Calliope, with her arm stretched far above her, hit the send button on her mobile phone with her thumb. The left corner of her bottom lip was tucked under her leftmost top incisor and her eyes were narrowed in both worry and hope. Her blonde hair was disheveled and housing more than few pine needles and grass stems. Her face and clothes were smudged with dirt and the right knee of her jeans was ripped and stained with a small amount of blood.
After a minute of listening to nothing but the noises of wilderness at night, she lowered her arm and looked at the display screen of her mobile. The signal indicator showed no bars.
"Damn," she said aloud. She slipped the portable phone into her small purse. She looked down at her palms, then reached into her purse again and pulled out a small package of sanitary wipes. She went to work cleaning her palms, wincing as the antibacterial stung the tiny scratches on her hands. She then went to one knee, sucking air through her teeth as she knelt. She pulled up her pant leg and inspected the raised knee. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she took a wipe to it. She then picked out some small gravel from the wound and again cleaned the area with a sanitary wipe. When she was satisfied that her wounds were cleaned, she slowly stood up again and surveyed her surroundings.
The light of the full moon illuminated the sloping terrain she stood on. Behind her were redwoods and scattered manzanita on the grassy turf. Farther down in front of her, the grass ended abruptly, giving way to steep, rocky cliffs with the cold, dark Pacific below. She gingerly made her way towards the cliffs. Once she was nearer to the edge, she looked up and down the coast and started trudging north towards the lights of Santa Maria.
"Brady, you need to calm down. Panicking isn't going to solve anything." Rodrigo approached the young man. "Ant has all the Gamin looking for Calliope. I've also contacted the Ghost Lords and they are mounting their own search. If they ask me as Steward, I will call upon the other groups in Santa Maria and they will gladly help." He patted Brady's shoulder.
"Rod, I lost her. I lost her! I lost her!" His hands fanned out on either side of his, shaking. "I should be out looking for her. I let her get pulled away from me while I was Skipping. She could be lost in that, wherever it is, where we go when we Skip."
"Brady, don't blame yourself. Ant will figure this out. We'll find Calliope."
Brady stared at Rodrigo, his eyes boring into him, his mouth drawn tight. "I do blame myself. It's my fault. I shouldn't have even been Skipping with another person yet. I was showing off! I wanted to impress her." He trailed off, turning his head away from Rodrigo in a futile attempt to hide his tears.
Rodrigo went to him and hugged the young boy. "Shush, Brady. We all do impulsive things for love, but I'm sure this isn't just as simple as you didn't Skip well."
Brady grabbed Rod back, tightly, and began to weep. "It is my fault. I've lost her. I lost Calliope. If anything bad happens..." his words became lost in his sobs.
Rod continued to hold Brady and to make soothing noises, lightly stroking his short hair.
Calliope walked briskly along the sloping shelf between the redwood forest and the cliffs, her arms wrapped around her. She cast nervous glances at the tree line not more than fifty yards away. She also spent a considerable amount of time looking at her footing with wary looks to the slope down to the cliffs.
"Just keep going. Nothing's there, no animals are going to get you. You'll be fine," she said softly to herself. "Nothing is wrong, other than you're talking to yourself. And that Brady decided to drop me into the middle of nowhere and went tumbling trough the trees and took a hard landing. Okay, okay, so everything is pretty much wrong, but I'm safe enough at the moment—". The was a rustle from the among the trees. She stopped in her tracks and looked to the woods.
"Hello? Is anyone there?" she asked, not quite loudly enough to be heard fifty yards away.
Something cracked behind the wall of redwood trees. She turned to face the forest.
"Hello?" This time she shouted. "I can hear you."
Nothing moved in the trees.
"Look, just come out. You're not funny and you're not going to—" she cut herself off with a scream as a giant, furry beast bounded out from between the trees.
Ice began to form on the grass around Calliope as the bear-sized thing barreled towards her. Her panicked scream turned to steam in the chilled air around her. The beast launched itself at her before it was even 20 feet away. It was rebuffed, bouncing off a protective shield that could not be seen, but its attempt also sent Calliope sprawling.
