The Passing: A Touch of Menace (Chapter 31)

“Zephyr, how do the Cancelers know what you are?”

Hannah knew you would have to come to them and asked me to accompany you. As she saved my life, and for the love I bore her, I agreed.

“But you sacrificed your body.” I would’ve questioned him on when Gran contacted him, but she was capable of things far beyond my understanding then, and now. How much had she seen beforehand? How much had she known?

When he came to me, he’d been in such a frail state, his age so apparent, his feathers so faded and old looking, I thought him all but dead. I should have known better; Gran had always said death was a gateway to another realm, and nothing more, and his next words confirmed her proverb.

A small thing to lose at this time of magic warfare. In some ways, it’s better, but by all means, Little Mother, defend yourself. My power will only strengthen from now on, to your benefit.

Tyrel came and stood beside me.

I wanted to take his hand; he seemed so lost and resigned to his fate at their hands, I wanted to hold him, reassure him, but anything I said would mean nothing, especially now that it was known his people had no power over me. Still, I was grateful he was there, for we were now at a crossroad.

“What do you want, child?” Centerpiece asked.

There was no point to further delay, or an attempt to deceive; I forced myself not to drop my gaze as I answered. “To find the Traitors Guild, and bring them to justice for their part in the purging.”

A moment of silence, then some spluttering laughter, and an amused smile from their oracle, standing nearby.

You? ” Centerpiece asked again. “And just how will you do that if the king protects them?”

I felt my face heat even as I said it. “By using the magic you couldn’t take from me.”

Tyrel hid a grin behind his hand, and the oracle stopped smiling as the Council’s laughter abruptly stopped.

“To what purpose, Tina?” another Canceler asked.

Tyrel stepped in front of me, and I let him, understanding what was at stake for his future. He needed to redeem his error with bringing me here to keep in their good graces. Mercifully, they were going to let him try.

“We’re not entirely sure their powers are completely gone,” he said.

This piqued Sarai’s interest. “How so?”

He looked at her. “The spells aren’t destroyed or broken when they enter the Void. We believe the Traitors never fully cooperated, and found a way to extract the spells, fix them, and reuse them against us.”

They looked to the oracle. “Sarai, is this possible?”

She closed her eyes for a long moment, then came back to herself, looking like she snuck back into the house after being told not to go out.

“I don’t sense anything amiss in the spirit realm, Lord Sydon.”

“They could be using one of you to hide what that something might be, or they might be using a turned Canceler to shield the magic from you, or a powerful familiar like Zephyr.”

A long stretch of silence began as the talked among themselves and I stood there shivering, not just from the draft in the hall, but for Sarai’s focused gaze and the fact that our mission would actually be starting in a matter of hours.

A long silence ensued for those of us tied and shackled as they talked amongst themselves; clearly they weren’t used to feeling threatened. Tyrel was fidgeting, and I had my own creeping doubt, but I decided to go for it anyway.

“If it comforts you, Councilmen, send Oracle Sarai with us.”

She hadn’t expected that, and glared at me; if they ordered her to go she could not refuse.

Tyrel looked at me too, his expression letting me know I’d made another big mistake.

Lord Sydon, formerly Centerpiece, at least made a pretense of considering it, but he decided to let Tyrel be responsible for our fates.

“Will she be of any use to you in your search, Canceler Tyrel?”

Given his predicament, I was surprised when he actually told them yes; she glared daggers at him too.

“Zephyr?” I needed his insight, and got more than I needed.

She is fond of him, Little Mother; she will compete with you for his attention.

“But I’m not competing for it.”

You don’t have to compete, because you already have it.

I’d suspected that, but to hear it spoken was something else again…

“And if have to summon Abdiel against her?”

I will not contain him, or interfere with whatever your will is for her.

“You leave at first light. We are adjourned,” Lord Sydon stated, giving a slight nod in my direction as they rose and filed out.

