Night Jackals (Enclave of Paradise short story)

Chapter 1: Chased

  In the razed city he called home, now full of booby trapped debris and mines placed around by the infiltrators from Above, the Enclave was a lot more dangerous now than it had been since the rebellion failed. 

     The place had a name of its own once, but he’d been born into the time of war and had been too young to say it.

     Now, it seemed no one remembered it. 

     They called it the Enclave of Paradise, as sarcastic and bitter a name as they could get without being openly profane, though he saw no reason they shouldn’t be.

      At the moment though, Chase was panting for breath, running from the night jackals who were hunting him in a pack of four. 

     He could hear them spatter and splatter through the chemically laced ‘rainwater’ from Above. 

     The Night Jackals were new. No one had seen them come, and no one noticed them until their numbers were sufficient, 

      Then they went on a few tentative hunts, feeding mostly off animal strays. 

     They picked off people walking alone or drunk. If they happened to be both, it made for an early night when the alcohol hit the jackals’ bloodstream

.

     He had a flashing thought that was supposed to be, of all things, humorous: They’re chasing Chase.

    He dismissed it as not funny, and turned to see the pack of four coming for him. 

    What was even more chilling was the fact that they ran completely silent, with no warning. It happened so fast that it was effective in keeping down the neighborhood population.

    The Night Jackals were killers in their own right, relentless, patient, and silent as Death’s reaper.

     His gun was charged, but he’d lose ground for sure if he stopped to fire it, and he was no good at running and shooting simultaneously.

     Chase’s breathing grew labored.

     The jackals closed, beginning to yip as the excitement of the pending kill gave them adrenaline. 

     You’re not gonna make the gates, Chase. Take cover in the rubble. 

      He muttered a curse. The rubble was where the traps, bandits, other ferals, orphans, street people, and who-all-else-knew what was in there.

      Still, it was now or never. 

      He changed course, and the jackals grew more cautious. They were clever animals, Chase would give them that much, but that’s as far as he wanted to take it. 

      He measured the jump into the pile of metal, stone, and glass.

      Ready? Three steps.

      Set? Two steps.

      Now! 

Chapter 2: Trapped

      There was no cover, but he fell into a hole and gashed his arm on something spiky.

      The thwarted pack of jackals growled in frustration, losing sight of him, but not his scent.

      He realized, only after he bit his lip and wiped the tears of pain from his eyes, that he trapped himself.

        He heard one of them climbing, carefully, picking its way up so as not to cut itself.

        It had the luxury of time. 

        Chase went to pull his gun, but his arm was shaking and he couldn’t land a grip on the handle. 

        He couldn’t see it, but the other three jackals circled the heap to find another way in on the ground. What he did know was that he was losing precious seconds bumbling his firearm.

       He gripped his right wrist in his left fist and breathed deeply despite the flaring pain along his forearm and biceps.

       The jackal now scented the blood that ran from Chase’s wound.

       It growled deep in anticipation of the feast, then slipped, losing its footing.

       Chase heard it yelp, and the others answered.

       After a tense silence, he heard them climbing, picking their way up once more as their paws struck tin. 

       He couldn’t stay there now even though he had the gun. Times were hard and they were hungry; they’d attack him as a pack even though space was tight.  

       Looking around, he saw nothing he could shove to dislodge them again.

       Another low growl came from above, and a drop of blood fell on his gashed arm.

       The alpha was staring at him, its paw dripping. 

       Having nothing to lose now, he screamed and fired.

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

      Singed, the jackal barked, retreated, then growled low again.

      The other three cleared the top, and Chase circled as fast as he could, still screaming, still firing.

      He hit two of them in the face. One fell back down the heap as it died, and the other ran off with its lower jaw destroyed. 

      Two left

      The Alpha peeked over again, and snarled, 

      Chase felt his arm going numb and his fingers tingling; he had no idea how he was still holding the gun, or how long he’d be able to keep it. 