"Fuck!" she yelled, pulling herself up. She eyed the cliff's edge that she suddenly found herself far too close to.
The beast, which she could now see more clearly, looked like a gigantic wolf, with deep purple eyes that glowed faintly. It was already up again and circling in towards her.
She moved extremely slowly, reaching down for a rock. As she did, it pounced. She manifested a bright flash of light and threw the rock with all her might. The beast bellowed as the stone struck it squarely in the head. Calliope pivoted and ran away from the edge of the cliff, taking advantage of the creature's temporary blindness.
It shook its large head and growled. The sound sent shivers through her. Once again ice began to form on the grass at her feet.
Suddenly, the giant wolf began racing towards her.
Calliope screamed again, this time it was far shriller and more controlled.
The beast whimpered at the noise, halting in its tracks.
Shortly, the scream stopped. Calliope took quick, shallow breaths trying to catch her breath.
Recovering quickly from the effects of the scream, the beast began its assault anew. As it leaped, it was met midair by a wispy figure appearing in its trajectory. The pale, luminescent limbs of the figure wrapped around the enormous wolf and both came crashing to the ground.
The creature tore at the ghost with its teeth. The spectral being shrieked, leaving Calliope open mouthed.
That can't happen. How did that thing physically attack a ghost? I'm dead. I'm so dead, she thought.
The two supernatural creatures continued to fight, thrashing around and striking each other, but it was clear who the victor would soon be.
"Think, think!" Calliope shouted at herself. "What can I do to get out of this?"
The ghost, now only tendrils of drifting light, disappeared and the huge beast righted itself and growled once again, returning its gaze to Calliope. Before it could lunge though, several more spectral figures appeared, one carrying a large staff that it raised. A beam of golden light pulsed from the head of the ghostly staff and struck the beast, which howled in pain while turning to run.
"Aurelius!" Calliope shouted. "And Millicent, Tiberius, Lady Elaine, Ernesto, and Robespierre! How did you all find me?"
The six ghosts surrounded the young Ghost Lord, who let her defensive barrier drop. Another spectral figure appeared next to her, looking much paler next to the others. She had a feminine appearance and appeared to be in full, flowing gown. This apparition encircled Calliope in her ethereal arms.
"I'm fine, Augusta," she said to the phantom that held her.
The ghost with the staff smiled at Calliope. "It was you who brought us, apprentice."
"Aurelius, you cannot expect me to believe my Keening compelled you here. Any of you," she said, gesturing to the dead crowded around her. "You are the most powerful spirits the Ghost Lords work with here in Santa Maria. There is no way under the heavens that my Keening compelled you to raise your arm, let alone come to my aid."
"No, of course not, Calliope." Those voices came from beyond the circle of ghosts and belonged to the living. The ghosts parted and there was a bearded man in robes approaching. Just behind him were several others in the robes of the Ghost Lords. Mixed among them were various folks dressed in ratty jeans, band tees, leather jackets, parkas, and the other trappings of gutter punks and street urchins. Ant, with his stop-sign-red hair was among them, too.
"However, your Keening, as weak as it was, still alerted some ghosts that were in the vicinity," the bearded man continued, "and as you well know, news travels fast among the spirits. We were already looking for you since Ant had alerted us to the situation their young Brady had put you in. We sent our best to aid you and the Gamin were kind enough to bring us here."
"Oh, master! Thank you, I'm so sorry everyone had to be involved and worried."
"There is no need to apologize, Calliope. The blame falls to the Gamin, specifically Brady, whom you are now expressly forbidden from having contact with."
Calliope blinked, startled. "Yes, master," she said softly, her eyes cast downward.
Ant stepped from the crowd. "Look, I know everyone is upset right now. I can assure you Brady did not deliberately dump Calliope out here in the Chat-mu forest. However, that is where we are and we should be leaving. We did not go through the Steward to seek permission to be here."
Aurelius spoke. "There was a creature, some sort of beast. Calliope was in immediate distress. Surely the Chat-mu people are reasonable."
