Tsáyidiel knelt upon the stone with two sets of dark wings covering an otherwise bare and human back. The air was warm, and the bright sunless sky stretched above with fluffy clouds hinting at towers and walls. The grass tickling bare toes was the first indication that my attire had changed.
One look and it was decided that if the subconscious had chosen this outfit, me and her were going to have a chat. At length.
Gone was the Whateley skirt and blouse. In their place was a thin lavender toga-like dress, two matching pieces of cloth rising from the waist to (mostly) cover my modesty held in place by straps connecting behind the neck, leaving the back uncovered and granting full freedom to the wings. A braided cord of gold around the waist completed the look.
No bra so everything was, shall we say, bouncing freely, and the gentle breeze provided confirmation to having gone entirely commando under the skirt.
The sound of feathers heralded the arrival of a winged humanoid Zap. If I hadn’t seen his spirit before I wouldn’t have recognized him: tall with well-proportioned muscle and bronzed skin, with long darker hair blending into the feathers. He looked older and much more serious than his boyish student-self.
He stood comfortably and at ease in a simple tan loincloth and sandals. Beaded bracelets decorated the wrists, the one on the left even had a set of small dangling charms. While he had no shirt, draped around his neck was a wide necklace of gold beset with multi-colored gems culminating in an Eye of Horus resting against the bare chest. And yes, his two golden hawk-like eyes were surrounded by the traditional black makeup everyone wears in those Ancient Egypt documentaries. Add in the brown and white wings of a hawk and he was quite an impressive sight.
Which is probably why I didn’t notice the white tiger until it forcefully shoved its face into my hip.
“Gah!” I spluttered, wings flapping in alarm. But both Zap and Tsáyidiel were undisturbed by the tiger’s presence. The tiger for its part sat on the rock and began nonchalantly cleaning a huge paw.
Zap, in a voice much deeper than usual, commented. “It would appear your companion wishes to join us as well.”
My companion? The tiger paused its grooming to stare with large green eyes. Wait a second, I knew those eyes, and those black and white markings…
“Khan!” Dropping closer I pulled the huge fluffy head into a hug. “Buddy! How the heck?”
Clearly amused, Zap smiled. “Your cat’s spirit is full of surprises. But it is not uncommon for familiars to dreamwalk with their owners.”
Tiger-Khan rubbed my face (and neck and shoulder) with his own, the larger and more wiry whiskers brushing exposed skin. Grinning widely, I scritched the bigger but still soft ears and a really deep rumbling purr resonated under my fingers.
Tsáyidiel’s eyes narrowed at the tiger, but he offered no objection when he spoke. “Come, my lady. Time is passing even more quickly at our destination. If your… feline is to travel, it appears you will need to carry him. We should travel by wing and not by foot if we are to take the quickest path.” He gave a bow towards Zap. “Also, greetings Prince Heru. Your appearance is a welcome surprise.”
Zap acknowledged Tsáyidiel with a curt nod. With how he held himself and spoke he appaered more Heru than Zap but I resolved to call him Zap regardless. Before we left he’d warned me to stick to our codenames whenever possible because, as he put it, in spirit places you never knew who was listening. The ground itself could be aware and taking notes.
Speaking of the ground and being stuck upon it, I contemplated the mighty Tiger-Khan. He was now far too large for me to carry. Sure I had the strength to probably do it, but not only would I be unable to see where I was going it would also look ridiculous. “Er, how is carrying him supposed to work?”
Without waiting for an answer Khan tensed and pounced. Holy crap! Bracing to be knocked on my ass, it was quite a shock when little feet landed on a shoulder instead, a small voice mewing into an ear. The crazy cat had become kitten-sized! With little claws he dug in to his perch alongside my neck.
You have to understand, I’d gotten him from a shelter when he was on the verge of adulthood so I’d never seen him so tiny. He was adorable! It took Zap clearing his throat meaningfully to get me to realize I’d been standing there for over a minute cooing and petting the kitten’s little face like, well… like a schoolgirl.
“Right, uh, we follow you?” I asked Tsáyidiel, trying to hide my embarrassment. Tsáyidiel inclined his head seriously but Zap chuckled. I cut him a look. “Hush.”
That only made him laugh more.
Tsáyidiel turned to the dream ocean, spreading four midnight wings. “We go.” Leaping off the cliff those feathers caught the air, his image shimmering into that of a raven riding the updraft lifting him higher.
Zap gestured towards the cliff and water below and said, “After you.” With a cheeky grin he added, “My lady.” Geeze.
With one last check that the purring Khan-kitten was secure, I stretched my wings searching not for air movement, but for flows of energies. Gaining purchase with feathers and will, I rose to catch the raven above.
The shrill cry of a hawk beneath let me know that Zap was close behind.
We flew between worlds.
The experience was surreal. Without the line of power connecting me to Tsáyidiel I would have been incredibly lost and marooned in some random pocket realm or dimension, likely unable to figure out which way was up let alone how to find my way home.
The raven led us through landscape after landscape, the scenery flowing into each other with smooth yet abrupt transitions. From across that first brilliant sky over endless ocean the view quickly shifted and we were soaring past mountains of thick forests caught in that first breath of spring thaw, the air so still you could hear individual feathers as they moved. Melting ice cracked and popped on those hillsides, the echoing canyons turning each sound into a multitude.
As our guide swooped lower towards a valley, all moisture was swallowed by dust clouds now rising from a desert overflowing with fine and powdery yellowish sand. No plants, but under that lemony surface shapes moved, rippling patterns revealing their passing.
Get used to one scene and another would take its place. Green sheet lightning tearing through ivory blue clouds, rain and ice howling the thunder, all instantly replaced with cracked dry earth where twisted blackened trees clawed towards three oblong moons hanging low and silent before a rosy sunrise. Warmth became cold became wet became sticky hot until merely warm yet again.
Not all vistas were natural - or unnatural. We flew over mud-walled huts forming scattered settlements, over fortresses forged from violet stones, and over fields of planted tentacled creatures who sang songs of surrender to the peace offered by the immanent harvest coming to take their lives. The words were unrepeatable, but I understood their haunting lyrics, the disturbing embrace of the serenity of death ringing clear.
Tsáyidiel turned without visible reason, rising and falling in response to a path only he could discern. Holding on to that spirit tether between us like a lifeline, I kept checking to make sure Zap was keeping up. I shouldn’t have worried. If anything he tilted and swung back and forth in the air as if bored with our lack of speed. I had a feeling we could all fly faster, especially when in places without crazy weather, but Tsáyidiel maintained a deliberate pace. Perhaps he was proceeding with caution.
A city of emerald glass and sparking blue steel dropped away and we flew past ruins carved into a rocky plinth underneath a vast clear expanse showing billions of twinkling stars, spinning galaxies, and brilliantly gorgeous nebulae. The crimson blended into purplish blues, each star brighter than the last, the entire vista like those amazing deep space pictures except these stellar objects seemed closer and more immediate. Stretch forth a hand and you could pluck a burning star right out of the sky.
The sight took my breath away. The radiance of each and every sun called out, urging me to join them, to shine for the simple sake of shining, and to exult in the illuminating dance set in motion since the beginning of all things. Their fires spun across the eons, singing of the sheer indomitable glory of existence itself.
And I wanted to sing with them. I needed to sing. For I too was here, I too knew the ecstasy of the light burning within and spilling outward to form all matter, all energy, all thought, and all love. I could sing, I could shine, and I could be one with the all. The power waiting to burst into song burned in my heart with the need to shout across the universe.
All I had to do was reach for it, and I too could be a shining star within that tapestry of light.
Lips gently pressed against mine. Zap, no longer a hawk, was kissing me, pulling me back from the call of uncountable stars. The kiss was tender yet fierce, revealing its own buried inner need that the energies already summoned could not ignore. Instead of blazing outward to the edges of all things, the fire poured directly into him like a bolt of lightning finding the shortest route to ground.
The resulting ecstatic burst banished all coherency as the universal sky spun wildly about with the surge’s release. When the senses finally coalesced I was held tenderly within his arms while we floated high above a star-lit mountaintop, shattered stones bouncing down the hillsides having been knocked free by the concussive wave of overwhelming brilliance we had just unleashed.
I didn’t care that later I’d be embarrassed and freaked out about being kissed by a guy. Here, lost within the shining cosmos, that didn’t matter.
Zap tried to say something but was interrupted by my glowing finger tracing softly over his cheek. He was radiant too. Not as golden-white like I was, but with this silvery-blue electricity flowing across his feathers. He was beautiful.
I giggled at the idea of painting him with different colored lights like purple or even green. Maybe orange? Oh dear. I was drunk. Although unlike previous alcohol-fueled benders which always turned me maudlin and introspective, this intoxication was a pure and giddy feeling.
For the first time in over a month I felt happy and free.
Zap’s expression was unfathomable. With an unreadable yet gentle smile he quietly pulled himself away.
Tsáyidiel’s voice cut through the reverie. “You’ve attracted attention, my lady.” His words were careful, trying to keep both reproach and envy from his tone without success. The raven flew closer and shifted to a humanoid form.
Three shooting stars streamed across the sky from a corner of that awesome horizon, except instead of flaring out and disappearing their path curved to head straight towards us.
“Are we in danger?” I asked, pretending to refocus and sober up. The silly grin still stuck on my cheeks made it not very convincing.
“I hope not,” Tsáyidiel replied. “But I would still advise caution. We should land upon the peak.”
Zap flew me down to alight upon the mountain top before setting me carefully on my feet. Once sure I wasn’t going to topple sideways from my drunken state, he faced the incoming meteors, placing himself between them and me. Whatever aftereffects he may have been experiencing himself from what just happened, he seemed instantly solid and prepared: both tense and relaxed at the same time. Though tense wasn’t quite right, he was just immensely focused and wary.
And here I was, wanting to pout because we should have been able to enjoy the moment. I felt the kitten move to the back of my neck, burrowing under all the loose hair draping over the tops of the wings. Huh, was he hiding from nervousness or strategy? Feeling him rustle under my hair triggering the pondering of what hairstyle I was currently sporting, for it certainly hadn’t been falling in my eyes. After patting a few places around my head (careful not to disturb the little guy!) it was determined to be in a simple French braid using entwined bangs to form a circlet before tying behind and falling over the rest hanging free. It was much like I’d been trying to do for myself lately, but this was tighter and more skillfully done. Zap glanced back with a raised an eyebrow, obviously wondering what in the heck I was doing. I just shrugged and gave him another silly smile. Yep, I was still completely inebriated. It was all I could do to not run fingers along the feathers of his outstretched wings right there in front of me just to see how they’d feel. Maybe if I charged up my fingertips as I did that would be more fun… oops. Focus, incoming unknown entities! Possible danger! But it would be… C’mon! Focus!
Argh! I wanted to take things seriously, but nope. Reality had left the building, or rather we had left Reality far behind.
Those streaming lights resolved into three winged beings rapidly approaching, only to slow down to land at a respectful and careful twenty yards distance. One had the form of a tremendously large condor: reddish pink face and extremely broad white feathers ringed with black. The second was even bigger, like a ten foot tall bodybuilder that had been as thick as a truck before even starting to hit a regular gym. Overly massive muscles bulged under black leather skin and the thick neck supported a head that was a cross between a bull and man. The chest flexed mightily to the beat of wings closely matching Zap’s in color, although maybe twice the size. The third newcomer, however, was a slender woman with the head of a golden-beige lioness, soft fur covering the rest of her toned and agile-looking body.
Neither the lioness lady nor the towering wall of muscle wore any clothing. Not that it seemed to bother them any. For that matter, it didn’t seem to bother me either. Huh.
What was the most baffling was not how they looked or lack of coverings but how they felt. I wanted to reach out and touch them, for within each I sensed a kinship. They were family. We had never met and yet the knowledge was undeniable. It wasn’t the energy drunkenness talking either, though perhaps that was keeping me from suppressing the sharp instinct.
The lioness spoke first in a strong yet feminine voice, bowing deeply towards me as she did so. “Lady Gabriel, the Throne has commanded your return.”
Zap threw me a puzzled look and I was about to reply with my own confusion when mister muscles interrupted with his own surprise. “This is not Gabriel.”
Growling an instant temper, the lioness snarled at her companion. “Of course she is, Gadiel. We all felt…” She cut herself short as she took a longer look at me that ended in uncertainty. “What is this?” Her gaze quickly turned to take in the two beings hovering protectively before me. Amber eyes widened. “Tsáyidiel, is that you?”
My raven-panther angel lowered his beak politely. “It is, Hizkiel. I greet you and my brethren Kerubim.”
Mister muscles rumbled loudly deep in his throat. “Tsáyidiel is no more. He fell into darkness.”
The condor shrieked, its feathers rustling nervously while the crinkled black and pink head darted about trying to scan the area. “This could be a ruse… an illusion…”
Putting a hand on Tsáyidiel’s shoulder, I moved forwards between my companions. “It is no ruse,” I pronounced. “Beloved Tsáyidiel has been purified within the light, the glory of his name restored!” Beloved? Glory of his name? What the heck was I saying!
The lioness exhaled past sharp fangs, “Impossible.”
Again the condor emitted a piercing cry. “Neither he nor she are of the Host. They are not linked to the Throne, beware!”
“And yet what I say is true,” I declared with a surety and confidence coming from I knew not where. “Examine him and see the truth shining within!”
With a commanding gesture from me, Tsáyidiel stepped halfway between our groups and his shape shifted to a man huddling nervously under pairs of wings. The condor did not move but the other two approached, walking slowly up to their former brother. Gadiel reached out to gently touch a covering wing while Hizkiel placed both hands upon Tsáyidiel’s bare chest.
