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: Present Company Accepted (Chapter 22)

The day was going to be sunny and warm, and Tyrel and I maintained a less-than-strained cordial silence as we walked toward the city of the Cancelers’ stronghold. Tyrel still hadn’t told me its name, and out of respect for his thoughts on the idea that those who’d raised him were using magic for their own ends and had to be stopped, I left him to turn them over without pressing him.

Abdiel and his growing horde of dark spirits had taken the raven’s body, and it gave the most ear piercing, soul wrenching call somewhere between a squawk and a scream, its body puffing from the displacement until it looked like it was about to pop, the feathers all but standing on end.

It was unpleasant to see, and even more so to hear, but the pain in my shoulder as it gripped me and drew blood, even through my tunic, made me cry out.

It was the fastest way to accomplish things if not the safest. During the process I had to trust Abdiel to keep control of things, and except for the sharp, racing pain of Zephyr’s involuntary clench, he did.

Tyrel looked on with a dispassionate helplessness, knowing he couldn’t help me, and not sure if he would if he could. Now in his presence my stomach was mildly upset as opposed to being in pain when Abdiel occupied me.

I wondered if even the distance now would be enough, as Abdiel’s detection of his presence had grown sharper.

Zephyr’s body slowly deflated, his eyes regained their midnight blackness, but there was blood on his feathers, and some on his beak. I took a small piece of rag of something unimportant at the moment, and used it to clean him as he perched on my arm.

Now that the ordeal was over, Tyrel walked over to us to test things out.

Zephyr watched the Canceler’s approach the way a king watches a beggar about to plead his innocence in murdering the queen.

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

Tyrel watched him too, but not like a beggar; it was more like an enemy he found in an an empty alley, and only one of them was going to walk out of it. But he spoke to me, never taking his eyes off the bird.

“Anything?”

I closed my eyes, took stock of my body, feeling surprisingly whole for a change. I’d thought it would be as if a part of me was gone, a piece of my insides carved away, but all I discovered was that I was hungry.

“No. What about you?”

He shook his head, still watching Zephyr, but now it bothered me to see it.

“What’s wrong, Tyrel. You’re staring at him like he’s an enemy.”

He looked at me then. “I don’t know that he’s not.”

I sighed, my hopes for an absence of conflict as we traveled now dashed. “You’re being ridiculous. He’s just a bird.”

“No he isn’t, or he wouldn’t be able to harbor the spirits in himself, much less shield them from me, and he speaks the human words he knows like one of us. He’s a familiar, Tina, and that doesn’t make him just anything.”

The words, though not said scornfully, stung. But they also gave me pause. Having grown up a witness to Gran’s magic, it was easy to forget sometimes the world around us didn’t see things through our eyes; a raven familiar to one such as Gran would still be…just a bird.

I finished cleaning Zephyr.  If blood prices are always part of these things, I can understand the king’s concern…but he’d used the wrong approach, and now we’re all involved in a possible war that didn’t have to happen at all.

No, the king hadn’t seen things like we did, and certainly not the Cancelers, but whereas the king wanted to eliminate the perceived threat, Tyrel and I were on our way to make sure the Cancelers weren’t trying to use the ruse of aiding him in that quest as a means to their own ends.

I smiled at the thought that I was traveling with a Canceler to make sure that all they wanted to do was kill us too.

There was reasons people felt the Great Purge had been necessary, and I would do well to remember them. I’d been tasked with finding the Traitors Guild, and if the Cancelers were indeed hoarding magic in what they claimed was a Void instead of actually purging it, that had to be stopped as well.

How far a Canceler would go with a newly made witch to accomplish those things was an open ended question.

For now he was willing, but I had to think about what I’d be willing to do if, or when, that was no longer true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Passing: Invited Host (Chapter 21)

The size of the raven watching me from the top of the Gem Tent gave me pause. His feathers were not smoothed to his body, or shining in the sun. He had the bearing of an ancient thing that survived every battle that came its way.

It kept its silence as we locked eyes, and a chill of fear suffused me. “Abdiel…?”

We see him.

“Is he the one?”

You must ask him.

“I don’t know his language.”

He will know yours.

The gem hawker was edging closer to me; a female at the Gem Tent was considered a sure sell in their eyes. I’d lingered too long, and while the butchers they hired wouldn’t surround me, they’d stop me if I tried to leave.