"When it comes to Ghost Lords? Not so much. Now look, everyone, we can talk about this once we are out of here." Ant ran his hand through his unnaturally red hair and sighed. "We can call the whole Council Dictum and you can launch an investigation if you want, but for now we should leave these woods."
"Better words were never spoken." The voice came from the edge of the forest, catching everyone by surprise. When they turned towards the source of the voice, they saw several archers with their bows trained on the crowd. In front of them, a young woman stood, wearing jeans and a faded red hoodie.
She walked forward towards the crowd. "I don't suppose any of you want to offer us a reason to not kill you for trespassing?"
Ant took a step forward. "We only came to save a young girl in distress."
"And you needed to nearly destroy one of our Ancestor Spirits to do this?"
Ant looked confused. Calliope looked horror-stricken.
"Oh no. No, no, no," Calliope lamented. "I didn't know. I didn't know where I was. I had no idea—"
Her master cut her off. "That's enough Calliope. Save it for the Council Dictum."
"We no longer bow and scrape to the will of the Council Dictum," the Chat-mu woman said, a sneer on her face. "Someone will answer for attacking our Ancestor Spirit or you will all be immediately punished for trespassing on Chat-mu land. It's obvious the girl was the one. Hand her over, Ghost Lord, and the rest of your people and the Gamin will be spared."
"Look, there was a beast of some sort. Things are not black and white here, please let us figure out what happened and explain it," Ant pleaded.
"Enough!" she yelled. "We will have no more lies from the Council, nor shall we suffer the Ghost Lords a moment longer! The tyranny ends here and now." She began to raise her arm when a bright flash of light bloomed in front of the archers, followed by several more in rapid succession. When the bright lights ended, all that was left of the Ghost Lords and Gamin was empty ground littered with spent arrows.
"I have to see her," Brady pleaded to Ant, who stood hands on hips glaring at the young Gamin.
"No, Brady, it's not going to happen. She's safe. She knows you didn't do it on purpose. I told her that. However, the Ghost Lords are very upset right now and we may very have just started a war with a faction of the Ohlone Indians. We've had enough chaos for one night. I'm sure the Ghost Lords will come around, but for now they've forbidden you from seeing her."
"It isn't fair," Brady whined.
"No, it probably isn't, but life's not fair. Do you think it's fair that you were spared from dying in that jail cell and the cop wasn't?" he asked with his head cocked. "Now, be realistic for a moment, Brady. I know you've got a crush on Calliope, but for right now, you need to keep your head down and your nose clean until we can sort out exactly what is going on."
Brady just looked at Ant, the hurt obvious in his moistening eyes.
"Look, you two," Rod said, "this isn't going to be sorted out tonight. Brady, I understand it hurts and you need to make sure she understands you didn't try to hurt her. I'm sure she does and I've no doubt that in a short while you will be able to see her. Ant, you should know that Brady has more than a crush on this Ghost Lord girlie; it's love, so be a little gentler. Now, can we all get some sleep? It's been a late night and we have an appointment with a lawyer early in the morning. She's going to help us keep Helen and away from that bigoted cousin of hers, Jackson."
"Fine, fine," Ant said. "Brady, I'm sorry. I didn't know your feelings were so strong. I will work something out with the head of the Ghost Lords soon. Why don't you stay here tonight in the guest room?"
"Now seriously, it's time for sleep," Rod commanded. Brady walked down the hallway. Rod put his arms around Ant's neck. "Now give me a kiss goodnight," he said with a smile as he touched his lips to his lover's.
Jackson Montgomery looked up from the glass bowl of water on his kitchen counter.
"Did you see all that?" he asked the brunette woman standing next to him.
"Well, it was not exactly what he had planned, but I think we can use this chaos to our advantage, no?"
"Agreed. A war between the Ohlone and the Ghost Lords could be quite advantageous to us," she said with a thick, Spanish accent. "It will certainly keep Santa Maria's Avatar busy and out of our hair. And can we still use the shape changer to kill the young Gamin boy?"
"Oh yes. The changer is not hurt much at all. Brady is as good as dead."
"Good, then we will soon have the child for our Master."
The two smiled at each other.
Story by James M. Sullivan, Copyright 2009
Image by Rory Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2009