I fussed with my hair and clothes until Sarai finally took her eyes off me, taking Tyrel by the arm and leading him away so I’d be alone.

“It’s going to be a long trip, Zephyr.”

Indeed, but the spirits grow stronger, and take comfort that Abdiel and I will watch over you.

It was a comfort; he’d said if I needed Abdiel and his brood he’d release them.

I didn’t want to be put in a position to take Sarai’s life, but it wasn’t up to me.

The Passing: Balancing Powers (Chapter 30)

I had questions for Zephyr, who told me he could shield us all. I wasn’t sure what happened when the spirits were occupying his body, drawing from it, leaving him weak to the point of death. His spirit, joined with theirs now, was gaining strength at an alarming rate.

He smothered their voices as they tensed in the presence of so much power, but he shielded them from it too. Where and how he got such power, and what it meant for me, I didn’t know, but intended to ask him.

There was no time to now.

My nerves had been firing faster the closer we came to the palace, and I all but cast a spell when under the watchman, but somehow Tyrel and Zephyr had combined to keep him from detecting my magic.

It would be all but impossible now that we were to face the Canceler Elders directly. As they entered the room I felt their eyes rake over me, assessing with an unnerving calmness, as if they could instantly flick me away like a bug.

The took their seats in such a cold and stony silence that I half expected frost to coat the architecture. There was no one else in the Hall at first, and no preamble to the fact they intended to get to the matter at hand.

The man in the center seat, fully garbed in a dark red outfit that looked suited a jester more than a judge, addressed Tyrel: “Canceler Tyrel, who is your prisoner, and why have you brought her to us?”

“Her name is–“

More importantly, ” a voice spoke from the right side of where I was standing, “why is she not bound and gagged properly?” A woman, clothed in diaphanous black pieces of cloth that somehow covered her, slinked from around one of the colonnades. She was slender, tall, and bald, and had large, sapphire blue eyes that gripped me in an icy thrall as she looked at me, but spoke to the Council.

“This child is awash in dark spirits. But there is one, known to me, who holds them at bay and calms her emerging power. And she is alone in the world.”

That last part, spoken with no inflection of any kind, made the reality that much more stark. I was alone in the world, as far as my flesh was concerned. So much so that I was attracted to the nearest male to me, still at best an unknown, at worst an enemy.

I checked off a list of sorts: An enemy leading me to danger, the spirit of a dead bird, and me, a keeper of dark, unfamiliar spirits testing my ability to keep them from wreaking havoc on the living was all that stood between worlds bent on destroying each other. It was a frayed, thin strap to hang the fate of the world on so weak a warrior. Having shouldered the burden, though, I now had to carry it.

Plans be damned. They can’t afford to kill me now. I stepped forward to speak to them and plead to be heard, but they panicked, and I stepped into pulsating, writhing bands of power that brought me to my knees as they bound me tight.

I felt pain all over as Zephyr cried out inside my head, which I now held in my hands.

If I’d ever been a threat, I wasn’t now, and if I wondered about the Cancelers’ abilities to contain my magic, I didn’t now. I hurt everywhere. But then it began to subside, almost as abruptly as it had beset me.

The looks on their faces told me something unexpected happened. Three of them stood up, looking at me with something between fear and contempt, and the woman who was on my right side recoiled, not quite sure if she was up to taking me on or not. One who is known to me… she knew of Zephyr, then. Another piece added to the puzzle of magic around me.

Tyrel stood open mouthed at first, then hung his head in resignation; he was in deep trouble now. Zephyr’s cry hadn’t been one of pain, but power, strong enough to counter their own, on their turf, and in their home.

Zephyr was known to the Cancelers.

Had I just been betrayed?

The Passing: Shiftings (Chapter 29)

The walk to the Cancelers Palace took the better part of the day, and we arrived at the gate in the late afternoon, when the sting of the summer sun began to ease.

Tyrel removed his robe as the day waned, and I took a quick look at his physique, pleased with what I saw, if uninvolved; it would not do for a Canceler to be unfit, given the dangers involved.

