Transitions

 I was bent over her, offering what small comforts I could in her final moments, but yes, I was also curious as well when I looked into her eyes.

  They were yet beautiful, and still full of life, but restless despite my murmuring of vague and pointless reassurances she’d be fine, when she was so clearly not; they couldn’t seem to focus on my face.

   As I was the one responsible for her current state, I wasn’t so sure I’d look at me either.

   She’d lost a lot of blood and was starting to tremble, her right hand squeezing mine in a desperate attempt to anchor herself to the living world as my tears fell on her cheeks to mingle with her own.

   I called her name.

   For a moment, it brought her back from wherever she was, and she stopped trembling.

   “Help me,” she whispered through dry, cracked, bloody lips.

   “I want to help you, but you have to choose. Now.”

   The scent of her leaking blood was intoxicating, and as much as I knew what I would have chosen for her, it had to be her decision, and hers alone.

   She struggled, blinking rapidly, and breathing became harder.

   Her wounds filled and emptied with red life with each heartbeat, and I trembled myself from the sheer effort it took to keep my focus.

   Again, the squeezed hand for something to anchor her and keep her safe from the unknown realm of spirits.

    “I…can’t…”

    I smoothed her hair from her forehead and pulled her close.

    “Do you trust me, then?” 

    “Yesss.”

                                                     **********

    Despite my frantic need, the bite was tender, the herald fangs well placed, compensating for the curve to fit snug into the vein that would give me back my own life, cursed as it was.

    I sobbed with the pleasure and gratitude of the warmth that filled me, pulling the wasted nourishment away from the holes in her body that spilled it on the ground.

    Holding her with both my hands on her back, braced in my arms, she shuddered against me as I worked. Her loud gasp of finality was music in my ear as she slumped against me, and her nails scratched my forearms.

     I felt her life slip, and bit deeper in a final bid to make this work. It was selfish and cruel on my part, but I couldn’t let her go yet. 

     Caught up in the sensations, I closed my own eyes and gave myself over to our moment.

                                                    ***********

     I don’t know how long we stayed in that terrible, tender tableau of damnation, but her skin was cold against my cheek when I felt her lips move to give me a tender kiss and whisper my name.

     My eyes opened, boring into hers, looking for fear, questions, loathing, and horror at what she’d allowed herself to become. 

     There was only a calm acceptance, her eyes as clear and lovely as ever, scanning my face.

     “You came back to me.” 

“I never left, you fool.” She nestled on my shoulder.

I suppose, all things considered, she didn’t.

No, They’re Not Asleep

 The things that can scent you in the dark, that track you by the smell of your fearful blood, and the things that feast on the small, red, stringy, buffet that is you, don’t take their rest by day, as you would hope, or once believed.

   No, dear child, their thoughts churn, and their dreams give them power. 

   Their lack of humanity robs them of all innocence, and there is no divine judgment on their soulless bodies.

    They’ve already made plans for tonight, and you will never know when your part of town, or  all of your farms, forests, festivals, and sabbaths will be a day of bloody carnage and a Valhallian feast for the damned.

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

     Sometimes, they fight among themselves with a great slaughter, but the diminished ranks are always replenished.

     It’s neither quick nor pretty, this refilling. 

    Some are quite willing to die, and some are so wretched they will beg to belong, no matter the cost.

    Others will be turned, and still others, turned away, but those are seldom left alive.

    These plans, at times, have brought undue and unwanted attention.

    Those who bring it are willing to risk the consequences, and bigger losses ensue.

    The ruination is glorious in scope, and the air smells of wasted humanity proportional to the scope of the war. 

    They’re stupid, fragile things, these humans, but they’re sense of self cannot be denied. A rebellious, vain, and silly lot, they are not inept at fighting their enemies. They will cry, and mourn and wail, but they will not stop fighting all the way to their own demise.

   But soon, their end must come.

   Be there to witness it.
   Be there to help it along.

   Be there tonight, child. 

   No, they’re not asleep. 

   They never are.

Spending the Night

He was twice cursed: once to walk the night, and twice, to feel every cosmic shift of the stars, to hear its spirits calling, crying, and keening all around him.

He saw the roiling atoms of life grind and flow to make the very dark that cloaked his hands with frost, and burned his skull with eyes of fire.

Even the spirits paused in their wanderings to let him pass.