The space around them rippled as their true names pinged between them like silver rods in a singing windchime. Three notes resonated mightily before merging into a single transcendent harmonic chord. It left no doubt that they were made to sublimely chime together.
Hizkiel’s gaped in outright shock. Gadiel, voice now loud and joyful, wrapped arms wider than tree trunks around Tsáyidiel pulling him into a tight embrace, lifting the smaller Kerubim off the ground. “Brother!” he shouted. “But how can this be?”
Tsáyidiel, equally overcome with emotion, tried to point back towards me with a trapped arm and hand. “The light, the Source. It shines through her and in its grace was I set free.”
Hizkiel’s fur near her eyes darkened with wetness and she asked me, “Who are you, that you could do such a thing?”
Confidence slipped away as confusion crept in. “I… I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Gadiel, not releasing his brother from the embrace, spoke. “Your name. Tell us, please.”
I stammered. I knew what they wanted, and while I could have answered ‘Jordan’, that would not be the truth they sought.
Tsáyidiel disentangled himself, keeping a hand on his brother. “Her name has yet to announce itself. She is newly born.”
The condor hissed while the other two exchanged glances.
“You both should be brought to the city, to the Throne,” said Gadiel earnestly, his booming words echoing back from the canyons below. “The first new sibling after countless cycles? A lost brother restored from darkness? Why, this news deserves to be shouted from the tops of the tallest spires! Come!”
Zap cleared his throat loudly and took a step forward. “Such is not feasible.”
All eyes turned to him. Hizkiel grinned in friendly recognition, revealing sharp fangs. “Lord Heru! Long has it also been since you flew alongside us. Forgive our manners for not acknowledging you, we are just…”
“Overwhelmed?” Zap said with a polite smile. “That is understandable. But I must insist that these two forgo any journey to your city of silver and gold at this time. They are pledged to a quest of mercy.”
Gadiel’s large brown eyes narrowed. “Surely no mission could ever be as important?”
Zap touched the Eye of Horus upon his chest, causing it to brighten and beam forth with the light of the dawning sun. “I bear Ra’s mark and must complete the task he has given. It still lies before us and not behind; without them at my side I would fail in the duties assigned.”
Hizkiel regarded him for a long evaluating moment, before inclining her head with respect. “We would not wish to cause a quest given you by your Lord and King to fail.”
Rumbling low in his throat, Gadiel protested in dismay, “But such wondrous news, we should not delay!”
Tsáyidiel quickly posed a question. “Are you three commanded to find the Archangel Gabriel?”
“Yes,” Gadiel answered, “such was the mission as ordered by our captain. But he would understand if we-”
Hizkiel stopped him with an upheld paw-hand. “Peace, brother. But the Hunter’s question makes a valid point. We have our own commission to fulfill.” She glanced towards the unhappy condor. “And Ruhiel would be correct to declaim any diversion from our assigned purpose.”
The condor, Ruhiel, rasped, “We should kill them and do it now. Their illusion is infecting you both!”
“Silence, Ruhiel!” Hizkiel growled forcefully, causing the condor to shrink back. “There is no illusion, only grace-granted miracles! We shall finish our sweep for the Lady Gabriel and report to Kerubiel our encounter here today. Nothing more. Should our captain wish to pursue matters further, that will be up to him. Understand?”
Ruhiel, wings pulling in defensively, nodded his bird-shaped head.
“If it helps you any,” I said to the lioness, “I saw Gabriel just over a month ago within a pocket dream realm of hers. It lies somewhere near, well, near Earth. It is a place of ocean, cliff, and sky. Raphael knows of this as well. I hope she is alright.”
“We thank you for the information, Lady. And we look forward to the day when your name is proclaimed before the Throne and you take your proper place among us. Until then, keep that one safe,” she said, pointing to Tsáyidiel. “It would be a shame for him to be lost twice.” Her toothy grin grew even wider.
Tsáyidiel looked towards the ground sheepishly.
With a final nod to Zap, she declared, “Fare well, Lord Heru! Honor and Glory to you and your family! Success to you as well, Lady of Light!” With that, she took to the sky with Gadiel and Ruhiel following. The three transformed back into shooting stars and streamed towards the horizon.
Zap shouted his response as they went. “Honor and Glory to the Kerubim! Hunt well!”
Tsáyidiel sighed quietly as he watched them go. Once they had twinkled out of sight, he straightened his shoulders and said to Zap, “We should move on. They are not likely to be the only ones to have spotted her shining beacon. We must rely on speed and not stealth, for our lady - whether she wishes or no - blazes a path across the cosmos.”
“I do not mind the brightness,” Zap said, giving me a teasing smile. “But I agree. Lead on.”
Yep, I had been right. Now that the whole energy after-glow had faded away, I found myself blushing furiously and feeling massively conflicted. Khan-kitten, emerging from his hair-covered refuge, put a paw against my cheek as if offering reassurance. He settled back on my shoulder and dug in with a firm grip. He was ready.
Whether I was or not, I flew after the departing raven as before, trying to shove confused thoughts and emotions aside as best I could. This time instead of the shriek of a hawk following behind there was a warm-hearted laugh instead.
Dangit, he was probably getting a full view of my butt from our flying positions. Remembering that there was nothing under my skirt, I wished fervently that I could shift into a bird too. Though given all his time as a hawk, he’d probably enjoy that view too!
I lost count of the number of realms and vistas we passed through when Tsáyidiel called out, “We are here.”
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I’m sure if I wished I could replay each and every distinct realm within the exemplar-enhanced perfect memory and mechanically count them all. But nah. Just take my word that there were a lot of them.
Spiraling down out of the glitter-strewn tapestry of night covering the newest scene, the raven led us low over a dark lake with calm waters perfectly reflecting the glory of the distant constellations above. It was all so beautiful until we reached ruins at the edge of the lake and saw the devastation of the shore.
Where once a mighty forest stood, only stumps and black rotting twigs and branches remained. Between the water and shattered trees lurked an abandoned structure of once-mighty standing stones, taller than those found at Stonehenge back on Earth. They spread out in a semi-circle like arms welcoming the lake within their embrace. Except these arms were broken, large chunks of the indigo stones had embedded themselves within the mud lining the lake bottom far below their former proud heights.
Tsáyidiel perched upon the capstone at the center and I followed. Khan jumped down from my shoulder to join the raven, becoming a full sized tiger as he did and shaking himself out upon landing.
The light from my wings washed over the stones and I moved closer to examine them. Each was covered with carvings seemingly Celtic in design, yet other unknown symbols mixed sporadically across the patterns. Again without thought I could read something totally foreign, the meanings of the carved sigils simply obvious as if written in my native tongue.
The whole edifice had comprised a single poem celebrating the wonders of the natural world: her lush trees of plenty, her kaleidescope flowery pastures, the airborne dances of birds and insects, and all the creatures both mundane and mystical walking, singing, and living in harmony within her rich splendor. But now the poem lay scattered, fading at the brackish water’s end.
The smell of rot and decay was overwhelming, especially near the ground where I was trying to read one of the last of the fallen stones.
“This is where Danielle’s spirit went?” I asked Tsáyidiel.
The raven tilted his bird’s head with expressionless black eyes. “The trail through the realms led first to here, and from here to a fortified keep occupied by a force of fae. Her presence seems strongest somewhere under the keep where dungeons are likely to be found. Attempting an immediate extraction would have been impossible without attracting notice, especially without your energetic support. Skilled I may be, but a garrison of fae would prove difficult to overcome to secure her release.”
“Fae,” I said. Poor Danielle. Her spirit had somehow ended up here and, even though she was a sidhe, instead of welcoming her Tsáyidiel believed the fae had taken her prisoner. From arriving to these ruins to chains. “What could have happened here?” I wondered aloud, for it wasn’t just the stench that was getting to me. The entire place oozed a deep and awful lingering despair.
Or maybe that was just my own feelings of worry.
“Aye, now that be a tale,” said a voice piping up from behind a stone. “Though methinks not the most happiest.”
Zap was in front of me in an instant, one arm held across my stomach as if warding it, the other extended towards the voice. I must have blinked because I hadn’t seen him move. Wow. Tiger-Khan had also jumped down from his lofty perch and was silently stalking the newcomer’s position.
“Who speaks?” Zap demanded. His human head flickered for a moment, the proud hawk’s visage blending into view.
“I?” answered the voice with a chirp. “Why, sir, I am but Bristlebeak, at your service!”
Pushing Zap aside (earning me a dirty look), I cast out more light to reveal a small bramble of twigs lurking on one of the smaller fragments. I flinched when the twigs suddenly moved, revealing that it had little legs, and arms, and uh… yep, a beak much like a toucan’s thrusting forward from the collection forming its head. Little pale yellow sparks danced where eyes should have been.
“And, dear sir, never has a beak of bristles ever been so fine, if I do say so myself!” The little thing chuckled and did a little dance in a circle on the stone.
“Uhm, hi?” I said to the… to it.
Tiny will-o-wisp eyes peered up, and darn me if they didn’t somehow grow bigger. “Ooh! Greetings, lady!” He gave a twiggy formal bow, which I awkwardly returned much to his delight. “Such fairness! Ach, and you were the one wondering the story of this here temple, if I am not mistaken and my name is indeed Bristlebeak as I have attested befores.”
I exchanged a look with Zap who remained defensively on guard. Khan, however, paused and sat amidst several scorched weeds as if perfectly content to wait and see what would happen next.
“Yes, that was me,” I said carefully. “Could you share the story with us?” Maybe it would be useful to know more before dealing with those who had kidnapped my niece. Even if I was busily mentally wondering if the four of us could blow down any walls in our way, grab her, and safely escape. Very tempting.
“You wouldn’t, perchance have hidden somewhere - mayhaps in your bodice? - any gooseberries, would you?” the oddly nosed mobile bramble-bush asked. “Though it would be fair to say that, should there be such lurking within your intimates, it would be awfully impolite for them to remain a gooseberry!” The wide beak bobbed up and down with intense merriment.
“I, uh… what? And no, I have no berries.”
“Sadness,” he sighed wistfully. “They used to grow here, you know, and I used to eat them by the handful right over yonder.” A twiggy finger pointed to a spot of barren ground a dozen yards away from the ruins. “Their flavor truly burst all savory within a beak, if you must know. But if you have none, then no trade is to be had, and thus no tale to pass the time. Ach, well, unfortunate but such is the way.” He shrugged.
Zap leaned close and I thought he was going to try to warn me about the creature. Instead he whispered, “Give him some of your light. Something berry-sized.”
I stared at him dumbfounded. How would I do that?
He rolled his eyes as if I was clueless, totally not earning him any brownie points. Oh geeze, what if the bristle beak thing was a real fae brownie of some kind? Zap quickly whispered, “You’re in a dream-realm, not the physical world. Treat it as such.”
Huh. That actually made a weird kind of sense. Cupping open hands together, I let the light flare briefly with the intention of focusing it down while visualizing a small glowing golden grape.
I almost dropped the sudden manifestation into the muck below from sheer surprise. Holding it up it looked exactly as I had envisioned. It even had little brighter fractal lines inside like the veins of a grape. Wow! “Would a… a lightberry do?” I asked Bristlebeak.
“A lightberry? Well now, that’s an entirely different matter altogether!” He rubbed his twigs, err, hands together gleefully. “Unusual and rare, but possibly quite tasty. Why, I can smell the brilliance from here!” He eagerly reached for the small glowing orb, scrambling over the stones to get closer.
I pulled it back. “In exchange for the story of this place and our questions answered after.”
“Yes, yes, though after the break of dawn no further questions, and I get to taste the berry first!”
Remembering Circe giving Danielle a warning about not making any promises she didn’t intend to carry out due to the binding power of such upon those of the fae, I agreed. “Very well, we have an agreement.” I placed the berry-like orb into an excited collection of grabby twigs.
No sooner did he get take hold was it instantly popped into his beak with a loud chomp and swallow. “Ooh, now that, my lady, that is a fine berry indeed!” Tendrils of light swirled into the depths of his bristles, shifting color from gold to a paler yellow matching eyes now burning with greater intensity. He flickered there, in the darkness by the lake, little pulses of color sparking from within. And he became more solid, more real. Hard to describe, but he was just… more ‘there’ than he had been before.
He swooned. “Why, I daresay never have I had such a sweetness! A lick of light, like tasting a star! For this I would offer you tales until the full turning of the moon!”
Zap shook his head. He was right, we didn’t have that kind of time. I said, “Just of this place, kind Bristlebeak. For our time is lamentably short.”
“Ach, well, the customer is never right, of course. Or is it the other way around? The shopkeeper is never left? Hmm, wouldn’t that imply the shops have to be all on the same side? Seems odd, if you ask me. Or maybe even. Very confusing. But yes! The tale of the Temple.” The little guy plopped himself down to sit, thorny branches scraping along the rock as his legs settled into place.
Zap crossed his arms, giving Bristlebeak his full attention. As did I, though I politely put my arms behind my back instead, offering the little fae creature a smile of encouragement.
Bristlebeak cleared a knotted throat and began.
So the Temple you see was once… wait, no, that’s no proper way to start a story! What would Mrs. Bristlebeak say if she heard me open a tale with such a pathetic line. Why, Mrs. Bristlebeak - if I were not a confirmed bachelor, mind you - would properly admonish me and chase me about the kitchen glade throwing her bristles and thorns in annoyance. Which, of course, is a good reason to be a bachelor if you ask me!
Do you have any idea how hard it is to pick out someone else’s bristles from the midst of your own? ‘Tis a darn tricky thing! Why, I must admit, if one were to ask, that I still have a few remnants from the time when Bristlefang got snippy, as he does, and challenged me to a wrestling contest. There was quite the conundrum of who’s bits were who’s when that unpleasantness was over, let me tell you!
