…Back to the Beginning…
…Last time in When Skies are Gray…
Forgetting the tattoos, the anger, the doubt, Sophie and Benj raced after Stan. Benj yanked the hood of his coat up protecting his cursed skin from the light of the sun. JC waited with the Buick’s engine running along with the two detectives. As their doors slammed shut, JC roared out of the police station.
“Speed. Speed,” Lyons said pounding JC’s head rest.
JC, already flying down the road, needed no encouragement. A sick heat welled up in Sophie. Fear of what was coming wrapped large hands around her lungs and squeezed. Benj ripped the hands way shielding her with his own. He offered love and safety in place of fear. As much as Sophie wanted to rest in his hands, she did not believe he could protect her from what was to come. Could he keep her from watching West be tortured? Could he block the visions? No. Benj stewed in useless anger at his own impotence. He could only be beside her as she walked the dark path of her magic. No matter how much he might wish it he could not walk it for her.
They spilled out of the car before JC threw it into park half way up the driveway. Benj shifted in first crashing through the front door. The others piled in behind him. A crazed Jack sat on the floor by the bar with his extra .357 beside him. He jerked the gun up taking a wobbling aim. Sophie gasped at the black barrel covered her. Benj stepped in front of her.
“It’s us Jack.” JC held out his hands. “It’s us.”
He dropped the gun and it skittered noisily on the tile. Jack crawled towards them, a weak old man. JC lifted him to his feet and Benj wrapped his arm around his other side. They guided Jack to the sofa.
Sophie put her hand on Stan’s shoulder. “Get chairs and bring them around the sofa, close together. Just enough for us. We won’t let her die alone. And please make sure the curtains are all secure. It is still a few hours before dark.”
Stan nodded and hurried off. Sophie leaned against the wall of the entrance hall. She rested her hands on her belly, convinced it was bigger than when she left the police station.
“Son, this is going to be very hard and scary. Be strong.” Love from Benj flowed over her with the strength of a thousand waves. She smiled a sad little smile to herself as she came into the living room.
“This is neither the time, nor the way I wanted to do this, but we need hope. Everyone,” she announced, “Benj and I are expecting. We’re going to have a baby, soon.”
Jack brought his head up. Haggard eyes focused on Sophie. JC patted Benj on the shoulder and whispered, “You bastard.” Stan stopped half way through shutting one of the curtains, startled. Sophie dropped onto the sofa beside Jack. She wrapped her arm him and rested her head on his shoulder.
“A baby? Now? How’s that even possible?” Jack asked.
Tears pricked Sophie’s eyes. This should have been a time of such joy, now it was a quiet sadness, a gentle smile from friends. Guinness and West would never know about their child. They would never know their child. Oh, God above. Sophie swallowed the groan of pain her whole body wanted to utter. She made a fist, letting her nails cut into her skin. She had to be strong. Had to be strong for her child. She turned her fist over and studied the tattoo on the back. A black bird, wings spread with its head pointed to the right, wrapped her hand. No details marred the black ink, but the shape of the head and the beak could not be mistaken.
“A crow?” she whispered. Her eyes sought out Benj and her heart skipped a beat. He stared at her slowly holding up his own hand. The same tattoo of a crow covered it.
A burnt smell wafted through the room followed by a trail of smoke.
“Sorry,” Stan said sheepishly.
A ray of sunlight shown on the space Benj had, until very recently, occupied. Stan snapped the curtain shut, avoiding Benj’s steely glare. Benj joined Sophie, pulling his chair close. Sophie tried to hold onto laughter and joy, as Stan sat as far away from the vampire he had just burned as he possibly could.
The world tipped on its axis…
Sophie moaned. She was not ready for this. She was not ready….
.… a new room. A room of light. Not the shed where he had butchered Cora and Guinness. Someone else sat in a dark corner. The killer and Sophie were not alone. Sophie looked down at the room instead of out at it through West’s eyes. The change surprised her. She never experienced a vision unconnected from the victim. Who stood in the corner? Moving closer she gasped. It was Mrs. Heather Gray.
“What is she doing here?” Sophie wondered out loud.
West screamed. Mrs. Gray laughed.
“You’re so young and ignorant. Manson is not the only one who can have a witch’s help. And not all of us are good like Dream and her sisters,” she sneered. “It does seem you’re mastering your gift a little. That’s the difference between me and them. The petty little creatures. They believe you should learn how to handle your gift on your own. I, on the other hand, have taught and trained my son how to enjoy his.”
