A Wolf, Remembered

Manacled by my wrists to the ceiling, and rough rope encircling my torso to the cold pole against my chest, I felt the pressure of the wolf’s teeth digging in on the back of my right thigh, the slick, chilled tongue lapping at the blood that trickled from the small punctures it made.

    I shifted a little to keep my legs from buckling, and felt the vibrations from the low, deep snarl of warning in the wolf’s throat, its jaws  like a thumb and forefinger pressed to the side of a nail awaiting the hammer.

     Standing in my own filth, taking shallow breaths didn’t decrease the air’s pungency.

    The lone, bare bulb that hung from a frayed wire looked as forlorn and captive as I felt.

     “Go,” a woman’s voice said behind me; reluctant, the wolf let my thigh go, his eyes pleading with his mistress.

     She shook her head. “Go.”

    The beast snuffed in reproach.

    I will taste him again, Pack-Mother.

    No, pack-brother. Tonight his body is mine.

    As you command.

    Why did I know the words that passed in the look between them?

    The wolf lowered his eyes but lapped at the wounded leg again, taking a final lick before it returned to wherever it left.

********************

     “Why the wolf?”

     “Because I could. I like watching you helpless.”

     “Why did you bring me here?”

     “To make you one last offer.”

     “I’d rather die.”

     “I think you’re bluffing. You have a chance to put off the moment, and you’re telling me you’d rather hear your own last breath?”

     “I’m not sure I would hear it, not that it would matter. What matters is, I can’t walk around like you do, pretending to be something I’m not.”

     Her finger laced under my chin, lingered in the blood around my lips.

      “That, my love, is the entire human condition neatly stated.”

     “Your bitterness aside, I don’t want to live like that…thing…that was biting my flesh.”

     “A thing?

     “Yes.”

    She slipped her arms around me from behind, hands on my chest with her fingers spread; It was almost loving even though I was naked, stinking, and scared.

    “What are you doing?” I tried to sound like she wasn’t affecting me, but the basement’s temperature was dropping with the sun that filtered through dirty, web-shaded windows, and her arms were warm around me.

      Something deeper stirred in me, but I misread it.

     “Are you going to…?”

     “No. Never again. Not in this form.”

     Riddles?

      I saw her arms cord and harden as the muscles swelled beneath them.

     “ Our pack-brother drew blood from you. Let your thoughts  go now, and listen to my voice.”
    “Damn-”

     She pinched my lips closed. “I said, listen.

    The soft hairs of her arms began to grow, dark and coarse, scratching my stomach in her embrace as the healing curse took root,

     Listening was all I could do now.

                                               ************************

    Her wolf voice brought images with it, memories of kills, howling as the rush of wind poured over our running pack, the ripple of wind through fur. Nights howling for the sheer joy, and trailing the scents of large, panicked prey that drove our legs to move faster.  And the bloody, merciless slaughter of inferior intruders on our hunting ground.

     Spring days by the rivers, the rituals of passage, and the sweet, wet taste of fresh kills that steamed in the morning mist.

     The mourning of the old ones, sometimes taken in the hunt, or by the guns of men.

      Summer nights  caught up in  the thrills of the chase by moonlight, and the spiking  scent of fear in the cornered prey. For the swiftest among us, the taking of life and the first spurt of blood into the gullet while avoiding the death throes. They could always strike us down with an accidental kick or head-butt as they toppled.

      Finally, the two of us side by side, thick winter coats withstanding the freezing winds as we surveyed the night forest from the promontory.

      Alpha and mate, then.

      Now, captor and prisoner.

      Lovers no more, but still beasts in nature.

     “Do you remember now?”

    I did, but was too tired to answer; I remembered it all.

    She smiled, unshackled and untied me, gave me water, and held me tighter as the coarse hairs on my body began to mingle with her own.

    We would be lovers again soon.

    And I slept, dreaming of meadows and blood.

The Passing: Growing Strength (Chapter 19)

Abdiel had finally settled the others, then himself, as I sat on the edge of my bed back at The Crystal Harp. I took the liberty of ordering wine. The bartender looked askance at me because of my age, but decided the coin was worth the risk. Unlike The Dregs, lawmen spot checked places like these under the King’s orders to demand ‘fees and taxes’. 

     Slavers, however, were perfectly respectable; the king left them alone. No one wanted to be on their bad side. They were known to kidnap family members from those who’d ‘reform’ them.

    “Leave me tomorrow. I need to think of a way to work with Tyrel.”

    The longer we stay with you, the more difficult the leaving will become. And we risk ourselves as well; he is not the only Canceler, and they roam. Another might chance upon us not realizing Tyrel was already here. He’ll be punished if they find that out.

     He sent me a vision, unwelcome, of Tyrel naked, spread in the air, and beaten with barbed whips, blood spattering with every strike as his head lolled forward, and crows danced and plucked at the scraps of him already torn.

