trying to work out what their next move should be, but Phoebe was coming up blank. There wasn’t much else they had to trade, and trying to steal the knucklebone would get them sealed into this cavern with all these demons out for their blood, and most likely the Source on the way. But they couldn’t leave without the dragon bone. Their entire plan fell apart without it.
“Demons trade in blood as well as souls and power, don’t they?” Leo asked abruptly.
The stall-minder lit up, one eye gleaming with eagerness. “We do, we do! Are you offering?!” They cackled with delight, fingers flexing as though resisting the temptation to reach out and take.
“Leo, that’s not a good idea.” Cole warned. “Blood magic is powerful. With your blood, someone could-”
“What? Take away my powers? They’re already failing. Kill me? I don’t care. Track me? They’re already tracking us, this isn’t going to make it that much worse.” Leo retorted impatiently. “Do you want my blood or not?” He demanded of the stall-minder.
“Yes! One flaskful of freely-given blood, and the bone is all yours!” They crowed triumphantly, reaching across the stall. Leo offered up his arm, and the demon sliced a fairly large cut across the back of his arm, swiftly slipping a dusty glass bottle under the wound to catch the blood that immediately began to drip. Phoebe waited with baited breath as Leo bled and Cole collected their knucklebone. The moment the flask was full, Leo withdrew his arm, and grabbed at Cole’s shoulder.
Cole shimmered them to a far distant cavern, and immediately took off for one of the tunnels leading away from their landing site. Phoebe and Leo were hot on his heels, and the three of them didn’t stop running, and occasionally shimmering to a different set of tunnels, until they were fairly sure they couldn’t be traced. “That was a terrible idea!” Cole snapped, the moment they paused for breath.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Leo retorted, eyes on his wound as he wrapped it with a scrap of material off the hem of his shirt.
Cole stared at him for a long moment, then turned away, waving his hands in a clear dismissal. “This is going to come back to bite us.” He announced, and Phoebe winced, because there was a weight to those words that made her, with all her skill at predicting the future, feel they were more portent than just a simple warning.
“We got what we needed.” Phoebe reminded them both. “So now, we need to find somewhere to set up to lure in and absorb a poltergeist.” Cole looked like he wanted to argue more, but in the end he decided it wasn’t worth it right now, and nodded, offering his hand to her.
He took them back to the sewage-tunnels, and found a small cave that didn’t appear to be inhabited by anything else. Then he and Leo went to stand guard while Phoebe set up. Candles in a six-point circle, to invite in dark energy, incense all around for binding, the knucklebone in the centre, daubed with innocent blood to act as bait. Phoebe knelt before her improvised altar, within the circle of the candles, and began to chant.
“Come to me. I invite thee into my circle. Offerings I’ve laid for thee. Grant me thy power. Come to me. I invite thee into my circle.” The chant went on, and Phoebe didn’t falter, even as her throat grew dry and her voice turned hoarse.
And then she heard it, that painful wail that seemed to dart right through her head. She flinched, and finally gave up chanting as a mist that almost blended with the incense began to seep into their cave. A sense of doom permeated the air, and Phoebe’s breath caught. This creature was powerful, massively, terribly powerful, and she was only one witch. One witch without her sisters, alone and helpless, and this thing was going to kill her. It was going to destroy her, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do about it. She could fight and flail all she wanted, but she was nothing in the face of such pure murderous rage.
“Phoebe! The ritual!” Cole shouted.
Phoebe looked down at her altar, and gasped in a breath. The spots dancing in her vision began to clear out, and she gasped another incense-thick breath down. For all that the smoke was heady and thick in her lungs, it cleared her mind, and bound the influence of the poltergeist. She shook her head, which made her dizzy, and tried to remember the next step.
She took one of the incense sticks, and lifted it up, just in time to open a path for the poltergeist as it swarmed towards the knucklebone, searching for the innocent that was supposed to be bleeding in the centre of the circle. “Power of evil kind, this bone contains and binds!” Phoebe shouted, and laid her hand on the dragon bone.
For one terrible moment, Phoebe was afraid that it hadn’t worked. That her spell was too weak, too short to have any effect, that she herself was simply not powerful enough, never mind that it was the dragon bone that should be doing all the heavy lifting, power-wise. She had specifically avoided tethering any of the magic to herself in her spell, because she knew that if it came down to the magic of the poltergeist versus her own magic, she would lose, and lose badly.
Then a storm spilled out from where her hand touched the dragon bone. A whirl of wind swept out and around her altar, spinning the incense into a wall that was almost opaque. The poltergeist was almost entirely trapped inside. With Phoebe. Dark lightning began to crackle in its depths, lashing out. One bolt caught one of the candles, and it imploded, wisping into little more than ash too fast for Phoebe’s eyes to keep up. The others arced across the binding barrier, creating bursts of power that flashed and burned. Each time one hit, the wall of smoke and wind became a little more transparent.
“No!” Phoebe shouted, desperate and determined. “No, you don’t get to escape now!” She laid her other hand on the bone, and willed it to draw the poltergeist in, to cage and contain its power. She thought she could see wisps of that strange mist-like substance the poltergeist was made of being drawn into the bone through the pores, but it was so slow, a trickle instead of the flood she’d been hoping for. “Come on, can’t you go any faster?” She demanded.
One of the bolts of black lightning crashed into the ground right next to Phoebe, and the power unleashed made her scream, thrown hard away from the dragon bone. She slammed into the wall of wind, and was thrown right back into the centre of the circle, tripping over the dragon bone and crashing face first into the poltergeist.
It was like taking a bath in acid. Phoebe couldn’t even find the breath to scream. She just dragged herself backwards an inch at a time, until her head and shoulders broke free, and she gasped like she’d been drowning. It came back out a sob, a wail, and the poltergeist wailed in tandem, drowning her out, subsuming her. The cave began to shake under her, the rocks cracking under her palms as she clawed her way out of the poltergeist’s grasp.
She was almost free when she saw one of the black bolts hit the dragon bone. Instead of causing another explosion, the bolt seemed to vanish, sucked up like water hitting desert sands. The poltergeist wailed again, thrashed, and lashed out at the dragon bone. More and more lightning disappeared into it as the poltergeist finally recognised what was caging it. Phoebe used its distraction to roll free, fetching up against the smoke barrier and lying there, entirely forgotten and glad of it.
The dragon bone began to glow. It was a strange light, that hurt Phoebe’s eyes to stare at too long. It was almost as though, instead of emitting its own light, the dragon bone was stealing everything else’s. Phoebe’s vision faded to grey around the edges, everything appearing indistinct and dim in comparison to the dragon bone, bright creamy yellow and daubed with rich ruby blood.
The poltergeist was coming apart at the seams, wisps bleeding off it and whirling into the air, and Phoebe cringed as one brushed past her and sent a bright shock of pain through her. They dissipated into the air, leaving the poltergeist itself to dwindle, writhing and folding in on itself and still firing off blasts of dark energy.
The poltergeist was no larger than a house cat, and Phoebe was beginning to hope it was almost over, when there was a cracking sound that seemed to shatter the very air. Phoebe flinched, and stared at the dragon bone, which now had a massive crack splitting it right down the middle. Black light began to spill out, illuminating everything except the bone itself in stark black and white. The blood looked terrible like that, a splash of red against an otherwise colourless world.
A hand caught Phoebe’s bad shoulder, and she yelped, only to have the sound turn wavery as the world wobbled and hazed and reformed around her. She was in a different cave, all pale stone shaped like little ripples, and the stone beneath her felt coarse but sandy. “What-?” She managed to get out, before the entire world had a seizure.
It was almost like an earthquake, except the very stone itself was rippling like a storm-tossed sea, the air was quivering like a terrified child, and the only solid thing in Phoebe’s entire world was Cole’s weight half on top of her. She struggled, trying to get upright and look around, to see what was happening, but when she shifted, the ground shattered beneath her, and it was only Cole’s grip on her that stopped her from tumbling into a chasm that had just opened up right in front of her nose.
Then the shaking stopped, and the world went still. Phoebe waited, counting her breaths, but nothing happened. After a small age, Cole levered himself off her. “Leo?” He called. The only answer was a groan, but it was an agreeing sounding groan, so Phoebe didn’t worry too much. Then Cole looked down at her. “Are you alright?” He asked, running his hands over her in a distinctly unsexy manner as he checked her over for injuries.
“I’ll be fine.” Phoebe assured him. “What happened? Where are we?”
“The dragon bone exploded, that’s what happened.” Cole informed her with a grimace. “On the upside, that would absolutely have killed the Source. On the downside, it would have killed us, too, if we’d been anywhere near the epicentre. I’m thinking we shouldn’t try that again.”
“Damn it!” Phoebe cursed, slamming a fist against the ground. It crumbled under the blow, and stones clattered away down into the chasm. Phoebe hardly noticed, and didn’t care, frustration boiling under her skin. “No, we have to try again, we have to-” She protested, trying to stand. More ground gave way under her, and the only thing that saved her from falling into the gaping rent in the ground was Cole’s arm around her waist, dragging her backwards and into his lap.
“Phoebe, no.” He said. It was more like an order. There was an implacability to his tone that Phoebe railed against instinctively.
“Yes, god damn it. That was our only working plan-”
“Obviously not!” Cole interjected furiously.
Phoebe’s breaths were coming shorter and harder and she couldn’t seem to find a way to calm down. She grasped for it, grappled with it, and it slid out of her grasp like smoke. “I have to try, I can’t stop, I can’t just stop, because if I do then I might as well just hand myself over to the Source and let him kill me! I can’t live like this, Cole, I can’t- I can’t- I c-”
“Shh…” Cole breathed into her ear, and Phoebe choked on a sob that tore its way out of her, leaving her throat raw and aching. She barely had time to recover before her whole body convulsed, and she was crying harder than she’d ever cried in her life.
“I- I h-have to! D-don’t you u-underst-stand? M-my s-sist-ters are- Th-hey’re g-g-gone and I- if I c-can’t k-kill him, w-why did I e-even s-surv-vive?!” Phoebe wailed, clinging to Cole as he held her and rocked back and forth, making soft comforting sounds that weren’t quite words. She stammered out a few more attempts at an explanation, but she hardly understood what she was trying to say, except that her whole world had fallen apart, and she was lost. The only thing that had kept her going was the goal that Prue and Piper had left her; to kill the Source. But faced with the possibility that she might not be able to succeed without them, all she could think was that she had never been without her big sisters. Prue, with her reprimands and inspiration, Piper with her comfort and insecurities. She just didn’t know how to be Phoebe Halliwell without Prue and Piper.
She cried for what felt like hours, until she was dizzy with all the breath she was wasting on her sobs and had a dull headache from all the tension and tears. Even when she was sure she was out of breath, when she thought she must have cried every spare drop of water in her body, she’d gulp down a few breaths and hiccup her way back into sobbing.
After finally crying herself out, Phoebe found she didn’t have the energy to do anything. It was an awful place to be, but all the passion, all the anger that had driven her for the last few weeks seemed to have left her along with her tears, and all she had left was that old hollow ache she’d been trying so hard to evade. Cole didn’t try to get her moving again like last time. Instead, he wrapped her up in her stolen coat and lay her down with her head on his lap and his hand in her hair.
Phoebe knew he wanted her to sleep, but it seemed so far away. It was too much effort to close her eyes, too much effort to reach for sleep, and wasn’t that ridiculous. She was too tired to sleep. So she was still awake when Cole sighed, and said “And how are you doing?”
Leo snorted. “That’s a stupid question.”
“Fair.” Cole capitulated. “But you were falling apart before we set out on this mad quest, and I guess I’m just worried I’m going to be cried on twice today.” He quipped. Phoebe wondered if she ought to feel annoyed about his flippancy, but that seemed like such a silly thing, really, so she let it go. She knew he didn’t mean it that way, after all.
Leo didn’t answer that. Instead, he said; “I understand how she feels.”
“Mm?” Cole hummed, prompting.
“This whole thing…” Leo paused, then huffed a bitter laugh. “Living, it just feels so… so pointless now. I mean, if- if we were in the mortal world, if we could… if Phoebe had people around her, and maybe she'd be job hunting, having her father around, taking care of the house… and if I had my work, my charges, the Elders and my colleagues… maybe we’d be weathering this better, but… What’s the point, Cole? We died right along with Prue and Piper, we just haven’t quite stopped breathing yet. There’s no way out, there’s no help coming, there’s nothing we can do.”
“Except fight, and now that’s looking just as hopeless as all the rest.” Cole sighed.
There was silence in the wake of that, and Phoebe wondered if she actually had it in her to shed a few more tears. She blinked and they rolled down over her nose and into her hair. Her chest hurt. Breathing was a chore. Her eyes wouldn’t stop leaking. She wished she could sleep, but instead she just lay there, existing and hating it.
“It’s been a month, Cole.” Leo finally said, drawing Phoebe reluctantly back out of her maudlin thoughts.
“Has it?” Cole asked, sounding vaguely surprised. “That long? Really?”
“I can feel it. A little over a month, actually. It was the… seventeeth? Sixteenth? Of May when… when everything happened, and I can feel the solstice approaching. Which means it’s nearly the twenty-first of June.” Leo explained dispassionately. Cole made a thoughtful noise, a little softer than a grunt, and stayed silent. “A whole month, and the Source still hasn’t lifted the seal.” Leo pressed.
“Actually, we should check that-”
“I already did, while Phoebe was…” Leo trailed off, not really needing to specify ‘while Phoebe was bawling her eyes out in your arms’. Phoebe felt a tiny twinge of embarrassment, anyway. It died swiftly, snuffed out by the grey haze of misery, and she closed her eyes. If she could just sleep, then she might feel better when she woke. Or if she didn’t, it would still be a few hours away from the depressing reality.
“Right.” Cole agreed, but it was absent, distracted. “It’s nearly the solstice, you said?”
“Yes.” Phoebe could hear the frown in Leo’s voice, and she mirrored it.
“The Summer Solstice.” Cole pressed.
“The holy day of Litha?”
“Yes…? Cole, what are you-?”
Cole’s next words were carried on a grin, one of the edged ones that Phoebe usually found unbearably attractive. “As in, the day when the powers of light are at their strongest, the great peak of all good magic before the reign of the Holly King slowly draws the world back into darkness? The day when any novice witch could tap into the forces of light, especially for use in transformation or purification, never mind a Charmed One? That solstice?”
Phoebe sat bolt upright to stare at Cole. He looked momentarily startled to find her awake, but then he smirked at her, one eyebrow quirked, all challenge and confidence and pride. Phoebe fought to catch her breath around the sudden surge of hope and passion and determination rising up inside her like the tide, marvelling at the gift Cole had just handed her. And he was still looking at her like that, just waiting for her to take it and run with it, and she didn’t think she’d ever loved him more than she did in that moment. She surged forwards and kissed him.
“You’re a genius!” She enthused against his lips, and then tore away from him to surge to her feet. Once she was up, however, she swayed, the dizzy spell taking her off guard. “Oh, wow, I think I… need to sit down.” She tried to sit gracefully, but mostly just crumpled, guided at the last moment by Cole’s hands on her waist.
“It’s not the Solstice yet, Phoebe.” Cole assured her, audibly restraining laughter. “Sleep, there’ll be time to plan when you wake up.”
Phoebe turned to look at Leo. “Will there?” She checked, because the idea of missing such a golden opportunity threatened to open up a black pit of despair right under her feet, and she wouldn’t be able to sleep at all if she wasn’t sure.
Leo closed his eyes as he focused on whatever supernatural sense allowed him to detect the coming and going of holy days. “Yeah, it’s probably still a day or even two off. I’ll be able to tell when it’ll be more accurately the closer we get to it.” He assured her, opened his eyes to offer her an attempt at a smile.
Phoebe smiled back, trying to give him some of her own relief and hope. He did seem a little less gloomy, so she allowed herself to settle back down, dragging Cole down with her so that she could pillow her head on his shoulder this time. He chuckled at her, but came willingly, and curled an arm around her without needing to be prompted.
Now, Phoebe found it ridiculously easy to slip into sleep, exhaustion weighing her down and dragging her off into unconsciousness. The strange sleeplessness of her breakdown was nothing but a bad memory, and when she woke, she felt stiff and sore all over and more than ready to face whatever came next.
Their preparations for the solstice were frantic. First, they had to find a spacious cave in which they could set up, which took time. Cole knew a lot of the underworld, but he didn’t know all of it, and there was as much walking to be done as shimmering or orbing. Eventually, they found one with a smooth floor and a few pillar-like formations around the edge, all made of a pale golden sandstone. Then, Phoebe sent Leo and Cole off to procure supplies, with promises that she would call for Leo the moment she even thought she might be in trouble, while she cleansed their chosen cave with the left over incense from their attempt to bind a poltergeist.
Whilst she worked, Cole and Leo reappeared periodically to deposit whatever supplies they’d managed to gather on that trip. Mostly, they were gathering as much oak and fir wood that they could find. After all, it wasn’t a proper Litha ritual without a bonfire. Then she needed white candles to set around the fire, burning for the goddess’s blessing and the invocation of light, and dried basil to mark a circle of protection around herself, and sage and mint incense to burn at the edges of the cave for the destruction and purification of evil energies.
This all took time to gather, since Cole didn’t want to get it all from the same market, and would steal some of it from dark priests where he could. White candles were particularly difficult to procure in the underworld, where white magic was synonymous with the enemy. They managed it, however, by raiding the stores of a particular demon who Cole knew secretly dabbled.
Then all they had to do was wait. And wait. Phoebe annoyed Leo by asking every few minutes how much longer it would be until the solstice. Cole interjected before Leo could bite her head off, sidling up behind Phoebe and wrapping his arms around her waist. “You probably want to think about when, exactly, on the solstice you want to try this.” He pointed out, propping his chin on the top of her head.
“Isn’t midday the most powerful time?” Phoebe asked.
“Yes, but dawn would work too.” Cole replied. “It might even be better, given that this spell is meant to be a triumph of light over dark. The symbolism has it’s own power.”
“That’s true.” Phoebe acknowledged, leaning back against Cole as she thought. “I think you’re right. Midday might be the most powerful time, but that’s because it’s when light is strongest. Light isn’t very strong down here even when it’s at it’s zenith, but using the symbolism of the dawn will have a strong effect, especially down here where there’s so much dark.
“I doubt I could get an accurate midday, anyway.” Leo interjected. Phoebe blinked at him, and Leo gave her a vaguely chiding look. “The solstice doesn’t happen just over San Francisco, Phoebe. It’s worldwide, and midday in San Francisco is not midday in Cairo. I can tell you the first and last moments solstice sunlight hits the earth, but more than that, I can’t detect. And the Underworld doesn’t exactly match up with anywhere specific in the mortal world.”
Phoebe frowned. “Then… will the solstice have any effect down here?”
“Oh, yes.” Cole assured her. “The power of the solstice isn’t in the physical reality of the earth’s tilt and spin and orbit. It’s in people’s belief. That’s why symbolism is so important in any ritual. Your imagination, your magic, gives it power when otherwise, it wouldn’t be anything more than a piece of crystal, a bit of dried plant, or scrap of paper.” Cole shrugged, and Phoebe squirmed against the jostling of his arms. “Down here, everything is tied to belief. It’s not physical, it’s built on the power of the belief in evil and cruelty and death. You’re just bringing a bit of the belief in light down here when it’s most able to reach, when people will be believing most in light and the sun.”
“Huh. Okay. Then I guess that settles it, really. We’ll start when the solstice starts.” Phoebe decided. “Which is going to be when, exactly?”
Leo groaned, and Cole laughed. “Have a little patience. It’ll come.” Cole assured her.
“I’ll let you know the moment it starts.” Leo assured her.
Disgruntled, Phoebe settled in to wait, dragging Cole down to sit on the floor with her. Leo began to get restless a while later, pacing around their carefully constructed bonfire. Phoebe stayed in Cole’s arms and went over the spell she’d come up with while purifying the cave over and over again, refining and tweaking it, considering better rhymes, counting syllables to make it flow better.
Leo’s head came up, and he froze mid-step. Phoebe jolted to her feet even before he’d opened his mouth to say “It’s started.” Cole was on his feet a heartbeat later, and when Phoebe gestured towards the bonfire, he obeyed, shooting a tiny energy ball into the kindling at it’s heart. It burst into flames that slowly began to creep up and out, wrapping themselves lovingly around the larger chunks of oak and fir wood. At Phoebe’s nod, Leo went around the edges of the bonfire to light each of the candles with a touch. That power, it seemed, wasn’t as difficult as healing, which Phoebe was intensely grateful for. Most demons didn’t have a need for external ignition devices like matches or lighters, given that a good deal of them could summon fire with a thought, and Phoebe wouldn’t have had the first clue where to get one from down here.
Phoebe herself used the candles to light her incense, and set them up around the cave. There was already a thick layer of smoke from the fire gathering near the ceiling, and Phoebe was glad Cole had had the foresight to suggest a cave with a high roof. Phoebe took her place on one side of the bonfire, and waited for Leo and Cole to take their places, equidistant from her on either side of the bonfire, so they formed a triangle.
Phoebe went first to Cole, scattering basil around him and murmuring a quick blessing to strengthen it’s natural protective abilities. Then she did the same for Leo, and then she returned to her place and did the same around herself. With that, the stage was set. Phoebe could already feel the power building. The firelight danced on the cave walls, painting them yellow and orange, and occasionally Phoebe could swear they gleamed gold. The warm of the bonfire was surprisingly gentle against her face, and the scent of woodsmoke and incense filled her lungs and lifted her spirits.
“Mother Goddess, God of the Sun,” Phoebe began to intone, and it hurt that hers was the only voice, when it should have been spoken by three. She missed her sisters so very much, but in their absence, she still wished that Leo and Cole could join in, and lend their strength to hers. However, they’d all agreed that it wouldn’t help, and might even hurt. They were not witches, they didn’t have the right magic for vanquishing spells, nor did either of them have the right to call on a witch’s goddess and gods. “And King of the mighty Oak tree, on this longest day now begun, to my altar I summon thee.”
The fire roared higher, and the candles flared. The space around them lightened, brightened, until everything in the cave seemed to glow with some inner light. The scent of wood and sage and crisp clean mint filled the air, and Phoebe shuddered at a surge of tingling warmth flooding through her.
“So mote it be.” Leo murmured. Phoebe shook her head and turned to stare at him.
Then she saw Cole begin to smile. “So mote it be.” He added, and Phoebe felt the shift. The power she had summoned gripped firmer, settled heavier in the air, the ties that anchored it tripled and then tripled again in strength by the trio of souls willing it to stay.
“Mother Goddess, God of the Sun, and King of the mighty Oak tree,” Phoebe repeated, because naming things had power, and doing it three times had yet more power still. She could feel the power building inside her, around her. It wasn’t hers, so it was anchored in the very fabric of the world around her, in the fire and the light and stone and the earth, but it was channelled through her, and she could feel it inside, waiting. “Darkness grows and evil has won, in my need I implore thee.”
“So mote it be.” Leo intoned.
“So mote it be.” Cole agreed.
The air seemed to vibrate, like a soundless gong had been struck. Phoebe knew she was projecting when she said it felt like anger, like rage, because magic didn’t do emotions like people did. But darkness was opposed to light, and light was opposed to dark. Light magic invoked on the Summer Solstice rejected the idea of darkness having power, of evil winning.
Now came the hard part. Phoebe took a deep, steadying breath, and focused herself. She set her intent firmly in mind, and spoke; “Strongest demons now roaming free, summon here to die before me. Those who in the Underworld lead, light reveal them so they may bleed.”
The bonfire expelled a sudden cloud of smoke that rolled over the three of them like a wave, thick and choking. It rushed out, all the way to the walls of the cave, where it crawled upwards, thinning, to join the smoke at the ceiling. In its wake were six bewildered demons. One was a huge muscled man with a face distorted by slashing scars and ornate silver rings on every finger like a rich man’s knuckleduster. Another was a small woman with short, wild, flame red hair, and beyond her a pale wraith of a man peering around over a pair of spectacles. Two more women took the space behind Cole, a dark-skinned woman with cornrows, and a beautiful curvaceous blonde. And on the periphery of Phoebe’s vision, an intimidatingly tall man with skin as black as night.
All of them were wearing gold robes, and all of them had black eyes from lid to lid, although in the light of the bonfire, they gleamed oddly. They caught up to the situation quickly, and several of them launched attacks, bolts and balls of energy and fire whipping towards the three standing around the bonfire. Leo and Cole both ducked, but Phoebe ignored them, trusting in her magic. Sure enough, the attacks fizzled out against the protective barriers she’d raised around the three of them. And the spell had been more than just a summoning. The longer they remained here, within the reach of Phoebe’s altar and in the presence of light and under the power of a spell designed to kill them and make them bleed, they suffered. A few of them cringed, the pale man actually staggered.
Phoebe opened her mouth to begin the last part of the spell, but some strange sense made her wait. There was another shuddering ripple of smoke expelled from the bonfire, and then another, and Phoebe noticed another demon among the rest. His cloak was closer to bronze than gold, a dark orange like rust, but his eyes were just as black as the rest’s. He was old, his face lined, but his hair was still black, and his posture straight. His lips pulled back in a sneer, and he summoned up an energy-ball to the palm of his hand. It flew straight for Phoebe, and in a flash, she saw it connecting, impacting right over her heart and consuming her in flame.
With a ragged gasp, she dropped out of the premonition and let the feeling of falling carry her down into a crouch. The energy-ball impacted the barrier, there was a flare of brilliant light, and then it flew over her head and into the fire. “Phoebe!” Cole shouted, alarmed, but Phoebe only waved a dismissive hand at him as she rose back to her feet and glared at this new demon. Another wave of smoke rolled out of the bonfire, and Phoebe wanted to wait, wanted to give it time to build up the power necessary to summon a demon as powerful as the Source, but she wasn’t sure she had the time.
The other demons were still attacking, too, although less and less frequently as the spell crippled them, energy-balls flying and dissipating against the shields. Which only made the red-robed demon’s attacks all the more dangerous, because unless Phoebe was watching him, she wouldn’t be able to tell which energy-ball would be the dangerous one. It stood to reason that any more demons that showed up would be as powerful or more powerful than that one, and she couldn’t watch two at the same time. She really couldn’t afford to wait.
“Mother Goddess, God of the Sun, and King of the mighty Oak tree!” Phoebe shouted over the sound of explosions and snarling demons, then ducked another attack from the red-robed demon. “Light burn all and darkness shield none, on my foes I unleash thee!”
The seven demons burst into flame. Howling, screeching, wailing they slapped at themselves and dropped to roll on the ground in an attempt to put the fires out, but they couldn’t. The flames clung and burned without regard for the laws of nature. Even the demon in the rust-red robes was screaming, but there, at least, the sound was more rage than pain, and Phoebe had to dodge another energy-ball.
