The Passing: Growing Strength (Chapter 19)

Abdiel had finally settled the others, then himself, as I sat on the edge of my bed back at The Crystal Harp. I took the liberty of ordering wine. The bartender looked askance at me because of my age, but decided the coin was worth the risk. Unlike The Dregs, lawmen spot checked places like these under the King’s orders to demand ‘fees and taxes’. 

     Slavers, however, were perfectly respectable; the king left them alone. No one wanted to be on their bad side. They were known to kidnap family members from those who’d ‘reform’ them.

    “Leave me tomorrow. I need to think of a way to work with Tyrel.”

    The longer we stay with you, the more difficult the leaving will become. And we risk ourselves as well; he is not the only Canceler, and they roam. Another might chance upon us not realizing Tyrel was already here. He’ll be punished if they find that out.

     He sent me a vision, unwelcome, of Tyrel naked, spread in the air, and beaten with barbed whips, blood spattering with every strike as his head lolled forward, and crows danced and plucked at the scraps of him already torn.

     I retched, but fortunately wasn’t hungry. “Don’t send me those unless I ask for them!”

     Silence. His response whenever he wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, or when he knew it.

    I regained my composure, ragged as it was, and sleep was a wanderer with lodging in view.

    “Once again, you might have told me that earlier.”

    We are newly bound, Tina, in new circumstances. It is not a light task Hannah set for you. Make no mistake, we are maleficent spirits, and she wielded great power over us. She asked me to aid you in the transition, but you are young. 

   If you are not worthy of the task, we will set ourselves free. I will not tell you more than you need to know because this is a challenge by our predators.They are the only beings that could cause our ‘death.’

   “You’re already dead, are you not?”

   Not as you die. It is more a dissolution. We feel it pull on us whenever you are in his presence. The others cling to me as I root myself in Hannah’s power within you,but it is taxing, and if we leave you now before you have it all, the pain might drive you mad. It will feel like a tearing of your insides.

.  I showed you the Cancelers, and told you of their power. We have none over them other than what you might devise, but neither do we have the luxury of time for you to create a spell.

  I took a moment to consider what he’d just told me. I was tired, and afraid, and but for Gran’s power protecting me, they would have slipped my own worthless attempts to bind them and shed blood all over the land. 

  “So let me ask you this: is the quest to destroy them Gran’s gift to you for helping me?

   You may deem it such. It is here revenge on the Traitor’s Guild as well. As for Tyrel, there may be another way.

    There was no happy compromise to this.

    “And what is that way, Abdiel?”

    You are strong enough now. Speak with Hannah.

    The thought of seeing Gran again, in any form, set off in me a fireball of emotions.

    At the core of it though, despite what I would have liked, was the necessity. In an odd way, it was good of Abdiel to remind me the spirits I contained were dark in nature and purpose.

    Abdiel guided me through the ceremony, and the wandering sleep walked past and on into the night.

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

   But for the shining eyes, she was as she’d been in life; deceptively plain, like a snake of late autumn colored scales in a pile of late autumn leaves, sepia in tone.

   “Gran.”

   “My child. I’d hoped you had no need to disturb my rest.”

   “I’m sorry, Gran. Abdiel and I are still…adjusting.”

   “What is it you need from me, dear?”

   “There’s a Canceler here. We’ve met more than once. He says it’s his job to kill me, but I made him a proposal. I just don’t know how to make it work without taking his life.”

   “He made his mission clear. You can do no less.”

   “At the moment, we have a truce. He can lead me to where the Traitors hide, or at least get me started.”

   “That will save time. And what will you do for him?”

   “We haven’t talked about that, yet. How do I stop him from weakening us as we travel?”

   “Shield them.”

   “How?” 

   “In a familiar.”

   “They won’t weaken?”

   “The familiar’s designed for it.”

   “What kind? You never had one.” 

   She smiled. “I never needed one.”

  That stung a little.  “What kind, then? A cat?”

   “Whatever you choose, Tina.

   “Something I can cage then?”

   Gran nodded. “That will suffice.” She began to fade. “I must rest now.”

“Thank you, Gran. I miss you.” I wanted to cry, but didn’t.

“As I miss you, dear. Guard yourself.” She was gone.

