A Wolf, Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

     She shook her head. “Go.”

    The beast snuffed in reproach.

    I will taste him again, Pack-Mother.

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

    As you command.

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

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

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

     “Why the wolf?”

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

     “Why did you bring me here?”

     “To make you one last offer.”

     “I’d rather die.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “A thing?

     “Yes.”

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

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

      Something deeper stirred in me, but I misread it.

     “Are you going to…?”

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

     Riddles?

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

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

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

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

     Listening was all I could do now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Alpha and mate, then.

      Now, captor and prisoner.

      Lovers no more, but still beasts in nature.

     “Do you remember now?”

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

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

    We would be lovers again soon.

    And I slept, dreaming of meadows and blood.

The Passing: Tina Rising (Chapter 15 & 16)

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

“Is that all of it?”

No, you must absorb what is already within you.

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

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

“Will I need all of it?”

That was her will.

“And what of mine?”

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

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

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

I didn’t see the Canceler for several days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will hurt, but it will be done.

Chapter 16:

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

“Will it become shorter if we wait?”

He didn’t answer.

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

Let us begin.

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

     “They seem terrified.”

     They are, and not without reason.

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

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

     “Is this before Teryl?”

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

     I nodded.

     There were brands heating inside a black ceramic ring. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “I’m ready.”

      And what of tomorrow?

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

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

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

The Passing: Abdiel Falling (Chapter 14)

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

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

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

      “Very well. When will it be finished?”

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

      “Will I need all of it?”

      That was her will.

      “And what of my will?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

      Fear won over loyalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Such was the lore of my kind.

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

       The Cancellers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It will hurt.

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

     It will be done.

         

Red Redemption

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

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

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

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

      Taika, they called her now.  The Magic Spell.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

     Taika left at first light.

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

     In the clearing, she faced the Alpha..

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

     “You wear the witch’s hood?”

     “Yes, Alpha.” 

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

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

     “Just me and you.” she said.

     “To the death?”

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

     “To the death.” 

     Snarling, they locked.

     

Come Out, Come Out…

Lyle stood in front of his sister Lyla, his left arm around her. She pressed so hard against his back he thought she’d climb inside of him.

They were looking into the closet at deep blue wolf’s eyes staring back at them, possessed of a contemplative intelligence not naturally found.
They were trembling, but it was Lyle’s duty to protect her, and that’s what he was going to do no matter what.

“Why are you scaring us?”

   Scaring you? The deep, disembodied voice made them both jump and flinch at the same time, though it hadn’t shouted.

   Why do I scare you? What have I done?

“Y-y-you won’t sh-sh-show y-yourself…and y-you k-keep scaring L-Lyla!”

     I do, but why are you scared of me?

“Y-you sh-should g-g-go.”

   Go where?

“I-I don’t c-care. J-just go.”

    I just whispered Lyla’s name…

“We don’t want you here! P-please g-go.”

The voice laughed softly, and serrated teeth flashed in a cruel smile.

Lyle turned away, holding on to a thread of resolve.

   I admire your willingness to sacrifice yourself Lyle, but you can’t.

“I’m doing it…”

   I haven’t attacked you. It’s Lyla I want.

“W-we’re twins. We go together.”

   No. It isn’t your turn.

“You can’t take me instead?”

    No.

“Why?”

   I’m losing my patience, child. Stand aside.

The blue eyes brightened and moved closer to the closet’s edge.

The twins took a step back, and Lyla gasped in Lyle’s ear. His arm around her tightened for all that it was behind his back.

“You can’t take my sister away. I won’t let you.”

   Lyle, stand aside.

“No.”

In the mirror Lyle saw Lyla look down and away, and she began shaking her head and pointing as she whimpered Lyle’s name.

Lyle took another step back, as if it made a difference, and glanced where she was pointing.

From under the bed bright green eyes peered up at them. A jagged toothed smile promised a bloody death as a woman’s soft, mellifluous voice spoke to them.

   Ah, there you are, children.

A long bony arm came out from underneath the bed, covered with decayed flesh and leggy things that moved beneath the skin.

  Follow me, Lyle. I can take you….

Lyle moved away as the closet door opened and the monster’s horned head emerged into the dim moonlight.