“So mote it be!” Leo shouted. The flames burned higher, hiding the demons from sight entirely.
“So mote it be!” Cole echoed. The flames burned hotter, sending a wash of heat over Phoebe.
“So mote it be.” Phoebe proclaimed. The flames died, leaving behind only ash and silence.
The bonfire dwindled to embers, the cave walls went back to their dull sandy colour, and the smoke in the air turned thick and choking. Phoebe coughed into her sleeve, flapping her hand in front of her face. It wasn’t enough to obscure her vision, but it did make the outlines of Leo and Cole somewhat hazy. An effect only worsened by the way the shadows were creeping in again, eagerly taking up the space now that the intense powers of light were gone.
Cole loomed out of the haze, and Phoebe reached out for him, catching him around the waist as he pulled her into a tight hug. “I’m sorry you didn’t get the Source.” He offered, and Phoebe breathed out the crushing disappointment into his t-shirt.
“Oh, but you did.”
Phoebe tried to wrench around, but Cole was stronger, and he yanked her with him as he dove to the side. It was a good thing, too, because a moment later their bonfire was alight again, after an orb that looked more like an explosion contained by writhing shadows than a simple fire-ball sailed through the air Phoebe and Cole had been occupying to smash into the half-burned pile of wood. “Leo!” Cole barked, hurling an energy-ball out of Phoebe’s sight.
She didn’t need to see to know who that voice belonged to, though. A potent mix of rage and terror turned her thoughts to static, and she fisted a hand in Cole’s t-shirt as Leo orbed in right next to them and grabbed on as well.
“I don’t think so.” The Source commanded, and abruptly Cole was on his knees, teeth bared as a snarl of mingled pain and denial tore out of him. Phoebe went down with him, out of Leo’s hold, and Leo dove after them, only to have Cole writhe out of their reach. “Your cursed father may have infected you with a soul, but half of you is still mine, Belthazor.” The Source crooned. Phoebe whipped around to glare up at him. His black, hooded robes obscured all his features but there was no denying that presence, that malevolence weighing down on Phoebe’s every breath.
The flashback was so strong, so vivid, that Phoebe almost assumed it was a premonition. She could see Cole’s caverns overlaid over the sandstone cave, she could see Cole’s altar instead of their bonfire, and Leo was crumpled on the floor, the breath knocked out of him from running into the Source’s seal, instead of kneeling over Cole looking wild with protective anger and helplessness. The Source had stepped into the cavern back then, and Phoebe had known, had felt it sink right down through her from her throat, through her chest, and into her gut.
They’d been played. The Source had never had any intention of letting her or Cole warn her sisters about Shax. They would be helpless, and there’d be no one coming to help. Phoebe had stared into the shadows underneath that black cowl, and couldn’t even manage to be scared for her own life. All she could think of was Prue and Piper, alone up there with no help coming. Leo was shouting for Piper, half sobbing, half choking, and the Source laughed.
He’d lifted a hand, claws gleaming in the candle-light, just like they were doing now, and Cole had thrown himself at Phoebe, taking the energy-ball that had been meant to kill her in the side and hurling them both on top of Leo. Phoebe had heard the Source shout “No!” and then the world had dissolved into a heat-haze and reformed into a different cave.
But Cole was down for the count this time, and the Source wasn’t conjuring an energy-ball. Instead, he clenched his claws hand into a fist and twisted in the air, and Cole cried out, a ragged yell that petered off into a hoarse snarl, and then rumbled back up as a furious growl. The Source laughed again, and Phoebe’s paralysing fear became incandescent rage.
In one fluid move, Phoebe stepped from huddled on her knees, to one knee, to coming up onto her foot and twisting to swing the other in a perfect high-kick into the Source’s wrist. There was an audible crack as her heel connected, and the Source jerked backwards with a snarl that was at least partially pain, even if most of it was just outrage and offended pride. “You stay away from him, you sick son of a bitch.” Phoebe spat, raising her fists before her and standing ready.
“Insolent witch!” The Source snarled back, and then laughed again. It was less gloating than before, but no less disturbing. “Belthazor, kill her!” He ordered.
Phoebe snorted at him, but before the witty come back could fall from her lips, there was a low growl from behind her, and Leo’s voice, wobbling just a little as he said “Uh… Cole…?” Phoebe looked behind her. She had to, despite all her instincts that were screaming how much of a bad idea it was to take her eyes off the Source, because it was Cole.
Except it wasn’t. It was Belthazor. No laughing hazel eyes, no chiselled jawline, no well trimmed frame, just raw muscle under blood-red skin and black markings around black eyes. And there was no humanity in those eyes, just bloodlust and the thrill of the hunt. “Cole?” Phoebe breathed, heart seizing in her chest and then thundering into double-time.
Belthazor rumbled a laugh, and lunged. Phoebe ducked and spun out of reach. That had the added bonus of letting her keep both Belthazor and the Source in view. Belthazor advanced on her again, faster than most demons his size without the bonus of super-speed, and Phoebe spun into a round-house kick that slammed into his palm instead of his jaw. His hand closed on her ankle, tight enough to make her yelp, and he swung her around towards the fire.
Leo leapt up and caught her before she could tumble face-first into the flames. The word became nothing but white light for a breath, and then the same scene reappeared. For a moment, Phoebe thought they hadn’t gone anywhere, but then she realised they were on the other side of the fire. She was glad Leo hadn’t need to be told not to leave Cole behind in the clutches of the Source.
She could hear him roaring, and now she heard distress in the sound. “COLE!” She shouted.
“Ph-Phoebe?” Came the desperate reply, though still in Belthazor’s low rumble. And then a snarl, vicious and violent, but Phoebe couldn’t tell if it was directed at her or not. “No!” Belthazor shouted, and Phoebe needed to know what was happening to him. She tore herself out of Leo’s grasp and darted back around the fire. She saw Belthazor standing hunched with his head cradled in his hands, and the Source with his hood turned towards him.
“You are becoming a pest, Belthazor.” The Source decided furiously.
“No.” Cole said, and his appearance flicked, shifting too rapidly for Phoebe to see one side of him or the other most of the time, and then finally, he settled back into his human shape, and lifted his head to glare at the Source. “I’m not your servant anymore, and I never will be again.” He declared.
“Then you shall die.” The Source proclaimed, and raised his hand.
Phoebe was moving before she’d fully realised what was happening. She flung herself forwards, and hit Cole’s chest just as the energy-ball hit her back. She screamed as she and Cole were blasted off their feet and flung across the cave. Cole slammed into the ground with a grunt, and Phoebe slammed into him with a muffled whimper. Rasping in a desperate gasp for air, Cole managed to get out a choked “Phoe-” before his winded lungs protested, and he wheezed something that might have been an attempt at a cough.
“Ow?” Phoebe managed, blinking away tears of pain and trying to strangle the scream that was building in her throat. Her entire back felt like it was on fire, and for all she knew it might be. Distantly, she had to marvel at the fact that she was alive. An energy-ball to the back ought to have been fatal. “Cole? Are you okay?”
“Me?!” Cole wheezed in disbelief. And then he abruptly rolled them. Phoebe’s back hit the ground and she did scream, high and agonised. “Sorry, sorry.” Cole murmured, and hauled Phoebe to her feet with ruthless determination. “LEO!” He shouted, anger masking his desperation. Then he was dragging Phoebe out of the path of another of those strange shadow-bound explosion-balls that lived up to its name by exploding violently when it hit the wall just over their heads and sent them stumbling. “Leo, damn it! It’s time to go!”
“No! I have you now, I won’t let you-!” The Source began, firing off more energy-balls and explosion-balls and fire-balls, arms whipping through the air almost too fast to see as he hurled them at them. Phoebe could barely move through the pain, but she managed to keep up with Cole has he dragged her out of danger and around to the other side of the fire again.
They crashed into Leo coming the other way, and Phoebe sagged against someone, she wasn’t sure who, as the world dissolved. White light filled her vision, and then darkness.
When she came to, she found her face smushed into a rock. In fact, her whole front was smushed into the rocks, her breasts pinioned awkwardly under the weight of her chest, and her back throbbing dully in the stagnant air.
Yes, she was naked from the waist up, but her jacket was spread out on the floor under her. Any thoughts she’d had about sitting up were put on momentary pause as she tried to work out what was going on. “Cole?” She called warily.
“He’s sleeping.” Leo informed her. “Don’t try to move, your shoulder’s pretty badly damaged.”
“Jus’ m’shoul’er?” Phoebe slurred.
“Yes, luckily.” Leo informed her, somewhat terse. “What were you thinking, jumping in front of an energy-ball like that?!” He went on, clearly in a fully-fledged over-worked healer rant. “You could have been killed, Phoebe! And Cole is half demon, he had a much better chance of surviving than you did! He could have dodged, he could have deflected, he could have done something much more sensible than throwing himself in front of it like a suicidal maniac!”
“I can’t lose anyone else to him, Leo.” Phoebe said quietly, blinking back tears. “I can’t.”
Leo didn’t reply for a moment. Phoebe liked to think he was wearing that poleaxed look he sometimes got when someone sideswiped him when he was trying to be the responsible one. Then she heard him swallow. “Neither can I.” He whispered.
“I-… M’sorry.” Phoebe managed, even though it was only half true.
Leo cleared his throat. “If you’re really sorry, then don’t do it again.” He chided her. “Now hold still while I check your wound. Does it still hurt?”
“Yes. Less, now.”
“You’ve been out for a good while. The solstice has been over for at least a few hours.” Leo informed her, and she felt him press his fingers around the edge of the patch on her back that felt like one big pool of pain. He pressed and pulled her skin taut, and then daubed something on the flayed-feeling meat of her shoulder. She whined, high and pained, in the back of her throat. “Sorry, it’s just a tincture to numb the pain and hopefully help prevent infection.”
Phoebe blinked stupidly at the rock in front of her face. “Where’d you get that?” She managed to ask, even though it came out tight and high with the pain she couldn’t fully repress..
“Oh, I had Cole go and steal some things. Herbs, mortar and pestle, rags for bandages and such.” Leo explained absently. “We couldn’t leave you with a burn the size of my hand across your back and just hope it healed well enough on its own.” He pointed out, maybe a little huffily. And then his hands paused in their work. Phoebe whined again, because she wanted the torture to be over faster, not paused in the middle. Leo resumed his work. “I’m… I’m sorry, too.” He said finally.
“Wh’for?” Phoebe asked, face screwed up in annoyed confusion.
“I can’t heal this for you. I should-” Leo began, then bit off the rest of that without finishing. Even though she couldn’t see his face, Phoebe could feel the self-recrimination rolling off him in waves. She snorted at him.
“Leo.” She began, lifting her head up to make sure her words came through clearly, even though it pulled at her newest wound and hurt like hell. Leo made a startled little noise, and splayed a hand on her back to steady her as he diligently kept working. “Leo, you are healing me.” She pointed out.
That got Leo to stop again. “What?” He asked, vulnerable and bewildered. “No, I’m not, I’m just-”
“Just… cleaning the wound, and administering local anaesthetic and antiseptic, and then you’re going to bandage it up and tell me not to move my arm too much or lift anything heavy for a while until it’s had a chance to heal, right?”
“I… Right…” Leo stammered, still not quite catching on.
“Leo.” Phoebe said again, impatient. She twisted her head to the other side, and finally got a look at his face. His eyebrows were all crumpled up in the middle of his forehead, his eyes wide and confused, his mouth still set in that stupid little pout that meant he was beating himself up. “That’s what doctors do.”
Leo blinked at her, opened his mouth, and found he had nothing to say. He dropped his gaze to his hands, and the burn on Phoebe’s shoulder. “I saw injuries a bit like this during the war.” He said, sounding surprised by the revelation. “Soldiers who’d been a bit too close to a bomb going off. I suppose treating you in a cave is better than in the mud.”
“I thought mud was supposed to have healing properties, or a dozen spas have lied to me.” Phoebe quipped brightly, letting herself settle back down again as Leo got back to work.
“Wrong sort of mud.” Leo informed her dryly, which made Phoebe grin a little. The moment of levity faded quickly, as the memories of why she was injured in the first place crept insidiously back. The Source had been right there, and all she’d been able to do was delay until Cole and Leo could pull it together enough to rescue her. But this time, at least, she had the knowledge that there may just be another option just around the corner, so instead of sinking into despair, she just let the hatred and the slow-burning rage fill her up until the hollow in her chest was bubbling over.
Leo finished with her wound, and wandered off a little way to do something with the rag he’d been using, Phoebe supposed. “If you don’t mind lying still for a while, we should leave that open to the air, so it can breathe.” Leo informed her, and Phoebe grunted in acknowledgement. “Thank you.” Leo added, which startled Phoebe.
“Reminding me that I’m… not useless, even if I have lost my powers.” He paused, then offered her a tired smile that in no way reached his eyes. “I think I can keep going as long as you can, now. So, you know, thank you.” Phoebe really didn’t like the subtext she could hear under those words, that if she died, Leo would probably follow her within the week. There was a guilt trip there, but she refused to think about it, and just settled in to try and go back to sleep.
It turned out that Cole had been less ‘sleeping’ and more ‘unconscious after Leo dosed him with improvised painkillers’. Phoebe wasn’t the only one with a massive burn on her back, although where Phoebe was fairly sure that with a patch, her jacket would be salvageable, Cole’s t-shirt had been completely destroyed. Not that Phoebe objected to seeing Cole shirtless, but the circumstances weren’t exactly ideal. And, well, her sex drive had been all but absent this last month, so the sight didn’t affect her like it normally would.
It also turned out that Cole was several orders of magnitude more unhappy with her than Leo was, so it was probably a good thing that she didn’t feel like eyeing him up too much while he lectured her. “What you did wasn’t just reckless, it was stupid.” Cole informed her, eyes hard and voice sharp. Phoebe pressed her lips together to hold back the sassy remark, and considered the ceiling through her eyelashes, carefully not looking at Cole’s annoyed expression. “Do you even care that you almost got yourself killed?!” Cole snapped, which was just another way of calling her a suicidal maniac.
But unlike Leo, Cole wasn’t willing to accept that it had been, maybe, a little bit suicidal, and be satisfied with telling her that. He was actually waiting for a response. “Of course I care! But I care about you more!” Phoebe informed him irritably.
“Well, you shouldn’t.” Cole bit out.
Phoebe blinked at him, too offended for words. “If I shouldn’t, then neither should you. Don’t be a hypocrite, Cole, it’s not attractive.”
“I’m not being a hypocrite.” Cole retorted, glaring at her. “I’m saying you shouldn’t needlessly throw your life away to protect me! I need to be able to trust you to take care of yourself.”
“I can take care of myself!”
“Obviously not!” Cole exclaimed, gesturing violently towards her wounded shoulder. It was her left one, which meant both her arms were now injured and had a limited range of movement. She hadn’t noticed under the agony of her new wound, but her broken arm must have been jostled in the fight, despite the splint, because it was aching, too. When Phoebe didn’t have a retort for Cole, he softened a little. “I’m just asking you to stop throwing yourself at things that could kill you without a plan. Is that too much to ask?” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his forehead.
“Yes.” Phoebe replied. Cole dropped his hand to gape at her. “I’m not going to stop hunting the Source, Cole. I might not know how yet, but I’m going to kill him, and I’m not going to stop trying just because the last few plans blew up in our faces. We can do this, we just have to keep trying.” She insisted, reaching out and catching hold of his hand, silently begging him to understand.
Cole wordlessly shook his head, and Phoebe jerked backwards to glare at him. “I’m not saying it’s impossible.” He forestalled her, lifting the hand she wasn’t clinging to in the universal gesture for ‘stop’. “But Phoebe, the Source has been in power for… longer than I’ve been alive. Hundreds of years. And no one’s killed him yet. Yes, we came up with some decent plans, but they didn’t work, and every time we try, we’re just increasing the odds that someone – that you – might die.”
“So be it!” Phoebe shouted, letting go of Cole’s hand to get to her feet and pace. She couldn’t sit still for this, not with the rage and desperation churning in her gut and making her feel ill. “If I die killing the Source, then fine, square deal, I’m in!”
“This is what I mean!” Cole shouted back, also getting to his feet and glaring at her from the advantage of his height. “You have to stop thinking like this! Like you’re expendable! Because you’re not! And with this mindset, you’re not going to kill the Source, you’re just going to die uselessly and give him everything he wants!”
“I don’t care!” Phoebe was aware that her voice was getting dangerously close to a scream, but she couldn’t help it. “I’m not going to stop fighting him with everything I have, Cole, even if all I have is a bad spell and a few sticks of incense! There’s nothing else , don’t you understand that?! If I’m not fighting, I lie down and die, and I won’t give him that satisfaction! So if I’m going to die either way, I’ll go down spitting in his eye if that’s all I can do! There is nothing else!”
Phoebe jerked, her rage and despair halted in its tracks. She gaped helplessly at Cole, suddenly hurting too much to bear. “That’s… that’s not fair.” She said quietly, wrapping her arms around her middle, toying with the hem of her badly patched top.
“I know.” Cole replied, looking away, and then looking back at her firmly. “But I mean it. Why do you think I’ve gone on this long? It’s all been for you, Phoebe. My entire life has been destroyed, and the only thing I have left worth anything in this world is you. And now you’re trying to kill yourself?” Cole smiled, grim and darkly amused. “No, I’m not going to fight fair. I’ll never fight fair when that much is at stake.”
Phoebe threw her arms in the air, and immediately regretted it. “Okay, fine. If that’s how you keep going, then good, I’m glad, but maybe this life of running and hiding and running again is okay for you, Cole, as long as I’m alive, but I need more than that! Obviously I love you, obviously I don’t want you to die, I think I’ve proved that, lately, but if I’m going to keep living for you, then I need more than a life on the run!” She turned away from him to pace again, suddenly overwhelmed by how much everything hurt.
“If there’s anything I can do-” Cole began, and she felt his hand settle on the shoulder that wasn’t burnt. She turned to face him again, studying his face and hating how earnest he looked. She knew, she’d always kind of known, that Cole would give her the universe and every last star in it, if he could, if she asked, but to see that willingness, and know that it was impossible… That just about killed her, because it was all her own damned fault she couldn’t have it.
If she’d just been a little bit smarter, if Leo had left just a little bit sooner, if she’d realised that of course the Source was going to double-cross them, because it was so obvious, then maybe, right now, she and Cole would be in the manor. She could picture it, the two of them, naked in bed, lazy and satisfied and happy, talking about their future together, with the whole world in front of them and better things waiting just around the corner.
“Cole.” Phoebe sighed, pressing her hands to her face. “What about any of this says stable situation to you?”
“It doesn’t need to be stable for us to love each other.” Cole retorted, looking bewildered. He tried for a smile. “I think we’ve proved that already, a few times over.” He quipped, and Phoebe snorted, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“I need more than that.” Phoebe repeated.
“What more is there?” Cole wondered, almost hurt.
Phoebe didn’t want to say it, didn’t want to get into it. She didn’t want to spill out all her dreams and stupid wishes, because it was like wishing for the stars. It was a lovely thought, very pretty and poetic, but it was worse than just impossible, and so far away it was laughable. “I need all of you.” She said, and when Cole opened his mouth, undoubtedly to tell her than she had him, all of him, she cut him off. “I need a future with you, Cole. I need something we can build together, you and me. I mean-” She laughed, a little hysterically. “It’s not like we can get married down here. And kids! Cole, is there a worse situation to bring kids into? Because if there is, I can’t think of one!” Phoebe immediately wanted to take the words back, but she couldn’t. “I can’t live just for you Cole, because all I want is what we could have had, and that- I can’t survive like that.”
She peeked up at Cole, feeling raw and flayed all over, not just her shoulder. She hurt, and her heart was fluttering dangerously in her chest, shivering and threatening to fall and shatter at the slightest touch. She tried to read the expression on Cole’s face, but all she could see was shock, as though she’d completely blind-sided him with all that talk of things they couldn’t have. She swallowed, and looked down.
It seemed so cruel, to burden him with those thoughts of everything that was out of reach for them, when it turned out it hadn’t even occurred to him before. She wished she could take it back, swallow the words back down and pretend like the thought of losing that opportunity, of never getting to live that life, never getting to meet their kids, wasn’t tearing her apart inside. Yet another grief to add to her long and growing list.
“Are you saying you want to marry me?” Cole asked.
Phoebe’s head jerked up, too shocked to process. There was a wondering, almost boyish smile on Cole’s face, and mischief twinkling in his eyes, and Phoebe was caught between elation that he seemed to want that too, and despair that he was treating it so lightly when it wasn’t possible. “I-… Well, yes. Of course I do-” She began.
“Of course?” Cole echoed, and for a moment he looked like he was in agony. “Phoebe, the last time we actually talked about our relationship, I nearly strangled you.” He reminded her.
“You were under the influence of an evil roofie.” Phoebe pointed out. Cole’s lips twitched, and she smiled back for a moment, before dropping his gaze and swallowing hard. “Just… just imagine, for a moment, that that whole mess with the Brotherhood hadn’t happened. I had just graduated from college, finally, you were going to have your powers stripped so you could be mortal with me. Do you… do you really think, after everything we’d done for each other, everything you’d be giving up for me, that I wouldn’t want to marry you?” Cole opened his mouth, but no words came out, and Phoebe tried to smile, even though she was starting to cry. “Cole, what we have, this is the forever kind of love. I- Of course I want all of that with you, but I don’t- I don’t see how we could-”
Cole pulled her into a gentle hug, mindful of both their injuries. Phoebe pressed her face into his chest and cried. At first she was crying for their lost future, and then she realised that in any wedding she imagined, Prue and Piper were there, to support her, to celebrate with her, and that was another lost future, and she was crying for them, too.
It didn’t last long, though, and soon enough her tears dried up. She drew back and wiped her eyes on the backs of her hands, sniffling. “Some day, I’m going to ask you.” Cole told her, and she jerked her head up to blink at him dumbly. Cole smiled back, looking near radiant with love. “One day, I’m going to get down on one knee and ask you to marry me.”
Phoebe smiled, wobbly and wet, but sincere. “Okay.” She agreed softly, and leaned up to kiss him. Cole kissed back with aching tenderness, hands coming up to press just his fingertips to her cheeks, like she was delicate and fragile, and he didn’t want to grip too tightly in case he broke her. In that moment, Phoebe kind of appreciated it.
When Cole drew back, it wasn’t very far, and she could taste his next words on the air between them. “In the meantime, I’m not trying to say you can’t have multiple goals. I think killing the Source is a fantastic idea, but we need to be smart about it.” Phoebe sighed, and nodded. “It’s not going to be something we can do with a cobbled together plan in a couple of weeks. We need to get organised, gather resources, find boltholes and somewhere to work from. We need to chip away at his support, find ways to limit his power, take our time and do this right.”
“You’re right.” Phoebe agreed. “It’s just…”
“Not nearly as satisfying, I know.” Cole agreed wryly. “It will be in the long run, though.” Phoebe nodded again, and forced herself to think carefully about what they were going to do. “And it’s not like we’re fumbling about in the dark. I can remember a couple of attempted coups just from my own lifetime, and the stories of a dozen more from before my time. We can learn from their mistakes.”
Phoebe went very still. Cole matched her a beat later, before humming a sound of confusion and concern. Looking up at him, Phoebe tried to organise the sudden spill of ideas that had just flooded her mind. “You say there have been attempts on the Source before.” She said slowly. Cole nodded, waiting for her to get to the point. “Did they all die?” She probed carefully.
Cole’s eyes widened. “…No.” He said slowly. “Not all of them. But most of the ones who weren’t were banished to the mortal world. I don’t know if there’d be anyone down here who would help… but there might be. It’s not impossible to sneak around the Underworld even if you’re not supposed to be there, after all.”
“Well, then, there’s our next plan.” Phoebe decided, nodding to herself. “A hideout, resources, and allies. And… actually, I do have some ideas for traps. Like the siderite crystals Prue once-” Phoebe felt the grief wash over her, and she faltered. Cole kissed her forehead, and she pulled herself together and pushed the grief aside on sheer force of will. “They can be magically charged, and then we just leave them somewhere demons frequent, and the next one to step into it gets fried. That way, we don’t even have to be there when it goes off. Far less chance of setting ourselves on fire that way.”
“Smart.” Cole murmured.
“Smartass.” Phoebe retorted, slapping him lightly on the chest. “That is if we can even get siderite crystals down here. I’m pretty sure they’re mostly only used in white magic.”
“We can keep an eye out while we’re snooping.” Cole offered, and Phoebe nodded.
Then Leo returned from his little jaunt out into the Underworld to gather more supplies for painkillers and antiseptics. He insisted on checking both their wounds again, and Phoebe got her first proper look at Cole’s back. It was a mess of mottled burns. Some were just shiny and pink, but others were raw and oozing and looked extremely painful. Leo covered them both in the paste he mixed up, almost to excess. When Phoebe complained, Leo had pointed out that with how much dirt they’d accumulated in their clothes and on their skin, a bit of extra antiseptic wouldn’t hurt.
“So… is running water a thing we can find down here?” Phoebe asked. “And if so, are there any places with it that we could make into our base of operations? Because now that Leo’s mentioned it, I really want a bath.”
Cole frowned thoughtfully. “Maybe… Most places with water have already been staked out, though. It is pretty rare. But… I doubt even the Source knows all the nooks and crannies. The Underworld grows by itself, and the architecture can be… flexible.” He acknowledged.
That was what they did first. Leo wanted Phoebe and Cole to stay resting for another few days, but Phoebe refused, and Cole didn’t fight her on it. She thought he was even maybe a little relieved. He didn’t handle sitting still any better than she did. So Cole shimmered them to some of the furthest reaches of the underworld, into the twisting caverns and tunnels that most demons hadn’t gotten around to looking at yet, and probably didn’t care to.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more… skulkers around in places like this.” Phoebe remarked as they wandered through eerie caves full of strange shadows and odd sounds. They even found a few places with open sky, although the sky they saw off the edges of cliffs or through great chasms in the ceiling varied dramatically from one place to the next. Once it was bruise-purple, another time it was a hazy orange tinged with green, another it was the night’s sky with a nebula scrawled across it.
Phoebe stopped to stare at that last one, feeling suddenly, inexplicably, homesick. “I never thought I’d see anything beautiful down here.” She breathed.
Cole gave her a look that hurt, it was so pained and sympathetic and weary. “Evil can be exceptionally beautiful.” He acknowledged, returning his own gaze to the sky above. “How else could it seduce so many people?”
After a small age, Phoebe tore her gaze away, and they moved on. Eventually they found a cave with a deep, slow-moving river in it. The waters appeared pitch black, but when Phoebe cupped some in her hands, it was crystal clear. “Right.” Phoebe said, getting to her feet. She looked around the cave with it’s surprisingly smooth stone floor and the jagged teeth of stalagmites and stalactites around the walls and protecting the entrance tunnel, and nodded. “Home sweet home.” She decided, and promptly started taking her clothes off.