I went to bed, turning over my last thought: What do I choose?

   I slept, and even in their own fear of Tyrel, the bad, dark, evil spirits let me. 

   

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 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.

     

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.

 

I’ll Hold You Forever…

Hold me.

I’ll hold you forever.

That was our phrase. We used it whenever one of us was feeling adrift, needing reassurance, needing to know things were well between us after arguing.

Needed it, to know that things were well after we made love.

We stopped seeing each other the day I hesitated; she retreated from me and stayed upstairs, in her claustrophobic room, refusing me several times a day.

She’d always been quirky, effusive, but with a loose connection to reality. To hold her was to bring her back to herself, and me.

Those days are over, but I check on her now and then, and when I do, she gets stranger still.

In her hands is an offering, and whenever I look in, she holds it out for me to see; it seems to be something between a heart and a flower, but I see no blood, and there are no plants.

“What is that, Tavia?” I took a step further than I should have, and she pulled it away.

The silence seemed to pulse, and her eyes seemed to gleam in the semidarkness as she folded herself against the wall.

I stopped, and sought sanctuary in the doorway once again, keeping my distance.

“Tavia?”

She looked at me, the glittering light shining in her eyes from an unseen source, or perhaps from the object in her hand.

Slowly, she lifted it out to me again, trusting.

Slowly, I reached out my hands to take it. “What is it?”

The object pulsed, and I hesitated, but she didn’t pull it back. “What is this, Tavia?”

I kept one hand at my side now, lest I be bound in some way, and she’d be free to harm me.

My fingers were just grazing it when it pulsed again, and something locked my wrist so I could not break free.

As Tavia drew it back, it drew more of me inside of it, pulsing and growing.

The pain was keen enough to turn my screams to hoarse grunting; I couldn’t save myself, and I couldn’t kill her.

Bracing my free hand on the wall behind her, I pushed back against the dark force that seized me as quick and sure as a wilderness hunter’s trap.

She smiled, and her own hands began to glow asthe pull grew stronger. She was giving it strength to overpower me. Writhing like a hooked fish, I kicked and screamed and cursed at her, but all she did was give me her glittery eyed stare, seeming not to comprehend was she was doing, that she was killing me.

The force of the pull was like an ocean current, and I wasn’t fit to endure it long. My lone fist punching the wall behind her, looking to break through to find a handhold, was neither strong enough or sufficiently expert to find one.

“Tavia! Tavia, let me go!”

“I can’t, Jeral.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I am only a gatherer.”

“Gatherer?” I fought harder.

“I merely gather the souls and send them to my lord.”

“And who is this lord?”

Her smile was feral. “We don’t say his name, and you wouldn’t know it if I did.”

I stopped struggling. My strength was failing. “Why my soul?”

That gave her pause, and she gazed at me a long moment, watched me grieving the inevitable, ignoble death she was about to impose.

“I wanted to share with you. I tried.”

“It was too much.”

“But even so, could you not have loved me?”

I now gazed at her a long moment, and knowing death was imminent, saw no reason to be any more dishonest with her than I’d already been.

“I tried, and I tried to tell you we were losing it, but you were oblivious.”

She bristled at that, but stayed silent, and a dark film began to envelope the object in which she’d trapped me, tears running down her face as I was hidden from view.

I don’t know if I still existed physically, but when her lord came for me, I felt her hold me, the warmth of her soft hands seeping through the shell, and offer me up to him.

He took the proffered object in one hand, and ran the other along its surface.

As it passed over me, there was only blinding agony, and then—

I’ll hold you forever…

Circle of Blood: (3) Trial and Error

      The castle was bedecked in scarlet and black, the colors of mourning.

     The nobles’ sibilant whispers and the dignified sobbing of the queen’s ladies were bubbles in an aural swamp, rising to sink into the marbled stones of the high-ceilinged hall.

    Nakira, the Healers’ leader, stood before the king, her pristine alabaster robe giving her the aspect of a pale spirit gliding through blood.

  “I’m sorry, but I could not save her, my king.”

 Ohlin’s tears came unbidden, uncontrolled, and in front of his court, unwelcome; his jaw tightened and his shoulders tensed.