      The Alpha’s face disappeared again, and while Chase watched, the night jackal behind him jumped.

      Chase crashed into the opposite wall, the gun falling out of his hand.

      It became a race for throats, and Chase barely won as the jackal’s neck twisted in desperation beneath his hand. The scent of blood seemed to increase the jackal’s strength, and its eyes went from gold to red as it thrashed to make its escape. 

      Chase managed to turn it on its side, lest the claws scratch his almost useless right arm. 

      Putting his full weight onto the jackal’s ribs, he squeezed its neck to limit movement. 

      It seemed to take a long time for it to die; had his right arm been good, he would’ve broken its neck. As it was, he was so focused on killing it he forgot about the Alpha. 

      Powerful jaws clamped his bicep and the fangs sent a fresh wave of pain through his arm as he cried out.

      His arm jerked back and slammed the jackal’s head into the wall of junk surrounding them, hoping its head would get cut open, but instead it lost its grip and fell stunned to the floor. 

      Chase took the opportunity to stomp the other one’s ribs into its lungs, and it died with a loud yelp.

      Hurriedly, Chase looked for the gun; he’d fire it left handed if need be, but he didn’t see where it had skittered under a pile of rusted tin and busted garbage bags the rats had opened nightly.

      The Alpha was recovering. 

      Chase kicked it twice in the head, dropping it. 

        His right arm now hung useless at his side.

        He had to finish this now. 

        The rats were gathering after scenting fresh blood, some of them already at the dead body Chase made. 

        He grabbed the Alpha by its tail and slammed it into a side wall of horizontal tin panels, cutting it. 

        The noise from the jackal was loud and piercing, hurting Chase’s ears, but he swung it twice more, slicing is back open.

        Past the point of fighting, the jackal whimpered, its eyes turning red as Chase pushed its neck onto a rusted tin panel and scraped its neck back and forth in a sawing motion. 

       More chittering rats came as jackal blood spurted over Chase’s clothes and face. 

       A wave of exhaustion came too, and he found himself fighting to stay conscious.

Chapter 3:  Escaped

        Chase vomited.

        The scent of blood and guts, the increasing boldness and numbers of the rats, and the fact that he almost died were beginning to take their toll.

        Standing near a wall of rubble, he swatted at a rat that jumped on the wound in his arm. Slapping it off hurt it more, but it had to be done before the rat got its teeth and claws into him. 

        He just needed to get out, but couldn’t climb now without making a path through the rats. 

        For now, they were still concentrating on the jackals, but they were sniffing the air at his rising fear, and he had to kick the closest ones away to keep space around him. If they started to climb his body, he was lost. 

        Taking a breath, he carefully scanned for a handhold; he’d have to start with his right arm to see if it could take the stress. The climb wasn’t long or steep, but it would take effort. 

        The light coming through the holes in the ground above Paradise was starting to move west, and Chase knew he couldn’t afford to lose the light. 

          A movement in his peripheral caught his attention. 

          The rats were growing sluggish, even beginning to stand still.

          What’s happening to them?

          Clearing his mind, he went back to his search, and saw a space just above his head between two cast off doors that he could slip his hand through. If they held his weight, he’d use them to search for the next one.

           The rats began chittering. Some had fallen on thier sides, and others on their backs.

           The jackal’s guts….something’s wrong with them.

            He grabbed the end of the door above his head, the gash in his arm sending pain that made him bite his lip and breathe heavily through his nose as consciousness feinted to elude him again.

Once more it passed, and he pulled at the door. It held.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foot hold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Chase pushed up on his arms, and began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded a lot like the jackals.

He put his left hand in the gap, and stood on his toes. Moment of truth.

Taking another deep breath, he pushed off, finding a foothold somewhere below just as a rat jumped onto his leg. In desperation he swung his leg back and slammed his boot back into the foothold, and the rat fell.

Tensing as a couple of pieces dislodged and fell along with it, he kept still.