“Um… I’ll… go have a look around.” Leo said awkwardly, and fled.
Phoebe slipped into the cold water, and immediately started shivering, but she didn’t care. She just sat in the shallows, on the little ledge of dark stone before it dropped away into the depths, and started scrubbing. Clouds of dirt wafted off her skin, only to be slowly tugged away by the current. A splash alerted her to the fact Cole was joining her, and then she had a warm body wrapped around her, which did help with some of the chill. “I never thought I’d ever be grateful for a cold bath, but-” Phoebe began, entirely light-hearted, until she was hit with the memory of her and her sisters’ many fights over who got the hot water in the morning. With all three of them and Grams getting ready for the day at the same time, the hot water ran out fast.
Cole nudged the side of her head with his own. “So, we have a lair now.”
Phoebe really, really loved him. So very much. “Resources and allies next.”
“Furniture.” Cole interjected. “Something at least semi-soft to lie on. Maybe a chair.”
Phoebe gave a mock gasp. “A chair? Luxury!”
Cole gave an over-dramatic, wistful sigh better suited to the heroine of a trashy romance novel, and Phoebe cracked up, snickering helplessly. “An altar for your spell-work would also help.” Cole pointed out, when she calmed down a little.
A few last little giggles, and Phoebe cleared her throat and managed to say in a somewhat serious tone; “And maybe one for you, too. You had one in your apartment, before. And you talked about those dark rituals, so you obviously know some black magic.”
“Cole, I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but I think the time for moral gestures is a bit past, don’t you? We need every weapon we can find, forge, or steal if we’re actually going to make a serious attempt to kill the Source, and benching one of our best fighters because his methods are a bit distasteful sounds like a really bad idea. Besides, we’re going to be working with demons, if we can find any who hate the Source as much as we do. I’m going to have to get used to that eventually. Why not with you, someone I know I can trust?”
“I know, but I’m pretty sure we can both agree that neither of us behaved very well then.” Phoebe interrupted again. “I’m… sorry about that, by the way.” She managed to say, even though it was hard. She wasn’t the best at apologising, but she was pretty damn sure he deserved one for the way she’d just given up on him when he’d been all but begging her for help. “I’m…” She paused to laugh, when a memory that didn’t cause her too much grief came back to her. “I was once told by cupid himself that I’m terrified of love. I didn’t want to admit it, but I think he was right.”
“A cupid?” Cole made it sound more disgusting than if Phoebe had said ‘a two-headed venomous slug’. Phoebe wanted to laugh, but bit the inside of her cheek to keep it back when he started talking again. No need to interrupt any more fodder he might hand her. “Well, they’re always pretentious assholes, so you should take anything he said with a pinch of salt, and a healthy dose of scepticism.”
“Don’t be rude, he was nice.” She teased.
Cole growled unhappily, and Phoebe had to admit she felt warmed through by how petulantly territorial he was being. “Sure he was nice. They’re all so nice.” Cole mocked, but then he sobered, and murmured softly; “But you think he was right?”
“Well, Mom died before I could remember her at all, Dad left before I was born, and Grams was never exactly the affectionate type. She loved us, but she showed it mostly through lectures and sass. Most of my childhood nightmares were that Grams was going to leave too, because I just wasn’t good enough.” Phoebe admitted wryly.
“I’m not leaving. Not unless you ask me to go.” Cole told her solemnly.
“I think I’m finally getting that, yeah.” Phoebe agreed, turning her head to kiss him.
They stayed in the water until even shared body heat couldn’t keep the shivers at bay, and once they got out, Phoebe was intensely grateful that Cole had thought to give their clothes a quick wash while they were in there, because even though they were damp and chilled, they were clean, and the thought of putting dry but dirty clothes back on wasn’t pleasant. Cole shimmered out briefly to fetch firewood, and set it alight with a small energy-ball, and they huddled close to it’s warmth, and continued discussing their plans until Leo got back, at which point they looped him into the conversation too.
“You probably want a table to work at, too.” Phoebe realised. “What with all the poultices and such you’re going to want to mix.”
“I can do without.” Leo replied. “The floor works just as well, but you need at least something to put on the floor to mark out the boundaries of an altar if you want to give your spells the focus they need. Your table is more important.”
“I guess.” Phoebe hedged, because keeping them alive and in fighting condition was pretty important too. “And then I suppose we better get to stockpiling some supplies. That could take a while, given that some of the stuff for white magic is going to be impossible to find down here.”
“Well, we can multitask. It’s going to take a while to ferret out rumours of any demons potentially sympathetic to our cause.” Cole pointed out. “Searching for both at once is a sensible conservation of effort.”
“The supplies are going to be easier.” Leo predicted.
Cole nodded acceptingly. “Well, yes. Even as rare as white magic is down here, some people are weird enough to dabble. I still know a few from my own rebellious teenager phase, so we at least have a place to start.”
Phoebe bit her lip and raised her eyebrows at Cole. “Rebellious teenager phase?”
Cole gave her a mysterious smile, and changed the subject. “On the other hand, any demon who has designs on the Source’s throne is going to be quiet about it. If we could find rumours, the Source probably could too, so we’re going to have to be really sneaky and guess a lot. It’s going to be pretty dangerous.”
It occurred to Phoebe to press on the rebellious teenager thing, and if things had been normal, she might have done. She would have done, she would have teased and cajoled until he shared those details about himself. But now, she couldn’t quite find the levity, couldn’t dismiss the serious topic in favour of playing, even for a moment. They needed to come up with a good plan, the sooner the better, because this was going to take long enough as it was.
“We have an advantage there, though.” She pointed out, and ignored the look Cole threw her. “No one’s going to suspect us of being the Source’s double-agents sent to discover and destroy them.”
“You, perhaps.” Cole acknowledged. “Me? They will absolutely suspect. It’s entirely possible that the story of my turning on the Source for love of a witch is a lie, a misdirection, a ruse, or some other way for the Source to root out rebellion.”
“Really? They’d think it was made up?” Phoebe was incredulous. “After you murdered the triad and went on the run for half a year?”
“The Source has always resented the Triad, and the Brotherhood has always been powerful but insular. I’m not saying everyone, or even many demons would believe that my defection was planned by the Source so I could kill anyone who came to me to ally against him. There were rumours last time I was in the marketplace, that Raynor was dead because he’d been turning the Brotherhood against the Source in a bid to take over.” Cole sighed, looking vaguely wistful. “I almost wish it had been true. With the Brotherhood, we might have had a real chance.”
Phoebe and Leo just stared at him. Leo just looked a little sceptical, but Phoebe could feel her jaw hanging slack, but she didn’t quite have the presence of mind to close it. Cole looked between their faces, and grimaced. “Don’t worry.” He said, trying to laugh it off. “I’m not going to try and actually sway what’s left of the Brotherhood. They’d never go for it.”
“Are you sure?” Leo asked thoughtfully. Cole turned to him in shock, and Leo shrugged. “You said the Brotherhood always put itself first. If you could sell it that the Source had turned on them, wouldn’t they fight to protect their own?”
Cole shrugged, looking dubious. “Well, sure, but we’d need proof, and I couldn’t deliver it. I’ve already tricked them once, they wouldn’t believe me.” He huffed an amused laugh. “I’m not even a member anymore, so they have even less reason to listen to a word I say.”
“Not a member?” Leo queried. “I thought it was a lifelong commitment?”
“Normally it is.” Cole agreed, then smiled too light-heartedly for his cheer to be entirely sincere. “But didn’t you wonder why a potion made of my blood – the blood shared by all the Brotherhood – didn’t kill me?” He prompted, and Leo’s expression flashed to understanding, only to crumple into agony. Cole’s expression fell, and he moved on. “I had an alchemist transmute my blood. Unless I renewed my blood-oath, I’m not a member of the Brotherhood of the Thorn anymore.”
“Which I’m glad about, but can we just rewind for a second?!” Phoebe finally managed to find her voice, and she injected herself into the conversation perhaps a little more shrilly than normal. “You killed Raynor?!”
Cole seemed startled by that line of questioning. “Yes?”
“When was that?!” Phoebe yelped.
“Uh…” Cole pulled a face as he thought back, wrestling with his memory. “After-” He cleared his throat awkwardly, side-eyed Phoebe warily, and then said, tentatively; “After Jenna, and you-” He stopped, shrugged, and Phoebe grimaced but nodded to encourage him to go on. “Raynor was holding my father hostage, so I killed him.”
Phoebe’s whole body jolted with shock, and she gaped at Cole, words lost again in complete confusion. It was Leo who asked the question burning through her mind. “Your father? Cole! If you’d told us that he-”
Cole held up his hands. “Ah, no. That’s not-”
“Your father was mortal, and he died a hundred years ago.” Phoebe stated, but despite her lack of inflection, it was absolutely a question. A lot of questions, all rolled up into one loaded statement.
Cole nodded, not denying it, which let Phoebe relax a little, although the confusion was still intense. “Yes, and… Well, I was there when my mother-” He cut himself off sharply, and Phoebe winced, because she’d had a vision of that, but it had never quite dawned on her what that must have been like for Cole to witness. His mother murdering his father right in front of him. She didn’t know how old he’d been, but it couldn’t have been older than eight or so.
Reaching over, Phoebe covered his hand with hers. “I know.” Phoebe whispered, and going by the look on Cole’s face, he understood everything she was trying to say.
He managed a rueful little smile as he continued. “I was six-” That answered that question, at least. “-and I was… upset. And I had just been introduced to black magic.” Phoebe thought she could tell where this was going. “I tried to summon him, but while a white witch’s séance is like a long-distance phone call to the other side, black magic is never so benign. I accidentally trapped him in a small crystal ball.”
Phoebe winced. “Ouch.” She breathed in sympathy.
“It gets worse.” Cole assured her with dark humour.
“Your mother found out.” Phoebe guessed.
“My mother found out. She was not pleased. She took the crystal off me, and told me she’d destroyed it, lectured me about useless sentiment and not getting attached to your tools, they can always be replaced, etcetera and so forth.” Cole waved a hand in the air.
“But she really kept it?”
Cole shrugged. “She must have. At the time, I had no idea. When she was vanquished, his soul ended up with the Triad. I worked for the Source, you see, and he had no interest in going after you once you thwarted the Four Horsemen. He’d decided to just work around you, keep most of his agents away from San Francisco, problem solved. But the Triad had other ideas. They promised me my father’s soul, if I killed you.” He explained, clearly uncomfortable revealing so much.
Phoebe’s hand drifted to cover her mouth, belatedly realising just how much Cole had given up for love of her. “Cole…” She breathed.
Cole waved a hand, dismissing her sympathy. “Well, I killed them, and couldn’t find his soul, and gave up, but… somehow Raynor got his hands on it, and tried to manipulate me with it. After you’d given up on me, I was too angry and half out of my mind to really… make a plan. I killed him, my mentor and once friend, for the last remnants of the soul of a man I can barely remember. I figured, if I was already evil with no hope of redemption, what did it matter?”
Phoebe stared at him. Then, just to check she wasn’t imagining things, she looked at Leo, and found him already staring at her, looking just as bewildered as she felt. “That… doesn’t sound very evil, Cole.” Leo said dubiously. Cole squinted at him, confused right back.
“You killed evil to save an innocent soul, regardless of the pain it caused yourself. That’s… Cole, that’s what good does.” Phoebe explained patiently, offering him a tired smile. Cole opened his mouth, looking entirely ready to argue, only to stop, to falter, as realisation sank in. He raised a hand to rub at his eyes, and let out a small, bitter laugh. Phoebe scooted over enough to throw an arm around his shoulders. “See? Even when you’re trying to be evil, you can’t help but do good.” She proclaimed, in a light, cheery, almost childish voice of forced cheer. Cole tipped sideways with a more sincere, helpless laugh to rest his head against hers, and Phoebe sighed softly, wishing everything could be that easy to solve.
Time passed in that strange monotonous way it did in the underworld, and Phoebe threw herself into her work. She was almost never alone, given that she was the only one among them who couldn’t teleport in the blink of an eye, but a lot of the time she barely noticed. After they’d managed to gather a few bits and pieces like blankets, new clothes to replace their ruined ones by killing minor demons and taking their stuff, they set about trying to acquire things to trade for more valuable things, for a given notion of valuable, anyway.
Cole disappeared to make his own investigations sometimes, and once or twice he took Phoebe or Leo along when he wanted to be more overt in his questioning about loyalties. No significant leads had turned up yet, but when Phoebe expressed her frustration, Cole only reminded her that it wasn’t going to happen over night.
Phoebe distracted herself by finally getting to trade for a proper altar. She went for a waist-high table that she would have to stand at, because the low-slung one for kneeling at reminded her too much of home, and just looking at it sent her into a spiral of lost lost lost… Thus, the taller table, and a few black candles and other supplies to go with it. Setting it up was a good way to keep her hands busy and her mind focused. Not that it was anything that she needed to think hard about, but an altar always worked better if it was prepared with the proper reverence.
Cole was out on one of his investigations, which also helped sooth some of Phoebe’s impatience, and Leo was meditating in the corner, perhaps trying to commune with Up There, which would be impossible, but that probably wouldn’t stop him from trying, or trying to reconnect with his powers, which would be useful if he could, so Phoebe wouldn’t begrudge him the effort.
Setting up an altar wasn’t complicated, but Phoebe had been a practising witch for three years, and while when she’d been starting out, it had been enough to throw a few candles in a circle and say a chant, now she had preferences. It annoyed her if the incense holder was on the left instead of the right, not to mention she was used to working with the massive Warren Book of Shadows, so she was now having to readjust her set up so that she wasn’t leaving plenty of space for her reference material. She lit three of the candles, even though black wasn’t the most ideal colour for a white witch’s altar, and arranged them in a triangle at the top of the altar, leaving space in front of her as a place to work, whether that would be mixing herbs or writing spells or anything else.
She would need to talk to the other two about getting a cauldron. She doubted she’d be able to get all the ingredients for a real potion, but a small one for burning things other than incense in would be extremely useful. She was just considering perhaps asking for some chalk to draw pentagrams and triquetras on the altar with, when a shift in the air made her turn.
There was a trio of female demons, all clad in black leather, with dusky skin and wild hair, standing on the banks of the river. One flung a hand up, and Phoebe threw herself out of the way of the bolt of purplish-white energy that flew through the air like a dart. It hit her brand new altar, and half the top exploded, while the rest started to burn raggedly. Candles went flying to clatter dully against stone, and Phoebe cursed. “I just got that set up!” She whined.
Leo was now on his feet, but his sword was out of reach, leaning against the wall of the cave, and he wasn’t quite ready to take his eyes off the demons. The three of them smirked in unison, and they attacked. Two headed for Phoebe, while one lunged for Leo, whipping bolts of energy at him in rapid-fire succession. Phoebe let her body dodge on autopilot, her brain occupied with trying to work out if she could remember this type of demon from the Book of Shadows, or if she could identify them without needing that, and how she might vanquish them.
“Leo?” She called, then had to throw herself flat to the floor to avoid a barrage of bolts. She rolled to avoid one of the demons’ stomp-kicks, and lurched upright again to keep herself mobile.
“Busy!” Leo snarled back, physically wrestling with his opponent.
“What are they?!” Phoebe asked anyway, kicking one of the demons in the chin and sending her sprawling backwards, and then spinning to drive her elbow into the gut of the other one as she tried to sneak up on her. An idea dawned, and she cocked her head, listening hard to the demon behind her scrambling back to her feet as she watched the one in front straighten from her hunched protective posture. “What are you?” She asked the demon, as if that might get her an answer.
Predictably, the demon only smirked. Phoebe edged sideways, trying to match what she could hear of the movements of the one behind her. She heard a faint cracking noise behind her, and flung herself to the side, crashing into the wall with her burned shoulder which made her hiss between her teeth, but was at least better than landing on her broken arm. The bolt that had been aimed at her back hit the other demon instead, and for a moment, her wide-eyed shocked expression remained frozen, and then she exploded fairly dramatically.
“No!” Her ally shrieked, enraged. “You pathetic little witch!”
Phoebe raised her eyebrows incredulously, but pushed away from the wall and into a diving roll to keep from going the same way as the other demon. “Leo, seriously! What are we dealing with?” Phoebe asked, sliding into the forest of stalagmites around the edge of their cave. The demon followed her, flinging bolts after her but always only catching stone instead of flesh.
“I don’t know!” Leo shouted back. “I’m not a demonic encyclopedia!”
Phoebe puffed out her cheeks in irritation, then ducked behind another stalagmite as the demon advanced on her again. “So, just out of curiosity, how did you find us?” Phoebe asked, aiming for a conversational tone from behind her cover.
“As if I would tell you that.” The demon replied mockingly. “If you hold still, I promise to kill you quickly, though. Trust me, it’s a better fate than what awaits you if you get taken alive, and the Source really wants you alive now.”
“I’ll bet.” Phoebe agreed. The demon rounded the stalagmite, and Phoebe darted between two more and behind a third, leading her pursuer on a halting chase around the edge of the cavern. “He must be really mad at me right now.” Phoebe added, leaning back against a stalagmite and trying to catch her breath, tracking the demon more by sound than sight. “I mean, I’ve escaped him twice now? He can’t even catch one witch on his own territory? I’m making him look pretty pathetic.”
“You have no idea, little witch.” The demon replied, and that was closer than Phoebe had thought, damn it. She peeked out around the stalagmite, and immediately retracted her head as an energy bolt nearly singed her nose off. She heard rapid, irregular footsteps as the demon darted towards her, and she flung herself away from her stalagmite just as claws screeched across stone level with her throat. Phoebe turned to face her, but didn’t stop backing away. “Do you have any idea what you did?” The demon demanded, stalking after her.
“Uh… I’ve done a lot of things lately, you might want to be a bit more specific?” Phoebe prompted.
“That Solstice ritual of yours.” The demon spat. “The entire underworld felt its pull.” Phoebe didn’t respond, still waiting for more of an explanation. “And then the entire Lower Circle of the Council vanishes? There isn’t a demon in the underworld who can’t put the pieces together. Everyone knows you vanquished them.” The demon ranted, prowling closer all the while.
Phoebe took yet another step backwards, and cold water splashed over the back of her trainer and up over her ankle. She glanced behind her at the black glassy surface of the river, and then back at the demon. “Did he lose face?” She mocked. “Can’t even protect his own Council, what sort of ultimate evil is he, anyway?”
The demon snarled at her, and flung another energy-bolt. Phoebe danced sideways rather than backwards, not eager to soak her trainers in ice cold water unless she had to. “They were some of our greatest leaders! Centuries old, millennia, and you destroyed them!” The demon exclaimed, and forwent her distance attacks to lunge at Phoebe with claws out.
Phoebe braced herself, and let the demon slam into her, although she grabbed her wrists before she could actually claw Phoebe’s eyes out. They tumbled backwards into the icy water with a massive splash, and Phoebe’s head went under for a brief moment. She held her breath, and bucked, using her legs and hips, which weren’t so encumbered by the water, to hurl the demon to the side. She followed, still holding her wrists, and flung her whole weight down on the demon’s torso.
The demon flailed and bucked with supernatural strength, but Phoebe had fought demons stronger, and she knew how to pin someone to keep them down, even if they were bigger than her. The demon lifted her head out of the water with a gasp and a choking snarl, but Phoebe just snarled right back. She forced the demon’s hands down against her shoulders, and then leaned on them hard, forcing the demon’s head back under the water.
She held her there, struggling against every writhe and twist, until her muscles were burning and her breath was ragged, and then, finally, the struggles started to turn jerky and sluggish. Then they stopped. Phoebe didn’t dare let go for another two minutes, head bowed and shivers starting to wrack her frame and goosebumps pimping every inch of her skin. It wasn’t until a hand touched her shoulder that she moved, whipping around and bringing her hands up to defend herself, only to find Leo standing there, sword in hand and a very tired expression on his face.
“I think she’s dead.” Leo pointed out gently.
Phoebe blinked, then looked down at the body she was still straddling. “I don’t think so. She hasn’t gone poof.” She pointed out.
“Then let me.” Leo raised the sword to indicate what he meant. “You can’t sit there all day, you’ll catch hypothermia.” Reluctantly acknowledging his point, Phoebe forced her cold-stiff muscles to move, and stood, staggering away from the demon and then just standing there, watching, as Leo drove the sword down into the demon’s chest, and she finally did dissolve into a light cloud of ash that started to drift lazily downstream.
A stronger shiver shook through her, and Phoebe tore her eyes away. Reluctantly, she went over to her brand new altar, now useless, and started breaking it down to build a fire to warm herself up. Coaxing the embers still smouldering in the wood into a proper little fire was difficult, but she managed in eventually, and stripped off her wet clothes to sit as close as she dared in her underwear.
Leo laid out her clothes for her so that they would dry along with her, and then sat down behind her, shielding her back from the cold air, which was nice of him. “We need to ward this place.” Phoebe informed him tiredly.
“That sounds like a good idea.” Leo agreed.
“I’m not sure how to do it in a way that’ll let Cole inside, but not any other demons.”
“You should ask him. Demons ward their lairs against other demons all the time, so they must have some way of differentiating.”
“Oh, right. Good.” Phoebe sighed, and then propped her arms on her knees so she could lower her head onto them. “I miss the Book of Shadows.” She mused before she could stop herself. It was such a banal thing to say. She missed far more than just the Book, but right now, that was the thing on her mind. “I don’t suppose I could summon it down here?”
“…Maybe you could.” Leo replied, sounding surprised by the idea. “We have no idea if the Source’s seal stops travel both ways, or if it just stops anyone from leaving. It’d be a good way to check.”
Phoebe nodded, and spent the next few minutes composing the spell in her head. Once she was pretty sure she had something that would work, she shifted to sit cross-legged, held her arms out flat in front of her with her palms up and recited; “Warren witches who came before, and left to me a tome of lore, your wisdom now I beg of thee, heed the call send it back to me.”
She waited with her heart in her throat for the comforting weight of the old book, but nothing happened. With a small pained noise, she dropped her head back to knock into Leo’s. “Sorry.” Leo offered, sounding thoroughly exhausted. Phoebe just made another small noise, this one of denial. He had nothing to be sorry for, after all, it wasn’t his fault. Her determination to kill the Source rose up in her again, and she breathed through the burning rage it kindled. Slowly it ebbed again, but it left her feeling strangely less tired than she had been after the fight.
That was about the same time that Cole reappeared. He shimmered in, took one look at Phoebe in her underwear sitting in front of the fire, the still-scattered candles and the conspicuously absent altar, and put things together fairly quickly. “What happened?” He asked, hurrying over to drop to his knees beside Phoebe, eyes tracking over her, searching for injuries.
“Demons attacked, we kicked their asses.” Phoebe replied. “Actually, I don’t suppose you could ID them for me? They were all women, dark-skinned, wearing leather, quite pretty, and their hair was all…” Phoebe gestured like an explosion around her head. “Black claws, shot energy-bolts like little purple-white lasers.”
Cole frowned a little. “They sound like harpies.”
“Oh, of course.” Leo sighed.
“Harpies shouldn’t be able to track us.” Cole added, looking deeply frustrated. “We should probably move again, see if we can shake them off.”
“Can’t we try and ward this place, instead?” Phoebe asked. “Surely there’s some way to keep other demons out without stopping you from getting in and out as you please? If I just ward against demons with a spell, it would probably block you as well.”
“And it would be noticeable as white magic.” Cole agreed. “The only thing I can think of is blood wards. And those… those are pretty dark.” He warned her, as though he thought she’d balk and tell him no, they’d just have to put up with demons knowing where they were sleeping.
“Cole, we’ve talked about this.” Phoebe reminded him.
Cole nodded and held out a hand to her. “Alright, I’ll teach you how to set up a blood ward.”
Phoebe took his hand and let him pull her up. She was warm and mostly dry, and although her clothes were a little bit damp, she threw them back on anyway. Cole took them both to collect the supplies, which was a frustratingly long task. They needed a plain athame with no curse or enchantment on it, lamb’s blood, a silver bowl, clean cloths, and several powdered herbs Phoebe was pretty sure were poisonous. They also needed a black candle, but they already had one of those.
When they got back, Cole set everything up a little way away from the fire, close to the bank of the river, and had Leo light the candle with a touch. “First,” he explained as he worked and Phoebe peered over his shoulder, “we have to consecrate the blade in the blood of an innocent.”
“Lamb’s blood?” Phoebe questioned dubiously.
“When making blood wards, it’s best to use a blade that has never before touched human or demonic – or angelic – blood.” Cole explained. “Because even the smallest trace could give that person access to wherever you’re trying to protect. And demons have learned the hard way that you don’t use a dead innocent’s blood if you don’t want to invite a vengeful ghost into your lair.” Phoebe remembered how much havoc her ghost friend had caused, when she got upset, and couldn’t help but smirk at the thought.
“So the lamb’s blood is symbolic.” Phoebe realised.
“Lambs have been a symbol of innocence for a very long time, after all.” Cole agreed. He spoke several incantations over the blade while it was coated in lamb’s blood, strange little chants in Latin that Phoebe actually rather liked the sound of. Or maybe she just liked Cole’s voice, and she appreciated it more when she didn’t get distracted by the meaning of the words he was using. Then he washed the blade in the river, and held it over the candle and spoke more incantations.
“Fire for cleansing.” Phoebe guessed.
Cole nodded. “The principles are fairly similar to white magic, I’ve found.” He agreed. “Now, we take blood from the back of the left forearm of all those who will be powering the ward. We’ll need a decent amount of blood from all of us, since we number just three.” He tapped the knife against the bowl. “This needs to be about half full, I think.”
Phoebe looked at the bowl, and winced. It was a small bowl, about the same size as her own hands cupped together, but the only other time she’d used blood in a ritual, they’d only needed a drop. “A drop isn’t enough?” She asked, not really expecting the answer she wanted, but having to ask anyway.
Cole shook his head. “When we key the wards on who to let in, then all we’ll need is a drop, for identification. But this is power, and that means we need enough to tell the magic within what to do. It’s ink, more or less, and we need enough for all five anchor sigils and the heart sigil.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” Phoebe acknowledged. “The only time I’ve ever used blood in magic, we only need a drop each, but those were just for identification, I think.” Leo and Cole both stared at her, shocked. “What?” Phoebe asked.
“You’ve used blood magic before?” Leo asked, sounding horrified.
“Not-” Phoebe stopped, and actually thought about it before she said ‘not really’, because it wasn’t like she knew what separated blood magic from magic that just happened to use a little bit of blood. “I don’t know. We- There was this one time where we brought Melinda Warren back for a while, and it took a drop of blood from each of us?” She paused and gestured at Leo. “You met her, actually, and quoted Shakespeare at her, back when you were still pretending to be a handyman.”
