The boy looked up abruptly, staring into the dwindling fire on the hearth but not truly seeing it. What he did see, what he sensed, were things he did not quite comprehend. Sorrow. Chaos. Hope. As surely as he knew his own name, he was certain that Enesfel’s great King was dead and that somewhere another had been born. Twins had been born, but he knew not where, or how he knew this to be true. A word came to mind, or a name perhaps, Arlan, but it belonged to no one he knew and held no meaning for him. It was only a word, a word connected to the images and impressions he had been shown, but he had no idea what any of it meant. Bewildered, he rose to his feet and went to the window. Little could be seen through the swirling snow so he watched the flakes fall instead. It was the distraction of darkness that he wanted most to help clear his head.
Pushing his white hair back from his eyes, he pondered the connection between the death and the births, certain there was one. He was equally certain that what he had witnessed were actual events, not flashes of fancy and imagination. Glancing at the staircase behind him, he considered waking his family, but he was still a child, unproven and untrained in Elyri ways, and he doubted that anyone would believe him. Only Ártur would, and thus it would be best, he decided, to await his cousin’s return home. Ártur would have news from Rhidam, if there was any, and he would be able to prove the truth…and perhaps even explain it.
Kavan wanted that proof himself.
With a small shrug of resignation, he settled again upon the plush woven rug and tried unsuccessfully to refocus on his book. Too many unsettling things had happened to him in the last three days; this was only the latest oddity to plague him. Based on what he knew of his people, he presumed that the Elyri gifts were awakening within him, as they did in all of his kind. But he knew how his uncle frowned upon such gifts, and it made him wary of speaking up, of revealing himself to them, or anyone. He was afraid of their rejection. Afraid of the power.
Looking down into the palm of his white hand, he watched with fascination as a small flame sprang to life there, glimmering and flickering as a candle but burning nothing.
On the practice field, Bhríd was trying to teach Muir to feel an opponent’s advance when he could not see it. A difficult feat for someone who was not Elyri, but the prince was, as usual, proving to be more proficient than his Elyri teacher expected. Perhaps his constant exposure to Elyri had sharpened the boy’s natural intuition. A small flame of pride flickered within Kavan but he extinguished it quickly. Muir could have been his son for all of the pride he took in the prince’s accomplishments.
Vision blurring, the bard lost sight of the men on the field and the castle walls beyond. Instead of struggling against the vision he knew was coming, he relaxed into it, hoping to avoid the worst of the usual nausea and dizziness that came with them. Two in such rapid succession was rare and thus important.
This time he Saw Muir standing at the foot of a cliff, in a musty cavern, a sword raised above his head as though he was preparing to drive it into an unmoving opponent at his feet. Kavan could hear Prince Wilred crying again, and somewhere far off he could hear Caol arguing with someone. Several paces to Prince Muir’s left, a body lay face down amidst a scatter of jagged boulders and stones. The form was regally dressed, though dirty, but from this distance, it was unrecognizable. Though Kavan strained to push the Sight towards the figure, the vision would not allow itself to be molded. He could see only what it allowed. Within the vision, there came a loud crashing of falling rocks and Kavan’s view went dark.
Groaning, he pushed himself off the ground, knowing better than to ask how he had come to be face down in the grass. The Sight did strange things to him sometimes, and he long ago stopped trying to understand it. Prince Muir and Bhríd ceased their practice and rushed to him; the prince was already there helping him up with concern on his young face.
“What is it, Lord Cliáth?” the prince asked. “Are you well?” He worried more for his tutor since his mother’s death. He could not bear to lose Kavan as he had lost her.
"I am. It is nothing that should concern you, my prince…”
Bhríd squatted beside him and placed a hand upon his kinsman’s shoulder. “llánec?”
It was a term the prince had heard before, and he knew what it meant. Brow knit in worry, he knelt and asked, “What did you see? What has happened?”
“I…” Kavan shook his head. “It is something that will happen…or could happen, but it was not clear enough to say any more about what it means.” He raised a hand to stop the boy’s questions. “The Sight is not always obvious, my prince. Often its images are cryptic. I can know what it wants me to see and no more, and right now, what I have Seen makes very little sense.”