Oh. Just the one story? Yes, yes…
In the glorious past when we fae once frolicked happily within the glens and forests of the world, the Mother was awake, and in her tender care we flourished. Oh how we danced and sang and… did other things not appropriately mentioned in front of such a fine company as yourselves. Unless you care to hear? No?
And the realms of magic and the realms of mortals stood side by side, indeed like a proper ocean tide didst one side blend into the other as the sea caresses the firmament where water kisses the sand.
It was a happy time, oh such happiness! The revels, the music, the passions! Tis a giddy memory, though many have forgotten. But Bristlebeak remembers! Oh yes, he remembers…
The sidhe - those among us who believed they were more powerful than the others and thus deserving of special attentions like being called all these various formal titles, demanding the rest of us follow and do the silly tasks they kept shouting about, that kind of thing - decided, well some of them did anyway, that Mother was too important to be allowed to do things as only She pleased. Thus they formed a priesthood where they would sing and chant and dance, hoping Mother would pay attention and grant them favors. Sometimes she did, she really did!
All over the world and within the dreams that snugged all close to it - like one would to a soft blanket of doe’s fur on a brisk autumn morning when the dew debates with the icicles whether it was time for a proper freeze - did they go and build these temples. They built many a temple such as the one where you are standing… err, hovering.
We didn’t mind, of course, because if the Mother was happy, why so were we!
But the sidhe, sitting in their towers and playing at their competitions with one another, they got themselves into a right tiff and broke off into several branches, which believe you me is a very painful thing to do and not something I’d recommend as it makes a right mess of splinters! They even drafted the other mythical beings into their arguments and divisions.
All of which led to things getting right awful. Many perished from the famine of essence that resulted, for the Mother, despairing at the antics and state of things, fell into a deep sleep. No longer did her love flow across the mortal plane, making living there rather tricky, as only at certain spots had her previous love collected enough for us to survive.
So we gathered around those places, and wouldn’t you know it, most of ‘em had these temples at their centers.
Now, back in a time when I was still contemplating finding myself a lovely bristle-wife - for you see wisdom had not yet set in and I was daft as well as drafty - the sidhe gathered as many of us as they could, warning that we all must retreat to refuge within the dreamspaces. For we had to flee - and flee quickly, mind you - as they claimed there was no time to consider or even discuss the matter, which was awfully impolite. Abandon one’s home without even taking the time to sip tea or munch a gooseberry with which to give it a good thinking? Unheard of!
They explained, hurriedly of course, that a terrible spell was soon to sweep over the mortal realms, and should any of the fair folk be caught within its grasp, why, they’d be transformed into something horrible forever. Something with a fixed amount of fingers and toes, without any brambles or even a proper beak! Humans, they said. We’d all become humans.
I shudder at the mere thought. Ach! No magic, no spark, no beak? Awful.
‘Twas a mad scramble through the brambles, trying to get everyone across. Some of us made it to this place, which was in those shining days called Arcadia. Though, if I were an honest Bristlebeak, it would need be admitted that many happy places were called Arcadia in those times. We few who managed the crossing counted ourselves quite lucky. For Mother’s sleeping dreams had kept this place strong and its heart was still vibrant and full.
Alas, ‘twould not remain so.
The sidhe priests and priestesses, those who had survived their wars and the sundering, numbered only a handful when the Spell of Final Doom arrived. That’s the name I gave it, I think it has a nice ring, don’t you? Doooom. Yes! Because it was. Our doom, that is. Those sidhe who were pledged to the Mother remained behind to hold the gates open as long as they could as the last of us tried to scamper across with arms and tails and backs laden with whatever we could carry.
They sacrificed themselves, did the entire priesthood, and all were thereby cursed to be mortals. We owe them a debt, I daresay one which we can never repay, for the Spell of Final Doom hangs still between the worlds and their spirits - once so proud and nobly free - remain trapped in lives mundane without even the magic of a good barrows-dance.
Ach, but the Doom still hunts us all. For the Mother no longer dreams of beloved Arcadia and her temple has fallen to ruin. Without its heart being renewed, the power of this place has faded into rot, crumbling beyond repair. Soon the outer dark will reclaim all. And while legends claim there are still pockets of fae within the world of mortals, whose guardian spirits were strong enough to keep the Doom at bay beyond their borders, we cannot breach the barriers that separate us and reach their rumored sanctums.
The sidhe that lurk still in their fortress say not to fret and that a solution will be found, but as Bristlebeak was not born yesterday nor the day before that nor even the day before the day before, why, they can pledge themselves with all the words their tongues can utter, but when the Heart of Arcadia pumps its last of the magic we all shall tumble either into that darkness or into the mundane binding flesh of humanity.
And that is where you stand, good travelers. Within the ruins of the last Temple built here in the once glorious and thriving Arcadia that now shares the same Doom as did so many long ago: to fade and be lost. How much longer we here have, I could not rightly say. I can only hope that, when I am finally cast forth, I end up as a human with a properly sized nose! Aye, tis sadness, no humans that I ever did see could compare with any measure of pride against my own mighty beak.
I didst not promise the tale would end with gladness, but it is what it is and not what it is not.
Bristlebeak fell silent, his little sparks staring into the past and towards a future without hope. Zap’s head was lowered, his face an expression of loss and pain that was a mirror to how the little fae must have been feeling.
And I felt guilty.
It didn’t make any sense, but the crush of emotion placing it all on my shoulders was clear. All of it: the fae who lost their homes, who had to flee to distant pockets of dream, and all the ones who didn’t make it but were caught and forced to become human.
Like Danielle’s own sidhe spirit must have been. Deep inside, I felt - I knew - I was responsible. Somehow.
I could sense them out there, dotting across this tortured landscape, many having come close enough to hear Bristlebeak’s tale while remaining hidden and safe from the unknown travelers. Their hearts were enmeshed with a sadness they had carried for far too long, as they had known full well that even this realm, this Arcadia, would reach its end. And the sparks within them had grown dim.
I couldn’t fix it, I knew that. Only their Mother, instinctively understood as Gaia herself, the spirit of Earth, could manage that. But maybe, just maybe, I could buy them more time. And lift those little hearts once again in songs of joy.
I had to try.
With a beat of my wings I rose above the temple. With a beat of my heart I called to the light.
“Aradia, wait!” Zap shouted, using my chosen codename.
Instead of deflecting my attention, that name rang out like a hammer clanging against a mighty church-bell, reaffirming the need to act.
Scanning the temple, I searched for the lines of power hiding below the dream, for those arteries of magic that gave this place its stability and kept it secure. Finding them, the pattern traced back to a center that lay like an immense yet faded crystal orb behind everything.
Wispy tendrils floated below that orb, reaching towards a distant world-spirit whose attentions no longer were directed to here. Gaia slept, her dreams had moved on to elsewhere, leaving this temple spent and broken, its poem silenced. I could not reconnect them, I hadn’t the skill or maybe my resonance was just wrong. It wouldn’t respond to my call.
But the light above I could touch.
Echoing the pain found within the core of this realm, I begged that source to grant a respite of years for all the sparks - both tiny and large - who called this place home.
The brightness answered and a column of brilliance descended to the lakeshore. This time I bore witness.
A lance of white fire flashed down from the heavens, piercing through me to dive deep into the waters at the center of the temple stones. A blast of steam burst from those waters but, instead of scalding skin, it soothed for each droplet of that mist was full of light like the berry given the tiny storyteller.
A fog - no, a wave - of tiny lightberries raced out to flood into the broken forest on the shore, transforming all it touched. Mystic stones lifted from their fallen graves, rushing to return to their proper places and rejoin their comrades in their perfect tableau of poetry. Mud lifted upward, restoring the center platform while missing sections returned to complete the circle of power. Dead tree stumps beyond cracked apart as seedlings exploded new life towards the stars in the sky, their bark thrumming with instantaneous growth and exploding to fill the air with lush and verdant leaves in all the styles and patterns one could imagine. The waters of the lake, churning and bubbling, shimmered and went clear, revealing fresh schools of brilliant metallic-sheened fish of molten golds and reds darting between tropical siblings who filled in the rest of the rainbow.
Glittering pixies launched into the air, sylphs splashed into the waters of the lake, and woodland critters of myth danced beneath new leafy canopies, their giggles and shouts merging into a solid wall of rejoicing.
I hovered there, quickly swarmed by all manner of little flying beings each trying to dart in and hug or kiss whatever parts they could touch. I didn’t know how to ask them to stop, they were all moving so fast that as soon as I thought I had their attention even more would arrive and take their place. And their joy was infectious, for I was giggling as mightily as they were. Pixie wings tickle like you wouldn’t believe!
The spear of illumination dissipated and slowly faded away, its light having been consumed by everything around. Its work was done.
Zap watched with resignation, at least until the fae decided he must have helped somehow and began giving him the same treatment. I laughed even harder as he tried to struggle politely against the tiny onslaught. On the grassy land beneath the stones, Khan had acquired several tiny riders and some must have found some catnip which they dangled in front of his nose by use of a long stick, said stick sporting new shiny emerald leaves sprouting from its sides.
Tsáyidiel’s raven interrupted the revelries with a cry of warning, shifting to his full gryphon form upon the stones’ keystone.
A wide azure circle appeared upon a path through the trees. Electric fire sparked along the edges, and through it could be seen a large courtyard where a multitude of dark figures scrambled into formation. From the mouth of the portal rode a mounted party of five armored knights, each holding lances with banners waving high upon the tips. Blood red cloaks covered their full plate armor, matching the background of the banners. The lead knight, whose own billowing cloth displayed a graceful golden crown, dismounted and bent a metal-clad knee into thick grasses now ringing the shore. He removed his helm and long blond hair spilled forth to frame a slender face of high cheekbones and grace. No doubt about it, he was sidhe.
The fae all stopped their spinning and merriment to turn towards the knights and offer tiny bows. The transition to sudden quiet was deafening. Even the fish in the lake paused their swimming. The knight gestured towards a small nearby squirrel wearing a tiny straw hat and smoking a cob pipe, and the fae critter darted up the extended arm to the knight’s ear where it chirped rapidly before jumping down, bowing, and backing away.
The knight broke that silence by calling up to me. “Lady Aradia, our beloved Queen expresses her pleasure for this restoration of the temple within her realm. She invites you and your companions to join her forthwith at her keep as guests for tonight’s ball where she may properly show her appreciation.”
The keep. Where Danielle was being held. All revelries were forgotten and my eyes narrowed with remembered purpose. “Sir Knight, we naturally would be delighted to attend.”
The four armored sidhe split two by two to take up positions at the sides of the path. Their leader remounted and expertly guided his horse about so he could escort us through the portal to this keep. And to its queen.
We gathered upon that path: gryphon, god, tiger, and angel. As we passed through the crackling portal I mentally vowed that we would not leave without adding my niece’s spirit to that list.
The medieval-style keep was straight out of a Hollywood movie’s idea of what such should look like: huge grey stone fortifications full of horses and warriors all bustling in different directions. Swords, shields, maces, bows and arrows, all were kept close at hand by the sidhe soldiers busily lining up in orderly formation as we went past. Others wore robes of dark violets, indigos, and forest greens, each carrying a staff carved differently from the rest.
Irises flashing pigments not usually available to humans without colored contact lenses all stared as we went by, which was weirdly unnerving. Though with my own silver-flecked golds, I suppose I fit right in. Heh.
Another robed elf met us at the entrance to the wide hall. With his pointed ears and arrogant expression he reminded me of the haughty elf-king from Lord of the Rings, though his hair wasn’t blond so much as grey and unlike the other sidhe wrinkles sat on his brow marking the passage of time. How many eons it took for a sidhe to actually show aging, I had no idea. Bet it’s a lot.
“Welcome,” he said cautiously, broad shoulders squaring towards us. “I have the honor of being the House Seneschal, you may call me Gwydion. Rooms have been prepared that you may refresh yourselves before the night’s revelries and servants shall assist with your attire if required.” He paused to regard Tiger-Khan standing at my side. “Would your… cat… enjoy his own room and refreshments?”
“He stays with me,” I said. As if to emphasize the point, Khan brushed the top of his head against my thigh.
“Very well, three rooms then. Follow me.” The seneschal led past thick doors to an entry hall that had yet another set of closed doors and smaller passages leading to stairs off to the sides. We went up a set of those stairs, meandering through the structure until finally reaching the end of a hallway marked by three doors of its own: one with a magnificent carving of a sprawling elm tree, one to the left bearing the likeness of a raven, and another to the right showing the bottom half of a sun spilling light over a large golden pyramid.
Somehow I doubted they kept these doors in stock just waiting to be hung appropriately for guests such as us, which meant that Zap’s admonishment of this really being a dream was very true. What passed for reality here might be fairly mutable; I’d have to remember that.
All three doors swung open, spilling bright candlelight into the hallway. Gwydion said, “There is time to rest and partake of a meal if you are so inclined. Should anything be not to your liking, your servant shall see to your needs. As guests your wishes are paramount, and the gifts of this House tonight in preparation for the Ball are given freely.”
Both Zap and Tsáyidiel relaxed upon hearing that. Having done enough fantasy gaming with Isaiah, I had a pretty good idea as to why. Many tales of the spirit realms and fae speak of the dangers of eating food or receiving presents that could have too many strings attached when taken.
Zap acknowledged the offer. “Seneschal Gwydion, we shall endeavor to be ready when it is time.”