     I retched, but fortunately wasn’t hungry. “Don’t send me those unless I ask for them!”

     Silence. His response whenever he wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, or when he knew it.

    I regained my composure, ragged as it was, and sleep was a wanderer with lodging in view.

    “Once again, you might have told me that earlier.”

    We are newly bound, Tina, in new circumstances. It is not a light task Hannah set for you. Make no mistake, we are maleficent spirits, and she wielded great power over us. She asked me to aid you in the transition, but you are young. 

   If you are not worthy of the task, we will set ourselves free. I will not tell you more than you need to know because this is a challenge by our predators.They are the only beings that could cause our ‘death.’

   “You’re already dead, are you not?”

   Not as you die. It is more a dissolution. We feel it pull on us whenever you are in his presence. The others cling to me as I root myself in Hannah’s power within you,but it is taxing, and if we leave you now before you have it all, the pain might drive you mad. It will feel like a tearing of your insides.

.  I showed you the Cancelers, and told you of their power. We have none over them other than what you might devise, but neither do we have the luxury of time for you to create a spell.

  I took a moment to consider what he’d just told me. I was tired, and afraid, and but for Gran’s power protecting me, they would have slipped my own worthless attempts to bind them and shed blood all over the land. 

  “So let me ask you this: is the quest to destroy them Gran’s gift to you for helping me?

   You may deem it such. It is here revenge on the Traitor’s Guild as well. As for Tyrel, there may be another way.

    There was no happy compromise to this.

    “And what is that way, Abdiel?”

    You are strong enough now. Speak with Hannah.

    The thought of seeing Gran again, in any form, set off in me a fireball of emotions.

    At the core of it though, despite what I would have liked, was the necessity. In an odd way, it was good of Abdiel to remind me the spirits I contained were dark in nature and purpose.

    Abdiel guided me through the ceremony, and the wandering sleep walked past and on into the night.

                                                    ********************

   But for the shining eyes, she was as she’d been in life; deceptively plain, like a snake of late autumn colored scales in a pile of late autumn leaves, sepia in tone.

   “Gran.”

   “My child. I’d hoped you had no need to disturb my rest.”

   “I’m sorry, Gran. Abdiel and I are still…adjusting.”

   “What is it you need from me, dear?”

   “There’s a Canceler here. We’ve met more than once. He says it’s his job to kill me, but I made him a proposal. I just don’t know how to make it work without taking his life.”

   “He made his mission clear. You can do no less.”

   “At the moment, we have a truce. He can lead me to where the Traitors hide, or at least get me started.”

   “That will save time. And what will you do for him?”

   “We haven’t talked about that, yet. How do I stop him from weakening us as we travel?”

   “Shield them.”

   “How?” 

   “In a familiar.”

   “They won’t weaken?”

   “The familiar’s designed for it.”

   “What kind? You never had one.” 

   She smiled. “I never needed one.”

  That stung a little.  “What kind, then? A cat?”

   “Whatever you choose, Tina.

   “Something I can cage then?”

   Gran nodded. “That will suffice.” She began to fade. “I must rest now.”

“Thank you, Gran. I miss you.” I wanted to cry, but didn’t.

“As I miss you, dear. Guard yourself.” She was gone.

I went to bed, turning over my last thought: What do I choose?

   I slept, and even in their own fear of Tyrel, the bad, dark, evil spirits let me. 

   

The Passing: The Dregs (Chapter 18)

  Abdiel being weakened by Tyrel was something I tried not to admit worried me. The problem itself was easy to solve by staying away from Tyrel, but the permanent solution, taking his life, wasn’t good at all.

    If Tyrel could neutralize my magic, what could I use to stop him from doing it?

    Several options presented themselves: assassinate him without using magic, but that would mean getting close to him. It wasn’t something I could hire out without the possibility of him finding out that I did..

    Changing a spell to see if it could get past his guard? That might weaken it too much, it wouldn’t do the job, and again, I didn’t know if he’d be able to trace it back to me.

   Trap him, then kill him? I didn’t know how strong he was in his own magic, but if he’d mastered the arts that could weaken a powerful spirit like Abdiel, harming human flesh was too easy.

   He told me when I met him that eventually everyone would use his services.

   I needed to find someone who’d done that, and find out why; it was a good starting point, but led to other questions. It wasn’t even discreet, the way people liked to gossip, but it was the least intrusive and obvious, hopefully giving me some knowledge of him other than what I possessed.

     Still, the inquiry could be traced back to me, and if he decided to attack he could take the element of surprise since I’d no defenses against him. 

    I decided to go from the lowest to the highest risk, though it would hurt Abdiel and the others.

    I’d have to go talk to him.

                                                      ********************

    I paid one of the Market’s urchin cutpurses to deliver the message for Tyrel to meet me in a neutral zone, then bound him to it with a curse that made his eyes widen and a spot of liquid fright spread across the front of his pants. 