Lyla’s grip on Lyle was painful; she wasn’t letting go, no matter what happened.

“We’ll die together,” Lyle found himself saying.

To his surprise, Lyla, calmed down.

“No, we won’t,” she said.

The other monster began to slither from under the bed.

   Defiant little bastards, it said.

Lyla stepped from behind her brother.

Lyla! What are you doing?” he gasped.

Lyla bunched herself into a crouch, and snapped up as if her body were jolted, her arms, legs and back stiff as if she was going to fly apart.

Her piercing scream thundered through Lyle’s ears, and he put his hands on them to find them bleeding.

She drew breath without seeming to and screamed again.

Lyle saw slashes appear on the monsters’ flesh.

Their own roars of pain gathered energy, but Lyla screamed again.

Lyle was rolling on the floor, blood in his nostrils; the monsters were desperately trying to scramble back, but the portal had closed.

Black blood flowed underneath the closet and from under the bed.

The monsters roared at the top of their lungs, so loud and terror filled that Lyle felt the hairs on his arm might pop out from fright.

Lyla gave a final scream that shattered the mirror and windows.

The first monster crashed down, slamming the closet door against the wall hard enough to leave an indent. The monster under the bed kept twitching, its dead skin rupturing with scattering vermin until it stopped moving.

Lyle’s head was between his knees, hands still on his ears, blood leaking through his fingers.

Lyla went to him, held him, and kissed his cheeks.

He pulled back, looked at her flowing tears with silent, screaming faces inside them.

The whites of her eyes turned scarlet, the reptilian irises gleamed amber and gold.

“It’s all right, Lyle. They won’t hurt us anymore. Sometimes I forget…”

 

 

Ingrate

(Same picture, different POV)

The room spins, and the light dims.

I hear my heartbeat in my ears, slowing, growing fainter as the seconds tick.

My life’s blood soaks me in warmth, caressing old flesh in death even as it cradled newborn skin at birth.

No, I will not miss this world, but I did at least think I would miss my child, until she made an end of me; she walked away as I cascaded down the wall, my feeble hands scrabbling for purchase that wasn’t there, and couldn’t hold onto if it was.

Her high heels clicked on the hardwood floor, tiny hammers banging tiny nails into my soul as she walked away.

“Annalynn…” My throat burned as it squeezed out her name. I needed water, but I could feel the craving turn for something richer, thicker, red, and warm.

I shook my head.

My vision was blurring, and my heartbeat slowed even more.

And the day I brought my murderess home bloomed in my vision like the sudden clearing of clouds after a proper storm.

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

Something was inside the writhing white sack in the middle of the road, the rain turning it beige in the headlights of my car.

“Teddy, stop!”

I almost hit the sack, but managed to swerve in time; even before I righted the car she was out the door, and the sound of human wailing cut through the patter.

A baby? Someone left a baby in the sack, on the road, on a rainy night; I knew what would happen next, but never thought of what happened later, until it was over.

Janice came back with the writhing contents of the sack in her arms, and we never told a soul we suddenly had a daughter.

Questions were asked, suspicions raised. “Janice’s sister died. This is her niece, Annalyn; it was in the will she be raised in a good home. No one else, it seemed, wanted her.”

We had no paperwork to back this story, and though eyebrows arched and tongues wagged, no one called the authorities to find out the truth. The child seemed healthy enough after all, and we weren’t struggling financially, and did they reeallly want to get involved…?

Annalyn, our adopted child, grew up happy and strong, bright, gregarious, fearless almost to the point of recklessness.

Her keen wit held a sharp tongue, and she championed herself through the pecking order of school cliques and would-be bullies.

By her fourteenth year, the boys began circling, smelling blood and hormones, but what I managed to rebuff she encouraged, indeed, deigned to catch.

Janice grew ill, and Annalyn grew temperate just long enough to ease her fears until she passed; I think the tears were real the day we lowered Janice to the earth, but when she looked at me with a small smile gracing her lips, like a spider standing behind a fly, I knew something else was amiss.

She wasn’t home much after that, and her disdain for my despair at losing Janice was only exceeded by her contempt for my authority. I searched her room when she wasn’t home, and found not only evidence of boys, but a fascination with the undead as well: books, drawings, magazines, and letters from a boy named Daray.