Caution, Little Mother.

I smiled and felt my face heat; it seemed the spirit of my deceased familiar was now privy to my thoughts.

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

The palace grounds were immaculate, attended by women in peasant garb, their hair tied, their gloves tight, and the face nettings stifling and concealing all but their eyes.

“Is this for their protection, Tyrel? It seems a bit cruel.”

“Bees thrive here, Tina. So, yes, in a way, it is, but it’s also for our protection. A cast spell that’s misunderstood because of the netting can go awry; it eliminates the possibility of any threat within the walls.”

They knew what they were doing, these men. I seethed a bit, but as there was nothing I could do to stop it, I refocused on the task at hand.

In other circumstances, I would have asked Tyrel to tour the garden in the late day sun, and also in other circumstances, I would have gladly done so with Tyrel. As it was, Abdiel was holding fast against the approach of the Cancelers’ collective power now that we were close enough, and though I didn’t feel any different, I still inquired.

“Abdiel?”

We are well, Tina.

I was relieved to hear it, but he was subtly, frequently, almost…..reluctantly, shifting inside of me still, restless and agitated. I was having trouble keeping my balance, and let him know.

It can’t be helped, Tina. They’re trying to find us…there are wards here, too.

I walked beside Tyrel. “What did you do, lead us into a trap? Abdiel says there are wards…”

“I didn’t know about these, Tina. I swear.”

I wasn’t ready to take him at his word: “You didn’t feel all this power around us?”

“You didn’t either, save for Abdiel.”

“These are your people, Tyrel. The fact that they deceived you could mean you’ve been away too long.”

“I don’t know. Things definitely felt different the last time I was here.”

My mind almost burst with questions, but I quieted them; too much was yet unknown, and if his people changed things and became unfamiliar in his absence, he was just as vulnerable if not more so.

“Were you gone too long, then?”

It scared me that he considered my question before answering, “I don’t know.”

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

The watchman was all business, and Tyrel was hard pressed to think on his feet.

“Is this your prisoner?”

“Yes.”

“Her hands are bound, but if she has magic, she can still cast. Why didn’t you gag her?”

“I took her magic.”

The watchman oozed skepticism, but Tyrel held his cool and kept his expression neutral. The man was weighing the validity of the response, considering the source.

“You are well regarded here, Canceler, I meant no disrespect.”

“None was taken, watchman. You fulfill your duties well.”

The gate opened. “Enter, Canceler Tyrel. Keep your prisoner silent.”

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

I kept thinking something was wrong; they should have been able to detect my magic, bindings or not. Abdiel claimed to be stronger than before, and if I could feel him, they should have sensed his presence. Our presence.

I told Tyrel.

“I managed to put a shield around you, Tina. It was the only way to get you inside.”

I hadn’t felt it at all. That concerned me even more; there was a subtlety to the art of Canceling then, one he hadn’t revealed before.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“I have to present you to the Council of Elders.”

“Won’t they know you’re protecting me?”

“I don’t know, Tina. As I said, something’s off, and I want to to stay to see what it is.”

“Won’t they punish you as well?”

He lost his patience: “Dammit, girl! You’re like a toddler with all these questions.” He lowered his voice, regaining control. “I’ve only just returned. I don’t know what they’ll do, but we’ll find out together and face it, whatever it may be.

“I promise.”

Abdiel stirred, but it was Zephyr’s voice I heard. I will shield us all, Little Mother.

The Passing: Inner Voids (Chapter 28)

I woke to the sound of Tyrel singing to himself, and the smell of roasting rabbit.

The sun was just breaking the horizon, and a few cirrus clouds fanned out like horse tails across the sky, lit underneath with the blended pinks and blues of an ending night and a new day.

I propped myself up on an elbow and rubbed at crusty eyes. “When did you get back?”

“Yesterday. I couldn’t wake you, and I had no need to, so I let you sleep. Bandits would have picked the place clean.”