The seneschal gave us a courtly bow and gestured for us to enter our rooms. I had a feeling that before the evening was out I’d be pretty tired of all the bowing and curtsying, and would need to resist the temptation to wedge in a good handshake or two instead. When in Rome and all that. In the glow of the flickering candles filling the corridor a thin scar was visible on the seneschal’s cheek, which was odd as I hadn’t noticed it before.
Zap shot me a quick wink before entering his room and the clouds of incense sneaking out from its interior. Tsáyidiel bowed low (see what I mean?) before saying, “My lady,” and waiting for me to enter mine first. I gave him a smile and walked on in, Khan sticking to my side.
It was huge. My own attic space in Hawthorne was oversized for a bedroom and all, but this was ridiculous. Polished marble columns rose high to hold up an equally marbled domed ceiling that must have been at least thirty feet tall. A tremendous number of white pillar candles rested upon little floating porcelain saucers which were casually swaying in random circles under the dome to cast a steady brightness on everything.
And by everything, I meant just that. At the center sat this massive canopy bed draped with snowy lace and piled high with thick fluffy blankets and cream-colored pillows. Off to the side was a long table laden with a feast suitable for an entire soccer team: multiple roasted chickens (or ducks?), cooked vegetables of various types, rolls and croissants, slabs of butter, tureens of steaming soup, baskets of fruits (some of which I’d never seen before), and at the end a mound of confectionery that would have caused a diabetic to keel over in shock just from the sugary vapors.
There was even a large dish on the floor stacked with grilled steaks and fish resting before a cozy pillow for a certain over-sized kitty. I was glad the food should be safe to eat, because honestly trying to prevent a tiger-sized Khan from ravenously digging in would have been tricky if not downright impossible. He didn’t even wait for me to say he could indulge as he walked right over and dug in, those large white and black lips crunching and smacking in content indulgence.
Beyond the waiting feast sat a massive hot tub with a stone fountain ringed with those ridiculous baby-style cherubs all naked and doing things like pouring water from urns or standing on tiptoe while spewing forth a stream past pursed lips. Heck one of them was straight-up peeing into the pool. I wondered if that was a reflection of the fae’s opinions of angels, though if it was just their thoughts on the putti-style cherub motif itself I’d likely agree. As Tsáyidiel could attest, real Kerubim were anything but disgustingly cutesy fat babies.
The door closed with a loud thunk. At the entrance stood a skinny olive-green robed and dark-haired woman who bowed deeply, holding herself in that position as if content to wait forever if need be for me to acknowledge her arrival - or even her existence.
“Uh, hi?” I said, letting the wings on my back fade away. Powering down seemed the polite thing to do.
“My lady,” the young woman said as she slowly stood, though her eyes remained downcast. “I have been assigned to attend you. What are your wishes?” Her ears were round and normal, and arms peeking out from the sleeves of her robe were covered with scars criss-crossing skin far too dark for the fine-featured fae I had seen so far. And weirdly there was something about her that seemed familiar.
“I haven’t really figured out what I’m doing yet, maybe you can help me decide? Also, are you… human?”
Keeping her eyes subserviently lowered, she answered. “Yes, my lady. If you object to being served by one of my kind, I can arrange a replacement.” There was palpable fear in her statement. I had a bad feeling that sending her away would cause the poor girl to be punished and those scars hinted that the process could be extreme.
“No, of course not!” I said. “In fact, I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Come on in, we’ll figure this out together, okay? And just call me Aradia, I’m not used to all this formality and-”
“Aradia?” Brown eyes looked up for the first time, flashing with instant rage. “YOU!” The energy in the room tilted in response to that anger, like the feeling before lightning strikes.
Uh, maybe powering down hadn’t been the right choice after all. What the hell?
I took a cautious step backwards towards Khan. “Do I know you?” The tiger interrupted his feast and faced the girl, muscles rippling across his back in preparation to leap into action if need be. Shit.
“Know me?” The girl’s expression contorted with anger but also with pain. “You don’t you recognize me?”
It clicked. Holy crap. She was years older than she should have been! “Erica?”
“Yes!” The girl fell to her knees, fists clenched tight at her sides as long hair fell forward to hide the tears flooding over her moment of rage. “That’s my name…”
Khan’s green eyes blinked up at me questioningly. Moving over to the woman, I knelt and put a hand on her shoulder. “Erica? How are you even here?”
She shuddered at the touch but didn’t pull away. “Four years,” she said in barely a whisper. “I haven’t heard my name spoken in four years.”
Four years? Oh my god. Tsáyidiel’s warning about the time differential between here and the physical world just became all too frighteningly real. Danielle had been unconscious for only about twenty-four hours, how long would that have been here?
The young woman - who should have still been a young girl of fifteen - gave a weird choking sob of a laugh. “I should hate you. I should hate you and blame you. But that would be a lie.”
“What happened, Erica?” I asked, repeating her name on purpose.
Fingers clamped onto my arm. “I was stupid. Young and stupid. The whole thing with Tamara, the pendant, all of it.”
“You fled the campus. Where did you go?”
She sniffed. “To the airport. Where I was even more stupid, because I wanted vengeance on you. I tried to sell information on your whereabouts just to get even. It didn’t work out very well.”
I stiffened. Had she been the one to lead the agents of Azazel to Whateley? Could she have been why they were waiting, why Danielle got shot? I could feel my own anger stir. “You said you ‘tried’ to sell. Something stop you?”
“The MCO were there, but they weren’t normal! Their eyes-”
“Were black, like bottomless pits.”
“Yes! How’d you know?”
“Did they do this to you?” I demanded, thinking she may have suffered just like Danielle had. “Did they rip your spirit free and send it here?”
“What? No!” She shook her head.
“They didn’t?” What the hell?
“I made a deal. With the Queen.”
“She was there?”
“Spirit projection. She likes watching the Whateley students arrive at the airport, searching especially for fae.”
That stunned me. Danielle would have stood out like a ruby resting on a frog’s butt to someone looking for other fae. This queen would have noticed her immediately. “You said you made a deal?”
She nodded. “I swore my service to the Queen. In return she kept me safe from the MCO.”
“But your body…” I looked her over. “You’re here in spirit, what happened to your physical self?”
“She made the MCO promise to deliver me unharmed to my mom in California. But she took my dream-self here. I can’t wake up. I’ve tried and tried, I just can’t!” She sobbed again.
Mrs. Carson’s remark that Danielle wasn’t the only student to have been harmed by the MCO fell into place. She must have meant Erica. She had to be lying in a hospital somewhere just like Danielle. But if this Queen was the real cause, could she have somehow snatched Danielle’s spirit right after that horrible bullet plunged through my niece’s heart?
Could Danielle have died in that moment, giving the opportunity? I was starting to dislike this queen.
“Erica, you may not be your hostess’ only victim. It’s why I’m here.”
“What?” Despite the scars and the tears, there was a strength in her still. All self-pity fell away, and with eyes now unnervingly clear she asked, “Who else?”
“My… friend.” I’d almost said ‘niece’, but my brain kicked in. Here we were, sitting in a fae realm, within a fae keep, inside a fantasy bedroom. Chances of the queen being able to hear every word was likely high. Shit. Had we said too much already? There’s no way it was a coincidence that Erica had been assigned to me. Fuck! The Queen could be using Erica as a spy or, even if not directly, as a trigger to get me to slip and say too much.
Erica was waiting for me to explain so I shook my head. “Suffice it to say things are complicated.” I gave an exaggerated look around the room and put a finger over my lips. Erica frowned, but after a moment’s thought she got the point and nodded.
I stood, offering her a hand. “You want a bite to eat? If I’m not mistaken, this food should be safe. For now.”
The slender girl’s dream-self was way too light in my grip. I could have easily tossed her across the room with one hand. She looked towards the food hungrily. “Wherever my body is, I don’t think it’s getting enough calories. I’m always starving. Do you really not mind? No other royal visitors would dare eat with a human servant.”
“Hell with that. If it’s truly my room for while I am here, then I can declare you my guest for the interim, right?”
She blinked. “I… I suppose so. Though, I doubt it’s ever been done.”
I grinned. “Always a first time. But you should hurry before the tiger there eats everything!”
The skinny young woman fell upon the overladen table like a ravenous wraith. Even Khan raised an eyebrow at her famished consumptions before returning to his own platter.
I went to join her, though oddly enough I didn’t feel hungry. Do angels need to eat? And what does eating in a dream realm actually accomplish anyway, did it replenish energy somehow? I didn’t know the answers.
What I did know is that my words about things being complicated were likely an understatement. Isaiah’s earlier warning about needing to think and to treat everything as a deadly scenario - no matter how gilded the setting may seem to be - rang through my head.
I had a feeling he was not only right, but horribly right. Suddenly I felt like a certain desert planet farm-boy entering the dangerous space-port bar and saying that he’d be cautious before bad men threatened his life. So where was Obi-wan to show up and kick ass with an elegant blue lightsaber?
Does a saber-toothed tiger-sized Khan count?
After being reassured there was plenty of time, I took a dip in the huge hot jacuzzi thing. Calling it a tub really didn’t do its size justice. Erica refused to get in with me, not unless I wanted her to give me a sponge bath. Uh no, the thought of that was way too weird. It may have been four years for her since she nearly caused Tamara’s spirit to be lost to darkness, but it was still pretty fresh for me. The thought itself, however, prompted further inquiries into the whole time difference situation.
“Does this place have normal days and nights? Is that how you’ve been tracking your four years?” I asked, rising from the soothingly toasty waters so I could speak without blowing more bubbles. The scents they’d mixed in were perfect, not too strong but with a lovely and subtle aroma. I never thought I’d be saying that about bath fragrances, but there you go. It was really nice.
Erica, a.k.a. Fields (which is how I usually remembered her), shook her head. “Time here is odd. Depending on where you are in the keep - or the region beyond - it can flow differently. It can be sunny in the courtyard but up on the battlements a full moon will shine in a night sky.”
“If that’s the case, how do you know how long it’s been since you got here?” I asked, puzzled because without a frame of reference how could it be tracked? Sleep cycles?
She gestured over an empty palm and a silver pocket watch appeared. “I created this. It’s magic, not science, but the working is a blend of both. It’s linked to the ticking of time according to my perceptions, on a nano-second scale.”
The watch glimmered in my spirit-sight, an amazingly intricate magical pattern yet all fitting together much like swiss precision timepieces I had seen on the Internet. I was impressed. “Very cool.”
That earned a genuine smile, an expression that had never crossed her face back at Whateley. Whatever had happened to her throughout all this time, Erica was clearly not the same girl she had used to be. The question remained: who was she now?
“Thanks,” she said as the watch vanished. “A lot of experiences here are subjective. Rooms in the keep can shift and change, but once you figure out the patterns you won’t get lost.” She stared at the silly baby angels surrounding the pool. “When I first got here I got lost a lot. There are… things… that are best left undisturbed in the sub-levels.” Shivering, she dipped a bare foot into the hot water.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Giving me a thoughtful look - which totally didn’t cause me to feel awkward due to me being naked in the water and all - she said, “At the ball tonight, if anyone offers you food, drink, or anything at all, if they don’t bear the mark of the golden crown on a sable background politely refuse the offer. There are many Houses in attendance tonight, only the Queen’s has guest-obligation towards you. The others don’t.”
That was useful information. It was my turn to say “Thanks!” while trying to figure out how to tell Zap and Tsáyidiel. For that matter, how would I keep Khan from eating an offered treat? I’d have to try and stay alert for such a threat.
“Are there many, uh, humans here?” I asked, trying to get through as many questions as I could while we had the chance.
“A few. They come and go, I may be the only one stuck permanently at the moment.”
“At the moment?”
“I’ve been told there have been others. No one will say what happened to them, they only give nasty grins and reply that I’ll find out. But the Queen likes to keep up to date with the goings-on of the mortal realm as she calls it. She’s fascinated by technology’s transformation of our world, though doesn’t care much for technology itself.”
“I’m guessing there aren’t any computers or such here.”
She made a face. “No. If there had been, and if it had so much as a single baud connection back home, I would have gotten a message out.” Her eyes darted about the room as she muttered, “Which isn’t anything the Queen wouldn’t already know.”
Changing the subject and hoping it would be safer for her to discuss, I asked, “What else about this ball can you tell me? I’m going to have to wear a fancy dress, aren’t I…” Just saying it caused a cringe as I realized that, unlike my practice sessions with Zap, tonight we’d be surrounded by immaculately graceful fae and not a room full of clumsy kids. And the faeries likely would be more than happy to laugh loudly at any missteps. Just wonderful.
Erica pondered. “The ball has been planned for a couple weeks, lords and ladies from other pockets of dream are attending. As for your attire, the Queen’s personal pixie tailors are available at your convenience. They’re busy working up gown suggestions to bring in even now. You should take this time to relax and be prepared for… anything.” She obviously wanted to say more but caught herself and fell silent.
“Huh.” I sank deeper into the hot scented waters and let my thoughts wander. Everything just seemed so surreal: fantasy castle, finding Erica, not to mention what I did back at the temple. Why had I done that anyway? It was as if a compulsion had struck me, a need born from a crushing sense of responsibility. Was that need from Gabriel’s memories somehow? The last fragment I could remember had her about to go see Aradia. Soren had once called me by that name (hence it sticking and being chosen as my codename), and there was no way he would have said it lightly. The guy was far too serious.
Closing my eyes I focused on the end of that memory, trying somehow if possible to force it to continue. What had happened after? Who exactly had the real Aradia been?
For once I succeeded at doing something crazily mystical on purpose instead of randomly triggering stuff like usual. This time my mind went clear and filled with a deliberate vision of a day long past.
Three angels flew across the sky. They were not alike for their wings were of divergent shades: one purest white, another drenched in dark crimson, and the last a solid grey.