I decided to confront her, though I was nervous. I put my hands in my pockets to hide the fact that the tremors of my eventual demise had started.

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

“Daray turned you? Made you? He’s damned your soul, is all he’s done. And Janice…she was wrong to bring you back here. You’ve done so much harm.”

“I’m grateful to you, papa. Really, I am, but I have to go.”

“You killed my Janice.”

“I know you think so. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

“There is.”

“What?”

“Die!” I ran toward her, my aged gait shambling and off center; she easily sidestepped me and tripped me, laughing low as I scrambled up before she could hit me again, but she made no move to fight.

“I don’t want to hurt you, papa.”

“That’s all you’ve ever done.”  I knew it wasn’t true even as I said it. We’d spent many moments together, her on my lap, a book in her hands, reading to me, her hair tickling my neck as I leaned over her shoulder…she’d been so sweet, such a bright child.

I broke down, weeping, and to my surprise she came, put her arms around me, kissed my grizzled cheek.

“I know, papa. I’m sorry about ma.”

Finding I needed the illusion of comfort more than I thought, more than I liked, I sniffled; my arms finally returned her hug. “I miss her too.”

The sudden drop in temperature made me think I was dying in Annalyn’s embrace, and I tried to step out of it. Her nails penetrated my gut as she pulled me back, her eyes boring into mine; I was mentally caught in a vortex, a heightened sense of vertigo causing a rush of panicked adrenaline to surge through me.

I bucked, jerked, thrashed against her, my body instinctively knowing it was under attack. Her fingers plunged deeper into my stomach, pulling something inside taut, clutching; blood seeped through my shirt.

She bared her fangs in a feral smile, and bit my neck.

I shivered from the freezing cold, and grieved with abject horror at what she’d become.

When? How? Am I dreaming? Is this real? Did Janice…?

When she let go, the pain hit with such force I crashed against the wall, trying clumsily to regain my footing.

Daray was in the doorway, watching me the way one watched snakes catch mice.

“Why, Annalyn?” So cold…

She stopped, and though she didn’t look at me, I felt her gaze like a weight.

“You want to be with Janice, papa. There was room in your heart, your life, for no one else. You said I killed her, that I separated you.”

She half turned then, seeing me slump against the bloody wall. “Isn’t it only right that I be the one to reunite you?”

“Anna…”

“Goodbye, papa. Greet Janice for me.”

The room stops spinning.

The light fades.

The seconds slow down.

My heart…

 

Never Let Me Go

The night we met was magical; the love we made, torrid and heady, then slow, almost reflective, eyes opened when we kissed.

Vows were taken, oaths sworn, and powers revealed, each to each.

The smell of your sweat and perfume dripped and mingled with my own labors to bring you bliss, and lingered on me so that the memory still haunts.

Heated needs seared our souls together, and maiden blood sealed the covenant that you’d never depart.

The night you left in silence to slink away, bathed in moonlight, soaked in stars, I panicked, raging at the heavens and the deceit of your secret escape.

I vowed to find you; the bones of beasts I used litter the land. And after all this time, even now, clutching your writhing flesh, I find you supple and pliant in my grasp.

Your gasps of pleasure are now gasps for air, but my heart is dead to your wiles, and no longer beats at your pleasure, though it still beats, just not at my will.

I would choose death, but it will not choose me.

Your promises are puddles drying in the desert’s dust, and all we had to say to one another now blows in sandy strands across the dunes, seeking refuge from cold affections.

And since I cannot hold you, I leave you in another’s embrace; his light will give you peace in the darkness, and tell the night hunters where you are.

One last time, I trace your form beneath my fingers, one last time to take your scent with me back on the path home, to remember you.

And I will hear your screams, and I will weep for the bitter lesson one must ever learn in sworn fealty and devotion to the heart of another.

Never let me go.

*Original art by phanou.36.deviantart.com

 

Amaia’s Ending

There are times, even now, when she calls to me in the darkness.

I turn to look, but no one is there, not even when I light the torches, my footsteps echoing in the catacombs, carried to her by the freezing breezes that blow from every direction.