Senses turned outward around them, his thoughts swarming around what had nearly happened, he did not notice the King’s horse drawing nearer to his until they bumped together and the King, apparently startled by the unexpected contact, swayed in his seat and nearly toppled into Kavan’s lap. “Easy, My Liege,” Kavan murmured, using both hands to steady the King. The touch on the King’s shoulders brought dizziness over Kavan and he realized then how pale and discolored the young man’s face was.
“I’m fine, Lord Cliáth…a little dizzy. I think we should…”
The King did not finish. His blue-gray eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped sideways into Kavan’s arms and off of his horse. Catching him, the bard twisted to dismount and saw a trail of red spreading down the monarch’s pale beige leggings and onto the sides of his gray horse. There was too much of it, spreading from a point where a small silver edged orange jewel was embedded into his thigh. With one hand behind the King’s head, Kavan pulled the coin-sized item free, revealing the slender pronged teeth that had held it in place. Removing it, however, allowed the blood to flow more freely, but touching it also told Kavan something which made his soul cold.
“What have you done?”
Scratch the Sky
The words reverberated in her head, carried by the November rain that drenched her thick dark pelt and tickled her ears, words that pushed her back into action against her better judgment. But when Roland Marrock spoke, the Pack listened, regardless of his daughter’s misgivings about the man’s safety. Her last glimpse of him, crouched over Delilah’s convulsing, bloody body, trying to drag her out of the open street into the safety of the nearest overgrown passage…the crack and snap of a taut bowstring…his yelp and a howl of warning to the now scattered Pack, an ultimatum that left Jia torn between remaining to help, to fight for his life at his side, and the obedience he demanded.
She knew what she had to do. Against her heart’s wishes, duty to the Pack came first. She had to get each of them to safety. She had to warn the others, to lead the hunters away from the den.
She had to lead where her father could not. Her hesitation on the wall, a moment too long, beneath the radiance of the full moon’s silvery fingers, lit a glow in the chartreuse of her irises, a beacon caught in the false beam of a hunter’s light. Momentarily blinded by the flare, she froze, but it was the horror of what lay behind the white glare that temporarily robbed her limbs of motion. A glimpse, a visage lost to time, followed by a snap that caught her unaware and the burning in her shoulder that threw her from the wall into the foliage on the other side.
Bleed the Earth
“Go,” Jia growled, positioning herself between the whole of the Flushing Pack and Pain and his followers who emerged from the darkness. They may not have been anticipating her arrival tonight, but they were watching for her, waiting, and they were there to support her against the threat they had known was beyond their door. Near from the library entrance, the scatter of the debris of living surrounded the smoldering remnants of a nearly extinguished fire, telling her everything she needed to know about Pain and his intentions. He had come to claim the Pack, had been here, too close, threatening them with his aggressive proximity, waiting for a moment of weakness when he could make his move.
If he had come to beg for clemency, to beg for remittance into the Pack, his posture as he emerged from the dark and the hostility that forced the growth of dark fur across his arms, hands, cheek, and neck would have been kept in check.
“You have no right…”
“I don’t see him.” His words, made guttural by the eruption of fangs, felt both hot and cold to her. “Where is Roland?”
Torben, having battled his share of men like Pain, exhibited no fear as he swung his wrapped burden from his shoulder and lay it tenderly on the ground. “Here.”
On the opposite side of the group of Cana, QiangXu paced the edges of the gathered cluster, eyes on the unfamiliar Ursa. Notoriously solitary, it was rare for Ursa to remain in close proximity with others of their kind without conflict. Even mates rarely lived together, though parents would live near enough to each other to share the raising of cubs until the young came of age. Only the newcomer’s focus on Pain and not QiangXu, and the fact that he had born Roland’s body home, kept the smaller man from any aggressive action.
Pain was the bigger threat.
QiangXu’s stare, however, was enough to prompt Vance to shuffle into a position that placed him between the two Ursa and closer to Jia. The Pack’s grief and shock at Torben’s words, at the sight of the Alpha’s face when Addi opened the fasteners that kept the canvas closed so that he could see the proof for himself, hit Vance’s mage senses like a board against his head. He winced and rubbed the back of his skull, and then the bridge of his nose, in an effort to reduce the throbbing that threatened to rob him of his vision.