Upon a hilltop overlooking an outcropping of shore their feet once again touched the base earth. Waves below caressed where rock met sand to swirl around a tall circle of stonework. The monument vibrated with the mystic energies flowing from the world’s spirit, a being of great power but trying to slumber in peace and whose dreams kept getting disturbed by activity on its surface.
Standing at the top of the hill was a figure cloaked in the dark fur of a mighty beast. The figure’s hair of deep gold whipped about in the cold wind, each strand glowing iridescent in the moonlight. With eyes bound and hidden by their own fur-lined wrappings, a female voice addressed only one of the three winged arrivals.
“Welcome, Gabriel. I have been expecting you. The tea is almost ready and you have questions, come.”
With sure footing, the woman led them towards a fire busily boiling a small cauldron of water. Surrounding the flame-pit were many logs, clearly laid out to be used as benches. Sitting there waiting was another woman whose shimmering hair was not unlike a white fog flowing over hills provided by slender shoulders. She said nothing, but pointed ears were listening.
Two of the angels took a seat while the third remained standing. The woman with bound eyes first served the two who sat with ceramic cups filled with crushed leaves and freshly steaming water. She offered another to the warrior who, after a brief hesitation, took what was offered. Filling her own cup last after handing a fourth to the silent lady of the fae, she sat upon her own piece of driftwood.
Gabriel spoke after taking a polite sip of the offered refreshment. “Tamiel claims you are the daughter of the First, called Aradia. Is this true?”
The woman gave a small bitter laugh. “He would answer that as a daughter I am a failure, and I would not debate his opinion.”
Tamiel shifted uncomfortably. Gabriel frowned and said, “Please forgive me if my question offends-”
A quick wave of Aradia’s hand attempted to reassure the archangel. “No they do not offend, Lady Gabriel. Perhaps a better explanation is that yes, I am a product of the Lightbringer’s pattern, as mixed and matched with that of a demi-goddess.”
Camael’s baritone echoed off the nearby cliffs, yet his tone was subdued. “A demi-goddess, not a human? Explain… please.”
Gabriel looked to her guardian in surprise. His being polite was unusual.
Aradia took a sip of her tea. “Lucifer’s pattern is too… large, for lack of a better term, to be merged with a human female. Many normal woman died before the gestation period was complete. As I understand, he gave up his attempts with the daughters of men and looked instead for the daughters of women and their gods, finding my mother, Artemis. As an untainted demi-goddess she was deemed a suitable possibility and taken for such against her will. Thus was I born, much to mother’s dismay and terrible fury.”
The armored angel considered. “You said he believes you a failure, yet here you sit. And power akin to his shines within you, I can feel it.”
Aradia regarded the warrior, eyes bound by cloth somehow still staring deeply. “Oh yes, my pattern channels the light. That’s the entire problem.”
“I do not understand.”
Aradia smiled sadly. “The light shall be my end. For if I embrace what it offers it will destroy me. My pattern is flawed and would shatter from such a force. And yet that power sits ever present at the center of my being and is eager to do its work. But you see, I am only a pale reflection of the First’s glory, and thus perhaps one of his greatest disappointments.”
“I… I am sorry, Lady Aradia.” Camael stared down at his cup.
Gabriel understood her protector’s mood. So did Aradia for she spoke of it. “As am I,” the blind-yet-not-blind woman said gently. “I know what you hope for, oh Hero of the First War. Just as many of the Grigori have visited over the years and briefly shared those hopes. But I am not the fulfillment of such, much as I may wish it were otherwise.”
The warrior shifted his attention to the shining moon above. “And yet the light is there. Its work continues, and that shall have to suffice. I must think on this.” He strode off a ways to be alone with his thoughts.
Tamiel appeared confused, but remained silent.
Gabriel, however did not. “By the bindings of your sight, may I assume you also share a hint of the First’s gifts in that arena as well?”
A bitter laugh answered. “They are one and the same: perception and the light by which to see. Yes, I know why Tamiel has brought you here. I asked my good friend, Saibh, to join us. She is the High Priestess of the Mother and she has a role in what is to come. As do we all.”
“You’ve foreseen it then? What we must do? I have not been able to pierce any route within the pattern that leads to an ending not of further ruin for this world.”
“These eyes see more possibilities than I can handle, Lady Gabriel. Hence they are bound, for my control is equally lacking in comparison to my progenitor’s.”
The lady of the fae broke her silence. “You give yourself far too little credit, like usual. You foresaw the rise of the corruption that now plagues the Grigori in the east, you convinced your uncle to bring the mortal Enoch to the attentions of a wayward Heavenly scout, and thus by your actions have you summoned the one Archangel who might, if we are brave and skilled enough, avert a true catastrophe.”
Gabriel regarded Aradia with a new measure of respect. “I would hear more.”
Aradia shook her head in frustration. “It’s not all clear! I only get glimpses and fragments. You being here may help; so far only my uncle has been able to tease ordered meanings from all I am shown. He’s waiting for you in a cave further along the coast and will explain, but he insists on talking to you alone.”
“Is that so?” Gabriel said wryly. “He would be the second this day to insist on such conditions. It is either flattering or frustrating, I am not sure which. And who would your uncle be to try and impose such a restriction?”
“Only the one who raised me after finding the Lightbringer’s abandoned failure of a child wandering in a forest, defenseless and hungry. I know him as ‘uncle’, but you know him by another name entirely.”
Feeling even her infinite patience wearing thin, Gabriel grew annoyed. “What name?”
It is rare for an Archangel to be so well and truly surprised. This revelation caused Gabriel’s thoughts to spin rapidly only to resolve with renewed purpose. “If Judgment himself is taking a hand in these events, then a path must exist, albeit one balanced upon a razor’s edge. While this gives me hope, it also speaks of events much larger in scope than just this one world’s fate.”
Gabriel stood, stretching soft wings out behind. “Saibh, Tamiel. Please wait here for Camael to return from his own musings. Aradia, if you would, please guide me to ‘Uncle Azrael’.” She failed to suppress a quiet chuckle at the thought of her sullen and reserved brother, the Angel of Death himself, being referred to in such affectionate terms.
Tamiel rose as well. “Lady Gabriel, if I may, it would be faster for me to take you. I believe I know the cave he has ensconced himself within. Aradia, alas, is earth-bound: she has no wings with which to fly.”
Aradia confirmed with a rueful smile. “Another aspect meriting Lucifer’s disapproval, I’m afraid.”
The archangel examined the Goddess-borne Nephelim. “I see. Very well.” Turning to go, she paused and looked back at Aradia with a brow narrowed with deeper concentration. As Aradia, Saibh, and Tamiel all waited in puzzlement, Gabriel suddenly smiled with the moonlight twinkling in her eyes. “Yes, I believe I do see.”
Launching herself into the air without explanation, the archangel called to them. “We should not keep your uncle waiting and I find myself quite anxious to learn what he has to say. Warn Camael this may take awhile. My brother Azrael has historically been a terse conversationalist, but when matters of import arise he instead turns quite verbose. One never knows which aspect may manifest.” Wings of grey rose to join those of fresh snow, and together they flocked towards their brother of Judgment, one eager to arrive and the other resigning themselves to whatever fate may come.
Back on the cliff the fire crackled loudly, sending sparks skyward to chase after the feathers of Heaven.
“Has their arrival caused anything to solidify in your vision?” Saibh inquired of her companion.
A moment’s pause before the woman with covered eyes replied, “The pattern has shifted, marking a beginning and an end.”
“An end to the Mother’s pain?” the priestess asked hopefully.
“No, Saibh. An end to mine.”
“Aradia!” Someone was shouting and hands were pulling me up by the armpits.
Whatever clarity there was going in to the memory had been lost coming out. Confusion set in for the scene had been recalled from two distinct perspectives, both overlapping yet split within my mind: Gabriel’s and also… Aradia’s. The latter’s recollection was of sounds, smells, and a raw perception of the energy patterns of everything around her. Each minute detail had clamored for her attention, beating against the inner fortress of her own control. It reminded me of Leland and his issues of sensory overload, except this went far beyond the usual five senses and included a direct connection to the structures that underlay all matter and spirit.
The bulwark of that indomitable will had been under constant siege from those perceptions, and also by the burning wellspring of power that lay at her core. A power I recognized and knew all too well. But where the light healed me and kept me whole, to her it had been as if a towering furnace scorched her soul every minute of every hour.
Through the entire conversation with the visiting angels she had been in agony, that furnace recognizing its siblings and desperately trying touch them and reassure them, all while railing against the mental force keeping it in check.
I don’t know how she could have withstood it and yet she had, all while holding a normal and focused conversation. She was assaulted from without and within, but had forged a palisade of discipline in order to function.
Compared to the magnitude of such an effort I felt small and unworthy.
Erica dragged me out of the pool, cold tile reminding of where I was and why. I didn’t have time to dwell on the past, or think about what it meant that I had remembered something from Aradia’s own perspective in addition to Gabriel’s. Mindblowing as that was, I had my own pressing problems to solve. For example: without meaning to, I had flared brightly again in automatic response to the remembered pain. Shit. It definitely helped me feel better, but I did what I could to tamp it down anyway.
“Uh, sorry about that,” I said, seeing Erica leaning over me with an unfathomable expression.
“Are you… alright?” she asked, though I think she caught herself before saying what she initially intended.
“Yes, I’m fine. Really.” I moved to stand and she got to her feet as well, wrapping me with a super-soft fluffy towel and applying a second one to my head.
As she did so, she leaned in close to one ear. “Aradia,” she whispered hesitantly, “how powerful are you?”
Her question caught me off guard. There was a measure of desperation with how she asked, emphasized by the way she kept busily over-toweling my hair.
Even if the Queen had ordered her to ask or find that out somehow, either Erica was a much better actress than I would ever have guessed or she was hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could get her out of here. And she’d been using my codename too, when she knew full well the name I had at Whateley. Sure, Jordan wasn’t my real name either, but not many people knew that.
Fuck. I was without a clue on how to even approach getting Danielle free. All we knew was that she’d been stuck here and likely kept in those sub-levels Erica had mentioned. How could I help Erica too? And if she was indeed the source that set Azazel upon us at the lake, was being stuck here a punishment fitting for all her crimes?
Answering for more than just the obvious audience I replied quietly, “Well, we will just have to see.” Then louder I added, “Know any spells that can quickly dry hair? There was a girl in Poe who had a really handy one.”
She stared, clearly wondering if I was asking to pretend that I was weak for the benefit of whomever was listening. “Sure, of course. Hold still. And the tailors should be here any minute.”
With a few mumbled words, Erica pulled the moisture from each strand, turning them from a dark blood red, much like the remembered color of Camael’s wings, and into its usual brighter scarlet and golden metallic shine.
Truthfully, of course, I didn’t know how to cast even a simple spell like that. All I had was a mighty sledgehammer that liked to do crazy things without me understanding how or even sometimes why.
I fervently hoped it would be enough. It had to be.
My toga-dress was instantly judged by the pixie tailors as ‘lacking appropriate elegance’. Said tailors, mind you, were a set of three miniature old grannies with dragonfly wings glued to their backs. Not the Cinderella god-mother types either - no rosy plump cheeks here - more like deeply crevassed faces with missing teeth and sunken eye sockets and wisps of scraggly greyish-silver hair hanging about in unkempt clumps.
But I remained impeccably polite, after all they were holding super sharp platinum sewing needles and from how they held them I bet they could sew up your ears faster than a hemline.
What proceeded was a very different experience than standing in Cecilia Rogers’ shop, let me tell you. Negotiations amongst the three were admittedly entertaining while they poked and prodded me every which way:
“Where them wings gone? She’s supposed to have ‘em!”
“She put them away, dearie. Angels can do that you know.”
“There are those at the higher courts who keep their wings present at all times as symbols of their station. This, obviously, is not one of those.”
“Peh. She gonna burst ‘em out then in the middle of dancin’? We wrap her up too tight and that’d be a sight to see! Feathers tearin’ fabric left and right wherever Claire did the stitchin’. Rip, shred!”
“Oh my. Best we design for the wings making an appearance or the poor girl’s attire could be all undone.”
“I concur. And for the record, my stitches are legendary for their strength, as the surcoat of Count Nathlain can attest.”
“Angel feathers ain’t like the tug of a bevy of horny chambermaids tryin’ to get to the middle of their favorite puddin’, they is sharp or even aflame. Fabric needs be durable as well as sexy.”
“Ideas on length, ladies? Perhaps an elegant belled ruffle, with the trail behind sweeping clear any who would dare an intimate distance as she passes by.”
“Are ye daft? We already said she might pop them wings! Wings mean flight ya ol’ coot, jus’ picture her hoverin’ there in the hall with six to seven feet o’ cloth danglin’ under them toes. Right silly ifn’ ya ask me.”
“Ooh! Maybe put a working on it so it wraps her feet all fluffy like a cloud if she floats upward! Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
“Much as I despise admitting it, Marion has a point. No train and no spell. Let her fly with grace and not absurdities.”
“Dear me, what colors? No sweetie, you just stand there and hush. Let us work. I was thinking a lovely violet, with blue-highlights.”
“You and yer violets. I swear every customer ye be wantin’ to pin them purple flowers to their bosoms.”
“The guest list indicates many royals in attendance. While the outfit she arrived in lacks style for such an event, the color choice is a proper indication of her equivalent status. Which is precisely why she is in need of something more fitting to show her elevation beyond such considerations. She hails from the Ethereal, and her attire should serve as a reminder of such. Soft white with gold accents to match and emphasize those eyes and those shining streaks in her hair should serve.”
“But that’s so passé! At least have the gold start darker near her feet and grow brighter on top.”
