Soulbound ‡ clash

by Wes Leigh

Chapter 4

The villains were always ugly in books and movies. Necessarily so, it seemed. Because if they were attractive—if their looks matched their charm and their cunning—they wouldn't only be dangerous. They would be irresistible.

-- From Horrorscape by Nenia Campbell

Paulo stumbled down the path to the river and dove in, transforming into a manatee as his body sliced through the water. The cool depths welcomed him, soothing his flustered mind. Why couldn't he think clearly? Why were his thoughts dominated by hate, by bitterness, by a nebulous anger at their cousins, the Order of the Golden Stone? He struggled to remember what they had done, how they had harmed the Tribe. The memory was vague, disconnected, almost as if it wasn't his own memory at all, but a vision someone else had planted there.

Paulo sank to the bottom of the river and waited. The memory would grow clearer, he hoped. He would piece together the disjointed visions and see clearly why the Order was their enemy. Then he would know what to do.

But even after ten minutes of resting in the depths, his thoughts were still cloudy, darker and dimmer than the shadows under the riverbank. He swam slowly to the surface and broke into the air, snorting and taking a deep breath. Then he dove again and struggled to remember what had happened earlier in the afternoon.

The pale man had appeared in the middle of their camp unexpectedly. That much he remembered. His grandmother had screeched out a warning and lifted her hands to cast spells of warding, but the pale man had lifted his hands to show he meant no harm. And he had begun speaking. His voice, at first, had been as dry as a barren mountaintop, rasping, grating, … but gradually had become soothing, calming, beguiling. He had spoken of his desire to be their friend, to know their ways, to love the jungle as they did. He had called them to gather around him and hear the dire warning of the danger they now faced. He had gravely informed them of the enmity the Order felt for the Tribe, and he had leaned down and removed the muiraquitã from around the neck of Paulo's grandmother.

No. That wasn't right.

The pale man held Grandmother's muiraquitã and studied it carefully before placing it around his own neck.

No! That wasn't what happened at all.

Paulo struggled to make sense of what his mind was telling him. The pale man didn't take Grandmother's muiraquitã, but he told them who did. It was the Order, their cousins, the warlocks of the mountain. THEY STOLE IT! They were jealous of the Tribe. They weren't content with the golden ore they ripped from the mountain's belly. They wanted more, and so they snuck down to the river and stole Grandmother's muiraquitã, her precious jade amulet containing the many magics she had carefully embedded inside over the years. And for that theft, they must die.

Paulo shot to the surface of the river and transformed into a toucan, launching himself into the air and flapping his wings aggressively to gain altitude. The rushing air made him question his anger.

'Why do you hate the Order?' his heart asked.

'Because they stole Grandmother's amulet,' his mind replied.

'They wouldn't do that,' his heart insisted, reminding him that Diego was a member of the Order, and he loved Diego.

'No,' his mind replied. 'I loved Diego once long ago, but now, like all his family, we are enemies.'

The Tribe of the River of the Ancestors prepared for war.

Grandmother Costa stirred a pot, her anger seething like the fluid within. As she stirred, her fingers slipped up to her neck from time to time, reaching for the muiraquitã that no longer rested there, and her fury grew. She crushed roots and added them to the pot, leaning over to sniff the concoction. Yes. Almost ready. As she stirred, she mumbled ancient words, watching carefully until the bubbling liquid changed color. With an excited cackle, she motioned for her clan to approach.

Each one leaned down to sip the contents of Grandmother's pot. Most retched as they tasted the concoction, but they swallowed it with a grimace, shaking their heads as it slid down their throats.

Paulo flew into the camp and landed next to Grandmother, transforming back into a boy. She pointed at the pot, motioning for him to drink. He obeyed, heaving as the foul swill hit his stomach.

Grandmother picked up a fist-sized stone and threw it at Diego. It struck his chest and bounced off.

He felt nothing. Not the stone. Not his own heart. Nothing.

Paulo transformed into a jaguar and climbed quickly to the top of a tree, looking up at the village of Raiz Antiga, where their enemies, the Order of the Golden Stone, thought themselves safe in their mountain houses. They would soon learn how wrong they were.

The pale man smiled and waited patiently for the rest of the Tribe to finish their preparations. He toyed with the jade amulet at his neck, pleased and eager to begin the slaughter.