    The neutral zone was a run down hole in the wall whose destruction, if it came to a fight, would likely be welcomed by the town, though the seedy, shady clientele that made use of it would find it inconvenient to replace. It had no visible name because the coloring and lettering on the crooked sign had faded from long exposure to bright sun and bad times.

    I waited for him outside rather than endure and fend off the idiocy I was sure to attract on the inside.

    When I saw his cloak among the normal garb as he walked through the thinning marketplace crowds, I gave silent thanks that he was prompt.

    I could feel Abdiel begin to shift within me. “This won’t take long, Abdiel.”

    See to it.

    My body tingled with a cold numbness as the magic fled.

   “Tina, why on earth would you come here?

   “No one knows me here.”

   “Nor me, for that matter. Were you hoping for witnesses if this ended badly? They’re not the kind that cooperate with lawmen. It’s not called The Dregs without reason.”

   He knows the name of this ratrap. So, he has been here some time, then. I hadn’t thought of fighting him around witnesses, but then, they might also not let things get out of hand.  

    Realistically, the chances of that were at slim to none, but at least slim was a possibility..

   Tina…

   “Shall we go inside?” he asked.

   “Goodness no, Tyrel. I have to make this quick.”

   “Ah, yes. I see the discomfort in you. What is it you want?”

   “To see if there’s a way we can work together.”

   “You’re joking.”

   “No, I’m not.”

      “How? I cancel your power out.”

      Tiiinaaa….

      “You told me everyone here eventually pays for your service. To do what?”

      “To dispel bad spirits. Most are just superstitious, and I take advantage of their fear, but some truly have them hovering about, usually mischief makers that someone sent to them for some misdeed. 

     “I don’t get into the middle of things, I just send the spirits…” He caught himself.

     This was a crossroads, and I didn’t know whether or not to reveal Abdiel had given me a vision; if I mentioned the power he had to send demons into the Void to die, he’d outright refuse me and our battle would begin in earnest.

    I shook my head before I spoke to bluff that I wouldn’t understand what he was about to say anyway, and to convey impatience. It wasn’t with him, but with Abdiel and his minions forcing me to keep myself still so I didn’t look like a stringless marionette.

    “Never mind,” I rushed to reassure him, “I don’t care. Let me think on it. You too. We’ll meet again soon to see what we’ve come up with.”

    “I’m…supposed to kill you.”

    Abdiel moaned. 

    “Then it seems I’ve trapped myself. I took a chance you might, and now, I can’t escape you.”

    He took a step back, considering it. 

    Run, Tina.

    I didn’t; whatever he was going to do, I wanted to see it coming.

    He turned sideways and his shoulders slumped. “Dammit girl, now you’ve got me curious.”

   My shoulders slumped too, and I had to tense my legs to put ice in the jelly they were turning into before I fell.

    “Tomorrow then?”

    “Yes. But not here. We meet back at the Crystal Harp.”

    “All right.”

    “I’d walk you home, but….”

    “That’s fine. I’ll follow you out though.”

    He nodded once. “Let’s hurry, then.

    Tinaaa! Abdiel’s voice was wretched with agony. 

    “Lead on.” I slipped my hands in my pockets, rubbing my stomach so Tyrell couldn’t see how much I was hurting.

    He started walking and I followed at a distance that kept him in sight, but not close.

    “Better?” I asked Abdiel.

    Soon. 

The Passing: A Canceler’s Tale (Chapter 17)

     Tyrel had been their only son, well loved and dutifully cared for; he knew his parents thought him a good son because he overheard them say it, and so he tried to stay that way, but he was just a boy.  

 “Don’t go too far,” his mother said. But the woods always caught him up, and he wandered for hours, patiently waiting as he watched the creatures go about their daily routines. 

    Over time, he’d earned a position of trust among them, and was even able to feed some of them from his hand.

    This one day, his legs tired, and his own food supply gone, he walked back home along the small path he used when he wasn’t exploring. He’d be late for dinner and likely scolded, but his father always winked at him when his mother was done, and nothing ever really came of it.

    He suspected his mother knew, but chose to ignore his father’s insolence. She liked watching Tyrel eat, but she also scolded him about eating too fast. His father didn’t wink at that, so he slowed down and tried to exhibit more restraint.

    As he neared the edge of the treeline, his home in view, the screams and sounds of shouting were faint, but there. Strange horses were outside. Light colored things that didn’t quite look like horses, but he had no other name for them.

    The hunger gone, his stomach full of new, unpleasant feelings, tiredness forgotten, he ran faster than he ever had, not thinking, screaming for his parents as he took the small steps in a single flight and saw their bodies on the floor, eyes open. 

    His father’s neck was red, his mother’s at an odd angle. Their eyes were open, facing him, a large man with an oiled black beard and bejeweled appendices standing over them.