I was the only one who saw him clench his fist, though I honestly didn’t think he would use it. The blow sent Nakira sprawling from the dais, the crack of fist on bone was a sudden piercing as she tumbled down into an ungainly heap within the robe, now stained with flecks of blood.

Amid the screams, gasps, and exclamations, she was helped to her feet, her cheek swollen, a trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth.

He then passed his sentence in the most soft, reasonable voice, given the circumstance, as if he was discussing plans for a pleasant outing.

“Take them out of here,” he told the guard, who gave him a curious look.

“She’s alone, your majesty.”

“No, fool. I meant take them all out of here, out of the kingdom. Drive them into the wildlands. Kill any who resist, by whatever means you need to use. Don’t pursue them further; leave them to their fate.”

The cries and screams receded to the deeper voices of the council’s earnest cautions for temperance and mercy, all falling on deaf ears and a stone heart covered in ice; in his grief he was resolute, and would not be swayed.

Nakira looked to the captain of the guard, reading his lips as he held up an index finger: ‘One day.’
They escorted her outside, gave her a horse, and sent her away at a gallop.

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

He spoke to me in private.

“They’re not to reach the wildlands. The men of your Order will execute them on the way.”

“King Ohlin, it would be more prudent to let them go.”

His gaze on me was deathly calm, his next words holding a concealed dagger poised to cut the thread of my existence if we betrayed him.

“See it done.”

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

Sharrika was crying, and Tafari simmered below boiling.

We’d be at the palace soon.

Sharikka let go of my arm, struggling to get herself under control

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Just…just flashes.” She stopped walking, hugged herself tighter. “Dogs, horses, fire and screams. We threw spells back at them, spells that did things, put things, inside their armor. Nakira wouldn’t retreat. She called in the Blood Covens.”

The Blood Covens lived on the fringes of the wastelands, separated even from each other, but they all practiced blood magic to one degree or another, all of it lethal.

“That’s why they use the circles of blood? To protect their territory?”

“Yes, and the hanging of the knights they defeated, in full armor, in the places they were victorious. As I said, strictly to show their power.”

“Then why the binding spell in the clouds?”

“To keep the king’s men from pursuing. It was supposed to lose strength, but…” She looked up just as a long flash slithered among the storm clouds, turning their undersides to lilac, but smelling of sulfur.

“But why would they make the spell bind other witches?”

“They confronted Nakira, said she was weak, said it would be best if they claimed the lands we would have settled in the countryside. They wanted us to join them, but tired as she was, of the whole thing, really, she refused.”

“They killed her?”

“I don’t know. Don’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.” She had to get herself composed again.

Tafari had walked some distance away; that had to stop if she was going to fight.

“Is she going to be alright?”

Sharikka hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“If she’s going to fight—”

She gave me a sharp look of frustration. “She’s not ready to fight!”

That was a stronger reaction than I was expecting. I gave her a moment, then took her by the forearms to step in and make sure I had her attention.

“She’s my daughter too, and we must make her ready. If you’re going to fight the Blood Covens, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Frankly, I’d let them have the place; it’s full of bloated corpses and blighted lands, and it reeks of carrion and waste.

“It will take years to clean up, so why do you even want it? If they rule, there’ll be no sanctuary for you here.”

She sighed, taking her arms from my hands, a gentle sweep of her own arm indicating all the land within view.

“Without a ruler, this place could be a haven for those of us who don’t practice blood rituals. We’re a vital link in the chain, even if weak. One thing remains true through all our lore: balance is essential to order. If the Blood Covens want to rule, they’ll use us as ambassadors and healers to fool the leaders of the lands they occupy.”

“You’ll become a servant.”

“Yes, but just for the moment. In time we’ll rebuild, restore our numbers, and bite the serpent’s head when we get the chance.”

I sighed at her naivete. “Sharrika, you’re talking about infiltrating, attacking, and killing the leaders of the Blood Covens. They went rogue centuries ago; they’ll see you coming long before you’re prepared, and take hours killing you, and everyone allied with you, for sport.”

My stomach sank as I saw her start to smile in the middle of what I was saying. “That’s where you come in.”

We started back toward the palace; she didn’t take my arm again.

“Finish your story,” she said.