Diego urged the storm to carry him faster. He had to warn his family. Perhaps Grandfather João would know how to free their cousins from Corpo Seco's spell. Diego's heart pounded with fear, aching for his friend Paulo, hoping he wasn't being harmed.

Diego flew into the center of Raiz Antiga and landed with a stumbling run, rushing into Grandfather João's house. He found the leaders of the Order gathered around a table, studying several open books.

Diego cried, "Grandfather! He's bewitched them!"

João looked up. "Calm down, Diego. What do you mean … he's bewitched them?"

Diego panted, struggling to catch his breath. "The pale one. Corpo Seco. He did something to the Tribe. I don't know what, but they are listening to him, preparing to fight us."

João nodded solemnly. "He is very powerful, this ancient one. His words are chains to ensnare the mind."

"Can we free them?" Diego asked, alarmed.

João shook his head slowly. "I know no spell to do so. And with the witches of the Tribe aiding him, our own situation is now perilous." Turning to the other men around the table, João said, "Gather your families and prepare to flee."

Diego's father, Miguel Luís, frowned. "We will not defend our homes?" he asked.

João nodded, grimly. "We will fight. We have no choice. But we must be ready to fly should the battle turn against us."

Diego swallowed hard. He'd never seen his grandfather so disheartened. Nor had he seen his father and the other men so anxious.

"What can I do?" Diego asked.

João turned to Diego and said, "Pray, dear boy. Pray for a miracle. And go pack your books and anything else you would want to take with you, should I be forced to order our evacuation."

Diego nodded and ran out the front door, heading up the street to his own house. He rushed through the front door and ran up the stairs to his room. His books were scattered on the desk and bed. He gathered them up and stowed them in a rucksack, then pulled a few more from the shelf above his bed, picking only his favorites.

Diego stopped when he saw the wooden figurine on the end of the shelf. It was a dolphin, carved from wood with great skill, polished to a fine sheen. Dolphins were rare this far inland, but a small family had shown up one day, playing with him and Paulo in the river, before disappearing again. Paulo had been so enamored with the graceful creatures that he carved a figurine the next day, giving it to Diego to show his love for his friend.

Diego picked up the figurine and studied it carefully. 'Please be safe, Paulo,' he silently begged.

Paulo flew high above the village of Raiz Antiga. Looking down, he searched and found the building he wanted. Folding his wings, he dropped quickly, then spread his wings again to cup the air and slow his fall. Just below him was the window of his once-best-friend's bedroom. He banked and side-slipped through the air, landed on the sill, transformed into his human form, and leapt into Diego's room.

Diego was standing there, staring at the dolphin figurine. Paulo felt a warm flood of emotion welling up in his heart. Friend. Lover. Blood brother.

He resisted the emotions and squinted at the boy standing before him, the young warlock-in-training, the enemy of Paulo's Tribe.

"Why did you do it?" Paulo hissed.

Diego turned, surprised. "Paulo?" he cried. "What are you doing here?"

Paulo strode forward and yanked the wooden figurine from Diego's hand. "Taking back what belongs to my family," he snarled.

Diego's eyes watered up. "But you gave that to me." What was wrong with Paulo? Paulo's eyes were unfocused. His breath was coming in short gasps. His fingers curled and uncurled, shaking slightly. Diego felt fear curling in his stomach for his friend.

Paulo stared at Diego, struggling to understand why his mind told him to attack and kill. 'No,' his heart cried. 'This is Diego. Your closest friend. You can't hurt him.' Paulo shivered. 'I must kill him,' his mind silently screamed. 'He is my enemy.'

"Paulo? What's going on?" Diego whispered, frightened by his friend's twisting facial expressions.

Paulo threw the dolphin on Diego's bed and gritted his teeth. "Where is Grandmother's muiraquitã? What have you done with it?"

Diego shook his head. "We don't have it, Paulo. Corpo Seco took it—"

"NO!" Paulo screamed. "Don't you dare lie to me. You DO have it. You STOLE it, and we want it back!" Paulo jumped on Diego, transforming into a writhing python, twisting his body around Diego to squeeze and crush.

"PAULO! Please stop!" Diego cried, frantically pushing Paulo's coiling body away from his neck and face.

Diego's father Miguel ran into the room and saw the struggle between Diego and Paulo. He cast a spell, striking Paulo with repeated blows of compressed air.