    There were two more men behind him.

    Growing careless, Tyrel charged them, roaring his rage.

    But he was just a boy.

                                                      *********************

Tyrel woke up in the back of a wagon that jounced along a rutted road.

    His hands were bound, and his body encased in a burlap sack.

   The large man who killed his family was watching him, and gave him a smile. “You’ve a fire in you, boy. Sorry we had to do that, but the Slavers Market’s about to start, and we didn’t have any bodies to bring. 

   “Ranged outside of our usual territory, we did. You put up a good fight for one no thicker than a swamp reed. We had quite a time with you, but the numbers…”

    His smile widened as he shrugged. 

   Tyrel’s throat was burning. “Water?”

    “Sure, son.” He ladled some into Tyrel’s mouth.

    “You’re selling me as a slave?”

    “They take a liking to you, it could be a nice life.”

    “They take a liking to me, and I’m going to find you, and kill you.”

    To his surprise, the large man laughed. “I look forward to the day, boy.”

    He knocked Tyrel out again.

*******************

    Water was splashed, and Tyrel woke up again still confined and bound. They pulled him out, not caring if the worn wood splintered him, or where. He was taken to a fragrant, lush garden and forced to his knees, still in the sack, before a towering man in white robes.

Tyrel’s anger rekindled as the slaver introduced him. “This here’s Master Gregory. He runs the Black Temple and supplies the Slave Market. He’s going to price you for me.”

Just to be defiant, Tyrel looked up at Master Gregory, who bent over and looked Tyrel in the face, seeing the anger in the eye that was still open, the one the slaver didn’t close with a hammering fist. The bloody lips set in a defiant grimace in his battered face.

   Master Gregory looked at the slaver holding Tyrel’s leather wrist bindings in his hand.

   “He has suffered greatly,” Master Gregory said. “Yet the rage has not burned out of him. His shoulders don’t slump in defeat, and he looks at me through one eye that shines with his murderous thoughts.

   “I will pay you for him, but I will not make a slave of him. We shall train him as a Canceller.”

*************************

   For Tyrel, time disappeared; he only noticed its passing in the change of seasons.

   He used the tough, demanding training as kindling, setting his nervous fears on fire as the dark beings and familiars he was learning to summon and control twisted and writhed in ethereal coils about him, engulfed in clouds of foul smoke and rancid mist, and burned with the sparks and tongues of unnatural flames.

    His Master’s gold and scarlet eyes held hard-won approval, his small smile leaving his verbal praise unspoken; he’d been right to train this one.

    “Now, toss your soul into the Void, my son. When they rush to seize it, seal them inside.”

    “What happens to my soul?” 

    “It will be returned to you when the Void is sated on demon flesh. It pulls them apart, as when a man is drawn and quartered. Their dying screams are a symphony to us.

   “You’ll feel the very earth itself grow lighter when we sever the ancient cords of long dead, forgotten magic that still holds her in thrall.”

   Tyrel could feel no such thing, but if his Master said so, he would not gainsay the man.

He was just a boy

The Passing: Tina Rising (Chapter 15 & 16)

The queasy feeling I’d suffered from Abdiel’s transfer of power began to subside.

“Is that all of it?”

No, you must absorb what is already within you.

I groaned, then asked, “When will it be finished?”

This is just the start, Tina. Your grandmother, being older than most of her kind, wielded great power for longer than normal.

“Will I need all of it?”

That was her will.

“And what of mine?”

I keep the promise we spoke of, but to withhold any of the gift will cause us to dissipate. And you will die as well.

The way my body felt, it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.

**********************

I didn’t see the Canceler for several days.

During that time, Abdiel taught me about the histories of the visions I’d seen; they were rich in intrigue, betrayal, love and war.

The magic was strong, and the bloodshed relentless as passion and fear won out over reason, and power and greed won out over loyalty. Betrayal was as common as sparrows, and whole courts were executed.

There was infighting among siblings behind the outward shows of filial affection.

And every other night, Abdiel released more power and knowledge into me, and let me have the days I needed to break from it. While that gave me time to actually absorb what I learned, it gave him time to replenish as well, but he didn’t tell me that at first.

You must use the magic. We are not allowed to hold it back, and you are not allowed to contain it. If you do, you will die according to the lore of your kind. It is not an honorable death.

“So, is it my mission then, to fight this Canceler?”

It is. He will continue to hunt you if you do not. He seeks to slay you in the flowering of your gifts. You must not let him.

That made my mission twofold: kill Teryl, then seek out the remnant of ‘my kind,’ and turn our attention to the murderous king. He yet held power over the realm he purged with blood, but for now…

Abdiel was disturbed. I could feel him shifting like serpent coils in my chest and stomach.

“Abdiel, tonight you must tell me about the Cancelers.”

It will hurt, but it will be done.