“What…?” Addi began in shock before snapping his mouth closed. This was not the time for questions or answers, even if a dialogue might have diffused the brewing conflict. After Pain’s insistence in sitting near the library door as if holding the Flushing Pack at siege, the medic knew that nothing but blood was going to erase the anger from the air.
Pain only glanced at the corpse, taking no time to express respect or remorse. “Then the Flushing Pack is mine.”
Dropping the jacket she had been wearing, Jia growled through erupting fangs. “Only if you take it.” Anticipating his move, the shift from human to half-form Cana was swift, both shifting and leaping as one to crash into a grabbling embrace of claws and fangs.
The watcher did not wait. When the black-beaked horrors, the tails of their long coats flapping behind them like wings as they ran, passed beneath him, he dropped, using the slick metal pole to swing around, leveraging his descent with practiced ease. His own black boots, designed as the Crows’ were for running on wet surfaces, yet altered for stealth, caught the second Crow full on, one planted in his chest, the other across the throat to throw the figure, coughing and spluttering, into a collection of recyclables awaiting pick up. The Crow hit his head on the wall after a surprised squawk and lay still.
The tagger, hearing the tumult at last, dropped the spray can and ran blindly in the other direction, narrowly avoiding a fall into the fish pits teaming with the city’s major food source.
Torn between pursuing the target and addressing the commotion behind him, the lead Crow spun mid-step, thumper swinging in the hopes of connecting with whatever threat was behind him.
The smaller figure, masked, head covered to be unrecognizable, dropped and rolled under the swinging black stick. The thumper clipped his shoulder, and then hissed through empty air. His roll brought him to his feet within inches of the Crow, mechanical eyes making contact long enough for the shorter individual to snatch at the vent line of the Crow’s breathing unit with lightning speed.
Surprised, gasping to breathe, thumper falling as hands scrambled for the flailing end of the line attached to it, the Crow staggered back two steps and slumped to his knees. Breathing without the mask was not impossible: most in Hebenon did without such units every day. But great exertion required greater oxygen, less damp in the air…and for those unaccustomed to it, it could be a shock to adjust to.
If the Crow came from the Uppers, such an adjustment would be a necessity.
He dropped to roll again, snatching up the thumper as he moved beyond the struggling man’s flailing grasp. His roll took him sideways, brought him to his feet, and after a single blow of the thumper to the Crows helmeted head, he was away again, a leap and a swing and a push off the nearest wall landing him back on an upper grated ledge. He disappeared down the path between buildings without being seen, without a second look at the protest the tagger had left behind.
He knew what the words would be.
Death to Kistama. Death to the lord of donkey balls.
Anyone in Hebanthe Falls viewing it knew exactly whom the message was for. It was the same all over the Levs. And if the moisture in the air did not erode it away within the next ten minutes, as it was already trying to do, bleeding the bright yellow paint down the wet wall of gray metal to drip into the churning river, so would anyone in the Uppers who saw it next.
Dusty dropped to his knees near enough to Jennifer to pat her face and tilt her head to allow her unimpeded breathing. One of the guards took exception to his efforts and struck him, but as he fell back on his ass, he saw that his efforts were helpful. Jennifer gasped, choked, and coughed her way to consciousness. Relieved that Skip had not killed her, but knowing the attempt itself could guarantee his death, Dusty rubbed his aching shoulder and watched the guards wrestle with Skip as they tried to tie his hands behind him.
Though the blow dazed him, Skip continued to struggle to reach the woman, his fury blinding him to the steep price he would pay, despite his failure to kill her. “Whore!” he screamed. Unable to get closer, unable to get free of the guards who held him, or those who gathered around Jennifer, he spat at her in frustration and rage.
Dusty’s head turned when the door opened again and a second set of footsteps, heavier than Jennifer’s, barreled down the wooden steps. von Hausen’s revolver was drawn and cocked and Dusty expected him to use it. Intending to throw himself in harm’s way, to protect Skip, Dusty struggled to his feet. One shot did ring out, and though the gun was pointed in Skip’s direction, the bullet passed harmlessly over his head, hitting no one. A warning shot only. Next time, Skip would not be so lucky.
“No…Hans…please…it is my fault…” croaked Jennifer as she realized through the haze what had happened and why.