I heard a fluttering behind me, and low caw of warning. The raven was at my feet, and the gem hawker made a holy ward across his face and chest, then went the other way.

“Let’s go.” I said it loud enough for people to hear, but there was only me and that unsettling bird. No one stopped me from leaving, but I heard muttering at my back as the raven perched on my right shoulder.

That was foolish, Tina. We can’t stay here now.

“I don’t deny it, but it seems I have my familiar.”

“Atheron sends his greetings, and his love, Lady.”

“You speak?”

“I do.”

“He sent you?”

“At Hannah’s request.”

“But he has no magic.”

“His travels take him far. He knows many, for one who claims hermitage. One such as met him provided me for you.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“I did not. I searched for Abdiel, since I am to host him.”

Abdiel didn’t seem to know he’d been searched out, even when the raven and I stared at each other. There was power at work here yet unknown, that seemed to be trying to catch up with all the responsibilities that came with it.

I wasn’t sure I was ready for any of it, but they were converging in equal proportion, and gathering speed all the same.

Tell us your name, raven.

“Zephyr.”

We shall see how light our travels are, then.

“Indeed, dark spirit, we shall.”

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.

 

Circle of Blood

I stood looking at the carnage, blinking from the sudden, searing flashes of lightning streaking across roiling black clouds.

There was no thunder, which gave the scene an eldritch air.

Swarms of rats moved en masse over the mounds of corpses, taking such treasures as they could find.

The torrential rain cut the edge off the stench, but didn’t stop it.

An armored knight, his bare hands pierced with spikes, hung in the center of the palace door, a circle of blood painted around him. I didn’t know how long he was there, but the crows had taken his eyes.

It’s already started. I’m too late.

A short, hooded figure approached from under a pile of smoldering wood, stealthy, heading for the doomed knight. As he was hung with his weapons, they were going to loot him.

With his hands spiked, there was nothing he could do to stop them.  I think more than anything else it was the cowardice of the pending deed that rankled and made me call out.

“Leave him alone!”

The figure jumped; they hadn’t seen me through the downpour.

They scampered back into their hiding place. The urchins knew this backwater warren better than me. I lived here once, but never called it home.

The man turned his head in my direction, and I worked through the mounds of bodies to take him down.

“I’ll get you out of here.”

“No!”

I stopped, taken aback by his refusal.

“No. They’ll know it was you, and they’ll find you. I’ve nothing to go back to. Better I die here. Leave! Leave while you still can, while there’s still a chance you can—”

The serrated blade of a knife buried itself in his chest with such force that his body jerked, making a muffled thump against the door, and he went still.

A different hooded urchin stood there, smiling at its handiwork.

That could’ve been me.

I sighed, still looking at the knight, but speaking to the urchin. “What do you want?”

They answered me, retrieving the knife. “I remember you. You should leave, priest. There’ve been changes since you were exiled, and your Order is no longer welcome here.”

“Where do I know you from?”

They removed the hood: a girl with smooth brown skin, large, dark brown doe -shaped eyes that held an intelligence beyond her years, her form on the cusp of womanhood, but hidden beneath the soaked black cloak she wore.

“I’m your daughter; you took my mother, Sharrika, against her will.”

“Sharrika…?”

She came toward me. “I see you remember her name.”

“She was supposed to kill me.”

“Yes, and you did something to make her stop. She fell in love with you instead. What did you do, father?” She spat the word out like snake venom. “Rape her with a spell?”

I had no answer she would find acceptable.

“What became of Sharrika? What is your name?”

She spat on my robe, and I reacted, backhanding her across the face.

She sprawled over some bodies, sending the rats scurrying, then pushed off the pile, running back to me with the knife in her hand.

I didn’t want to hurt her, but I didn’t know what she was going to do; I tried casting, and felt a jolt to my own body that almost made me lose my footing.

She has powers. The bloody knife was at my throat, tilting my chin up.

Her breathing was raspy and harsh. “If you ever hit me again—!”

    “Tafari!”

The rain had intensified, but the figure that approached was only in a long red dress, clinging to the very curves my hands explored in better times.

Tafari took the knife from my throat. “This isn’t over, priest.”

Sharrika walked up to her, took the knife, and apologized, her eyes downcast. “Please forgive my daughter, sir. She isn’t married, and so has not yet been–“

“That’s none of his concern, mother!”

I was surprised at Sharrika’s candor; it wasn’t her way.

“Sharrika.”