Chapter 16:

Tina, I will ask you one last time, are you sure of this? The night will be long.

“Will it become shorter if we wait?”

He didn’t answer.

“He’s not on his way, Abdiel. He’s here. He knows of me, and he knows of Gran. If his mission is to kill me, he hasn’t said it, or even attempted it, but I can’t fight him without knowing what I’m up against. You have to show me.”

Let us begin.

*****************

     “They seem terrified.”

     They are, and not without reason.

     I stood beside Abdiel in a hall of solid shadows carved from black stones: marble, onyx, obsidian, and black jade. What was made of wood was burnished ebony that gleamed in the light of scarlet candles and torches that unfurled wispy tendrils of black smoke into the rank air.

     It stank of fear and raging hormones among the ranks of adolescent boys standing before their massive keepers and Masters, baby sheep surrounded by old, wise wolves.

     “Is this before Teryl?”

     It is. These are the first. The ritual has not changed.

     I nodded.

     There were brands heating inside a black ceramic ring. 

     Unseen in the hall, a song in a language even more archaic than the time was being sung by a single male voice.

     I didn’t know it, but didn’t ask Abdiel about it. My own throat was dry, and I was keeping my legs from shaking with the last of my will. 

     The keepers were wide, with skin that strained to contain the muscles under them, and the Masters tall and thin, draped in a scarlet cloaks trimmed in red gold, their nails long and black, their amber eyes shining deep within the folds of their hoods. It was a sight I knew I would remember even in my waking hours.

The Master standing near the altar had the colors in reverse, a scarlet robe trimmed in black. His eyes, though shining, were the deep red of blood inside the body’s organs.

     The Keepers began to pull the brands from the ring and walked to the waiting rows.

     “Hold out your right hand,” the Master said; they all obeyed.

     The first Keeper spoke: “If you scream, flinch, or cry, you will be banished and hunted. If you outrun us, you live your life among the common trash. If you don’t, the wolves in the kennels feast on your cowards’ hearts.”.

                                                  **************

     More than half of them were whipped and pummeled by the keepers, shamed and banished  as they fled the temple to run through the night forest with wolves on their heels.

    I covered my ears, not bothering to stop my weeping. 

      “Oh, Tyrel, this is a great and terrible power.” I turned to Abdiel. “Is there more?”

      Mercifully, no. I weaken even in this vision. We must return.

      “I’m ready.”

      And what of tomorrow?

      “Leave me. I will find Tyrel. I can’t have you weak before the Passing is finished.

      It will be done. Abdiel released me back in my bed, in my room. I wiped my tears, stretched out, and drifted off as the memory of shining scarlet eyes faded back into the blackness that spawned them.

Now dreamless, I slept through the rest of the night.

The Passing: Abdiel Falling (Chapter 14)

      Gradually the queasiness in my stomach from Abdiel’s casting began to subside.

      “Is that all of it?” I was hoping…

      No. You must absorb what is already within you. When that is finished, there will be more.

      “Very well. When will it be finished?”

      We’ve only just begun, Tina. Your grandmother was older than most, and wielded great powers for a long time.

      “Will I need all of it?”

      That was her will.

      “And what of my will?”

      I keep the promise, but we must give you all the magic. If we withhold any of it from you, we fade from existence, and the weakened magic dies, taking you with it.

      The way my body felt now, it didn’t sound like a bad deal at all.

 

                                   ******************

      I didn’t see the Canceller for a few days.

      During that time Abdiel walked me through the histories of the visions I’d seen; they were rich with intrigue, betrayal, love, and war.

      The magic itself was strong, the bloodshed relentless, and passion won over reason.

      Fear won over loyalty.

      The double-cross was as common as rook ravens, and whole courts were executed to make examples of the price to challenge the crown. 

      Infighting and power-plays blemished outward shows of filial affection between siblings, and phony allegiance among nobles.

      And when the magic was absorbed, Abdiel was true to his word. 

      On the days I needed to be free of the visions, to have time to think, he let me.

      I’d walk the market, or the woods down by the river, trusting him to alert me if Tyrel was present.
      For those times, I was cautiously grateful, knowing the Canceller was now as much a part of my life as Abdiel, and he made my quest for the Traitor’s Guild twofold.

      He became the more immediate threat, and to get to them I’d have to stop him first.

      But what Abdiel didn’t tell me proved to be vital in my fight against Tyrel: the more magic he gave me, the weaker he became. And just as he told me if they withheld its passing they would fade, if I didn’t use it I would die.

      Such was the lore of my kind.

      But how could I use it if Tyrel could cancel it?

       The Cancellers.

       It seemed such an innocuous, silly name for such terrifying power. 

       I couldn’t bring myself to call it a gift.

      Gran had once told me love and fear ruled the world; for one king to have such fear that he would take on the burden to unleash one magic to rid the world of another, I would have removed love from the equation.