Leo’s mouth dropped open. “That was…?”
“After I found out you were a whitelighter, I’d assumed you knew.” Phoebe said, questioning.
Leo shook his head. “No, I had no idea… I mean, I figured she was there to help you with something magical, but I thought she was a witch from another coven. If I’d known you’d been doing blood magic, I would have had to report it, and…” He grimaced.
“They wouldn’t have liked it, huh?” Phoebe asked wryly. Leo just shook his head emphatically.
“It sounds like a blood-to-blood summoning.” Cole interjected.
“Yeah, that’s what it was called.” Phoebe confirmed as the phrase jogged her memory.
Cole shook his head in disbelief. “That’s not just blood magic, it’s necromancy. I imagine if the saintly Elders knew that was in your Book of Shadows, they’d try to destroy it, and probably you along with it.” He announced with a chilly kind of disapproval.
“Why are they so against blood magic?” Phoebe wondered.
“Because it’s dark. It’s an inherently selfish form of magic.” Leo explained. “The blood represents the self, the soul. To have someone’s blood is to have power over them. That’s why the really powerful demons often need a potion made with their blood to vanquish. Because by taking their blood, you’re taking control of their life. To use your own blood will draw all benefit of the spell you cast to yourself. That’s why blood wards can be so very powerful.”
“Exactly.” Cole agreed. Then he gestured for Phoebe’s arm, which she presented, only remembering at the last moment that he’d specified left. He flicker her an amused glance, which shifted to apologetic as he caught hold of her elbow to steady her and drew the athame lightly across the back of her arm. Blood immediately welled up and began to drip. Cole swiftly and efficiently swapped dagger for cup, and slid it under the cut just before the first drop could fall. It landed in the silver cup with a near silent splat, and more followed.
“Why the left arm specifically?” Phoebe asked, to distracted herself from the pain in her arm.
“Right hand holds the sword, left arm bears the shield.” Cole replied. “In general. Left handed practitioners will often switch which side they use, but some don’t, believing the power of belief from the masses outweighs their own bias.”
Phoebe wrinkled her nose. “That seems like a bad attitude to have when practising any sort of magic. ‘Other people have more power than me’? How would anyone get any spells to work thinking like that?” She wondered.
“I never said they were successful practitioners.” Cole replied, holding back a laugh.
Once there was enough of Phoebe’s blood in the bowl, Cole offered her one of the clean cloths, and gestured for Leo’s arm. He offered it up with a resigned expression, and Cole made the cut and held up the bowl to catch the spilled blood. He repeated the process again on himself, until the bowl was half full. Then he added the powdered herbs one at a time, stirring them in with a finger. “Now, we draw the anchor sigils.” He announced, rising to his feet. “They need to be at the perimeter of the area you want protected, so on the walls of any dwelling.”
Phoebe and Leo got to their feet as well. “You said five anchor seals.” Leo remembered. “I thought there were only four, usually.”
“In the mortal world, the anchor sigils usually correspond to the cardinal directions. North, West, South, and East.” Cole explained as he led them to the entrance to the only tunnel leading into their cavern. “You draw them widdershins, to increase their potency, to symbolise the fight against the status quo. But down here, we don’t have directions like that, so we use a pentagram as our base.” He reached up to begin finger-painting a mark in blood above the mouth of the tunnel.
“There must be meaning behind the sigil.” Phoebe announced, although it was truly a question.
“The point for the self, the hearth, the anchor.” Cole began, indicating the mark he’d already made, before drawing a careful circle around it. “The circle for protection.” Phoebe nodded, because she knew that one. Cole went on to draw an arch above them. “The shield for defence.”
“Is there a difference between the two?” Phoebe wondered. “Or does it just amplify the magic to have both?”
“Using the shield over the circle will always amplify the shield, but there are subtle differences.” Cole explained, pausing in his work to gesture at the two components. “The circle is whole, complete, within itself. It is… passive, I guess, a simple barrier to either contain or repel. The shield is directional, and therefore it is actively repelling, without containing. It’ll direct the flow of harmful magic away from us, so by adding it here, and by making the circle a support for it, it will allow us to attack someone outside the barrier without breaking it, while their attacks will be halted, even sometimes reflected.”
Phoebe nodded to show she understood. “Clever.”
Cole looked pleased, but he shook his head. “It’s a simple warding sigil.” He denied, and then went back to the sigil, adding two lines coming down and out from the central point, though not quite touching it. “These are just for simple amplification, the beacon to amplify and the triangle to balance.” He added a horizontal line that crossed through both diagonal lines underneath the circle, and then another, shorter horizontal line that didn’t quite touch the diagonals. “And those are grounding, binding the warding to this place, this earth and stone, this dwelling.” He lowered his arm and took a step back, studying the sigil for a moment, before nodding, and glancing down at the bowl in his hand.
“Do we have enough?” Phoebe asked, with her own glance at the cloth she’d wrapped around her injured arm. Cole nodded, and glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the cave. Phoebe followed his look, and tried to see what he was looking for. “Where are we going to put the next sigil?”
“We’re drawing a pentagram.” Cole reminded her, prompted her, really, with one eyebrow quirking up as though to ask her where she thought they were going to put the next one.
Phoebe drew in a steadying breath, and scanned the cave. From the entrance, the river oozed out of a hollow gaping mouth in the wall towards the back on her left, with a low enough roof that Phoebe wouldn’t expect to get even a small dingy through. In fact, if she went for a swim, she’d probably bump her head on the small protruding stalactites trying to get under there. The river itself made a remarkably straight course through the cave, sliding out of view under the ground where the floor of the cave began to slope up and it had carved out a channel for itself, which formed a sort of bridge over to the other side of the river – a fairly small space though it was, especially with the small collection of stalagmites growing near the wall – before the angle became to steep to be called the ‘floor’ anymore.
On the other side of the cavern was where most of the stalagmite forest was clustered, ranged along most of the wall, but filling a larger space than it looked like from outside. Between the two was the wide open space the three of them had decided to occupy, although from her chase through the stalagmites before, Phoebe would wager that the actual center of the cavern was right on the edge of the stone forest, because while the shadows made the wall appear as if it was close, the cavern bulged out there, and that space was filled with stone pillars and almost-pillars where the stalagmites and stalactites were growing together.
“I’d put the next one above the mouth of the river.” Phoebe decided, but then realised that Cole had been studying the right side of the cavern, instead of the left. “No, wait…” She said, before Cole could tell her that she was wrong. She frowned at the cave, trying to figure it out. The answer, when it came to her, was annoyingly simple. “Except we have to draw it widdershins, not deosil. Anti-clockwise, not clockwise, so…” She re-examined the cave, trying to remember where the wall behind the stone forest actually was, not where it appeared to go. “Um… just behind that little stalagmite there.” She said, pointing to the one she meant, right on the edge of the forest.
“I think so, too.” Cole agreed, and they trooped over so Cole could draw the sigil. Then they headed over to the bridge at the end of the river, and Cole climbed up the slope as far as he could to draw the sigil on the wall. From there came the most difficult one to place, as they had to weave their way into the depths of the stalagmites, and their perception of where they were in relation to the other sigils got thrown off. But if they didn’t extend the shield to the very walls in every direction, it was entirely possible for someone to shimmer or blink into the cave in the narrow gap between sigil and wall, and they might not be able to get past the sigil by magical means, but that wouldn’t stop them using more mundane tools to destroy the sigil and break the wards.
Eventually they agreed on where to place that one, and then they struggled to work out how Cole could place the ward neatly over the mouth of the river when it was too wide for him to just reach over and draw on the arch. Phoebe eyed the river, then the arch, then the distance from the edge. “Does it have to be you who draws it?” She asked him.
Cole looked puzzled, but shook his head. “No. The magic is drawn from the blood itself, not the one drawing the sigil. As long as they’re all the same symbol, with the same meaning to the artist, the connection won’t be broken.”
“Okay. If I fall in, please don’t laugh at me.” She requested. Cole and Leo both looked dubious at this statement, and even more so when Phoebe backed away from the edge of the river. Then she took a running start, and jumped out over the river. She hit the peak of her jump, and began to fall towards the water. Her heart thundering in her ears, she waited until the last moment before reaching for her magic, and letting it catch her and wrench her out of gravity’s grasp.
She rose up a few inches, and hung there suspended. Laying a hand on the cave wall, she used that leverage to turn herself to face Leo and Cole standing on the bank with a winning smile. “About here, right?” She drummed her fingers against the wall under her hand.
Cole smirked at her. “Catch.” He suggested, and gave the bowl of blood a light toss. Phoebe squeaked in alarm and stretched out a hand to grab it. She fumbled, it tilted, she tightened her grip, and it steadied. Phoebe watched it intently for any sign that it was about to fall as she caught her breath and let her heart slow.
“Cole!” She reprimanded. Cole grinned unrepentantly.
Huffing, Phoebe gave the rest of the cavern an assessing look, before turning her attention to the stone wall beside her. She had to stretch a little to reach the mid-way point between the two sigils next to this one, but not too far, so she dipped her finger into the blood to begin drawing the sigil. She nearly dropped the bowl again the moment her finger touched the blood, because it was still warm. Almost hot, actually, like the perfect temperature for a bubble bath. After the amount of time it had been sitting in the air, it should have been cold and possibly beginning to congeal. Instead it was warm and fluid and oddly pleasant.
Phoebe couldn’t decide if the swooping feeling in her gut was exultation or disgust. She swallowed it down, whatever it was, and drew the sigil. The center, the circle, the shield, the beacon, and the anchor. One after the other, she marked them out, keeping her hand steady and slow, just like she’d seen Cole do it, making sure to get them just right, and to hold the meaning of each and how they came together to form the whole firm in her mind as she drew.
Then she was done. She sighed in relief, and turned towards the bank, only to realise she hadn’t thought about how to get down. Hers was the power of levitation, not flight. She could rise up in the air, but once there she couldn’t move herself anywhere except further up or back down. “Um…” She began.
Cole laughed at her, and she stuck her tongue out at him. She’d solved the problem they had, after all, it wasn’t her fault the only solution she’d been able to think of hadn’t been perfect. “Hold still.” Leo instructed, sounding more tired than amused, but maybe both. Then he orbed out. The glimmer of white lights he dissolved into didn’t fade, however. Instead, they moved, swooping towards Phoebe and catching her up. The world vanished behind them, and when it reformed, she was back on the bank with Cole, Leo’s arm around her shoulders.
“Thanks.” Phoebe offered, then handed the bowl of blood and herbs back to Cole. He took it with a carefully questioning look that Phoebe ignored. She didn’t want to think about what she’d felt when she’d touched the blood, so she wasn’t going to. “You said there’s just the heart sigil left, now?”
“Yes.” Cole confirmed. “It can be anywhere within the bounds of the ward itself, but it wants to be hidden. If this gets destroyed, the ward will fail. It’s the mark that tells it what it’s purpose is, who it’s meant to protect, so without it, it will go dormant.”
“In the forest, then.” Phoebe replied, gesturing to indicate the stalagmites.
They searched for a while for an ideal spot, and finally, Leo found a stalactite that had fallen and shattered both itself and it’s matching stalagmite, the shards mostly held between a small cluster of bigger, stronger stalagmites. “If we draw the sigil under one of the bigger pieces, we can put the rubble back on top, and unless someone’s actively moving every rock to find it, they won’t see it.”
“Good idea.” Cole agreed. After a short debate, they agreed on which rock to hide it under, and Leo and Phoebe hefted it out of the way. Cole drew a simple pentagram, and around the outside he added little darts that pointed to each of the warding sigils. Then he withdrew the athame again. “Phoebe, left hand.” He requested, and when Phoebe held out her hand, he pricked her finger with the tip of the athame and squeezed one drop out onto the center of the pentagram. The moment the drop hit stone, the air shivered, and a ripple seemed to echo out from the heart sigil to the five anchors. They all flared with red light, and Phoebe felt the sudden pull on her powers as the wards activated. Leo and Cole apparently did, too, because Leo gasped, and Cole looked smug.
The sigil itself dried abruptly, more like ink than blood normally would. The rock sitting on top of it wouldn’t scratch it off, Phoebe didn’t think, but it would still be too easy for a determined enemy to simply erase it if they got inside. Cole wordlessly added himself and Leo, one drop each in the center of the heart sigil, and the moment the drops hit the stone, they dried, barely splashing at all. They put the rock back on top, and Phoebe dusted her hands off on her trousers. “Is that it?” She checked.
“That’s it.” Cole confirmed. “We’re warded now.”
Blood magic was incredibly useful to a witch with no active power. Phoebe interrogated Cole for all his knowledge of sigils and their components and uses, and then she got to work laying traps all around the underworld. She wanted to set them everywhere, but there were limits, like every kind of magic. Part of that limit was simply how much of her own blood she could spare at any given time. The ambient magic would replenish her reserves without need for food, but it took time, perhaps even longer than it might in the mortal world, given that her magic and her blood was being fed from the same source down here. Part of it was also that she had to be careful not to have too many ready at once, because if they were all activated at the same time, the drain on her own power might kill her.
But she could handle at least seven at once, so she drew lethal traps on ceilings in tunnels she knew upper level demons frequented. And every time one activated, and she felt the draw on her power, the dizzying rush, she’d get a disinterested Leo or an entertained Cole to take her out to set another somewhere else that an upper level demon might wander through.
The rest of her time she occupied with hunting low level demons personally, and collecting supplies now that they had somewhere permanent to stay. She did manage to get enough blankets for the three of them to form make-shift beds, and created a new altar for herself. She collected herbs and mixed magical poisons that she laced her daggers with, and potions the could mimic Piper’s explosive power.
Leo hated those. Phoebe understood, because every time the blast went off and the demon died, Phoebe remembered Piper, too. But she didn’t feel like she had many tears left to shed for her sisters. On the few occasions she cried, the tears were few and the urge faded quickly. The reminder was just a hollow ache, and only fed her determination. Leo, on the other hand, only seemed to fold inwards in his grief. Phoebe worried, but she wouldn’t keep from using any weapon she could make or steal just because it wasn’t comfortable to use. They were powerless enough as it was.
More often than not, Cole would head out by himself. He told Phoebe that he had found a few substantial leads, at last, and didn’t want to let the trails go cold. Phoebe wanted to hurry him up, but she knew that ferreting out rumours like that was subtle work, and wouldn’t show results any sooner for her haste, so she let him do whatever he thought was necessary, and redirected her impatient energy into hunting demons.
Sometimes she’d get Cole to drop her off somewhere, and call for Leo when she needed an out, but sometimes Leo would come with her, despite how much he didn’t like her methods. Phoebe never pushed him one way or the other, just let him deal with it his own way, but she had to admit she fought better with someone at her back.
The last demon present at the moment died under Phoebe’s knife, and she stepped back as he exploded into ash. “You good to keep going?” She asked Leo, looking over. He looked back, holding his sword in one hand and not even breathing hard, and nodded. Phoebe’s smile was a hard thing. “Come on.” She tipped her head towards the tunnel, and they set off down it.
On hearing a scuffle up ahead, Phoebe stilled and pressed herself back against the tunnel wall. Leo mimicked her, and they edged closer that way, doing their best to stay out of sight for as long as possible. When they got closer, Phoebe realised they were talking about her.
“We’ve got to do something!”
“The deep tunnels just aren’t safe anymore!”
“There’s nothing we can do, she’s too powerful!”
“She’s one witch! Someone just needs to get in a lucky shot!”
“I say we mob her and hope for the best!”
“That’s what everyone else has been doing, and see how that worked for them?!”
“We can’t just sit here and wait to die!”
“What is the Source doing about her?!”
“Shut up you! Or do you want to die?!”
“I’m just saying-”
There was a fwumph of sudden flame, a scream, and then silence.
“Anyone else got anything to say about the Source?”
There was a bunch of mumbled ‘no’s like the demons were naughty schoolchildren, not powerful creatures of evil. Phoebe couldn’t help but grin to herself. She had no idea that her way of keeping herself from going insane while Cole worked on the real plan would have such benefits, but anything that sowed dissension on the ranks was fine by her.
“The point is, we need to do something about the witch before she kills us all.”
“Well, well, well. Here you are.”
Phoebe froze. That last voice hadn’t come from the cavern up ahead, but from behind her. She turned, and was stunned to see another trio of harpies standing in the tunnel, ranged in an arrow formation, all pretty and wild and viciously smug. The voices from the lair ahead had gone silent, and Phoebe cursed the loss of the element of surprise. “You again.” She snarled.
“Us again.” The harpy in the lead agreed, something cruel bleeding through under her light conversational tone and wide smile. “What did you do with our sisters, by the way? I can’t believe either of you vanquished them. The powerless witch and the healing pacifist.”
“Powerless?” Phoebe echoed, not sure if she was more offended or amused by that description. Offended, she decided after a moment, and she threw one of her potions. The explosion shook the tunnel, and brought down rubble on her own head, but it sent the harpies flying. They crashed into walls or the ceiling, and dropped to the floor with many grunts of pain. But they were still alive, which was not what Phoebe had been hoping for.
Then she heard a war cry go up behind her, and she cursed. “Do you want to run?” Leo asked, knocking his shoulder into hers.
“I don’t want the harpies following us.” Phoebe admitted grimly. “But I don’t seem to be able to kill them myself.” It was annoying to have to admit it, but even her most powerful potion only knocked them on their ass, and last time it had taken Leo and his sword to kill them, or their own energy-bolts. In a narrow tunnel like this, Phoebe didn’t think she could recreate that move. “You take the harpies, I’ll get the mob?” She gestured towards the sound of many running feet to indicate who she meant. Leo nodded shortly, and they turned back-to-back and readied themselves to fight.
It was the most dire fight they’d faced since the Source. Phoebe had almost begun to forget what it was like to face down evil with something precious at her back. So much of her life lately had been hunting it down and rooting it out herself, so she could afford to fall back and retreat if she needed to. But at the Summer Solstice, she’d had Cole wounded at her back, and now she had Leo, vulnerable to attack from behind, trusting her to keep him defended while he opened their way out.
This was how she’d fought with her sisters. When they’d had a life to occupy their spare time, and the only time they had to confront evil was when there was an innocent behind them and the balance of good and evil on the line. Phoebe refused to let the hurt overwhelm her, and she dragged up her rage and her defiance. Instead of focusing on her memories of her sisters, she forced herself to think of the Source and his laughter when he told them her sisters were dead. She forced herself to remember that these demons served him, killed to defend him, and so, they had to die.
“Phoebe!” Leo shouted, and Phoebe glanced over. He was standing alone in the tunnel, a burn on his wrist and scratches across his cheek, but three piles of ash smoking gently around his feet. “Let’s go.” It was a good suggestion, but Phoebe only had to think for a second of returning to their safe haven and sitting around uselessly to shake her head. She went back to killing demons.
A sword flashed in her peripheral vision. “We really ought to go.” Leo pointed out, taking another demon’s head off.
“No. We came here to kill these bastards, and I’m going to kill them.” Phoebe retorted, throwing a potion with one hand and stabbing a demon with the athame in the other. The tide of demons was beginning to falter, as they realised that they weren’t going to win by sheer force of numbers. Phoebe pressed ahead, driving them back into their lair.
An energy-bolt came sailing over the demons’ heads, aimed straight for Phoebe’s face. The only reason it didn’t kill her was because Leo slammed into her and orbed them to another set of tunnels. “Damn it!” Phoebe cursed. Then she glanced around. “Where are we?”
“You said you didn’t want to lead the harpies back to our lair. So I brought us somewhere else.” Leo reminded her, looking deeply annoyed.
“Oh, you have a lair. That would be why we couldn’t find you before now.” Leo and Phoebe both jumped and spun, to see a group of five harpies standing there. “How are you protecting it from our search? Is there some white witch trick to conceal yourself from evil?” The one in the center wondered, eyeing them both like she was wondering which part would be the most fun to cut off.
“Why would I tell you?” Phoebe retorted.
The harpy shrugged, and then they attacked. Energy-bolts flew, and Phoebe dove out of the way. Given that nothing she had could kill them, Phoebe resigned herself to keeping them distracted and watching Leo’s back. She threw potions and leapt in with her athame when one tried to close in on Leo while he was busy fighting one of the others. She had to keep moving constantly, to keep out of the way of the energy-bolts. She couldn’t always dodge completely, and she got singed a couple of times until her frustration mounted high enough that she decided she was done letting the harpies play target practice with her.
“Wind and storm were yours to wield, let them now become my shield.” Phoebe chanted, and immediately, a small whirlwind whipped up around her. The next energy-bolt flung in her direction was caught up and absorbed into the vortex, turning what had been a simple wind into a lightning-streaked storm. Phoebe’s vision was hindered, the whole cave distorted by the high-speed magical winds protecting her, but she did her best to keep herself between Leo and the two left that he wasn’t in the middle of fighting. Two others had already fallen to his sword.
Phoebe’s spell suddenly faltered, as she felt the tug and pull on her power that meant one of her traps had been activated. She couldn’t keep both up at once, so she let the shield fall. The harpies let out a cry of victory, and Leo used their distraction to take out two in quick succession. The one remaining faltered, stepping back, her eyes flicking between Leo with his sword and Phoebe with her potions. Leo lunged, and the harpy smoked out.
“Damn it.” Phoebe said again.
“Can we go back now?” Leo asked pointedly, giving Phoebe a chiding look.
“Yes.” Phoebe huffed, holding out her hand. Leo took it, and orbed them back to their lair. Cole was waiting for them, and he took one look at their singed appearances, and raised his eyebrows in question. “We ran into harpies again.” Phoebe informed him.
“Twice.” Leo interjected. “Because Phoebe refused to retreat the first time.”
“Yes, I know I was being stupid and reckless, you don’t need to keep on about it, thank you.” Phoebe grumbled defensively. Then she changed the subject, before either Leo or Cole could respond. “So, how did your day go, honey?”
Cole snorted. “Fairly well.” He acknowledged. “It seems that a while ago, one of the Triad attempted to assassinate the Source, and got thrown out of the Triad for ‘treason’. He wasn’t killed, though, and the Source didn’t have the power to exile him before he was thrown out of the Triad, and couldn’t find him to banish him afterwards. Now I just need to track him down.”
“An ex-Triad member?” Phoebe asked, delighted.
“I was surprised.” Cole acknowledged. “But the Source and the Triad have always been at odds with one another. They have common goals, and the Triad can’t really challenge the Source’s authority, but they’re… somewhat above his jurisdiction, as well. A law unto themselves. So there’s always been friction, but something as overt as an assassination… It’s good for us, though, so I’m not complaining.”
“No, this is great.” Phoebe agreed. “If he used to be part of the Triad, do you think he’d be able to match the Source’s power?”
“No.” Cole said at once, and Phoebe deflated. “The Triad’s power comes from their triumvirate. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Source is the Source because he is the strongest demon, the most powerful force for Evil in the Underworld. The only reason I managed to kill the triad was because I got one of them before they were expecting it. Then, their power was broken, and the other two were easy to take out. The Source is that strong by himself.”
“Oh. Well, he’s still got to be pretty powerful, right?” Phoebe asked hopefully.
“Yes. The Triad are usually demons elevated from the Council.” Cole explained, and when he caught Phoebe’s confused look, he elaborated. “The Infernal Council. You killed the Low Council at the Solstice. Then there’s the High Council, and then the Infernal Council themselves. The eighteen of them are the Source’s advisors and warlords. They’re also responsible for maintaining the Grimoire, inducting a new Source if and when the previous Source dies, and keeping magic concealed from the mortal world. Usually in that order, from Infernal, High, and then Low.”
“And their power levels?” Phoebe inquired.
Cole shrugged carelessly. “If I hadn’t defected, I expect I would have a seat on the new Low Council. My being a half-breed might prevent me, but that’s about how powerful they each are by themselves. The position itself allows them a power boost, though. The Council is three rings of six, so that’s a lot of symbolic evil energy being channelled through them.”
“Six-six-six, the number of the beast.” Phoebe muttered, rolling her eyes.
“I’ll let you know when I think I might know where Xar is. The ex-Triad member” Cole added when he remembered he hadn’t actually mentioned the demon’s name before. Phoebe nodded gratefully, and Cole smirked. “In the meantime, I found you this.” He offered, and tossed something at Phoebe.
She caught it, and then looked down at her cupped hands. There was a small golden yellow crystal in her hands, jagged and rough, but undeniably a magical crystal. “A siderite crystal!” She cheered, looking up at Cole, only to have to fumble to catch the bag he’d tossed at her. It clacked and clinked as she jostled it, and she was sure of what she’d see when she opened it before she did.
Sure enough, there were another four crystals tucked inside. Phoebe dropped the first one back in amongst its sisters, slipped the cord of the drawstring over her wrist, and then flung her arms around Cole. “Thank you! These might let us keep a demon alive long enough to ask questions!”
“Are you… really considering torture?” Leo asked tiredly.
Phoebe drew back to look at him in irritation. She also noticed that Cole looked a bit pitying. “Yes?” She asked, as if it should have been obvious.
“Phoebe, you can’t just-” Leo began, sounding utterly exhausted.
“I can’t what, Leo?!” She demanded, losing her temper more suddenly than she had since she’d been a teenager. “Have I not made myself clear enough this last month? I’m going to do whatever it takes to kill the Source. I will kill demons with my own bare hands. I will cast any and all blood magic I need to. And yes, I will torture demons until they cough up the Source’s weaknesses if I have to! If you don’t like it, fine, you don’t have to help. Sit here and wallow. But don’t get in my way, Leo.”
Leo stared at her for a long moment, and Phoebe would have liked to say he looked conflicted, but mostly he just looked like he didn’t have the energy to worry about the moral dilemma. “Alright, fine.” He sighed, turning away with a half-hearted shrug. “You’re right I don’t like it, but I honestly don’t care enough to try and stop you.”
He walked over to spot he’d claimed as his bedroom, half hidden by the first few scattered stalagmites, and set the sword against one of them before he lay down, his back to them. Phoebe watched him, feeling righteous and guilty and bitter. “Let him be.” Cole advised, and Phoebe nodded reluctantly. “We could all do with some sleep.”
Phoebe let him tug her to their own bed, and dropped off to sleep with surprising ease. Exhausting herself in battle all the time did help her get to sleep at the end of the day. It didn’t help with the nightmares, though, and she jolted awake only a few hours later after a confusing jumble where she flitted from dying at the Source’s hand to killing him only to find Cole under the black hood to standing over her sister’s bodies with their blood on her hands.