The damned saw him in all his splendor, the gems and gold that bedecked and dripped from his limbs, and the exalted blessed fled from the sight of his malformed, wretched nakedness.

And when he wished it, all fled from his presence, leaving him to hear his own feet crunch, splash, shuffle, and run, feeling the pain of never resting, even when the silence of a universe devoid of gods and magic mocked his tears where the trails scraped like small claws and tasted of brine, and he would beg for death’s peace.

Death would reveal himself, shake his silent skull ‘no,’ and disappear. Again.

And step after he weary step, he wandered on.

And wanders still.

BUZZARD

Chapter 1: A Buzzard’s Circle

   Ours was a small town, but shrouded in dark secrets, and steeped in bad, bloody practices. The forest around us was cursed and haunted with the spirits of burned witches, tortured slaves, and small, shallow graves full of the indiscretions of the town’s self-proclaimed holy men. They sometimes paid unholy men to rid them of those indiscretions for good, or to see to it they didn’t stay anywhere close.

     The man who was now responsible for burying them all seemed himself to never age, though he was clearly on the other side of youth. He worked alone, and hard.

    Overall, he seemed fit enough, and did the job well.

    Of course, being quiet and aloof he came under suspicion, though he seemed a naturally quiet man content with his lot in life. His reluctance to offer any sort of consolation to the grieving seemed more out of surliness than a quiet personality.

    His name was foreign and difficult to pronounce for our plain tongues, and though no one knows or remembers who started it, he was nicknamed ‘Buzzard,’ because he seemed content to dwell there among the dead, though a house had been purchased for him in the town proper. 

    He set up a room in the sexton’s workshed and slept there. 

    Being under suspicion for his ways, the town council tested him by sending prostitutes, con men, and the occasional bounty hunter, to see what his character was made of and how prone he was to bribery’s corruption.

    All of them returned quickly, having been rebuffed in a quick and efficient manner.

    With the hunters, some of whom were offered a bounty for his head, not all of them returned; whether they died or got away is anyone’s guess. The ones who did kept their silence, and never came back.

    The women cited the Buzzard’s intense scrutiny that bore through their fakery and chilled them to the bone.

    His secrets were safe, whatever they were. 

    But the council was more determined than smart, and by the time they found out Buzzard’s true nature, it was too late.  

2: The Final First Warning

    At the time of the next town gathering to discuss bringing in and distributing the harvest, Buzzard showed up late and took a seat in the back. He paid no attention to the silence that fell over the Hall. He’d never shown up to a gathering before. 

    He looked at no one, and said nothing, but his eyes were all business.

    He figured out what they were doing, and he came here to let them know he wasn’t pleased.

    When the meeting was over, Buzzard moved to block the door, and those nearest him recoiled when his gaze swept over them. They recoiled a bit further as he spoke.

    “This will be your only warning. Leave me be. I bury your dead, respectfully and thoroughly.

    “Been doing it a long time, and I’ll keep doing it ‘til my own time. Leave it at that, and leave me be.”

    No one said anything, and he stepped aside to let them pass, turning his gaze to the council in the front of the room, who decided to leave by another door rather than pass him. 

   A couple of them challenged his staring, but their nerves failed them. It was as if they realized he might do any number of things to them at any time, because they knew almost nothing about him. 

                                                        ***********

    Leave it at that.

    It was too late. He piqued my youthful curiosity, and I had to get this figured out.

    I convinced two of my friends to come with me to spy on him after midnight.

*art by bzitz*

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.

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 Final Lesson

A draft buffeted the torches, a wind as urgent as the mage’s mission.

“How long will you indulge her in this, my lord?”

“What’s the matter?”

“She has no control, and the things she conjures with her mistakes are losing their patience. So far, they have been, let’s say, understanding, but if they decide to stay because she disturbs their rest, there will be nothing we can do to send them back.”

“Why not? Isn’t that what you do?”
“It is, my lord, but it is not who we are. Were it not for the containment that separates our worlds, it would be far worse than it is now. As it is, those who report such things as haunting and possession mean the containment has its weak spots, and is being assailed at all times.”

The king’s expression darkened. The queen reached and took his hand, and he jumped a bit, startled at the unexpected contact.

“Perhaps it’s time to reconsider,” she said. “You know she’s willful, and if she’s not listening…”

The king’s face softened at her, but not when he looked back at his mage. “Is there no other way?”

“I wish there were, my lord, but sadly, no.”