Unsure how the woman heard her, Sophie turned to the man Mrs. Gray had called Manson. He bent over West and blood splattered the wall.
In a living room with all the curtains closed, a circle of hands bravely connected with hers. They fed their love into her. Fear laced the love, tainted it, but love trumped fear. West. Focus. Save West. Only West. Ignoring Manson, ignoring Mrs. Gray, Sophie opened her Reading so the others could join her. She drifted over to West.
Her soul lay over her like an open wound, torn and bleeding. The fear in the connection could not compared to the fear seeping from West. She had been here before. She knew what was coming. The pain, humiliation, terror. West scars bled again. Sophie gathered up her gentle soul. She tried to keep her together. Over West, Manson grunted and panted. Nauseous, Sophie clung to West’s soul, focused on her dear friend’s wounded spirit. She had endured this once before, but this time….this time, JC would not rescue her. Sophie wept and clung.
The screaming stopped.
West’s eyes glazed over as her friends gathered and guarded her soul. Manson yelled, enraged by her lack of terror. He turned and wiped the sweat off his face.
“She’s here, isn’t she, Mother?” he asked the witch in the corner.
“Yes, my son. They’re all here.”
“Sophie? I don’t think we have met officially, but you should be enjoying my little show.”
Manson rolled a cart next to West. The knives, scalpels, pincers, and needles on a tray gleamed with an evil light.
Manson gestured to the room around him. “Mother put a sound barrier around this room so I can work more comfortably,” he explained. He picked up West’s hand, examining her bright nail polish, now chipped and broken.
“Tisk, tisk, you need a manicure.” He picked up a pair of pliers.
Dread pumped through West’s veins. She slipped from their grasp. The light returned to her eyes. Manson ripped off a nail.
West choked on a bloody scream.
“That’s right, beautiful, let me feel your soul.”
West howled as Manson ripped off another nail.
Sophie scrambled to help her. She plunged into the damaged soul, going deeper than she ever had in the past. Pain flew up her body from between her legs. Sophie embraced it. The pain flew to her hand and Sophie’s scream joined West’s. Benj squeezed her fingers and held her heart while she endured what West endured. Sophie became aware of JC, Stan, Jack and her baby – all holding on physically and spiritually, all lending their strength. Together they battled back to West’s soul. They gathered her in their arms.
Manson ripped her from them with a new pain. Blood poured from her body.
“You will never have Guinness’ children,” Manson whispered in her ear as he opened her womb with a scalpel and removed it before her very eyes.
“For Guinness,” JC grunted through his clenched jaw.
“For Guinness,” they each repeated.
Drawing on a deep inner strength, the greatest power in the universe – love – they called her back. They held her shattered soul, her brokenness, gently, gently, in a large embrace. Disfigurement, amputation, and disembowelment could not break them. West did not return to her ruined body.
Manson drove a knife into her neck and carved a Cheshire cat’s smile into her white flesh. Dark blood poured from the wound.
“I love you, Sophie. I love you all.” West said, and then she was gone.
They slipped from the room the vision fading.
“I’m coming for you all,” echoed after them…
Silence. Still holding hands, the wounded few, gone from them the wild youth, always the first to fall. Gone the smiles and the silly rebellions still embraced. Guinness and West’s souls fled this Mortal Plane, fled without stopping on the Spiritual Plane, fled into eternity where their friends could not follow.
Sophie dropped from her chair with a heart-broken wail. The others wrapped around her. Deep inside her body she heard her child cry.
“The visions have changed,” Sophie said. She pulled a navy sweater on over her head. It fell to her knees, far too big on her. She curled up on the sofa next to Benj.
It took centuries to say those four words. So much death and sadness in so short a space of time dulled all her senses as her heart walled itself off from the shock. Fall clouds rolled in from the north. They overtook the last light of day and brought a chill wind and a silver rain. It did not heal them but it did not mock them, either. Sunshine would have kept the wounds raw with its cheerfulness. The rain and cold acted as a blanket. For hours they had sat together in the circle the detectives leaving them to work other cases. Sophie had slept, so far beyond exhaustion she did not even dream.
“How have they changed?” Benj asked. He rested his hand over her womb and sensed his son sleeping.
JC looked up from his office chair and Stan, who had set up a vigil at the bar, also perked up. Work would help dull the pain. Jack remained uninterested, lost in guilt and terror. He had been the one who agreed to let West go when a hysterical Mrs. Gray had called.