She rolled over, pressed her face into Cole’s chest, and forced herself to think about all the different ways she could kill the Source until she fell asleep again. When she woke next, and found that Cole was already up, she got up, too, and decided to set about charging her brand new siderite crystals. She barely remembered what Prue had told her about them, and even thinking about it hurt, so she mostly experimented. She tried spells, herbs, even tried to get a premonition off one. She caught a glimpse of the attic at the manor, the Book of Shadows on it’s stand, and Cole seizing, shifting between his human form and Belthazor, as the siderite crystals around him sent arcs of electricity up around and into his neck like a shock collar. It was a disturbing premonition – or, vision of the past, really – and it didn’t seem to have affected the crystals at all, so Phoebe resolved not to try that again.
Instead, she settled down to meditate, holding one of the crystals in her hand and visualising the flow of magic from the air into her as she breathed, from her lungs out into her arms, and down her arms into the crystal held cupped between her palms. Within five minutes she had settled into a light trance, and not long after that, she felt the crystal begin to warm and hum against her skin.
She paused long enough to glance down at the crystal, and found it glowing only very, very dimly. So she closed her eyes again, and went back to her meditation. It wasn’t anything like meditating before. The Underworld already had a strange timelessness to it that Phoebe, who unlike Cole and Leo had never lived anywhere without a twenty-four hour day and night cycle, found intensely disorienting. Meditation created it’s own timelessness, where hours could pass and feel like a few minutes, if Phoebe could really get into it. The two combined made her feel dizzy with her lack of any frame of reference for her own existence, and she usually only felt better after talking with Cole for an hour or two.
She swapped out the crystal after a while, when it was almost hot to the touch and the hum had gone from sub-audible, to high and clear, if still very faint. Before she could get the second one up to the same level of power, a sudden crash jolted her out of her trance. She was on her feet with knife in hand before she even began to search for the cause of the noise.
It was coming from the tunnel. Phoebe ran over, with Cole and Leo both close behind, and she found an entire gang of harpies – a flock of harpies? – standing there, firing bolt after bolt at the entrance. Their wards clearly worked, because the bolts were impacting against an invisible shield, causing strange bruise-purple ripples in the air as the blasts dissipated. Phoebe stood there and watched, her heartbeat slowing as it became clear there was no immediate danger.
She realised after a while that she could feel the wards drawing on her power, pulling at her soul for the power it needed to keep them safe. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but the satisfaction of succeeding at something, of foiling the Source’s plans to kill her, outweighed that discomfort entirely. She crossed her arms and smirked at the harpies beyond the barrier, watching them grow more and more frustrated as they tried and failed to blast their way in.
“How did they find us here?” Cole asked, quiet enough that his voice wouldn’t carry to the harpies over the sound of their attack.
“Good question.” Leo murmured back, sounding disturbed.
Phoebe considered it for a long moment, and felt her heart sink as the answer dawned on her. “I know you said you can use blood to track someone…” She began to Cole, and Leo sucked in a sharp breath. Phoebe reached out and caught hold of his wrist, giving a small, comforting squeeze to reassure him she wasn’t blaming him. “But can it be used to track other workings done with their blood?”
“Yes.” Cole said, resigned. “It’s difficult, and as far as I know, harpies don’t have that sort of skill with those kinds of passive, ritualistic magic. They’re hunters, kind of like enforcers for the Council.” He explained grimly. “But if they had allied with a Dark Priestess…”
“Could someone on the Council be the one doing that actual tracking?” Phoebe suggested.
Cole’s expression darkened. “Astaroth started her life as a Priestess, if I’m remembering my history correctly, and she prefers to work with the all-female clans of demon, like the harpies.” He confirmed.
“Astaroth.” Phoebe repeated. “She’s a big deal?”
“She’s the only female demon who managed to gain a seat on the Infernal Council in the entire known history of the Underworld.” Cole confirmed. “Six thousand years of dark magic thriving in these underground spaces, and she’s the only female demon strong enough to challenge five thousand years of sexism.” He added with a mocking sort of cheer.
“Good to know there are glass ceilings everywhere.” Phoebe replied with matching false brightness.
“Ask Leo sometime about just how many female Elders there have ever been.” Cole advised.
Phoebe shook her head. “And here I thought magic was a woman’s art.” She pointed out.
“Oh, it is.” Cole assured her. “It always has been. Why do you think the males are so very, very determined to be in charge? We’re entirely superfluous, and we desperately don’t want you to realise that.” He explained flippantly, smiling beatifically.
Phoebe snorted. “Now that’s not true. You’re not entirely superfluous.” She shot him a look under her lashes to make sure he knew just what she was getting at. “You have some uses.”
“Is now really the time?” Leo sighed. Phoebe cleared her throat and returned her attention to the harpies attacking their wards. The way Cole’s arm shook lightly against her back made her suspect he was laughing. “They’re going to figure out this isn’t working sooner or later and try something else.” Leo announced, and as if he’d jinxed it, the harpies all paused in their attack, and a few backed off to mutter amongst themselves.
Cole decided that was his cue to saunter forwards, hands in the pockets of his jeans, to give the harpies the same smile he’d worn when pretending to be an ADA, putting potential witnesses at ease. Phoebe remembered falling head first for that smile. “Hello. Did Astaroth send you? Only it’s a bit rude of her not to have offered advanced warning you might be coming.”
“What did you think would happen if you let anyone get their hands on your blood?” One of the harpies mocked with a sneer.
“Well, we really did need that dragon bone.” Cole mused. “Tell me, were any of your people in the poltergeist tunnels the day our bomb went off?” He asked idly, as if the answer was of no consequence to him really, he was just asking to pass the time.
But the harpy’s face went pale under her tan, and she hissed at him. “Yes, they were.” She snapped.
Cole clicked his tongue as if in sympathy. “What a pity.” He mused. “That it wasn’t more of you, I mean.” He added, and the harpy and a handful of those standing close to her shrieked in outrage and attacked the barrier again. Out of the blue, one of the bolts seemed to bounce. It hit the air where the wards began, the air rippled in shades of dark purple and periwinkle, and then rebounded instead of exploding, hitting the lead harpy square in the chest and vanquishing her on the spot.
“Enough!” Another of the harpies thundered, and the others all stopped. The one that walked forwards looked older than the rest, her face lined and her eyes hooded. There were streaks of steel grey in her flyaway hair, but none of that diminished her grace and poise. “You will not allow Belthazor to bait you again.” She ordered, and the other harpies bowed their heads and murmured their assent.
“Celaeno.” Cole greeted. “You’re looking well.”
“You’re looking feeble.” Celaeno countered dryly.
“Things have been a little difficult lately.” Cole acknowledged with a careless shrug. “I’m surprised to see you leading this party, though, Cel. Don’t you usually prefer to hunt oath-breakers?”
“You did break your oaths.” Celaeno reminded him, eyes flashing with rage, even as she restrained herself admirably from a futile attack. “You were sworn to the service of the Source, you were sworn to the Brotherhood of the Thorn, you were sworn to your mother’s memory!”
Phoebe saw the muscles tighten in the back of Cole’s neck, and stepped up beside him to slip her hand into his. She wanted to ask, but she wouldn’t. Not in front of an enemy, at least. Later. She would bring it up later. Cole glanced at her, then back to Celaeno. “I am sworn to Phoebe.” He countered. “And the Source broke his side of the deal first.”
Celaeno had nothing to say to that. She watched Cole in silence, and Phoebe wondered what she was thinking about. She didn’t look angry, or conflicted. There was nothing on her face at all. It was more than a little unnerving, and Phoebe almost opened her mouth to taunt her, to say something, to get some kind of reaction, but Cole squeezed her hand lightly when she drew in breath to do it, so she bit her tongue and just waited. “I will bear that in mind.” Celaeno finally informed him, and then; “Ladies, bring it down.”
The harpies opened fire. Phoebe was entirely prepared to watch them exhaust themselves on the wards again, but they were no longer aiming at them through the invisible barrier. Instead, they directed their attacks upwards, at the rough stone ceiling just that side of the wards. The first blasts left only scorch marks, but even that brought some dust or small shards raining down, and it didn’t take a great intellect to see where it would lead if the harpies were allowed to continue their attack.
Cole returned fire, and it made the battle look hilariously one-sided, with him picking them off as he pleased while they couldn’t fight back. But it wasn’t. The harpies were numerous enough that Cole couldn’t kill them fast enough, and despite the tunnel limiting their manoeuvrability, they could still dodge. It might slow their own attack on the wards a little, but not enough to make any real difference. Phoebe didn’t know how thick or strong the rock was, but they didn’t need to get far to destroy the bit the sigil was drawn on.
And Cole was their only offensive fighter right now. Leo only had his sword, which the hapries could avoid if he remained behind the wards, and there were enough of them to overwhelm him if he tried to step beyond them to fight. Phoebe’s potions could disrupt the harpies, but she didn’t like the idea of adding more explosions to a tunnel she didn’t want to cave-in.
Behind the main cluster of harpies, Phoebe spotted Celaeno, smirking at them as her harpies evaded Cole’s attacks more often than not, and Phoebe and Leo stood helplessly watching. Her blood boiled with impotent rage. She wished there was something more she could do, but she was fairly sure that the harpies were too strong to feel the magic of just one witch, even if she was a strong one. She didn’t know if she could draw off their own power again, but she tried to think of a spell that might work to at least get rid of them.
The wards deflected another attack, but this time the harpies scattered before it could hit one of them, and resumed their assault on the stone above the entrance from a little further back. Phoebe blinked, and then cast an assessing eye over the ceiling, the distance between the wards and the harpies. She leaned up to whisper in Cole’s ear. “Try to drive them further back.”
Cole glanced at her, one eyebrow raised in question, but he didn’t actually ask, just nodded once and focused his attacks on the harpies at the front, forcing them to back into their fellows and drive the whole group back an inch at a time.
Phoebe watched and waited. She caught Celaeno’s eye by accident, and the older demon’s eyes narrowed sharply. Suspicion was clear on her face, but she wasn’t sure enough of Phoebe’s plan to know what to do to avoid it. Phoebe decided the harpies were far enough back that she could try her plan without risking too much damage to the warding sigil. “Violent storms may tear the earth, crumble rock and rend stone, now you’ll discover what that’s worth, for earth breaks even bone, all the destruction you create, your own heads feel that fate.”
Horror flooded every harpy’s face, and they looked upwards in unison just as the tunnel began to tremble. Cole let out a bark of vindictive, triumphant laughter, and Phoebe flashed him a smug grin as the far end of the tunnel came crashing down in a sudden cave in. Just before the rocks and dust covered the entire tunnel, Phoebe saw Celaeno and a handful of other, sensible, harpies smoke out in a desperate rush.
Rocks tumbled and crashed into each other with a sound like an explosion, violent shudders shook even their cavern, but the wards held. They held even as the rocks tumbled into them, bouncing a little but soon getting shoved up against the invisible barrier by the other rocks crashing down. The dust seeped through the wards where the rocks couldn’t, and drifted in low-lying clouds around their feet as the landslide finally settled, leaving the entire tunnel blocked by rubble.
“Smart.” Cole complimented.
“Thank you!” Phoebe chirped smugly.
“Now the only way into here without being allowed through the wards is the river.” Leo observed. “That was a good tactical decision.”
Cole decided to show his agreement with that statement by hooking an arm around Phoebe’s waist and dragging her into a soul-searing kiss. “You’re brilliant.” He informed her when they surfaced for air, and then promptly kissed her again. Phoebe was in no way complaining. She pressed up into him, hanging onto his shoulders for dear life as he kissed every last sensible thought out of her head.
“I’ll just…” Leo began awkwardly. “Go… scout?” He offered.
Phoebe jerked away from Cole hastily. “No, Leo, don’t.” She said quickly, and then offered a sheepish and not very sincere smile of apology. “Sorry, we didn’t mean to get carried away.”
“Maybe you didn’t.” Cole murmured wickedly.
Phoebe elbowed him in the ribs, rolling her eyes but unable to suppress a grin. “I didn’t.” She insisted firmly. “Not that I’m objecting, exactly, but we can’t chase Leo out.” With a pointed glance at both of them, she gestured at the now collapsed tunnel. “The harpies are tracking him. If he leaves, they can find him, and they know where we are now. We can’t change that, exactly, but before Leo goes out alone, we need to get his blood back.”
“If I’m right, and it’s Astaroth, that’s only a few measures less dangerous than going after the Source himself.” Cole pointed out, disapproving.
“I know, but we’re not going to let them have Leo.” Phoebe insisted.
“Then we need a plan.” Cole retorted warningly. “A good plan. Something that won’t result in any of us nearly dying. We’re supposed to be taking less risks now that we’re digging in, not more.”
Phoebe nodded and spread her arms invitingly. “I’m open to suggestions.” Cole gave her a deadpan stare. Phoebe raised her eyebrows at him, then turned that look on Leo. “Any ideas?” She prompted hopefully. “We could… lure her out and send one of the others in round the back? We could… offer an alliance against the Source? We could… come on, help me out here!”
Cole sighed. “Baiting her might work. Offering her power might work. But they’re both still risky and extremely dangerous.” He paused, the light of inspiration dawning in his eyes, and he tilted his head in thought. Phoebe bounced a little on her toes, giving him a prompting smile. “We could try both? Lure her out with an offer of power, and send someone else in to retrieve the blood whether or not she agrees.”
“That’s still dangerous.” Leo pointed out. “We’ll be going up against her without full strength if she does say no, and whoever sneaks in will be in even more danger, because I doubt someone that high up in the hierarchy is working alone. She’ll have attendants, maybe even the harpies, couriers and servants and minions, and she won’t bring them all with her.”
“Oh!” Phoebe gasped, clapping her hands together in glee. “But what if we weren’t going up against her without full strength?” She asked. Both men looked to her expectantly. “She’d be expecting all three of us anyway, and she’d be suspicious if any one of us wasn’t there. So we just need to make an ally she’d never expect before we go in. How quickly do you think we can find Xar?”
“Do you really think that could work?” Leo wondered dubiously. “It’s not a terrible plan, I guess, but it’s a lot to ask of a new ally, to risk themselves for our benefit when it’s not directly related to our shared goal, and it’s also a lot of trust on our part, that he’ll actually fetch the blood, that he’ll give it to us without keeping any for himself…”
“It looks like a lot of trust, but we’re not actually risking all that much.” Cole corrected. “We can claim innocence if Astaroth discovers Xar, and your blood is already in demon hands, so if he keeps it, we’re only going to have to retrieve it from him, which might even be easier than sneaking into Astaroth’s lair.” He looked like he was warming to the plan quickly, and Phoebe was delighted. “Xar will take time to locate. Time I’m not sure we really have.”
“We’ll have to make the time.” Phoebe stated firmly. “Leo can stay here more often, but I don’t think he has to be confined or anything.” She didn’t think she was imagining the momentary flash of relief on Leo’s face. “He can fend off a few harpies, and if things are really dire, he can just orb back here. It’s not like we’re still trying to keep the location secret from them, after all.”
Cole nodded his agreement. “Well then we’d best get to hunting.”
“I should probably stay here… at least for a while.” Leo said, looking around their cavern with an attempt at hopeful acceptance. He mostly just looked desolate.
“Actually…” Cole began deviously. “I think you should go sight-seeing. Wander around, orb all over. Keep your ears open for any rumours about Xar, maybe keep your eyes open for another cave we could use as a safe-house of sorts, in case this one becomes more compromised. But keep moving, so that if they decide to track you again immediately, they’ll get sent on a wild goose chase, and you can just orb back here if they catch up.”
Leo didn’t exactly perk up, but resolve hardened his features and made him look far less lost. “I can do that.” He agreed, and didn’t wait for any more discussion, just orbed out.
“And us?” Phoebe asked.
Cole didn’t answer for a moment, eyes narrowed as he thought. “Well, the way I was going to find him won’t be fast enough now. We could beat it out of someone, but that might make him run. I can’t think of any way to track him that he isn’t likely to have defended against…”
“I could try to get a premonition?” Phoebe offered. “I mean, I usually need something associated with what I’m trying to get a premonition about, but… Maybe just somewhere he used to hang out? Is there a way we could get into the Triad’s… uh, lair? Or some relic of theirs?”
Cole’s expression was sceptical, but not outright doubtful. He was visibly considering it. “The protections on the Triad’s lair have always been some of the strongest anywhere in the underworld, but with them dead… And a new triad hasn’t come forward yet or we would have heard about it, so there is a chance we could get in.”
“So let's try it.” Phoebe enthused.
Cole slung his arm around her waist, but this time it wasn’t nearly as romantic. He looked like he was bracing himself for pain, face set into hard lines and his eyes closed. “Hold on to me.” He warned, so Phoebe looped her arms around his middle and gripped tightly. “Here goes nothing.” Cole breathed, and then shimmered.
The world wavered and dissolved into a hazy mess, and stayed that way for far longer than Phoebe was used to, before it resolved itself into a dark cavern. Unlike other areas of the underworld, there was no ominous ambient lightning spilling from nowhere in specific. This cave did have grand metal stands holding braziers well above head height, but they were unlit, standing dark and almost hidden in the shadows. The only light in the place came from the low circular dais Cole had landed them on. It was in the rough center of the cave, atop a more ordinary stone dais, and it glowed dimly with a sickly grey light and oozed wisps of sluggish black smoke to further obscure the low lighting.
“Well, this is creepy as hell.” Phoebe muttered.
Cole huffed, amused. “Literally.” He quipped, and Phoebe snorted. She untangled her arms from around him, and he let her go with obvious reluctance. “Don’t go too far. If anything happens, I want to be able to get out of here fast.” He warned.
Phoebe nodded distractedly. There wasn’t really anything to touch in here, so she crouched down and laid her hands over the surface of the dais. It was cold, and through the light Phoebe could see that whatever it was made of was translucent and cloudy, like flawed crystal. She closed her eyes and tried to focus, on what little she knew about Xar.
She caught a flash, a brief flicker of an image of a trio of demons stood around the very dais she was crouched on now, but when it was glowing with a cold white light so brightly that it obscured most of the rest of the cave for anyone standing atop it. The Triad were in black robes with a strange symbol embroidered on the chest, an upside down triangle with lines from each corner leading into the center. Then the image was gone, and Phoebe sighed in frustration.
“Nothing?” Cole asked, voice tense.
“Just a glimpse.” Phoebe muttered as she got back to her feet and looked around. She pictured the cave from her memory, and then carefully pointed out where each of the demons had been standing. Cole sucked in a sharp breath. “Thought so.” Phoebe said, darkly pleased, and grabbed hold of Cole’s arm to tow him over to one of the spots. Once there, she crouched down again, laid her hands against the smooth black stone, and concentrated.
The vision came to her in a burst, blindingly clear and intense. She could see Cole, bleeding through his white tank top, standing in the middle of the Triad on that glowing dais, looking around at them with a hunted, wild look in his eyes. One of the triad summoned up an explosion-ball just like the Source could, and even though it was only a memory, only a vision of the past, Phoebe’s heart picked up in fear and rage. Before the Triad member could fling it at Cole, Cole hurled a dagger from behind his back.
It caught the demon in the chest, and he collapsed. Even only seeing an echo in her mind, Phoebe could feel the way the power of the triumvirate shattered. She realised, with a distant, long-ago sense of horror, that that knife had probably been cursed to do exactly that, destroy a triumvirate by killing one. Her. The old horror was immediately subsumed by a newer, fresher surge of triumph, of pride, that even injured Cole had been cunning enough to turn every advantage he had against their enemies, that he hadn’t hurt her, even when he’d been primed and ready to.
The other two of the Triad died quickly, one by a snapped neck, and the last with an energy-ball. It was an elegant fight, so thoroughly in Cole’s favour, but his obvious anguish and frustration, even standing over the corpses of those who tried to use him for their own ends, hit Phoebe like it was her own. She fell out of the vision with enough psychic force that it knocked her over onto her ass.
“Phoebe?!” Cole demanded, alarmed, reaching down to catch her arm and pull her up. She went, got her feet under herself and found her balance, but didn’t have it in her to reassure him just yet. “Phoebe, what did you see?” Cole pressed, hands running over her arms.
“I… I saw you killing them.” Phoebe admitted. “I felt how… frustrated and betrayed and conflicted you were. I wish it… No, I don’t wish it had been easier for you, but I… I wish you hadn’t had to hurt like that.” She tried. It still didn’t sound right, her words not managing to convey what she was feeling at all. She shook her head in frustration, but was stopped when Cole cupped her cheek in one hand.
“Worth it.” Cole informed her, meeting her gaze squarely, and staring right through her eyes and into her soul. “To know you, to love you, it was entirely worth it, Phoebe.” Phoebe closed her eyes and leaned into the touch, turning her head to kiss his palm. Cole let the moment linger just a beat longer, and then he returned to the issue at hand. “Do you think that’s all you’ll be able to get from this place?”
“Let me try one more time.” Phoebe countered, looking around the room, and trying to feel for any convergence of magical energy. “Third time is the charm.” She quipped, and it came out far, far more bitter than she meant it to. Cole gave her hand a squeeze, but didn’t comment, just let her go and trailed her as she circled the room. She brushed her hand along the wall as she walked, hoping that even a trace of something lingering in the walls might trigger a premonition.
“So…” Phoebe began, before she knew she had any plans to speak at all. Cole made a vague noise to encourage her to continue when she didn’t, and she went with it, even though she was pretty sure she had spectacularly bad timing. “This might not be the best time, but I wanted to ask about something, uh, Celaeno said?” Phoebe glanced over her shoulder at Cole, to see that his expression had closed off. He didn’t quite look away from her, but she got the feeling he wanted to. “What did she mean about you being sworn to your mother’s memory?”
Cole shrugged, careless, like it didn’t matter, when Phoebe could see so clearly in his eyes that it did. “She was an upper level demon who specialised in infiltration of the human world and assassination of forces of great good. I am – was – her heir. She raised me to join her in her work, and to continue it if she was ever vanquished, which she was.” Now he looked away, tipping his face up to regard the ceiling with a carefully neutral expression. “It’s not been very high on my list of priorities for a while now, even before I met you. The Brotherhood came first, then the Source, then my father’s soul, then my own reputation, and then, I might worry about what my dear old mother might think.”
Phoebe considered that while she was also considering the tunnel that led into the cave. There was a concentration of magical energy around it, but even standing there for almost a minute, she doesn’t get a single premonition. “It’s more than that. You got upset when Celaeno mentioned your mother, but none of the other stuff fazed you.”
“Demons don’t love. Not the way humans think of it, anyway. But my mother was still my entire world for almost a hundred years. I hate her for that more than a little, but it’s not something I’ve ever successfully gotten away from. So, yes, my mother is a sore subject.” Cole explained with an edge of dark, almost cruel amusement under his studied indifference.
“Sorry.” Phoebe offered, spotting a patch of stone that looked oddly discoloured, about chest height on the cave wall. She wandered over to it, frowning. The way the shadows spread across the stone, it looked almost like someone had taken a picture of a scorch-mark and let the colours run and fade. She ran the tips of her fingers lightly around the edge of it.
“I know most of your sordid family history, so it’s only fair you get to hear some of mine.” Cole replied flippantly. Phoebe shot him a playfully quelling look over her shoulder, not even thinking about it as she laid her palm flat against the mark to brace her weight.
The vision took her like a raging current, dragging her under unprepared and utterly disorienting her along the way. There was a man, red-haired and unshaven, deep-set eyes and a narrow nose, in the black triangle-marked robe of the Triad, staggering into the cave, losing his footing due to exhaustion or injury, Phoebe couldn’t tell, and fetching up against the wall. He leaned there, exactly where Phoebe was stood in the present, and let his head fall back against the wall as he gulped down ragged breath after ragged breath.
“What have you done?!” A voice demanded, but Phoebe couldn’t see the speaker, only the red-head, who opened eyes that had slid shut just to roll them.
“What you were too cowardly to attempt. Isn’t that my role in this?” The red-head snarked, but there was little energy behind it.
“No! We are meant to pool our resources and work together .” Another voice joined in, with a strangely jarring cadence to his every word. “You have taken all we had and squandered it on a foolhardy attempt to wrest power from a creature that cannot be killed.”
Another eye-roll from the red-head, and this time he actually picked up his head to give the others a deeply unimpressed look. “Listen to yourself.” He scoffed. “Cannot be killed? Everything can be killed. Since when have we, the Triad , the inverted triquetra, the Dragon’s Eye, been afraid of one measly demon? We should never have been forced to bow before him, not to any demon, and we’ve lost what we are because of it! We’re the fear and the dark and the hunt. We’re chaos incarnate, and you’ve let him shackle us! Bring us to heel like whipped dogs! He should not have dared!”
“Take your own advice, Xar.” The first voice retorted, actually sounding shaken by that impassioned rant. It had clearly cost Xar, what little colour he had in his face fading to grey, sweat beading at his temples and trickling down into his scraggly beard. “You’re insane.”
Xar covered his eyes with one hand, and laughed. He did sound hysterical, and more than a little bitter. “Ah, that’s why I feel so weak.” He breathed, sagging against the wall as his knees started to buckle. “You’ve cut me out.”
“We had to!” The mechanical-voiced one protested.
“Waawaa, the big mean Source made us do it.” Xar mocked, lips twitching and shivering as he tried to pull them into a snarl without the energy to back it up. “Pathetic.” He spat with an impressive level of disgust and vitriol. Then he let himself drop to the floor just as one of those shadow-bound fire balls exploded against the stone where his chest had been. After one deep gulp of air, eyes tightening as he braced himself, Xar shimmered away, and Phoebe’s vision shimmered and dissolved with him.
Then Phoebe was back in the cave of the Triad, staring at the back of her eyelids. She forced her eyes to open, even though they kind of ached, and she thought she might want to keep them closed a little bit longer. Cole was standing right in front of her, hands out like he wasn’t sure if he ought not to touch, but couldn’t entirely restrain the impulse. “Get anything useful?” He asked without any real hope.
“Well, I saw Xar getting kicked out of the Triad.” Phoebe patted the scorch-mark, and Cole’s eyebrows flew up. “And he fled before they could kill him, but I didn’t get to see where.” She exclaimed in frustration. “Fat lot of good that did us.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
Phoebe recognised the voice, so she didn’t let herself draw the dagger she’d automatically reached for, but Cole didn’t, and he whirled with an energy-ball at the ready, only to freeze at the sight of the demon standing on the glowing dais, hands raised to indicate harmlessness. “Xar.” Phoebe greeted warily.
The ex-Triad member smiled, which looked far too smooth and sent Phoebe straight down to the depths of uncanny valley. She tried not to let her shudder show, but by the way Xar’s smile widened, it probably did. “You have a very strong gift.” Xar informed her.
“How could you possibly know that?” Phoebe demanded.
“I felt it.” Xar replied, as if it should have been obvious. “You were prying into my past, digging through my magical signature. Did you expect me not to notice, especially after your friend here has been asking so many prying questions about me?”