When nothing more crashed down on him, he  began to climb, giving vent to a growl of effort that sounded not unlike the jackals.

Chapter 4: Freed

He lost track of everything but the next handhold and foothold.

Time faded, and the pain in his shaky right arm eventually numbed with adrenaline, but was still bleeding since he couldn’t bind it. It was slow, but it was there.

He was working against both as the last of the light faded and the adrenaline wouldn’t last.

Among the surviving rats, some began to pick the carcasses of their dead, and others tried to find a way up the pile to Chase.

He took a glance up, and liked his chances, but the rats were just as determined.

A beam of bright light lit the precarious catwalks above his head, and he muttered a mild curse of frustration as he lifted up enough to be able to reach the top.

Search party or patrol? Friend or foe?

He heard the sound of boots drawing close.

“He came this way.”

“Why?”

“Who knows? We’ll give it five more minutes. I don’t want to be down here when it’s dark.”

Chase knew the voices. “Over here, guys.” 

The sound of boots came faster.

The yipping of night jackals could be heard in the distance.


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.

Vision Aerie (1: The Caul of War)

Years later, standing there alone in the center of the sizzling, stinking, fire strewn rubble, I was left without a sense of peace or resolution following the enemy’s defeat.

As the sun set in the very shades of the blood we spilled, those who gathered round to gawk at the remains of their invaders likely felt a sense of ‘closure,’ but the only thing that closed for me that day were the gates of any celestial paradise to my immortal, trembling, wailing soul, and I left them to bury their dead, and loot what they desired, reminded once more of the calling that followed me, and the curse that followed the call.

***********

I was in their world, even then, and while not quite understanding what was wrong, I knew that something wasn’t right.

The spirits were all around the onlookers staring into my cradle. A swirling mass of black shapes and shadows, they too turned their gazes on me, peering as they assessed the threat.

I stopped pulling at my face and returned their silent scrutiny, looking past the smiling, cooing, babbling faces that were a hair’s breadth away from having their souls snatched from the land of the living the way a cutpurse steals the gold of the unsuspecting.

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

The onlookers were now cheering, surrounding my body, kissing my cheek soiled by ashes and blood, pounding my back, and offering hands to shake that I ignored.

I was a foreigner here; I had no tribal marks, nor spoke their language, but their grateful smiles convinced me that I’d helped win the long, protracted war against the invading hordes that seemed to continually plague them. As the cheering continued, despite my reluctance, in my own relief I began to return their smiles, and in a rush of pride foolishly, foolishly roared my hollow victory to the equally hollow sky, or so I thought.

But the gods that dwelled in hallowed halls had just begun to make the path crooked as they played with my life.

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

The spirits around my family and their friends all turned their attention to a dark haired, dark eyed woman who took my infant fists in her hand, and leaned over to get my attention.

Everything went still, and with three of her long fingernails and a practiced motion she lifted the caul from my face, letting it dangle for a few seconds while she cleaned my face with the damp, warm cloth in her other hand.

My face was cold, and I suppose blue, because she set the cloth aside and rubbed my cheeks with her soft palms as she turned to reassure my mother I would live.

When she took the caul, it was not a tearing off, but more like an extraction of something inside me, like lovers releasing a long, hard hug.

She put it somewhere on her person, and the spirits began to disappear from my sight, as grim and deathly silent as they’d manifested.

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

As the sense of relief at their liberation swelled, I found myself lifted and carried on shoulders that bobbed and dipped not unlike the ocean. Whether it was from drunkenness or weakness. I couldn’t tell, and it didn’t matter, but I bunched some fabric on shoulders in my fists and held on, not knowing where they were taking me.

Inevitably, the toll of the fight took my consciousness as its prize, and the last thing I remember was a pair of large hands peeling me off the revelers’ shoulders, and lifting my prone body into the air.

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

I woke up in my own bed.

