This is an excerpt from The Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood. Ristea’s Reads is currently hosting a giveaway for two free ebook copies, and you can find more details by clicking here.
Igbe, the red spirit, was like a wolfhound on a leash, straining constantly against Antoinette’s metaphysical lead. It concealed its physical form, but I could still sense its whipping, darting motions with the wind, a mild scent of turned earth left in its wake.
The spirit led us through Brooklyn Heights, down Fulton, and then hurried along Flatbush.
“Do you know where we are heading?” I asked Antoinette as I hustled along, both of us nearly jogging to keep pace with the spirit.
“Looks like Prospect Park,” Antoinette said.
I tried to plot a line between Prospect Park and Central Park, running scenarios in my mind to deduce whether this was a ritual site or was in fact the home of the Brooklyn Heart.
Each city had a Heart, an embodied gem, usually fist- sized, that contained the essence of that city, the key to its metaphysical existence. Some cities had multiple Hearts, like London or Shanghai, all depending on their size.
New York had five, one for each borough. And Esther would need all of them to open the third circle.
And once that was open, she could take to the Deeps and wake the fetal god from its gestational slumber.
Moving through the park, I tried to look nonchalant, like the joggers I’d seen around Manhattan and Brooklyn. I paid no mind to the fact that I was not wearing the traditional jogger uniform of neon-colored skintight fabric and brightly-colored athletic shoes. New York was a city of oddities, and I hoped that oddity would conceal me as well.
Still, we drew a number of eyes on our way to the park. Fortunately, no pursuers.
“What would she want in the park?” I asked. “Is the Heart here?”
“No. It’s with friends. And they can handle themselves.” “Many have underestimated the Greenes and paid with their lives. There is an account of a duel in 1832 between a Chicago magus and my great-great-aunt—”
“She’s bad news, I get that. But these friends are the most powerful circle of magicians in New York. They’ve got this,” Antoinette said, taking a turn as Igbe led us toward the park entrance.
When we reached the park, Igbe stopped to consider, turning end over end.
The crowds beside the park were sparse, as the spirit was not the only wind in the air. A chill wind sapped the warmth from my bones.
“Where now?” I asked, facing Antoinette, though the answer would come from her bound spirit.
Igbe stopped, a whorl of air settling on the concrete sidewalk. Then at once, the wet yellow-brown leaves set off in a rush toward the park, showing the creature’s path.
Less than five minutes into the park, Igbe started snarling and barking. It had stepped closer to our world, its red wispy form flowing as it moved. “She’s here! Faster! I’ll tear her throat out!”
Antoinette and I broke into a full run, chasing the spirit through the pathways that wound beneath the nearly barren trees.
Igbe turned a corner, and as I slowed to make the turn myself, lacking the agility of the incorporeal, I saw another spirit waiting atop a moss-covered rock the size of a small automotive.
This spirit was the mottled brown of mud, and it was large. I felt the air grow thick with energy.
I searched the horizon for my sister, hoping I might be able to bypass the incipient melee and pursue her directly. But beyond the mud-brown spirit, the path split in two. And without Igbe’s guidance, I would be hunting blind, casting the stones and hoping for luck.
With a roar that I heard with my soul more than my ears, the mud-brown spirit pounced on Igbe. The smaller spirit grew more concrete, a canine form slipping past the larger spirit’s grasp.
Antoinette stayed back, fishing through her jacket for something.
In the park, it could only be an earth spirit, a tree spirit, or one of the higher spirits of the park itself. My studies of New York led me to believe that Prospect Park was not as known for violence as Central Park, so it would not likely be a spirit of death. But New York was a city of many moods, many lives.
I sorted the factors and possibilities as I rummaged through the canvas bag Antoinette had provided me.
Deciding on a tactic, I brought out the topaz pendant, the opals in my left hand. Drawing from the opals, I channeled the power through my body and into the topaz, giving it shape and function.
Beside me, Antoinette chanted methodically in French, other words even more unfamiliar mixed into her Haitian creole.
The magic of the Greenes was older, more primordial compared to that of most practitioners. Through our connection to the Gatekeepers, masters of the center of the world, Esther touched the Deeps, the darkness between atoms, the power at the primal core of the earth. An apt comparison would be to say that where a magician might work with diesel to fuel their magic, our power source was closer to nuclear. Esther would outpower me every step of the way, but even a diesel engine can run a bulldozer.
Using the topaz as my focus, I shaped the power from the opals. I envisioned an arrow the size of my arm, thick and sturdy. Silver-and-white energy coalesced around the topaz, and I cast my hand toward the spirit.
The bolt shot out, biting dearly into the spirit at the shoulder. Its coloring faded a shade; the creature’s hold on physical reality weakened but was not severed.
The being roared, charging toward me.
Igbe leapt to my defense, tearing at the mud-brown spirit with its bloodred claws. It tore at the larger spirit like a pup atop a mastiff, and the larger creature shook Igbe off with a whirlwind of brown smoke.
The red streak hurled through the air, then split around a tree, fading.
The earth spirit redoubled its charge, and I could feel the cold in my bones as I conjured a cross-hatching of spikes on the ground before me like a sprung trap. Barbs of shimmering light shot up from the ground, trapping the spirit like a butterfly, the shining spikes piercing it at every angle.
I stumbled back, the effort of two powerful workings taking the wind out of my lungs. Even with a power source, the energy still had to go through me, and it taxed the body. Not as much as drawing the Deeps directly, though.
In answer, the spirit roared again, pain echoing in its voice distantly, as its hold on the material world dwindled.