“Abdiel was guarding things, and spirits don’t sleep.”

“No, but they do disappear.”

Tell the boy we are here, and we never left your side.

“Abdiel said to tell you, boy, that they are here, and never left me.”

He frowned at that, and I couldn’t suppress my grin. Sometimes Tyrel could be so full of himself, he needed a little deflating.

“I heard him.” He didn’t rise to the bait and say more about calling him a boy, but what he did say turned the tables, and it was my turn to worry. He stopped tending the rabbit, stood up, and directed his words to me without looking at me.

“It’s best we not get too familiar, Tina. I know how I am, and I will not have you or the spirits you command belittle me.” He cut off a slice of the rabbit and brought it over to me on a piece of hollowed out bread. “Do we understand each other?”

I was surprised at how much the words stung, softly spoken as they were. but ever since I met him, there was no moment of levity, not even when the spirits took themselves to safety.

Now, it wasn’t just them at risk if he couldn’t persuade the Cancelers to help us find the traitors. They’d simply cast the spirits into the Void and kill us, or strip Tyrel of his power if he violated any such code that forbade him to help me.

And if we find out they are only storing magic there and not destroying it, how will we counter such power then?

“Abdiel?”

We are here, and all is well. The long rest has strengthened you.

“And Tyrel?”

We can withstand him now, but we will see about the collective.

“And what of Zephyr?”

“I am here, Little Mother. The Canceler threw my body into the fire.”

“I’m sorry for that. I wanted to…”

“No need for sorrow. He only hastened that which would become of it much later.”

I couldn’t argue with the logic. “Can you get a new body?”

“I will rest for a time with Abdiel, then we ‘ll see.”

I turned my attention to Tyrel: “What happened at the palace?”

“They’re willing to meet with you.”

Meet me?”

“There was no other way; I told them that I took your power and bound you here, and I needed to question you further about the rumors of a Traitors Guild because they were hiding people and creatures that could harm us.”

It took a moment to gather my senses, coming to grips that he’d been so openly stupid.

When I found my voice again, I asked. “Are they going to torture me?”

We won’t let them.

“They’ll cast all of you into the Void, Abdiel.”

Then we will harvest as many of them as we can to join us.

I shook off the bravado of his reply, though he’d made me curious.

“Tyrel…?”

“I don’t know, Tina. I don’t think they’ll let me question you alone, but I can’t say how far they’ll take it if you don’t answer me. They’ll be able to tell if you’re lying.”

“Is that why you told them what we planned?”

“I told them my part in it. Nothing more. They don’t know you’re not bound here, or tied up, or even dead. I can’t leave you here, since you asked me to join you, though you had the spirits to protect you.

“If I tell you they will know if you’re lying, don’t you think they’d know if I lie too?”

“You might have told me that, since our entire plan was based on deceiving them.”

He was pacing, taking off his hood and running his fingers through lengthening hair that was now at his shoulders. “That’s just it, that wasn’t a power they possessed before.”

He stopped pacing, and came back to stand in front of me. I felt Abdiel tug, but he didn’t shrink away.

“Something is about to happen, Tina,” Tyrel said. “There’s going to be a collision of power. The gathering of strength, spells, coin, spirits and blood all point to it.

“And we’re going to be in the middle of it all.”

The Passing: Reunions (Chapter 26)

An air of uncertainty, ever threatening to become mistrust and suspicion, still hung in the air as Tyrel, with the straps of his pack digging into his shoulders, cushioned by his coarse robe, turned to give me a last look before beginning his descent to the Cancelers Palace.

He seemed to be waiting for me to say or do something to make sure we were still connected.

“I’ll be here when you return, Tyrel.” That was all I could give him; the weakening of my powers in his presence, and Abdiel’s anxiety that came with it, made it hard for us to bond on a level that circumvented our abilities. Whether that would turn out for good or evil remained to be seen.