“And if she tries to conjure in her anger, or when she’s alone?”

“We’ve put safeguards in place for those very circumstances.”

A ponderous silence fell as they all waited for the king’s answer, and the mage found himself growing anxious.

Your life is at stake, just as much as ours. Make no mistake about that, and don’t be a fool. We will let them kill her if you tell us to continue.

“Stop her lessons,” the king said.

The mage couldn’t hide his relief. “Thank you, sire.”

As he turned to go, Princess Lillian came in, pointing her finger at him. “It’s his fault I almost lost control!”

“Lillian,” the queen said, “that isn’t true.”

The mage looked down at the girl, his face a veneer of quiet menace. “Have a care, child.”

“Don’t threaten my daughter,” the king said.

The mage briefly forgot himself. “Don’t threaten her? She threatens all of us with her incompetence.”

“Get out.”the king’s voice was quiet, but the threat behind it was palpable. “I’ll have your entire Order slain.”

The mage bristled.  “I think not, O king. When next you need magic,” he looked at Lillian, “she has neither the skill, the control, or the attitude to properly wield a spell.

“To the point, if she continues making errors in her casting,  something will eventually get through, and there will be consequences none of us will be able to handle, and we will all die.

“It would have happened already, had we not been able to contain the thing she conjured.”

“For that, at the very least, we are most grateful,” the queen said.

The mage nodded his gratitude, but added to his list: “She is impetuous, and can’t be trusted to not attempt a cast if our presence is required elsewhere.”

“What of your own acolytes/” the king asked.

The mage gave him a patient look: “She’s your daughter, sire. They’ll not gainsay her, much less try to stop her.”

He looked once more at his queen, who again shook her head at the persistent question behind his eyes.

He looked at his daughter, and his face and voice were heavy with regret. “Very well, stop the lessons. She’ll pursue other things, and perhaps my wife will prove more of an ally then.”

The royal couple looked at their child, thinking she’d fly into a rage.

Instead, she gave them an eerily detached look, as if they were peasant strangers she never met who’d dared approach her, and left the room in utter silence, almost as if she hadn’t been there at all.

“Set a watch on her, then.” the king ordered.

The mage spoke again: “Such magic as she has, she would know if she was followed and spied upon, but there might be a way to undo it.”

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

The spells were arcane, complex, painful, involving bloodletting, but if he didn’t stop her, there’d be no telling what she’d unleash.

He’d tried to tell them not to start, but her father was wet clay in her hands.

The queen, sensing what the mage sensed was beneath the surface, also tried to convince him, but the final word was his.

And now they were here.

Royalty were a silly lot: give them one heir, and they indulge them to the point where they became insufferable; give them too many, and they became paranoid, killing whoever they believed the strongest threats, be they sons or daughters.

The lot of them are mad.

He made his way down to the cellar-crypts.

Someone stepped from the shadows, a cowl over their heads, and sheathed a dagger into the mage’s heart.

He managed to pull the hood off the man, and didn’t recognize the stone face and cruel eyes staring down at him as the knife twisted, and as his eyes closed, he saw Lillian emerge behind the assassin, watching him collapse on himself like a marionette being cut loose from its strings.

PART 2:

Lillian was supposed to be in bed, but here she was in the cellars, looking at the corpse of the only man who stood in her way.

“The power is mine now!” She gave his lifeless form a few hard kicks, until the assassin politely pretended to clear his throat to bring her back to reality.

She looked up at him. “You did well. Thank you.”

“Spit on your thanks. Where’s the other half of my pay?”

“There’s a leather purse on a pedestal by the door. Pick it up on your way out.”

His laughter was low and hollow before he replied. “And something will be down there that can break me in half, allowing you to keep the money. Do you think I’m stupid, child?”

She smiled. “Yes, because it’s right behind you.”

The assassin was picked up on barbed claws that pierced his torso, slammed him into the high ceiling, and slammed his body hard on the stone floor, then knelt beside it and looked at the girl, a question in its eyes.

She nodded. “Do it.”

The creature tore it open, and the coppery, meaty smell of blood mingled with the scent of waste permeated the air, making Lillian retch and back away as the thing feasted.

 

PART 3: 

It found her.

She almost screamed at the sight; it was gorged, bulbous, bloody, almost leering at her in its sated state, its muzzle steaming with cooling gore, its red eyes glowing in the semi-dark.