They are secret, these tombs, and the people above them sleep in innocence.

I alone have been cursed to know their secrets, but they rend my sleep. I hear the voices, the shambling, the clinking of the chains, and moans of the dying, already dead.

Why was I trusted with the keys to this damnation?

I toss, I turn, I drink, I whore, I pray, and yet, sleep proves elusive as the harlot’s love; it comes to play a part, and leaves me with an unfulfilled longing of the soul. The pain and loneliness became unbearable; tomorrow, I would go to the police, and tell of this place, then overmorrow, and overmorrow became a fortnight… my resolve fading with the setting moon and the fading stars.

These were my days, until the night I heard it, knowing it would come on my Name Day: my name, Markandaya, ‘death conqueror,’ whispered in the dark, on the cold, blue lips of an ethereal lover come to torture and kill not my body, but my spirit.

I could no more resist than the tide could fight the moon. The scent of pitch and stale bones combine to twist my guts to knots, but I walk through the pain and cold, little more than substance myself, anchored to a dying world.

“Amaia.”  ‘The end,’ in the Old Tongue; it said everything about her, and nothing at all.

She turned the corner, amber eyes catching the torchlight, searing my spirit, beating my mind into madness. She was dead, and had been since I first saw her. The cold emanating from her beat at the flame, and my skin crawled to get away from her reeking, magnificent presence.

“Are you ready, now?” she asked.

“I’ve been ready, vermin. You bait me yet again with death’s promise, but you will send me back. Why do you toy with me?”

She laughed, eyes dancing in the flames. “Because you amuse me.”

I fell to my knees, freezing, sobbing, all pride and dignity fled. “Kill me…”

Her hand caressed my cheek, numbing my jaw. “Are you asking for mercy?”

Please, Amaia. I beg of you…”

“Convince me that you want to die.”

I placed the torch between us, my hands seeking her throat.

She laughed. “Now squeeze, with all your might.”

I was too malnourished, and only managed to grip her neck the way a baby grips a ball, the pressure too light to do anything more than indent her flesh.

“Is that all?” She slapped me. “Pathetic.”

“Amaia…”

“Leave me, Markandaya. The secret to my eternal damnation lies within these walls. Find it, and come back when you’re worthy. Wound me, and I will kill you then.”

“You speak riddles, and risk battle, when I ask for death?”

She laughed again. “You are not a worthy adversary, therefore I’m not worried. I’ll summon you whenever I like, and torture you whenever I’m bored. I’ll be here forever, and so will you, unless you find the way to cut me.”

She lifted my chin on her fingers. “How long have we been together?”

I swallowed. “I…I’ve lost count. The days, the nights, they blend…”

“And yet, it is your Name Day again, and I’ve been faithful, have I not?”

“You’ve been evil.”

“That, as well. All have abandoned you, or they lie here with us. No one comes, darling. No one cares, but me.”

“I’d rather you didn’t…”

“And that is why I always will. Find the secret, and your life is your own again. Until then…”

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

I was in my bed, sitting up, the covers wrapped around me for warmth, my eyes wet, my nose running. I wiped it on the cover, and tried to stop shivering.

The candle in my room was almost finished, so I lit another; sleep would not be granted me tonight, and I couldn’t bear the darkness just now.

Putting my bare feet on the cold floor, I cursed and cried out my torment at the top of my lungs, and beat my fists numb on the frame of my tattered bed. What could rattle, did, with the force of my blows.

Spent, I lay back down, and stared at the ceiling. Killing her would release us both, and she said the key was within these walls. I had to find it, though it meant the end of my life.

And as the shadows of my calling danced on the thin walls, I began to dream of it, a small smile of hope lacing through the grief.

“Amaia.” The End, in the Old Tongue, had now become my prayer.

And somewhere, in the void of the Abyss, a dark god’s eyes opened.

 

 

A Dragon’s Courage

From the time they were children, Akia hunted with her brother and his friend, Jakra: they fought, wrestled, swam, fought some more, fished, camped out, made fires, made trouble, and her brother noticed that Akia and Jakra eventually began to make eyes.

Jakra loved Akia’s fierceness, but only from a distance. Up close, her eyes bore too deep into his soul.