He took the offering, meager as it was, and gave me a small smile and single nod of his head. He was out of sight in the next moment, but I could hear the crunching of his boots on the path’s small stones. I didn’t really want him to go, preferring to just begin our attack, but I didn’t want to fight him. Indeed, I couldn’t.

And it would be easier if he could persuade them to let us carry out our attack on the Traitor’s Guild unhindered. I didn’t expect them to aid us in any way, but it would go faster if they weren’t attacking us either.

What happened to me now would be solely between me and Abdiel. Zephyr had done his part for now; he looked almost dead, as well as diseased. His black eyes were filmed over, and his beak stayed slightly open, his throat working, as if he was having trouble inhaling.

Sitting cross legged before the small fire, I picked him up and placed him in my lap, stroking the top of his head with my thumb. “Abdiel?”

We are here, Tina.

“Come out of him. Tyrel says it’s safe.”

You trust his word.

It wasn’t a question, and I bristled at it. “I do, and you’re killing Zephyr. His power and senses, his life, is fading.”

We know. The path he has taken is the path home.

“Neither of you told me about…this…being a possibility.”

We were not at risk.

I snapped at him. “That doesn’t–“

“No, Tina.” Zephyr interrupted. “He’s right. I did this for the love I bore Hannah. and I do it now for you.”

“Are you dying?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

He stirred in my lap and fixed his filmy eye on me. “I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry, Zephyr.”

“These days come, little mother. Mine just came later than most of my kind.”

I remembered how shadowy and sad the day became when Gran’s time had come; once he released the spirits back to me, he’d be gone. I felt bad, but there was nothing to be done for it either way.

I had to try again: “Abdiel, come out of him.”

Cut your hand, Tina.

“This isn’t a blood spell.”

No, but we can enter through it as a funnel; it will ease the pain.

“Didn’t think it would hurt.”

Transfers always do,

“Did it hurt Gran?”

Yes.

She never let on that it did, but she was the kind of woman who wouldn’t.

Still balancing the barely breathing raven on my thigh, I unsheathed my knife and sliced into my palm.

The Passing: Certain Uncertainties (Chapter 25)

We mostly stayed silent for the remainder of the journey, because there was so much to say that it was too much. We’d talk ourselves out of it, or keep planning without moving much toward anything. There were too many outside factors we couldn’t control, so we’d have to trust our powers, and each other.

It was a lot to ask, but as Abdiel said, the moment would reveal the man, and though he’d meant it for Tyrel specifically, it applied to all of us, including him.

We never did purchase the horses. Not knowing who was in the Traitors Guild, or the extent of it, we would gather attention. Zephyr and myself alone would likely be the focus, but Tyrel in his Canceler’s robe would have been a dead giveaway something was amiss.

It was just as well. The trip ended in another two days.

When we topped the final rise, the Cancelers Palace was in full view.

As soon as I saw it, I remembered Gran and Atheron having a late night conversation about power and its affect on men. If the Cancelers’ powers were those of stealth and negation, their pride and confidence in their abilities was on full display in the opulence of their dwelling.

Four spired towers formed the corners of a concentric structure, with walkways serving as spokes in a wheel. Some were stone, and some glass enclosed. The center of the circle was the palace proper, sitting against its forested backdrop like a diamond. The stones were bright colored, reflecting the sunlight and heat.

Given the power contained within its walls, they apparently felt no need to conceal themselves.

Tyrel gave a quick explanation: the towers were the living quarters divided among those who stayed there, one for priests, another for priestesses, then the male and female novices. They were on opposite sides to discourage night visits, as the guards stayed within the palace proper at all times, having quarters of their own beneath the circle.

“Does it work?” I asked.

“Guards can be bribed. But few of the acolytes are lusty enough to risk it, and there are other areas out of sight, and full of shadows.”

“And you know where they are?”

He grinned, but didn’t answer, giving me my answer.

I changed the subject. “So where are the prisoners kept?”

He waited a couple of heartbeats, then said, “They’re not.”