Hans reached the foot of the steps and stopped, his pistol still aimed at the Australian. The guards had cleared away and he now had a clear shot if he chose to take it, a shot he could not miss. His finger trembled upon the trigger.
“Please, Hans. If you ever felt anything for me, I beg you. Hansy…please!”
He paused, hesitated, his resolve softened when he heard her use his pet name for the first time in months. He could not remember the last time she had used it. In his heart, however, he knew the usage was a trick, a way to manipulate him into giving her what she wanted, regardless of the effect to their marriage. His jaw clenched and the gun, which had begun to lower, came back up, this time turning ever so slightly in Jennifer’s direction. Then, unexpectedly, he relaxed at the noises behind him, the sound of two other sets of footfalls on the wooden veranda. Clara and Mila.
“Hans!” Clara shouted, not considering at that moment that perhaps she should use his rank or title or something other than his name in front of his wife and the soldiers. Lives were at stake and she had to do her part to save them. All of them. He looked at her. Oblivious to anything then except her hypnotic green eyes, and then lower, to the protective arms she had wrapped around his child.
Hans squeezed the trigger. A cloud of dust hovered in the air above where the bullet was now embedded in the earth. His desire not to subject his child to the gruesome execution of a prisoner, and possibly her mother, stayed him from action more than anything else. There was a collective sigh of relief when he replaced his pistol in its fine leather holster and went to his wife’s side. He bent down to see if she was well. Despite that he had just spared, her life, and for the moment Skip’s, all Jennifer could see was the gun pointed at her by that man in that uniform and she recoiled from his touch. She believed it had been Clara who had prevented the killing, not her own efforts or some personal decision of her husband’s; in truth, it had been Mila’s presence that had stopped him. Her fury at Clara’s interference in her life only fueled her desire to escape Hans’ touch.
Hans saw it all in her eyes. Every fear, every rejection, every touch of blame. Glaring at Jennifer, he hissed in frustration, “This is your doing. Are you happy now?” Snarling with hurt, he resisted striking her and instead struck Skip hard across the face with the back of his hand, a blow that would have knocked Skip to the ground if the soldiers had not been holding him. “Take him to my office. I will deal with him there.”
He looked again at his wife, who still lay upon the ground and was now being hugged by their child, both reassuring one another that everything would be alright. Jennifer was murmuring that she had tripped and fallen, nothing more, a likelihood due to her drinking, though she had not had much to drink yet this morning. Hans wanted to kneel with them, offer his own words of love and comfort as he hugged them both…
…and then he saw Clara.
He growled and turned on to follow Skip and the guards to his office to mete out Skip’s punishment and hopefully still make it to the required luncheon on time. He was full of anger, resentment, and passion. But passion for who, he could not say.
Club of Spades
“Go home,” Scarecrow
growled, the breathing filter and electronic modulator in his mask making his
voice unrecognizable as male, female, andi or human. He squatted on the corner
ledge of the buildings to watch and listen to the fight, assessing its
progress, assessing his risks.
The tagger did not
argue. She nodded, a gesture he did not see, and dashed away, her steps leaping
the distance between rooftops and then clambering up and up and up until he
could no longer hear her.
A hiss of air filtered
out the humidifying effects of exertion inside his hood, keeping the tinted
eyepieces clear, allowing an unobstructed view of the dwindling chaos. Buzzers
were silent, the burp of poppers had ceased, and the muffled crunch of impact
from fists and feet into solid, padded bodies had ended. Two of the bugorra
were down. Three more brako as well, for a total of six, the rest fled back
into Hebenon’s underbelly. The static burst of an ICD, while the remaining four
bugorra examined each of the bodies for signs of life, would bring parameds
with air-stretchers for the wounded, the dead, the dying.
He had not done that.
Death was not his calling
card. Not if he could help it.
On the wall behind
them, amid the moisture-eroded assortment of tagger sigs, curses, cartoons, and
Voices of Faith symbols and slogans, the latest addition of crimson stood out,
the fresh paint oozing from Hebenon’s still-hemorrhaging wounds. The blood-red
inverted biohazard symbol echoed the diskblade now abandoned in one of the few
puddles collected across the silent battleground.
No longer the warning
of imminent chemical hazard. To most, that symbol was now a plea for help, a
call to hope.