She knew he loved her, and would often fix him within her slate gray stare to watch him shift and blush, and she would smile, and try to go to him, but he would always find an excuse to rise, to run without running.

But she would have no other, and his fate was sealed.

She’d seen the rough ways of men; Jakra was indeed different, and sometimes they teased him for it, sometimes, not good-naturedly. That was fine; what he lacked in experience, she would see that he made up for in enthusiasm, and as he gained love’s knowledge, she would reap the benefits.

She would bear him many fine, strong children.

He disappeared into the trees, and she, being a superb huntress in her own right, decided he’d run long enough. She would chase him like a wounded stag, and have her prize.

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

“She loves me, I know, but I’m afraid.”

“Of what, boy?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know. She’s like…”

“She’s like nothing, boy, she is, a warrior born. And you…?”

“I’m not. Not like her.”

“Your wish then, boy. Out with it.”

“I would have the courage of…of a dragon.”

The crone, removing her supplies, hesitated at his words. “Are you sure? If I bind you to her, that is what remains.”

Jakra nodded, too surprised at his own words to say more, not willing to risk losing his chance.

Akia waited, watching, to see what would be done.

The crone chanted, and crimson tendrils of light slid up Jakra’s body like baby snakes; before Akia’s eyes, his limbs lengthened, changed, grew claws and scales.

“NO!” She ran toward them.

He turned at the sound, his serpentine eyes growing dull; he didn’t recognize her, and that, she couldn’t bear. The rest of his face was beginning to change, elongate, and before his lips disappeared,          she kissed him.

“No, you fool!” the crone shrieked.

Fire arced from Jakra’s lips, and Akia fell, writhing in pain.

The crone hissed and cursed, packing her bag.

The pain receded. “What…happened…to me? My f-f-face…feels so…strange.” Akia sat up.

Now the old woman cackled, phlegmy and raw. “You got what you wanted, dear, and so did he.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

The crone bent, took the girl’s hand, and guided it to her cheek, where something scaly writhed beneath her fingers.

“You tricked him!” Akia gasped.

The crone’s wretched smile held no amusement. “And now you have him; this is the only way you will ever kiss him now.”

“I’m going to kill you, you old bitch.” Akia was shaking, her voice seething between clenched teeth.

The crone straightened. “That may be, child. But not today.”

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

The forest was gone now, as was her brother.

She was a lady in a foreign land, no less fierce, but had long ago traded her hunting leathers for silver necklaces, blood-red gems, and fine dark dresses, though they were of no value to her.

Jakra the Red Dragon, now branded to her cheek, now living under her skin, uncoiled himself, and stared into her slate gray eyes with his slitted green ones, with the courage of a dragon. His love was now a primal, feral thing, but his heart, hot within his glowing chest, was now beating for her, and her alone.

She picked up the knife, and turned to where the crone lay bound to the altar.

“Today,” she whispered in the old woman’s ear.
 

Circle of Blood (2) Friend or Foe

We returned to Sharrika’s cottage.

They left me outside while they argued, and at first, I couldn’t hear, but they got louder when Tafari opened a window as Sharrika began to make a fire.

“I stopped him, Mama.”

Sharrika’s laugh was another new layer to her personality, something she’d seldom indulged. “Did you really think that was you, Tafari? You haven’t the skill. Not yet.”

Good to know.

There was a brief silence, then Tafari’s voice. “Why is he here?”

The light from the hearth fire crept up the wall, its glow pulsating in the window panes as it cast their shadows; they were standing close, as mother and daughter should be. I didn’t belong here, but I let the feeling go before it took me over. I was tired, and the shock of the sights I’d just witnessed were still being processed. I was prone to do or say something stupid that I’d regret.

Like backhanding your daughter in the mouth? I shook my head, a small mirthless smile on my lips. Yes, something like that.

“I don’t really know,” Sharrika said, “but he may be able to help us.”

“Do you really not remember him?”

“No, I don’t. But I know the Order. They’re warriors as well as priests; he may be able to help.”

“Or if they get to him first, they’ll use him to stop us.”