“Aye, that may work. Ya hear that, Claire? Beth had a good idea! Mark the occasion, for as clear as the bald patch on me head ‘tis a special day!”
“Be nice, Marion.”
Once the decisions were complete, those three pixes fell upon the racks of material with a speed and frenzy akin to hummingbirds high on a blend of meth and cocaine. Scissors snipped, needles flashed, thread spun about, and bits and pieces of rejected fabric went flying in a miniature tornado surrounding the hovering turbo-tailors.
What came out of it all, I had to admit, was gorgeous. A tight white gown covered the chest with a relaxed v-shape exposing a stylish amount of cleavage all while clinging tightly to the stomach below. Shiny embroidered golden patterns ran up the sides from the floor all the way to shoulder straps only a few inches wide leaving the arms completely bare. The back was entirely exposed, more of that sheer gold embroidery running across the top of the hips like a belt only for the lower back, before letting white cloth fall to just touch the ground as a slightly expanding skirt.
It was elegantly simple in sharp contrast to the other dresses I had glimpsed from their collection, something which suited me just fine. I slipped it on without protest.
I did get stuck wearing matching high heels. I was going to complain, but Erica reminded me that height had an advantage and that the dress was cut with those pointy stilts as a requirement. She did mutter a few gaelic words at the shoes, and when I stood they felt remarkably comfortable and balanced. I whispered to thank her yet again, earning me another one of those rare smiles.
The pixie tailors, now satisfied with my clothing, proceeded into yet another debate regarding jewelry, hairstyle, and makeup. I resigned myself and just closed my eyes (unless ordered to open them) to let them do their thing. Thus I became adorned with dangling earrings of medium-sized golden stars - think crosses but with the ends curving to points - along with a thin strip of gold inscribed with Celtic knot-work resting against my brow. My hair had been pulled away from the face and ears, yet still cascaded in rolling waves over the exposed skin on my back. Either the tiara itself or some kind of magic held everything in place, maybe both. The makeup they had applied gave an intriguing look of teenage youth mixed with adult womanhood, all without it being obvious there was anything put on in the first place.
How that works is something I may never figure out.
While the shock of seeing a young lady in the mirror had slowly worn down over the past couple months, dressed like this just re-emphasized it all. And now I had to go in front of fae lords and ladies with thousands of years of social experience. Nervous? Me? Oh hell yes.
After a few minor adjustments by tugging fabric here or there and pulling on the earrings, the three tailors judged me passable.
Turning away from the full-length set of conjured mirrors they had used to get everything just so, I gave the three pixie crones a deep curtsy.
Remembering mention in Circe’s class about the dangers of directly thanking members of the fae, as apparently they might take insult, I said instead, “This is a stupendous work of fashion which would be the envy of the courts of Heaven.” Okay, so I had no idea what the ‘courts of Heaven’ had for fashion, but hey, it sounded good.
The reaction was priceless. Those three ancient women hovered higher and their faces beamed with pride as they returned my curtsy with synchronized flourishes. The middle one declared formally, “It has been our pleasure, my lady, and we rejoice in the praise of those we have the honor to serve. Your gown and its accoutrements are yours to keep forevermore as a testament to your visit within our hold.” The one on the left gave the middle pixie a stern look as if about to object, only to be biffed on the head with some leftover fabric by the third.
Would the gown and everything stay with me when I returned to, as Erica put it, the mortal realm? I had no idea but figured it would be best to treat it all as if it will. Insulting such a gift by asking would not only be rude, it would also show some serious ignorance.
As in it would expose how clueless I was out here in this land of crazy fantasy. Yep. And to think that only a short set of weeks ago my days were filled with staring at databases and fielding phone calls from IT personnel who kept forgetting to keep internal DNS entries up to date.
If they could see me now I bet they’d either pass out from the shock or try to weasel out my personal phone number with awkward offers of coffee. Heh.
A loud chime echoed through the room, causing many eyes to look towards the door. After a pause Erica cleared her throat. “My lady, may the Seneschal enter?”
Oops. They were waiting for me. “Yes, of course,” I replied, gesturing at the entrance. The ladies moved into action, pushing the cloth racks aside with a strength far beyond their diminutive side to leave the entrance area clear. Two of them took positions besides the large elm-marked door as it opened, revealing the tall sidhe seneschal as well as Zap and Tsáyidiel. Gwydion was still wearing his blood-crimson robe, a match to the one Erica had quickly changed into while the pixies had been arguing over how best to throw paint on my face. The golden crown symbol could be seen clearly on the shoulders, now that I knew to look for it.
Tsáyidiel had shifted into a panther form matching Tiger-Khan in size. His only nod to fashion was a pair of emerald earrings dangling against his ears. Zap, however, was a different story.
Gone was the simple loincloth. It had been replaced by a sheer linen skirt with a belt of thick bronze draped around his waist with feathers engraved into the metal itself. Hanging from the center of that belt were layers of dark and light blue fabrics with a pattern ending in further bronze shield-like emblems. His chest was bare, but around his neck was a metallic collar curving down to lie flat on his chest and shoulders in a hammered circle of blues and more bronze. The Eye of Horus necklace lay proudly atop the collar. Oh, and his face was done up in an even more pronounced Egyptian-style dark makeup.
He looked every inch a proud and noble Egyptian deity and he had the regal expression to match. Standing there wearing such an outfit all hints of the boy Zap that had lain behind those eyes was gone. The warrior god was here in force, his stance solid and sure.
It was the warrior who let those piercing eyes trail from my feet to my head and it was the god who favored me with a nod and smile of appreciation.
Something inside fluttered and I tried hard not to turn away or blush. Dammit. My fair skin probably showed the reaction anyway.
Gwydion spoke, distracting from my confused emotions. “Lady Aradia, the time for the night’s ball has arrived. Are you prepared to attend?”
“I… yes, Seneschal, I am.” I tried to stand taller in the heels strapped to my feet.
“Excellent. Might I inquire as to your official titles for the pronouncement of your arrival?” He asked the question without a trace of curiosity and only perfunctory requirement, but I didn’t believe that for a second. Not that I had a good answer to give him.
The panther was swift to my rescue. “The Lady is known as Aradia, Beloved Seraphim of the House of Light, and I am Tsáyidiel, Kerubim in the service to the Lady and her House. The personal guardian at her side is known as Khan. You already know the titles and honors belonging to Lord Heru.”
I fought incredibly hard to hide my surprise. A Seraphim? Weren’t those the angels on fire with six wings? But I only had two! And what the heck was the House of Light? Were there more like me? I was so going to grill him later, but didn’t dare say anything now. Shit!
Gwydion inclined his head. “Of course. If you would follow me, our other guests are waiting.” He turned to walk down the hall, pausing only to make sure we all were coming.
I stepped forward, Tiger-Khan moving to my side and Erica following behind. Zap - or maybe I should say Heru - offered an arm, his kohl-darkened eyes burning with intensity. Swallowing quietly I took it, feeling overwhelmed and out of place. Tsáyidiel took a position on the Egyptian god’s other side and the four of us walked steadily towards whatever was waiting.
A glance over my shoulder showed Erica keeping pace and I will admit to hoping she could stay nearby throughout the evening’s ordeal. Oddly though, the scars on her arms were no longer visible. A quick check of the Seneschal’s face showed the same. The skin blemishes I had observed earlier had disappeared.
Glamour. It had to be. Some sort of fae magic covering it all up. And the light from our rooms had exposed them, meaning our rooms had been enchanted to strip away any such effects from the occupants. If we had been anything other than what we appeared, it would have been immediately revealed for all to see.
All of which served as a scary reminder that where we were headed next was likely to be full of things that could be absolutely anything other than what they appeared.
Have I mentioned that I never was much of one for attending large parties?
I mean sure, I’d attended my share back in college and watched the fraternity guys consume ridiculous amounts of alcohol with testosterone-fueled bravado and gusto while the girls all raced each other in competition to see who could pass out first. I’ve also dealt with what happens after, like when they dropped my roommate (their so-called pledge brother) off at our dorm, having literally carried him in with his feet dragging on the floor only to dump him on his bed. Yeah, they didn’t stick around to deal with making sure he didn’t choke and kill himself during the night, or to clean up the mess he made of his bed, clothes, and wall when the inevitable poison purge kicked in.
But that’s the aftermath.
Most of the parties I’d actually enjoyed were rather low-key geek fests full of gamers, stoners, and only a few true booze-hounds that other friends would cut off sometime around midnight to prevent trips to an Emergency Room. Pizza, vodka, beer, and music all consumed by youngsters pretending to be philosophical while examining the unsure meanings of their lives. None of these were events of swirling intrigue and power politics with formal clothing and pretentiousness regarding titles, and obviously they had never been occasions where I had needed to worry about walking in high heels and avoid tripping over the hem of a dress. But nothing could have prepared for what we found within the fae keep’s great hall.
Behind those huge double doors was not a great hall as one would expect. Having toured England when I was a kid I’d seen at least a few glimpses of those. Zap’s words about this entire realm being a dream echoed with truth as we were escorted inside and loudly announced to the gathered throng with our names and fancy titles. Beasts with fur, scales, and feathers danced and twirled between glittering ancient trees looming over a tremendous clearing of dirt and grass. Immaculate and sensuous sidhe, escapees from an avant-garde fashion show designed by artisans doped to the gills on innumerable pharmaceuticals, glided past in perfect sync to music blending the sounds of nature with a full orchestra. Ocean waves crashed for the drumbeats, flutes merged with the trills from the throats of songbirds, all while a wolf-pack’s howl carried the main melody accompanied by violins and cellos. The musicians hid in the shadows of the trees surrounding the dance floor, while an extraordinary moon cast illumination past leafy canopies to mix with the spiral glow of sparks emitted by a horde of will-o-wisps as they darted over and through the arms, legs, and unnameable limbs of the revelers.
If it hadn’t been for Zap’s steady arm holding tight I would have fled in an attempt to preserve my sanity. He also took care of all the nodding and formal acknowledgments to the parade of beings forming the confusing pattern of greeters. Tsáyidiel and Khan took up positions as guards with Erica hovering nervously nearby as we dealt with the mix of folks who had unpronounceable or outright unintelligible monikers. I just smiled and shook or touched all the offered hands, claws, fins, and feathers as politely as I could. While the sidhe were stuck on bowing and all that, other races seemed a bit more contemporary.
Once the gathering finally flitted off to be seen and noticed elsewhere, Zap offered me a tall crystal flute of clear liquid. Leaning in he whispered, “It’s safe. I took it from him.” He pointed at a crown-emblazoned fig tree that was slowly carrying several serving platters of refreshments right between the chaos. Somehow the fae never collided with it, no matter how insanely crazy or frenetic their dance moves which were simply color-smeared blurs.
Taking a cautious sip I found it to be nothing more than water. And while I’m sure the ones with more eccentric aromas were brilliantly intoxicating, I was grateful for his selection. I was also grateful he’d already realized where safe refreshment was to be found without me having to remember to tell him. Because, uh, I’d forgotten as soon as the doors opened to the inner mayhem.
A tall and unearthly handsome sidhe approached us, wearing an outfit that reminded of a Cossack’s wide pant legs and kaftan complete with a purple silk sash around the waist. The guy also could have given Brendan serious competition on a basketball court with how he towered over us. He gave an exaggerated formal bow, revealing a tight black braid of hair dangling behind his back.
“Lord Heru, Lady Aradia, please permit me to welcome you to our gathering,” he said in a Slavic accent of some sort. “I am Duke Perun, Warleader of the House of Oak.”
“Greetings Duke, we are pleased to be here.” Again Zap offered a polite nod, and with his tug on an arm I tried my best to do the same. How to tell when one should curtsy or bow was still a mystery, but so far Zap had only nodded. Guess he considered both of us of higher rank than, well, everyone.
The Duke smiled widely at me before commenting to Zap, “It is not often that one sees those who are of El traveling with those of Kemet.” The guy’s focus also lingered on where the gown exposed my chest for far too long. Some male habits are apparently universal.
“I suppose not,” Zap said. “But stranger things have been known to happen. We have yet to meet the Queen who so generously offered us invitations. Is she planning to attend?”
“Most certainly, sir,” Perun said, reluctantly tearing attention away from my cleavage. “She shall be along presently. From her invitation it is clear she has something unique in mind and we all look forward to its discovery. In the meantime, might I inquire as to what has brought you both to these distant shores? Perhaps we might offer aid.” The Duke said the last while giving yet another admiring look of obvious interest in my direction. His intonation also implied a larger offer than simple ‘aid’. Geeze. And I thought the fae were supposed to be subtle!
Enough was enough. “Oh,” I said in a fake bubbly voice. “We decided to fly hither and tither and just totally found ourselves here, you know?” I gave Perun a smile worthy of the most ditsy beach bunnies. “I was thinking we should try Mare Imbrium next, your moon view here is sooo inspiring!” I pointed at the overly large orb hanging above the trees. “Don’t you think so, Heru? You promised me a tour of the best romantic places! And I am so going to pout if you can’t deliver!”
Zap shot me a look best translated as ‘what the fuck?’ Perun coughed and said, “Yes, I suppose that would be… romantic. I hope you two partake of what we may offer here as well. Please, enjoy the revelries.”
With that the Duke bowed again and stepped away. Tsáyidiel’s panther eyes stared at me like I’d lost my mind.
“What?” I said to the black jungle cat.
“We should dance,” Zap suggested smoothly. “It would prevent further awkward conversation.”
Dance? Ah dang. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.
Can I thank God for Cecilia Rogers? Because she deserves one heck of a Christmas gift as thanks for shoving me into her ballroom dance class.