I sighed. Of course not.

“So how do I get in?”

“As my disciple.”

“They won’t find out I have magic?”

“As long as Abdiel keeps the spirits contained, I can cover whatever residuals are still in you.”

I looked at Zephyr. His age, whatever it was, was not serving him well as it affected his ability to keep Abdiel and the others at bay without cost to himself.

He looked diseased, and I was reminded once more that Abdiel and the others were dark in nature at their core, bound to me only through Gran’s passing of her power to me, and nothing else.

He could barely move, much less talk, but he never complained or weakened his hold. I wasn’t sure how long he could last, or even if he would. I went to him as I spoke to Tyrel.

“I’ll have to take the spirits back for a day or two, and since you’ve been away for some time, you can go inside and see what goes on in there, then come back for us. Zephyr needs to heal.”

“He needs to find you a new familiar.”

I bristled at that, but it was more out of guilt since I’d also thought it along the way here; that he might not survive this, and the spirits would do what they do if I fell victim to the Cancelers.

“Given where we are, I don’t see that happening, and unless I can just show up and claim you as my mentor, we’ll wait here, and you can come back.”

His frown and silence made me angrier, but he’d been moody since the outset, and it was wiser overall to leave him to sort it out on his own.

I picked up Zephyr, saw the dried blood crusting his stinking feathers, and the cloudy eyes that were gleaming obsidian.

“Abdiel, come out of him.”

I’m not sure we can. The trees are warded here.

I really didn’t want to speak to Tyrel anymore, but this was out of necessity. “Tyrel, Abdiel says the trees are warded, but I need him to leave Zephyr and return to me. Now. Is it safe?”

“From this distance, we are beyond the wards; he should be safe.”

Very well. I’ll gather the others to me. It will be but a moment.

“Zephyr, will you be able to take another transfer?”

“We shall see.” He seemed to push the words through a swollen throat.

“That’s not an answer, you cryptic thing.”

“You will come to find, young witch, that answers only lead to more questions. Are you ready for what’s to come?”

We are ready, Tina.

I smiled at Zephyr, but it was trembly and not at all reassuring.

“We shall see.”

The Stuff of Nightmares

From the very beginning, we were there in the places where they slept, in cribs and cradles, in the small beds, and over time, the hospital units. And sometimes, when we were simply overpowered, too weak to stop the onslaught, they buried us, or abandoned us, or tore us apart.

For eons, we stared into to the glowing, malevolent orbs of the nether world. We saw the claws on long fingers slinking around the corners. We felt on the hairs of our fur the change in temperature, sensed the odors, felt the power, and sometimes discerned the intent, whether warning or slaughter.

From those close to us, we bent inside the suffocating hugs of frightened arms, we endured the clutching nails, the bites that muffled screams and crying, the sweats, the night cries, the restlessness, and the tears, We took them, and sometimes the parents would come, and sometimes they wouldn’t, and sometimes, more often than not, were the cause.

The stuffing within us took it all those things and absorbed it for a time, and for a time the monsters were silenced, driven out, and sometimes even killed.

But when they outgrew us, some replaced the monsters we slew with others of their own making, and we were placed on shelves, in trunks, in boxes in garages, donated, ripped apart, or sealed up in our own tombs, abandoned and forgotten.

We were left to heal as their arrogance, pride, denial, and health were buffeted and defeated by the monsters of their own making, and we could no longer help.

The stuffing would yellow from the detritus of life, and grow brittle and knotty, and moths would feed as the fur corrupted.

We are in the landfills, the parks, the streets, the trains and buses, and the side of the road.

The things we shield and block fight to get out, but most we take with us. We expect no thanks, for there is no more belief in the world we battle.

But for as long as we are here, the stuff of nightmares will be spun into the clouds of pleasant dreams, and innocence preserved.

The Passing: Where All Roads Lead (Chapter 23)

Tyrel stayed within shouting distance, but the tension between him and Zephyr might as well have been manacles, one for each of them.