“Oh, great.” Phoebe threw her arms in the air, and winced when it pulled on still healing injuries. Magic made her slightly more resilient than your average mortal, especially down here, but it was still slow going, and she was at the point where she was starting to forget her wounds were there until she did something stupid and pulled on them. “Are you telling me I’m going to have to watch out who I get a premonition about from now on? How is that fair?”
Xar gave her a deeply pitying look. “Magic is never fair, witch.” He drawled, then sighed and rolled his eyes. Phoebe was starting to get the impression he did that a lot. “But no, I only sensed your powers because I knew you would be looking for me.”
“Well, the Source knows I’m looking for him, too.” Phoebe pointed out.
Xar cocked his head. “Does he? He’s looking for you, everyone knows that, but no one’s quite certain what it is you want. The Source dead? The entire Underworld in ruins? To go home? Are you just doing what white witches do, or do you have a plan?” He shrugged, an exaggerated movement, complete with puzzled pout and outstretched arms, palms raised. “No one knows.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes right back at him. “I’m not some mindless animal chasing demons in circles.” She retorted, whirling a finger in the air to demonstrate. “Of course I have a plan.”
“Mm, I did suspect, else you wouldn’t have been trying so hard to find me.” Xar agreed. Then he glanced around and pulled a face like he’d just smelled something disgusting. “Perhaps we should go somewhere more hospitable?” He suggested.
“Do you have a lair?” Phoebe asked.
“Do you?” Xar retorted.
“Not one you’re seeing until I know we can trust you that far.” Phoebe shot back.
Xar inclined his head to her, and Phoebe really didn’t like the patronising look on his face. “Why on earth would you expect me to offer courtesies that a white witch wouldn’t?”
“Neutral ground, then.” Cole interjected, sounding annoyed and impatient. Phoebe leaned into him in the hopes of soothing his temper. His hand came up to settle on her shoulder. “You know the old catacombs?” Xar rolled his eyes, which Cole evidently decided to take as a yes. “There’s a lovely little chamber down three left turns from the bonepool. See you there.” Cole flashed an insincere smile, tightened his grip on Phoebe, and shimmered them out.
The cave that appeared around them was small compared to the other caves Phoebe had seen in the underworld, with enough space for maybe half a dozen people to sit comfortably. The entire thing was lined with bones that seemed to have been half fused with the walls themselves, which were exactly the same yellowed white as the bones themselves. The effect was eerie, and not helped by the low ambient lighting, that, of course, made the shadows in the eye-sockets of the skulls look like they were moving unless you looked at them head on.
“Lovely?” Phoebe echoed dryly.
“Quiet, and no one else cares to know it’s here.” Cole retorted. “Actually, maybe we should ward this place, too. It couldn’t be a place to work from, but as a bolthole, it’s unknown enough to work.” Before Phoebe could have an opinion on that, Xar appeared next to them, looking around curiously.
“So. You tried to kill the Source?” Phoebe asked, before he could say anything and take control of the conversation.
Xar looked momentarily startled by the question. “Yes. Ah, is that what you’re trying to do now?” He wondered, and though his tone betrayed no interest, his eyes had gone from bored to intent in a heartbeat.
“He killed my sisters.” Phoebe snarled.
“No, he didn’t.” Xar informed her.
Shock hit first, incomprehension clouding her mind and making the moment drag into terrifying stillness. Then Phoebe’s heart leapt with impossible hope, because she was cut off from the mortal world, but that didn’t necessarily mean everyone was, or that some demons couldn’t see past the Source’s seal. She didn’t see how her sister’s could have survived something that nearly killed them when they had a healer and another sister on hand and ready to help, but if Xar knew something-
“Shax killed them.”
Phoebe was going to kill him. For dangling that hope in front of her just when she’d thought she was getting used to the gaping hole in her chest where her sisters used to be. She was going to hold him down and twist the knife as she drove it home and make him scream before he died. She was going to rip out his heart and see how he liked it!
“Phoebe.” Cole murmured, catching her arm just as she stepped forwards. Phoebe turned to glare at him, and he squeezed her arm in warning. “Bad idea.” He told her gently, and only then did Phoebe realise that she had a dagger in hand. She blinked down at it, feeling suddenly wildly off-balance. “And you,” Cole added to Xar, tone shifting from soft to viciously biting without hesitation, “mind your tongue or I’ll mind it for you.”
Xar, predictably, rolled his eyes. “It’s an important distinction.” He insisted, as though that had been Phoebe’s problem with what he’d said. “If you want vengeance on the one who killed your sisters, the demon you want is Shax, not the Source. Now, that might mean killing the Source to open the way to the mortal world again, but honestly, I don’t think that would work.”
“Shax is the Source’s assassin. Maybe the Source didn’t strike the killing blow, but he ordered it, he’s been gunning for us for months, and we made a deal to save his hide and my sisters, and he broke that deal!” Phoebe yelled, slashing a hand through the air. “Yes, maybe, one day, I’ll kill Shax for killing my sisters, but right now? It’s the Source’s head I want on a platter, not his.”
Xar’s face slowly spread into a wide, malicious smile. “Excellent. In that case, I do believe we may be able to work together.”
Apologies for missing last week's update, and almost missing this one. Real life sort of swamped me with really petty issues, that nonetheless made me complete forget about this fic. This is, I've gotta be honest, one of my favourite chapters, and I hope that makes up for it being a week late ^^"
Phoebe let Cole explain their first plan, because he was good at spinning things to make them sound appealing to people. She only half listened, still too angry to care much about the details. She started listening again when she heard Xar scoff. “What’s in it for me?” He asked pointedly. Phoebe twitched with the urge to punch him, and restrained herself by thinking of how much more she hated the Source.
“Allies.” Cole retorted.
Xar looked genuinely disbelieving. “Are you really trying to make this some sort of condition for your assistance in a matter I know you’ll be pursuing by yourselves anyway?”
“It’s not a condition, exactly.” Cole replied, feigning thoughtfulness. “But we’ll be worse than useless to you if we’re being ambushed by harpies every hour.” He pointed out. Xar rolled his eyes. Phoebe was so very tempted to dig out his eyes with one of her knives. Good luck rolling them then.
“You’re not being ambushed by harpies now, are you?” Xar pointed out.
“No.” Phoebe snapped, and not in answer to his question. “We are a package deal, you condescending asshole. If you won’t work with all of us , you can go back to whatever hovel you crawled out of and die there.”
Xar stared at her for a long moment. Phoebe stared right back, just daring him to try and argue the point. She’d have Cole take them back to their lair if he tried to push this point. Cole and Leo were the only good things left in her life, and she wasn’t going to give either of them more excuses to leave than she could help. Then Xar rolled his eyes. “Very well, then. But in exchange, you will need to find a new lair with decent wards that we can all access.”
Phoebe glanced over at Cole, who shrugged and gave her a pointed look, leaving the decision up to her. In all honesty, she wasn’t sure that was a good idea. She was still too angry with Xar to think any idea he suggested was a good one. She shrugged as well, and then gave Cole a matching pointed look. He grinned wryly, then turned back to Xar. “If you contribute to the blood wards, then sure.”
“The point was for this to be equal payment for my help in securing your safety. If I have to carry half the defences as well, it’s hardly fair.” Xar retorted.
“One quarter.” Cole corrected mildly.
Xar gaped at him, rendered entirely speechless. Then he turned that stunned expression on Phoebe, who raised her eyebrows and waited. After almost a full minute of blank staring, Xar’s eyes flickered between the two of them, and he finally found words. “A white witch practising blood magics?” He asked her cautiously.
Phoebe bared her teeth at him in an expression that was only barely a grin. “I guess I’ve gone native.” She mocked.
Xar looked rather impressed, which Phoebe got the feeling from his general attitude didn’t happen very often. She really didn’t care whether he was impressed with her or not, just whether he would help. “Yes, alright, I can accept that.” He agreed. “Then I suppose I’ll need to know about Astaroth’s defences. Inside knowledge, or aid, would be best. I can send my minions to see just how loyal her attendants are, but if you know of anyone who might be swayed…?”
Cole thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Celaeno might be an ally against the Source, if I can work on her a little more, but ask any of the female clans to turn on Astaroth? You’d better ask a darklighter to heal.” Xar snorted and tipped his head in acknowledgement.
They discussed a few more details, but mostly they agreed that they would each remain responsible for their own half of the plan, and only work together if they really needed the help. Then Xar left. Cole waited for a moment before holding out his hand to Phoebe and taking them both to some remote section of the Underworld. It turned out to be a dim grey tunnel, and Phoebe wasted no time in calling for Leo. He orbed in a moment later, looking none the worse for wear.
“We found him.” Phoebe informed Leo promptly.
“Yup.” Phoebe confirmed. “And he’s agreed to work with us, as long as we go house hunting for him. On that note, did you find any good places to bunk?”
Leo shrugged one shoulder. “I think so, but I’d need Cole to tell me if we’re too close to any hot spots or anything, since I can’t sense the shape of the Underworld the same way.”
“That’s no trouble.” Cole accepted. “Let’s go have a look, and then we need to work out how we’re going to present our offer to Astaroth, what exactly we’re going to offer her, and how to draw it out long enough for Xar to have time to get in and out without getting caught.”
Leo nodded, and caught hold of both of them to orb them into a large sandstone cave with several large pillars like tree trunks scattered through it, wider at the base and the ceiling. There was only one tunnel in, low enough that most people would have to duck to get through, and the walls were fairly smooth. It was bigger than Phoebe thought the three of them would need, but if they were bringing Xar, who apparently had his own minions, into the fold, then it was probably not big enough.
“It works.” Cole agreed. Leo managed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, and orbed them somewhere else at once.
“I don’t want to risk the harpies finding it, if we’re going to be using it as a base.” Leo pointed out, a touch apologetically, when Phoebe stumbled upon landing and swore at the unexpected orb. She grimaced and nodded her acceptance. “So… what’s the plan?”
“We get a message to Astaroth, that we’d like to meet with her. It has to be subtle, discreet, because if we’re too overt, she’ll have no choice but to bring it to the Source. If she didn’t, and she failed to capture us, she would lose a lot of the power she’s worked very hard to accrue. But if we can tempt her with the hope of capturing Phoebe alive to present to him, with no one to blame her if she fails, then she’ll take the meeting.”
“At which point, we try to convince her to turn on the Source.” Phoebe interjected. “It shouldn’t be hard. I mean, she’s obviously pretty determined to hold onto her power, and if we kill the Source, that’s a power vacuum right there that she could step into if she’s in the right place at the right time.”
“Then, if she takes it, we have a very powerful ally. If she doesn’t, she will most likely try to capture or kill us, at which point we need to be prepared.” Cole continued, starting to pace as he thought. “Astaroth is primarily a trickster. She won’t fight fair if she can avoid it, which makes her difficult to predict in battle, and she has a lot of support, so we’ll need to be on the look out for an ambush.”
“So we chose the location.” Leo listed off. “And we keep an eye on it to make sure she doesn’t trap it before the meeting. And we should come up with multiple exit strategies. And make sure we have something in reserve that can at least slow her down if we do get caught in a trap and need time to escape.” He trailed off thoughtfully.
“Do you think I could manage a spell that will suppress any magical power within a certain area?” Phoebe wondered. “I’d need to anchor it to something else, or it would fail the moment I stepped inside, but maybe…”
From there, the three of them spun into a flurry of preparations. They eventually settled on the small cave in the catacombs, since it was small, hard to access, and Phoebe was fairly sure she could anchor a magic-dampening spell to the bones that lined the walls. Once that was done, they decided the best way to get a message to Astaroth was to send it via the harpies. After all, they didn’t have conclusive proof that it was Astaroth who had Leo’s blood, so sending the message through the harpies meant that, Astaroth or not, the message would get to where it needed to be.
Since they knew Astaroth – if it was her – could track Leo, they decided against specifying a time, and instead decided that Leo would hide in their old lair until they were ready, and then orb to the catacombs and wait for them to locate him. Phoebe was honestly expecting that they’d need a while to recover after fighting the harpies long enough to get the message across, but it turned out the harpies were more willing to listen than Phoebe had anticipated.
They’d just dodged the first flurry of energy-bolts, diving behind a convenient cluster of wickedly sharp spires of rock in the middle of the generic cave they’d chosen to stage this fight in, when Cole called out, “We have a message for your boss!” and the barrage ceased. Phoebe raised her eyebrows at Cole, who just gestured for her to wait.
“Speak, traitor.” Came the eventual reply.
“Tell Celaeno that we’d like to speak with the one who’s helping her track us. No trap, just a parley. Seems to me we might be able to come to some sort of understanding.” Cole explained without sticking so much as a toe out from his hiding place. “We’re getting a bit tired of avoiding you, and I’m sure you’d all prefer it if we didn’t squash any more of your sisters.”
There were snarls in answer to that, and Phoebe even flinched a little, not liking the parallel. Cole reached over and caught hold of her hand, but didn’t say anything, waiting for a reply. “When and where?” One of the harpies asked finally, sounding cold and angry, but still asking.
“I’m sure your boss can find us when she’s ready.” Phoebe called, doing her best to sound sweet and annoyed, rather than relieved. Her tone obviously amused the harpies, because she heard a snicker before Cole abruptly slumped back against the rocks, being careful to avoid the sharp edges, with a sigh of relief. “They’re gone?” Phoebe whispered, and he nodded.
“I’ll head back to our old lair.” Leo said, straightening from his crouch on Phoebe’s other side. “Come get me when we’re ready.” He added, and then orbed out without another word.
Phoebe frowned after him. “I’m getting worried about him.” She said.
“He’s grieving.” Cole reminded her. “And he’s doing better than I would, so I’m not too worried, yet.”
Phoebe glanced back at him and offered him a small, flattered smile. “What else needs doing before we go get Leo?”
“I’ll drop you off in the catacombs, then alert Xar that we’re ready to move, and then bring Leo and join you.” Cole decided, and Phoebe nodded her agreement. When he left her in their small cave in the catacombs, stepping outside to shimmer away where his powers weren’t suppressed, Phoebe found herself pacing, agitated. She didn’t like waiting, it left her far too much time to think. There was also the fact that she wasn’t daring to let herself hope that they could actually sway Astaroth to their side, but the thought was there, insidiously inserting itself into her future plans. The hope of such a powerful ally hurt, and the potential disappointment if they squandered this opportunity made her more nervous than she’d been in years.
Then Leo and Cole arrived, and she found it a little easier to shut down those distressing thoughts, and focus on what she was going to do. She was going to talk, and bargain, and if all else failed, she would kick Astaroth in the face and run for it. Time crawled by, and only Leo seemed unaffected by the creeping tension. He leaned back against a pattern of human thigh bones by the entrance, crossed his arms, and settled in to wait like he didn’t have a care in the world. Phoebe wanted to pace, but she was prevented by the arm Cole was keeping around her, clinging just a little, and Phoebe knew it was because he wanted a hand on her in case they had to run, so that the moment he could shimmer again, he could take Phoebe out of harm’s way with him.
They had no warning. One moment they were still waiting, and the next, there were another three people standing in the cave with them. One Phoebe recognised instantly as Celaeno, but the other two were new to her, and definitely not harpies. The one standing a step back, alongside Celaeno, was pretty, almost cute, with strawberry blonde hair up in a milkmaid braid that accentuated her round cheeks, and she was wearing an outfit Phoebe could only describe as a rich purple bikini, which just barely kept her decent and was accented with a lot of fine silver chains dangling and swooping over her neck, ribcage and thighs. Her feet, to Phoebe’s surprise, were bare except for a single silver anklet around one ankle.
The last of the three was, Phoebe was almost completely sure, Astaroth. She looked like a young woman, with dusky skin and large almond eyes lined in very archaic Egyptian kohl, but her hair was styled like a modern day runway model, all windswept curls, and her clothes were dark red leather armour, form-fitting but more practical than flattering. She also wore a black cloak with a golden fur collar that settled close about her neck and set her dark hair tumbling over her front. Her lips were painted heart’s blood red, brighter than her armour but not by much, and they were twisted into a small, amused smile.
“A power suppressing spell? My, it’s as if you don’t trust me.” Astaroth mused, dark eyes glittering.
“I know better than to trust you, Astaroth.” Cole answered at once, then gestured between Phoebe and the Council member. “Astaroth, this is Phoebe Halliwell. Phoebe, Astaroth of the Infernal Council.”
“An honour, for one of my ilk to meet a Charmed One and hope to escape alive.” Astaroth replied, and for all that she sounded sincere, the amusement that never left her face made it seem like a joke, as though she was mocking them all.
“Likewise.” Phoebe retorted, and Astaroth beamed.
“Oh, you are sweet.” She exclaimed, by every appearance delighted by the perceived compliment. “Of course, I’m already acquainted with Belthazor here, but who is your other friend? It seems so rude to have been chasing him so faithfully these last few weeks, and yet not even know his name.” The look Astaroth gave Leo was almost flirtatious, except there was something vicious under her smile that made it seem more like she was more interested in pain than pleasure.
“Belthazor goes by Cole Turner, now.” Phoebe informed her, when Cole didn’t make any move to correct her. “And this is Leo Wyatt, my whitelighter.” Astaroth inclined her head to both of them, gave Leo another of those looks that wasn’t quite flirtatious, and then returned her focus to Phoebe.
“These are my Lieutenants.” Astartoth introduced, gesturing between the two women either side of her. “You’re already acquainted with Celaeno, of course, one of the leaders of the harpies, and this is Lily, the matriarch of the succubi.” The blonde in the bikini wiggled her fingers at Phoebe and winked.
“Astaroth, Celaeno, and… Lily.” Phoebe repeated, a little amused.
Lily shrugged and looked at Phoebe from under her lashes. “Lily does roll off the tongue better, don’t you think?” She asked in a liquid sweet voice. Phoebe decided she wasn’t going to deign to answer that – mostly because she couldn’t think of an answer that wasn’t ‘yes, actually’ – and returned her attention to Astaroth.
Said demon was still smiling at Phoebe like she was just waiting for Phoebe to get the joke. It was deeply unnerving, and Phoebe was beginning to suspect that that was the joke. The silence stretched out, edging ever closer to awkward. “Well?” Astaroth prompted. “You’re the ones who invited me to this charming ossuary.” She paused to glance around with a fond eye. “What is it that you want from me, exactly?”
Now, Astaroth’s smile faded to the barest curve of her lips. Given that she was still wearing a perfectly pleasant expression, it shouldn’t have felt so much like a threat, but it did. Phoebe steeled herself, and refused to be intimidated. “We were wondering if you want to help us kill the Source.” She announced boldly, and both Celaeno and Lily made choked sounds of alarm and protest.
Astaroth wasn’t fazed at all. She just continued to watch Phoebe with the ghost of a smile still lingering on her lips. “That’s an interesting proposition.” She remarked without indicating whether she was actually interested or not. “What makes you think I’d take it?”
Phoebe gave her a deeply unimpressed look. “Maybe everything Cole told me about you?” She suggested, as if it should have been obvious, which, really, she did think it was obvious. “You’re a successful woman in a male-dominated industry. Of course you want to stick it to the asshole who thinks having a penis means he gets to boss you around. You’re apparently something of a trickster-” Astaroth’s smile widened just a touch at that, which made Phoebe shiver in disquiet. “-so the idea of double-crossing someone who thinks they can trust you probably appeals to you. And you’re a demon, and demons generally want more power and more minions to boss around. If the Source is dead, well, who knows who’s going to be in charge next?” Phoebe shrugged one shoulder, and offered Astaroth an entirely fake smile. “Could be you.”
“Tempting, I admit.” Astaroth agreed, smiling away. “But have you considered that, ambitious or not, trickster or not, demon or not, I might happen to have a reason for following the Source?” She asked, patient and kind, like a kindergarten teacher.
“You might.” Phoebe agreed. “But how good a reason could it be?”
Astaroth’s lips pulled down for the first time Phoebe had seen, into a mock-thoughtful moue. She couldn’t hold it for long, and in a moment she was smiling again, like the entire conversation was just too amusing. “I might love him.” She stated, perfectly casual and so off-hand it startled a choked laugh out of Phoebe. “I would have thought you, of all people, wouldn’t underestimate what someone might do for love.” Astaroth chided, eyes dancing pointedly between Phoebe and Cole.
“If you loved him,” Cole interjected, dry as the desert, “I’d suggest we take a holiday, and wait for you to do our work for us.” He paused, and gave Astaroth a droll look. “Your reputation precedes you, Astaroth. I’ve heard what happens to demons who catch your attention, and I think it’d actually be a kinder fate to just vanquish them.”
Astaroth laughed, utterly delighted. “Oh, Belthazor. That’s a horrible accusation to make.” Her words were offended, but her tone was flattered. “I only ruin the ones that want to be ruined.” She paused, then shrugged innocently. “Just because most demons are hopelessly self-destructive doesn’t make it my fault that I’m willing to oblige them.”
“Cole.” Cole corrected, wisely not touching the rest of that statement.
“Oh, alright.” Astaroth sighed, shaking her head in amusement. “Cole, then. You didn’t really think I’d turn on the Source just because one witch and her two pets said ‘hey, why not?’, did you?” She asked, abruptly bringing the conversation back on track.
“Worth a try.” Phoebe quipped flippantly.
Astaroth’s eyes narrowed, even as her smile remained in place. “You did surprise me, and that doesn’t happen very often. I was so sure you were going to ask me to stop sending the harpies after your whitelighter.” She tilted her head to look at Leo, and her smile widened. “Speaking of self-destructive men…” Trailing off pointedly, she gave Leo a sweeping once-over that made him grimace and shift uncomfortably. Her gaze was all amusement when she returned it to Phoebe.
“Well, that was where we got the idea from.” Phoebe agreed, seeing no reason not to be honest, since Astaroth clearly knew what they really wanted. “But ‘want to help us kill someone?’ sounded better than ‘oh pretty please stop hunting us’. I’d laugh, if a demon came to me with that, so we figured we needed a better offer, and what’s better than the Underworld on a platter?”
“I can’t fault your logic.” Astaroth admitted, sounding thoughtful. “But your offer does lack a certain something. After all, why would I pass up a remarkable opportunity to kill one of the Charmed Ones for the uncertain hope of one day maybe being allowed to rule the Underworld. If, of course, you don’t decide that I’m too powerful to leave alive and in charge once we get there and turn on me.” She mused, giving Phoebe a hard look over her ever-present smile. “And don’t say you wouldn’t.”
“I can’t promise I wouldn’t. But then I have no guarantee that you won’t turn on me in the end. You’re a demon, I’m a white witch. It’s kind of inevitable we’re going to try and kill each other in the future. That doesn’t mean we can’t work towards a common goal now.” Phoebe pointed out.
“Oh, well argued.” Astaroth purred, tapping a blood red fingernail against her blood red lips. “But even if I did join your little crusade, there’s nothing in this deal that says I have to give you what you want. The deal is we work together to bring down the Source, yes? So what’s to stop me from keeping this-” Astaroth’s other hand, which Phoebe hadn’t noticed disappearing into the folds of her cloak, reappeared with a small bottle of dark red liquid. “-to use later?”
Phoebe glanced at Cole and Leo, wide-eyed with shock and a touch of dismay. Cole was looking at the vial with his mouth pressed into a thin line to stop it becoming a grimace, and Leo looked pale and a touch horrified. Phoebe couldn’t blame him. The idea of Astaroth having his blood was much more disturbing now that she’d actually met the woman.
Astaroth laughed gleefully at their stunned faces. “Oh, no, did you think I’d leave it behind? When you went to such trouble to arrange this meeting over it?” None of them answered her, but they didn’t need to. “No, I’m not so foolish as to let such a precious commodity out of my sight at a time like this.” She said, almost chiding them for thinking otherwise. “I am curious, though. If you’re all here, who is it you sent to search my caverns?”
None of them answered that either, and Astaroth’s eyebrows flew upwards in exaggerated surprise. “Such loyalty!” She exclaimed. “How interesting.”
“It’s not loyalty, just common courtesy.” Cole corrected.
“Well, how about this? You tell me their name, and I’ll let you go?” Astaroth offered, grinning wickedly. It was only then that Phoebe noticed that her eyes, bright with mirth and mockery, were red. They looked almost human, which was strange on such a powerful demon, except for the fact that her irises were the colour of fresh blood.
“How about you give us Leo’s blood, and we’ll let you go?” Phoebe retorted.
That earned her another laugh, this one more distinctly mocking. “You don’t have the power to hold me, Phoebe.” She said in that supremely annoying chiding tone. “Your magic dampening spell is good, and with it bound to all these ancient bones, I can’t even muster a spark. But I haven’t needed active magic to win battles in a long, long time.”
Phoebe was really, really tempted to try kicking her. She’d been studying kick-boxing for almost three years, and utilising it against demons all that time, too. It was only Cole’s hand catching her arm and squeezing warningly that reminded her that Astaroth was probably centuries old, and she certainly wore that armour like she was comfortable in it. And Phoebe could see Celaeno shifting on her feet and flexing her fingers like she was considering lunging at them with claws leading.
“Come now, give me a good reason not to subdue you and hand you over to the Source?” Astaroth invited, spreading her arms in a show of welcome. “I’m flexible, I can be convinced.”
Phoebe could think of a dozen things to say, a dozen reasons to give, but they stuck in her throat, and she couldn’t bring herself to utter any of them. It felt too much like begging for her life, and the indignity sealed her lips, leaving her with only the option of glaring in outrage at Astaroth. The demon looked amused and patient, like she could wait all day for Phoebe to break. Phoebe’s thought stuttered over that observation, twisted, and realisation dawned on her in a blinding rush. “You can, can’t you?” She asked through the beginnings of a grin.
Astaroth blinked once, a politely puzzled expression flitting across her face. “What?”
“You can be convinced, because you don’t want to hand me over to the Source.” Phoebe realised. It was so obvious now that she’d seen it. This whole meeting had just been a game to Astaroth, entertainment watching the pieces scurry about trying to achieve this or that, but it wasn’t a game Astaroth was interested in getting involved in. “Sending the harpies after us was just for show, so that the Source thinks you’re loyal, when you’re not. You’re already plotting against him. Of course you are, why wouldn’t you be? God, I feel so stupid.” Phoebe shook her head at herself, and smiled into the face of Astaroth’s openly startled stare.
“Stalemate.” Cole interjected dryly.
Astaroth sighed, and smiled ruefully. “But I can’t just let you go. Enough people heard that I was coming to this meeting that if I return without you without a good cover story, the Source will hear about it. And I’m not going to hand this over when it’s so useful.” She added, wiggling the vial of Leo’s blood in the air to indicate what she was talking about.
They fell into a contemplative silence, all of them caught by the conundrum presented. The silence was shattered by a sudden rumble as the cave began to shake. Phoebe lost her footing and fell into Cole. He tried to catch her, but he was hardly any more stable on the suddenly wobbly ground. Astaroth was better braced, but even she was unbalanced, and Phoebe moved without fully thinking the move through. She used Cole as a prop, forced him to hold her weight as she flung out a kick that connected squarely with the distracted demon’s wrist. The vial of Leo’s blood went flying, and shattered against the bones, spilling crimson drops over the bleached yellow ivory.