“Before, I started in the victim’s soul, right?” Nods all around. “Then after two deaths, three at the most, I could Read the killer and we could find him and get the police involved.” She stood up, re-energized by her discovery. Pacing up and down in front of the sofa, Sophie unconscious laid her hands protectively over womb. “This last time, I appeared hovering in the room. I could see Mrs. Gray, Manson, and West. I wasn’t looking out West’s eyes. I moved to West’s soul on my own. I controlled where I went.”
She put a hand up to her mouth and tapped her upper lip, thinking and pacing.
“Emma said Manson was better trained then you,” Stan reminded them.
“Manson called the witch, Mrs. Gray, mother,” Sophie mused.
“Mother as in his mother or a title?” JC asked.
“Mother of a Coven…”Benj mused. He sat up, resting his arms on his knees, hands clasped between them. He stared into nothing. The thought he had pushed back when they first met Mrs. Gray resurfaced. “Sophie, all we could do was feel West. We could not see anything. Describe the witch,” he commanded.
“It was Mrs. Gray,” Sophie said, furrowing her brow, confused by his order.
“Yes, but if she is a witch then that was not her true form any more than Emma looks like an old bag lady.”
“Go over that again,” Stan asked.
Sophie closed her eyes recalling the vision.
“All powerful witches have a true form and a mask form. Humans only see the mask form. Equally powerful beings see the true form – the TrueSelf. The general trend at this time is the uglier the mask the more beautiful and good the true form. The more beautiful the mask . . .” Benj stopped.
“The more evil the witch,” Stan finished.
“Her mask form has gray rolled hair and her eyes seemed liquid silver in the light.” Sophie said.
“Any visible tattoos?” Benj asked.
Sophie closed her eyes and tried to re-see the vision….
.…a kitchen. A dusty light with a nondescript shade hung from a chain over a table where Manson sat. He bent over a fly impaled with a pin and pulled its wings off one at a time. He watched it squirm under a magnifying glass before he lit it on fire. Sophie wondered if Manson had the ability to not harm living things. Her stomach churned as a thin trail of smoke rose from the trapped bug.
A woman entered the room, stately and cold, elegant but untouchable. Her charcoal gray gown hung to the floor with seductive ease while a plunging neckline revealed curves and white clear skin with a dark tattoo – half a faded face – following the curves. She ran her fingers through Manson’s hair. He shook his head in irritation. Tattooed shackles bound her wrist, but the backs where blank where a servant tattoo might be.
“She has grown stronger, my son. She is learning to control her Readings. We must kill her soon. We should go to their house.”
“No! How many times do I have to say this?” Manson slammed his fist down on the table and screamed. “I want her to feel the terror of my kills and I want to savor her death. I don’t just want to slaughter them or I would’ve done it already. We know what she is. We know where she is. We’re having fun!”
“Stop calling me that!” Manson leapt to his feet and grabbed the woman around the neck. He slammed her into the refrigerator. “I have served you so long. Now it’s my turn.”
An engraved knife appeared in Manson’s hand from the pocket of his jeans. The light seemed to slip off the curved blade instead of reflecting off its shiny surface. He raised it up with a hand tattooed with a faded G and plunged it into the witch’s forehead through her third, all-seeing, invisible eye. Sophie jerked. The witch’s feet drummed against the refrigerator but she did not die. The G disappeared from the back of Manson’s hand and a smiling maniac with a knife shredding a glowing shroud appeared on the witch’s hand.
She was now his servant.
The witch screamed.
Manson chanted and the knife turned black….
Sophie pulled away.
“I’m so tired.” She sat up on the sofa and accepted a cup of hot tea from Stan. It did not even disturb her to suddenly wake up somewhere else. Going from pacing the floor to lying on the sofa seemed as ordinary as the cup of tea in her hands.
“Tell us what you saw.” Benj bent over her.
He put his thin hand on her womb sensing his son, calming him. The baby moved up and push against Benj’s hand. Benj started, surprised by the child’s reaction. Sophie laid her hand over his. At least this was right, this connection in their small family. She sighed, took a sip of her tea before she told them what she had seen from the pinned fly to the pinned witch, tattoos and all.
“We are fucked.” Benj ran his hand through his hair destroying its curve. White spikes went in every direction.
They all stared at him.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’ve worked with you forever and I don’t think I’ve ever heard you cuss, not like that. That scares the shit out of me more than anything.” JC said adding his own colorful language without apology.
