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.”

The Passing: Familiar Choices (Chapter 20)

I decided on a two-pronged approach for the spirits’ containment. Animals were also creatures of habit, but even in the domesticated there was always a random chance of unpredictability making them prone to wander off (to hunt or be hunted), or expose themselves as unnatural by using their power in defense, so I considered using a gem as an alternate.

While a gem would also be prone to loss, it would only be through something outside of my control.

“Abdiel?”

Tina.

“Gran said to put you all inside a familiar, but I could also use a gem. Which would you prefer?”

Most of us despise cats. Some of us don’t like to fly, so birds, especially owls, are not good for us. We can taste their kills. A gem would be satisfactory. A dark one.

“All right. After I meet with Tyrel today, I’ll see what the market has to offer.”

Very well.

***********

Tyrel could no more stop his magic than he could the tide. It was a form of protection for all of the Cancelers so their enemies would never surprise them, even as they slept.

Whenever we spoke, I could feel the spirits roiling in side my body, fighting the pull of his power. It seemed to get worse even though our meetings were spotty at best. What strength they’d gained back afterwards seemed to leave in greater amounts the next time, which meant the Canceler’s power was increasing as well. Or was it just responding to the growth of my own?

I had some time, so I decided to wander the market first instead of later.

Normally I found all the sensory assault to be pleasantly distracting from my thoughts, and was amazed at all the things to be had in the world I knew, whether good or evil. It was thrilling as much as it was disturbing, and the looks of men grew bolder when they thought I was alone.

The tent of precious gems looked every bit the part. Perfumed women full of curves and false promises danced with a subtle eroticism that brought men close, the men who protected them with shining scimitars filing in behind them until it was too late, and they found themselves drawn into haggling matches that made them sweat.

There was no ‘just looking’ tolerated there; I couldn’t help grinning at their discomfort, but Tyrel would not wait long, and everything that I’d do at the Gem Tent would be a result of what happened between us.

“Bear with me once more, Abdiel.”

We have no say in that, Tina. If we leave you

That got me to thinking about the Void in a foolish sort of way: if it was being filled with magic, it wasn’t a void anymore. How were the spells there kept from colliding with one another? What would happen if they did? How were they contained from coming back and harming the world?

“Tina! Over here!”

The spirits pushed at my back, as if they’d tear it to get out, and I stumbled, almost falling.

“Are you well?” A passerby held me by the arm and righted me.
“Yes. Yes, I’m all right. Thank you for helping me.”

He nodded and went on his way.

He grows stronger, Tina.

“Can you withstand him, just this last time?”

I believe so. I will quiet the others.

“I’d like that.” I managed to walk without attracting anymore attention, and seated myself across from Tyrel, who had a meal for two brought over. He wanted this to be drawn out, and in the interest of our mutual plans, I couldn’t make a hasty exit or excuse.

Abdiel did what he said, and although I could still feel them quailing within me, they held themselves together. I could only feel Tyrel’s power through them. The pull was strong, but so was Abdiel.

“Tyrel.” I slid in across from him, and he smiled, all charm, as if we’d been lifelong friends. I took it as a good sign.

“My treat, Tina.”

I mumbled thanks around a mouthful of food, not realizing how hungry I was. He grinned at the voracity.

“Slow down. No one will take it from you.”

I blushed, but I slowed down. “Sorry.”

“No need to be. Glad I could be of service. So, how do we cancel each other out?”

I told him, then asked him about the Void being filled with so much random, cast-off magic.

He never considered it, trusting to the words of his masters that the Void simply was, and therefore was unable to even be filled.

I took a sip of peach wine that he’d ordered special. “This mission is getting bigger.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have to find the Traitors Guild, then get our questions answered about the Void.”

“Those were your questions, Tina.”

“You’re not curious.”

“Not really.”

I hadn’t expected him not to be, but something else occurred to me.

“What if it wasn’t a Void at all?”

“How so?”

“What if the Masters were just hoarding magic for their own ends?”

“What sort of ‘ends’?”

I had his attention. “To seize all the magic they’ve canceled in others, and turn it loose on us?”

“To what purpose, Tina?”

“What humanity has always tried to do, Tyrel. Rule the world.”

He wanted to laugh at me, but the thought had taken root, and his smile died as it formed.

Tina…we are weakening.

“Thank you for the meal, Tyrel.” I wiped my mouth one last time after draining my cup. “I’m going to the Gem Tent to find something to put my spirits in; they don’t like it when we meet.”

He stood, leaving coin on the table. “My powers are no less responsive, though I try to filter them so they don’t kill you. If there’s a way to cut it off, I haven’t found it.”

“You control its intensity?”

We walked together toward the Gem Tent.

“I can, but it’s a strain after some time.

“The forces warring within us…”

He nodded. “I’ll leave you now, Tina. Choose your familiar wisely. We’ve a long way to travel.”

“I will. When do we leave?”

“No sense delaying here. Tomorrow at first light?”

I nodded. “All right.”

The noises and music that shrouded the Gem Tent grew louder as Tyrel walked away, the darkness of his robes like a living shadow among all the color and bustle.

The spirits in me finally quieted, and as I approached the dancers and the entrapped crowd, a gleaming raven watched me from the top of the tent.

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.