Granted the music was completely different, but Zap led through a masterful adaptation of what we had learned in class allowing us to cross the dance area with dignities intact. He even kept us from colliding with the other frenetic fae dancers. Which was somewhat troubling by itself.
Student Zap was good - a natural even - but now? He pulled me through moves designed to compensate for the inexperience of one partner, ones which we had never seen let alone learned. It was clear he had become much more ‘Heru’ than ‘Zap’, and that disturbed me. Especially considering my own moments of random personality shifts when dealing with the other angels.
We were literally in a realm of dreams. How often have people behaved radically different from normal when in a dream? I can remember a few where I had done some things fairly out of character. Could that happen here too? Would I even remember what happened here once we got back? Would Zap?
He noticed my distracted thinking and adeptly guided us to the side where Tiger-Khan, Tsáyidiel, and Erica were waiting. Playing things back a few moments in my thoughts, I had come close in my inner distractions to stepping on what was best described as a Leprechaun with the head of a fox. Oops.
The crowd pressed in on all sides as the gathering slowly filled to capacity. Zap’s eyes peered professionally over the throng and he must have seen something because he moved closer and spoke into an ear.
“You should kiss me again.”
Startled, I blushed fiercely as my stomach tried to climb into my throat. What?
“They’re circling and about to pounce. They will request to dance with each of us separate, and try to woo us away from the crowd. Unless we are perceived as an item, we cannot politely refuse.”
Swallowing back those rising butterflies I reminded myself that it all was just a dream. Biting a lip, I let him wrap arms around me, and before I could shy away he went for it and his lips found mine.
Yeah, okay, my eyes closed. Whether I kicked up a heel behind as well, I’ll never tell. So there. And he tasted minty, like he’d smuggled a breath mint into the ball just for this purpose. Which given him, could be possible.
The music chose that moment to pause before a massive horn section suddenly blared out, causing all dancing and talking to cease - as well as our kiss. For a shocked moment I thought the trumpets were for us, but Gwydion’s voice rang out announcing otherwise. Part of me wanted to kick him for triggering the interruption. Another part wanted to declare him my savior. Shit.
“Lords, Ladies! I give you our beloved Queen Fionnabhair of the House of Elm, Defender of the Contingent of Houses, and Duchess of Arcadia.”
The crowd parted down the middle and my jaw just about hit the floor as the silver-haired fae from Gabriel’s first memory began crossing towards the front of the gathering, moving with grace and confidence. She hadn’t aged a day from the vision of the thatched hut but wasn’t wearing the simple green linen she had on then. Instead a flowing emerald gown draped itself over her slender frame and a lengthy train trailed behind each of her oh-so-sensual steps.
One by one the fae bowed low - some took a knee - as she passed. Occasionally she paused to exchange pleasantries with those among the crowded guests pulsing with greater-than-average power. I had taken a spirit-side glimpse earlier, and while it had made me nauseous it had also made clear that within this crowd were some potent entities.
As she approached us I started to panic; I had no idea what the protocol should be for me and Zap. Should we kneel or bow? Kiss her cheeks? What?
Before I could decide or scour my memory for any guidance hidden in things I had read years ago, she was standing before us.
Zap, for the first time in the evening, bowed and I quickly took his lead and tried to execute a curtsy. Fortunately I didn’t fall on my face, yay again for Cecilia’s class? Tsáyidiel’s panther head dipped low, and to my surprise Khan’s did as well. Huh.
The Queen acknowledged our respect and smiled, though it never reached her eyes. “Welcome Lord Heru and Lady Aradia, your presence has been a pleasant surprise, and your efforts to restore a small piece of our realm’s history is clearly unprecedented.”
“Your Majesty,” Zap said with all formality. “Your invitation to join this gathering tonight was most welcome. It has been quite enjoyable.”
“Excellent. We trust you both shall find the rest of the evening particularly entertaining.”And with that she moved on. She didn’t acknowledge Erica at all.
Zap’s stance shifted from casual and relaxed to something much more primed for danger. I had to agree with him, I too had a sudden bad feeling about things.
At the end of the path closing behind her as she walked sat a wide wooden platform, one which the Queen ascended before facing the tree-lined hall.
“We bid thee all greetings and our welcome. We know some have traveled far to reach our realm, and that all are anxious as to why they were summoned. Fear not, worthy followers of the Contingency, all shall be revealed and we trust to your great satisfaction.”
There was a low twitter in the crowd, and it pressed closer with a feral eagerness.
“But first, we must acknowledge a stunning transformation to an area within our domain.” She turned and with a gesture several red-robed elves began chanting. A wide blue electric portal such as we had used before sprung into the space behind her, again leading to where we had arrived. “We invite you all to join us and behold what our foreign visitors have caused to be.”
She walked forward through the waiting portal and the crowd followed, taking us along with it. We emerged at the lake’s edge, the circle of stone before us and the moon now closer to the horizon. Somehow we’d lost Erica to the press of everyone else. As there were too many of the various fae behind us for me to find her, I gave up and looked ahead, taking in the scene at the lake. The fae who had been celebrating earlier were no longer visible, but I could still feel them. They hid in scattered spots within the restored forest all around.
And they were radiating nervousness if not outright panic.
They weren’t the only ones arrayed about either. A squad of armored fae knights, bowmen, and robed spellcasters encircled the ancient temple. Clearly we had walked through their mobilization when entering the keep.
Zap grabbed my arm with a strong grip, causing me to flinch. His eyes flashed with anger but he said quietly, “Stay calm and do nothing. Not yet.” Confused, I looked around again and this time caught a glimpse of the restored temple and what was at its center.
If he hadn’t given warning I don’t know what I would have done. Bound to a stone slab in the middle by softly glowing ropes was Danielle.
Her eyes were wide with terror as she watched the emerald-clad queen approach the circle’s edge followed by the large menagerie of fae that had assembled.
Beside me I heard Khan growl, and knowing Zap was likely right I placed a hand upon his fuzzy head. My own anger went ice cold, and I was preparing to… do something beyond words.
Within the crowd, however, a low whispering could be heard which quickly became louder. They were saying a name, over and over.
“Saibh! Saibh! Saibh!”
I should have realized it and made the connection earlier when I’d had the vision of Aradia’s campfire, but her fae friend hadn’t been seen too clearly and I was far too focused coming out of it on Gabriel and Aradia. Danielle, bound once again to a seat, was a younger version of that lady. Flowing white hair and all.
“Behold!” the Queen shouted. “The Temple of the Mother restored, and her priestess returned! It is time, my people! Time to break the shackles that have kept us banished from our true home.”
A cry of excitement rose from the gathered beings and they began to chant. “Home! Home! Home!”
“What do we do?” I said to Zap and Tsáyidiel. “Can we grab her and fly off?”
Tsáyidiel bared fangs. “No. Those ropes bind her spirit to this realm. It is a strong working tied into the heart of where we stand.”
Zap agreed. “Cutting them would likely take too long, and hold its own dangers.” His hawk-like eyes noted all the fighters arrayed around, plus those within the crowd who would likely jump in.
Again the Queen’s voice lashed out like a whip. “You all know what was done and how we were betrayed. How this one,” she said pointing at Danielle, “took it on herself to go against royal decree and ally herself with another Host unleashing the curse forcing those who could to flee and those who could not into permanent bondage.”
From the masses a voice cried out. “Kill her! Let there be justice!” Others echoed the cry, but the Queen’s icy gaze quieted them.
“Fear not!” she declared. “Justice will be done. But should it not also be tempered with the chance for mercy? What was done can still be undone.” She turned to address Danielle. “Saibh! High Priestess of the Mother, you have one chance to survive and it is this: release your spell that lies upon all our people as they lie locked within mortal form. Free them from their ignorance, free them that they might gather and break the barriers that have separated our people for so long! Free the Mother’s constraints so her love may flow once more upon her people! Your temple is restored, is this not a sign of providence? Do this and you shall go free!”
A hush fell upon the crowd as they awaited Danielle’s answer. A mix of anger and hope rippled through them.
Danielle, tears upon her face, cried out, “How can I? I don’t remember! I’m just a student, I’ve barely touched whatever you think I was! Only a few scattered dreams…”
Ancient rage flowed across the Queen’s face. “Then remember! Or the fact that you were once my sister will not preserve you! Remember!” Her command echoed over the forest, but it wasn’t the tearful girl before her that did as she had bid.
It was me. An avalanche of fragments crashed into my thoughts.
A fine powdery snow rapidly covered rocks and hills as the forest darkened into cloud-covered twilight. Beneath the cedars and the tall plateaus formed by their outstretched limbs is where she found the weeping golden-haired child.
“Come,” was all she said as she pulled the child into her arms, wrapping the little girl into the folds of her own thick fur coat. “Warmth first, then food.”
“No!” With tears freezing upon reddened cheeks, the girl struggled. “I can’t!”
The lady pulled back her hood, tilting graceful up-swept and pointed ears towards the surrounding trees. “Why? Where are your parents? I sense no one for leagues, has something happened?”
Shivering, the girl whispered, “Daddy. He flew away.”
Slender shoulders tightened. “Flew? Is he coming back?”
Fresh sobs as tiny hands clutched at the large coat. “No. He said he had to go. He said there was nothing more he could do.” After a moment of sniffling the child wailed, “I failed Daddy and now he’s gone!”
Tears quickly turned to ice as the lady tried to comfort the distraught child. “Hush, now. Let’s get you indoors; I’m sure he’ll come back.”
“No! He said his brother was coming. Daddy said I had to wait for him, right here. He said it would be up to his brother to judge me.” Squirming with surprising strength for a child her size, the girl escaped and fell into the snow. “I have to stay! Even if he kills me, I have to!”
“If you do you’ll freeze, little one.”
“I don’t care!” Small irises of pure gold peered past the fae’s shoulder and went wide with a mixture of awe and terrible fear. “He’s here.”
Frowning for there had been no sound, the lady turned. The grey clouds momentarily reflected in her own pale icy eyes went black. Stretching from horizon to horizon, feathered wings darker than the night had silently covered the sky.
As she beheld the immense shadow of the angel above, the lady whispered more to herself than to the child.
“I feel cold.”
“Tell me about the Mother, please?”
Bright and musical laughter. “What would you like to know that I haven’t shared already?”
“Does she really care for all life?”
“Of course she does, a lifeless world is barren and sleeps through eternity. Mother rejoices with all living beings who share her existence. Their energies are hers, and hers are theirs.”
“Yours come from elsewhere. We’ve talked about this.”
“So she doesn’t love me?”
“Oh child, she loves you as I do. With all her heart.”
“Saibh! I just can’t do it, it hurts too much!”
The young soon-to-be woman lay on a cot, blankets drenched with her sweat and bunched into knots from legs and arms unable to hold still as agonies twisted through the body.
“I know it hurts. But your uncle is correct. If you cannot draw enough to keep your perceptions locked on the here and now, your mind will shatter. Fear not, for we are here.” Gentle yet strong hands held her down while another washed the forehead’s fever with a cool damp cloth above the linen binding the eyes.
“But the power! It burns!”
“It does, and I’m so sorry but it always will. You are growing into your father’s legacy, and it was never meant to be touched by mortal beings.”
“I hate it! And I hate him! Why did he make me? Why?”
“Shh. Now is not the time to question such a thing. You are here and you are loved. By us all, even your uncle. Hold to that thought, stay calm, and do as he has taught. Peace within, peace without. There. Tap a tiny fragment of the smallest shards of the power and hold it within your sight. Focus, Aradia. Focus and let all other visions fall away…”
A painful grunt escaped gritted teeth as the girl’s limbs began to glow.
“You’ve known this day was coming for a long time. The archangel’s presence has heralded its arrival.”
“But what we have to do…”
“Is terrible, I know. And even asleep, Mother knows. But if we do nothing her manna will be drained beyond what she can ever heal.”
“I’m afraid, Saibh. I always have been.”
“My darling, you are much braver than you know. And we will do this together, you are not alone.”
“Only if you promise not to falter when the time comes.”
“I… I promise.”
“Then we shall be together until the very end.”
I was standing at Danielle’s side in the center of the Mother Stones. I don’t remember moving there. Wings of burning light flowed out behind as I stared at the Queen and her small army of surrounding fae. I heard Danielle cry a whisper of relief and pain, “Jordan.”
All I could feel was rage. To the Queen I shouted, “You will release her. Now!”
Fionnabhair laughed. “You dare make demands?”
“Don’t test me!”
The Queen’s laugh fell away, revealing an anger equal to my own. “Test you? Like you have tested us? This place stands bound to your energies, ripped from its proper place from the heart of Mother’s dream! Has Heaven declared war upon my realm?”
“Do not pretend you have no notion of what you have done, little spark. Our vassals who reside here are full and bloated with the power from your Source. They no longer hear or feel our command! Such impertinence must be purged!”
The crowd murmured with its own rising anger. Around where Zap and the others still stood a gap opened up, as eyes of hatred turned their way. Uh oh.
From elsewhere, Duke Perun called out to the Queen. “Your Majesty, are we to go to war against the Host? Is that wise?” The throng hesitated, and all looked back to their queen.
Fionnabhair replied with confidence. “Worry not, Warleader! For these are not of the Host. That one,” she said as she pointed towards Tsáyidiel, “is Fallen. Likely deluded with false promises from the other who we know could never be a member of their Host. For Aradia, as she has claimed to be, is a sibling to the Nephelim, who are an anathema and abomination to Heaven!”
Zap’s voice rose above the throng. “You invited us freely to your revelries, Queen Fionnabhair! Is this how you treat your guests? Are the fae forsworn to hospitality?”