The spirit tore forward, brown wisps flowing out from its form and fading into nothingness as the spirit reaved itself, pressing onward with an intensity I hadn’t seen from a terrestrial spirit.
What had Esther done to inspire such devotion, such ferocity from a spirit she couldn’t have known for more than a scant moment?
Drawing upon the opals, I shaped another bolt of will, which ripped through the air like lightning, shearing a cubic yard from the creature. It kept coming, even more faded. The crushing of branches and crackling of leaves beneath its amorphous feet told me it was solid enough to tear my throat out.
These workings could best the creature with time, but already two of the five opals in my left hand were dark, their reserves depleted. And when they were empty, it was on to blood, or my own life force to power the workings.
Igbe’s red flowed back into the scene, harrying at the back of the creature, its form half-visible through the fading brown of the earth spirit. The mud-brown mist lashed out with a limb and knocked Igbe back again, then pulled itself free of my spike trap and shuffled forward, gaining its footing again.
I tried to evade the creature, shuffling away and unleashing another bolt of power. The creature pushed forward through the blast and knocked the topaz from my hand. My arm tore at the shoulder from the force of the blow, as if it were trying to wrench my arm out of its socket. I doubled over, pulling my arm in and trying to quiet the tearing pain.
My death reached out for me, a rough sketch of a figure that would be more than real enough to tear my body to ribbons. The spirit leapt forward and brown streaks filled my vision.
Antoinette’s chanting reached a crescendo, and as the spirit loomed over me, it was crushed beneath a thick tree branch.
From the branch leapt another wispy form, this one the green of verdant moss. It was small, barely larger than Igbe. But instead of lashing out to strike the earth spirit, it stretched out and spun strands of light over the thick brown form, caging it in. Antoinette chanted faster now, her voice clear and strong.
The brown spirit fought against the bright netting, tearing strands that cracked like burst tree limbs in a freezing Dakota winter.
I scrambled back, my lungs paralyzed. I passed Antoinette, her eyes strained shut as she chanted. I sat back and watched the green tree spirit lock the brown form down, then saw the two of them seep back into the ground.
And at once, the forest was silent, a felled limb splayed across the pathway the only physical remainder of the melee.
Igbe limped back toward Antoinette, reduced to a half- dozen nearly-translucent strands of red.
“I’m sorry, sister-daughter,” Igbe said, its voice soft as a whisper.
Antoinette opened her eyes, a tired smile birthed on her face. She reached out to the spirit, touching the top of the tallest strand. “You did great, Igbe. Go home and rest. You’ve done me a great honor.”
The threads folded in on themselves then fluttered up into the air, carried away on the wind.
“Well done,” I said, breath coming out in crystalizing clouds, the cold seeping back in as the excitement of combat faded.
Antoinette turned to me, her shoulders slumping as if they’d dropped a great weight. “Hope my momma’s looking down on me now. I never thought I’d have to conjure a spirit that fast. Or to save someone’s life.”
“But you did both, and I am in your debt. My family has caused you a great deal of harm, through Esther’s malign efforts and my unintentional ones. Know that I will do what I can to settle that debt.”
The Greenes were not raised to carry debts. We did not owe, we were owed. The Gatekeepers owed us their attention, their power, and through bargains, we were owed by the Bold to a lesser extent. And their nieces and nephews, the Younger Gods, owed us our inheritance.
To be the debtor put me in an entirely unacceptable position. But while Esther was loose and working to destroy the Eastern seaboard, there were more pressing matters. I would discharge the debt as rapidly as possible, in good faith.
Antoinette looked around, pulling down a branch of the felled tree to search the path. “You can start by telling me you know where your sister’s going. Igbe would have tried to keep following her, but he had about as much fight left in him as a tranquilized kitten.”
I shook my head. “She’ll be gone by now. She learned to walk soft so she could stay up late with rituals and divinations and come back to bed without waking myself or our younger siblings. A lesson she passed on to me, thankfully.”
“So what now?” Antoinette asked.
“Would another of your guardian spirits be able to take up the trail?” I asked.
“Igbe’s the only one who can track, and he’ll need a day or two to recover.”
“We cannot leave her that much time to collect the artifacts unimpeded. The working I would use to track Esther has little chance of succeeding.”
“Why?” Antoinette asked.
“She taught me how to do it. And then she taught me how to beat it. I’d thought that it would keep me safe here, so far from home. But unless she chose this site, this god at random, I fear I was wrong about that as well. Not all of the Gatekeepers serve our family. If she’s opening a path to the Deeps here, it is for a reason.”
Could it be that the same reason drew me here? Some subconscious call that lured me to the city? If I’d chosen anywhere else in the country, would this be happening? Or would Esther move unopposed, the guardians of the Hearts caught unawares?
“Let’s at least try to find her,” Antoinette said, throwing one leg over the fallen tree, then the other.
I followed her, but grudgingly. “We’ll merely be ambushed again. And I don’t have the resources for many more such displays of power.” I held out the opals. Even struck to the ground, I’d kept my grip.
One of the family lessons I was glad had stuck.
“Your tools are your life. A Greene is nothing without their tools. To handle power without focus is to eat steak with your bare hands.” We didn’t even eat hearts with our bare hands. Three forks, two knives, and three spoons for high dinner.
The lessons flowed like a raging river, constant dictates and rules. But they were all tangled up with cruelty and monstrous views of the world I’d only begun to disentangle from the rest of their wisdom.
We continued down the path. Antoinette lowered her voice and stepped cautiously. I doubted it would do much good, but it was a harmless precaution, one I matched as best I could.
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