“How dare-?!” Astaroth snarled, outraged.
Phoebe flashed her an impish grin. “I saw an opening, and I took it.” She chirped. “Can you blame me?” Astaroth seethed for a moment, ignoring the bones that were beginning to fall from the ceiling and walls in favour of glaring at Phoebe. Her eyes, Phoebe realised with a crawling edge of dread, were glowing. Like embers in a hearth, glimmering and gleaming with golden-amber under the red.
The tension abruptly drained out of Astaroth, and she laughed. “No. Well played.” She acknowledged. “I do like you, Phoebe Halliwell. For a white witch, you’re refreshingly honest. Perhaps we would be able to work well together. However, it seems that quake damaged your magic dampening spell.” Astaroth pointed out, and summoned a fire-ball in each hand.
Phoebe dove out of the way of the first one, dragging Cole with her, but the second came flying towards them faster than Phoebe could change direction. Cole twisted them so he was between her and it and Phoebe scrambled to drag them both out of the way, knowing she’d be too late, but needing to try regardless.
Over Cole’s shoulder, she watched as a fire-bolt zipped out of nowhere and collided with with fire-ball inches from Cole’s back. They exploded, knocking Phoebe and Cole back into the wall, but when Phoebe frantically patted at Cole’s back, she found only singed fabric, not damaged skin. Everyone whipped around to see where the bolt came from, and found Xar standing in the entrance, looking peeved.
“Xar!” Astaroth exclaimed in surprise.
“I don’t appreciate being tricked.” Xar drawled, venom lacing his otherwise lazy tone. “And I really don’t appreciate having to murder my way out of such a cheap trap. I thought wasting minions was beneath you, Astaroth.” He focused a hard glare on the demon, who just shrugged.
“It was a trap for Belthazor- Ah, Cole, I mean, not you.” Astaroth pointed out.
Xar rolled his eyes at her, and conjured up a handful of fire-bolts. “Time to go.” Cole breathed in Phoebe’s ear, and shimmered them away. Just before the cave dissolved, Phoebe could have sworn she saw Astaroth wave at them with a beaming smile, before switching the gesture into deflecting the barrage of fire-bolts aimed at her.
Then all Phoebe could see was heat-haze, and then a darkened tunnel. “Leo!” She called, and the tunnel was momentarily illuminated with shining white orbs, before they resolved themselves into Leo. They stood and breathed in the dark for a while, recovering their equilibrium. “Well…” Phoebe breathed eventually. “That was interesting.”
They retreated to their lair for lack of anywhere better to go, and after a couple of hours, Cole insisted on going to check the small cave in the catacombs alone. Phoebe would have argued, but he shimmered out before she could, and she spent the next half hour alternating between indignant rage and heart-stopping fear. But Cole returned without a scratch, and she was relieved enough to throw herself at him for a hug before she pulled back to yell at him.
“That was reckless!” She accused. “What if they’d still been fighting? What if you’d gotten caught up in it? What if you’d just gotten caught, period? What if-”
Cole put a finger over her lips, halting her mid-rant. “You were right, Astaroth was looking for an excuse to let us go. Xar was a perfect excuse, and she wasn’t going to waste it on little old me even if they managed to keep up a full out battle for this long.” He reminded her, and Phoebe glared. “But I needed to be sure that Leo’s blood had been left alone.”
“And had it?” Leo checked.
Cole nodded. “I took the bones it had splashed on and dropped them all into one of the lava pools. No one’s going to be using your blood against us again.” Leo visibly wilted with relief, and nodded. “Astaroth and Xar melted that room, though. I’m not sure we’ll be able to use it as a bolthole now.”
“Well, Astaroth knows about it, so we probably couldn’t, anyway.” Phoebe reminded him.
“Unfortunately true.” Cole agreed. “Xar will be waiting for us at the new lair.”
“We need different names for these places, or I’m going to start getting confused.” Phoebe announced. “I think that should be our headquarters, since it’s where we’re going to be letting allies in to work with and plan. This can stay our lair, since no one can even walk up to the wards and peer in anymore. It’s pretty nicely secluded, even if Astaroth and the harpies do know where it is. And then we can make a new warded cave just for the three of us and call it our bolthole, make sure no one can track us there, just in case.” She decided.
“Sounds good to me.” Cole agreed, and Leo shrugged indifferently.
“To the headquarters, then.” Phoebe declared, and grabbed hold of both of them so that Cole could shimmer them out. They arrived in their chosen cave, and found Xar already there and waiting with a pair of distinctly nervous minions.
“Finally.” Xar murmured, rolling his eyes.
Phoebe decided to ignore him. “Hello.” She greeted the two lower level demons. They flinched and eyed her like she was about to stab them. “My name’s Phoebe. Who’re you?”
“Ciril and Gobmal.” Xar said for them, gesturing vaguely. The one Phoebe thought was Ciril offered her a tentatively hopeful smile. For low level demonic scum, it was an unfairly adorable expression. “Now, can we get to warding this place before we’re found?” Xar went on impatiently.
Now Phoebe was tempted to roll her eyes. She didn’t, because she didn’t want to sink to Xar’s level, and instead just gave him a dirty look as she nodded. They set about blood-warding the cave, and Phoebe couldn’t fault Xar for the way he watched Cole and the bowl of blood like a hawk, after all the trouble they’d just been through because they’d lost track of a bottle of Leo’s. Ciril and Gobmal didn’t contribute to the defences, not magically powerful enough to bear the strain, but they were added to the heart sigil, so that they could come and go freely.
Then they occupied themselves resupplying. Xar brought a lot of his supplies from wherever he’d been hiding out before, and they raided more from various servants of the Source, traded for others. Phoebe got a premonition out of the blue a few days into their attempt to resupply, one that didn’t quite feel like her usual sort. It was hazed red around the edges, and it took her a moment to realise she was looking at the little room in the catacombs.
When Cole had said it was melted, he hadn’t been kidding. The walls looked more like the sides of a giant candle, with little pools of ivory settling around the edges of the floor, which was shattered like crushed glass. In the middle of it stood Astaroth. Phoebe saw her lay out a warm brown cloth with a pentagram picked out in gold. With an air of ritual, Astaroth placed on the cloth three ribbons, one green, one gold, and one orange, followed by a small voodoo doll made out of straw, a small athame, a handful of orange and red crystals striped with white, a bundle of incense, and a single loaf of bread. Then she lifted her head and seemed to look directly at Phoebe. It sent a shock through Phoebe, and as she felt her physical body react, the red around her vision began to close in.
Astaroth gestured very pointedly to the spread at her feet, blew Phoebe a kiss, and shimmered out just before the vision collapsed. Phoebe shook herself, and commandeered Cole to take her to the cave. She found the cloth and the other items right where they’d been in her vision, and after casting several sensing and magic detection spells over the lot, Phoebe relented and brought the collection back to their headquarters.
It was Leo that gave her an explanation. “Is that bread?” He asked when he saw what Phoebe was carrying. Phoebe nodded. Her mouth was already watering. Just because she hadn’t needed to eat since getting stuck down here didn’t mean she didn’t miss food sometimes. “How did you get that down here?” Leo wanted to know, eyes huge.
“It was a… gift, from Astaroth.” Phoebe explained, hesitating to call it a gift, even if that was exactly what it appeared to be.
Leo’s eyebrows flew up. “There’s a demon on the Infernal Council that celebrates Lammas?”
“No.” Cole assured him. “There isn’t.”
“Lammas?” Phoebe echoed, frowning.
Leo and Cole both gave her vaguely judgemental looks, but Cole softened his a moment later. “Your Book of Shadows probably called it Lughnasadh?” He offered.
It took Phoebe a moment to place the word, because Cole said it like ‘loo-na-sath’, and she had only ever seen it written before. “Oh! The harvest sabbat.” She exclaimed once it clicked. Then realisation dawned, and her eyes flew wide. “Wait, it’s August already?” She demanded, looking to Leo for the answer, since he was the one who could sense the sabbats. He nodded.
“Lammas is a few hours away.” Leo admitted, a little sheepish. “Sorry I forgot to mention it.”
In honour of the day, they sat down around a hastily assembled altar, and Phoebe burned the incense and spoke a small invocation for change and good luck, and they shared out the bread. Xar refused to participate in any white magic, but Phoebe convinced Ciril and Gobmal to sit with them by bribing them with a share of the bread. They were interested, but a little baffled by it, unlike Cole, who savoured it right along with Leo and Phoebe. Phoebe couldn’t explain why it made her cry, tasting fresh bread again after two and a half months down here, but it did, and Leo and Cole didn’t seem to need an explanation, so she didn’t try very hard to search for one.
After Lughnasadh, Phoebe finally felt secure enough in their new headquarters, and well supplied enough, to finally put her plan with the siderite crystals into motion. She’d been charging them up the whole time, whenever she had a couple of hours to herself, and now all five of them were glowing bright with leashed power. Xar showed her a tunnel that was used by messenger demons to access certain well-warded caverns belonging to high level demons, even some of the Council. Most messenger demons could teleport one way or another, but that didn’t help them get into places that were warded against those things, so they had supposedly secret tunnels that led to them. Phoebe hid her crystals in a square formation behind larger rocks so their glow wouldn’t give them away, and took the fifth with her, enchanted to react when the rest activated. Then she had to wait.
It wasn’t long before the one she’d kept with her went from gentle glow to bright light. “Yes!” Phoebe cheered, and leapt up to grab Xar and Cole.
When she turned to Leo, however, he took a step back. “I think I’ll pass on torturing anyone, thank you.” He said dryly. Phoebe shrugged, her enthusiasm dampened by Leo’s disapproval, but not nearly enough to stop her.
They arrived in the tunnel to the sound of screaming echoing disturbingly from the curved stone walls. Phoebe winced and leapt to kick one of the crystals out of alignment. The moment the electric net faded, the screaming petered out into ragged gasping, and Phoebe allowed herself a moment to study their captive. He was a generic low level messenger demon, small and weedy looking, with the same hang-dog air that Ciril and Gobmal had. He might have been handsome, if he hadn’t looked rather gaunt, with tan skin and springy black curls that nonetheless stuck to his face with sweat.
Xar huffed and kicked at the messenger’s foot. “All that screaming will have drawn attention.” He groused. “We won’t have long to question him.”
The messenger’s eyes widened almost comically, and his form began to ripple. Cole lunged, lips pulled into a snarl, dropping one knee on the demon’s chest and catching his throat in one hand. That hand warped, growing and turning red for a moment, claws pricking at bronze skin, before it reverted to its more human shade and size. “Don’t.” Cole warned, a touch of gravel in his voice.
The messenger demon went very still.
“Cole, could you shimmer with him?” Phoebe asked. She worried a little when Cole didn’t look up at her, but he did nod, so she marshalled herself and pushed the worry to one side. “Right, then. Let me just collect my crystals, and we’ll be off.”
“What?” Xar asked.
Phoebe set about plucking up her crystals from their hiding places. With Cole pinning their prisoner, she didn’t have to worry about the net keeping him contained any more. “You didn’t think we were going to stick around here, where messengers come through fairly regularly, and, like you said, someone will eventually hear him screaming and come running?” She checked, as two and three got tucked into the bag next to their fellows.
“You can’t take him back to the- headquarters.” Xar stressed the name like he was baffled by Phoebe’s perfectly reasonable need to differentiate between their different hide-outs.
“No, it’s warded.” Phoebe reminded him. “There are plenty of out-of-the-way caves in the underworld.” She added, picked up crystal number four, and turned to give Xar an unimpressed look. “How many decades have you been on the run from the Source, and you haven’t gone exploring? Boy, were you sleeping on the job or what?”
Xar glared at her as she stepped up next to Cole and grabbed his shoulder. The muscles under her hand were tight with tension, so she squeezed a little, half reassurance, half warning. “Are you expecting me to track your shimmer?” Xar asked disdainfully.
“Could you?” Phoebe challenged.
Xar rolled his eyes. “From this close? Probably.”
“Then yes.” Phoebe replied, resisting the temptation to mimic him. “Let’s go.” She added to Cole, and he went, taking both her and their captive with him. He landed them in a small cave lit with ruddy light that seemed to ooze from just below the low-slung ceiling, leaving a lot of oddly shaped shadows dancing along the roof. “Hold him for just a moment longer, okay?” Phoebe checked, patting Cole’s shoulder in a manner she hoped was reassuring.
“Right.” Cole agreed, and at least he sounded entirely like himself that time.
Xar appeared as Phoebe was setting up the crystals again, this time in a pentagram instead of a square. She kept the last one in her hand, though, and sat down cross-legged in front of the place where it was supposed to go. “Okay, out of the circle quick, Cole.” Phoebe warned.
Cole rose to his feet and backed out of the ring of crystals very quickly indeed. The messenger demon’s gaze flicked between him, Phoebe, and Xar in rapid succession, and then he tried to shimmer out again. Phoebe dropped the fifth crystal into place before he could.
Lightning arched. The demon, forced solid again by the electricity surging through him, screamed and seized. Phoebe picked up the crystal, and the electricity stopped abruptly. The demon slumped, panting. “That’s what happens if you: One, try to escape. Two, refuse to answer my questions. And three, lie to me. It might also happen if you give me lip, but I’ll try to be forgiving. So, for starters, let’s go with something really easy: What’s your name?”
The demon glared at her, but he looked shaky and frightened. His eyes darted from her to Cole and back again, then he swallowed and said, very quietly. “Tarath.”
“Hello, Tarath. I’m Phoebe Halliwell.” Phoebe replied, as if they were sitting down to tea.
Tarath went so pale he appeared grey even in the reddish light. “Oh, hell… ” He breathed, breathing going from deep pants to fluttery gasps that were just an inch away from hyperventilating. “I’m- I’m not- I don’t know anything about the Source, or- or what he did to seal the Underworld, or- I’m just a courier, I don’t know-” He began to rant.
“Just a courier?” Phoebe interrupted, eyebrows raised. “Whose courier?”
“L-Leraikhe.” Tarath stammered.
Xar started to grin. “You work for the High Council, do you, boy?” He asked, leaning forwards intently. “So you must know something useful. Did you really think you could get away with that helpless ‘I don’t know anything’ routine?”
“I- I don’t, I swear!” Tarath insisted.
“Well, what message were you delivering just now?” Phoebe asked pleasantly.
“J-just a message a-about the infighting. Nothing important.”
Phoebe frowned, leaning in a little. “Infighting?”
“The-” Tarath began, then stopped as Xar scoffed and turned away with a roll of his eyes. He glanced at Xar, then back to Phoebe, who waved a hand for him to go on, so he did. “B-because of the Underworld being- being sealed?” He asked more than said. “All the demons who ought to be going to the mortal world are stuck, so-” He stopped and shrugged helplessly, then froze, as if he wasn’t sure if movement at all was allowed. When Phoebe didn’t shock him for it, he relaxed a little bit. “They’re restless and annoyed about not being able to go anywhere or do anything, so they’re picking fights with each other. It’s what we do.”
“So the low level demons are squabbling, and why does this… Leraikay?” Phoebe questioned.
“Leraikhe.” Cole corrected, making the ‘kh’ sound into something that grated in the back of the throat. Phoebe wondered if she’d ever be able to pronounce the name right.
“Right. Why does she want to know?” Phoebe finished her original question.
“B-because some of them are under her direct command? She’s-” Tarath stopped talking abruptly, mouth snapping shut so fast his teeth clicked.
Phoebe narrowed her eyes. “She’s what, Tarath?” She asked warningly. Tarath’s chin wobbled, but he didn’t say another word. The crystal was dropped again, and the sounds of crackling energy and agonised screaming filled the cave, bouncing back off the low ceiling and echoing weirdly. After half a minute, Phoebe picked the crystal up again. “She’s what, Tarath?” She repeated in exactly the same tone.
“A w-warlord.” Tarath gasped out, lying flat on his back and not bothering to look at anyone anymore. “It’s h-her j-job to keep the- the troops in order.”
“I see.” Phoebe nodded. “And does she report directly to the Source?”
Tarath shook his head, although the motion was hard to distinguish from the rest of his writhing and twitching. “O-only if- if she gets news a-about you.” Tarath added.
“Who does she report to?” Phoebe asked. “Anyone? Or is she left to her own devices?”
“She’s probably mostly autonomous, but I imagine she keeps Bael updated every now and then, doesn’t she?” Cole asked. Tarath nodded, face screwed up with misery. Phoebe almost felt bad for him. He was just so pathetic, she couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him. “Bael is the… probably the most powerful member of the Infernal Council. Certainly one of the oldest.” Cole explained for Phoebe’s benefit, shifting a little closer to stand at her shoulder.
“Rumours say two millennia, but no one really knows.”
Phoebe wilfully repressed the urge to squeak at that number. She composed herself, then turned back to Tarath. “So, what is Leraike-”
“Leraikhe.” Cole corrected mildly.
“Shut up, I know.” Phoebe groused. “What is she up to these days, besides squashing insubordination?”
“That- that’s mostly it.” Tarath assured her.
“Are you lying to me, Tarath?” Phoebe asked him, keeping her tone conversational.
“No!” Tarath exclaimed. “The hunt for you is all anyone c-cares about, and Leraikhe is a fighter, not a tracker. It’s not something she’s in-involved in.” He protested, and when Phoebe glanced at Cole to confirm, he tipped his head in a reluctant nod.
Xar sighed, exasperated. “And you know nothing about what the Source is planning? Where he’s going? Who he’s relying on most in these difficult times?” He pressed, glaring at Tarath, who shook his head desperately. Xar clicked his tongue in annoyance, and summoned up a little dart of fire at the tip of one finger. “Then we have no more use for you.”
“No!” Phoebe barked.
Xar turned his flicking motion into a fist at the last moment, snuffing the fire-bolt that had been seconds away from shooting their prisoner. He rounded on Phoebe with a sneer. “Why not? He’s proved his worthlessness! Or is the white witch getting soft-hearted and sentimental about the poor, weak, cringing bottom-feeder?” He mocked.
Tarath perked up, but Phoebe only gave Xar a deeply annoyed look. “Because I have more questions, and I won’t get any answers if he’s a pile of ash!” Tarath wilted, and Phoebe really did start to feel bad. The last demon they’d caught like this – that wasn’t Cole – had been defiant and snarly, not quietly terrified and compliant. “So, you really don’t know who the Source is working with?” She checked.
Tarath swallowed. “The Council?”
“I meant specifically.” Phoebe corrected, more gently than she really meant to.
Tarath shook his head. “No, I’m not- I don’t carry those sorts of messages.”
Phoebe pouted, disappointed, but she hadn’t really expected him to change his answer. She wondered if he might be faking, pretending to be frightened and compliant to get them to believe his lies, or just trying to win sympathy from the ‘soft-hearted and sentimental white witch’. But either way, she was going to get answers to her questions, and, well, then she’d figure out if she was going to vanquish him or not. “Okay. What about people who don’t like the Source?” Phoebe asked.
Tarath stared at her, wide-eyed and so completely bewildered that he didn’t seem to be thinking in words, let alone able to string them together into a sentence. Phoebe raised her eyebrows and leaned forwards with the crystal in her hand. Tarath’s eyes jumped to it, then back to her face again. “I… don’t- What do you- m-mean?” He squeaked out.
“I mean,” Phoebe began, slow and patient like she was talking to a particularly dimwitted child. She also gestured at Xar rather pointedly. “I’ve heard the story of how Xar here tried to assassinate the Source. Tell me another story like that. Preferably one where the main character doesn’t die or wind up topside at the end.” Phoebe instructed, pointing idly towards the ceiling.
Tarath hesitated, though whether that was because he was thinking of something to tell her, or thinking about whether he should tell her, she wasn’t sure. Phoebe resolved to wait patiently for now. She did make a bit of a show of playing with the crystal in her hand, just to remind him it was there, and what she could do with it. “I, uh… there’s, um… the Vampires?” He offered.
“They live in the mortal world now.” Cole interjected. “Try again.”
“Th-they come down here sometimes.” Tarath insisted, a little eagerly, almost desperate for them to believe him. Phoebe didn’t think that was faked for their benefit, that hope that if he was useful, they might let him go. If he was feigning it, he’d be more likely to play a slightly smarter role. “There’s a series of caverns they use s-sometimes, I ran messages for them once when they were appealing to the Council for- for amnesty because they had a new Queen.”
“So… they were exiled for betraying the Source, but now they have a new leader, they want to be on the Source’s side again?” Phoebe paraphrased, and Tarath wilted. “Anyone else?” Phoebe pressed.
Tarath’s eyes darted all over the place, and he mouthed helplessly, but no words came out. Phoebe waited, but she could see his panic levels rising the longer he failed to come up with any names. “I- I don’t know!” He wailed abruptly. “There’s revolutions and revolts all the time, but the Source always just kills them , and if he doesn’t, he exiles them, and I can’t think- Please don’t vanquish me!”
Phoebe sighed. “Really?” She asked wearily. “There aren’t any stories you can think of, of demons who stood up to the Source and got away with it?”
“He- he doesn’t r-really encourage that kind of…” Tarath mumbled.
“No, of course he doesn’t.” Phoebe grumbled. She tossed the crystal into the air and caught it, toying with it idly as she thought. “No legends? Names that get whispered about in secret? Hell, even stories everyone knows can’t be true, but they tell them anyway, and secretly you wonder if it might not be a little bit true?”
Tarath’s eyes flickered away from her again, shoulders hunching, and Phoebe was about to give up, and resign herself to her next problem. Before she could, Cole rested a hand on her shoulder as he leaned forwards. “You just thought of something.” Cole stated with complete conviction. “Tell us what. Now.”
“It’s- it’s just an o-old story, it’s not-” Tarath began.
“I asked for stories.” Phoebe reminded him. “Tell it to me. Like you heard it.”
“W-well…” Tarath began, then visibly gathered himself. “There’s… um, b-back when the Source f-first rose to power, Zankou was supposed to have been one of the demons who supported him. Along with Dane and The Seer and Naphula and Dagon.” Phoebe made a mental note to ask Cole about those names later, and gestured for Tarath to go on. “He’s- he’s a legend, they say he started the Black Death-” Tarath’s eyes gleamed with awe, and Phoebe felt a little sick. But, well, she couldn’t really fault the guy when she was already wondering if this Zankou guy could be made an ally, regardless of past sins. “A-anyway!” Tarath hastened on, perhaps reading Phoebe’s expression of distaste.
“The Black Death?” Cole asked. “I tried for years to find out who started that, no one would tell me.” He complained. Phoebe glanced up to see him pouting, and she bit her lip to hold back her smile. He was adorable when he was disgruntled, but she didn’t want him to know she found it cute.
Tarath squeaked. “Um… W-well, they- they wouldn’t tell you, um, sir! Y-you’re an- an upper level demon, and y-you knew the- the Source.” He explained. “No one wants to- to go telling stories about his allies b-betraying him to the Source’s n-new allies.”
Cole huffed in annoyance, and Tarath cringed. “So, this Zankou betrayed the Source?” Phoebe asked, to get them back on track.
Tarath nodded at once. “Th-that’s the story, anyway. He w-wanted power, so he took it, and eventually, all that was left was the Source’s power, and he t-tried to take that too. The Source c-couldn’t kill him, they, uh, they say Zankou was- was too strong-” He whispered the last words, as if the Source might hear him if he spoke to too loudly, and show up just to smite him for speaking such sacrilege. “So he just imprisoned him, instead.”
“Where?” Phoebe demanded.
“N-no one knows!” Tarath yelped, recoiling. “It’s- it’s just a story! Like Lucifer. He wasn’t real!”
“But Zankou is a real demon?” Phoebe pressed, glancing at Cole for the answer more than Tarath.
Cole just shrugged. “Could be. Could be he was made up and the Black Death got attributed to him because it’s one of those things that no one’s taken credit for, and everyone wants to take credit for. I think I might have heard the name before, so I’d bet on him being real.”
Phoebe nodded, setting this new task on her to-do list. “If he is real, we’ll find him.” She stated with all the conviction she could muster. Cole flicked her a glance and the beginnings of a fond smile. “Which just leaves us with one last problem.” She added, looking back at Tarath, who whimpered and started begging.
“I was right.” Xar muttered, rolling his eyes at her again, which made Tarath pause and look at her hopefully.
Phoebe glared at them both, feeling manipulated and hating it. “Phoebe.” Cole began, gently chiding, and Phoebe dropped her gaze at once, feeling petulant. “We don’t have the resources to keep prisoners. We either kill him, or we let him go.” Phoebe blew out a breath, annoyed by his logic. “If we let him go, the Source will find out we’re looking for Zankou. If he’s not real, the Source gets a good laugh out of it. If he is real-”
“The Source will be madder than a bull with red waved in front of it, and he’ll know where we’re going to end up.” Phoebe concluded regretfully.
“I won’t tell him!” Tarath swore, wide-eyed and earnest.
“You told us everything we wanted to know.” Cole pointed out dryly. “And the Source won’t be any nicer asking about us.” He added, which made Tarath cringe and hunch down so much his shoulders were almost level with his ears.
“M-maybe I c-could just… s-stay with you?” Tarath asked hopefully.
Phoebe blinked, startled by the idea, but… it didn’t seem like a terrible idea. They could keep an eye on him, she didn’t have to murder such a pathetic creature in cold blood, and he might even prove useful. If Xar got to keep minions, after all, why couldn’t she?
“No.” Cole said.
Phoebe looked up at him, tipping her head back to rest it against his knee, and batted her lashes at him. “Oh, please can we keep it?” She begged, in an overly childish tone. Cole snorted, and nudged her with the leg she was leaning on.
“You don’t really want it, you just don’t want to kill it.” He told her, not looking overly impressed.
Phoebe grimaced. “I’m not going to deny that.” She acknowledged. “But you’re right that we can’t let him go, so I don’t see what else we can do.”
“Letting him into any of our hideouts, giving him any access to us and our operation at all is just as much of a risk as letting him go.” Cole pointed out, and Phoebe flinched. “He’s acting like a pathetic low level worm, but there’s a chance he’s just very good at being underestimated, and he’s planning on using your kindness to spy on us and sell us out to the Source.”
“I know.” Phoebe breathed.
Cole considered her for a long moment, looking conflicted, as though he was struggling with something. “If you want… I can drop you back at headquarters, and come back to deal with him.” He offered carefully, quietly, almost gently.
Phoebe was a little ashamed to admit she thought about it. She couldn’t, she just couldn’t let anything get in the way of killing the Source. And Tarath could be an obstacle to her goal, even unintentionally. Letting him go was more repulsive to her than killing him, but that didn’t make killing him an appealing option. “I don’t…” She began, and then cut herself off, frustrated, and hating that there were simply no good options.