This again gave the crowd pause for there are rules that are never to be broken, yet their queen replied quickly to the charge.
“Your invitation was to the Ball within the keep, Lord of Sand! And lo - you are no longer within its walls! And what care we of such a lord who’s kingdom turned to dust and was buried millennia ago?” Sweeping an arm over her gathered vassals, she shouted, “Tear them down, mighty warriors! Gain glory in mayhem this day, may it serve as a reminder to our lost priestess what happens to those who defy the fae!”
As the crowd of fur, teeth, and sharp implements surged forward towards me and the others, Zap touched the Eye upon his chest. Sunlight burst outward, blinding all those near him. That spear of light appeared in his hand, and as he hurled fae out of his way with blazing strength he also threw an answer to the Queen. “Speak not of sand, Queen of a broken realm! My monuments and legacy still stand proud on primal earth! How well do they recall your name and deeds?”
He forged a path of destruction to get to me, his spear lancing limbs and bodies into horrible pieces as he went. Khan growled and slashed with razor claws at any who tried to attack the god from behind. Many fae went down covered in their own blood from underestimating the tiger’s speed and fury.
“Release!” A voice shouted from the sidelines, and a cascade of mystic and glowing arrows launched into the air, all of which were aimed expertly at me.
“I don’t think so,” I yelled back, and with an instinctive word threw wide a barrier of light to surround not just me and Danielle but the entire platform within the Temple. The spell-forged arrows incinerated themselves on impact, as the focus of the barrier was to both overload the patterns of their workings and also channel away the disrupted mystical energy at the same time. The first line of sword-wielding red-clad warriors saw this and charged across directly, but as they touched the light they screamed and fell back, smoke rising up from blisters covering their skin. Honestly that was a bit of a surprise but I had a sudden intuition: the light would burn anything it didn’t consider ‘pure’. I suspected it was somehow more of the judge of that sort of thing than I was, but in either case those who had followed behind their now-steaming comrades were wary enough to not test it themselves. To encourage such thinking I shouted, “Only those with holy intent may cross!”
Tsáyidiel, his panther-self having taken to the air above the trees with fresh raven wings, called out to me. “My lady, grant thy strength!” Other flying fae - both tiny and huge - were hot in pursuit.
Grabbing at the internal connection I felt with my Hunter, I unleashed raw energy down the circuit. The results were impressive.
Where a winged panther had been a moment prior, an armored four-winged gryphon the size of a front-line battle tank now flew. Tsáyidiel’s raven beak let loose a roar of such power it knocked most of those chasing him right out of the sky. Archers turned their arrows towards him instead, and wings clad in white and gold armor formed a shell around the beast. The missiles simply bounced off.
“Behold!” Tsáyidiel shouted joyfully above the fray. “Once long ago I partook of your Wild Hunt. Now, fae-lings, let me return the favor and remind you what it means to be the prey of the Lord’s Hunter!” With a cry of frenzied glee, he threw himself from the air into the middle of largest pack of soldiers, wings and teeth tossing them aside faster than eyes could track with a savage grace.
But the Queen was not dismayed and rallied her troops. “Form up! Bind the Kerubim! Sorcerors, tear down that barrier!” Through the portal medieval engines of war were pushed forward: large ballistas with huge chains coiled upon them, the links on the chains engraved with mystic symbols.
Crazy shimmering streams of power slammed into my barrier pulling my attention away from the portal. They were trying to overload me instead of the other way around. Pushing back against them caused everything to spin, the symbols of their magic flowing across my sight. As I poured forth more light to counter with raw strength to runravel their elegance by brute force alone, I thought I saw a different way.
Each casting they threw was filled with the energy of this realm, and their Queen controlled that flow. As Zap and Khan fought their way into the protective circle around the temple, I tried to touch the lines threading through the fabric of the realm itself.
This gave the realization of two things. First was that Fionnabhair had been right: when I restored the Temple and the forests in this area I had shifted its own source from the realm’s dream to, in essence, a dream of my own. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but as usual I had performed something without any real idea of what the fuck I was doing. But the result was that I had control of the land around the temple, not the Queen. Stories of fae royalty directing the terrain itself to rise up and smite their foes flashed through my mind. They were in the books on Circe’s assigned reading list for her class.
I’d read ahead.
Second was that I might have an idea on how to free Danielle from the magic ropes holding her down. It was dangerous, really dangerous, but could work.
Putting the initial notion into practice, I formed an image in my mind before gesturing with power and will at the lakeshore. Symbols much like what I had seen in Nick’s scrolls flew from my fingertips carrying my intentions, and the ground shook in response. Sharp and craggy stones burst from the wetland to impale soldiers where they stood. Trees extended their branches, entangling and skewering those unfortunate enough to be within reach.
Zap was standing at my side and shouting at me. I hadn’t been listening and gave him a blank stare. He repeated himself and this time I heard.
“How long can you maintain this?” He was pointing at the barrier and the range of magical assault that was being levied against it.
“As long as I need to!” I growled back, my rage at the Queen sustaining my will. But he was right to ask, she had pure numbers and more were rushing through that portal every minute.
“Confidence only gets one so far!” With a thrust of his spear a blast of power lanced outward at two huge trolls who were busy trying to pound through Tsáyidiel’s wings with their fists. The trolls went up in white flames, staggering backwards, allowing Tsáyidiel to leap forward and rip at one’s throat with his beak. A pillar of wet scarlet rushing out of the wound. It was a terrible sight of blood mixed with cooking flesh.
A synchronized assault from the elven sorcerers almost blasted through my shield, to be prevented only by a line of golden Egyptian hieroglyphics swirling along the outside deflecting enough away from the spots that had fallen weak from my inattention.
“Maintain the anchor points and don’t get distracted!” Zap yelled before turning to evaluate the battlefield. He focused his sight on the Queen as she stood at the top of the small rise before the portal. “Hold here!” Spinning the spear of light in front of him, he took three huge steps towards the edge of the circle before leaping high into the air, somersaulting over the stones only to crash right into the middle of the spellcasters where that spear flashed wildly about slicing many of them down. Those floating golden Egyptian symbols spiraled in and formed their own moving sphere which granted protection from the survivor’s instant energetic counter-attack. With a mighty shout he slammed the end of that electric spear into the ground, causing it to disappear and its energy explode outward. All foes within twenty-feet were instantly knocked backwards onto their asses. They steamed where they fell.
“Queen Fionnabhair!” he called out as the spear reformed in his grip. “How many of your people shall fall to my blade before we settle this?” A being of mythic might with the head of a hawk and a right eye filled with the flames of its own burning sun stood proudly within that circle of fallen foes. All traces of Zap had been washed away by the power, and Heru - a god of magic and of war - now shouted defiantly at the Queen.
At her side Gwydion unslung the sword on his back, intending to meet the threat of a rival god. But Fionnabhair pushed him aside, face contorting with fury as she stepped forward. “Come then, godling! If you believe you still have the power to challenge me, then let us measure the depths of your folly!” Her dress rippled with each step, shifting a dark brown and becoming coarse as it grew over her arms and her neck until becoming a second skin of solid bark. All that remained of her fair skin and light complexion were twin orbs of pale ice glaring towards the rival sun deity.
Giving the piercing cry of a hunting bird of prey, the god bounded up the hill towards her as blue and silver wings burst from his back to carry him over the heads of her warriors and out of the reach of their sharp implements of death. Spinning in the air he held his spear point first, becoming a burning missile of sunfire to slam into the hastily cast tree-growth that sprouted outward from her hands to form a primitive shield of thick interwoven branches. The ground shook with the force of the impact but the Queen’s feet had sunk into the earth and taken root, and with her own cry of exertion she slung the fiery missile around and past her, even as shards of flaming wood exploded from the collision upon her shield. Heru crashed into the ground off to her side but rolled with it to leap again to his feet.
The Queen’s barkskin hands were broken and scorched yet the wood was already regrowing. Heru had a number of cuts from the brambles, but instead of blood they leaked raw sunfire. The hawk-god shrieked a joyous sound of battle and readied himself for another strike at the Queen.
That’s when I felt them. All the little fae who had danced and sang at the restoration of the temple and their forest.
“For Aradia!” Shining with all the light I had given them, they charged from the trees at our attackers. Even Bristlebeak who held a small stick as if it was the mightiest of spears. With branches, fists, tiny hammers, antlers and fangs, they assaulted our foes. They were wild and beautiful and earnest, but they weren’t warriors. Not like the army of sidhe Fionnabhair commanded.
Their brave attack, while at first a surprise for fae mesmerized by the duel between their queen and the invading god, was swiftly met with a brutal response by those far better trained for combat. I shouted for them to stop, to fall back, but they weren’t listening. The hawk-god also paused, spinning forth more Egyptian glyphs to dart across the battlefield to try and shield the little ones. But there were far too many for his magic to reach in time as the mix of weapons and battle spells fell upon them all. They were connected to me and I felt their pains one after the other, felt the wet and bloody impacts on their skins as they fell, many never to rise again. My mind and senses filled with their cries of agony and the horrible silence of their deaths.
“No!” Through tears I examined the ropes binding Danielle, searching for a way to stop the slaughter which had become all too painfully real. If we could just get her free, maybe we could flee and thus remove the cause of the fighting. The sigil-marked ropes spelled out exactly what they were: manifestations of the energetic arteries that lay at the heart of the realm.
Taking hold of a loop of her prison in a fist, I gripped that heart with my will. To my inner sight it shifted and took the form of a thick novel, filled with page after page of elegant script. The story of the dream of this place lay within my grasp: its words, its meaning, its entire tale since the first moment the Mother had dreamed it into being. And caught within those pages, like a bookmark affixed with glue, was Danielle’s spirit.
Desperate with the sensations of the continuing carnage all around and furious at my niece once again being chained against her will, I ripped one of those pages right out of its binding.
The army of fae - all of those who were not tied to me - staggered and wailed with horror, most falling to their knees in sudden agony. Just as I was tied now to all of those who fought in my name, so too were all the other fae bound to the heart of this realm. Without meaning to, I had my hand metaphorically at each and every one of their throats. Even their Queen gasped in pain, moaning loudly enough for me to hear. “What have you done?”
Opening burning eyes to stare at her, I kept my hand firmly on that rope and the book it represented. “Danielle goes free or this place shall be naught but memory!”
Duke Perun, limping from a collision with Tsáyidiel, cried out. “Your Majesty, the realm!”
To emphasize the point I took hold of another page, and while they watched slowly tore it away. More fae collapsed around us, some clutching at their chests in horrible pain.
“Wait! Stop!” Fionnabhair, those icy eyes wide with terror as her subjects fell.
“Say it! She goes free!”
Tsáyidiel regarded the scene impassively, sitting upon the field of battle to hulk over those around him. Zap, with a face once again human, had an expression of rising dismay. “Aradia,” he asked in horror, “What are you doing?”
Through gritted teeth I said angrily, “I’m ending this.”
The Queen protested, her voice shrill. “She is my sister and betrayed her people! You have no right to interfere!”
Betrayed? Like hell! “Siabh died trying to save her people! Before the Mother became so barren she’d be unable to trickle anything even to her dreams! I make claim, Queen Fionnabhair, that this one here is blood of my blood, heart of my heart. Danielle goes free, or else I shred every fiber of magic that you’ve bonded her to.”
A field of uncertain pain-rimmed eyes all turned to the stammering Queen. “You… you’d kill us…each and every one of us…”
“I warned you not to test me. Now choose!” In that other space I took hold of another page.
Bark-rimmed eyes widened and the Queen lowered her head. “So be it.” With a gesture and phrase the ropes around Danielle fell slack, releasing her spirit from being bound to this place and realm.
I, however, did not let go of the words held firmly in my grasp.
“Swear it, Queen Fionnabhair! Swear that she is free to go, unharmed, and untroubled by you and yours! You will let her live in peace!”
With a tightly clenched knotty fist, the Queen acquiesced. “I so swear! Binding to me and all my vassals!”
The fae army still on their feet went silent with shock, which made the low moans of the wounded all the more audible. As they all stared at me in that painful silence, I had a thought. “Erica Lain, where are you?”
From the edge of the trees hiding behind a large rock, Erica slowly stood up. “Uh, yes?”
I pointed to her. “She goes with us too. Release her from your service, and take no reprisals on her or her loved ones.”
“You demand too much!” Fionnabhair protested.
“Do I? Or shall I continue ripping this place to its foundations and beyond?”
“Fine!” The Queen threw her hands up in frustration. “She is released from service to me and my House, free to leave with no future reprisals from us. Good riddance! Any other crazy demands, angel?”
Erica gaped at me. Yeah, I surprised myself with that one too.
Looking around the wreckage of the battlefield my eyes fell to all of those surrounded by Zap’s little shields of power. “Yes. Those now bound to my energy are also free to leave with me. I won’t abandon them to your mercies.”
Fionnabhair looked like she was about to have a stroke. “You cannot be serious.”
“What option do I have? I did not intend for them to become mine, but what’s done is done. Can you rebind them with how they are now?”
She stared at a nearby glowing deer - one holding a bloody sword-hilt between its teeth - and shook her head ruefully. “No, not if they were to resist my call.”
“Then let them make their own choices. Stay and be rebound or follow me.”
“On one condition,” the Queen countered. “Restore the damage you have done to our realm! And do so without binding the entire place to you in the process, otherwise none of this has any meaning. It will unravel if you leave it in this state!”
Zap gave me an angry glare from where he stood, wings folded upon his back. He was obviously extremely upset. “Please tell me you know how to do that. Did you memorize the full pattern before you so angrily ripped it to pieces?”
“Uh…” I totally hadn’t. And the entire book of the dream began to crumble between my spiritual fingers.