As it approached, the torches behind it flared before snuffing out, as if they’d been smothered by an unseen hand.

Lillian, are you sure you have the power to do this? 

She’d watched the whole thing, dazed and frightened, her feelings of triumph turning to a wary certainty descending slowly into a rising panic.

Lillian?  The creature came further, and more torches died.

She swallowed, breathing shallow, and as she backed away her legs seemed to get heavier.

Lillian, will you answer me?

Another step, another torch.

She heard the words in  her mind. ….impetuous…willful…

Lillian! I want to return. Send me back.”

She was backing toward the pedestal by the door; there was nothing on it. He’d been no fool after all.

She began to cry. …impetuous…willful… she found herself against the door.

A gory claw, cold and rancid, brushed her cheek.

   Ah, I see. You can’t. The man you killed, he could.

“Please….”

You shouldn’t summon what you can’t control, princess. He told you that, didn’t he. You’ve trapped me here. Tell me, do you remember what happens if we can’t return?”

“You kill the living.”

Yesss, you remember. And this is a good place to start, here among the the dead. Now would be a good time to begin and… how fortunate, little conjurer, that we begin here…

Lillian heard more claws skittering in the darkness, and stopped.

…with you. 

The last of the torches went out, and Lillian’s screams shattered the night-crypt silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lady at the Top of the Stairs

On a father-daughter day out, they decided to go visit the old castle ruins as their last stop. It was off-season now, and the tourists were gone, but still available to the locals to access for another week before it officially closed.

 Best of all, he thought, it’s free.

Riva took off like a shot.

Hopefully her last burst of energy, and she’ll sleep on the way home. Did I have that much energy at seven?

He was tired now, and looked forward to dinner, a long hot shower, and being with his wife. It had been a good day, and he was hoping for an even better night.

She was already climbing the old castle’s stone stairs, enjoying the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath her pink Barbie sneakers,  by the time her father made the clearing and saw her there.

“Riva, come back, come down. There’s nothing up there, honey. You’ll fall.”

She smiled at him, the one that melted his heart like hot butter. “No I won’t, Daddy. The lady told me to come up. She said she won’t let me fall.”

“What lady?” Then he realized, her imagination had taken hold; this had just become more serious for him. Had the stairs not been as high, worn, and jagged as they were, he might have even laughed, but they were, and he was afraid for his little girl. At the top of the stairs, there was only a precipice, and if she fell, bones would be fractured, if not broken.

The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, and her hair was blowing all about her face like an unraveling bird’s nest.

He made an effort to keep his voice calm, patient, reassuring.

He put his arms out and opened his hands, flexing his fingers in a ‘come here’ gesture. “There’s nothing at the top of the stairs of the stairs, honey, no lady there. It’s good to pretend, but it’s getting late. Riva, you need to come down now.

“Don’t be scared. Daddy’s got you.”

She stared at him a moment, her little face as serious as he’d ever seen it, then she  pointed back up the stairs. “I’m not pretending, Daddy. She’s right there.”

She turned and looked back up, then back at him, fear in her eyes.

“You’re making her mad.”

He sighed. There was nothing to do now but go and get her. Kids, man…

“Riva, I’ve had enough. We’re leaving. Now.” He started walking up.

“Daddy, no.” She went up another two steps.

He took bigger strides, skipping steps now. “Don’t worry, honey. Daddy’s coming to get you.”
“Daddy stop! She’s going to hurt you.” Riva began to cry, and turned to run.

He just caught the bottom of her jacket, pulling her back, but something strong, sudden, and fierce  grabbed his arm, broke it at the elbow. Crying out, he released his grip, stunned and frozen in place as the pain shot through him.

Then it pushed him down the stairs.

Still dazed and hurting, he tumbled down a few steps and fell off the side, onto his back, hitting his head on a stone. It was bleeding, and he couldn’t move his legs. A cold, creeping numbing took hold of him, cradling him in its arms.

I’m going into shock.

At the top of the stairs, he saw the lady whispering into Riva’s ear. His daughter turned and looked back down at him, wiping her eyes, and waved to him.

“Bye, Daddy.”

The last thing he saw was the lady bending down to pick his daughter up, the bright pink of her sneakers fading to gray, then her jeans, then her jacket… the lady stepped off into the air where nothing was, and vanished.

He closed his eyes, waiting for death, hearing her last words over and over in his head, each time getting softer and further away.

Bye, Daddy.