Paulo turned his face toward Miguel and hissed. Paulo's body shook and changed into that of a jaguar. He leapt for the open window, transformed into a flamingo, and flew off.

Diego fell to his knees, weeping. Reaching out his hand, almost pleading, he cried, "Paulo … why?"

Miguel knelt beside Diego and checked him quickly. "Are you hurt, son?"

Diego shook his head, gulping and crying.

Miguel shook Diego gently. "There's no more time, son. Gather your things and get to the mine. Your grandfather is summoning the Mãe-do-Ouro to protect us, and he wants everyone deep inside the mines for safety."

Diego looked at his father, stunned. "But they're our cousins."

Miguel nodded. "Yes, but as long as Corpo Seco controls them, our cousins are dangerous to all of us. We have no choice, Diego. The Mãe-do-Ouro will drive them off the mountain."

"Some of them will DIE, Papa!"

"That cannot be helped, Diego. It must be done. Now get your things and head for the mine. I have to get the others to safety. Move, son!"

Miguel ran from the room, leaving Diego with tears streaming down his face. Diego picked up the dolphin figurine and held it to his chest, weeping inconsolably.

A faint rumble caused Diego to look up in alarm. The ground seemed to quiver beneath him. What was causing that? He rushed to his window and looked outside. His grandfather and the other men of the Order were standing in a line at the front gate, weaving spells with their hands. On the road, approaching them, were the witches of the Tribe. They chanted as they marched, casting their own spells.

João lifted his walking stick above his head and shouted, summoning storm clouds that built into a dark, twisting mass above their heads. Other men gestured at the clouds, calling down lightning that struck the road just in front of the witches.

The witches screamed in fury and began running up the road, clutching jade amulets they wore, mumbling incantations that caused the sparse trees in the village to uproot themselves and attack the warlocks of the Order.

João backed up, ordering the other men to follow him. One man was too slow, and the trees grabbed him and clutched his body, squeezing and twisting until he screamed in agony and was torn in two.

João launched fiery orbs at the trees setting them on fire to give the warlocks a chance to move back out of reach.

Grandmother Costa shrieked and a mist rose from the ground, covering the gyrating trees and snuffing the fires. Then she ordered her sisters forward, commanding them to begin a new spell. With hands stroking their amulets, they chanted in unison, and the ground beneath the João cracked open as roots broke through and tried to entangle the warlocks.

João created a windstorm that lifted the warlocks into the air. They continued throwing lightning and fire at the witches, but neither group prevailed, countering each other and creating a magical stalemate.

Diego watched from his window, seeing Corpo Seco striding up the road behind the witches, one hand stroking the jade amulet at his throat, the other pulling an obsidian dagger from its sheath. He approached Grandmother Costa, who stood on a hill, shouting directions to the other witches. When he reached her position, he suddenly stabbed the dagger into her side. She gasped and clawed at him, but he pushed her away, laughing as she fell to the ground. The dagger pulsed with green light as her body turned into ash and blew away in the wind. The pale man touched his tongue to the dagger and shivered as he absorbed Grandmother Costa's soul. "Strike them down!" he shouted. "Destroy their village. Leave no stone upon another." Corpo Seco began a complex, weaving pattern with his hands. His mouth opened wide in a rictus of hate as he shouted words that seemed to twist the very air.

Diego felt the ground shaking again, violently this time, and the walls of his home collapsed around him.

Diego shook his head. He was covered in dust, surrounded by the shattered remains of his home. He struggled to sit up, pushing off the rubble and choking in the dust-filled air. His feet were trapped, tangled in tree roots that clutched tighter as he struggled to escape. He gesticulated with his fingers, summoning arcing blue light before grabbing the roots, sending electrical shocks along their lengths. They released his feet, so he kicked them aside and scooted back.

Tree limbs wrapped around his face from behind, squeezing, cutting into his cheeks, scratching his ear, covering his mouth so he couldn't speak. He frantically clawed at the limbs, pulling them away from his face long enough to take a quick breath and summon fire. He tossed the fire over his shoulder into the tree, feeling it immediately release him and thrash about, trying to extinguish the flames.

Diego scrambled to his feet and ran across the rubble that had been his home. It was more than he could process at the moment. His house was broken apart all around him. The home where he'd lived all his life. The place that meant safety, security, comfort. Gone in a few moments. Roof torn off. Walls knocked down. Family possessions thrown all over the ground.