“Oh, for the love of sin!” Xar burst out, and flung a fire-bolt at Tarath.
Phoebe moved on instinct. She hadn’t managed to settle Tarath in the box reserved for ‘threats’, which left him hovering uncertainly next to the category of ‘innocent’, even though she knew he was a demon, and knew he could be tricking her. It wasn’t a decision, just instinct. Seeing fire being thrown at someone she didn’t know was out to kill her.
She put herself between them. Cole made a strangled noise of mingled frustration and rage, and lunged himself, even though they both knew he’d be too late. Phoebe brought up her shiny new knife, the gift from Astaroth, even though she had no idea if it could work to deflect a fire-bolt, it was better than letting it hit her straight on.
It did one better than deflecting the fire-bolt. It absorbed it. The fire vanished as it brushed by the knife, and the blade gleamed momentarily with unholy fire, and then it went back to normal. Phoebe stared at it, impressed and pleased, and only looked up when she heard Cole growl.
She jerked her head up to see that Belthazor had Xar in a choke-hold, and was growling furiously right next to the rather pale demon’s ear. “Cole?” Phoebe asked, surprised. The growling got a bit lower, more gravelly and annoyed-sounding, but didn’t stop. After a moment, Phoebe decided that since Belthazor wasn’t attacking anyone, she could wait to make sure he was okay until after she’d dealt with Xar. “Are you going to attack again?” She asked coldly.
“You useless, sentimental, foolish-” Xar began viciously, and then choked on his words as Belthazor tightened his grip, teeth bared alarmingly close to the fragile skin over Xar’s pulse. It was a deeply threatening gesture, even though Xar couldn’t see it. Phoebe could, and she was surprised to find that it didn’t actually bother her, emotionally. It might piss her off her to lose an ally, but she was still deeply annoyed at Xar, and while some of that could undoubtedly be put down to his first faux pas, his attitude since then hadn’t much helped his case, in her opinion.
“You’re the fool!” Belthazor snarled furiously. “If you’d just let me talk to her, let her make her own mind up, she might have admitted we were right, but now he’s someone she needs to protect, so she will.” He announced, and Phoebe felt hear heart skip at the proof that Belthazor really was just another side of Cole, to know her that well. There really was no chance of her agreeing even to letting someone else kill Tarath now. “Even though she knows it’s stupid.” Belthazor added in frustration, shooting Phoebe a glare that was distinctly peeved. Phoebe’s heart skipped again, and this time, it was a less pleasant feeling.
But Phoebe wasn’t one to run from fear. She stood her ground, and glared right back. “Stupid or not, no one’s killing him. Not on my watch.” She confirmed for them, just in case Xar needed to hear it twice. Phoebe was entirely unsurprised when, even being choked by Belthazor, Xar still had it in him to roll his eyes at her.
“Thank you, Mistress!” Tarath exclaimed.
Phoebe blinked. “Wow, that makes me sound like a brothel madam.” She muttered, and Belthazor snorted. The sound got strangely distorted as he shifted back into Cole halfway through. Phoebe smiled in relief, but Cole didn’t seem to see it, staggering a step away from Xar and shaking his head like he was too disoriented to take anything in properly. “Cole?” She called again.
“Fine.” Cole assured her, entirely unconvincingly.
“You sure?” Phoebe checked.
Cole huffed, part amusement, part annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure.” He stressed.
Phoebe pursed her lips and threw her hands up in faux-surrender. Then she turned to Tarath, who was on his feet but still inside the incomplete right of crystals, smiling hopefully at her. “Do you think you could call me just Phoebe?” She asked, hardly daring to hope it would be that easy.
Tarath looked actually taken aback by that suggestion, but he nodded anyway. “Okay, Phoebe.” He agreed simply.
“We’ll need his blood to add him to the heart sigil.” Cole pointed out.
To Phoebe’s surprise, Tarath held out an arm with very little hesitation. When she stared at him in surprise, he just shrugged, looking pained and sheepish. “If you wanted to hurt me, you don’t exactly need my blood to do it.” He pointed out, glancing down at the crystals still strewn around his feet.
“True.” Phoebe acknowledged without an ounce of guilt. She caught hold of his wrist, and poked the tip of his finger with the tip of a plain old athame. She didn’t want to risk vanquishing him by accident, after all. Blood beaded up, and she turned his hand and squeezed until she’d caught three drops on the tip of the blade. Then she passed the blade to Cole. “Can you…?”
“I’m not leaving you alone with either of them.” Cole stated coldly.
“Okay, you can take Xar with you.” Phoebe pointed out, and Cole nodded, but shot a deeply mistrustful look at Tarath. “If Tarath turns on me, I’ll just stick him back in the siderite cage and wait for him to stop convulsing.” She added, and Cole glared a moment longer before relenting.
Just a quick apology that I'm not replying to comments in a timely fashion. I read and appreciate every single one, and they keep me doggedly chipping away at the last two chapters of this, so thank you.
Nothing seemed to change. Phoebe had a new purpose, a new goal, but actually finding any solid information on Zankou was next to impossible. Most demons would deny ever having hear the name, even after judicious application of a siderite cage, and those that broke and admitted to hearing the stories could never offer any facts to go along with it.
Tarath was an interesting addition to their group. No one really trusted him, even Phoebe didn’t trust him, but she didn’t entirely dislike him the way Leo and Xar certainly did. He stayed quiet and kept to himself most of the time, excepting the moments when he thought he could be helpful. Cole very obviously didn’t trust him, but Phoebe couldn’t get a more personal opinion out of him. He’d clammed up since they’d brought Tarath into the fold, and Phoebe had a horrible feeling he was mad at her about the whole thing. She didn’t want to ask him about it in case she was right, and he didn’t seem to want to shout at her about it like he had every other time she’d done something he didn’t like, so she resolved to give him space and hope he got over it in his own time.
So it was Leo, not Cole, who took Phoebe to the cave in the catacombs when the search for any solid information on Zankou was starting to feel hopeless, to leave a message for Astaroth. She’d written out a note, just a scrap of vellum with ‘Do you know anything about Zankou?’ written on it. After a great deal of thought, Phoebe had eventually decided to add ‘PS Thank you for the supplies’ even though it felt strangely like giving ground.
“It’s admitting you owe her something.” Leo had pointed out, reading over her shoulder.
“If she can answer my question about Zankou, I think I will owe her something.” Phoebe replied, and Leo didn’t say another word. So Phoebe had left the postscript in, and they’d gone to deliver the note. Phoebe set it in the middle of the floor, where it was fairly easy to see, and then stepped back, frowning. “I have no idea how to let her know it’s here. It’s not like I can send her a premonition.”
Leo shrugged. “I don’t think you can without drawing attention to the fact that she’s helping you, and if you do that, she’ll be forced to hunt you again to prove it’s not true.”
“So I just have to leave it and hope?” Phoebe asked, not really needing an answer. She still wasn’t happy about it. Leo just shrugged, and offered her his hand. Phoebe didn’t take it, still tangled up in her thoughts. “I wish I could get a premonition about him. Just something to prove I’m not chasing fairy tales.” She muttered.
The words fell heavy into the silence, despite how quietly she was speaking, and she sighed in frustration, shooting one last glare at the paper before turning to Leo. She didn’t want to go back to their headquarters, but she couldn’t bear to stay here any longer, either. But Leo didn’t notice that she was ready to go, gaze gone distant. He startled when she took his hand, and turned to stare at her with a thoughtful wrinkle between his brows. “Maybe we’re doing this the wrong way round.”
“What?” Phoebe asked, blinking at him.
“This… chasing down rumours of Zankou. Zankou might turn out to be just a fairy tale, but… you said Tarath said that Zankou was supposed to have started the Black Death?” Leo checked.
Phoebe nodded slowly. “And Cole said that no one actually knew who had done that, so it could have been Zankou.” She added.
Leo nodded. “So… maybe we need to be investigating who started the Black Death, not trying to find Zankou. There must be some relics down here from that time, so maybe you can get a premonition off one? And if it turns out it wasn’t Zankou, then we were probably chasing a myth anyway.”
“ And whoever started the Black Death might be willing to work with us. Or we might have to vanquish them if they’re still loyal to the Source. Either way, we achieve something worthwhile.” Phoebe agreed, warming to this new plan. “Good idea, Leo.”
Leo managed a half-hearted smile that nonetheless looked sincere, just very tired. Phoebe matched him with a smile of her own that was full of sympathetic hurt and fondness. They returned to the headquarters, only to find that it was empty except for the minions. Irritation had Phoebe blowing out a harsh sigh and going to poke at her altar while she tried to wait patiently for Cole to get back. “Do any of you know where Cole went?” She asked of the minions.
“He and Xar were going to see if they could find any leads on Zankou.” Ciril informed her with a smile of greeting.
Phoebe nodded, and fiddled with her collection of incense, resorting them. “Do you know if any demons have kept any… relics?” She asked.
Ciril and Gobmal exchanged looks, then shrugged. “Sure?” Ciril offered. “A lot of them do. Old things have power, and sometimes they just like to show off.” His smile was indulgent and oddly fond, like he was discussing the quirks of a favoured aunt. “Some can be more sentimental than others, of course, but it’s fairly common, in my experience.”
Phoebe considered that. “How easy would it be to steal some?” She asked.
That earned her a startled look. “Well… easier than killing the demons.” He admitted, but he looked uncertain. “And some you might be able to sneak in and steal, they don’t always guard their things as well as they could, especially if they’ve lived long enough to forget they have some of them. But… why?”
For a moment, Phoebe considered telling the truth. Then she remembered that Tarath was listening, and that Ciril and Gobmal were loyal to Xar first, and not to her. So instead, she just shrugged. “Could be fun.” She announced, instead of explaining her plan.
Ciril seemed to understand what she wasn’t saying anyway, because his smile turned rueful, and he nodded and let her be instead of asking any more questions. Phoebe fiddled with her altar a little longer, but soon enough the tension vibrating under her skin forced her to action, despite her better judgement telling her she ought to wait for Cole. She switched from aimless fiddling to preparing for battle, tucking potions into her pockets and strapping daggers and athames to her arms and legs.
“Phoebe?” Leo asked warily.
“I’m not sitting around waiting for them to get back.” Phoebe informed him. “Lets go rob someone.” She added as an invitation, glancing around at all the minions to extend the invitation to them as well. Her eyes landed on Tarath and she brightened. “Oh! I don’t suppose you know where Leraikie-”
“Leraikhe.” Leo corrected, and Phoebe flapped a dismissive hand at him.
“Her. I don’t suppose you know where she keeps her relics and mementos?” Phoebe concluded, not giving the interruption much mind.
Tarath looked terrified by the question, and Phoebe supposed that was fair. She was asking him to betray a fairly powerful demon, and this time, she wasn’t threatening to vanquish him if he didn’t. “I, uh…” Tarath began, eyes darting to the other people in the room, then back to Phoebe. She wondered if she’d have to threaten him to get him to cooperate, but she rather thought the threat was implied anyway. “Yes.” He admitted finally, wilting.
“Excellent.” Phoebe patted him on the shoulder as she passed him and went to stand by Leo, who was just strapping his sword to his hip. “Did you see where I set up my siderite crystal trap?” She asked him, frowning faintly. Leo shook his head. “Well, damn.” She reluctantly turned back to Tarath. “I guess we’re just going to have to trust you to take us where we need to go.” She informed him, going over to throw an arm around his shoulders. “But if you lead us into a trap, I’ll kill you first.” Phoebe assured him, poking his side with the knife Astaroth had given her.
“I won’t!” Tarath squeaked.
Leo stepped up beside her and took loose hold of her elbow. Ciril and Gobmal exchanged looks. “Do… do you want us to come as well?” Gobmal offered.
“If you’d like to.” Phoebe replied, and they shared another look before nodding and coming over to attach themselves to Tarath’s other side. Tarath whimpered, face screwed up in terrified resignation, and shimmered them all out of the headquarters and into a large tunnel. “So, where’s this?” Phoebe asked, relaxing a little and putting her athame away since they hadn’t appeared in the middle of an ambush, but she didn’t let go of Tarath just yet.
“It’s, uh… Leraikhe uses the caverns up ahead as a sort of storehouse for old weapons and armour and… and trophies and such. Not- I mean, not the more recent, or favourite ones, those she keeps in her personal rooms, but… but I thought you wouldn’t want to, uh… actually run into her, so…” Tarath trailed off uncertainly.
“Good thinking.” Phoebe agreed, patting him on the shoulder. “And the caverns are warded against shimmering and so on?” She checked.
Tarath nodded. “It’s just a simple curse, nothing… nothing as advanced as blood wards.” He explained with an awkward shrug, trying so carefully not to jostle Phoebe that it was clear he was very uncomfortable with her so close. “The doors are guarded, but… I don’t think you’d have any trouble getting past them?” He offered.
“Mm.” Phoebe decided not to respond to that. She’d gotten the jump on Tarath by being sneaky, and intimidated the hell out of him when she had Cole and Xar there to back her up. That wasn’t to say she couldn’t fight, and fight fairly well, but she was very aware that even the lowest level demons had active powers, where she didn’t. “Okay, let’s go.” She decided, and let go of Tarath to start up the tunnel. “Leo, keep an eye on him.” She ordered.
“Will do.” Leo agreed mildly.
The tunnel twisted and curled and dipped and rose and branched off all over the place. Phoebe let Tarath lead, even though every time he pointed them down a specific fork, she wondered if she wasn’t making a mistake. They came up to a corner, and Tarath stopped dead. He glanced back at Phoebe, then pointed at the corner and held up two fingers. Phoebe guessed that meant two guards, but she edged up to the corner anyway and peeked around an outcropping of rock to check for herself.
There were two guards. Both of them big and burly and bald, shirtless and glowering down the tunnel with the set, fixed-stare expressions of people who’d been on watch for a long time and had gone straight past bored. Phoebe ducked back around the corner, and beckoned Leo forwards. “You think a plain old vanquish would do?” She asked him in a hushed voice.
Leo grimaced. “Maybe? I really don’t know. They look like standard brute demons, but they’re supposed to be solitary, so I really couldn’t say for sure.”
“Tarath?” Phoebe questioned, wondering if he knew anything, but Tarath shrugged helplessly, looking a little desperate. Phoebe decided to let him be for now. “Okay. Maybe I can try something else, instead…” She murmured, then closed her eyes so that she could concentrate better. “ Guardians of the warrior’s keep, let these words send you off to sleep. ” Phoebe recited, just loud enough for the demons to hear her. They stiffened as she began, and advanced forwards, only to stagger and stumble as she finished her spell.
One growled, the other shook himself like a dog, and then they charged forwards, not slowed down in the least. “Damn!” Phoebe cursed, and hurled herself out of the way as the demons charged right through their protective rock formation, sending rubble flying in every direction. “I’d need some poppy and valerian to really make that one work, I think.” Phoebe muttered to herself, snatching an athame and hurling it at one of the brute demons.
He dodged the knife and came after her like a battering ram. Phoebe ducked the first swipe he made for her head, and came up under his guard to drive another athame under his ribs. He made a choked sound, eyes bulging in surprise, and staggered backwards to look down at the knife stuck in his side in complete shock. Then he looked back up at Phoebe with fury etched across his face. “Oh come on!” Phoebe protested.
Then she was forced to throw herself sideways to avoid his next charge. She hit the ground hard, and rolled to a stop only a few feet away from the wall. She lurched to her feet just in time to avoid being stomped on, and lashed out with another of her knives. She caught him across the arm, and it wasn’t until the wound erupted into flame that Phoebe realised it was the athame Astaroth had given her.
Phoebe looked down at it, thoroughly impressed. It had absorbed that fire-bolt from Xar, and either it had taken on its properties, or had reflected that attack onto the next thing it cut. Either way, Phoebe was never going to give up this dagger. She looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of a huge fist before it crashed into her face and her whole world dissolved into disorienting pain.
Something hit her hard in the back, jarring her head and making her vision spin even behind her closed eyelids. When the whirling and tilting stopped, Phoebe peeled her eyes open, and blinked at a view of… doors. Big metal doors. That was right, she was here to steal stuff from one of the Council. She turned her head, and then stopped as the world swooped and washes of strange colours drifted across her vision. Concussion. Great . That was just what she needed.
Boots appeared in her line of sight. She blinked, and carefully risked looking up to see one of the brute demons standing over her, grinning nastily. He bent down, and grabbed her by the throat to haul her up. The entire world looped over itself, and if Phoebe hadn’t been living off ambient magic for the last two months, she might have thrown up. Anger at her own helplessness made her grit her teeth against the pain, refusing to let it slow her down any more than she could help. She clenched her hands into fists, and was surprised to find she still had her dagger in hand.
A dagger with this demon’s blood on it.
Phoebe didn’t know much blood magic, just enough to know that blood meant power, and having someone’s blood meant having control over them. She shifted her grip and pressed her thumb over the flat of the blade, smearing the blood still coating it. She opened her mouth to try a spell, but the demon shook her like a rag doll and slammed her into the cave wall, jarring her already damaged head and knocking coherent thought right out of it for several long, important seconds.
By the time she could scrape enough thoughts together to remember her plan, the demon’s fist was already tightening around her throat, cutting off her air. Phoebe kneed him in the side, and he grunted, but didn’t let go, so she did it again. This time, he snarled and used his impressively large body to pin her against the wall. It was an effective hold, but for just a moment, his grip on her throat slackened, and Phoebe gulped down a rasping breath, and blurted out “ By blood I command thee! ” and the demon shuddered and recoiled.
Warmth buzzed under Phoebe’s thumb, the blood suddenly feeling like it was more alive than Phoebe could have imagined. Before she could get another word out, however, the demon bellowed wordlessly in fear-fuelled rage, and grabbed for her again. Phoebe twisted to the side, tumbling and falling but avoiding the grab. “ By blood I compel thee! ” Phoebe shouted, even though it tore at her now aching throat. The demon shuddered again, his movements becoming jerky and uncoordinated as he tried to grab at her again, giving Phoebe plenty of time to get away from him.
She managed to roll onto her knees in the middle of the tunnel, nearly backed up against the doors to the storage caverns, and she decided to stay there rather than risk trying to stand and upsetting her balance again. “ All your power and the strength of your arm, I bind now so you may do no more harm. ” Phoebe chanted, and the demon’s eyes bulged. “ By blood I command thee! By blood I compel thee! ” She repeated, putting as much force of will behind her words as she could.
The demon crumpled, sagging to his knees and hunching over with a sound of agonised loss. And under Phoebe’s hand, the blood on her knife burned . It didn’t hurt, though. The sensation rushed up her arm like a flood, sweeping through her and making her head spin worse and better than the concussion could ever manage. The ground fell out from under her knees, but it didn’t matter, because she wasn’t falling, she was flying , and it was the most incredible sensation she’d ever felt.
She tumbled back into herself, and gasped for breath, chest heaving, the entire tunnel and the battle still being waged against the other demon bright and clear to her senses. She wobbled her way to her feet, knowing it was a bad idea but not caring , because what was one measly concussion compared to the unbelievable rush of magic still pulsing through her.
There was electricity under her skin, a tsunami trapped in her chest, a fire burning in every muscle. She took a step, then another, and then she flung herself into the fight, feeling wild and untameable and invincible. She ducked in past Leo and Ciril, set her feet, and swung her entire weight behind a round-house kick to the other brute demon’s face.
She felt his neck snap with the force of her kick, felt the bones give way with a strange intensity before he went flying into the cave wall, head first, and crumpled to the floor even as he began to dissolve into ash. Stepping back again, still with that feeling of too much magic thrumming away beneath her skin, Phoebe looked around for someone else to fight , found only allies – dubious or not – and forced herself to breathe. Allies who were all staring at her in shock.
“What?” She asked defensively.
“Phoebe…” Leo began, wide-eyed and uncertain. “You just vanquished an upper level demon with one kick .” He pointed out, as if she might have missed that.
Which, well, she kind of had. Not the act itself, of course, that was crystal clear in her memory, but the implications of it. Dread began to coil in her gut, and she looked down at her hand that was still holding the knife, and the blood smeared over her thumb. “Uh… could someone go and vanquish the other one?” She asked. “I think I might have accidentally… stolen his magic?”
Leo’s jaw dropped. Phoebe waited for him to pull himself together and go do as she asked, but he didn’t, just stood there and stared at her in stunned disbelief. It was Ciril who edged in close, tentatively took the sword from his slack grip, and marched off up the tunnel. Leo blinked, stared at Phoebe a moment longer, mouthing as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words, and then shook his head and turned to watch Ciril.
The brute demon didn’t even look up when Ciril stopped beside him. He remained where he was kneeling, head bowed, tremors running through him intermittently. Ciril put a hand on his shoulder, said something quietly, and then took his head off with one clean swing of the sword. As the demon began to dissolve, Phoebe felt the magic draining out of her. It wasn’t hers, she’d stolen it, and now with its true host gone, it too was draining away from the world. She sagged, her concussion returning with a vengeance. Her hand felt cold and achy, right down to the bone, and the joint of her thumb protested any movement at all with a fierce, hollowed-out ache.
“Phoebe, that was…” Leo began, then he stopped, reconsidered, and instead just shook his head and asked; “Please tell me you’re never going to do that again?”
Phoebe couldn’t answer. She didn’t want to, not really. Something deep inside her was cringing at the horror of what she’d just done. The utter, terrible violation she’d just enacted upon another living being, demon or not. She’d reached beyond his flesh and blood and torn out something so fundamental to his existence that it might as well have been his soul . But she thought of the Source, of what she could do with just a drop of his blood, and she couldn’t in all honesty say she wouldn’t .
“I don’t want to.” She managed, and finally met Leo’s eyes. “Can… can it be enough that I really don’t want to?”
Leo opened his mouth, failed to find words, and closed it again. He looked over as Ciril turned up at his shoulder, and took his sword back with a sombre nod of gratitude. When he returned his attention to Phoebe, his gaze was hollow. “I guess it’ll have to be.” He agreed without agreeing.
Putting that behind her for now, Phoebe led the way up to the doors. They were made of metal, but when Phoebe put her hand on one and pushed, it swung open easily. She stepped inside carefully, trying not to let the pounding of her head and the ache in her hand distract her from what she was doing. She didn’t know if this wasn’t a trap, after all, or maybe there’d be demons inside anyway. Either way, she needed to stay on alert until she was sure they were out of danger.
The inside of the cavern was lit with a strange, shifting grey light that gave Phoebe the very strong sense of being under water. Illuminated by that light were a collection of shelves and pedestals set up like a museum, displaying battered suits of armour, strange bits of jewellery, blood stained bandages, the odd book and scroll, and a great many ugly statues. “Okay, lets go shopping.” Phoebe announced, and led the way inside.
She made sure to run her hands over everything, even if she was pretty sure that it had nothing to do with the Black Death. She got several premonitions, all of horrific scenes of death and destruction. There was a particularly horrible one she got off a warped metal pole that only afterwards she realised was an old-fashioned IV stand that had been half melted. She decided to take a pair of swords from a collection she found hanging against one of the cavern walls.
As she was pulling them down, she got another vision, this time, of a battlefield, all mud and blood and screams echoing over the clash of metal. It was just a flash, but Phoebe was hit with the weight of death and pain being spread across the earth, and she stumbled and dropped the swords. She got a hold of herself, and picked them up, only to get hit by another vision, this time of men in chain mail standing around in a tent, pointing at things on a map and arguing.
Phoebe dropped the swords again, and leaned against the wall before she fell over. Distantly, she wondered if her concussion was messing with her powers. To keep getting visions like that, brief ones, just little flashes, from the same object was strange, and they kept hitting her with all the weight of emotion the people she was observing were feeling, first pain and death of a battlefield, and then the frustration of organising an army. She glared down at the swords. “One more time.” She decided, and reached down to pick them up.
This time the vision was of an ornate room, with a man who was clearly a Pope talking to a middle-eastern man who smiled, sly and pleased, and nodded, bowing his head to the Pope. The Pope smiled at him, and waved a hand as if dismissing something, and the man straightened and turned to leave. As he walked out of the door and stepped out of sight, Phoebe watched him become engulfed in flames as he walked, swallowed whole until he disappeared into them, and they died out, leaving no sign at all that he’d been there in the first place.
Phoebe came back to herself with an unpleasant lurch, still feeling that sense of vicious triumph humming away in her chest. She shook her head, then remembered why that was a bad idea as the world looped and spun and her stomach lurched. Hands caught hold of her, steadying her. “Leo?” She checked, because she wanted to keep her eyes shut for the time being.
“Are you alright? I heard a crash.” Leo asked.
“I… I think I just saw a demon convince the Pope to sanction the crusades.” Phoebe explained in a horribly small voice.
“The Crusades?” Leo checked. “Really?”
Phoebe nodded. “I think so? I’m not exactly a history expert, but if all my visions were related, then that’s the only thing that makes sense. And they… they felt related?” She attempted to explain, but she wasn’t sure she could. It was just a gut feeling, just the way the visions had hit her, one after the other in short little bursts, all from the same source, all nudging her closer to a single understanding.
“Then they probably were.” Leo confirmed for her, and Phoebe managed a wan smile in gratitude. “But the Crusades? I always figured that was just…”
“Human evil?” Phoebe finished for him, dry as dust.
“Well, yes.” Leo agreed, equally dry. They let that revelation settle between them. Phoebe didn’t want to move or speak yet because she still felt dizzy and sick, and it was just nice to stand there with Leo half hugging her, half supporting her. She didn’t know why Leo wasn’t breaking the moment, not even a hint, because she had kept her eyes shut, so she couldn’t even read his expression. After several minutes, however, he did speak again; “If your visions were that… persistent, do you think it might be because it had something to do with what you were looking for?”
Phoebe considered that, tipping her head to rest it against Leo’s shoulder. He shifted a little, but it was so that he could stand closer, and let her rest more fully against him. One of his hands left her arm to probe at the bruise on her skull gently. Phoebe made a tiny protesting noise, and Leo sighed, relenting. “I don’t know. Maybe? I guess if this Zankou started the Crusades, it’s easier to believe he started the Black Death.” She paused. “They’ve got a similar death toll, right?”
Leo snorted. “Phoebe, no one knows any exact figures for either, but the Black Death killed about fifty times more people than the Crusades. It’s the scope of one million versus fifty million, but those are some of the lower estimates.”
“Oh.” Phoebe had not known that, but thinking about it made her feel kind of small. For a moment, she wondered whether she was making the right choice, trying to find this demon and help him kill the Source. But it was only a moment, and no matter what she’d said after they’d faced the Four Horsemen, avenging fifty million strangers was a long way down on her list of priorities, compared to avenging her sisters. Yes, she’d throw in with Zankou if it meant she could finally kill the Source.