“When you have been alive as long as I have and you are indestructible, cussing is no longer an everyday necessity.”
“Until now?” Stan said his eyes going wide.
“Until now,” Benj replied. “To guess in an educated manner what has happened, I would say our enemy, Manson, was found and identified as the SoulReader by the Gray Coven. They are one of the oldest Covens and one of the most evil. They have trained him knowing full well he is without conscience. Now, he is too powerful. What Sophie saw was him taking control of the Coven. They were unable to teach him to maintain self-control over his urges like they had hoped.”
Sophie slipped her fingers between Benj’s cold ones. He wrapped them around her.
“Um…coven?” Stan said.
“Seven witches. The most powerful witches are three sisters by blood and by magic. Seven witches, connected, are the next most powerful force. These specific seven witches happen to be the seven with the most evil twisting of their power sources.”
“You said that what Sophie saw was Manson gaining control of the Mother?” Stan asked.
“What he’s saying is one, this SoulReading monster just happened to be a vicious killer,” JC said, ticking each point off on his fingers. “Two, he now has the power of a full Coven – and not just any but the Gray – to compensate for his split powers with Sophie. Three, we are all just toys to him in his path of getting a Reading high.”
“That is a good synopsis of our current situation,” Benj said.
“Well fuck is right,” JC said his face paling.
Benj squeezed Sophie’s fingers again. Stan mirror him his stress running his hands through his slicked back hair. Benj’s son sank down, pressing close to Sophie, listening to her heart beat and her lungs breathe. Sophie wrapped herself around him and Benj held them both deep in his ice filled soul. His family. His family. There was no way in all the heavens or hells he would let this monster get his wife and son.
“What can we do?” Stan asked.
“We can find the son of a bitch and kill him,” Benj said as calmly as if he commented on the weather.
“Trying to make up for a few hundred years of not cussing in one fell swoop, Captain?” JC said.
“How do we find him?” Sophie asked.
Benj examined her gray eyes.
“Can you locate him now? You found him in this last vision.”
“I think I can but I need some rest.”
“We cannot do anything during the day. We will rest tonight and all day tomorrow and then tomorrow night we will act.” Benj stood up and went to his ice box for blood.
“Are we crazy? Do we really plan on taking this monster with a whole coven at his back?” JC said to the room at large.
“No.” Benj turned from the stove. “You will take on Manson. I will take on the Coven.”
“No!” Sophie jumped up. “They’ll kill you!”
“My love, they most certainly will not. And I will not kill all of them. But, I will keep them busy while you tend to Manson.”
The chill smile on his face dropped the temperature in the room as fast as Cora could. JC and Stan shuddered.
“Glad you’re on our side,” Stan whispered.
Sophie lay down back down and studied the ceiling. Deep inside herself she knew this would not work. She knew the only way to stop Manson involved creating the link with Cora. Manson commanded more power, more experienced than she. It would be a trap.
“Even if it is a trap, we might die quickly. We might wound him or some of his Coven. Either way we are destroying his plans. We are doing something,” Benj responded to her doubt and fear.
“He’s right. Anything’s better than sitting around waiting to be tortured to death,” JC said.
Stan shook his head. ”What if it’s a trap, though?”
“We will go into it with our eyes open,” Benj said.
“I’m going with you.” Jack snapped out of his paralysis at last.
“We wouldn’t do it without you, old man.” JC clapped him on the shoulder with a relieved smile. ”Wouldn’t dream of it.”
The phone rang. They all looked at it startled and suspicious. Stan picked it up and answered it.
“It’s Morry and Lyons.” he held it to JC.
While JC talked, Stan turned to Benj. ”We know Manson knows where we are, you think we should go stay somewhere else?”
Sophie closed her eyes only half listening to the conversation with the police intermingled with plans for tomorrow night. It comforted her to hear Jack interacting again. She dipped down into her forest and wrapped herself around her son, growing so quickly inside of her. She played a tiny piano amongst the trees and he hummed along.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Oh please don’t take my sunshine away,” she sang softly. The trees swayed. The red eyes watched. Her family together. Sophie drifted off to sleep as the rain fell softly and the sun set behind the clouds. Benj carried her off to bed a few hours later. He guarded the house of fragile humans while the darkness lasted. With the rising of the sun, Benj joined Sophie still asleep. The sun filled the house with light. Sophie woke up long enough to soak in its warmth while she ate some food. Sadness wrapped around her. She left the sunshine and joined Benj in their bed while JC and Stan took up the guard.