I grew frustrated at the constant looks of trepidation, hate, fear, and disrespect they were trading. Zephyr had actually cursed, not a few times, and that made Tyrel even more suspicious and hostile.

“Are the two of you going to be this paranoid the entire trip?”

Tyrel made a face at me that was supposed to be stern, but he looked so forlorn instead that I laughed, which made him blush and smirk at himself. It released some of the tension.

In the end, it didn’t matter how he behaved, we had to travel together for a goodly distance yet, and to do that without leaving possibly leaving each others’ bodies on the side of the road, we had to trust each other.

Perhaps it was Tyrel’s suspicious nature that allowed my seed of doubt about the Cancelers’ motives to take root.

There was a lot to be done, and we’d have to come up with a plan for accomplishing two seemingly impossible things. At the very least was the question of which one to do first. I was thinking of drawing out the Traitors Guild by dealing with the Cancelers first; they’d think they had an ally, so they’d be more likely to re-emerge and reveal themselves. Then we’d turn our attention to them, and I realized that would be Tyrel’s turn to wonder about me.

I wondered about me too.

The other unknown was Zephyr; he was old, and large even for a raven, so he knew how to keep himself alive. Whether or not he’d be content as a storage space for Abdiel or want to intervene was the question on his part. Sometimes familiars picked up residual magic just by being around it for so long.

And if Gran was able to send him to me through the spirit world, I had no idea what she told him.

We’d have that conversation when we made camp for the night; I needed to know if he had any knowledge of the Cancelers, and if he could help us stop them, since he said he was linked more to Abdiel than me.

Stopping to rest and eat, Tyrel and I discussed finding a faster way to travel, that neither of us was fond of the work required by horses, but that didn’t mean we were open to riding other things either.

I told him my idea of engaging the Cancelers first. He thought they were the more dangerous enemy, and suggested we seek to root out the Guild members instead.

“But the Cancelers are mostly centered in one location,” I countered. “We don’t know anything about the Guild, like how many, or the amount of power they have. It would be easier if they thought someone was fighting the Cancelers on their behalf.”

He was reluctant to agree with that, but he finally did.

So calloused, weary feet would have to do for now, but considering the sketchy plans we generalized against a backdrop of daunting details, against the scope of our missions, it hardly seemed worth it.

It would also turn out to be the least of our worries.

 

The Passing: Present Company Accepted (Chapter 22)

The day was going to be sunny and warm, and Tyrel and I maintained a less-than-strained cordial silence as we walked toward the city of the Cancelers’ stronghold. Tyrel still hadn’t told me its name, and out of respect for his thoughts on the idea that those who’d raised him were using magic for their own ends and had to be stopped, I left him to turn them over without pressing him.

Abdiel and his growing horde of dark spirits had taken the raven’s body, and it gave the most ear piercing, soul wrenching call somewhere between a squawk and a scream, its body puffing from the displacement until it looked like it was about to pop, the feathers all but standing on end.

It was unpleasant to see, and even more so to hear, but the pain in my shoulder as it gripped me and drew blood, even through my tunic, made me cry out.

It was the fastest way to accomplish things if not the safest. During the process I had to trust Abdiel to keep control of things, and except for the sharp, racing pain of Zephyr’s involuntary clench, he did.

Tyrel looked on with a dispassionate helplessness, knowing he couldn’t help me, and not sure if he would if he could. Now in his presence my stomach was mildly upset as opposed to being in pain when Abdiel occupied me.

I wondered if even the distance now would be enough, as Abdiel’s detection of his presence had grown sharper.

Zephyr’s body slowly deflated, his eyes regained their midnight blackness, but there was blood on his feathers, and some on his beak. I took a small piece of rag of something unimportant at the moment, and used it to clean him as he perched on my arm.

Now that the ordeal was over, Tyrel walked over to us to test things out.

Zephyr watched the Canceler’s approach the way a king watches a beggar about to plead his innocence in murdering the queen.