     When I next saw Tyrel in the marketplace, when he looked at me I felt Abdiel cower.

     He kept his distance, but something was glittering in the whites of his eyes even in the daylight, and Abdiel seemed to shift inside me, like a baby turning on its side. I felt it in my chest and belly, and the pain was dull, but real.

    “Abdiel, tonight you must tell me the lore of the Cancellers.”

    We do not spend time in their presence, Tina. They have the power to destroy us.

    “There has to be a way. Something created them, so there must be a way to end them. Search it out, and tell me tonight.”

      It will hurt.

    “It will hurt more if you leave me vulnerable. I’m willing to fight him for our lives, but I must know how.”

     It will be done.

         

Red Redemption

         She thought she was done all those years ago, though she’d only been a child.

       The huntsman who saved them had taken all the glory for himself, and rightfully so, for she’d been duped by the spell the wolf cast over her eyes.

        But now, the son of the slain one had taken revenge on the huntsman in his dotage, and his own daughter had barely made it in front of the hunting pack that scented her, knew her, and hunted her.

       In the small hours when the starlight gleams brightest, flattering the false vanity of moonlight, her knocking was a hard and tuneless knell that echoed through the dark forest shadows.

      Taika, they called her now.  The Magic Spell.

 

                                                  **************************

      With grandmother dead Taika shunned the world and apprenticed herself to a dying hag seeking a novice, promising to never be vulnerable and powerless again.

     The hag was a hard taskmaster; Taika earned every scar she received from those long, hooked and jagged nails that made her correct her mistakes.

     When the hag died, the pyre would not burn. Taika gave her withered corpse to the river’s  muddy banks, and let the creatures have their way.

 

      The huntsman’s cowardlyy daughter was content to tend Taika’s house until she returned. 

     Taika left at first light.

                                                    **********************

     In the clearing, she faced the Alpha..

     The thing stood on two legs now, piercing blue eyes crystalline in the darkness.

     “You wear the witch’s hood?”

     “Yes, Alpha.” 

     “These fools have summoned you to redeem yourself, and reckon with your past?”              The drool hissed in droplets at his feet.

     The lambent red and yellow eyes of the pack surrounded her.

     “Just me and you.” she said.

     “To the death?”

     The knives gleamed in the moonlight, silver fangs in human hands.

     “To the death.” 

     Snarling, they locked.

     

The Passing (Chapter 13): Abdiel Rising

 

     Tina.

     “Not now. You’ve had all day to speak to me. I need to relax, and sleep, and now you stir? Leave me alone. Whatever it is, it can wait until morning.”

     He hurt us.

     “You’re spirits. How can he hurt you?”

     He targets the power inside us, and hurts it.

     “Is he holy, then?”

     No. He is a Canceller. He toys with us because he enjoys it. Nothing more.

      I got the gist, but I figured there was probably a lore involved that Gran didn’t detail, and I didn’t know. It was a topic for another time, and in private. “Why not kill him?”

     If we do, they’ll come for you. They can’t see us. They won’t, even if we manifest ourselves. They’ll extract your likeness from his dying mind, and they’ll come for you.

     “Oh. So is there a plan, or even better, a solution?”

     It won’t matter now that he knows we’re here, and you possess us.

     “Not so sure it’s me controlling you. Now I can feel your presence, your power, soaking through me like sweat.”

     I’m releasing the magic at a pace your body can handle. My name is Abdiel, at your service.

     With the power of taking his name, ancient as it was, I stumbled and leaned on the wall to steady myself. The visions came through like a flash flood: majestic, tragic, carnal, joyous, pious, cultish, and all the flesh taking and blood letting that came with it.

    Seen in a torrent of faces and times were all the souls these spirits dealt with through the centuries, and perhaps even reaped.

    I didn’t ask, because I simply didn’t want to know.

    “And now,” I said, after I could breathe again, ”I’ll be woven into your tapestry forever.”

    And I into yours, child.

    “If you don’t kill me first. I only ask this: that my mind and will must always be my own.”

     So granted, for the bond your grandmother shared with us.

     “Don’t make a bargain you won’t keep. If you take them from me, and put innocent blood on my hands, I will end my life. If I do, the Canceller will be the least of your troubles.”

     Abdiel faded, not answering. 

     Doesn’t mean he’s afraid of me. Guess we’ll see. 