More silence; Sharrika hadn’t considered that. Tafari was young, but jaded. She’s surrounded by rotting bodies, threw a knife into a man’s chest, not without force, spit on my robe, and threatened to cut my throat. ‘Jaded’ might be an understatement.

I’d have to watch her.

“Bring him inside,” Sharrika said. “We’ll get him dry, and maybe drunk. He’ll talk to us then.”

I was fine with both, and given it was said so openly, I had to wonder if the window staging was also for my benefit. There were few times I felt I was in over my head, but dealing with witches, good or bad, whatever the strata between those categories, was always risky.

Tafari opened the door, heat still behind her eyes. She’d hold that slap against me though she was the initiator.

I hoped it wouldn’t come to killing her, but if being my child meant nothing to her, it had to mean nothing to me if I was to survive. That would be hard to do, but I would do it.

 

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

The hearth fire and wine warmed me.

Tafari sulked on her bed as Sharikka tended the fire, keeping the poker handy.

I smiled inwardly; the fact that they trusted steel over spells was a bit ironic. I didn’t point it out.

“Why did you come back? Your Order was exiled, and none of you were to return.”

I took a sip of the dark wine, found it to my liking. “We were exiled, but not disbanded. We went elsewhere to settle, but the momentum of what we were trying to do was lost. We agreed to take leave, and come back to try again in a year’s time.”

“Why a year?”

“Some had families to tend, others needed to replenish their magic. The magic we waged here took a great toll.” I drank more wine, trying to fend off the memories of the screams and sights. No one, it seemed, bothered to clean up. “Why would you stay in the midst of…this?”

“Where would we go, that wouldn’t be attacked again? The invaders have already moved on. These clouds full of lightning bind us in place. It strikes those who try to leave. We can’t figure out a way to break it.”

“And you thought I might be able to help you with that?”

“I do, but only because we want to leave. We’re not going to fight again. Some went ahead to try to stop them, but the ranks are only thinning.”

“And the knight hung by his hands?”

“An example. A display of power to show the futility of steel against magic; they hung him in full armor, and left him to the crows, flies, and the elements. He was tough, and lasted awhile.”

“Tafari killed him.”

“I granted him a mercy we didn’t get,” she said.

“Indeed,” I said. “And the circle of blood?”

Tafari sat up and answered. “Their signature; they cut you, and draw a circle of your own blood around you, with different killing spells that discourage rescuers. Some of them are painfully cruel, and quite gory.”

“But nothing happened to you.”

“I didn’t try to rescue him.” Her tone was mocking, but I ignored it.

“You want me to break the clouds, and you gain your freedom. Are you the only two left alive?”

“The only two that matter,” Sharrika said.

“Seems a waste of binding, since you don’t pose a threat.”

“Who said we didn’t?” Tafari asked.

“Sharrika just told me you weren’t going to fight anymore.”

“They didn’t know that. Truth be told, neither do we.”

Sharrika looked at her; I couldn’t read her expression, but she didn’t refute the statement.

My patience and sense of caution were at an end. “I’m done. I’ll leave in the morning. This war isn’t over, and whatever you two want to do, or not do, doesn’t affect me. There’s no reason for me to free you at cost to myself.”

“Why did you return, then?” Sharrika asked.

“I came back to live out my days, and die in peace. I didn’t know the slaughtered were left to rot, and I didn’t know you were still here until Tafari told me.”

“And now?”

“That’s for you to answer.” I finished the wine.

“You said you’d tell me how we met.”

“I will, but not tonight.” I couldn’t suppress a yawn. My bones felt like warm butter.

Sharrika stood. “You’ve traveled far. Sleep. We’ll revisit this in the morning. Let the fire die.” She headed for her bedroom.

I nodded, already feeling the effects of the wine. I heard the lock click on her door, and Tafari lay back down, humming tunelessly as she turned her back on me. I sensed the guard spell around her.

With the pattering rain, the crackling fire, and the scent of wet lavender laced through with the nightmarish stench of putrefying bodies, my own flesh gave way to exhaustion. I folded my robe for a pillow, and stretching out on the rough hearthside rug, I slept, dreaming of circles of blood floating toward my eyes, and the knight staring at me with empty sockets, his red tears shining in the flashes of silent lightning.