Covered in bruises and scars, I didn’t understand what happened at first, handed back and forth between dreams and reality as I was, and not being able to tell the difference.

What was it about that war that I needed to be a part of it? What was inside of me that it needed in order to end?

How much did I really want to know the answer, to remember what I did, what my birth caul had to do with it, and what was the price of that knowledge?

At the core of me now was an emptiness, cold and black, devoid of anything remotely like desire to repent or apologize for whatever it had been.

Let the blood and madness flow, then.

The Passing: A Touch of Menace (Chapter 31)

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

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

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

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

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

Tyrel came and stood beside me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I’m not competing for it.”

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

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

“And if have to summon Abdiel against her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Passing: Balancing Powers (Chapter 30)

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

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

There was no time to now.

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

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

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

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

“Her name is–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zephyr was known to the Cancelers.

Had I just been betrayed?

The Passing: 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: Reclamation (Chapter 27)

In the cool evening breeze, the blood felt warm on my hand.

Tyrel had gathered enough firewood for me to build one if I needed to, and I was grateful to him now for doing it, as the night promised to be long and difficult. I’d forgotten how quickly the weather changes in the high places, but I’d have to wait now until the ritual was done.

I comforted Zephyr with my other hand, stroking his molting feathers as his bloated body gradually regained its shape as he rested on my lap. His beak stayed open, but his eyes were closed as his life faded.

My throat grew tight, but I had to steel myself for what was to come. “Thank you, Zephyr.”

He was beyond responding now, but the tension went out of him as he shifted his body to seek what warmth was left in me against his own gathering night.

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

The cut in my palm began to tingle, and a deeper heat suffused my body as Abdiel began the transfer. There was a constant, subtle pressure against the cut as if another hand was pressed against mine.

Both sensations grew stronger.

“Abdiel?”

I’m here, Tina. They are eager to leave, but I can’t let them overwhelm you. There won’t be enough of the raven to bury.

I looked back at Zephyr. He was deflating, his eyes sunken, his beak working, though he wasn’t trying to speak.

“I don’t know that he cares about that, Abdiel.”

No, but you do.

I kept silent, somewhat surprised at his insight; though his own nature was dark and prone to harm others, he couldn’t override my own. Gran would not have passed her lore and power to me if he could. It was good to know she’d put something in place so there would be no possession of my character.

And he had the right of it; I would not leave Zephyr to the elements and scavengers.

“Thank you for that, Abdiel.”

Relax, Tina.

I shrugged the tension out of my shoulders and rolled my neck, took a couple of deep breaths, and braced myself as best I could under the circumstances.

The heat was pleasant, the tingling not so much, but the whole of it carried an undercurrent of power, and I realized now why Zephyr had swollen; they’d grown in power while they were inside him. In fact, it likely consumed him.

I was supposed to incubate them, but I hadn’t. His death would be a problem because there’d be no way to get in to the Cancelers Palace undetected. I was getting all of them back, but stronger. If I couldn’t control them, they’d go out into the world if the Cancelers didn’t stop them.

Tempted as I was to voice my concern to Abdiel, the others would hear, and I didn’t know if they’d submit to him after that; his authority depended on our working together, and if I expressed doubt in my ability, I’d put doubt in them about his.

I took the pain. If they started to rebel, I’d go in further toward the wards, but so far it was going well.

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

It took hours, and by the end of it I was too hot and sweaty to need a fire. and Zephyr’s cooling corpse was flat and stiffening as I saw his own spirit leave.

We are all here now, Tina.

“I know,” I told him, as I wiped the latest round of retching from my lips, shaking and sick.

I took Zephyr’s body off my lap. I’d bury him tomorrow.

I was also losing the fight against sleep as my body had gone way past its limits.

“Guard me, Abdiel.” I stretched out on the ground itself, my pack for a pillow, and sleep came like an invading army.

Always, little mother.

Little Mother? Zephyr had called me that…

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 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.