She gave me a blank stare, tilted her head. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

Emotions warred within me, but I nodded. “We have. I’ll tell you later. Let’s get out of the rain.”

A crow had landed on the knight’s soaked corpse, looking for fresh pickings. The rats persisted in their foraging among the mounds of rotting flesh.

She nodded and beckoned me to follow.

The rain fell harder, but she and Tafari took their time; it was a moment before I realized the rain was falling around them, not on them.

“Witches.”

I don’t know whether Tafari heard me, but she turned to give me a mirthless smile.

I ignored the threat, put my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes, and walked back into the eye of the malevolent hurricane that would shake my life to its core. It would have been easier if I’d turned and walked back through the broken gates, as Tafari commanded, never to return.

When all was said and done, I was glad I didn’t, but I wished I had.

 

 

Melchora’s Revenge

I was almost at the end of the King’s Woods, my bloody satchel of rabbits trailing flies and banging against my back as I fled the wardens’ horses.
The men were good riders, and chased fast and hard, their horses well trained and responsive, but I knew the woods well, having skulked about it for years. I ran toward the only place I knew would provide temporary solace.
Melchora’s cottage was on its own land, where she settled after the Purging, just outside the boundary of the King’s Wood proper. She all but dared them to try to move her. She was a dark beauty with a grace, elegance, and maturity that belied the malevolence of her craft, and from what I was told, her cravings.
As much as I wanted to skirt the area entirely, being subject to a witch’s whims was better than throwing myself on the king’s mercy and his warden’s justice.
A choice of poisons, as they say.
Realizing where I was headed, and that they weren’t going to catch me, they turned aside and cursed my lineage, promising the next time would be the last.
They tried to move her, but she’d move the house to different locations, or hide it, or duplicate it as they ran from place to place looking for the real one. After some time, she tired of the sport, and they tired of the spooking, and came to an uneasy understanding; if she didn’t attack anything, they’d leave her in peace.
As they rode away, I sat down in the grass and put the satchel next to me; the flies were gone, but the smell of blood seemed stronger, wafting in the otherwise pleasant breeze.
A small house of dark stones appeared in front of me, surrounded by a dreary fog, and the sky seemed to darken even though the sun was high. The hairs on my neck were standing, and a flash of fear brought me to my feet.
Silence filled the air, not so much as a bird, and the wind itself seemed to stop in mid-motion.
The door opened, and Melchora appeared; she didn’t walk into it, she appeared.
I stood there gaping like a child at a magic show.
She looked at the satchel. “You’re on my land, poacher. That’ll cost you two rabbits.”
Her voice snapped me out of my ogling reverie, but I had to swallow a few times before I could finally speak. “Fair enough. You want I should cook them too?”
She smirked. “If you’re offering…”
I went toward the cottage, fighting my very bones to move as they resisted.
She took the satchel and sauntered in ahead of me, letting me have a good look at her, and not caring.
*****************
We ate in an oddly companionable silence.
The wine she poured was good but not heady, not that I knew much about them. I was an ale man.
A fire crackled and hissed pleasantly as we sipped out of plain goblets until she broke the silence.
“I remember you.”
“From where?”
“From the Purging.”
Her gaze was assessing, measuring.
I put down the goblet.
“I—“
“You were there. I remember. “
“I was under orders…”
“You laughed. All of you. You ran us down and slaughtered us as you laughed. You pissed on our burning corpses, and laughed.”
I stood. “Melchora…”
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
My skin grew tight. “Melchora!” My voice was higher, lighter than even when I was a boy.
My body changed.
*****************
Brown hair, lank and damp, kept falling into my eyes as I ran, gulping air as the horses bore down on me.
A large heavy fist grabbed some and lifted me off my feet as another cut off my path with his horse.
Whoever grabbed me let me go, and I fell into the dirty mud.
“You’re not going nowhere, witchy-bitch.”
A hand covered my mouth, and two grabbed my kicking legs…
*******************
I woke up hurting, bleeding, coughing blood, my lungs burning, my eyes stinging from the smoke that surrounded me, flames licking at my bloody legs. I reeked of urine, realized it wasn’t mine.
The sound of cheers, the glow of the moon, the heated, fetid breeze brought me to a sharp realization.
They were burning me alive.
“Melchora!”
You shared your life with me, witch hunter; I’ll share my death with you.
Through the darkness, the sound of a soft and evil laugh reached me.
I’d never felt so alone…