 

The Passing: The Road Ends, The Journey Begins (Chapters 11 & 12)

It occurred to me as the day waned and I grew footsore that Gran had never taught me to ride anything: not a horse, mule, lizard, large cat, bird, or even a dragon. (We had no such creatures other than horses and mules, but by then my imagination was in full bloom to take my mind off the pain).
We walked wherever we had to go, and she turned those sojourns into lessons of woodlore and nature. She taught me of weather patterns, plants, insects, the way of rivers, gardening, the change of seasons, and if we walked at night, the stars.
I thought of asking the spirits to transport me, but as I considered it, that had problems of its own. The spirit hadn’t given me his name, so I couldn’t summon him.
Another thing was, if I just appeared somewhere, scaring the wits out of whoever was nearby, I wouldn’t be able to shake the attention that would follow, and attract all manner of human creatures looking for ‘favors.’
In the end, three things decided me: I didn’t know how to do a transport spell, and I didn’t trust or name the spirit that could help me.
I walked-stumbled-shuffled, shutting out the pain as best as I could; I promised my feet something luxurious the first chance I got, and pushed on because if I stopped I wouldn’t continue, and I wanted to be off the road by nightfall.
With the last of my reserves topping the rise, the next town,Karrela’s Point, came mercifully into view.
*********
I was eating alone, the pain in my feet now down to a throb, when he slid in across the seat from me.
“I didn’t say you could join me, stranger.”
He nodded, agreeing, but said “I didn’t ask. The place is crowded, this space was empty, and I needed a place to sit.”
“But that was rather bold and rude of you to not ask at least, considering…”
He extended his hand across the table for me to take as he asked, “And what would you have honestly said, after you looked around and saw my predicament?”
I felt my cheeks heat and color as he grinned and extended his hand a bit more.
“My name’s Terrell. And you are…?”
In the instant I had, I realized he was right; me being hostile and impulsive, had he been of a different temperament, could have had a different ending for me.
I found myself staring at him before I realized my hand was now in his. “Tina.”
He had a soldier’s strength just beneath the surface of his grip, and a courtly appearance and bearing.
  Very well, then.
“Pleasure to meet you, Tina. Are you alone here? Karrela’s Point can be a treacherous place for the unwary.”
  Apparently.  “I was alone, but as you haven’t left yet, that’s no longer so. I would formally ask you to leave, but I know now it wouldn’t do any good.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” His grin was so full of self-realization that it annoyed me, even as it almost made me smile.  “You’ll need a friend here, Tina. At least, as they say, ‘a local point of contact,’ to help you navigate whatever waters you’re going to explore here.”
He helped himself to a chunk of bread that was cooling on the table.
I sighed. “What do you want, Terrell. Really?”
He stopped just before he put the bread in his mouth, placing it back on the table, and his grin vanished as if it never happened at all.
He stood up. “The offer was free, Tina. Now it isn’t. When you get around to needing my services, I’ll give you my price list.”
“You haven’t told me what your services are, so how will I know if I need them?” I tried to retain a sassy note, but it trembled and ran under the weight of his stare as his irises turned blood red.
“If you stay here for any length of time, you will.” They went back to their normal brown as quickly as they’d changed, almost making me doubt if it had happened, but a small stirring in my stomach told me it had, and it wasn’t a good thing.
Still looking at me, he swept his arm, taking in the whole floor. “You all will.”
The grin returned, and he reached down and stuffed the larger portion of the loaf into a pocket on his cloak, leaving me the piece he’d torn off, and whistling tunelessly, walked out of the inn.

Chapter 12:
I determined that night to get the spirit’s name; it had been him stirring in my gut when Terrell’s eyes changed, souring my mood and meal.
He is a spell blocker.
Now you speak?
It hurts…
A spell blocker. There’d been no mention of them in Gran’s journal, but she’d told me of some unpleasant encounters dealing with them. She spoke of them with disdain, and not a little fear.
My senses now heightened to what the spirits might say, or if they’d do anything to Terrell, I finished my meal without tasting it.
Back to silence.
Taking stock of my current circumstances: alone, homeless, and possibly in mortal danger from the extremes of the magic spectrum, combined to wear me down.
Though I knew better, I convinced myself I was just tired from the road; the rest would have to wait, and hopefully would.
I paid for my dinner.
While leaving I drew a few desultory glances that my direct eye contact kept from turning into a challenge, or ambitious curiosity, and stepped out into the evening.
One of the serving girls was outside on her break.
“How much for a hot bath?”
She turned to me, gave me a once-over, her normally flinty expression softening; I guess I really looked that forlorn and bedraggled.
“None here, but there’s public ones in the Square.”
Damn. More money…
I thanked her, went to my room to pack a change of clothes, and went back out to find the Square. It wasn’t far, and the way through the closed market was torchlit and patrolled. Being alone and female, what guards I encountered looked at me and filed my appearance away in their minds, but said nothing.
The Baths, as it said on the slab of ivory marble that adorned its awning, was an enormous structure, which meant expensive.
I should have asked where the river was instead…
“You’re here now, Tina,” I told myself, and stepped into a warm place where steam rolled across the floor like lost and wayward spirits.
There was quiet, muted chatter that didn’t stop as I entered, and an attendant soon came over to help.
“Good evening, Miss. This way, please.”
I followed her. Despite the quiet chatter, this late in the evening the place was almost empty. I could hear the soft pat of sandals around the springs as the attendants, all of an age with me, went about their duties either attending the bathers, or other things that would need to be done before they closed.
“Here’s where you change, Miss.”
“Thank you.”
“My name is Diana.”
“Thank you, Diana.”
She gave me a small smile. “Call me if you need me. I’ll be in my booth. This is the rope to ring my calling bell.”
She reached up to show me, and I hadn’t even noticed it, reprimanding myself for just not going to sleep in my day dirt and leaving first thing in the morning.
Spirits, is there anything amiss here?
Silence. I decided that was a good sign. I laid out my clean clothes for the walk back, and stashed the dirty ones in my pack.
My towel barely allowed for modesty, but the sandals Diana left me seemed new; if not, this was no time to be picky.
The water was exhilaratingly warm, and surprisingly clean; I wanted to float and sleep the night away, but it was not to be.