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

Tyrel watched him too, but not like a beggar; it was more like an enemy he found in an an empty alley, and only one of them was going to walk out of it. But he spoke to me, never taking his eyes off the bird.

“Anything?”

I closed my eyes, took stock of my body, feeling surprisingly whole for a change. I’d thought it would be as if a part of me was gone, a piece of my insides carved away, but all I discovered was that I was hungry.

“No. What about you?”

He shook his head, still watching Zephyr, but now it bothered me to see it.

“What’s wrong, Tyrel. You’re staring at him like he’s an enemy.”

He looked at me then. “I don’t know that he’s not.”

I sighed, my hopes for an absence of conflict as we traveled now dashed. “You’re being ridiculous. He’s just a bird.”

“No he isn’t, or he wouldn’t be able to harbor the spirits in himself, much less shield them from me, and he speaks the human words he knows like one of us. He’s a familiar, Tina, and that doesn’t make him just anything.”

The words, though not said scornfully, stung. But they also gave me pause. Having grown up a witness to Gran’s magic, it was easy to forget sometimes the world around us didn’t see things through our eyes; a raven familiar to one such as Gran would still be…just a bird.

I finished cleaning Zephyr.  If blood prices are always part of these things, I can understand the king’s concern…but he’d used the wrong approach, and now we’re all involved in a possible war that didn’t have to happen at all.

No, the king hadn’t seen things like we did, and certainly not the Cancelers, but whereas the king wanted to eliminate the perceived threat, Tyrel and I were on our way to make sure the Cancelers weren’t trying to use the ruse of aiding him in that quest as a means to their own ends.

I smiled at the thought that I was traveling with a Canceler to make sure that all they wanted to do was kill us too.

There was reasons people felt the Great Purge had been necessary, and I would do well to remember them. I’d been tasked with finding the Traitors Guild, and if the Cancelers were indeed hoarding magic in what they claimed was a Void instead of actually purging it, that had to be stopped as well.

How far a Canceler would go with a newly made witch to accomplish those things was an open ended question.

For now he was willing, but I had to think about what I’d be willing to do if, or when, that was no longer true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Passing: Invited Host (Chapter 21)

The size of the raven watching me from the top of the Gem Tent gave me pause. His feathers were not smoothed to his body, or shining in the sun. He had the bearing of an ancient thing that survived every battle that came its way.

It kept its silence as we locked eyes, and a chill of fear suffused me. “Abdiel…?”

We see him.

“Is he the one?”

You must ask him.

“I don’t know his language.”

He will know yours.

The gem hawker was edging closer to me; a female at the Gem Tent was considered a sure sell in their eyes. I’d lingered too long, and while the butchers they hired wouldn’t surround me, they’d stop me if I tried to leave.

I heard a fluttering behind me, and low caw of warning. The raven was at my feet, and the gem hawker made a holy ward across his face and chest, then went the other way.

“Let’s go.” I said it loud enough for people to hear, but there was only me and that unsettling bird. No one stopped me from leaving, but I heard muttering at my back as the raven perched on my right shoulder.

That was foolish, Tina. We can’t stay here now.

“I don’t deny it, but it seems I have my familiar.”

“Atheron sends his greetings, and his love, Lady.”

“You speak?”

“I do.”

“He sent you?”

“At Hannah’s request.”

“But he has no magic.”

“His travels take him far. He knows many, for one who claims hermitage. One such as met him provided me for you.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“I did not. I searched for Abdiel, since I am to host him.”

Abdiel didn’t seem to know he’d been searched out, even when the raven and I stared at each other. There was power at work here yet unknown, that seemed to be trying to catch up with all the responsibilities that came with it.

I wasn’t sure I was ready for any of it, but they were converging in equal proportion, and gathering speed all the same.

Tell us your name, raven.

“Zephyr.”

We shall see how light our travels are, then.

“Indeed, dark spirit, we shall.”