And standing near the ruins of his family's home was the pale man, Corpo Seco. The man stood with his back to Diego, surveying the damage he had done. He slowly turned. His long silver hair blew to one side. He saw Diego and smiled evilly, showing long, dripping fangs. His eyes glowed bright red, and they flashed ominously.

Diego knew he should flee, but he couldn't. Corpo Seco was talking. The words touched Diego's mind, numbing it, freezing him in place.

Corpo Seco strode toward Diego, taking his time, walking slowly with his mouth opened and turned slightly to the side, anticipating, whispering.

Trees moved forward and wrapped Diego in their branches, holding him secure, tightening around him. He couldn't breathe. His heart began pounding, hammering. His lungs burned.

Corpo Seco stopped in front of Diego and reached up to pull a branch away from Diego's mouth. Diego gasped and sucked in air. He started to scream, but the pale man placed one finger against his lips.

"No need for that," Corpo Seco whispered. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Diego whimpered. His eyes darted from side to side, hoping to see his father or grandfather coming to his rescue.

"They can't help you now," the pale man said, smiling. "No one can."

Corpo Seco reached down to a branch encircling Diego's neck and tugged it aside, exposing Diego's neck. He leaned down and sniffed. Apparently satisfied, he opened his mouth wide and licked his lips. "Now … you can scream," he said.

A tidal wave of wind crashed down, knocking Corpo Seco away from Diego. Grandfather João waved his hands before him, sending a second windstorm smashing into the pale man, tossing him across the street and into the side of one of the few homes still standing.

Diego's father Miguel ran up and began repeatedly striking the tree branches wrapped around Diego, sending lightning arcing through the wood with each strike. The tree shook and released Diego, retreating from Miguel's attack.

Grandfather João grabbed Diego in his arms and carried him into the sky with Miguel right behind them, casting fire orbs back at Corpo Seco.

Diego looked down and saw his home, demolished and forlorn, growing smaller and smaller as they rose into the sky.

Lying on the rubble was Diego's rucksack, books spilling out of the open neck, falling on top of a wooden dolphin figurine that had been broken into splinters by a falling stone block.

Diego sat with his knees pulled up to his chest, shivering as he finished his tale. Connor sat behind Diego, hugging him tight, whispering encouragement in his ear. Xavier and Daniel sat in front of him, cross-legged on the bed, gently rubbing his legs.

Diego took a deep shuddering breath and continued, "All the things I told you about living in Houston and going to school there … those were lies. My family fled from Brazil. Some of them stayed in Houston, but my grandfather brought the rest of us here, to Agony. We had to promise to keep our identities a secret. To keep our family safe."

Daniel shook his head in amazement. "Wow, Diego. So that means you're one of those warlocks? You can cast spells and stuff?"

Nodding, Diego smiled bashfully. "Yes. I'm a warlock … and a vaewolf. I guess that makes me a vaelock."

They all snickered. Connor hugged Diego and kissed his ear from behind.

Diego gulped and said, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you guys, but that's why you can't tell anyone. He's back. Corpo Seco is back, hunting my family. He followed us here, and he won't stop until he's found us and killed us all."

Daniel looked at Xavier and said, "This Corpo Seco sounds like Ignatius Caedes."

Xavier nodded. "I agree. They are probably one and the same."

"Then he can't be coming for Diego's family," Daniel said.

Diego looked up, confused. "Why not, Daniel?"

"Don't you see, Diego," Daniel explained. "Ignatius has been here in North Dakota for years. He formed a band of rogue vampires and lived as an outlaw, killing indiscriminately. He killed Lakotas living on the west side of the state. He killed Connor's birth parents when Connor was five years old."

Connor squeezed Diego. "I met a werebear from that Lakota tribe. His name is Hota, and we fought that bastard and tried to capture him, but he escaped."

Xavier nodded. "He never stays in one place for long. When Connor and Hota defeated him, he must have traveled to Brazil, where he stirred up trouble between your Order and the Tribe. So you see, Diego, Daniel's visions show him returning, not because your family is here, but because he has unfinished business with Connor and Hota."

Connor growled low in his throat. "Hota and I promised each other that we would hunt him down. One day, we'll find him and kill him."

Diego sniffed. "But what about Daniel's vision? What if he finds us and kills us first?"

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