The Last of the Magic

It was good to be out in the countryside after that interminably harsh winter.

The morning dew was evaporating, and the smell of the earth’s loam in the wetness stirred up visions of being in this place when it was primeval, far removed from the intrusions of men, and filled with mysteries unknown.

The vibrant thick growth that sprawled like an emerald carpet across the ground softened the harsh angles of the tree limbs, cushioned the late mid-morning shadows, and overwhelmed by the sheer joy of the sensory assault I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths, filling my lungs with the cool, clean air.

When I opened them again, I noticed a short distance away a small cave entrance in a mound of dirt, as if a large animal had burrowed in and made its home inside.

Curiosity overrode caution; at first glance it seemed abandoned, but I wasn’t sure. Still I walked toward it, a dreamlike state settling over me the closer I got. My hunting knife was a reassuring in the sheathe on my right hip, and I kept a cautionary grip on it as I arrived at the entrance, and waited.

Silence. Not a snarl, growl, warning rumble, or even a shuffling and snuffling of anything that might be living in there.

Peering in, it was a solid block of darkness, no holes in the roof to let in any light.

Then a pair of eyes opened, green as the surrounding fauna, but with a slight glow.

I swallowed, and tightened the grip on my knife, staring at whatever was staring back at me, still silent at first, and then a voice, soft and low, female, spoke in the darkness.

“So typical of your kind. Are you here to kill me?”

“No, so long as you don’t move to kill me.”

There was a slight echo to our voices, surprising in so seemingly small a place.

The green things that passed for eyes blinked slowly. “Have you fire?”

“No. I wasn’t expecting to…encounter…anything that needed one.”

The being gave a heavy sigh. “Very well.” A soft aura of shifting shades of green surrounded it. It was a being of sepia brown, with short, chestnut hair, and winged, but the wings were torn, its knee length dress was torn, and it had been cut, but its blood was a sticky sap.

“You’re hurt…”

“I’m dying.”

“What happened?”

“I am the last.”

“The last…of what?”

“The last of the Magic, the ones who inspired the legends of so many tales, so many suspicions, and traditions that gave rise to the tales of gods.”

“You’re of the fey?”

“And more. I am the last of the ones who tied them all together to the earth, and gave them their powers and missions.”

“A goddess?”

“Again, one name among many.”

I was surprised to find myself crying. “What can I do to help? Can I help?”

“There is a way… come here.”

“Will I need to kill you?” I sat down on the fallen log next to her.

“No. We will share lives.”

“Share…?” I thought of running, of bolting away like a frightened deer, not giving a backward glance or a thought other than my own survival. But I was alone in the world, and had been a long time away from caring about anyone, or anything.

Perhaps it was a last chance, a seed, for my own redemption; I had no reason to go back to the life I’d known. This forest was more full of life than my loneliness.

She pushed against the log to stand, and held out her arms, the green of her eyes and aura growing dim. “Hurry.”

We held each other tight, as if clinging to driftwood in a raging storm, and the soft green aura flared around the both of us.

You are now the way of our returnAs long as there is a remnant of magic in the world, there is hope.

***************

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but the seasons have changed many times.

Her body has long since faded from my grasp, from my sight, but I thrum with the power of a burgeoning earth as when it first grew green and flush, and I see the visions of castles, hear the songs of battle, the dirges, the choirs of  coronations of royalty, the songs of the workmen, and the solemn, sibilant spells of pagan ritual sacrifice and the joyful, whirling dances of holy marriage.

I see the hands of the old gods, open in blessing and love, and clenched with malice and rage.

My reflection in the river water shows my green eyes, my skin as dark as wet oak, my hair like the bounteous sprawl of a fertile vineyard, and I hear her voice in my dreams, as full of longing as when she fused her soul to mine.    

And when I lay down to sleep in the cave, I pray to whatever gods are yet listening that they send someone in time, when it becomes my turn to pass the emerald aura of the last of the magic.

….there is hope.